Melechesh – Enki – Album Review

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Artist: Melechesh

Album Title: Enki

Label: Nuclear Blast

Year Of Release: 2015

A few years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to name a single hard rock or heavy metal band from Israel. Today, it’s quite different. Alongside Orphaned Land and Distorted Harmony, I can now add Melechesh to the list. Admittedly they’ve been based in Amsterdam since 1998, but the roots of Melechesh burrow back to Jerusalem where the band was created as long ago as 1993. Created in the early 90s by the band mastermind and multi-instrumentalist Ashmedi, Melechesh was created to explore a style of music which sought to blend extreme black metal with authentic Middle Eastern influences. The birth of Melechesh therefore led to the creation of self-proclaimed ‘Mesopotamian Metal’ or ‘Sumerian black thrashing metal’, so named because of the Assyrian and occult-based themes explored within the extreme metal framework.

Fittingly then, the album title follows a similar theme. In Sumerian mythology, Enki is the God of crafts, namely mischief, water and creation. And it’s an apt title as well, given that this is such a striking creation. Mind you, ‘Enki’, the sixth album from Melechesh was a slow-burner but after a lot of effort on my part in the beginning, I have grown to really like this record.

Some people in the past have rather disingenuously dismissed Melechesh as a Nile clone, due to the blend of extreme metal and ethnic instrumentation. But, try as I might, I can’t really hear the similarities; Nile are brutal death metal at their core whilst Melechesh offer more of a black metal approach with plenty of thrash embellishments to compliment their sound. Melechesh are therefore very much their own band with their own identity as far as I’m concerned.

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The album opens in typically savage and uncompromising style in the form of ‘Tempest Temper Enlil Enraged’. A six-plus minute track, it is one of the most black metal-centric compositions that ‘Enki’ has to offer. It is chock full of lightning-fast drumming from returning member Lord Curse and the riffs are fast-picked staccato monsters. And yet, despite the snarling growled vocals and relentless brutality, it packs a certain groovy punch too, which helps to regulate the pace and keep things entertaining.

Following hard on the heels of the opener is ‘The Pendulum Speaks’, a shorter track that takes an Eastern melody and wraps it up in a really powerful foot-tapping tempo. The snarled vocals are still front and centre, as is the impressive rhythm section but it’s the mid-tempo stomp that gets my head nodding in appreciation, allowing the strength of the 12-string guitars to take full effect. At times I’m even reminded of early Sepultura, it’s that damn huge.

And therein lies the strength of Melechesh and ‘Enki'; the ability by the band to pen music that is authentic to its Middle Eastern roots without sacrificing any of the brutality or extremity in the process and, if anything, making those Middle-Eastern influences an integral part of the music without which, the essence of Melechesh would conceivably be lost.

‘Enki’ is an album best enjoyed as a whole but even so, there are a few highlights worthy of particular mention. Firstly, there are the guest appearances from Max Cavalera (Soulfly, Killer Be Killed, The Cavalera Conspiracy, ex-Sepultura), Sakis Tolis (Rotting Christ) and Rob Caggiano (Volbeat, ex-Anthrax).

And then there’s the music itself. ‘Enki Divine Nature Awoken’ is a gargantuan track that’s groovy as hell but also epic in its scope. Ushered in by some quiet ethnic instrumentation it soon explodes into the mother of all mid-tempo riffs, heavy enough to crush all within its path. It’s also quite sinister in tone thanks to its sheer relentlessness and the dark chanting towards the end.

‘Metatron And Man’ is a frenetically paced number that thunders along and reminds me a little of Dissection in its execution. Then there’s the somewhat cheeky, hard-rock stomp of ‘The Palm The Eye and Lapis Lazuli’ that has to be one of the most catchy extreme metal songs I have heard in a long time. Authentic instrumentation comes to the fore courtesy of ‘Doorways To Irkala’, a composition that’s darkly hypnotic and a welcome change of pace from the onslaught that has gone before it.

The album then closes with another epic track in terms of both length and ambition, in the shape of ‘The Outsiders’. The central riff is relatively simple but effective in its bludgeoning strength but even so it threatens to be dwarfed by everything going on around it, such is the breadth and depth of the music on offer.

There are one or two less than stellar moments within ‘Enki’ and arguably, the end result is not wildly different from their past efforts. However, if what you’re looking for is an album that will bludgeon you with power and brutality but that also has an intelligent underbelly, willing and capable of treading a slightly different path from its contemporaries, then I highly recommend Melechesh and ‘Enki’.

The Score Of Much Metal: 8.0

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

Enslaved – In Times – Album Review

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Artist: Enslaved

Album Title: In Times

Label: Nuclear Blast

Year of Release: 2015

In extreme metal circles, Norway’s Enslaved are held in very high regard, something approaching royalty some may say. For nearly a quarter of a century, the band have strived to release music of the very highest quality. But more than that, they have dared to be different. A constant evolution over the years still sees their extreme metal roots intact but as the albums pass, the roots have become ever-more intrinsically linked to, and entwined with, other elements. Progressive rock and metal, ambient, post-rock, jazz and a whole host of other ideas collide in what can only be described as some of the most fascinating and rewarding heavy metal currently being created anywhere in the world. Album number thirteen, ‘In Times’ is no different.

In the same way as a small child will push their parents in order to discover their limits and boundaries, so too do Enslaved with their compositional creations. Currently comprised of founding members Ivar Bjørnson (guitars) and Grutle Kjellson (vocals, bass) alongside Cato Bekkevold (drums), Herbrand Larsen (keyboard, vocals) and Ice Dale (lead guitars), Enslaved are simply not content it seems with sticking to a formula or adhering religiously to the status quo. It is for this reason as much as the music itself why I belive that Enslaved are so highly revered.

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And yet, for all that, I remain one of the small minority that has never fully taken Enslaved to my heart. However, in keeping with a blossoming trend of late, I have finally and fully fallen under the Enslaved spell with the help of the magnificent ‘In Times’. I always enjoyed the quintet’s music but I always felt slightly detatched, admiring the output from afar rather than immersing myself in it. Call it stupidity or the bittersweet curse of having too much music to listen to. Nevertheless, whatever the reason, it ends here and now.

‘In Times’ features just six tracks which, on the face of it and if you’re bothered by numbers, appears a disappointingly small figure. However, the six compositions are all huge, sprawling affairs that push or exceed the eight minute mark, thereby offering the better part of an hour’s worth of music. But then again, song lengths do not alone guarantee value for money and a quality product. For that, enter the music of Enslaved.

I will admit that my first couple of spins through left me dazed and confused with more questions remaining than answered. It certainly wasn’t love at first listen, but stubborn tenacity and patience have paid off in spades.

The album is ushered in by ‘Thurisaz Dreaming’ which begins innocuously enough with the quiet soothing sound of a wave crashing gently on the shore. Within seconds though, this gentle beginning is thoroughly expunged by a full-on raw, spiky and venemous-sounding black metal riff. Angry riffs join forces with furious drumming and gutteral screams in an effort to pummel and bewilder the listener. From even this early stage, the increase in those black metal influences from the bands early days are striking. As is the Enslaved way, it offers a slightly different path from their more recent output via ‘Riitiir’ and ‘Axioma Ethica Odini’ before that. This black metal reintroduction effectively forms much of the bedrock upon which ‘In Times’ handsomely sits. Enslaved then revert to type as it isn’t too long before the composition introduces other ambitious elements in order to create drama and intrigue, cleverly juxtaposing the tumult that rages around it. Clean vocals flit in and out of the track, as do moments of quiet reflection and snatches of near-discordances flirt with the peripheries of the opener.

If anything, and in almost direct contrast,the follow-up,’Building With Fire’ is positively catchy. The opening riff gallops along with an upbeat tempo and a lovely melodic, rocking groove. The soaring clean vocals are mesmerizing too, adding an extra layer of immediacy to proceedings. The growls aren’t too far away and neither are the black metal references but they’re never as confrontational as seen within the opener. A lead guitar solo then joins forces with subtle piano work to create a stunning moment before those beguiling clean vocals return atop the anthemic opening riff that re-enters with joyous gusto. The pace drops away towards the end and the post-rock influenced guitar tone really helps to emphasise the gorgeously rich and organic production that has been achieved by messers Grutle, Larsen and Bjørnson with the mastering assistance of Fascination Street Studios. Infectious and majestic are just two adjectives that can rightly be thrown at this monster of a composition.

A haunting melody welcomes ‘One Thousand Years of Rain’ before the song veers into a more chaotic construction. It also offers a demonstrable folk metal feel that increases as the track ebbs and flows from one seemingly disparate idea to another and in so doing, tests the listener’s resolve throughout.

‘Nauthir Bleeding’ in contrast sees an increase in the otherwise subtle keyboards and symphonic embellishments, giving it genuinely epic feel. The melodies are again more pronounced and at the midway point, the track erupts into an almost euphoric stomping riff that’s complimented by a stunning and wonderfully indulgent lead guitar solo, all of which breaks up the more impenetrable extreme excesses to great effect.

The title track is the longest on the album and it provides some of the harshest and heaviest material on the record. The gutteral screams make a forceful return but just as the track threatens to become too overpowering, the tempo is slowed. So pronounced is the change of pace, it is the musical equivalent of being pushed over the precipice into the abyss. The swirling and jagged hypnotic riffing is replaced by sections that are almost soothing ambient post rock in their construction. But, rather than sounding forced or overly contrived, the apparently disparate elements are brought together seemlessly and rather beautifully.

‘In Times’ then concludes with ‘Daylight’ another epic track that fuses many different styles into a homogenous and euphoric triumph of a track. A mid tempo stomp dominates large sections of the track where the drums really come to the fore. The relatively simplistic elegance of the percussion is then wonderfully embellished by further clever lead guitar work and understated vocals that create an almost hypnotic crescendo of sorts to the album.

Topped off by utterly gorgeous artwork courtesy of long-term collaborator Truls Espedal, ‘In Times’ is an almost peerless album that manages to seemlessly blend extremity with genuine compositional intelligence, in the process creating another unique body of work that cannot be referred to as anything other than a majestic masterpiece. Or, to put it more simply, if you want your mind blown, it is absolutely imperative that you own ‘In Times’.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.25

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology – Album Review

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Artist: Keep Of Kalessin

Album Title: Epistemology

Label: Indie Recordings

Year of Release: 2015

I’m not afraid to admit when I am wrong. This, I believe, is one such occasion. I have had cursory listens in the past to previous releases by Keep Of Kalessin and not been overly impressed. To this day, I can’t really put my finger on why I wasn’t lured into the fold; for some reason, the black-tinged extreme metal offerings didn’t really click with me and so with more music to listen to than I have spare time, I wasn’t in a position to give the Nowegians much of a second chance. Until now that is. And you cannot believe how pleased I am that the stars aligned and somehow forced me to give album number six, entitled ‘Epistemology’ a chance. This is one hell of a record. It has well and truly made its mark and left a previous sceptic with much to ponder. I will certainly go back and re-explore the back catalogue, that’s for certain.

I talk about stars aligning because it sounds exotic, windswept and interesting. In reality, my interest in Keep Of Kalessin was re-ignited a while back when I discovered that they had entered the race to represent their native Norway in the Eurovision Song Contest. And then, more recently, there was the intriguing competition that the band ran to design the artwork for this album. The result is beautiful, striking and markedly different from what has gone before. As a complete sucker for a great album cover, I felt compelled to explore the music contained within.

The nice thing about my personal circumstances however, is that I am able to look upon ‘Epistemology’ with fresh eyes and not be swayed or influenced by what has gone before. To me, Keep Of Kalessin circa 2015 is a brand new band and therefore a brand new discovery about which I can be completely honest without being hindered by the baggage that a back catalogue can bring. It’s quite exciting actually.

What surprised me initially is that such a huge, epic sound can be created by a mere three people. Obsidian C handles the vocals, guitars and the bulk of the writing it would appear. However, he is more than ably assisted by drummer Vyl and bassist Wizziac, both of whom make an impact on this record.

Photo: Victoria Bjorklund, design: Jean Michel

Photo: Victoria Bjorklund, design: Jean Michel

In true extreme/black metal style, ‘Epistemology’ opens up with a short, minute-long instrumental piece, ‘Cosmic Revelation’. It serves it’s purpose well as a tension-builder, because it’s a surprisingly suspense-filled cinematic sci-fi inspired piece, full of dark and foreboding drama despite its diminutive length.

What follows is, frankly brilliant. ‘The Spiritual Relief’ is off-the-scale superb. It begins with a furious blastbeat and dominant riffing which together threaten to spiral out of control at any moment such is their combined frenetic vigour. Underpinned by swirling synths, the track has a classic, grandiose symphonic black metal feel to it. But then something magical happens. At first, the guitar riff descends into semi-discordant proggy territory before the composition opens up into one of the most epic and anthemic sections I’ve heard in extreme metal circles for some time. The blast beats remain at breakneck speed but the clean, soaring vocals and subtle guitar melodies send goosebumps up and down my spine. Then, as if this wasn’t enough, at about the halfway point, the track collides headlong into power metal territory, complete with groovy riffing, lead guitar breaks and catchy melodies before experimenting with what I can only describe as heavy ambient stylings. The central melody becomes ever more glorious and joyous before eventually reverting to the more black metal approach encountered at the beginning. Ten minutes never passed so quickly.

‘Dark Divinity’ follows and whilst the unique clean vocals of Obsidian C are present, he defers more readily to what I’d call a gruff black metal bark. The entire track is more straightforward if that’s not too disingenuous but what’s most striking is the unique guitar playing. I’ve used the word ‘unique’ a lot within this review but I genuinely think it’s justified. The phrasing, the execution and the entire sound of Obsidian C’s guitar playing is unlike anything I’ve heard before.

‘Epistemology’ is comprised of only eight tracks but the album as a whole does not feel too short. Indeed with the vast majority of the compositions weighing it at over seven minutes in length and up to ten on occasions, Keep Of Kalessin impress me by the way in which nothing really feels too drawn out or bloated for the sake of it. ‘The Grand Design’ is another well-worked epic and memorable track that blends extremity with sumptuous melodies whilst ‘Necropolis’ has a great groove and some really powerful mid-paced drumming that forces the listener to headbang whether or not they wanted to. ‘Introspection’ begins quietly with a theatrical synth-led opening before hurtling towards a huge, anthemic power metal-esque chorus via more lightning-fast rhythms and riffs.

The album then closes with the title track. Classic 90s-inspired symphonic black metal is the bedrock, although the clean vocals are somewhat reminiscent of a toned-down ICS Vortex or Vintersorg, thereby fleetingly calling to mind the likes of Borknagar or latter-day Arcturus. But then a beautifully melodic lead guitar break or quiet synth segment is never far away, thereby reverting to their unique approach and blowing out of the water any further easy reference points. The track builds throughout and is led to it’s conclusion for the final couple of epic minutes via a recurring melody atop which sits some majestic choral vocals and a breezy upbeat guitar melody.

And with that, ‘Epistemology’ is done, although the music stays with you long after the final notes have faded away. For someone who wasn’t expecting much, I must admit that Keep Of Kalessin have well and truly blown me away with this record. ‘Epistemology’ contains just about all the things I like from extreme metal these days; the combination of extremity, technicality and overblown grandiose melody and atmosphere is truly a thing of beauty and something special to behold. Magnificent.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

Most Anticipated Album Releases of 2015 – Part 4

I know, I know, it’s getting a little silly now isn’t it? I’m beginning to lose count but here are another ten or so bands that either are or may be likely to release new material during 2015. It was all sparked by the first band in my list who I only just realised were in the process of writing new material. Knowing this, I couldn’t afford to miss them off my list as they are such a great band.

If for any reason you’ve missed parts 1-3, you can access them here:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

But now, here’s the next (and probably last) instalment in this series…probably…I hope.

Wolverine

As stated, Wolverine are one of the main catalysts for this fourth instalment ever since I realised a new album was on the horizon for 2015. The Swedish progressive metallers are a special and unique band and have been around for a relatively long time. Their debut was released in 2001 but they’ve only managed three further albums since. Social media updates tend to suggest however, that new material should see the light of day this year and news like this makes me very happy indeed. There are few acts out there that manage to offer progressive rock/metal that is so complex, rich, grandiose and full of gritty melancholy. Their last album, ‘Communication Lost’ is a marvellous album that is dark, sombre and very poignant, to the point that it can sometimes be a difficult listen depending on your mood. However, the music itself is fantastic, managing to be heavy and complicated yet subtle and very beautiful. A new Wolverine album is bound to be of the highest calibre possible and I cannot wait to hear it.

Katatonia

With one of my favourite bands of all time releasing one of the best albums of their career last year, the pressure is on for another of my most important bands, Katatonia. The Swedish dark metallers are in a rich vein of form at the moment, a moment that has seemingly lasted their entire career. These guys do not release mediocrity, it’s not in their vocabulary. Top class song writing, professionally executed and positively dripping with beautiful fragility underpinned by a heavy, gritty exterior – what’s not to like? With the release of a live DVD to celebrate the ‘Dethroned and Uncrowned’ acoustic tour that took place last year, it is probably expecting too much for a follow-up to the exemplary ‘Dead End Kings’. Nevertheless, I live in hope – 2015 would be magical if Jonas Renkse, Anders ‘Blakkheim’ Nystrom and Co. could deliver us new material. Fingers crossed.

Dimmu Borgir

One of these posts wouldn’t be the same without a mention for one of my favourite extreme metal bands of all time. To contextualize this statement, their 1997 release, ‘Enthrone, Darkness, Triumphant’ is one of my top 5 albums of all time. Beginning life as a black metal band, more recent output is probably better referred to as ‘extreme metal’. There are plenty of black metal elements to the Norwegian’s sound but such is the rich tapestry of influences that play a part within the modern Dimmu sound, curt pigeonholing into the black metal genre would be disingenuous. Each release from Shagrath et al is a slick, professional affair where the final product shines through a powerful and crystal-clear production. The symphonic elements and grandiose bombast provide a majestic and theatric sheen to what is, at heart, pretty bruising and uncompromising heavy metal. There’s no official confirmation of a new album in 2015, but this is an educated guess on my part.

Swallow the Sun

As with Dimmu Borgir above, there has been no official confirmation of a new album in 2015 from Swallow the Sun. However, the Finnish purveyors of ‘gloom, beauty and despair’ have not graced fans with new material since the magnificent ‘Emerald Forest And The Blackbird’ back in 2012. I’m pretty confident of a return in 2015 and I certainly hope I’m not mistaken because Swallow the Sun are my personal favourite melodic doom metal band. The blend of crushing brutality, timeless elegiac melodies and impressive vocals that flit between a guttural growl and a fragile clean delivery all come together to create something rather epic and grandiose. No-one does this kind of music better.

Distorted Harmony

Israeli progressive metallers Distorted Harmony were one of the big surprises of 2014 for me. Their sophomore release, ‘Chain Reaction’ made an appearance high up my ‘best of’ list and rightly so. The debut was practically a Dream Theater clone but with ‘Chain Reaction’, it was as if the band threw away the rulebook from the days of the debut and promptly reinvented themselves. The results were rather stunning and so I am really excited to learn that there will be even more new material in 2015, albeit in the shape of an EP rather than a full-length album. It’s a shame but I look upon it as a bonus rather than anything else, given the impressively quick-fire turnaround.

Pathosray

Here’s a band that require and deserve a lot more love and attention than they get currently. As such, they’re a perfect fit for this post. Italian prog metallers Pathosray are a slightly different proposition to many of their peers in that they are certainly prog but not in the classic, conventional sense. Their compositions are full of the requisite complexity but they’re also full of snarl and bite and more chops than you’d find at a butcher shop. Their melodies are also interesting in that they’re not always what you’d expect. This makes their releases a challenge at times but ultimately very rewarding. Pre-release bravado and puff is always full of hyperbole but the comments coming out of the Pathosray camp ahead of their third album and first for some six years have seriously piqued my interest.

Borknagar

Norwegian metallers Borknagar have been favourites of mine for quite some time. Rather simplistically, they could be seen as the middle ground between straight forward pagan black metal and the more avant-garde stylings of compatriots Arcturus et al. What I love about this band is that they are both heavy and extreme yet manage to find room for a few progressive ideas and plenty of classic folk melodies. Unique vocals sit atop blast beats one minute and then growls appear intermingled with a more subtle and laidback section the next.

Hecate Enthroned

When I was discovering the delights of black metal in my late teens, Hecate Enthroned were one of my favourites. They were heavily inspired by Cradle of Filth in that their compositions were full of Gothic theatrics, symphonics and more melody than you’d think on a first listen. The band turned all death metal on us in the late 90’s and since then, the output from the UK band has not been prolific. However, they are a band that always piques my interest when I hear their name mentioned and I am more than hopeful for a new album sometime in 2015.

Bal Sagoth

Ah Bal Sagoth. That most intriguing and entertaining of extreme metal bands. I discovered this UK-based band very early on in my exploration of music that pushed the boundaries and they’ve been an important part of my collection ever since. Led by the enigmatic Byron, they fuse the fury and aggression of black metal with fantasy lyrics and more synth-led bombastic symphonics than you’d think possible in music of this kind. One glance at album titles such as ‘Starfire Burning Upon The Ice-Veiled Throne Of Ultima thule’ and you get the idea. This is overblown, pompous extreme metal but it works brilliantly. The band have gone very quiet since signing for Nuclear Blast and releasing ‘The Cthonic Chronicles’ banck in 2006. However, I remain ever hopeful that after a wait of the best part of a decade, we get another record. Please Byron, sir, please?

Soilwork

Despite not originating from the city, Soilwork are one of the very best that the Gothenburg movement has produced. Throughout their career that has spanned 20 years and 9 albums, it is hard to point to any of their output that falls below a high standard. Their sound has changed over the years, some releases are better than others and the band has suffered from line up changes that could have been crippling for lesser acts. However, the Helsingborg-based Swedish melodic death metal band has kept plugging away with plenty of relative success and remain high in my affections. If melodic death metal with a demonstrable thrash metal edge sounds like your thing, then it is time to get excited about the prospect of album number 10 during 2015.

Lonely Robot – Please Come Home – Album Review

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Artist: Lonely Robot

Album Title: Please Come Home

Label: InsideOut Music

Year Of Release: 2015

Occasionally, an album will come out of nowhere and completely blow you away. That is exactly the case with Lonely Robot and their debut album, ‘Please Come Home’. It really is a stunning record.

Of course, I’m aware of the talents of John Mitchell, the mastermind behind Lonely Robot – his involvement with the likes of It Bites, Arena and Frost* and Kino means that he is an important musician within my musical world to put it mildly. However, I admit to being completely blindsided by this latest project. I hang my head in shame but hope to repair my wounded pride with this review and my incessant plugging of it on social media.

To provide some context and background, Lonely Robot was conceived as an idea several years ago but it has taken until now, thanks to a little prodding from various quarters, for Mitchell to bring it to fruition. The title of the project was taken from a lyric by Eliot Sumner, daughter of Sting. And the music has been inspired as much by his ubiquitous love of prog as it has been by movie soundtrack music as Mitchell is a self-confessed geek for movies and classic old school sci-fi in particular. As such, the influences, inspiration and musical direction for this record are very clear. That said, whilst the lyrical concept has an overtly science fiction sheen, it has an equally human element as well, looking at the way in which we can easily slip into a rut and live out lives almost robotically. It’s a sobering thought.

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Mitchell has both a distinctive voice and guitar-playing style and so it is almost impossible not to be reminded of the aforementioned It Bites et al. However, what makes Lonely Robot different is its density and the overtly atmospheric nature of the music. From the depth and richness of the compositions right through to the lyrical imagery and the moniker of the project itself, ‘Please Come Home’ has the ability to both uplift the listener and reduce you to tears or at least cover you in goosebumps. The fact that this is no way unintentional only serves to further underline the undeniable strength of the music on this record.

The album opens up with the slightly creepy, disturbing-sounding ‘Airlock’, an intense instrumental track that sets the scene and builds the tension superbly. It has a definite sci-fi soundtrack feel to it thanks to some of the sampled effects that enter the fray towards the end but the familiar tones of Mitchell’s lead guitar work are apparent from early on, providing a counterpoint to the layers of synths that drench the composition. Whilst Mitchell handles the bulk of the keyboards for the album, Frost*’s Jem Godfrey was drafted in for this impressive opener and for the title track, ‘Lonely Robot’, working wonders with both.

Speaking of the personnel involved on this record, the bulk of the material is naturally handled by Mitchell (guitars, bass, keys and vocals) with Craig Blundell (drums) and Nick Beggs (additional bass) ably assisting the project. It’s then that things get very interesting and rather complicated as the list of guests is comprehensive to say the least. A little eyebrow-raising might also be a fitting adjective.

Aside from the afore-mentioned Godfrey, ‘Please Come Home’ boasts Marillion’s Steve Hogarth on backing vocals and on piano on a couple of tracks, Touchstone vocalist Kim Seviour on one track, ‘Oubliette’ and folk singer Heather Findlay on ‘Why Do We Stay’ to duet with Mitchell. But it doesn’t stop there as renowned actor Lee Ingleby provides the narration that features throughout the album, Peter Cox of 80s pop group Go West fame provides vocals for ‘Boy In The Radio’ whilst the instantly recognisable name of Nik Kershaw also contributes a guitar solo for one song, ‘Humans Being’.

What is, however, as equally impressive as the ‘cast list’ is the fact that the album has a really superb flow throughout. It could have turned into a procession of one disjointed track after another, simply showcasing each of the names that are involved. However, to Mitchell’s credit, the guests fit in with his vision first and foremost and feature where they are able to assist with the album, rather than the other way around. Nothing feels out of place or clunky; every piece of music fits into the overall concept and is there for a reason. I love albums like this, where you can immerse yourself in them and be carried away into another time and place, even if it only for an hour.

I have mentioned the atmosphere of ‘Please Come Home’ already but it is such an important element of the record that it cannot be understated. There is such a depth and poignancy within the music that you really begin to feel the music as well as simply hear it. Much of this has to do with the guitar playing. I’ve always loved the way Mitchell handles the instrument but with Lonely Robot, he makes my hairs stand on end. So precice, clean, crisp and delicate are his lead lines and solos, they cannot help but move me in quite a profound way. It is addictive and I find myself hitting repeat an awful lot.

But there’s more to the album than atmosphere. There’s no denying that this is a prog rock album at its heart and so there is plenty going on within the compositions without things descending into an overly technical workout. One minute you’re confronted with a big powerful riff or a synth-led wall of sound. The next, everything drops away and a subtle synth melody, soft vocal or guitar line will be your only companion. It’s all part of Mitchell’s master plan and it’s wonderful.

To pick out single tracks is a relatively futile and redundant exercise because they all offer beauty and magnificence in their own right. That said, I utterly adore the melodies that feature within ‘Man vs God’, the vocal interplay within ‘Why Do We Stay’ is captivating and the title track is a metaphor for the entire record in that it is enormously majestic, scintillating, compelling and utterly addictive.

To sum things up, all I can say is that for all his other considerable work, it is Lonely Robot which is arguably John Mitchell’s tour-de-force to date. I love just about everything about it. ‘Please Come Home’ is without doubt the sound of Mitchell at his creative best. I said it before and I will say it again: This really is a stunning record.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.5

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment – Album Review

Neal Morse cover

Artist: The Neal Morse Band

Album Title: The Grand Experiment

Label: InsideOut Music

Year of Release: 2015

There are some musicians that can be referred to as a ‘safe pair of hands’ and Neal Morse is most definitely one of those. Whether it’s as a solo artist or as part of a band such as Spock’s Beard or Transatlantic, you just know that the results are going to be of a high quality. And, with this latest project entitled The Neal Morse Band, it is very much business as usual in terms of the professionalism and high standard of music that is delivered. This is progressive rock of the highest calibre.

That said, there have been occasions as a staunch atheist, that I have been somewhat put off by some of the overt religious lyrical themes that are explored on some of Morse’s solo work. There’s no doubt that the Morse’s obvious Christian sentiments will have lost a few fans as a result, but equally, will have gained from other quarters too. However, as someone for whom the music is more important than any other factor, I haven’t let the lyrical ideologies get in the way of my enjoyment of Morse’s generally high quality compositions however much of an initial struggle it may have been. Thankfully, despite approaching with my usual caution, ‘The Grand Experiment’ largely steers clear of such topics; at least, without the benefit of printed lyrics, that’s how it appears anyway. If I’m wrong, it must mean that it’s sufficiently hidden. Naturally there are several highly positive messages littered throughout this latest album but to bemoan this would be churlish in the extreme, particularly when the world is filled with negativity these days.

The Neal Morse Band is comprised of some extremely noteworthy names only adding to the sense of expectation prior to release. Alongside Morse himself who plays the guitars, keyboards and sings, fellow Transatlantic colleague Mike Portnoy frequents the drum stool. In addtion, the familiar name of Randy George (Ajalon, Neal Morse) handles bass duties and Bill Hubauer (ApologetiX) takes care of the flute and clarinet as well as additional guitars and keys. Eric Gillette has also been drafted in to provide extra guitars and vocals.

Courtesy of: John Zocco

Courtesy of: John Zocco

First impressions of ‘The Grand Experiment’ lead me to conclude that the album title is entirely apt. For a recording that bears Morse’s name, the content certainly offers something a little bit different. Of course, much of the material is instantly recognizable as classic Neal Morse, but the album was written much more as a collective band effort. As a result, there are a number of different ideas and flavours to be heard within the five tracks, some of which will have long time listeners both surprised and intrigued.

The album opens up with quite possibly my personal favourite track in ‘The Call’. It is a ten-minute prog rock masterclass that blends a whole host of different musical ingredients into a whole that is instantly likeable but which, over time, only gets better and better. The melodies are very strong and form the bedrock of the track, a fact that’s underlined by the bombastic and anthemic crescendo that draws the composition to a truly rousing and thoroughly satisfying conclusion. But in and amongst those recurring melodies, there are flavours from all corners of this band that aren’t necessarily part of the staple Morse solo sound. The up-tempo and vivacious composition references everything from hard rock riffs that have subtle thrash-lite overtones to dexterous synth solos, from heavy and pounding drumming from Portnoy to exuberant lead guitar solos and a whole host of other ingredients. ‘The Call’ is a cracking start to this impressive album.

Track two, the title track, is ushered in upon a driving riff and a classic rock groove, complimented as always by Portnoy’s powerhouse percussive prowess. The chorus takes things down a notch and unleashes Morse’s love of 60s-70s pop and prog to great effect. It’s a definite grower too and I have grown to really like the juxtaposition between the prog, the pop and the groovy hard rock. More of this in future, please Neal.

Next up is ‘Waterfall’ and it offers a complete change of pace from what preceded it. Portnoy is effectively redundant for six or so minutes as a beautiful acoustic guitar takes centre stage alongside some really gorgeous vocals that are hook-laden and properly addictive. Sombre is the wrong word but ‘Waterfall’ is certainly a slightly more atmospheric and introspective piece of music that is an utter delight. The woodwind-led closing segment is inspired too.

‘Agenda’ is an entirely different beast yet again. It’s more of a straight-up, more modern-sounding rock song with a demonstrable pop feel particularly in the choruses and with the more simplistic lyrics delivered with plenty of vocal effects. I didn’t like it on first listen and whilst it remains my least favourite track on the album, my feelings towards it have begun to thaw more than a little.

Courtesy of: John Zocco

Courtesy of: John Zocco

In proper prog rock style, ‘The Grand Experiment’ closes with ‘Alive Again’, a truly epic 26-minute composition in every sense of the word. As all good epics do, the rich musical tapestry tells a story and it seemingly runs the entire gamut of musical ideas. But, given the quality of the personnel involved, the shifts in tempo, the juxtaposition between light and shade and every subtle nuance is managed in such a way as to maintain an almost seamless and smooth flow. The talent on display means that there’s literally no constraints placed on this composition and even when things take a turn for the strange at around the ten minute mark thanks to a heavily sampled guitar, a brass accompaniment that has ska overtones and latterly a harpsichord-style flourish, it makes a kind of warped sense. Cleverly, it also creeps up on you with remarkable stealth to the point that you don’t immediately realise when things changed. Again, as with the opener, it’s the melodies that pull everything together and on ‘Alive Again’, they are out of the top drawer, providing hooks aplenty to keep the listener entertained from start to finish. The simple fact that the song flies by in the blink of an eye speaks volumes for its undeniable quality.

As with all music of this nature, I always long for an extra track or two. But then, I’m just greedy because at 52 minutes, there’s more than enough music on ‘The Grand Experiment’ to keep us all fully entertained. Fans of Neal Morse, Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic are certain to lap this record up, as will anyone who enjoys genuinely high quality, professionally-performed and intelligent progressive rock music. This one comes highly recommended.

The Score Of Much Metal: 8.75

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep – EP Review

zero stroke cover

Artist: Zero Stroke

Album Title: As The Colours Seep

Label: Unsigned

Year Of Release: 2015

One of the biggest joys of writing this blog is discovering new talent for which there is not necessarily the room or time to cover for other publications. Over the years I have been sent requests from an increasing number of bands asking me to check their material out and, where possible, I will try to have a listen. Zero Stroke, a progressive metal band from Cape Town, South Africa, were one such band.

Having written about music for so long, I shouldn’t be surprised that there is such a wealth of undiscovered and unsigned talent out there. However, when you consider how much dross does get signed, I can’t help but wonder why certain acts, such as Zero Stroke, continually evade capture.

‘As The Colours Seep’ is the title given to the debut EP from Zero Stroke and it demonstrates without doubt that there’s clearly a wealth of talent within the four members that comprise the band, namely Chad Adam Browne (guitars), Michael Short (vocals), John Yarnold (drums) and Alex Rohloff (bass). Instrumentally, the talent is there for all to hear as the five compositions that make up this half-hour-long EP are packed full of different ideas and plenty of complexity. I come away after each listen thinking the same thing: ‘that was intense’. The compositions in the main are certainly very busy and there’s a lot to take in. At times I’m reminded of the likes of Cynthesis and the similarly-monikered Zero Hour courtesy of the same core protagonists. Is this a coincidence? I’m not sure but there are definitely a few parallels.

zero stroke band

Throughout, it is the interplay between the guitar and bass that stands out for me. The EP doesn’t have the greatest production to it if I’m honest, lacking a little in terms of mid-range guts but the fact that you can hear the bass guitar is to be applauded and is a definite strength of this relatively small budget recording. It’s not there to simply beef up the bottom end and chug away in the background; instead, Alex Rohloff plays with dexterity and imagination giving the songs an extra dimension as the instrument flits in and out embellishing the music when required. In fact, track two, entitled ‘Mask’ is dominated by the bass to really nice effect.

The other big strength to this record is the guitar playing, courtesy of Chad Adam Browne which runs the full gamut of heavy riffing, as demonstrated by the thrash-influenced ‘Machine’ for example, fast solos and intricate phrases, licks and runs.

The elephant in the room for me where such technical prog is concerned, is whether or not the music is complex for the sake of it and whether the notion of a song is compromised as a result. I love technical prowess but I also require some kind of hook or something memorable to tempt me in for repeated listens. Fortunately for Zero Stroke, they have managed to avoid this pitfall by injecting just enough melody into proceedings. In fact, the more I listen, the more I notice, meaning that there’s a nice subtlety to help increase the longevity of the music. The mid-section to the epic opener ‘The Median Cycle’ opens up nicely in and amongst the maelstrom of complexity around it. The closing section of ‘Machine’ features a very hummable melody, ‘Shed’ is a rather lovely acoustic-led piece whilst the closer ‘There Were Flaws’ borders on the anthemic, encouraging a wide smile to split my otherwise miserable visage.

The biggest criticism I have about this EP however, is unfortunately where the vocals are concerned. There’s no doubting Michael Short’s enthusiasm as he belts out the lyrics with real gusto. His attack is varied, tackling the high stuff as well as the lows. However, there are times when the delivery feels a little forced, particularly when negotiating the higher notes. That said. the more I digest the music, the more I get used to the vocal delivery. I’m not for one second suggesting that Short is a bad singer, far from it, but I think on the follow-up, more focus on the strengths and little more restraint might be a wise consideration.

Small criticisms aside, I really rather like this EP. The biggest compliments I can pay are that I look forward to listening to it repeatedly and I find myself wishing that there were more than just the five tracks. If you’re a fan of intricate and challenging progressive metal, you could do a lot worse than give Zero Stroke a listen. I suspect they’re a name we’ll be hearing a lot more of in the future.

The Score Of Much Metal: 7.5

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld