Archive for January, 2019

Album of the Week 04-2019: Solstice – Solstice


Some bands are known for the musicians that play with them rather than the actual music than they play. Those who have heard of Solstice, will most likely know them as the band Rob Barrett played with prior to joining Cannibal Corpse, though drummer Alex Marquez and bassist Mark Van Erp are familiar names in the Floridian death metal scene as well. It is worth giving their music a spin though, as especially their self-titled debut album is an engaging piece of reasonably technical thrash metal, filled to the brim with all the precise, aggressive playing one could wish for.

Despite all of the death metal connections of the Floridian band, the death metal element in their music is largely limited to Marquez’ occasional blastbeats. If anything, hardcore seems to be a bigger influence on Solstice. Plenty of blunt force, but more importantly, the riffs are thick and beefy even at their fastest and most technical, which is of course helped by Scott Burns’ production. Also, Barrett’s aggressive barks have a distinct hardcore vibe. The overall sound is not unlike the likes of Demolition Hammer and Exhorder, with maybe some Malevolent Creation, with whom three musicians on the record have played, thrown in for good measure.

Riffs aplenty on ‘Solstice’, but where the band truly outshines its contemporaries is that the songs are surprisingly well-written. In this style, it is quite easy to get lost in a jungle of engaging, but poorly connecting riffs. Solstice’s songs generally make excellent use of dynamics, with especially the ever-changing rhythmic feel of the songs accounting for a longer attention span than with many equally technical, yet compositionally weaker bands. ‘Netherworld’ in particular has a great climactic build-up by starting slow and atmospheric and leaving room for the chorus and Dennis Muñoz’ fantastic guitar solo when it needs room to breathe.

Because of the way the songs are written – not a lot of melody, high tempos – the highlights of the album really boil down to which riffs you prefer. Personally, I really like how ‘Cataclysmic Outbursts’ unfolds from its almost teasing intro to its multitude of Dark Angel-inspired riffs, while ‘Plasticized’ is quite catchy and has a half-time middle section not unlike Suffocation would do on ‘Pierced From Within’. Another true highlight is how opening track ‘Transmogrified’ toys with different time feels even within its first 30 seconds, effectively giving you a pretty good impression of if you’re going to like the album or not.

Ultimately, only the Carnivore cover ‘S.M.D.’ is a bit of a weak spot on ‘Solstice’. The cover is done well, but the song lacks the sophistication of the rest of the album. Because writing an excellent technical thrash song obviously is something you don’t have to teach Solstice. The album definitely transcends the “curio because of the musicians involved” tag, as it is superior to many of the albums the involved musicians would later be involved in. I don’t say that to dismiss the works of Cannibal Corpse, Malevolent Creation or Monstrosity, ‘Solstice’ is just that good.

Recommended tracks: ‘Netherworld’, ‘Transmogrified’, ‘Cataclysmic Outbursts’

Album of the Week 03-2019: Asagi – Madara


Asagi’s debut solo album is one of those instances where I doubted the necessity of a solo venture. After all, Asagi is by far the most prolific composer of his main band, the immensely popular visual kei band D, and his surprisingly unique voice is characteristic enough to add D’s character to everything he sings on. What makes ‘Madara’ a successful record, however, is its focus. Japanese folk influences have been quite prominent in some of D’s best songs, but on this album, Asagi goes full-on folk rock and folk metal. And it’s not just a gimmick: the songs are great.

Of course, Asagi has not lost his ability to write catchy, powerful rock songs. In fact, some of the songs are filled with his trademark stock visual kei melodies – opening track ‘Gekkai No Miko’ most notably – but the Japanese traditional instruments, such as the koto, the shamisen and the taiko drums, are an integral part of the songwriting rather than an extra touch. On a majority of the songs, it’s not the guitars, but these instruments that carry the melodies. While the guitars are there to give them extra punch, that does impact the character of the melodies significantly.

While the entirity of ‘Madara’ is highly entertaining, the best moments of the album are the hardest rocking ones. Songs like ‘Hakumenkonmo Kyubi No Kitsune Hidama’, ‘Kimera’ and ‘Komo Sakura’ just work wonders: the shamisen introduces the melody, the electric guitars join, either in unison or as bottom-heavy accompaniment, creating some fantastic oriental folk metal. I have always wondered why the number of bands attempting this style is not larger and Asagi makes a strong case for the combination of sounds. The more melodic rockers, such as ‘Hotarubi’, ‘Hana Kumo No Ran’ and ‘Ooyama Inudake ~Tsukuyo Ni Hoeyu~’ are sure to please D fans, but might also draw in people who usually find them too heavy.

Since this is an Asagi album, there is of course room for some ballads in which he can show off his vocal talents. There are quite a few of them here and those are probably the most folky sounding ones on the record. Ironically, it is not Asagi himself, but bassist (and prolific producer) Hajime Okano who stands out on the album’s best ballad ‘Kaishikoki Eru E Kaeryanse’ features some gorgeous melodic work on the fretless bass that really enhances the atmosphere of the song. Closing track ‘Asagimadara’ is another beautiful ballad, this time with absolutely stunning symphonic touches.

Beside the songwriting, it is also impressive how Asagi managed to make the album about the songs and not about the all-star cast that appears on the album, which features members of Luna Sea, Dir En Grey, Galneryus, D and loads of other high profile Japanese bands. It still sounds like a cohesive collection of songs and that, again, is probably the result of Asagi’s razor sharp focus. He wanted to make a powerful rock album that was heavy on the Japanese folk influences and that is exactly what ‘Madara’ has become. One of the Japanese highlights of 2018.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hakumenkonmo Kyubo No Kitsune Hidama’, ‘Komo Sakura’, ‘Ooyama Inudake ~Tsukoyo Ni Hoeyu’

Album of the Week 02-2019: Gargoyle – Gaia


For some reason, ‘Gaia’ often gets ignored when people discuss the greatest works of Gargoyle. Up until last year’s unfortunate dissolution of the band, the songs on ‘Gaia’ did not even appear on their live sets all that much. Maybe that is a result of the material on the album making optimal use of the two guitar line-up, since Gargoyle would continue with just one guitarist after Yotaro left. It would really be a pity to let ‘Gaia’ go by unnoticed though, because there is simply too much good music on the album. It is in fact one of Gargoyle’s finest efforts.

‘Gaia’ is probably the second most experimental album Gargoyle released to date, surpassed only by its predecessor ‘Natural’. Unlike the latter, however, ‘Gaia’ feels pretty coherent stylistically and does not have as many sudden shifts, save for maybe the odd, but successful percussion and Spanish guitar exercise that is ‘Hako’ and the hyperactive funk rock of ‘Baby Cat’, one of Gargoyle’s better funky tracks. Everything else consists of variations on the trusted Gargoyle formula. Some songs have a cleaner guitar approach and more swing rhythmically (‘Unkown ~Annon~’) or a more exotic overall sound (‘Yagate Hikaru’), but but the thrash riffs and heavy metal melodies are everywhere.

Opening track ‘Wakakusa No Kimi’ does a pretty good job of preparing its listeners for the general sound of ‘Gaia’. The rhythm guitar work and Katsuji’s rolling double bass thunder still is as deeply rooted in thrash as the band always was, but the overall approach is a little more melodic. Frontman Kiba even shows a surprising amount of restraint in its uncharacteristically melodic vocal lines, but it all works remarkably well. ‘Sora Wa Ao’ is another track that manages to successfully blend a wild, propulsive bottom end with a melodic, almost rocky top layer.

That does not mean ‘Gaia’ cannot thrash your face off. The stomping ‘Meditation’ and the vaguely OverKill-ish ‘Who Are You?’ are both excellent energetic thrashers in the best Gargoyle tradition, while especially the speed monster ‘Kamikaze’ is absolutely annihilating. Truly one of the highlights of the band’s career. If ‘Gaia’ proves anything, however, it is that Gargoyle does not have to do that to sound amazing. ‘Sanbika’, for instance, is one of the most powerful tracks on here and it has an almost doom metal vibe, with Kentaro’s and Yotaro’s riffs not containing any more notes than they have to and Toshi laying down some of his best melodic bass lines. Definitely one of the best of their more atmospheric tracks.

My only complaints about ‘Gaia’ are aimed at its production. The guitar sound is not as powerful and pulsating as it should be and I have no idea why Kiba’s vocals on ‘Sayonara Jibun’, otherwise a very pleasant melodic thrasher, had to be so trebly, borderline unlistenably distorted. But apart from that, ‘Gaia’ is one of the best albums the Japanese experimental thrash machine has ever released. It may even have been the most consistent set of songs they have ever recorded, save for the near-perfection of ‘Tsuki No Toge’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sanbika’, ‘Kamikaze’, ‘Wakakusa No Kimi’, ‘Who Are You?’

Album of the Week 01-2019: Vader – De Profundis


Vader is easily my favorite death metal band of the non-progressive variety. Unlike many of their contemporaries and a staggering number of bands that followed them, the Polish band around vocalist and guitarist Piotr ‘Peter’ Wiwczarek knows how to create something memorable if you don’t have a great deal of melody at your disposal. It’s their riffs rather than their choruses that are – for lack of a better term – quite catchy. Vader’s sophomore album ‘De Profundis’ is generally seen as their classic album and while I’m not sure if it’s their best, it is definitely the album on which Vader found its sound.

Debut album ‘The Ultimate Incantation’ was mostly a supercharged thrash metal record, which is a good thing, but it was awkwardly produced an Wiwczarek still sounded like any other grunter on the record. ‘De Profundis’ is the first showcase for his definitive voice, which is closer to a carnal, low pitched roar. He sounds commanding and full of character, which is why Wiwczarek is one of the few grunters I appreciate. Musically, Vader started enhancing their deeply thrash-rooted death metal with some more climactic or atmospheric songwriting reminiscent of a somewhat less pretentious – and therefore better – Morbid Angel.

Memorable riff writing is all over ‘De Profundis’. Everyone with a more than casual interest in death metal will immediately have the intro riffs to the likes of ‘Blood Of Kingu’ or ‘Sothis’ in their minds if you even so much as mention the titles. The latter is a masterclass in structuring a death metal song anyway; the way it moves from the pummeling mid-tempo intro to the increasingly faster sections in the middle of the song and back is dynamically very strong. The former is one of the slower tracks, built on a foundation of strong, moderately fast triplets that sound very driven and delightfully dark.

With ‘De Profundis’ being only 34 minutes long, there is not a whole lot of room for experimentation or sophistication, but the epic closing track ‘Reborn In Flames’ definitely does a good job highlighting different sides of Wiwczarek’s songwriting, while the strong opening track ‘Silent Empire’ manages to pack several different atmospheres and a large portion of riffs within only four minutes. ‘Vision And The Voice’ is a hidden gem, with its shifting rhythms and rare twin guitar middle section pushing it into borderline progressive territory, while ‘Revolt’ briefly flirts with black metal-inspired atmospheres.

Although I am not sure if I agree with the assessment that ‘De Profundis’ is the best Vader album – in my opinion, there are at least three albums equally deserving of that title – it is a fact that a lot of the elements that make Vader the band they are today first popped up on this great record. Personally, I am quite glad that happened without forsaking the band’s thrash-inspired riffing, as that is one of the factors that makes the band better than their peers for me. Anyone who likes their death metal fast and punishing will enjoy ‘De Profundis’, but so will anyone who likes some thought and depth put into the genre.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sothis’, ‘Silent Empire’, ‘Reborn In Flames’

Best of 2018: The Albums

In terms of music releases, 2018 was one of the strangest years in recent history. Save for a few notable peaks – in June and September most notably – there have not really been extended periods with lots of great releases. In fact, some of the trusted names have released quite disappointing albums. Record companies seem to slowly shift their focus towards reissues and live releases, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but I would have been happy if there was some more previously unheard material that blew me away during the year.

Nevertheless, there were two amazing albums this year that make an equal claim to the number one spot, both of them Japanese. In the end, I literally flipped a coin to decide the order of the first two records. Not unlike other recent years, many of the western artists in the lists are either relatively new bands that took me by considerable surprise or long-running bands that suddenly released a career highlight. That should be enough to still remain hopeful about the future of international heavy metal.

1. Onmyo-za – Hado Myoo

Despite all of Onmyo-za’s albums being of excellent quality, nothing could have prepared me for ‘Hado Myoo’. The album was darker and heavier than anyone could have expected – especially after the relatively lightweight single ‘Oka Ninpocho’ – but it still features the trademark melodic elegance that Onmyo-za is known for. During the album’s best moments, the contrast between Matatabi’s forceful sections and Kuroneko’s melancholic introspection really brings out the best of all sides of the band. Onmyo-za is one of the very few contemporary metal bands that scores 10/10 on riffs, melodies, structure, memorability and vocals simultaneously and ‘Hado Myoo’ is one of the brightest examples of that.

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

2. Saber Tiger – Obscure Diversity

Since around 2011, Saber Tiger has truly been on a roll. Their current line-up is probably the strongest they have ever had and their song material is nothing short of excellence, combining the powerful melodies and overall feel of eighties heavy metal with the impressive intricacy of contemporary progressive metal. With these elements, Saber Tiger has crafted a sound that is completely unique and ‘Obscure Diversity’ expands on that by being more complex and more accessible at the same time. There’s a perfect balance between aggression, musical craftsmanship and memorability on the album. While many modern metal albums sound clinical and soulless, Saber Tiger retains the passion that is so important to the genre.

Recommended tracks: ‘Distant Signals’, ‘Beat Of The War Drums’, ‘The Worst Enemy’

3. Witherfall – A Prelude To Sorrow

Despite being familiar with Jake Dreyer through Iced Earth and White Wizzard, his own band Witherfall really blew me away from out of nowhere. ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’ was the most pleasant surprise of the year. Dark, but not self-pitying. Complex, but not impenetrable. Melodic, but not powerless. Witherfall does just about everything right here. Joseph Michael’s vocal performance is the cherry on the cake. He has the subtle rasp of a young Halford, the drama of Bruce Dickinson and a higher register eerily similar to Crimson Glory’s Midnight. There’s so much to this album that I can see myself listening to it for many years to come. In a way, Witherfall fills the void left after the definitive end of Nevermore with their expertly composed, dark progressive metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘We Are Nothing’, ‘Moment Of Silence’, ‘Vintage’

4. The Magpie Salute – High Water I

Although The Black Crowes have always impressed me with their engaging combination of typically American music styles, the country influences got a little too prominent on their last few albums for my taste. Apparently guitarist and main songwriter Rich Robinson also thought so, because while the rootsy sounds are still there on ‘High Water I’, the debut studio album of his new band The Magpie Salute, the songs are mainly rooted in bluesy hardrock, while the acoustic songs are more folky in nature. Singer John Hogg is a revelation. His passionate voice is what really lifts the album above the level of its already impressive songwriting. The melodies and atmospheres are captivating. At this point, I honestly hope the rise of The Magpie Salute will not be stopped by a Crowes reunion.

Recommended tracks: ‘High Water’, ‘Open Up’, ‘For The Wind’

5. Warrel Dane – Shadow Work

Sure, Warrel Dane was in my top three favorite metal singers of all time, so it should not be too surprising that ‘Shadow Work’ is so good. But given the fact that he died during the recordings, it is remarkable how accomplished and well-arranged it sounds. It is essentially an unfinished record, but hardly does it ever sound like one. There’s a few moments where Warrel’s vocal lines are a little rough around the edges, but they give the album character rather than being distracting. The songs sound really good; they mainly display an even darker take on Nevermore’s formula. And one can hear that this has become a true labor of love for Dane’s Brazilian backing band. They play their hearts out below what is unfortunately Dane’s final farewell. It is a powerful one though!

Recommended tracks: ‘Madame Satan’, ‘Shadow Work’, ‘Mother Is The Word For God’

6. Voivod – The Wake

For years, the late Denis ‘Piggy’ D’Amour was deemed irreplacable. Martyr’s Daniel ‘Chewy’ Mongrain proved that nothing is impossible on the fantastic ‘Target Earth’ (2013) and now, ‘The Wake’ proves that was not just a fluke. The album steers slightly away from the technical thrash of ‘Killing Technology’ (1987) and more towards the futuristic, surprisingly relaxed progressive metal of ‘Nothingface’ (1989). ‘The Wake’ is an adventurous record that is likely to please any fan of mid-period Voivod, but is not simply copying the formula of those years. The songwriting on the album is simply too inventive and spontaneous for that. Many sections on the album even sound like improvised jams, which is highly unusual for a metal band. Then again, highly unusual is Voivod’s bread and butter!

Recommended tracks: ‘Always Moving’, ‘Sonic Mycelium’, ‘Spherical Perspective’

7. Asagi – Madara

While D is easily one of the better bands in the visual kei scene, I was not too sure if a solo album of their frontman Asagi was what I was waiting for. It turns out that he took the elements from what I consider D’s best songs – the ones that are more Asian folk-oriented – and turned that into the style for his full album. On a majority of the album, traditional instruments like the shamisen, the koto and several percussion instruments are enhanced by the distorted guitars rather than the overused other way around, resulting in an album that may be even better than D’s already consistently great discography. In addition, it is admirable how Asagi managed to make ‘Madara’ sound like a uniformous album despite the numerous contributions of high profile guest musicians.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hakumenkonmo Kyubi No Kitsune Hidama’, ‘Komo Sakura’, ‘Ooyama Inudake ~Tsukuyo Ni Hoeyu~’

8. Aria – Proklyatiye Morey

‘Gonka Za Slavoy’ is the single greatest song released last year. The rest of ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ is really good as well. In fact, ever since current (and best) singer Mikhail Zhitnyakov joined the band, Aria has been experiencing a bit of a rebirth. ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ is the third installment in a series of studio albums that is easily their best since their late eighties and early nineties heyday. In fact, ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ even finds the band branching out by treading their most progressive waters yet. Unlike some of the recent albums of their prime influence Iron Maiden, Aria manages to sound fresh and energetic throughout the album, however. The short, punchy songs are as good as the longer, proggy ones. If highly melodic old school heavy metal is your thing, ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ is an album you cannot afford to miss.

Recommended tracks: ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’, ‘Ot Zakata Do Rassveta’, ‘Zhivoy’, ‘Era Lucifera’

9. Angra – Ømni

Angra continues to release amazing records. And in true Angra fashion, ‘Ømni’ is different than anything they have ever done before. It is probably the album with the most pronounced Afro-Brazilian influences since their classic ‘Holy Land’ album. The best aspect about ‘Ømni’ is its versatility though. It is a progressive metal album with many different shades and faces. In fact, this is one of the few albums where I think “world metal” is a pretty good genre tag for it. Power metal is slightly less prominent than on ‘Secret Garden’ (2015), but that is hardly an issue here. Also, it is admirable how little of a difference the loss of long-time guitarist Kiko Loureiro makes. Marcelo Barbosa is an excellent replacement. I am fairly confident about Angra’s future at this point.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ømni – Silence Inside’, ‘Bottom Of My Soul’, ‘War Horns’

10. Alice In Chains – Rainier Fog

‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’ (2013) made me fear that Alice In Chains had gotten too comfortable with its own sound, but fortunately, ‘Rainier Fog’ proved me wrong. Sure, the twisted anguish of ‘Dirt’ (1992) has gone, although traces of it can still be heard occasionally. Naturally, the elements that make Alice In Chains the band people know and love are featured prominently on ‘Rainier Fog’. The dual lead vocal harmonies, the crushingly heavy riffs, the haunting minor key melodies and the melancholic ballads are all there. There is just a more spontaneous “let’s throw this against the wall and see if it sticks” vibe than before. Ultimately, what makes ‘Rainier Fog’ an above average Alice In Chains album is that the album contains some of the most memorable songs the Seattleites have written in a long time.

Recommended tracks: ‘All I Am’, ‘Rainier Fog’, ‘Deaf Ears Blind Eyes’, ‘Red Giant’

11. Myles Kennedy – Year Of The Tiger

Easily the greatest rock singer of his generation, the sound of Myles Kennedy’s solo album was surprising, to say the least. ‘Year Of The Tiger’ is an album rooted in acoustic guitars, but not in the pretentious singer-songwriter way of most rock singers. Instead, a large portion of the album has been written on resonator guitars, adding a sort of a country blues flavor to many of the songs. Of course, there is still the folky stuff such an acoustic approach tends to result in, but there is even some more powerful stuff here that would have been hardrock if the instrumentation had been different. The interaction between acoustic and electric instruments accounts for an album that is much more dynamic than one would expect. One of the surprise winners of 2018.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Great Beyond’, ‘Nothing But A Name’, ‘Blind Faith’

12. Amorphis – Queen Of Time

Without wanting to sound too petty in my clean vocal fundamentalism, ‘Queen Of Time’ may have been higher on my list if it didn’t feature so much grunting from Tomi Joutsen. Musically, ‘Queen Of Time’ is probably the most interesting, layered album Amorphis has released so far. The songs aren’t radically different from what they did before, but the songs are significantly enhanced by the use of several traditional instruments, which gives the songs a depth beyond the quality we have come to expect from the Finns. Some of the choruses just beg for Joutsen’s excellent clean vocals and get his – admittedly good – grunts instead. If that does not bother you, you could do a lot worse than the equally progressive and melodic as heavy and brutal stuff on ‘Queen Of Time’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Daughter Of Hate’, ‘Heart Of The Giant’, ‘The Golden Elk’

13. Lovebites – Clockwork Immortality

‘Awakening From Abyss’ was one of the two albums in last year’s coin toss. ‘Clockwork Immortality’ did not impress me quite as much upon first spin. After some time, the album sunk in though. I still think it lacks something the debut did have, but there are too many good songs on the album to dismiss it easily. Overall, ‘Clockwork Immortality’ is slightly more streamlined than the previous Lovebites releases, but there is still an abundance of excellent guitar work by Midori and Miyako and singer Asami is still one of the best female rock singers in Japan. After some spins, my idea is that better sequencing could have improved ‘Clockwork Immortality’, but that doesn’t take away the fact that there are some excellent power metal and hardrock songs on the record.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Final Collision’, ‘Addicted’, ‘M.D.O.’, ‘Pledge Of The Savior’

14. Navarone – Salvo

After the carefully arranged ‘Oscillation’, ‘Salvo’ finds Navarone aiming for the live energy that made them so good in the first place again. Stylistically, ‘Salvo’ combines some of the best rock music from the seventies and nineties, ending up sounding not too dissimilar to what Slash does with Myles Kennedy. Fresh, punchy songs with catchy choruses that don’t overstay their respective welcomes are all over ‘Salvo’. As always, the album proves that Navarone excels in writing smartly arranged rock songs that don’t sound like they have been labored over and the fantastic voice of Merijn van Haren ties it all together. Anyone who has once said that rock music is not what it used to be should certainly give ‘Salvo’ a spin. Unless you don’t like to be proven wrong of course.

Recommended tracks: ‘Mind’s Eye’, ‘Søreal’, ‘The Strong Survive’, ‘Another Way’

15. White Wizzard – Infernal Overdrive

Another one of those albums I was not expecting to like so much. To me, White Wizzard was always one of those retro bands that rightfully had to settle for opening act status. Occasionally fun, but ultimately lacking in the songwriting department. ‘Infernal Overdrive’ prove me wrong. Gone are the days of blindly aping influences – though closing track ‘The Illusion’s Tears’ has its moments – and in its place, we have a bunch of excellent contemporary heavy metal songs with some delicious guitar work. Even singer Wyatt Anderson has improved significantly. Most of the longer songs feature a ton of engaging stuff as well. I had hoped for this to be the start of a bright future, but unfortunately, White Wizzard called it quits a few months after the album’s release.

Recommended tracks: ‘Metamorphosis’, ‘Pretty May’, ‘Chasing Dragons’