Album of the Week 03-2020: Grave Pleasures – Motherblood


While I welcome the increasing influence of early eighties post-punk in rock music, many bands attempting the style try to stick to the genre’s conventions slightly too closely to really make an impact. Grave Pleasures is an exception to the rule and have been so since their inception as Beastmilk. Of course, we are dealing with an experienced bunch of musicians here, but what really makes ‘Motherblood’ stand out is the quality of the songwriting. The atmosphere so vital to post-punk and gothic rock is here, but so are powerful arrangements and memorable melodies. ‘Motherblood’ is style and substance.

Having said that, ‘Motherblood’ is easily the best record these musicians have created together thus far. The guitar arrangements are more interesting than on predecessor ‘Dreamcrash’ and the overall sound is somewhat more urgent, largely due to the guitars of Juho Vanhanen and Aleksi Kiiskilä having a little more body. They are slightly heavier, adding a subtle doom metal-like atmosphere to the album. Valtteri Arino, in addition, is a surprisingly playful-sounding bassist, almost jazzy compared to the angular approach post-punk is known for. Mat McNerney, meanwhile, goes over the top in his passionate over-the-top vocal delivery, but never so far that it veers into self-parody.

Post-punk and gothic rock bands with more than one guitarist are often known for their interesting guitar arrangements and Grave Pleasures is no different. Even when Vanhanen and Kisskilä are playing in unison, they make sure that their guitar sounds differ enough to create a large, impenetrable wall of guitars. Arrangements are a forte for Grave Pleasures anyway. For example, the chorus of ‘Deadenders’ is made extra explosive by its sudden subdued introduction. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of removing or adding cymbals in Rainer Tuomikanto’s drum parts, sometimes it’s adding an extra guitar layer, but Grave Pleasures knows how to wring everything out of the songs on ‘Motherblood’.

Every song on ‘Motherblood’ is worth hearing, but there are of course a few stand-out tracks. ‘Joy Through Death’ is fairly well-known because of its video, but truth be told, it is also one of the better songs on here with its deceptively simple riff and memorable chorus. The powerful ‘Mind Intruder’ is probably the heaviest track on here and as such, probably the best track for fans of the members’ metal bands to start with. ‘Doomsday Rainbows’ leans on a bunch of quality riffs that leave lots of space for McNerney to excel, while ‘Be My Hiroshima’ is so catchy that it refuses to leave your mind.

Grave Pleasures isn’t really a typical band for any genre. Some band members bring metal influences to the band, but they aren’t really metallic at all. There’s an undeniable gothic rock atmosphere here, but overall, the music is simply too blunt and forward to fit that moniker. And while I feel comfortable whatsoever calling their music post-punk, it is quite a bit heavier and looser than most people would expect from bands in that genre. They almost sound like a seventies rock band playing goth or vice versa. But whatever it is, it works. Very well even.

Recommended tracks: ‘Mind Intruder’, ‘Joy Through Death’, ‘Deadenders’

Album of the Week 02-2020: Apocalyptica – Cell-0


Apocalyptica has never shied away from trying new things. Some of those were great ideas, such as moving beyond the novelty of being a cello-only metal cover band by writing original material and adding drums. Others were hit and miss, such as adding vocals. As a result, Apocalyptica’s journey has always been an interesting one, but no album ever appealed to me nearly as much as 2003’s ‘Reflections’. Enter ‘Cell-0’, their first post-‘Reflections’ album to exclusively feature original instrumental material. This announcement was met with a degree of anticipation that could easily result in disappointment. Fortunately, ‘Cell-0’ is nothing short of excellent.

Do not expect a second ‘Reflections’. ‘Cell-0’ is notably less overtly metallic than that record was. Eicca Toppinen, Paavo Lötjönen and Perttu Kivilaakso still occasionally run their cellos through distortion pedals and other effects, but the dominant sound on ‘Cell-0’ is the natural sound of the instrument. Compositionally, the music on ‘Cell-0’ appears to be inspired by soundtracks first and foremost. Listening to the album is an atmospheric, almost cinematic experience defined by beautiful melodies, interesting textures and an expert sense of dynamics. The movie ‘Cell-0’ accompanies still needs to be written, but the music certainly brings images to mind.

‘Cell-0’ still contains a couple of moments during which the cello parts can be described as riffs. You do not need a lot of imagination to picture large portions of ‘Ashes Of The New World’, ‘En Route To Mayhem’ and ‘Beyond The Stars’ being played by a guitarist. And the lengthy title track is a progressive metal tour de force. Much of the album is devoted to a more traditional approach of the cello, however. Heavy metal is such an important part of Apocalyptica’s inspiration that it will likely never be completely gone, but ‘Cell-0’ certainly sounds more classical. Almost gothic at times.

Like always, Apocalyptica manages to bridge the gap between classical music and rock music. This time around, the dramatic ‘Call My Name’ balances melancholic string quartet arrangements with surprisingly contemporary rhythms and subtle electronics. ‘Fire & Ice’ starts out folky, with pronounced celtic sounds, but has arguably the most metallic middle section on the album, while ‘Scream For The Silent’ switches between metallic and classical modes rather abruptly, but surprisingly never sounds disjointed. The subdued darkness of ‘Rise’ has an almost suffocating atmosphere, while ‘Catharsis’ would not have sounded out of place on the concert programme of a chamber orchestra.

In true Apocalyptica tradition, ‘Cell-0’ is once again something completely different than anything they have ever done before. There are subtle nods to the likes of ‘Reflections’ and ‘Cult’, but the band was careful not to release the same thing again. Turns out the title of the album was not just a random thing to put on the album cover: ‘Cell-0’ definitely is a tribute to the instrument that defined the careers of Toppinen, Lötjönen and Kivilaakso. Anyone who, like myself, was somewhat disappointed by the vocal detours of the past years should be pleased by Apocalyptica’s return to instrumental. Let’s hope it’s the first chapter of a new trajectory.

Recommended tracks: ‘Call My Name’, ‘Cell-0’, ‘Ashes Of The Modern World’

Interview Ningen Isu: “We want to play outside Japan more often”


Ningen Isu has been doing well lately. International recognition for the trio from Aomori, Japan has increased significantly. In late Febuary, the band will even come to Europe for the first time, performing two shows in Germany and one in England. Meanwhile, the band’s debut album celebrates its thirtieth anniverary this year. These are the perfect circumstances to talk to singer/guitarist Shinji Wajima, with contributions from singer/bassist Kenichi Suzuki and singer/drummer Nobu Nakajima.

The international attention Ningen Isu has gotten has not remained unnoticed. Recently, the band added English captions to many of their YouTube videos. Not much later, the first European concerts are a fact. “We realized we were a very Japanese band for overseas audiences“, Wajima states. “Since we sing in Japanese exclusively, have traditional Japanese elements in our sound and our visual approach is quite Japanese as well. We have always hoped for recognition overseas, however.

Our next goal was to perform overseas. Since the reactions to the ‘Mujo No Scat’ video were so positive, we were finally able to get acquainted with an overseas coordinator. When we appeared at Ozzfest Japan in 2013 and 2015, we already had the idea that our recognition abroad would incease. Recently, we noticed that the number of foreigners who listened to our music online increased as well. That is why we added the English translations to YouTube as well. We have been busier than ever lately.

New youth

Not unimportant is the quality of Ningen Isu’s recently released twenty-first album ‘Shin Seinen’. The title translates to “new youth” and that is exactly how the band sounds on the album. “This album marks our thirtieth anniversary and we needed a title that clearly represents the image of the band“, Wajima explains. “Our band name Ningen Isu (‘The Human Chair’) is the title of a story by Edogawa Ranpo. Ranpo debuted in a magazine called ‘Shin Seinen’. We got a lot of ideas from that particular story (‘Ni-Sen Doka’ or ‘The Two-Sen Copper Coin’). For an anniversary album, I think this was the only possible title. In other words: we still had the same feelings as when we made our debut album. And we wanted to continue making weird songs like the story Ranpo wrote for ‘Shin Seinen’.

Lyrics are an important part of Ningen Isu songs. “Lyrcis bring the song to life“, says Wajima. “Just the music makes the song an empty shell. The lyrics create meaning to what was once meaningless. The vocal melody of the song is also quite important. Silence can be essential as well. I think Japanese people are good at expressing loneliness and silence, so I consciously try to incorporate them in our music.

Teenager

A remarkable feature in Ningen Isu’s music is the interaction between the traditional-sounding Japanese lyrics and the highly British-sounding hardrock sound of the trio. “When I was a young boy, there was a lot of rock music on the radio and in the record stores“, Wajima says. “Most boys and girls listened to Japanese pop, but there were a few kids who thought rock was the coolest music in the world. Suzuki and I were such boys. We became classmates in high school and we formed a band. When I play with Suzuki today, I still get the fresh feeling I had as a teenager.

Our concept from the very beginning was to put Japanese lyrics to the seventies British hardrock sound that we liked.  There our some Japanese artists who inspired us lyrically, mostly folk singers, but our sound is almost entirely influenced by western hardrock. Also, we decided to make our stage clothing Japanese instead of the so-called heavy metal, which I thought was not suitable for us physically. These ideas have basically been unchanged from the very beginning.

Unusual

The traditional Japanese clothing has become a trademark of the band. “That is all part of the band’s concept“, Wajima confirms. “I chose to wear the most traditional and common kimono. But of course, in today’s Japan, people don’t wear kimonos in their daily lives, so it still looks very unusual.” Suzuki can be brief about his stage appearance: “An evil monk. A monstrous monk.

“I’m wearing a Koikuchi shirt and dobo pants as they were worn by Japanese carpenters during Japanese festivals“, Nakajima explains. “By wearing a design that is exclusively Japanese, I imagine a stylish man you would encounter at such festivals. And a Regent haircut with appropriate sunglasses are simply my favorite style.

Appreciation

Impressively, Ningen Isu’s line-up has changed very little in the last thirty years. Wajima and Suzuki have even been there since the very beginning. “Suzuki and I know each other very will“, Wajima nods. “Nobu joined us about 15 years ago. He was almost the same age at us and listened to similar music. At one time, all three of us even lived in the same neighborhood. In other words, the three personalities are different, but our roots are the same. By playing in a band together, we can feel like our youth continutes all the time.

It has not always been easy, however. Hailing from the relatively remote prefecture of Aomori, it wasn’t always easy to find a connection with the rest of the Japanese music industry. “Aomori is one of Japan’s most rural areas“, says Wajima. “We never tried to hide the fact that we are from there. In fact, we actively incorporated it into our music. I think that’s what causes the nostalgic feeling of old Japan in our songs. That gave us a very strong, unique personality, but that didn’t mean our albums sold explosively.

The hardest time was from the late nineties to around 2010. Mostly from an economic viewpoint. Album sales were really poor for about a decade, so we needed to work part-time jobs. On the other hand, that helped us appreciate the appreciation from our fans and the joy of making music even more.

Method

All three members of Ningen Isu sing. Wajima states the explanation for this is quite simple: “Whoever comes up with the main idea of the song will sing it. Since every song comes from the heart of the composer, the most natural choice is to have them sing it as well. Every band member comes up with ideas for songs. Usually, Suzuki and I are in charge of that.

Generally, the music comes first. But I also write songs with a certain image in mind. For example, I will write a song after I decided a certain Lovecraft novel will be the theme of the song. This helps me build a song from a certain feeling. Rather than riffs alone, I often bring a simple flow of a composition. Suzuki’s technique is to always carefully select his riffs, so the starting point of the song is a bunch of cool riffs.

Whoever writes the songs, our method is usually the same. As soon as the composition is done, we add a melody to it and after that, we add lyrics that match the notes.

Satisfied

I really like Gibson SG’s“, Wajima says. “The sound of those guitars is really nice, with a slight lack of high and low and its focus on the attack. I think it sounds very emotional, close to how the human voice sounds. My main guitars are a 1993 Gibson SG Standard for songs in standard tuning and a 2012 Gibson SG Standard for downtuned songs. Other guitars I often use live and on stage include a double neck Gibson EDS-1275 and a Martin D-28 acoustic guitar. My amplifiers are a Marshall 1987 head and a Marshall 1960TV cabinet. In addition, I use combinations of effects that I made myself to create my sounds.

For most Japanese bands, travelling abroad greatly limits the equipment you can bring along. “Aside from my instruments, all I really need is a Marshall amplifier“, Wajima states. “Preferably a 1987, a 1959 or a JCM-800.” The rest of the band is similarly undemanding. “I have no particular requests“, says Suzuki. “As long as I can use a microphone in front of my amplifier rather than a DI.” Nakajima is similarly relaxed about it: “I would be satisfied with any simple drum set. I would be happy if it had two seperate bass drums though.

Newcomers

And now, Ningen Isu will come to Europe for the first time since their 1987 genesis. “It was a matter of timing“, Wajima says. “We didn’t just want to perform abroad for one show. Our aim is to continue to perform overseas more often. We realize that we are newcomers there. This is will be our first time in Europe, so we want to play the best shows we possibly can. We will carefully select the songs we will play and perform those as well as possible. And since our musical roots are in western rock, I want to honor those roots with gratitude.

If you like hardrock from the seventies, we would like you to come to our shows“, Suzuki adds. “But I also hope you will enjoy our Japanese sounds. We promise you an experience like you never had before.

Almost all Ningen Isu albums are available on Spotify and iTunes. We asked the band which they consider the best work for newcomer to check out. “In mid-December, our new compilation ‘Ningen Isu Meisaku Sen Sanju Shunen Kinen Best Ban’ will be released“, says Wajima. “We hope all our overseas fans will listen to that. The CD booklet will contain English translations of the lyrics. Also, our latest original album ‘Shin Seinen’, of course. I think we succeeded at capturing the youthful, dark atmosphere of our debut on that album. ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’ (2016) is a solid concept album focused on scary music. And our debut album ‘Ningen Shikkaku’ (1989), as it is a clear indication of what we want to do.

Tour dates: Lido Club, Berlin (Feb. 19), Zeche, Bochum (Feb. 20), Camden Underword, London (Feb. 21)

Originally published in Dutch at The Sushi Times.

Album of the Week 01-2020: Dark Fortress – Venereal Dawn


When bands rooted in black metal branch out, labelling them can become an issue. There are only so many adjectives one can add to describe Dark Fortress’ darkly progressive music without the result coming off as totally ridiculous. It is a fact, however, that ‘Venereal Dawn’ is quite a bit different than the Dissection-isms of the Germans’ earliest work. But that is hardly a problem for me, especially considering that it was guitarist V. Santura’s work with Triptykon that drove me towards Dark Fortress. ‘Venereal Dawn’ is a highly dynamic, intense and atmospheric work that gets better with each spin.

Although the band’s roots are obvious, there aren’t many elements traditionally associated with black metal on ‘Venereal Dawn’. There is hardly any tremolo picking, limited blastbeats and even the vocals are quite measured by the genre’s standards. That only leaves the dissonant chords, which are often arpeggiated here. Save for the more brutal ‘Betrayal And Vengeance’, ‘I Am The Jigsaw Of A Mad God’ and parts of ‘Odem’, it is not that much of a stretch to say that a large portion of ‘Venereal Dawn’ is progressive doom metal. The gothic qualities are not quite as pronounced as on its predecessor ‘Ylem’, but the power of the album is in its atmosphere and subdued tempos.

Closing track ‘On Fever’s Wings’ in particular is a moving doomy chapter in the story of Dark Fortress. Even the gallops are relatively slow and a large portion of the eleven minute track is built upon the melancholic lead guitar melodies of Santura and the alternately deep and desperate vocals of Morean. The other bookend of the album, the title track, is equally lengthy and subdued in tempo, but somewhat more aggressive in its overall approach. The track houses all of the aspects that appear on the album, an approach that is somewhat mirrored in the powerful ‘Luciform’.

Even more atypical are the tracks in which Dark Fortress takes the full leap into darker rock music. ‘Chrysalis’ is the most gothic song on here, with its eerily reverberating clean guitar parts and Morean’s vocals delivering ample nightmare fuel even when Seraph’s drums and the rhythm guitar crunch add a strong bottom end. ‘The Deep’ even sees the band adopting a largely acoustic approach, which combined with the percussion almost makes it sound like black metal world fusion, which might not be a thing. ‘Lloigor’ also has some acoustic guitars, but quickly turns into a powerful midtempo track with an almost ‘Blackwater Park’-era Opeth feel.

‘Venereal Dawn’ further explores what is possible within the boundaries of Dark Fortress’ core sound without alienating their existing fan base. For me personally, ‘Ylem’ and ‘Venereal Dawn’ are by far the most interesting albums the band has released thus far and I truly hope they will continue down this progressive, yet atmospheric path. As stated in the beginning of this review, it is quite difficult to categorize the music on ‘Venereal Dawn’, but that is exactly what makes the album so good. Black metal fans may be disappointed by the slow tempos and the melodic touches, but to me, this is an album that still reveals exciting new secrets every time I put it on.

Recommended tracks: ‘On Fever’s Wings’, ‘Venereal Dawn’, ‘Luciform’, ‘Chrysalis’

Best of 2019: The Albums

Every year, I write sort of an introductory statement to the list of my favorite albums of the year. But since I feel like I am starting to sound like a broken record with most of my observations, I will keep it brief. In internet terms, brief often means bullet points. So here we go with my observations about 2019 in music:

  • Last year was a relatively good year for western music. Including some bands that I was not particularly interested in before.
  • I don’t know whether my taste got slower or if it was just a great year for slower rock and metal music.
  • Even the most reissue oriented labels did not go as overboard with reissues instead of new releases as in recent years.
  • It was slightly less difficult to come up with fifteen titles this time around. Oh yeah, I decided to stick with fifteen titles.
  • My numbers one and two were extremely obvious for me. They were also so close that I literally flipped a coin to decide who would come first. Okay, it was a guitar pick.

So without further ado, here is my best of 2019 list, starting with the winner of my pick toss.

1. Rammstein – Rammstein

While I liked Rammstein before, I did not expect their first studio album in a decade to be anywhere near as good as ‘Reise, Reise’. Especially not since the lack of a title often suggests some sort of rebirth or unwanted maturation process. Turns out I was wrong. This is the Germans sextet’s strongest set of songs from a melodic standpoint, whilst retaining their danceable rhythms, their twisted sense of humor and the aggression of their riff work. There is definitely some top 10 Rammstein work on this record and as always, the record is notably more sophisticated than it may seem. ‘Rammstein’ is a carefully crafted and arranged record, but not so much that the life is completely sucked out of it. Also, it is simply fun.

Recommended tracks: ‘Puppe’, ‘Radio’, ‘Zeig Dich’, ‘Hallomann’

2. Capilla Ardiente – The Siege

Capilla Ardiente is one of those doom metal bands that does everything right. Felipe Plaza Kutzbach has the perfect darmatic voice for this type of epic doom metal, but Claudio Botarro Neira’s riffs also borrow enough from the early Peaceville doom-death bands to create a somewhat more grimy vibe than the umpteenth Black Sabbath or Candlemass clone. In addition, Capilla Ardiente seems to realize that there is more to doom metal than just massive riffs. The music on ‘The Siege’ is extremely dynamic. And while it’s generally slow to mid-tempo music, the band doesn’t fear aiming for something faster if it enhances the atmosphere. Just like ‘Bravery, Truth And The Endless Darkness’ before it, ‘The Siege’ is a must for everyone into doom metal and classic heavy metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Crimson Fortress’, ‘Fallen Alphas And Rising Omega’

3. Myrath – Shehili

Initially, I thought ‘Shehili’ was slightly disappointing. I must have been full of shit. ‘Shehili’ is another excellent Myrath album. It even brings back some of their earlier progressive metal riffing, which should be a delight to anyone who thought the band went slightly too much down the accessible Kamelot-ish road with ‘Legacy’. Don’t expect an overly complicated prog record, however. Myrath is simply doing what they are good at here: instantly recognizable melodies, North-African atmospheres enhanced by the incredible, ma’luf-inspired string arrangements and the fantastic voice of Zaher Zorgati. Myrath’s sense of melodicism combined with their impressive musical skill is difficult to equal. Because of that, Myrath is one of the best bands around these days.

Recommended tracks: ‘Wicked Dice’, ‘Shehili’, ‘Monster In My Closet’

4. Jupiter – Zeus ~Legends Never Die~

When Zin departed Jupiter, I feared they was done for. Fortunately, his replacement – former Concerto Moon singer Atsushi Kuze – proved to be better than I could ever expect him to be and the first set of songs they wrote for him as a frontman is every bit as good as the first two Jupiter albums. In fact, it feels slightly more consistent than ‘The History Of Genesis’. There are quite a few reworkings of older tracks on ‘Zeus ~Legends Never Die~’, but the album has a very pleasant, while ‘The Spirit Within Me’ and ‘Tears Of The Sun’ in particular sound like they were made for Kuze. It’s hard enough to find symphonic power metal this good these days, let alone with as much power as Jupiter shows here. My only criticism would be the extremely bass-heavy master.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Spirit Within Me’, ‘Straight Into The Fire’, ‘Theory Of Evolution’

5. Monomyth – Orbis Quadrantis

Monomyth has been around for some time now and while I could appreciate them, nothing could prepare me for their new album ‘Orbis Quadrantis’. The Duch quintet doesn’t do anything radically different here; they are still playing atmospheric, at times quasi-cinematic instrumental rock music, but there is just a bit of an extra push here. It could be the arrival of new guitarist Boudewijn Bonebakker (formerly of Gorefest and Gingerpig) doing that, but they also simply made a lot of progress on the compositional front. Sure, the tracks are still long and slow to unfold, but it’s slightly less krautrock-oriented, there is a sense of directness to the riff work and Bonebakker is a little more bluesy in his lead guitar approach. Highly recommended to space rockers.

Recommended tracks: ‘Aquilo’, ‘Eurus’

6. Avatarium – The Fire I Long For

Now this one took me by surprise. For the longest time, I had considered Avatarium just another Leif Edling project. ‘The Fire I Long For’, however, is the first album on which guitarist Marcus Jidell and singer Jessie-Ann Smith wrote the majority of the material. It finds them closer to the realms of dark rock music than the traditional doom metal Eidling is known for or even the more upbeat seventies rock of its predecessor ‘Hurricanes And Halos’. The results are spectacular. More than ever before, Avatarium tailored its music to Smith’s charismatic voice and while the music is still heavy, there is a more dynamic vibe to the record. From the dark blues of ‘Lay Me Down’ to the hopeful melancholy of ‘Rubicon’, ‘The Fire I Long For’ is a surprising masterpiece.

Recommended tracks: ‘Rubicon’, ‘Lay Me Down’, ‘Great Beyond’, ‘Stars They Move’

7. Hatriot – From Daze Unto Darkness

Zetro’s band with his kids doesn’t include Zetro anymore. Some industry people may consider that commercial suicide, but with Kosta Varvatakis’ endless supply of incredible riffs and Cody Souza sounding uncannily like his father sometimes, the change is not as big as some might expect. ‘From Daze Unto Darkness’ is certainly an engaging thrash metal record that certainly blows many retro bands and older guys trying to relive their past glories out of the water. Varvatakis’ compositions are rooted in the Bay Area tradition, but definitely closer to Forbidden than Exodus, while he obviously took some hints from European thrash bands like Destruction as well. ‘From Daze Unto Darkness’ is an intense, pissed-off record that greatly exceeded my expectations.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ethereal Nightmare’, ‘Organic Remains’, ‘World, Flesh & Devil’

8. Ningen Isu – Shin Seinen

Many Japanese bands should be jealous at the level of consistency the discography of Ningen Isu displays. Hell, many non-Japanese bands should as well. Having said that, I did find their 2017 release ‘Ijigen Kara No Hoko’ slightly disappointing. ‘Shin Seinen’ was a pleasant surprise though. Here, Ningen Isu focuses on what they are good at: huge, Sabbath-ish riffs, fat rock ‘n’ roll grooves and the occasional proggy twist. The folky touches on ‘Shin Seinen’ are minimal, but it’s not liek the album needs them. Ningen Isu shows itself to be an excellent hard rock band here. This is their second top five album in three years and that alone is enough to give the band all the praise they can get. And yes, that’s four “Jigoku” tracks if you have the bonus track edition.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kagami Jigoku’, ‘Mujo No Scat’, ‘Shin Seinen Maegaki’

9. Kinniku Shojo Tai – Love

What to expect when one of Japan’s oddest bands releases a record called ‘Love’? A collection of power ballads? Well, not quite. For the most part, ‘Love’ sounds exactly like Kinniku Shojo Tai should sound. Punkish aggression, classy melodicism, funky rhythm guitars, bright keyboards, an amount of bombast that would make Queen feel ashamed, weird proggy passages… Have I mentioned this band is odd? Contrary to many other odd bands, however, Kinniku Shojo Tai writes highly accessible songs with memorable melodies, even when Kenji Otsuki is yelling them out as if it’s a political manifest. ‘Love’ surprisingly is heavier than its predecessor ‘Za Shisa’ and a highly entertaining listen. Here’s to hoping Kinniku Shojo Tai’s second youth will last much longer.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ai Wa Kagero’, ‘Donmai Sakaba’, ‘Chokugeki Kamakiri Ken! Ningen Bakuhatsu’

10. Swallow The Sun – When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light

The story has been well-publicized, but I will summarize it once more. When South African singer Aleah Starbridge died of cancer at the age of 39, her partner, Swallow The Sun guitarist Juha Raivio, processed his grief through several musical projects. ‘When A Shadow Is Force Into The Light’ allegedly the record about coming to terms with his loss, but the music hardly sounds like it. The album is oppressively dark, desperate and heart-wrenchingly sad, even by Swallow The Sun standards. It is a difficult album to listen to, but it is hauntingly beautiful and easily the best thing Swallow The Sun ever released. Musically, the album weaves a profoundly dark gothic rock sound into the doom-death tapestry the Finns are known for. Not for everyone, but deeply impressive.

Recommended tracks: ‘Stone Wings’, ‘The Crimson Crown’, ‘Never Left’

11. The Magpie Salute – High Water II

After titling their brilliant debut album ‘High Water I’, ‘High Water II’ was already a highly anticipated album before the debut was even released. Naturally, the history several members of The Magpie Salute have with The Black Crowes contributes to that as well, but to be honest, The Magpie Salute is a more consistent band than the Crowes ever were. The focus here is on Rich Robinson’s excellent songwriting rather than psychedelic exercises. As a result, ‘High Water II’ sounds confident and focused. Possibly even more focused than its predecessor, but the immediacy of the songwriting may contribute to that as well. Having an incredible singer like John Hogg helps, of course. ‘II’ does not soar to the same highs as ‘I’, but it is still a great record.

Recommended tracks: ‘Where Is This Place’, ‘Mother Storm’, ‘Gimme Something’

12. Arch/Matheos – Winter Ethereal

‘Sympathetic Resonance’ caused a significant stir in the world of progressive metal back in 2011. After all, it was the first full album that the songwriting duo of the legendary Fates Warning album ‘Awaken The Guardian’ (1986) worked on since… Well… ‘Awaken The Guardian’. Follow-up ‘Winter Ethereal’ is not quite as consistent, but it is still a strong progressive metal album with a little more spirit than the average band that Fates Warning inspired. John Arch is still in great shape and his melodies still have an almost otherworldly vibe and Jim Matheos manages to bridge the gap between old school prog metal and contemporary progressive music in a manner that feels completely natural. Despite the prog allstar cast, ‘Winter Ethereal’ is still about Arch and Matheos.

Recommended tracks: ‘Wrath Of The Universe’, ‘Pitch Black Prism’, ‘Kindred Spirits’

13. Candlemass – The Door To Doom

Epic doom metal pioneers Candlemass – or more specifically their bassist and chief songwriter Leif Edling – vowed to focus on playing live instead of recording half-assed albums like 2012’s ‘Psalms For The Dead’ shortly after that album’s release. He didn’t technically say that about that particular album, but he would have been right if he did. But then original singer Johan Längqvist returned. And despite not having done anything of note since his departure in 1986, his vocals are easily the best thing about ‘The Door to Doom’. The compositions are pretty standard Candlemass fare, but ‘The Door To Doom’ is great doom metal and easily their most inspired album since 2007’s ‘King Of The Grey Islands’. Bonus points for the Tony Iommi guest spot!

Recommended tracks: ‘Bridge Of The Blind’, ‘Astorolus – The Great Octopus’, ‘Under The Ocean’

14. Sisters Of Suffocation – Humans Are Broken

Conservative as the metal scene is, the audience often doesn’t like to see their bands change. However, change can also be gradual and beneficial, as is the case with Sisters Of Suffocation. Second guitarist Emmelie Herwegh was added to the line-up and because of that, guitarist and main songwriter Simone van Straten really focused on writing music for two guitars. It really added some depth to the Sisters Of Suffocation sound without straying too far from the fairly blunt, but simultaneously intelligent take on death metal that the band is known for. It does help that Sisters Of Suffocation doesn’t just stick to one particular era or style of death metal. ‘Humans Are Broken’ can be aggressive and pummeling, but it also provides breathing room and technical prowess.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Objective’, ‘Wolves’, ‘What We Create’

15. Spoil Engine – Renaissance Noire

Often mistaken for a metalcore band, Belgium’s Spoil Engine actually takes the thick, hardcore-infused riffing of bands often associated with that scene and puts them in compositions that are far more interesting than the tired tropes of the metalcore scene. The choruses are catchy, but they don’t cancel all the momentum – of course it is helpful that Iris Goessens is too vicious a vocalist for that – and the band does not waste any time with drawn-out breakdowns that go on too long for their own good. On ‘Renaissance Noire’, the band is simultaneously more compact and more dynamic than ever. The riffs feel like you’re getting hit in the face with a brick, but at the same time, there’s plenty of clean guitar passages and sing-along parts to keep things interesting.

Recommended tracks: ‘Golden Cage’, ‘Warzone’, ‘Storms Of Tragedy’

Album of the Week 52-2019: Killing Joke – Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell


Killing Joke albums come in many forms. Militant like their first two albums, polished like ‘Pandemonium’, catchy like ‘Night Time’… ‘Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell’ is different. With its long, slowly unfolding tracks, it feels like a deliberate attempt to create Killing Joke’s least accessible album to date. Therein lies the brilliance. More than any album before it, ‘Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell’ attempts to overwhelm with massive repetitive riffs, tribal rhythms and its sheer wall of noise in an almost Godflesh-like fashion. Difficult to achieve without turning into a monotonous mess, but Killing Joke succeeds with ease.

Sporting one of my favorite titles of all time ‘Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell’ already caught my attention before I had even heard a single note. And then there’s the music. There is something strangely hypnotic about the endless barrage of heavy riffing and pounding rhythms. The music sounds like it was not so much composed as it was made up on the spot and played until it made sense. That means there are hardly any memorable choruses and the riffs per minute ratio is ridiculously low, but the songs contain everything this combination of post-punk and industrial (doom) metal should have.

One thing that stands out about ‘Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell’ is how guitar-heavy the production is. Geordie Walker’s guitar sound was always a defining feature of Killing Joke’s sound, but it always shared equal billing with the bass and the synths. Especially the latter are buried in the mix here, but that is hardly a problem. Take a song like ‘Implosion’, where the constant drive of wide dissonant chords in a pseudo-metallic new wave sound carries the song. The following ‘Walking With Gods’ feels slightly more like modern Killing Joke, as Reza Uhdin’s synths are more prominent, giving the track something of a dance vibe.

Those who preferred the world fusion of ‘Pandemonium’ will be pleased by album highlight ‘Invocation’. Save for one half measure-long fill that occurs every now and then, Walker’s riff does not change for the entire eight minutes the song lasts, but the constantly building strings and the Middle-Eastern percussion add such a dynamic to the song, it’s simply brilliant. ‘Judas Goat’, with its awesomely brooding 5/4 riff, is another highlight. ‘Gratitude’ marries the immense heaviness of Walker’s riffs and Paul Raven’s bass with a surprisingly clean, but highly ominous vocal performance by Jaz Coleman and closes the album in style.

‘Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell’ is not the best album to start with for those who are curious about Killing Joke, despite ‘This Tribal Antidote’ being a relatively accessible opener. For a certain section of the band’s fanbase, however, this is 200 percent of what they’d want from Killing Joke. The album is as appropriate for apocalyptic darkness as it is for a dance party in hell. Personally, I think I prefer ‘Pandemonium’, but not by much. With its uncompromising approach and perfect production for this style, ‘Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell’ lives up to its amazing title as well as Killing Joke’s legacy in dark, but surprisingly blunt music.

Recommended tracks: ‘Invocation’, ‘Judas Goat’, ‘Gratitude’

Album of the Week 51-2019: The Vision Bleak – The Unknown


Gothic rock’s mournful melodies and doom metal’s crushing heaviness appear to be made for each other, both having an irresistibly ominous theatricality to them. More often than not, however, gothic metal bands go for the goth aesthetic rather than the stylistic properties of the genre. For every ‘Irreligious’, there is a symphonic power metal band with operatic female vocals calling themselves gothic. Germany’s The Vision Bleak actually managed to create a genuinely atmospheric sound that is almost equal parts gothic and metal, although their most recent album ‘The Unknown’ is significantly heavier and more metallic than some people might expect.

After the more upbeat, folky nature of ‘Witching Hour’, ‘The Unknown’ was a bit of a surprise. It’s not like The Vision Bleak displays a completely different approach here. The music is still lead by slow to midtempo, not too complicated riffs and the deep gothic baritone of Konstanz. It’s just that the increased heaviness makes ‘The Unknown’ the most immersive listening experience since the band’s sophomore ‘Carpathia’ album. The keyboards and symphonic elements have been toned down a bit, but that doesn’t make the album any less atmospheric. If anything, the compositions and the choice of instruments create a nightmarish musical landscape.

The Vision Bleak were always masters of dynamics. Even their heaviest tracks have a great sense of build-up. An excellent example from this album would be ‘Into The Unknown’. The slow gallop – which would technically make it a trot, but whatever – may be pounding quite heavily throughout the song, but the riff takes a back seat to Konstanz’ vocals and Schwadorf’s clever clean guitar touches during the verses, only to make the chorus sound extra bombastic. ‘Ancient Heart’, the album’s most gothic moment, alternates between big, beefy riffs and mostly acoustic sections with an almost Middle-Eastern feel to them. Highly effective and above all enjoyable.

Elsewhere, the band reconnects with their extreme metal roots without forsaking their sense of atmosphere and melody. Opening track ‘From Wolf To Peacock’ is built upon mournful riffs and melodies, but the drums are somewhere between a polka and a blastbeat, while the climaxes of the particularly theatrical, Moonspell-ish ‘How Deep Lies Tartaros?’ have a black metal-ish vibe to them. A full album of those tracks would get old soon, but when they are alternated with moments of amazingly atmospheric doom and gloom, such as the annihiliatingly heavy doomster ‘The Whine Of The Cemetery Hound’ and the climactic closer ‘The Fragrancy Of Soil Unearthed’, it just works.

While The Vision Bleak is another one of those bands with a wide appeal of which I don’t understand why they don’t have a larger audience, ‘The Unknown’ is definitely the perfect album to check out for the metal side of their potential fanbase if they have not heard the band. Schwadorf’s big riffs and clever use of simple, yet effective melodies are all over the album. The combination between those and Konstanz’ charismatic vocals are definitely what won me over. A must for gothic metal fans, but adventurous doom metal fans should probably give this a chance as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Into The Unknown’, ‘Ancient Heart’, ‘The Whine Of The Cemetery Hound’