Album of the Week 42-2020: After Forever – Decipher

All of the better bands from Holland’s late nineties wave of female-fronted goth-ish metal bands had something special, often rendering them far less gothic than they were given credit for. After Forever’s debut album ‘Prison Of Desire’ seemed to suggest they only had one of the better singers of the genre to offer in the shape of Floor Jansen. ‘Decipher’ proved me wrong. By leaving the atmospheric gothic doom metal behind in favor of a more interesting blend of symphonic power metal and progressive metal, After Forever ended up sounding far more dynamic and powerful than many of their worldwide peers.

It would not be fair to compare After Forever to the other bigger names in the Dutch gothic scene at the time, but I always thought The Gathering pulled off the atmospheric take on the genre far better on ‘Nighttime Birds’ than After Forever did on ‘Prison Of Desire’. Because of that, the change on ‘Decipher’ was a welcome one. As soon as the first power metal-like opening riff to ‘Monolith Of Doubt’ starts, you already know you are in for something else. That and the fact that Floor Jansen sounds far more convincing when she can alternate her soprano voice with more conventional rock and pop vocals.

Musically, ‘Decipher’ is still quite complex, but even the songs that go through the largest number of changes have a fairly pleasant flow. This is what makes ‘Decipher’ deserving of the progressive label, in my opinion. There aren’t a whole lot of odd time signatures and the riffs sound closer to power metal and traditional heavy metal than anything else once you mentally strip away the classy orchestrations, but the shifts in the songs are really cleverly written. The aforementioned ‘Monolith Of Doubt’ goes through more changes in its three and a half minutes than some prog rock songs in twenty.

While all the songs on ‘Decipher’ are good – only the second ballad ‘Imperfect Tenses’ rubs me the wrong way – my preference admittedly goes out to the more riff-driven songs, such as the vaguely Arabic-sounding midtempo stomper ‘My Pledge Of Allegiance #1 -The Sealed Fate-‘, the rapidly galloping ‘Forlorn Hope’ and the incredibly dynamic epic ‘Estranged -A Timeless Spell-‘. ‘My Pledge Of Allegiance #2 -The Tempted Fate-‘, while still rather riff-heavy, is a good example of After Forever polishing their more atmospheric side a bit. Even the less renowned songs, such as ‘Emphasis’ and especially ‘Zenith’ are really good.

Looking back, it’s incredible how much progress After Forever made in only slightly over a year between their first two albums. While their later albums are nothing to scoff at either, ‘Decipher’ is easily the songwriting triumph of the collaboration between Floor Jansen and guitarists Sander Gommans and Mark Jansen, the latter would leave the band in order to start Epica before touring for the album even commenced. ‘Decipher’ is truly the album that proved After Forever was more than just another Dutch band with a female singer, excellent as she is. Certainly one of the top five Dutch metal albums of its era.

Recommended tracks: ‘My Pledge Of Allegiance #1’ -The Sealed Fate-‘, ‘Estranged -A Timeless Spell-‘, ‘Monolith Of Doubt’, ‘Zenith’

Album of the Week 41-2020: Heathen – Empire Of The Blind

Heathen has always been one of my top three thrash metal bands. Their compositions are generally more clever than those of their peers without veering too far into prog territory, they aren’t afraid to use classic heavy metal melodies and as far as thrash metal singers go, David White is far above average. They just aren’t the most prolific band in the world. Part of that are the extracurricular activities. Guitarists Lee Altus and Kragen Lum have spent a lot of time touring with Exodus in recent years. Fortunately, ‘Empire Of The Blind’ proves why Heathen still deserves to exist in a big way.

One of the most prominent differences between ‘Empire Of The Blind’ and Heathen’s excellent 2010 comeback ‘The Evolution Of Chaos’ is the fact that Kragen Lum wrote all the songs this time around. It would be tempting to say that the music sounds like Prototype with David White singing and while that is not entirely untrue, as this is easily a darker, more modern version of Heathen, Lum clearly made a distinction between the two bands. ‘Empire Of The Blind’ is not quite as proggy as Prototype, while it was clearly important to Lum to put the guitar melodies front and center.

If there is one area in which Heathen improved greatly on ‘Empire Of The Blind’, it would be the mid-tempo material. While Heathen has yet to release a truly disappointing song, their uptempo material always appealed to me more. Some of the better moments on this albums are relatively subdued in tempo, such as the brooding majesty of the title track and the pulsating, almost Nevermore-ish aggression of ‘Devour’. ‘Shrine Of Apathy’ is one of the more unique tracks in Heathen’s discography, being a dark, almost doomy semi-ballad. Not quite as good as ‘Red Tears Of Disgrace’, but definitely characteristic.

Those craving something more uptempo will still get their fill with ‘Empire Of The Blind’ though. ‘Blood To Be Let’ is nice and furious, while ‘The Blight’ is an excellent choice for an opener, as it is energetic and closest to the ‘The Evolution Of Chaos’ in overall sound. At the other end of the album, ‘The Gods Divide’ is a ripping thrasher that can rival any modern Exodus track with a fantastic chorus and two incredible guitar solos to boot. Speaking of which, the instrumental ‘A Fine Red Mist’ deserves a special mention. Aside from Altus and Lum, there are three guest guitarists. The razor sharp aggression of Gary Holt, the looser runs of Rick Hunolt, Altus’ semi-neoclassical leads, Doug Piercy’s unconventional creativity and Lum’s melodic virtuosity are all instantly recognizable.

‘Empire Of The Blind’ came out slightly different than I expected, but somehow still is a typical Heathen album. The record is full of clever, unpredictable thrash metal songwriting, which is rare enough these days, and fantastic performances by all musicians involved. There is also a somewhat more contemporary edge to it than the decidedly old school ‘The Evolution Of Chaos’. It is less overtly melodic, but not without forsaking the melodies. Ten years is a long wait, but Heathen does not disappoint here. All I can do is hope they have at least one more great album in them.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Blight’, ‘The Gods Divide’, ‘Empire Of the Blind’, ‘Devour’

Album of the Week 40-2020: Led Zeppelin – III

Led Zeppelin’s third album is usually not talked about with the same reverence as the rest of their first four albums. Admittedly, having an entire second side devoted to acoustic, folk-inspired songs would not be the most appealing idea in the world to me either, but somehow, the band managed to find a way to make it work. ‘Led Zeppelin III’ might just feature feature what is Robert Plant’s finest recorded vocal performance to date, while the hard rock and blues songs are all superb. It definitely is a departure from the first two albums, but also a clear step forward compositionally.

What Led Zeppelin does very well here is let their mastery of dynamics take over. A side full of acoustic songs could easily become dull to their more rock-minded audience, but all songs explore a different side of the folk spectrum, accounting for a highly entertaining set of songs that can hold the listeners’ attention quite well. Their interpretation of ‘Gallow Pole’ is quite energetic, especially in the way it gradually ramps up the tempo, and easily the most American-sounding of the bunch along with the raw country blues of ‘Hats Off To (Roy) Harper’. ‘Bron-Y-Aur Stomp’ is rhythmically forward as well.

The crowning achievement of the acoustic side of the record, however, is ‘That’s The Way’. Having an English rock band record a folky ballad that wasn’t a love song was not one of the most common thing those days and the personal nature of the track really appeals to me. The little additions, such as the lap steel and mandolin, are nice, but the song leans heavily on Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar strums and a surprisingly understated vocal performance by Plant. It’s a song that seemed like it would not have worked on paper, but as it stands, it is one of Led Zeppelin’s best ballads, if not the best.

For those preferring a louder Led Zeppelin, there’s opening track ‘Immigrant Song’. Renowned for its blunt main riff and Plant’s banshee wails, the song actually features some nifty touches, such as John Paul Jones’ incredible busy bass lines and punishing sound, as well as Plant carrying the dynamics almost exclusively with his voice. ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ is Led Zeppelin at its bluesiest, but it’s simply an excellent slow blues with a climactic build-up. ‘Out On The Tiles’ is probably the heaviest song acter ‘Immigrant Song’, while the rolling rhythm of the main riff in ‘Celebration Day’ is not exactly heavy, but brutally effective.

Only ‘Friends’ initially seems like a strange inclusion on the first side, as it features Page playing acoustic guitar exclusively. Since it is clearly more riff-based than chord strumming, however, it isn’t out of place at all. In addition, the eerie atmosphere of the track makes it a unique highlight in Led Zeppelin history and one of my favorite Robert Plant vocal lines ever. It’s also quite fitting for an album that attempts to blend loud, bluesy rock sounds and folky roots that there is a song that has both. And while I think the album would have worked even better dynamically if the tracks were mixed up a little more, I actually prefer it to the second Led Zeppelin album, possibly even the first.

Recommended tracks: ‘Immigrant Song’, ‘Friends’, ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’, ‘That’s The Way’

Album of the Week 39-2020: Fleetburner – Fleetburner

It isn’t often that debut albums manage to blow me away these days, but Fleetburner’s self-titled first album managed to do just that. Certainly, it helps that the musicians involved are no unexperienced amateurs, but ‘Fleetburner’ is simply an adventurous album that surprises its listeners more than once. The album has been a long time in the making, likely at least in part due to the logistics involved with having musicians residing in different countries, but it has been worth the wait. From the engaging compositions to the perfect fit that is the production, ‘Fleetburner’ is a treat to fans of the more emotional end of the progressive rock and metal spectrum.

Guitarist and songwriter Kevin Storm is best known as a session musician working with the likes of Equilibrium, Shining and Vulture Industries, but he clearly needed a creative outlet. While the music on ‘Fleetburner’ isn’t necessarily dissimilar to any of those bands, the bigger picture sounds significantly different. For instance, there is an abundance of extreme metal riffs on the record, but due to the way the record is mixed, it sounds closer to progressive rock as a whole. And that is before the vocals even enter the fold. This is the first album ever to feature American singer Ken Simerly, but his powerful, emotional delivery is exactly what ‘Fleetburner’ needed to set itself apart.

Storm should be commended for not choosing the obvious path with this record. My guess is that he worked very closely with drummer Tomas Myklebust, because he doesn’t play a note too little or too much. Not unlike Storm’s guitars, the drums can be quite busy and prominent when they need to be, but when the music asks for it, they could just as easily take a back seat to the compositions as well. This adds a great dynamic quality to the album that a lot of modern metal productions lack. ‘The Fleet’, one of the greatest tracks on the album, is an excellent example: there are double bass runs and busy fills, but also segments that don’t feature any drums at all.

Atmospherically, ‘Fleetburner’ is an album that needs time. The overall vibe is quite dark and oppressive, but once you are able to let that carry you away to the world the album exists in, it is an album that doesn’t easily let you go. Kind of like ‘Brave’-era Marillion with metal riffs. Simerly really embodies the album’s mood perfectly. His voice at times reminded me of Leprous’ Einar Solberg, albeit without the over the top madness that Solberg has. Simerly’s performance is highly emotional, sometimes sounding like a tiny, helpless being trapped between walls of guitars and keyboards, though never without a glint of hope.

‘Fleetburner’ isn’t the easiest album to get into, as it is definitely one of those albums that slowly reveals its secrets over time. Anyone into this type of progressive music would probably be used to that and I suggest you give it the time it needs. It is truly a beautiful record on which the songs are the defining feature rather than any of the instruments. Sure, there are guitar riffs and interesting layers of Veli-Matti Kananen’s keyboards that strongly influence separate sections, but ‘Fleetburner’ just works wonders as a whole. And like any great concept album, ‘Fleetburner’ is best listened to in one sitting, but each of the songs stands out on its own as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Fleet’, ‘The Deck’, ‘Below The Waves’, ‘The Breakwater’

Album of the Week 38-2020: Iron Maiden – Piece Of Mind

Not many hard rock and heavy metal bands in the eighties enjoyed the commercial success while not deviating an inch from what they wanted to do the way that Iron Maiden did. All of the albums they made in that decade are considered heavy metal classics, but the complexity was never away from their music. And while the band would become more adventurous with varying degrees of success later on, ‘Piece Of Mind’ was the first album on which Maiden really dove head-first into longer songs with more complex structures. It’s not their most consistent album, but one of my favorites nonetheless.

Every Iron Maiden album from the eighties has a perennial classic that is still frequently played live and in this case, that would be ‘The Trooper’. And rightfully so, because its characteristic harmonized guitar theme, goosebumps-inducing solo section and Bruce Dickinson’s stellar vocal performance make it an incredible track. The thing is that the deeper cuts on ‘Piece Of Mind’ are at least every bit as good, although the album does take a bit of a dip after ‘Still Life’. Alternating longer, quasi-progressive tracks with shorter, catchier tracks also extends the attention span here, even though the former are easily my favorites.

‘Where Eagles Dare’ is a serious rival to ‘Moonchild’ as my favorite opening track Iron Maiden ever did. New drummer Nicko McBrain is introduced by means of a fantastic drum roll, after which an amalgamation of – for the time – crushingly heavy riffs and what might just be Dickinson’s best recorded performance to date makes this a top 10 Iron Maiden song for me. Compositionally, I really like how the song doesn’t have any guitar solo, but opens up to have a completely different atmosphere during the section where normally the guitar solos would be. Steve Harris’ songwriting triumph.

Dickinson contributed his first solo composition on ‘Piece Of Mind’ and surprisingly for a song written by a lead singer, ‘Revelations’ is one of the most proggy songs on the album. The song features some great start-stop riffing and some well-placed tempo changes, as well as a handful of incredible melodies. ‘Flight Of Icarus’, which he co-wrote with guitarist Adrian Smith, is a more accessible track and though I think the chorus is repeated a bit too often, the song is an excellent exercise in dynamics with a fantastic finale. ‘Still Life’ was always one of the hidden gems in Maiden’s discography to me. Its atmospheric nature may not be for everyone, but it’s still an excellent, multi-faceted Iron Maiden track.

As stated before, ‘Piece Of Mind’ is not perfect. ‘Quest For Fire’ and ‘Sun And Steel’ reek of filler, though the latter has its moments, and ‘To Tame A Land’ spots a few really cool bass riffs, especially in how the bass carries many of the melodies, but falls short of Maiden’s other closing epics. Harris really crammed too many words into too little room. Overall though, ‘Piece Of Mind’ is an incredible piece of eighties heavy metal with a perfect production. The guitars have just the right amount of crunch and the drums sound far more natural than on many modern metal records.

Recommended tracks: ‘Where Eagles Dare’, ‘Revelations’, ‘The Trooper’

Album of the Week 37-2020: Alice Cooper – Brutal Planet

It’s not often that Alice Cooper gets the credit he deserves for how varied his discography is. From the typical Detroit rock ‘n’ roll of the original Alice Cooper band to the more theatrical rock he made with producer Bob Ezrin later in the seventies and the surprisingly entertaining glam metal of the late eighties and early nineties, it all sounds convincing and it all makes sense within its discography. ‘Brutal Planet’ is easily the best album of his metal phase. While it doesn’t come close to surpassing the early albums, ‘Brutal Planet’ is the best post-seventies set of Alice Cooper songs.

Stylistically, ‘Brutal Planet’ is very much a project of its time – it was released in 2000 – without sounding like a desperate attempt to be contemporary. The album is full of heavy, downtuned guitars and has a gritty, almost industrial vibe. Kind of like Ministry without the samples and the programmed rhythms. The songs Cooper and producer Bob Marlette have written for the album are fairly direct and the lyrics reflect that. There is very little supernatural horror this time around; the horrors the lyrics reflect are those present in society. And they admirably do so without coming off as pretentious or ham-fisted.

Cooper himself sounds as convincing as always. He never had the largest range in the world, but he can deliver his gruesome stories with the same conviction even today at age 72 as he did in his early career. With that being a solid constant on his albums, an album like this depends on the memorability of its music. This is where Marlette was a great choice as a producer, as he is surprisingly capable of blending crushing heaviness with hooks that refuse to leave your head. A few elements – the nu metal-ish guitar leads on tracks like ‘Eat Some More’ most prominently – have not aged too well, but most songs on the album are as convincing today as they were upon release.

Opening track ‘Brutal Planet’ introduces an interesting contrast between the heavy guitar riffs and the almost ethereal feel of the chorus. The militaristic rhythms of ‘Wicked Young Man’ perfectly enhance the mental instability of the titular character, while there is an air of cheeky decadence to the music of ‘Gimme’ that reflects the almost mephistophelean nature of the protagonist. ‘Pick Up The Bones’ is a nice dark war ballad with a cool guitar solo, but my personal favorite of the album is closing track ‘Cold Machines’. The riff is simple, but the cold, mechanic feel of it really fit the lyrics of the song, while the chorus contains one of the best vocal melodies Cooper ever recorded.

‘Brutal Planet’ is by no means a perfect record. There are only so many variations you can make with a rhythm guitar in drop C#, which means some songs blend together a little. And while the domestic violence theme of ‘Take It Like A Woman’ (great title!) is admirable, it deserved accompaniment that wasn’t quite as dull. However, the relative succes of ‘Brutal Planet’ is more than deserved and the fact that a handful of songs still appear on Cooper’s setlist to this day confirms the legacy of the record. The formula was repeated less successfully on the decent ‘Dragontown’, but ‘Brutal Planet’ remains my favorite Alice Cooper record that doesn’t feature the original band.

Recommended tracks: ‘Cold Machines’, ‘Brutal Planet’, ‘Gimme’

Album of the Week 36-2020: Nevermore – This Godless Endeavor

‘Enemies Of Reality’ drew quite a lot of flak among Nevermore’s fan base. Most blamed Kelly Gray’s production, which did drain the music of quite a bit of its power, but when Andy Sneap remixed the album two years later, much of the song material was still lacking. Its follow-up ‘This Godless Endeavor’ fortunately proved that Nevermore still had whatever made ‘Dead Heart In A Dead World’ so good and then some. It still stands as one of the greatest post-2000 metal relaeses to me, with its unique blend of monstrously heavy riffs, Warrel Dane’s excellent vocals and interesting song structures.

Stylistically, ‘This Godless Endeavor’ is very much in line with anything else Nevermore has done before or since, but it’s just done better than on any album that isn’t ‘Dead Heart In A Dead World’. Jeff Loomis’ downtuned, but highly complex riffs are exactly like the fans would want them and Van Williams’ drum parts are still surprisingly tom-heavy for a metal drummer. It may help that the band employed a second guitarist in the shape of Steve Smyth this time around and he contributed to the songwriting significantly. One of his compositions, the pulsating ‘Bittersweet Feast’, is actually one of the highlights of the album.

Nevermore usually isn’t a band to go for thrash metal tempos, which is why it is all the more surprising that the album starts with ‘Born’, which is built on a thrash polka and some of Dane’s most aggressive vocals until it reaches its ultra-melodic chorus. A great way to kick off the album. Other highlights of the album include the contemporary heaviness – with again a heartfelt chorus – of ‘My Acid Words’, the way ‘Sentient 6’ builds from a desperate-sounding ballad towards a vengeful ending and the simply excellent ‘Final Product’, which doesn’t really do anything special, but is just a fine example of the Nevermore formula.

Admittedly, the second half of ‘This Godless Endeavor’ isn’t quite as strong as its first half, but it still contains a couple of excellent tracks. The nine-minute title track is undoubtedly the best-discussed of the bunch and it is in deed a fantastic epic that through its dynamics doesn’t let up for even a second. When Dane’s vocals and Loomis’ lead guitar sound simultaneously it proves itself as a true work of art, but the first heavy riff turns monumental when the multi-layered vocals are addded on top. ‘The Psalm Of Lydia’ is another great track which is quite surprising when an acoustic guitar solo briefly interrups the thrashing madness of the rest of the song. ‘Sell My Heart For Stones’ is a surprisingly calm, earnest ballad.

For me, ‘This Godless Endeavor’ comes very close to ‘Dead Heart In A Dead World’ in being Nevermore’s best album. While I think the latter is a bit more consistent, I can see people being more enamored by the more compact and direct nature of the former. Unfortunately, Dane’s untimely death three years ago means that Nevemore will likely never top this release, but some bands would kill to make even one record this good. Recommended to those who wish modern metal had better vocals.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bittersweet Feast’, ‘My Acid Words’, ‘Sentient 6’

Album of the Week 35-2020: Aerosmith – Get Your Wings

When I was a kid just getting into Aerosmith, their sophomore album ‘Get Your Wings’ just did not click with me, despite having a strong preference for the band’s rawer seventies material. About twenty-five years later, it has become one of my favorite Aerosmith records. While the self-titled debut includes some of my favorite songs, there is a dark, gritty undertone to ‘Get Your Wings’ that makes it both more consistent and quite unique within Aerosmith’s discography. More visceral than most of the Stones-inspired hard rock that was out there at the time, ‘Get Your Wings’ is a masterpiece of seventies rock.

On the album, Aerosmith drifted away from the blues and boogie-inspired riff work of their earliest work into something more riff-driven. Just about every song on ‘Get Your Wings’ has a guitar riff that is instantly recognizable and becomes just as much of a hook as the chorus. This is what would define Aerosmith for the rest of the seventies, in my opinion, and what laid the groundwork for the likes of ‘Walk This Way’ and ‘Draw The Line’ later on. That might be a result of other band members than singer Steven Tyler slowly starting to increase their compositional input here.

Back in my pre-teen days, the duo of ‘Spaced’ and ‘Woman Of The World’ was a bit too much of a lull so close to the beginning of the album. And while I still consider the latter to be the weakest song of the album by a long shot, I have come to appreciate ‘Spaced’ through the years. It lacks the power of the album’s highlights, but it has an odd melancholic atmosphere that really suits the song. Ballads also weren’t my thing as a kid, but these days I love ‘Seasons Of Wither’. Easily a top three Aerosmith ballad due to its unconventional structure and its excellent interaction of electric and acoustic guitars.

‘Same Old Song And Dance’ and the borderline heavy metal of ‘S.O.S. (Too Bad)’ are the highlights of the album for those who like their hard rock riff-heavy, as is Aerosmith’s interpretation of Tiny Bradshaw’s ‘Train Kept A Rollin”. Largely based on the Yardbirds version, but made significantly heavier, it overshadowed any earlier version. Not unlike Motörhead’s ‘Overkill’ five years later, it stops and starts again twice and I love how the time feel doubles after the first stop. A real grower for me was ‘Lord Of The Thighs’. It’s got a nice dirty groove, builds towards its surprisingly open choruses brilliantly and even has an overwhelming semi-psychedelic feel during its guitar solos.

‘Get Your Wings’ turned out to be a bit of a transitional record for Aerosmith. Guitarist Joe Perry claimed that the band was better than the album showed, but I do think this is an album the band needed to make before they could even attempt ‘Toys In The Attic’ and ‘Rocks’. In the process, they created some songs with a feel they never truly managed to recreate, ‘Lord Of The Thighs’ and ‘Seasons Of Wither’ most prominently. Combined with some of the other classics on here, ‘Get Your Wings’ is more than just an oddity as most transitional records tend to be. This is essential listening for any classic rock fan.

Recommended tracks: ‘Lord Of The Thighs’, ‘Seasons Of Wither’, ‘Same Old Song And Dance’

Album of the Week 34-2020: Mekong Delta – Tales Of A Future Past

While I liked ‘In A Mirror Darkly’ and Martin LeMar is my favorite Mekong Delta singer thus far, something had to change compositionally, simply because of the risk that bassist and composer Ralf Hubert could end up repeating himself. That change certainly happened on ‘Tales Of A Future Past’. The music is still easily recognizable as Mekong Delta, but there have been some changes that really make ‘Tales Of A Future Past’ stand out among Mekong Delta’s discography. The return of Theory In Practice guitarist Peter Lake may have had some effect on this, but Mekong Delta sounds more proggy than ever here.

Mekong Delta is generally classified as a progressive thrash metal band and while that is not too far off, it sort of sells them short. In terms of structure and arrangements Hubert’s compositions are heavily inspired by classical music, that of Russian Romantic composers such as Modest Mussorgsky and Dmitry Shostakovich in particular. And though those influences are still very much present on ‘Tales Of A Future Past’, it is also the closest Mekong Delta has ever sounded to traditional progressive metal. In addition, the album includes the most prominent use of synthesizers since 1994’s ‘Visions Fugitives’.

Fans of Mekong Delta’s core sound should not be worried, however. The synthesizers are far better used than on ‘Visions Fugitives’ and are mainly limited to the first two of the awesome instrumental ‘Landscape’ movements, of which there are four. There are still plenty of riffs that would not sound out of place on a relatively adventurous thrash metal album – the one-two punch of ‘Mindeater’ and ‘The Hollow Men’ are particularly forceful – and there are loads of speedy runs with Hubert’s bass and Lake’s guitar playing in unison. The adventurous compositions are just a little more dynamic this time around and there are notably more early Rush-isms.

As with any Mekong Delta album, the music is best experienced when listened to as a whole, but there are definitely some stand-out tracks. The aforementioned two tracks are powerful bursts of energy around the half-way mark, though ‘The Hollow Men’ also features some of the densest, most oddly-timed work on the record. ‘Mental Entropy’ is a very powerful opener, though surprisingly subdued in terms of tempo. LeMar really shines on the track. The following ‘A Colony Of Liar Men’ is a dark, brooding masterpiece of a track with an extremely strong build-up, possibly my personal highlight of the album.

In the end, my only minor complaint is that the album closes relatively weakly. It probably makes sense conceptually, but while ‘When All Hope Is Lost’ is a nice cinematic track, it kind of overstays its welcome. The acoustic ballad ‘A Farewell To Eternity’ would have worked better dynamically if it was placed earlier on the album and ‘Landscape 4 – Pleasant Ground’ is a great Isaac Albéniz composition that doesn’t quite work in a metal context. But apart from that, ‘Tales Of A Future Past’ is another excellent Mekong Delta album that fans of the band are sure to enjoy. It’s hard enough to come across such a listenable complex work played by virtuoso musicians exclusively these days.

Recommended tracks: ‘A Colony Of Liar Men’, ‘Mindeater’, ‘Landscape 3 – Inherent’, ‘The Hollow Men’

Album of the Week 33-2020: Pentagram – Trail Blazer

Before they found their sound in largely mid-tempo heavy metal with strong influences from the Turkish music they grew up with, Pentagram was a thrash metal band. And while their self-titled debut album is quite primitive, ‘Trail Blazer’ shows immense progress. It is still a bit rough around the edges, mostly due to the flat production and Ogün Sanlısoy’s underdeveloped vocals – he has come a long way since 1992. But in terms of songwriting, ‘Trail Blazer’ is leaps and bounds ahead of the first album. ‘Trail Blazer’ may have been a thrash classic if it came out elsewhere and earlier.

It is truly remarkable that only two years had passed between ‘Pentagram’ and ‘Trail Blazer’. Where the former took obvious inspiration from Slayer, ‘Trail Blazer’ takes thrash metal in a more sophisticated direction. My first reference was Artillery. Both ‘Trail Blazer’ and Artillery’s ‘By Inheritance’ inject a lot more melody and intricacy into thrash metal without immediately sounding like progressive thrash and perhaps more notably, both albums extensively feature distinct Middle-Eastern influences in the riff work without becoming too ham-fisted about it. Pentagram was still searching for their sound on ‘Trail Blazer’, but they definitely are getting closer than on the debut.

The band obviously still appreciates some of the stuff on here, as ‘Vita Es Morte’ and ‘No One Wins The Fight’ are still live staples to this day. Both are highly dynamic thrashers with a nearly ominous feel in their effective tension build-up and the gang shouts in the choruses are guaranteed sing-along success. With the release of their recent unplugged album ‘Akustik’, ‘Fly Forever’ has been played frequently again as well. And while the ‘Akustik’ version is superior, mostly due to Sanlısoy’s improved vocals, this moving tribute to their former guitarist Ümit Yılbar, who was killed while serving in the army, is one of the album’s highlights, Demir Demirkan’s mind-blowing guitar solo in particular.

However, ‘Trail Blazer’ has a couple of tracks that are deserving of more praise than they actually get. ‘Livin’ On Lies’ might just be my favorite song from Pentagram’s thrash metal era, since it has a fantastic main riff, while Cenk Ünnü’s drum parts do a great job keeping the tempo feel surprising. Another track with some of the greatest riffing on the record is ‘Time Bomb’, which starts with a whirling, almost Chuck Schuldiner-ish lead guitar riff and develops into a song that sounds like it could have been written during the transitional period between NWOBHM and thrash metal. ‘Over The Line’ sounds like it could have been on any Testament album, while ‘Secret Missile’ kicks the album into gear very powerfully.

Pentagram would certainly get better after ‘Trail Blazer’, but the album is the first step towards proving the band is truly something special beyond being one of the first bands attempting this style of music in Turkey. It is the first album that shows the band as good, occasionally great songwriters and it also doesn’t wear its influences on its sleeve quite as much as the debut. Again, if this album came out five years earlier and in the Northwest of Europe, it would probably have been considered a bit of a forgotten classic. It would never be too late to remember though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Livin’ On Lies’, ‘No One Wins The Fight’, ‘Time Bomb’, ‘Fly Forever’