Posts Tagged ‘ Hardrock ’

Album of the Week 28-2020: Hedvig Mollestad – Ekhidna

What Hedvig Mollestad does with her own trio – blending Sabbathian stoner rock grooves with jazzy improvisations – is already impressive, but I was not prepared for the genius of ‘Ekhidna’. While the seventies rock riffs are still everywhere, Mollestad and her five companions dial the jazz factor way up, resulting in one of the greatest guitar fusion albums I have heard in a long time. ‘Ekhidna’ is an exciting album full of amazing musical interaction that sounds like it could have been released fifty years ago. It would still have been worthy competition for the likes of Return To Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Probably the main aspect to set ‘Ekhidna’ apart from the Hedvig Mollestad Trio albums is the instrumentation. Instead of a power trio, ‘Ekhidna’ has been recorded by a six-piece band including two keyboard players, a trumpeter, a percussionist, a drummer and no bassist. This provided Mollestad with a completely different sonic palette than usual to work with. Especially the interactions between Mollestad’s guitar and Susana Santos Silva’s trumpet are characteristic and inspired, although the rhythm section creates interesting textures as well. The compositions and arrangements are often quite dense, almost like the instruments are fighting for their space, but not unlistenable so. Far from it.

If you want to hear that particular style in full force, the best track to start with is easily ‘Antilone’.  The track is built upon a busy, jumpy riff that goes through multiple time signature changes, while drummer Torstein Lofthues holds down the tight groove. ‘A Stone’s Throw’ is the most seventies fusion track of the bunch. The main riff sounds like it could have been on a relatively adventurous hardrock record, had it not been doubled by the electric pianos. The unisono lead guitar and trumpet leads and dynamics are amazing as well. And those who like Mollestad’s bluesy exploits may want to start out with the somewhat Hendrixian title track, though the tail-end is full of abstract improvisations.

Brilliant instrumental records cannot be at full force all the time and fortunately, dynamics are very prominent on ‘Ekhidna’. The short ‘Slightly Lighter’ is just that, with Mollestad’s clean guitar evoking the spirit of Bill Frisell. Closing track ‘One Leaf Left’ is another more subdued track and easily the most jazzy moment on the record, though the haunting atmosphere of the track has more in common with psychedelic rock. It does get a little harder-hitting during its latter half, but nowhere near as borderline aggressive as some of the other tracks.

Like the best fusion albums, ‘Ekhidna’ sounds like a hard rock band playing jazz rather than the other way around. The rhythms are complex and playful, but never forget their task of solidifying the foundation. Hard. That is hardly the only reason why ‘Ekhidna’ is such a great album, however. The compositions are great, the jams are inspired and sonically, it creates a world that is hard to escape if you’re into realitvely heavy fusion or relatively adventurous hardrock. It’s easy to understand why Mollestad chose not to release this with her usual trio, but the spirit is equal. One of the greatest releases of the year so far.

Recommended tracks: ‘Antilone’, ‘A Stone’s Throw’, ‘Ekhidna’

Album of the Week 16-2020: Accept – The Rise Of Chaos

Despite liking the Mark Tornillo-fronted era of Accept, ‘The Rise Of Chaos’ kind of passed me by initially. Looking back, the inconsistency of its predecessor ‘Blind Rage’ combined with the promise of a somewhat more straightforward album and a few bouts of extreme lyrical simplicity in the preview tracks probably contributed to that. That was clearly a mistake. First of all, complexity was never Accept’s forte and while I love ‘Stalingrad: Brothers In Death’ for its melodic depth, ultimately one just wants to hear Accept pound out ballsy, effective heavy metal. As such, ‘The Rise Of Chaos’ is a triumph.

Most of the adjecives associated with Accept – solid, dependable, workmanlike – can be interpreted as both positive and negative. ‘The Rise Of Chaos’ will not do much to change whichever interpretation you adhere to. Musically, this is exactly what one would expect: simple, powerful riffs, raw lead vocals, gang chants, Wolf Hoffmann’s classically-inspired guitar solos… Just like Accept always has been. The album is distinguished by its atmosphere, however. It’s not defiant and euphoric like ‘Stalingrad’, neither is it quite as melancholic and dynamic as ‘Blind Rage’. Instead, there is an undercurrent of disillusionment and nostalgia running through most of the songs.

This does not mean Accept has gone all reflective on ‘The Rise Of Chaos’. The main mission of the band is clearly to still churn out a bunch of fist-pumpers that are easy to sing along. It just means that even the simplest tracks are not quite the party anthems that the likes of ‘Balls To The Wall’ were. The social observations in the lyrics generally have the depth of a puddle, but there is a larger number of outright minor key guitar riffs this time around to greatly enhance that atmosphere. Even while you’re shouting along the title of opening track ‘Die By The Sword’.

It helps that Accept has Mark Tornillo singing these days. He has the same shrieky approach as Udo Dirkschneider, but he is better able to carry an actual melody. His voice truly gives songs like ‘Worlds Colliding’, closing track ‘Race To Extinction’ and pensive album highlight ‘Koolaid’ an extra shot of emotional depth. The latter fits alongside lower-key, more melodic latter day Accept songs like ‘Shadow Soldiers’ and ‘The Curse’ nicely. Those who prefer to hear Accept in their simple, pounding glory need not worry: the likes of ‘No Regrets’, ‘What’s Done Is Done’ and the aforementioned ‘Die By The Sword’ should still be more than satisfactory.

Even though it is subtle, the greater degree of melodic sophistication really make ‘The Rise Of Chaos’ a more worthwhile album than ‘Blind Rage’, which was an album of highlights rather than an album with a pleasant, continuous flow. Only the cringeworthy lyrics of the somewhat too straightforward ‘Analog Man’ make me reach for the skip button at times, but as a whole, ‘The Rise Of Chaos’ is an excellent latter day Accept record. There are not many classic metal bands that release material that is at least on par with their heyday material these days, but Accept is one of the best examples of how to do it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Koolaid’, ‘No Regrets’, ‘Race To Extinction’, ‘Die By The Sword’

Tools for Discovery: Aria albums ranked

Yesterday, I informed you about the release of the Aria documentary ‘Behind The Shadow Kingdom‘. This documentary serves as an excellent introduction to the band’s material, but those of you who can’t read Russian, but still would like to dig deeper into the band’s material, may want some help. In the near future, I will publish a show & tell list of my favorite songs, but let’s start with ranking their albums. I am by no means an expert, but I love the band and have been following for a while and these are all of Aria’s album in what I consider least to most enjoyable. I consciously went for that choice of words, as “worst to best” would suggest a great difference in quality, while I think most of these are very well worth your time.

Interestingly, at the time I started writing this article, I had no idea what the outcome would be myself. My number one was a surprise even to myself until the list was finished. The simple fact is that Aria has a ridiculously consistent discography and most of these albums are worth owning if you are a fan of traditional heavy metal. And if you need a sample on an album that strikes you as interesting, each of them – except for the Artur Berkut-fronted albums – are available through platforms like iTunes and Spotify.

There are no strict rules for this list, except that it’s studio albums only and I try to include a limited number of songs as recommendations. Especially the higher ranking titles could really have most of their songs listed. Or all, in case of the number 1…

13. S Kem Ti? (1986)

Since Alik Granovsky and Andrey Bolshakov wrote all the material on ‘S Kem Ti?’, it would be tempting to say that Aria’s sophomore album is practically Master’s first album. At the time, however, both Aria and Master could do better than this. ‘S Kem Ti?’ is melodically lacking. ‘Volya I Razum’ and ‘Zdes’ Kuyut Metall’ became classics of the early Russian metal scene, but they also both could have a minute trimmed off the end. There are some cool songs on ‘S Kem Ti?’, but overall the album somehow shows Aria more confused about their identity than on the debut album. Ultimately the best thing about ‘S Kem Ti?’ is its cover.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ikar’, ‘Vstan’, Strah Preodoley’

12. Generator Zla (1998)

‘Generator Zla’ is a frustrating album. Again, it is a below average Aria album with an awesome cover, but contrary to ‘S Kem Ti?’, ‘Generator Zla’ does have a few songs that rank among Aria’s best. The particularly Maiden-esque ‘Obman’ has rightfully become a live staple for the band, ‘Smotri!’ is an enjoyable opener and I love the dirty hardrock grind of ‘Gryaz’. It’s just that many of the songs here have good moments rather than being great all the way through. Also, mildly altering the track order may have fixed some of the sequencing issues the album has. None of the last three tracks is bad by any means, but they could really have used being broken up by one or two more traditional metal tracks.

Recommended tracks: ‘Obman’, ‘Grayz’, ‘Smotri!’

11. Armageddon (2006)

‘Amageddon’ is without a doubt the most modern-sounding Aria album to date. The album has a distinct contemporary power metal vibe, including the appropriate production, and while the band manages that style quite well, they also sacrifice a bit of their identity in the process. It is a very consistent album, which is admirable, but also in the sense that much of it goes by in a bit of a blur. That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to enjoy here. Especially the first half of the album has a bunch of songs with excellent melodies, ‘Krov’ Koroley’ is a classic Iron Maiden-styled epic and closer ‘Tvoy Dyen’, Artur Berkut’s sole songwriting contribution to Aria’s discography, is a refreshing melodic hardrock track.

Recommended tracks: ‘Strazh Imperii’, ‘Krov’ Koroley’, ‘Pozledniy Zakat’

10. Maniya Velichiya (1985)

Back when Aria debuted, there wasn’t really much of a Soviet metal scene to speak of or any template to follow. As a result, there is a freedom and spontaneity to ‘Maniya Velichiya’ that none of their other albums have. Vladimir Holstinin and Alik Granovsky just wrote what they thought was good. The drawback would be that ‘Maniya Velichiya’ lacks consistency, but even that is not much of a problem here. Aria had a great singer, a great guitarist and a bunch of interesting songs. ‘Torero’ is so good that it hurts. Although Aria was still in search of the identity that fit them best here, ‘Maniya Velichiya’ does an excellent job introducing Aria, though it does run out of steam a bit during the second half.

Recommended tracks: ‘Torero’, ‘Bivny Chërnih Skal’, ‘Eto Rok’

9. Kresheniye Ognëm (2003)

With a largely new line-up in place – only founding guitarist Vladimir Holstinin and bassist Vitaly Dubinin remained – ‘Kresheniye Ognëm’ is something of a second debut album for Aria – or third, if you count ‘Geroy Asfalta’ as the second. It has many of the same strengths and flaws as ‘Maniya Velichiya’ as well. ‘Kreseniye Ognëm’ is quite likely the most frontloaded album in Aria history. It starts out with a bunch of excellent songs that really support the legitimacy of an Aria without their legendary singer Valery Kipelov. It just fails to maintain momentum during the second half of the record. The album is somewhat underproduced to a fault as well. Artur Berkut is often described as the band’s worst singer and while he certainly is less impressive than the singers who preceded and followed him, he does a more than admirable job here. He sounds powerful and convincing.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kolizey’, ‘Kresheniye Ognëm’, ‘Patriot’

8. Himera (2001)

Often singled out as the album on which Aria started to fall apart, as no less than three members would depart the band after its release, ‘Himera’ is actually much better than the circumstances would suggest. It does suffer from some consistency issues, but when ‘Himera’ is good, it is excellent. I used to think that the ballads far outshone the more metallic tracks on the album – and, truth be told, ‘Oskolok L’da’ and especially ‘Shtil’ are simply excellent – the harder material grew on me significantly. ‘Goryachaya Strela’ and the title tracks are fantastic heavy metal songs that I always liked, but recently, I have also really come to like the powerful melodic rocker ‘Put’ V Nikuda’ and the majestic epic ‘Tebye Dadut Znak’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Goryachaya Strela’, ‘Tebye Dadut Znak, ‘Shtil’

7. Noch’ Koroche Dnya (1995)

Created in a time of inner turmoil, with both guitarist Sergey Mavrin and singer Valery Kipelov leaving the band – though the latter would return before the album was recorded – it is something of a miracle that ‘Noch Koroche Dnya’ came out as well as it did. While it lacks the consistency of the three classics that preceded it, the highlights are every bit as good. ‘Angelskaya Pil’ is one of the best power ballads Aria ever recorded, ‘Duh Voyni’ and the title track are classic Aria in all their Maiden-esque glory, ‘Rabstvo Illusiy’ is one of my favorite Aria openers and ‘Korol’ Dorogi’ is an energetic masterpiece. That cover is an eyesore though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Korol’ Dorogi’, ‘Duh Voyni’, ‘Angelskaya Pil’, ‘Robstvo Illusiy’

6. Proklyatiye Morey (2018)

To be fair, an album that starts with an opening track as mind-blowing as ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’ could be totally uninspired otherwise and still manage to make a positive impression. Fortunately, there are many more good tracks on ‘Proklyatiye Morey’. The mix of long progressive tracks and shorter, punchier songs is in many ways reminiscent of Iron Maiden’s latter-day work, though it has to be said that Aria consists of less formulaic songwriters. Speaking of songwriting, Sergey Popov continues to prove himself a valuable addition to the songwriting team, having written several of the album’s highlights. ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ is slightly less consistent than the other Mikhail Zhitnyakov-fronted albums, but much better than any band in this stage of its career could wish to be.

Recommended tracks: ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’, ‘Ot Zakata Do Rassveta’, ‘Zhivoy’, ‘Ubit’ Drakona’

5. Igra S Ognëm (1989)

Out of all the classic Aria albums, ‘Igra S Ognëm’ is the darkest-sounding. Apart from the slighly too upbeat closer ‘Day Zharu’, all the songs on ‘Igra S Ognëm’ have a disillusioned, at times even melancholic feel. It also has the largest number of songs of which I constantly forget how great they are, possibly due to the fact that the album is often relatively poorly represented on the band’s setlists. The nine-minute title track is a masterpiece and ‘Raskachayem Etot Mir’ a crowd pleaser, but the aggressive defiance of the likes of ‘Boy Prodolzhayetsya’ and opener ‘Chto Vi Sdelali S Vashey Mechtoy’ should not be forgotten either, just like the hopeful, yet still fairly melancholic ‘Rab Straha’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Boy Prodolzhayetsya’, ‘Igra S Ognëm’, ‘Chto Vi Sdelali S Vashey Mechtoy’, ‘Rab Straha’

4. Krov’ Za Krov’ (1991)

‘Krov’ Za Krov” is one of those Aria albums on which just about every song became a classic. It is bookended by two of the greatest songs Aria ever released, but there is more than enough to enjoy in the intervening thirty minutes. The darkness of ‘Antichrist’ is quite unusual among Aria’s discography, but it works exceptionally well. And though Valery Kipelov refused to perform the song live due to a combination of his christian beliefs and fans misinterpreting the message of the song, it is one of his best recorded performances to date. The title track is another great epic, though it falls somewhat short compared to ‘Igra S Ognëm’, while ‘Ne Hochesh’ – Ne Ver’ Mne’ is one of the hidden gems in the band’s repertoire.

Recommended tracks: ‘Proshay, Norfolk!’, ‘Sleduy Za Mnoy!’, ‘Ne Hochesh’ – Ne Ver’ Mne’

3. Cheryez Vse Vremena (2014)

If the first Mikhail Zhitnyakov-fronted album rekindled Aria’s fire, its follow-up stokes it even further. On ‘Cheryez Vse Vremena’, Aria sounds more confident and energetic than ever. And they’re not exactly shy about it either, as the title track is one of the most propulsive opening tracks the band ever had. The whole album manages to retain the traditional metal feel that has basically become synonymous with Aria, but also sounds relevant and contemporary in the 21st century. Sergey Popov really establishes himself as a reliable songwriter on this record, having written three songs, including ‘Gorod’, a top three Aria song for yours truly. There is undeniable chemistry between the current members of Aria and that propels ‘Cheryez Vse Vremena’ into greatness.

Recommended tracks: ‘Gorod’, ‘Cheryez Vse Vremena’, ‘Angeli Nyeba’

2. Feniks (2011)

All obvious references to the titular character aside, ‘Feniks’ does really mark a triumphant return to form for Aria. It takes the contemporary productional approach of its predecessor ‘Armageddon’ and injects that into the traditional heavy metal compositions Aria is known for. Vitaly Dubinin really worked his ass off to make ‘Feniks’ count and it works. It has some of the greatest Aria songs to date and a singer that can carry them. After all, ‘Feniks’ was current singer Mikhail Zhitnyakov’s debut with Aria and his power, range and theatrical delivery immediately made him my favorite Aria singer. All the powerful riffs and guitar harmonies you could ever want are in these expertly crafted songs.

Recommended tracks: ‘Boi Bez Pravil’, ‘Chërny Kvadrat’, ‘Dalniy Svet’

1. Geroy Asfalta (1987)

By today’s standards, ‘Geroy Asfalta’ would qualify as an EP, with its six songs and barely half an hour of run time. Its brevity works in its favor, however. ‘Geroy Asfalta’ is truly one of those “all killer, no filler” affairs. I could spend ages signifying its importance for the Soviet metal scene, but the most important fact is that ‘Geroy Asfalta’ is an expertly written and performed heavy metal album. Bassist Vitaly Dubinin debuts on the album and immediately leaves his mark on the songwriting department. That also means that the Iron Maiden influence is dialed way up, but I also think the accusations of plagiarism are largely exaggerated – save for maybe the solo section of ‘Na Sluzhbe Sili Zla’. ‘Geroy Asfalta’ was the deserved breakthrough for Aria and still ranks as their most influential album.

Recommended tracks: ‘1100’, ‘Ballada O Drevnerusskom Voine’, ‘Mërtvaya Zona’

Album of the Week 15-2020: Dool – Summerland

Three years ago, debut album ‘Here Now, There Then’ by the Rotterdam-based band Dool took me completely by surprise. While it’s not uncommon for dark rock bands to nail the atmosphere associated with the scene, Dool actually has the songwriting chops and the exquisitely arranged guitar tapestries to completely ditch the retro-feel and go for something timeless instead. Follow-up ‘Summerland’ is every bit as good, containing a familiar-sounding, yet fairly original mix of gothic rock, post-punk and doom metal that is equal parts atmospheric and powerful. It might just be the best goth-ish album since Fields Of The Nephilim’s masterpiece ‘Elizium’ thirty years ago.

Compared to its predecessor, ‘Summerland’ sounds significantly more clean and open. There is slightly less doom metal this time around and the tracks are a little more song-oriented rather than riff-driven, but that does not mean the atmosphere is any less ominous and oppressive than on the debut album. If anything, the atmosphere is enhanced even more. Dool seems to be very aware of its identity this time around and while the range of styles on ‘Summerland’ is still pretty wide, the album is remarkably cohesive and has a spectacular flow, owing to the perfect build-up of tension and release.

If there is one thing that stands out about ‘Summerland’, it would be how much the melodies stick, which is quite unusual for a style that largely relies on atmosphere. Dool proves that memorability does not have to go at the expense of the atmospheric qualities of the music. The brooding ‘God Particle’, the slow and moving title track and the excellent opener ‘Sulphur & Starlight’ all have melodies that will stay with you long after the album has finished, although none of these tracks is accessible in a traditional sense, except for maybe the latter.

Another beneficial aspect of ‘Summerland’ is the sheer amount of variation, even within some songs. ‘Be Your Sins’, for instance, is probably the most riffy, uptempo song on the record, even evolving into a modest gallop, but also has a gorgeous, mellotron-esque keyboard arrangement during its second verse. ‘Summerland’ itself is largely a slow crawl and fairly subdued, until it eventually moves into a grand lead guitar finale, followed by a piano and acoustic guitar epilogue. ‘Ode To The Future’ is a tad lighter, but firmly holds on to the minor key, while the crushing doomy closer ‘Dust & Shadow’ appears to come in waves. Simply brilliant.

When it comes to production and arrangements, ‘Summerland’ is a triumph as well. Every part sounds exactly as it should sound and guitar duo Ryanne van Dorst and Nick Polak know exactly when they should and should not play. The former has made a massive improvement as a singer as well. And ‘Here Now, There Then’ wasn’t exactly lacking in the vocal department anyway. Dool is a fantastic newcomer in the dark rock scene and to be honest, I think they leave most of the competition in the dust. They are not a contrived eighties retro act: they are a band with a sound inspired by those days and, more importantly, an incredible set of songs.

Recommended tracks: ‘God Particle’, ‘Sulphur & Starlight’, ‘Summerland’

Album of the Week 14-2020: Saxon – Lionheart

Following the departure of original guitarist Graham Oliver, Saxon gradually grew into too much of a German-styled power metal band. This is not to discredit his follow-up Doug Scarratt, who is probably the best musician to ever play with the band, but the beefy, modern production jobs on their later albums don’t quite carry the charm of their earlier works, which were very much reminiscent of the time when hardrock and heavy metal weren’t actually seperate things yet. There is one exception to this rule however: 2004’s ‘Lionheart’, an album which is still bombastic, but also has the dynamics of early Saxon.

Upon first glance, ‘Lionheart’ is not that much of a departure from the other twenty-first century Saxon albums. This is quite obviously a Charlie Bauerfeind production, with the guitars sounding crispy clear and the drums sounding huge. ‘Lionheart’ just feels less like Saxon going through the motions than many of their other recent albums. There are some ambitious tracks that undoubtedly are inspired by the possibilities modern studio technology gave the Brits, but there are also some more triaditional hardrock and heavy metal riffs to be heard this time around. And most of the choruses actually stick without trying too hard.

The song that initially attracted my attention was the title track of the album, a work that is quite progressive by Saxon standards. It is not very common for Saxon to play around with the time feel of songs, especially not to slow down for the chorus. The normal time feel of the verses contrasts nicely with the stomping nature of the half time feel that transforms the chorus into a chant, while the use of clean guitars and interesting chord work further enhances the song. Biff Byford’s vocal performance also counts as one of the most commanding in his career.

‘Lionheart’ contains significantly more enjoyable material, however. ‘English Man ‘O’ War’ is easily one of the most traditional Saxon songs in ages, while ‘Man And Machine’ is an equally uncomplicated stomper that will appeal to old school metalheads. The driving triplet riffs and rhythms that carry ‘To Live By The Sword’ are engaging enough to forgive the cliché lyrics of the chorus, especially considering the sublime harmonies that sing them. The intense midtempo stomper ‘Justice’ – another track with a chorus that opens up the entire song – is one of the most underrated gems in Saxon history and the aggressive speed metal of ‘Witchfinder General’ is the perfect opener.

At the time, the bland single ‘Beyond The Grave’ was a little misleading, as ‘Lionheart’ is without a doubt my favorite Saxon album of the current century. ‘Lionheart’ is not even a decent album with a few standout tracks, as many recent albums by bands that have been around a long time seem to be. While many traditional bands who tend to keep it simple embarrass themselves when they attempt quasi-progressive tracks, even ‘Searching For Atlantis’ is enjoyable enough. If I were to suggest a Saxon album to get familiar with them, I’d still go with ‘Strong Arm Of The Law’ or ‘Power & The Glory’, but fans of traditional heavy metal could do a lot worse than ‘Lionheart’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Lionheart’, ‘Justice’, ‘To Live By The Sword’

Album of the Week 13-2020: Hibiki – Hands Of Providence

Anyone with a more than casual interest in Japanese metal has undoubtedly heard at least one album that hibiki plays on. Ever since his virtuosic playing first rose to prominence in the progressive power metal band Light Bringer, he has become one of the most in-demand bassists of the Japanese rock and metal scene. Possibly due to his fantastic playing, however, his compositional skills don’t quite get the praise they deserve. His first solo album ‘Hands Of Providence’ may just change that. These are all melodic, expertly written songs in which technicality does not go at the expense of memorability.

Despite being written by a bassist, ‘Hands Of Providence’ is not as bass virtuoso-oriented as one might expect. Most of the songs have a distinctly neoclassical vibe that is most clearly carried by the guitars, which are handled by hibiki’s Silex bandmate Masha, NoGoD’s Kyrie and – on three tracks – hibiki himself. It would not be unreasonable to expect something along the lines of Light Bringer’s best album ‘Scenes Of Infinity’, on which hibiki was the main songwriter. But while the albums are stylistically similar, ‘Hands Of Providence’ is more varied and somewhat less vocal-oriented.

‘Hands Of Providence’ seems to be divided into two distinct halves, with the bass-only instrumental fugue ‘Observing Inner Space’ acting as a bit of an act break. The first half contains neoclassical power metal which occasionally brings hibiki’s Light Bringer days to mind, most prominently in the hyper-melodic ‘The Wavering Night’, although it reminded me most of Concerto Moon’s early work. ‘Inside The Scream’ or ‘Traveller In Space’ would not have sounded out of place on any of the Takao Ozaki-fronted Concerto Moon albums, which means they’re full of virtuosic neoclassical playing, but are still memorable. The hopeful ‘Sonic Divine’ is the perfect introduction to the album.

Later on, the album gets somewhat more experimental, most notably on the melodic J-rocker ‘Enter Eternity’. The main riff of the song brings to mind Kiryu’s ‘Kyoka Suigetsu’ and Dir En Grey’s ‘Yokan’, but with a completely different vocal approach – former Saber Tiger singer Yoko Kubota is still in great shape – and some tasteful keyboards added to the mix. ‘Evoke/Emancipate’ is a modern, surprisingly heavy instrumental with mildly dissonant chords and exellent interaction between hibiki, Kyrie and drummer Akira Uehara. After the aching piano-led power ballad ‘Believe And Listen’, hibiki returns to melodic neoclassical hardrock once more with the excellent ‘Children Of The Sun’ before the album is over.

While the cast of musicians on ‘Hands Of Providence’ would already be enough to make me curious about the album, with one of the most interesting visual kei guitarists contributing as well as two musicians from the Saber Tiger family tree – though they never played in the band simultaneously – what really counts is the songs. On ‘Hands Of Providence’, hibiki proves to be something even more important than an incredibly skilled bassist: an excellent songwriter. There are a few moments of virtuosity here and there, but the real stars on the album are hibiki’s melodies. Highly recommended if you like your metal ultra-melodic and neoclassical.

Recommended tracks: ‘Inside The Scream’, ‘Sonic Divine’, ‘Enter Eternity’

Album of the Week 12-2020: Badlands – Voodoo Highway

Supergroups really worth anything are rare, but Badlands definitely was one. It may help that hardly any of the band members were household names to the rock audience at large, with only guitarist Jake E. Lee having a high profile gig fulfilling the thankless task of replacing Randy Rhoads in Ozzy Osbourne’s band for five years. Alleged behind the scenes bickering aside, when Lee and his band mates clicked, the results were magical. Their self-titled debut album was a good album and a moderate success, but also slightly too polished for its own good. ‘Voodoo Highway’ feels more like something they truly wanted to do.

Overall, the elements making up Badlands’ music are not radically different from their debut. The elements demanding most of the attention are still Lee’s playful riffs – which appears to be his focus rather than his sizeable lead guitar skills – and the marvellous vocals by Ray Gillen. His characteristic, powerful howl still remains part of the upper echelon of rock vocals almost three decades after his early death. It’s just that ‘Voodoo Highway’ has a much more rootsy swagger than the debut. The album sounds direct and deliberately underproduced. And all the better for it.

Nowhere more is the rootsy, stripped-down approach more obvious than on the country blues dobro stomp that is the title track, the sparse gospel blues of closer ‘In A Dream’ and the brief instrumental ‘Joe’s Blues’.  But it can certainly be heard on the harder rocking tracks as well. If the production was left in the hands of Paul O’Neill, who handled the first album, tracks like ‘Shine On’, ‘Show Me the Way’ and the James Taylor cover ‘Fire And Rain’ would probably have been glossed up significantly. The power of ‘Voodoo Highway’ as a whole, however, lies in the raw, spontaneous manner in which these songs were captured.

As a result, the hooks on ‘Voodoo Highway’ are slightly less immediate than on the debut, but after hearing the album a couple of times, it is just about impossible to get tracks like the incredibly powerful opener ‘The Last Time’, the groovy strut of ‘Whiskey Dust’ and the exciting uptempo rocker ‘Silver Horses’ out of your head. It also feels like the band is allowed to let loose just a little bit more this time around, resulting in fiery, harder-than-average rocking tracks like ‘Heaven’s Train’ and the ripping bluesrocker ‘Soul Stealer’.

Ultimately, the legacy of Badlands was cut short by a combination of inner turmoil, a changing music business landscape and the AIDS-related death of Gillen, basically ending the songwriting partnership between him and Lee. Fans of gutsy rock music with beyond incredible vocals still have ‘Voodoo Highway’ to enjoy, however. It is easily one of the best albums of its kind and era, when most eighties hardrock bands either ceased to exist or tried to force themselves down the Seattle-styled path their managements and record labels demanded from them. The songs are fantastic, the musicianship fluent and natural and the album simply aged really well.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Last Time’, ‘Silver Horses’, ‘Heaven’s Train’

Album of the Week 11-2020: Onmyo-za – Hyakki-Ryoran

Only a year had passed between the releases of Onmyo-za’s debut album ‘Kikoku Tensho’ and sophomore record ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the massive improvement the latter is over the former. Where the debut had promising, but largely underdeveloped material, ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ features some of the best music the band has released to date. While it is significantly more polished than its predecessor, it is also one of the most traditionally metallic albums Onmyo-za put out, if the cover did not give that away already. Likely the best Onmyo-za album for conservative metalheads to start with.

Unlike the album cover, however, ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ isn’t just hellish aggression. In true Onmyo-za fashion, it is in perfect balance with melody, atmosphere and inventive songwriting. Those who have known Onmyo-za from after they broke through with ‘Koga Ninpocho’ might be surprised how the band sounds here. It’s still obviously the same band, with their core sound of traditional heavy metal riffs, subtle Japanese folk touches and the excellent vocal duo of Kuroneko and band leader Matatabi in perfect form. The songs are just slightly longer and notably more complex, while there is somewhat more room for influences from thrash and doom metal.

‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ starts out with my favorite Onmyo-za song. ‘Shiki Wo Karumono’ is largely a fairly conventional speed metal song with incredible guitar riffs, though the ominous semi-spoken – though somehow harmonic – intro and the horror-like mood it sets grant the track a unique atmosphere. Fans of speedy, traditional-sounding heavy metal with subtle progressive touches are relatively well off with ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ anyway, with ‘Gekai Ninpocho’ and ‘Tenkyoin Kuruito Kuruwa’ being on the album as well. ‘Teito Makaitan’ was the band’s most aggressive track up until this album, even featuring growled vocals in the verses, but also a supremely melodic and catchy chorus.

When Onmyo-za slows down on this album, however, the full extent of their class is shown. ‘Ayako’, for example, is a masterpiece. While the track is devoid of tranquil sections and even features a twisted, unsettling middle section, the elegiac melodies that dominate the songs are enough for me to qualify it as the band’s first fanastic ballad. The actual ballad ‘Yagamu Tsuki’ is no slouch either, however, and features some of Kuroneko’s most powerful, emotional vocal work to date. On the other end of the slower spectrum, there is ‘Nurikabe’, the band’s first full-blown doom metal track, which would not have sounded out of place on a Ningen Isu record, had it not been for the mildly dissonant middle section and the superior vocal work.

Since ‘Shiki Wo Karumono’ – along with ‘Nemuri’ from the ‘Mugen Hoyo’ record – was the song that made me fall in love with Onmyo-za, ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ was sort of an introductory Onmyo-za record to me. It may very well be the best album to serve as such for metalheads who are curious about the band, but not that familiar with all the tropes of the Japanese metal scene. ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ could not have come from another country, but has enough metallic characteristics to sound not too alien for western metalheads. It is their first amazing album, from the tightened songwriting the the unbelievable improvement Tora’s drumming went through. A must-hear for anyone.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shiki Wo Karumono’, ‘Teito Makaitan’, ‘Ayako’, ‘Tenkyoin Kuruito Kuruwa’

Album of the Week 04-2020: Rush – A Farewell To Kings

Late seventies Rush has always had a great reputation among fans of progressive rock and metal. And not without reason. Rush managed to inject all the clever twists and melodic touches that the likes of Genesis and Jethro Tull had into their music without ever losing the heavy, Led Zeppelin-esque force that so many progressive bands sacrificed in the process of making their music less immediate. To me, ‘A Farewell To Kings’ is the Canadian trio’s crowning achievement, because it manages to strike a balance between all the elements that make them the band they are unlike any other of their albums.

After a bunch of great short, punchy songs, but underdeveloped and meandering epics on ‘Caress Of Steel’ and possibly the best side-long song of the seventies followed by a handful of largely unremarkable shorter tracks on ‘2112’, ‘A Farewell To Kings’ finally gets everything right. The long songs are a bit shorter this time around, though there are still two that pass the 10 minute mark, which causes the band to sound a tad more focused than before. Where in the past, the band’s amazing performances pushed some of the less remarkable passages over the edge, ‘A Farewell To Kings’ is tight and powerful all the way through.

On the shorter side of the spectrum, ‘Closer To The Heart’ is probably the first truly radio-friendly song the band ever recorded. It is done on their own terms, however. Built upon twelve string acoustic strumming by Alex Lifeson and containing several changes in dynamics, it is barely believable that the track is under three minutes long. So is ‘Madrigal’, which is more folky in approach and brings to mind ‘A Trick Of The Tail’ era Genesis. ‘Cinderella Man’ is a more typical Rush song somewhat in line with ‘Lakeside Park’ from ‘Caress Of Steel’.

The powerful opening track is the middle ground on ‘A Farewell To Kings’. It is not as concise as the aforementioned songs, but it also is not a big, sweeping epic. There are some powerful riffs in the track and some of Geddy Lee’s most impressive vocal work to date: it’s still high-pitched, but full of passion. One of my favorite Rush songs. The same can be said about the following ‘Xanadu’, which tells the tale of an immortal man descending into madness both musically and lyrically in a highly dynamic 11-minute track. The other long song, closer ‘Cygnus X-1’, is slightly more fragmented, but such a masterpiece of progrock musicianship and massive riffs, that it is easy to forgive the band.

In hindsight, ‘A Farewell To Kings’ can be seen as a transitional effort between Rush’s more proggy early days and their more accessible work that started with ‘Permanent Waves’. But of course, it is not that black and white, if only because ‘Hemispheres’ was released in the intervening years. I do have the feeling that it often gets overlooked due to being sandwiched between ‘2112’ and ‘Hemispheres’, both of which have huge, sprawling epics, but in fact, it is my favorite Rush album. Sadly, Neil Peart’s death three weeks ago means that they will never top it.

Recommended tracks: ‘A Farewell To Kings’, ‘Xanadu’, ‘Cygnus X-1’

Album of the Week 43-2019: Ningen Isu – Ogon No Yoake

‘Ogon No Yoake’ is the album on which Ningen Isu matured. That may be a dirty word for some rock bands, but Ningen Isu finally realizes its full potential here. Their debut EP and first two albums contained plenty of excellent songs, but also showed that the band wasn’t quite sure what their strengths were. By contrast, Ningen Isu sounds confident and powerful throughout the full running time of ‘Ogon No Yoake’. It might just still be their best-produced album to date, which helps them sound more professional, while the increased bottom end increases the impact of their riffs and rhythms.

While most Japanese hardrock and metal bands stand out due to spotless songwriting, the musical interaction is what truly elevates Ningen Isu’s songs beyond their compositorical greatness. Ningen Isu is obviously influenced by the heavier end of seventies progressive rock and gladly injects the jam-heavy nature of the likes of Rush into their Sabbathian grooves. Guitarist Shinji Wajima, bassist Kenichi Suzuki and drummer Noriyoshi Kamidate are on fire when they need to be – just listen to the busy rhythms of ‘Wa, Gan De Nebega’ – but also are more than willing to show restraint when the music asks for it.

Ningen Isu is often classified as a doom metal band and while that classification is not unjustified, it fails to properly cover the amount of variation heard on ‘Ogon No Yoake’. There’s short, swift rockers like ‘Dokushaisa Saigo No Yume’ and the relatively accessible ‘Kyofuku No Neji’ and long tracks with extended jams, such as ‘Mugon Denwa’ and ‘Mandragora No Hana’, the latter of which even borrows from Black Sabbath’s namesake song in its middle section. There is even a short acoustic instrumental (‘Subarashiki Nichiyobi’) that works perfectly as a breather right after the middle of the record.

Closing track ‘Kyoku Sanmyaku’ is probably pointed to as the album’s highlight by most of the band’s fans. And for a good reason, as it is a dark, monstrous doom metal track capable of capturing the mood of the Lovecraft story it is based on (‘At The Mountains Of Madness’). It is hardly the only peak on ‘Ogon No Yoake’, however. ‘Shinpan No Hi’ is a surprisingly laid-back and melodic rocker with a thick, driving bottom end and a highly memorable chorus. The opening title track needed some time to make sense to me, but is easily one of the better songs. It builds up slowly, but steadily into a powerful heavy metal epic. I particularly love the semi-gallop underneath Wajima’s guitar solos.

Some hardrock and heavy metal is expertly written, but lifelessly recorded. Ningen Isu’s music always breathes and moves. It is remarkable that the increased focus on streamlining and production on ‘Ogon No Yoake’ has not ironed that out at all. In fact, it made the music all the more powerful and the spirited jams come across even better than on the previous releases. Today, Ningen Isu is still recording fantastic albums. One could even say they entered a new youth, which is what the title of their latest album ‘Shin Seinen’ translates to. Those who don’t know the band would be well off starting with ‘Ogon No Yoake’ or its more compact follow-up ‘Rashomon’ though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ogon No Yoake’, ‘Shinpan No Hi’, ‘Kyoku Sanmyaku’, ‘Kyofuku No Neji’