Posts Tagged ‘ Progressive Rock ’

Album of the Week 37-2017: Fields Of The Nephilim – Elizium


Some bands go out while they’re on top. Goth masters Fields Of The Nephilim was one of those bands. ‘Elizium’ is a masterpiece that was far ahead of what any other band in the genre – even The Sisters Of Mercy – were doing at the time. The album has a dark, ethereal atmosphere that makes listening to it an incredibly immersive experience. Maybe working with Andy Jackson, famous for engineering Pink Floyd, has contributed to the flawless production on the record, but the incredible song material and Carl McCoy’s cleaner and all around better performance should all be credited to the band.

While containing eight tracks, ‘Elizium’ really consists of four long suites, the longest – and best – two being split up into several parts. I would not be too surprised if this was an attempt to trick the record company into believing the album was more commercially attractive, but this album is not about singles. It is about setting a certain mood that the listener cannot help but being carried away on. The psychedelic, in deed Floyd-ish elements that were always in the sound of Fields Of The Nephilim are somewhat amplified here without sacrificing their dark, sometimes twisted goth roots.

Fields Of The Nephilim never was a band with songs in which a lot happens, but ‘Elizium’ really lifts their art of slowly and carefully layering and deconstructing parts to a new level. Their sense of dynamics is impeccable here as well. Though I have a strong preference for the slow, moody, almost depressive sections, a passage like ‘At The Gates Of Silent Memory’ would not work anywhere near as well if it was not surrounded by more uptempo, yet equally dark moments like ‘For Her Light’ and ‘(Paradise Regained)’. Likewise, ‘Submission’ comes alive due to a few histrionic lead guitar climaxes.

The 14-minute diptych that closes the album is some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard. Again, not much happens here; Tony Pettitt only changes his bass riff when ‘Wail Of Sumer’ morphs into ‘And There Will Your Heart Be Also’ and even then the difference is not that big. There is a climax where you expect the riff to go to a G, but it ends up going to an E instead and there are some simple, but heart-wrenchign solos, but it moves along at a similar pace for its entire playing time. And still, this suite grabs you and will not let you go until it is over. There is a sense of post-apocalyptic romanticism in it which really profits from the fact that McCoy dropped the gruff take on Andrew Eldritch and went for something truly original. Not the most uplifting music in the world, but so profoundly beautiful…

As much as I have written about the genius of ‘Elizium’, it truly has to be heard – or rather experienced – to be believed. It takes gothic rock far beyond its post-punk roots, but nowhere near the fusion with metal it would soon meet, not in the last place because of McCoy’s own Nefilim project. Though the album does not really do anything radically different than the past works of Fields Of The Nephilim – the middle section of ‘Sumerland (What Dreams May Come)’ has Pettitt working with a delay effect on his bass part not unlike the brillian 1989 single ‘Psychonaut’ – it just highlights a few of the best elements of the band. The band split up not long after the release of ‘Elizium’, which still stands as one of the ultimate goth rock albums ever.

Recommended tracks: ‘And There Will Your Heart Be Also’, ‘Wail Of Sumer’, ‘For Her Light’

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Album of the Week 30-2017: Fatima Hill – Aion


Progressive metal is at its best when it is not a vehicle for virtuosity. The bands who favor atomosphere and interesting compositions instead of showing off their instrumental skills are relatively limited in number, but they exist. Fatima Hill from Japan was one of those bands. Compared to other prog bands, their songs are relatively relaxed and their riffs are relatively close to traditional heavy metal and early power metal in style, an approach that, in combination with the powerful alto of Yuko Hirose, results in quite an unusual and refreshing sound. Their sophomore album ‘Aion’ is a mystical, powerful work of art.

For those of you who have never heard of the band before: imagine the brooding heavy metal riffs of Mercyful Fate and the atmospheric blend of them being played high on the guitar neck and being backed by subtle keyboard flourishes like on Warlord’s early work. Throw in the compositional originality of early Fates Warning and Crimson Glory and you’ll get close to Fatima Hill’s core sound. The band has a tendency to throw a few curveballs at the unsuspecting listener, but they do so in a way that makes a surprising amount of sense within the context of the album.

Opening track ‘Ares Dragon’ does a pretty good job introducing that sound. The riff work is complex, but due to the relatively subdued rhythms, it never comes across as busy as many prog bands appear to be. Guitarist and main composer Anjue Yamashiro obviously wants the songs and the atmosphere to reign over the individual skills of the players and as such, ‘Aion’ is a very pleasant album to listen to. On the heavier tracks, the band sounds confident, but not overly so. The Middle-Eastern tinged ‘The Black Bat’, the dramatic ‘Ultimata’ and the relatively propulsive ‘Babel Dune’ all seamlessly blend somewhat traditional heavy metal riffing and ambitious, adventurous songwriting.

The aforementioned curveballs are ‘Other’, the almost title track ‘Aeon’ and the lengthy closer ‘The Song For Beatrice Part 3 (The Seven Songs)’. The latter sounds like it will turn into a big, bombastic prog epic, but remains rather low-key and somewhat folky throughout its nine minutes of playing time, even during its powerful finale, while featuring excellent work by Hayato Asano on the fretless bass and Yamashiro on the acoustic guitar. The folk factor is really dialled up for ‘Aeon’ by prominently featuring Yamashiro’s electric mandolin, making it sound like a mixture of Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Battle Of Evermore’ and the title track from Crimson Glory’s ‘Transcendence’. ‘Other’ is a romantic sounding, almost poppy song in which the simple, yet effective lead guitar and Takamichi Koeda’s baroque keyboards form an excellent backdrop for Hirose’s vocals.

It may take some time to fully grasp the charm of Fatima Hill’s sophomore album. I’ll freely admit that I’m still getting used to Yuko Hirose’s voice, despite her being a fantastic singer. However, due to its exceptional songwriting and pleasant nineties production, ‘Aion’ is a true winner. You have probably noticed me mentioning atmosphere a lot and the only reason for that is that it is an indispensible part of the album’s charm. Yamashiro deserves all the praise he can get for setting all egos aside and letting the songs take center stage. Whenever he does choose to play a solo, it counts and adds something to the song. Fatima Hill may be a somewhat obscure band, but they deserve to find their way to a larger number of ears.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ares Dragon’, ‘Ultimata’, ‘The Song For Beatrice Part 3 (The Seven Songs)’

Album of the Week 26-2017: Ningen Isu – Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros


Ningen Isu is the best seventies power trio that is not actually from the seventies. Despite starting out in 1987, their brand of heavily Black Sabbath-inspired, yet progressively tinged metal would have fit the same bill as Rush and Budgie in the mid-seventies. While the band has recorded some excellent progressive doom metal throughout the last three decades, they had yet to release an album that I enjoyed start to finish. Until ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’ was released last year. Though instantly recognizable as Ningen Isu, there are some surprises that make the record amazing right down to the last note.

As the band kept progressing, their albums kept getting more consistent and notably heavier, yet there was always a song that went overboard in weirdness or that suffered from the fact that none of the three band members are particularly strong singers. ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’, however, plays to the band’s strengths. The songs on the album are crushingly heavy and the compositions take a few more left turns than we are used to by the band; the trio no longer builds on the same groove for more than sixteen bars and Nobu Nakajima’s rhythmic patterns are busier than ever.

Opening track ‘Kyofu no Dai Ou’ actually gives a good impression of what the album will sound like. It is built upon a couple of monolithic, Sabbath-like riffs, but is not just about the riffs. It is a dynamic composition with some interesting twists and turns and a good vocal performance by guitarist Shinji Wajima. There’s an excellent interaction between the rhythms and the riffs, which constantly push each other to the front rather than off the record. These characteristics define all the songs, although sometimes they are a bit more straightforward (‘Doro No Ame’) and a little more complex at other times (‘Yomigaeri No Machi’).

In a typical case of saving the best for last, the brooding, doomy epic ‘Madame Edwarda’ is one atmospheric monster of a closing track. Another stand-out track, however, is the delightfully rocking ‘Chou Nouryoku ga Attanara’, which starts out sounding like an AC/DC song and evolves into one of the most catchy, upbeat Ningen Isu songs to date. Nakajima’s vocal performance on the song is surprisingly good as well. The middle section of ‘Yukionna’ cannot be anything else than a tribute to Led Zeppelin classic ‘Achilles Last Stand’, but it is done in good taste and honoring an incredible band, so I will just let that slide.

The mark of a true progressive band that it keeps getting better. By that definition, Ningen Isu is a real progressive metal band, even though the King Crimson-isms were larger in number in their earlier years. In hindsight, it should not be too suprising that the trio outdoes itself on ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’, as they have been improving from the day they started releasing music. And they were pretty damn good to begin with anyway. Anyone with a taste for seventies progressive rock and traditional doom metal should not be discouraged by the lack of English song and album titles and just give this band a chance.

Recommended tracks: ‘Madame Edwarda’, ‘Chou Nouryoku ga Attanara’, ‘Kyofu no Dai Ou’

Album of the Week 25-2017: Mastodon – Emperor Of Sand


Out of all popular contemporary metal bands, Mastodon is the only one I can get behind. I respect how little they care about genre boundaries or belonging to a certain scene. From day one, they have chosen their own path and there is always a possibility that a new album is not going to sound anything like its predecessor. Curveballs like their 2009 psychedelic metal masterpiece ‘Crack The Skye’ are probably a thing of the past, as every record that followed attempted to combine the best aspects of their discography thus far, but none of them quite succeeds as well as ‘Emperor Of Sand’ does.

‘Emperor Of Sand’ is the record on which Mastodon learned to do all the things they already did a lot better. Their riffs are still heavy and not too fast, there is an abundance of classy twin guitar harmonies, drummer Brann Dailor still lays down some downright incredible fills and yet, it all sounds just a little better than before. The highly melodic hooks that started appearing around the turn of the decade are integrated into the heavy songs a lot better than ever and the increasing classic rock influences mix with the band’s heavy metal and hardcore roots more satisfyingly.

More importantly, the compositions are extremely interesting. Mastodon has clearly made an effort to make every section of the song be a new climax, which is especially beneficial to songs with a lot of drama, such as ‘Roots Remain’ and the epic closer ‘Jaguar God’. As stated before, the melodic choruses are still here, some songs even have several hooks, but they feel less like an attempt to cross over to the pop rock audience. Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds have always been experts at weaving distinct guitar lines through each other and that feature of the band gets all the place it needs on ‘Emperor Of Sand’. Their bombastic sound helps. Hinds’ synth guitar in ‘Clandestiny’ adds an extra dimension to the sound.

In addition, the triple lead vocal assault seems to work better than ever. Dailor is there for the cleans, Hinds switches between a raw snarl and an Ozzy-like voice and bassist Troy Sanders is easily the rawest and most powerful of the three. They feed off each other and complement each other, which adds dynamics to songs like the highly catchy ‘Show Yourself’, dramatic harmonies to ‘Andromeda’ and impressive trade-offs are scattered all over the album. The vocals are not the thing that makes the album though; the guitars and the insane drumming are. As always.

While I will always be partial to ‘Crack The Skye’, Mastodon has really outdone itself on ‘Emperor Of Sand’. They have finally succeeded in combining all of their best qualities in a way that sounds “fluent”, for lack of a better term. I am somewhat reluctant to call the music on this record progressive metal, as the term conjures up images of Dream Theater clones, but it is a fact that this is the work of a metal band that wants to keep moving forward, with their virtuosity helping them rather than getting in the way of the songs. Quite an impressive feat, which makes ‘Emperor Of Sand’ one of the best metal albums released this year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ancient Kingdom’, ‘Jaguar God’, ‘Steambreather’, ‘Roots Remain’

Album of the Week 22-2017: Onmyo-za – Karyo-Binga


Released hot on the heels of the impressive diptych of ‘Fuujin Kaikou’ and ‘Raijin Sousei’, it is something of a miracle that Onmyo-za still had enough inspiration left to write another excellent album. In fact, it is even better than the latter. ‘Karyo-Binga’ sounds manages to sound familiar and fresh at the same time, as its combination of traditional heavy metal and hard rock riffs, J-rock melodicism, prog rock adventurism and subtle hints of Japanese folk is exactly what we have come to expect from Onmyo-za, whilst simultaneously updating the band’s sound, resulting in one of their best albums yet.

Of course, the update is minimal, as the sound of Onmyo-za is still strongly centered around the equally melodic voices of Kuroneko and band leader Matatabi, as well as the strong, but never busy riff work and passionate leads of Maneki and Karukan. However, it is quite obvious that the band was hungry to try out new things this time around, most notably downtuned guitars and a bigger emphasis on keyboards. That does not mean that we are dealing with a watered-down, pseudo-heavy version of Onmyo-za here though. Neither dominate the record and therefore, ‘Karyo-Binga’ feels like nothing more or less than a contemporary Onmyo-za record.

Like the other highlights in Onmyo-za’s discography, ‘Karyo-Binga’ has a very pleasant flow. This flow is somewhat reminiscent of its two predecessors, because ‘Karyo-Binga’ also starts with a relatively calm track which – despite its six minutes of length and song-oriented structure – feels like an overture (the title track) before moving into a powerful, but not too propulsive melodic heavy metal track (‘Ran’). The band is clever enough to keep itself from falling victim to an auto-pilot formula though, so among moments of familiarity, the band has strategically placed a few slightly surprising track to keep you attentive.

The relatively light, yet still powerfully rocking ‘Omae No Hitomi Ni Hajirai No Suna’ is one of them. Due to the subtle Hammond organ, the song has a bit of a seventies rock vibe, but Kuroneko – who, again, outdoes herself here – keeps it firmly within the Japanese rock realm. ‘Ningyo No Ori’ starts out sounding like it could be the big sweeping ballad of the album – which in fact ‘Jorougumo’ come closest to – before developing into a relatively concise epic with a dark, heavy middle section. ‘Susanoo’ and ‘Nijuunihikime Wa Dokuhami’ are the clearest examples of downtuned riffing without forsaking the melody and ‘Hyouga Ninpouchou’ is a passionate heavy metal track with amazing lead guitar work reminiscent of ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’ from ‘Fuujin Kaikou’.

Onmyo-za’s music is a melting pot of many different influences, as is the case with a large number of Japanese rock and metal bands. But where many Japanese bands end up sounding busy and at times disjointed, Onmyo-za found a way of combining all these influences into an irresistible, powerful sound that is remarkably pleasant to listen to. ‘Karyo-Binga’ is the latest and most contemporary sounding installment, but the consistency of the band’s discography is truly amazing. The record is well worth listening to if you are interested in any of the genres represented in the band’s sound.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hyouga Ninpouchou’, ‘Omae No Hitomi Ni Hajirai No Suna’, ‘Ran’, ‘Ningyo No Ori’

In Memoriam Chris Cornell 1964-2017


Now this one came as a shock. Last week, I even reviewed the best album Chris Cornell was ever a part of and now, he is dead.┬áDespite making a few dubious artistic choices throughout his career, Cornell had one colossal voice and has written a bunch of downright fantastic songs. His death is still shrouded in mystery at the moment, but it occurred only hours after a sold out Soundgarden show in Detroit. It’s hard to say anything useful at the moment, but let me at least pay a little tribute to – by far – the best male singer from the Seattle rock scene.

Despite ultimately being one of the biggest bands of the Seattle scene of the early nineties, Soundgarden started as early as 1984. Kim Thayil is often credited for the unique guitar tapestries of the band, but Cornell was quite the guitar player himself and their interaction was an essential part of the heavy, yet melodic and deliberately awkward sound of the band. Cornell either wrote or co-wrote a significant portion of the band’s output. Soundgarden had some of the most natural sounding odd time measures in the music business and a bunch of riffs that within Seattle were only rivaled by Alice In Chains in terms of heaviness.

Soundgarden was one of the more interesting rock bands that Seattle had in the eighties, but it wasn’t until 1991 that Cornell found his voice. Both litterally and in terms of songwriting. That’s the year when Temple Of The Dog released its sole album in April and Soundgarden released their massive ‘Badmotorfinger’ in October. Two monumental records with Cornell’s voice on them. ‘Temple Of The Dog’ was a strong tribute to the late Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood which also featured the recording debut of one Eddie Vedder and ‘Badmotorfinger’ showed Cornell almost litterally outdoing himself with songs like ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’, ‘Jesus Christ Pose’, ‘Rusty Cage’ and ‘Outshined’.

While it meant Soundgarden’s breakthrough and artistic highlight, the band didn’t reach its peak in popularity with 1994’s ‘Superunknown’. Five successful singles were released from that album, the most popular of which – the monster hit ‘Black Hole Sun’ – won two Grammy Awards. Personally, I always preferred the gloomy ‘Fell On Black Days’. After one more album in 1996 – ‘Down On The Upside’ – Soundgarden split up and Cornell focused on his own projects. Always an experimental guy, he tried out several genres and while I don’t agree with every decision he made – the R&B record ‘Scream’ that he made with producer Timbaland is borderline embarrassing – he deserves a lot of respect for trying.

In the meantime, Cornell also formed Audioslave with all members of Rage Against The Machine except for singer Zack de la Rocha. They had a couple of hits, but eventually the former bands of all members involved would reunite. That included Soundgarden, whose 2012 release ‘King Animal’ battle’s Alice In Chains’ ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ for the title of best comeback album ever made by a rock band. Thayil, Cornell, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron seemed to be very serious about reuniting for good, but while on tour, Cornell passed away.

Besides the songs, we would have to remember Cornell for having a sense of humor that didn’t ruin his music. How else would you explain the hilarious glam rock and hair metal parody that is ‘Big Dumb Sex’? Sadly, there is very little that fans of his voice can laugh about today, but we are luckily still left with recordings of his amazing voice and I suggest we play it as loud as we can. I’ll start.

Album of the Week 18-2017: Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger


Along with Alice In Chains, Soundgarden is one of the very few bands from the early nineties Seattle scene that is actually appreciated among heavy metal audiences. The band’s third album ‘Badmotorfinger’ clearly shows why. The noisy punk leanings or mainstream ambitions that many of the band’s peers did have are absent here. Instead, ‘Badmotorfinger’ is full of heavy riff work reminiscent of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and odd time signatures with ditto rhythms. And while the songs did streamline the band’s sound, it does so without sacrificing even the slightest bit of the Seattlites’ unique character and approach.

Compared to the album’s direct predecessor ‘Louder Than Love’, ‘Badmotorfinger’ sounds significantly more focused. The songs are harder-edged and while there is still a great deal of variation to be found on the record, the quartet doesn’t need quite as much time to get to the point here. However, the biggest improvement to be heard on ‘Badmotorfinger’ is in Chris Cornell’s voice. With this album and Temple Of The Dog’s sole release, 1991 prove to be the year that he transformed from a promising rock singer to a powerhouse vocalist with a massive range. Hardly anyone has come close since.

Ultimately, any of these improvements would be meaningless if the songs weren’t any good. Luckily, ‘Badmotorfinger’ is the most consistent set of songs Soundgarden has yet released. The band found a way to combine their love for odd measures with memorable melodies without having to alternate between those extremes. ‘Outshined’, for instance, feels like a catchy rock song despite its 7/4 meter and heavy riff and ‘Room A Thousand Years Wide’ is such a pleasant listen, that you hardly realize that the 6/4 rhythm that it’s built upon is quite unconventional. ‘Badmotorfinger’ is filled with such moments. It’s always a good thing when a band isn’t trying to be too clever with these things.

‘Slaves & Bulldozers’ is the ultimate proof of just how heavy Soundgarden could get: Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell pump out some crushing riffs, while the latter belts his heart out in the chorus. ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ has Matt Cameron’s incredible rhythms and the propulsive riff work pounding relentlessly underneath yet another amazing Cornell performance and opening track ‘Rusty Cage’ manages to be heavy and hypnotizing at the same time. ‘Holy Water’ is somewhat reminiscent of Alice In Chains and some songs are weirdly, but successfully decorated with horns. New bassist Ben Shepherd’s love for punk shines through the wonderfully aggressive ‘Face Pollution’.

Before ‘Badmotorfinger’, Soundgarden was a decent band that occasionally lost their way halfway through meandering songs. The increased focus did help the band a great deal, because ‘Badmotorfinger’ is easily one of the best records of its era. Terry Date’s production, which gave the band’s bottom end a not so subtle punch without damaging the clear highs, is another important factor in why the album sounds so good. And while its follow-up ‘Superunknown’ would definitively propel the band into stardom, ‘Badmotorfinger’ still stands as the bands ultimate artistic statement. One on which rock, metal, punk and pop melt into one irresistible whole.

Recommended tracks: ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’, ‘Rusty Cage’, ‘Jesus Christ Pose’