Album of the Week 42-2021: Tygers Of Pan Tang – Majors & Minors

While I don’t want to make a habit out of reviewing compilation albums, ‘Majors & Minors’ was exactly the album I was hoping Tygers Of Pan Tang would release for a couple of years now. Ever since their current singer Jacopo Meille joined the band, I feel like their sound has been improving significantly. His Michael Hutchence meets Robert Plant voice gave the band a somewhat more melodic edge and apparently a great deal of inspiration. Stylistically, the band still plays their blend of hard rock and early heavy metal, with the riffs leaning more towards the latter and the melodies more towards the former.

All Meille-fronted albums by the band suffer a similar flaw, however, and that is the fact that the band tends to get stuck in the same mid-tempo gear for longer than necessary. ‘Majors & Minors’ does what many compilation albums fail to do: it truly focuses on the band’s strongest moments from the era presented here. There is still quite a bit of mid-tempo material, as that is what Tygers Of Pan Tang has been doing most frequently even in their early eighties heyday, but since quite a few of the better tracks of the last couple of studio albums are the faster ones, the dynamics simply work much better here.

Sequencing is a big factor in that and whoever was in charge of that for ‘Majors & Minors’ did a great job. All of the band’s recent albums had fantastic opening tracks, but a compilation can have only one. And while the passionate, very well-structured ‘Keeping Me Alive’ is my favorite of the bunch, the energetic, yet extremely catchy ‘Only The Brave’ is definitely the right choice to kick off this compilation. The partial ‘Hellbound’-rewrite ‘Never Give In’ is another fast rocker that may not have been an opening track, but has gotten a prominent place on ‘Majors & Minors’.

Interestingly enough, some of the mid-tempo tracks come across a little better here due to their placement. ‘White Lines’ was not one of my favorite tracks of their most recent studio album ‘Ritual’, but works extremely well here. ‘She’ kind of went by unnoticed every time I listened to ‘Ambush’, but its placement on ‘Majors & Minors’ made me realize that it is quite a cool track with a really cool, yearning feel. There will always be song choices to disagree with on a one-disc compilation – personally, I could have done without the sleazy, but just not groovy enough ‘Glad Rags’, though I understand its inclusion – but that remains a matter of taste.

There is not that much in terms of previously unreleased material on ‘Majors & Minors’. The orchestral mix of ‘Spoils Of War’ is not different enough from the original to pull out your wallet, but I do have to admit the excellent B-side ‘What You Say’ is better than a significant number of tracks that did make it to Tygers Of Pan Tang’s recent albums. As a result, hardcore fans might find ‘Majors & Minors’ a disappointing release, though the liner notes are fairly interesting. But as an introdcution to what Tygers Of Pan Tang has been doing over the last decade or so, it is a perfect release. One I have been craving ever since loving a few tracks on the last couple of albums; most of them are gathered hear for everone to hear.

Recommended tracks: ‘Keeping Me Alive’, ‘Only The Brave’, ‘What You Say’

Album of the Week 41-2021: Necrophobic – Dawn Of The Damned

The combination of black metal and death metal is a potentially interesting one, as the black metal influences can give death metal an eerie atmosphere it would not have otherwise. But it could just as easily turn an album into an endless barrage of blast beats that is exhausting to listen to. Sweden’s Necrophobic has attempted this tightrope dance – and occasionally stumbled – since day one, but I think they finally found the perfect balance on ‘Dawn Of The Damned’. The music has hints of the horror atmosphere typical for early Norwegian black metal, but without sacrificing the riffy, post-thrash nature of early nineties death metal.

What stands out to me immediately about ‘Dawn Of The Damned’ is how dynamic the album is. As much credit as guitarist Sebastian Ramstedt’s powerful songwriting deserves for this, the drumming of sole remaining original memeber Joakim Sterner has a lot of impact on how listenable the album is. Blast beats are used sparingly, while he mostly switches between thrash polkas, straighter beats and parts with a half-time feel. The explosive modern – but surprisingly not at all lifeless – drum sound definitely helps him come across as good as he does as well.

Besides, Necrophobic makes excellent use of having two guitarists as well. Ramstedt often connects the vocal parts with haunting minor key melodic parts, while Johan Bergebäck plays riffs underneath Ramstedt that can best be described as slightly slower thrash metal with more dissonant chords. The thrashy early death metal vibe is emphasized during songs on which the guitarists play a relatively large amount of riffs in unison, such as s’The Shadows’. Ramstedt’s solos are remarkably strong melodically and his melodic themes also often function as the chorus melody, while vocalist Anders Strokirk’s raspy, aggressive growl provides the sharp edges.

Necrophobic came across my path when I was looking for bands in the style of Dissection. But while Necrophobic seems to draw from a similar pool of influences, the musical character of ‘Dawn Of The Damned’ largely comes from the riffs and melodies rather than the chord work. Even the amount of tremolo picking is limited, though the awesome opener ‘Darkness Be My Guide’ is partly built on it. The epic ‘The Return Of A Lost Soul’ has an almost Mercyful Fate-like vibe, while the other seven plus minute track ‘The Infernal Depths Of Eternity’ and the shorter ‘Tartarian Winds’ feature interesting atmospheric parts. The title track, ‘Devil’s Spawn Attack’ and ‘Mirror Black’ are recommended to those who prefer their metal a little riffier.

It is not that often that I find an album in this style such a pleasant listening experience as ‘Dawn Of The Damned’. Often, there is something throwing me off, such as a deliberately lo-fi production or an overdose of blast beats – I swear I’d enjoy quite a few black metal bands a lot more without them – but ‘Dawn Of The Damned’ is everything I could want from a combination of death, black and thrash metal. Some hardcore extreme metal fans will probably be thrown off by the rather clean, polished production, but that is beneficial rather than detrimental to the album for me. Definitely worth checking out if you’re into good riffs and eerie melodies.

Recommended tracks: ‘Mirror Black’, ‘Darkness Be My Guide’, ‘The Return Of A Long Lost Soul’, ‘Tartarian Winds’

Album of the Week 40-2021: Enslaved – Utgard

Enslaved is one of the most interesting bands in the contemporary landscape of extreme and progressive metal. And yet, my interest in them waned a little when keyboard player Herbrand Larsen left the band five years ago. His warm, soothing voice was an important part of what made their latter day progressive albums so appealing to me. The atmospheric, multi-faceted sound remained, however, and last year’s ‘Utgard’ shows that it might have even been expanded, which may be a result of line-up changes. Whatever the reason, ‘Utgard’ is both surprising and familiar and might be the best Enslaved album since ‘Riitiir’.

Instead of one clean singer, Enslaved now has three different flavors of clean lead vocals. Frontman and bassist Grutle Kjellson has been increasingly alternating his harshes with a surprisingly deep clean voice, keyboard player Håkon Vinje has a timbre uncannily similar to Larsen’s and now, new drummer Iver Sandøy adds a powerful, highly emotional and ever so slightly raw voice that would not have sounded out of place in a relatively accessible rock band. These vocals alternate and harmonize when the music calls for it, adding yet another layer of depth to Enslaved’s already fairly deep and varied sound.

Musically, ‘Utgard’ is not even that much different from anything the band has been doing for the last two decades, though the songs are notably more compact, with only three of them passing the five-minute mark and not even by that much. The songs are still built upon Ivar Bjørnson’s immense atmospheric, often dissonant chords, over which there is plenty of room for Vinje to add a spacey layer or guitarist Arve Isdal to put down a melodically strong, almost dreamy solo. Contrasts are still very much part of Enslaved’s musical fabric as well. Just listen to how the thrashy verses and atmospheric chorus in ‘Homebound’ enhance each other.

That does not mean there are no stylistic detours on ‘Utgard’. In fact, the ones that are here actually account for some of the most interesting moments on the album. ‘Urjotun’, for instance, has an insistent repetitive keyboard pattern and a bass line that give it a distinct post-punk vibe, without sounding unlike Enslaved for a second. Opening track ‘Fires In The Dark’ builds from Scandinavian folk to contemporary prog rock with subtle lead guitar parts highly reminiscent of Steve Hackett’s work with Genesis, while closer ‘Distant Seasons’, despite developing into a fairly typical Enslaved song, has the most prominent folk leanings of the album.

But even in more familiar waters, Enslaved delivers, such as the highly dynamic ‘Flight Of Thought And Memory’ and ‘Storms Of Utgard’, which would have not sounded out of place on ‘Axioma Ethica Odini’. ‘Utgard’ just manages to tweak the Enslaved formula slightly enough to still sound like them, but also move the band forward. This in itself is an impressive feat. The fact that it resulted in an album as listenable and moving as ‘Utgard’ is a joy for fans of contemporary progressive music. Also, Kjellson’s harshes aren’t nearly as irritatingly compressed and forward in the mix as they used to be, which solves pretty much the only gripe I had left.

Recommended tracks: ‘Flight Of Thought And Memory’, ‘Urjotun’, ‘Storms Of Utgard’

Album of the Week 39-2021: KK’s Priest – Sermons Of The Sinner

When KK Downing left Judas Priest, something about the wording of his statements made me think he was retiring for good. Ten years later, we are treated to ‘Sermons Of The Sinner’, the debut album of his own band KK’s Priest, which also features singer Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens, who fronted Judas Priest while Rob Halford was away. Though ‘Sermons Of The Sinner’ is flawed, I will take this over any post-reunion Priest album any day. The album has an aggressive, infectious energy, in part due to spirited performances by everyone involved, making it a welcome return for Downing.

During Downing’s absence, Judas Priest slowly morphed into an aging hardrock band rather than a metal band. Solid, but unspectacular. In a way, ‘Sermons Of The Sinner’ could be described similarly, but it has more fire and urgency than anything Priest released since reuniting with Halford. It is definitely more metallic than the latest Priest albums and that surprises me, given Downing’s outspoken preference for all things Hendrix and bluesy. Sometimes the album could use a little more polish, but at the same time, a significant part of the album’s charm comes from its relatively raw, hungry energy.

Opening track ‘Hellfire Thunderbolt’ was the album’s first single and it certainly sells the album well. It is built upon a simple, yet fantastic riff and Owens delivers one of his best vocal performances in a long time. It sounds a lot like Judas Priest and yet, it has an aggressive drive that almost puts it closer to the US power metal bands they influenced. ‘Hail For The Priest’ has a similar vibe, though with a bigger sense of drama in the melodic department and a lot of cool guitar harmonies, which are notably more present here than on any album of Downing’s old band.

Some of the best moments on ‘Sermons Of The Sinner’ are the songs that have not been released prior to the album, however. ‘Sacerdote Y Diablo’ is a vehicle for Owens’ vocal acrobatics and contains a couple of cool, aggressive riffs and subtle time feel changes. Closer ‘Return Of The Sentinel’ might not have the borderline thrash metal vibe of its predecessor, but has a nice triplet riff driving the song forward, an interesting guitar arrangement and an entertaining callback to the first part in the melody of the title. Bassist Tony Newton also takes all the room he gets for some impressive melodic bass lines and the quieter second half is a surprisingly effective way to round out the album.

Flawed as ‘Sermons Of The Sinner’ is – some sections are unpolished to a fault and ‘Metal Through And Through’ feels like its sections have been haphazardly thrown together, the lyrics are almost childishly simple at times – there is something about the album that just appeals to me. Great guitar work by both Downing and AJ Mills is all over the album and it’s great to hear songs by Downing with a bassist who knows how to enhance the material. If Downing can maintain this level of aggression and develop his songwriting a little more, maybe even get the rest of the band involved, KK’s Priest might become more interesting than I first suspected.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hellfire Thunderbolt’, ‘Sacerdote Y Diablo’, ‘Hail For The Priest’

Album of the Week 38-2021: Bonded By Blood – Exiled To Earth

Despite my love for thrash metal, the retro thrash hype of about a decade and a half ago left me cold. Most bands leaned towards the crossover side of thrash, while the pizza, beer and zombies lyrics were too juvenile to me. One band really appealed to me though and that was Bonded By Blood. Their over the top lead guitar mayhem reminded me more of Forbidden than D.R.I. and their riff work had a modern bite that gave them value beyond nostalgia. Last month, most of the line-up that recorded their sophomore album ‘Exiled To Earth’ reunited. Let’s hope they have another album that good left in them.

‘Exiled To Earth’ saw Bonded By Blood take everything that was good about their debut album ‘Feed The Beast’ and combined it with more sophisticated songwriting and a more balanced production job. On ‘Feed The Beast’, Bonded By Blood basically had two gears: fast and faster. The material on ‘Exiled To Earth’ brings a little more variation to the table without sacrificing any of the band’s hungry aggression, while the more complex songwriting makes the album still sound fresh today, eleven years after its original release. José Barrales’ voice is basically the only mildly punky ingredient in the music here, everything else is excellent, engaging modern thrash.

When I speak of more variation, that mainly refers to tempo and time feel changes within the songs. Even the mid-tempo tracks, such as the excellent ‘Blood Spilled Offerings’ and opening track ‘600 A.B. (After The Bomb)’, are situated in the higher regions of the mid-tempo range and have some scorching thrash metal sections as well. ‘Exiled To Earth’ is only a few seconds longer than ‘Feed The Beast’, yet so much more happens on the album, though it never gets overwhelming. As much as I would like to compare this to the development from ‘Forbidden Evil’ to ‘Twisted Into Form’, I feel Bonded By Blood retained more of its original identity in the process.

‘Prototype: Death Machine’ was my favorite track off ‘Exiled To Earth’ when I first heard the album and it still is today. The triplet feel of its main riffs is rather atypical for the band and drummer Carlos Regalado switches up the time feel multiple times effectively to get maximum mileage out of the riff work. The following ‘Prison Planet’ is another highlight. It’s faster and more concise, while its precise riffing would even make the likes of Exodus blush. ‘Desolate Future’ clearly is the most dynamic track here, with its clean guitar intro and interesting changes, but every track on ‘Exiled To Earth’ is very much worth hearing.

Unfortunately, the line-up that recorded ‘Exiled To Earth’ fell apart not too long after the album was released and the band followed it up with the shockingly dull ‘The Aftermath’ in 2012, which lacked all the energy, variation and especially the boatload of fantastic guitar solos by Alex Lee and Juan Juarez that ‘Exiled To Earth’ did have. As it stands, however, ‘Exiled To Earth’ is still my favorite album to come out of the retro thrash scene and one of the greatest thrash albums of this century. Now that Lee, Barrales and bassist Jerry Garcia are back in the band, all we can do is hope that they bring the excellence heard throughout ‘Exiled To Earth’ back.

Recommended tracks: ‘Prototype: Death Machine’, ‘Prison Planet’, ‘Blood Spilled Offerings’

Album of the Week 37-2021: Rage – Resurrection Day

In all honesty, I did not think Peavy still had a full good album left in him. Recent years have shown that he still knows how to write a good song with an excellent chorus, but ‘Resurrection Day’ is easily the best Rage album since 2003’s ‘Soundchaser’, possibly since the mid-nineties. It almost sounds like singer and bassist Peter ‘Peavy’ Wagner for the first time in years had no clear vision for the album prior to writing it and ended up combining the best elements of Rage’s different eras, resulting in an album that convinces nearly all the way through.

When guitarist Marcos Rodríguez left Rage last year, I thought the band lost a major asset. Even more so than his playing, his voice provided Rage with plenty of opportunities to broaden their sound significantly. He has been replaced by two guitarists – Jean Bormann and Stefan Weber – and while I don’t know how much that impacted the songwriting, there is a freshness to ‘Resurrection Day’ that had been missing since the last time Rage had two guitarists in the late nineties. The subtle hardrock touches from those days are present on ‘Resurrection Day’, though it is very much an old school German power metal album.

Though Rage had albums I liked in recent years, ‘Seasons Of The Black’ most prominently, I was a bit apprehensive about ‘Resurrection Day’ and that was partly due to the fact that the second single ‘Monetary Gods’ is not a very good song. It’s decent enough, but its atrocious chorus does not do it any favors. Fortunately, that is pretty much the only dud in the bunch, although having two semi-ballads right after each other in ‘Travelling Through Time’ and ‘Black Room’ was not the smartest idea. Both of them are fine, the latter is even quite good, but spreading them out over the album a little more would have benefitted its flow.

Being a German power metal album, there are some upbeat moments that will probably work well in the live environment, ‘A New Land’ and the title track being the best of them, but ‘Resurrection Day’ really shines during its slightly more melancholic moments. ‘Arrogance And Ignorance’, ‘Man In Chains’ and ‘The Age Of Reason’ all contain this yearning for better days feeling that characterizes Rage’s best work, resulting in the best consecutive fourteen minutes on the record. First single ‘Virginity’ is another fantastic song. Like the awesome closer ‘Extinction Overkill’, it has some of the thrashier riffs Rage has done in a long time, but not without a memorable chorus like only Peavy Wagner can do them.

‘Resurrection Day’ is far better than I could have expected in this phase of Rage’s career. And unlike many bands that follow the same formula as Rage, most of the songs have not lost any of their appeal after repeated listens. It does not happen often that a band’s twenty-fifth album is of a similar level as their classic work. While it is not quite as good as the highlights on ‘Black In Mind’ and ‘End Of All Days’, ‘Resurrection Day’ profits from being well over ten minutes shorter than those albums, thus being a more concise listening experience. Anyone who gave up on Rage a while ago should definitely give ‘Resurrection Day’ a shot. It might surprise you as much as it surprised me.

Recommended tracks: ‘Arrogance And Ignorance’, ‘Man In Chains, ‘Virginity’, ‘Extinction Overkill’

Album of the Week 36-2021: Destruction – Cracked Brain

‘Cracked Brain’ is the only Schmierless Destruction album still considered part of the band’s official discography for a reason: it’s simply really good. The album was written and recorded in a time of turmoil, as evidenced by only three of the five performers being pictured on the artwork – and that does not even include singer André Grieder, who basically recorded his vocals as a favor to a bunch of friends. Destruction also reportedly wasted quite a bit of far too expensive studio time in the process. Considering these circumstances, ‘Cracked Brain’ should not be as good as it is.

Schmier left the band during the creation of ‘Cracked Brain’ partly out of frustration with the band’s increasingly technical compositions. But while ‘Cracked Brain’ is still fairly complex thrash metal, it does feel a tad more streamlined than its predecessor ‘Release From Agony’. The twisted riffs are still fired at the listener in bulk and with surgical precision, Harry Wilkens’ eighties guitar hero-inspired leads still set it apart from Destruction albums he doesn’t play on, but the choruses are generally more open and memorable than anything on its predecessor. ‘Cracked Brain’ is not quite as good, but it is slightly more consistent.

Now, there is one track that stands out like a sore thumb. As far as covers go, Destruction’s version of ‘My Sharona’ is done reasonably well, but it clashes so hard with the rest of the album in terms of atmosphere that it completely takes you out of it. It was probably added to pad the playing time out a little, as the entire album would have been under 36 minutes without it. Fortunately, everything else ranges from good to excellent. The title track and ‘Rippin’ You Off Blind’ have been re-recorded with Schmier and it’s easy to see why, as those tracks – along with ‘Frustrated’ – are the snappiest tracks on here, though ‘Rippin’ You Off Blind’ does contain some off-kilter rhythmic touches.

However, the more intricate material is where ‘Cracked Brain’ really gets interesting. ‘Time Must End’ turns the tempo back just a notch to create a vibe of unpredictable darkness, whereas the structure of ‘No Need To Justify’ feels a bit like that of ‘Reject Emotions’, only with a better developed quieter part in the beginning of the song. ‘Die A Day Before You’re Born’ is a whirlwind of riffs that would not have sounded out of place on any post-reunion Destruction album, only stuck together in a way the band never would these days. Closer ‘When Your Mind Was Free’ sounds uncertain about how it wants to end, but there is a lot of cool broken chord stuff going on in the minutes leading up to its finale.

Do not skip on ‘Cracked Brain’ because Schmier isn’t on it. André Grieder does a reasonably good job filling in for him, although he is capable of better than this and probably did not take a lot of liberties with what he was told to do, possibly due to time constraints. Other than that and the completely unnecessary cover, ‘Cracked Brain’ is an excellent mildly technical thrash album that everyone looking for a continuation of the ‘Release From Agony’ sound should give a shot. It’s unfortunate that Destruction did not continue that sound either with or without their popular frontman, but at least the Germans gave us two fine albums in that style.

Recommended tracks: ‘Cracked Brain’, ‘Time Must End’, ‘Die A Day Before You’re Born’

Album of the Week 35-2021: Iron Maiden – Senjutsu

Like ‘The Book Of Souls’ before it, Iron Maiden’s new album ‘Senjutsu’ is an unnecessary double album. Not to bash the albums, as ‘The Book Of Souls’ is my favorite post-‘Brave New World’ Maiden release and ‘Senjutsu’ is quite good, but the former would have fit on one disc had its worst song been cut. With 82 minutes of playing time, ‘Senjutsu’ required even less pruning and Steve Harris’ solo compositions are always too long these days anyway. However, particularly the first disc of ‘Senjutsu’ contains some excellent material that should please everyone who stuck with the band for all these years.

At this point, Steve Harris is like a writer in need of a good editor. Nothing on ‘Senjutsu’ is anywhere near as awful as ‘The Red And The Black’ or ‘When The Wild Wind Blows’, but even his best solo composition here – the brooding, vaguely Middle-Eastern sounding ‘The Parchment’ – is far too long. This is often caused by sections that are repeated too often, but his obsession with cyclic songwriting also means that you can see the final minute of each song coming from a mile away. It’s either exactly the same or very similar to the beginning without exception.

Having said that, most of Harris’ songs have a dark vibe reminiscent of ‘The X Factor’ that suits them. Adrian Smith easily contributed the best material though. The semi-ballad ‘Darkest Hour’ initially felt too long, but grew on me through Bruce Dickinson’s best vocal performance on the album and a fantastic guitar solo section. Opening with the title track seemed like a strange choice, as it constantly seems to work towards climaxes that don’t come, but that’s exactly what makes the song so engaging. That and the interesting rhythms. ‘Days Of Future Past’ is a short, unpretentious rocker.

Smith’s other composition ‘The Writing On The Wall’ is the most atypical Maiden track on ‘Senjutsu’ with its long atmospheric intro full of acoustic and clean guitars creating almost a western vibe. It isn’t until Dickinson’s voice enters that it starts to sound like Iron Maiden. More typically Maiden is ‘Stratego’. The melodies are slightly more melancholic than on their classic work, but the gallop is there and it has a great chorus. Out of the other tracks, ‘Death Of The Celts’ – clearly a sequel to ‘The Clansman’ – is probably the best with its dramatic atmosphere, although ‘The Time Machine’ contains some cool guitar ideas.

Making ‘Senjutsu’ a two-disc album does emphasize how much better the first one is. None of the songs on the second disc is outright bad, but most of them are overlong and ‘Hell On Earth’ just misses the mark despite some good melodies. Scrapping some songs and sections to make it fit on one disc would have definitely made ‘Senjutsu’ a tighter and better listening experience, but it certainly beats out the uneven ‘The Final Frontier’ and the tired-sounding ‘A Matter Of Life And Death’. For what it is though, ‘Senjutsu’ is quite good. Better than most bands this far into their career could wish to be. And it’s housed in by far their greatest album cover since Derek Riggs stopped making them.

Recommended tracks: ‘Senjutsu’, ‘Stratego’, ‘The Writing On The Wall’, ‘The Parchment’

Album of the Week 34-2021: Flotsam And Jetsam – Blood In The Water

Flotsam And Jetsam is generally considered to be experiencing a comeback in recent years, but I’m not sure if I agree with that assessment, as the band never went through prolonged periods of releasing poor albums. Even when their music was closer to hardrock than heavy metal in the mid-nineties, they were still reasonably good. Admittedly, 2019’s ‘The End Of Chaos’ re-energized the band with a collection of songs that were equal parts heavy metal and thrash metal with a contemporary edge that, unlike with many of their peers, sounded completely natural. ‘Blood In The Water’ sounds similar, but slightly better.

Of course, Flotsam And Jetsam always had a strength that many thrash bands lacked and that is a fantastic singer in Eric ‘A.K.’ Knutson. Some people complain that he does not quite reach for the highest shrieks anymore, but that is an unavoidable effect of aging. And more importantly, his mid-range still sounds powerful, convincing and very expressive. ‘Blood In The Water’ would still have been a good album if it just had to rely on the strong riffs and guitar arrangements of Michael Gilbert and Steve Conley, but Knutson’s voice is once again what makes a Flotsam And Jetsam album great rather than just good.

What makes ‘Blood In The Water’ take the edge over ‘The End Of Chaos’ for me is the fact that it has better choruses. ‘The End Of Chaos’ had the same twenty-first century riff work with melodic touches that have a distinct eighties feel, but some of the choruses were a bit repetitive. They are no less memorable on ‘Blood In The Water’, but the replay value is certainly increased by the greater variation. Moreover, there are songs like the fantastically constructed ‘The Wicked Hour’ that have parts that seem like the chorus, only to be hit by the actual chorus in a contrasting section.

Variation is one of the major assets of ‘Blood In The Water’ anyway. Flotsam And Jetsam was never the heaviest or most aggressive of thrash metal bands, but songs like the title track, the fast old school thrasher ‘Grey Dragon’ and the blunt ‘Brace For Impact’ give some heavier bands a run for their money. ‘The Walls’ and the amazingly dramatic closer ‘Seven Seconds ‘Til The End Of The World’, on the other hand, showcase the more melodic side of the band, while a song like ‘Too Many Lives’ has some Nevermore-ish modern metal traits. ‘Cry For The Dead’ goes the more atmospheric semi-ballad route and while it has a good climax, it takes slightly too long to get there.

All in all though, ‘Blood In The Water’ is another surprisingly good album for a band that has been around for about four decades now. The rhythm section of bassist Bill Bodily and veteran drummer Ken Mary deserves extra credit for making the album sound as fresh and invigorated as it does. In a way, ‘Blood In The Water’ brings together the classic thrash era and the more modern ventures such as ‘My God’ and ‘The Cold’ in a combination of very well-written and possibly even better executed songs. And since it is about equal parts heavy metal, thrash metal and modern power metal, it might just have a broader appeal than the average Flotsam And Jetsam album.

Recommended tracks: ‘Seven Seconds ‘Til The End Of The World’, ‘Blood In The Water’, ‘The Walls’, ‘Grey Dragon’

Album of the Week 33-2021: Aion – Absolute

No, ‘Absolute’ is not the best Aion album. ‘Aionism’ will probably forever hold that title for me. Given the time it came out, however, it is quite surprising how good the album is. It came out on the heels of their far too upbeat self-titled album and the rather plodding ‘Z’ and was pretty much the final peak before the band descended into a decade of increasingly forgettable albums. One of the reasons why ‘Absolute’ stands out is that it has a character of its own within Aion’s discography, having a classy, melodic heavy metal sound the band never really attempted before or since.

It is impossible to mistake ‘Absolute’ for any other band than Aion though. The unmistakable voice of Nov goes a long way in achieving that feat. He has a pitch and grit comparable to OverKill’s Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth, but audibly has considerable experience singing more melodic rock music as well. The songs on ‘Absolute’ occasionally have a very melodic J-rock character, but Nov tackles those with the same flair as the harder-driving heavy metal songs. Aion has been balancing speed metal, traditional heavy metal and J-rock since ‘Aionism’ and after being largely absent from its predecessor, the speed metal element fortunately returns on ‘Absolute’.

As a result, the tracks with pronounced speed metal elements are generally my favorites on ‘Absolute’. ‘Elegant Fear’ in particular is a masterpiece. Its main riff has elements of aggression and melancholy at the same time and the way Izumi rapidly switches between clean and distorted guitars lends the song a tremendously dynamic feel. Opening track ‘Anguished Heroes’ even borders on thrash metal with its scorching tempo and defiant chorus. This combination of a relatively open riff and busy bass work by Dean is not that common in the genre though. Near the end, ‘Demoniac Insanity’ is another short burst of aggressive energy.

That does not mean that only the metallic tracks are worth hearing, however. ‘Missing’ is one of the album’s highlights and though it starts with a riff that would not sound out of place on a speed metal record, it largely is a very elegant melodic J-rock track with fantastic vocal harmonies and a surprisingly sparse guitar solo in terms of number of notes, which is also largely harmonized. If lead guitar is what you like, the stylish closing instrumental ‘Peter -The Seventh Moment Of Eternity-‘ should be up your alley. ‘Astia’ is a somewhat funky rock track that would not have been out of place on one of Gargoyle’s early albums. The semi-ballad ‘Last Serenade’ is quite an interesting composition as well.

While it would go too far to call ‘Absolute’ a masterpiece – a couple of tracks are slightly too repetitive for that, ‘High Flying Shadow’ in particular – it is far better than anything in this phase of Aion’s career should have been. There are simply too many good guitar riffs and memorable vocal melodies to dismiss ‘Absolute’ as another album from the period when Aion was slowly declining. As stated in the beginning of this review, I far prefer it to its two predecessors and it might be my second favorite album the band has ever made. Definitely worth a listen if you like the more elegant side of heavy metal and aren’t afraid of the occasional poppy melody.

Recommended tracks: ‘Elegant Fear’, ‘Anguished Heroes’, ‘Missing’