Friday, 1 January 2021

Music of 2020 - Part 2

Now that 2020, the first year of the current decade, is over it is time for me to present to you my annual Albums of the Year list. I reflected yesterday, not very positively, on the state of the music industry generally in 2020 (which you can read here) and its sacrifice to the Gods of COVID-19; but many lowly musicians managed to defy the odds and release strong albums - despite the all that is currently stacked against them. Despite the contempt that the authorities and many others seem to have for music, particularly live music, of late; it is heart-warming that so many bands pulled together and released great albums. The Albums of the Year list is a staple of music blogging the world over, and this one is no different. I have been putting together Albums of the Year lists for a long time now, and each one proves to be a difficult undertaking. In some ways however, 2020's list was possibly the hardest to write. There have been a huge amount of excellent albums released this year but, for me at least, they were all of a very similar standard. Usually there are two or three that really stand head and shoulders above the rest - the 10/10s if you will. This year however has not seen, for me at least, an album of quite that calibre being released - with an absolute cascade of 8/10s instead. This makes putting a list together hard, as any 10 of around 25 or so albums could have legitimately earnt a place in this run down. The number one spot was not as obvious to me as it often is either, so putting this list together took much longer than usual. In the end I decided to go with the ten albums that I felt that I had listened to the most this year, and put them in some sort of order (this was not a fool-proof strategy however, as my end of year stats proved!). This ended up with the list omitting some pretty major releases, and there are some of my favourite bands that failed to make the cut this time around as a result. By picking the ten albums that I thought that I had listened to the most seemed the fairest way to create the list this year - and the ten albums that I have included below certainly sum up 2020 as a musical year for me, even if a few 'obvious' choices had to be left out. More so than ever however, this will probably be a list that will not age that well as so many of 2020's albums were of such a similar quality - and there a number that I feel that I have not given my full attention to yet. As always, the only albums available for inclusion are albums of all new material - so compilations, live album, or collections of re-recorded songs are not eligible for inclusion.

10) Lamb of God - Lamb of God
Given the departure of founding drummer Chris Adler in 2019, I was concerned how the band's tenth studio album would turn out. Adler was such a cornerstone of the Lamb of God sound, but the band's self-titled release turned out to be their most ferocious work for quite some time. Dispensing with the experimentation found on both 2012's Resolution and 2015's VII: Sturm und Drang, which were both fine records, Lamb of God is a back-to-basics album that saw the band release a collection of songs to rival the primal nature of 2004's Ashes of the Wake. New drummer Art Cruz fits in like a glove, and his performance is a big part of why the album is so good, but it is the overall songwriting that really makes Lamb of God shine. Nothing has been significantly changed formula-wise, but the band seem passionate about just being themselves again after spending much of the 2010s trying out new things. I enjoyed the band's more experimental phase, but there is something comforting about the rage contained within Lamb of God, which made it a perfect companion piece for 2020.
Listen to: Memento Mori, Gears & New Colossal Hate

9) Fish - Weltschmerz
In many ways I feel that Fish's final studio album should be higher up this list, but the truth is that I feel that I still have a lot to discover within it - despite listening to a lot over the past few months. It is a long, dense album that is packed full of different moods and themes; so as a result it is an album that demands your full attention and repeated listens. It is an album that will no doubt rise through the rankings over time, but I am certain that it is a masterpiece despite its relatively low position here. Many albums are described as a 'journey', but Weltschmerz is one that truly deserves that moniker. While the album is not a concept album, I cannot help but feel that many of the song share similar themes at their core. It is clear that Fish has lost none of his lyrical power over the years, and the cast of musicians involved in the album is a real who's who of Fish collaborators throughout the years - which is fitting for his final ever studio project. As a result of its length and themes, Weltschmerz can be a very difficult album to listen to at times; but this does not diminish its power, and it is an album that I am sure to only appreciate more as time goes on.
Listen to: The Grace of God, Rose of Damascus & Waverley Steps (End of the Line)

8) Sylosis - Cycle of Suffering
There was a time when Reading's Sylosis were one of the most hotly-tipped British metal bands out there, but they never seemed to quite break through the glass ceiling despite releasing a string of great albums throughout the 2010s. When the band's main man Josh Middleton joined Architects in 2017, I thought that Sylosis would likely be quietly taken out into the yard and shot - and indeed it did seem for a while that that had happened. However, back in February, the band's fifth album Cycle of Suffering was released and Sylosis fans the world over instantly rejoiced. While Cycle of Suffering is perhaps not as progressive as some of the band's other albums, it picked up nicely where Dormant Heart left off in 2015 - bringing that album's more riff and song-based formula into the new decade with aplomb. Like the Lamb of God album, Cycle of Suffering has quite a lot of fury to be found within, but there are a lot of other emotions present too which make this one of the heaviest albums of the year that I have revisited on a regular basis. There is certainly a case to be made for Middleton being one of the best guitarists and songwriters in metal at the moment, and Cycle of Suffering is a full display of his various talents.
Listen to: Empty Prophets, I Sever & Abandon

7) Blue Öyster Cult - The Symbol Remains
A couple of years ago the thought of a new Blue Öyster Cult album seemed like a farfetched one, but one of the year's biggest surprises came in the form of The Symbol Remains back in October - the band's fifteenth studio album. I am not sure exactly what I was expecting Blue Öyster Cult to sound like in 2020, but The Symbol Remains turned out to be a varied and extremely engaging album packed with numerous memorable songs and great performances from the band's long-standing current line-up. Due to the band's overall experimental and esoteric nature, some of the songs do not quite hit home for me, but when the album gets it right it does so in a big way. All three of the singles that kick off the album nail the band's core sound, while heavier moments occasionally showcase why Blue Öyster Cult have often been listed as an influence by a great number of metal bands. It is certainly not the most consistent album on this list, which is what stops it from being placed higher, but it is an album that makes me smile no matter what; and it is great that the band are still so experimental and 'out there' so late in their career.
Listen to: Box in My Head, Tainted Blood & The Alchemist

6) H.E.A.T - H.E.A.T II
There have been a number of strong melodic rock albums released this year, but for me the best pure AOR album is the sixth album from Sweden's H.E.A.T. After going for a more cinematic sound on 2017's Into the Great Unknown, H.E.A.T II sees the band returned to their core riff-based sound with a number of great stadium-worthy choruses and shredded guitar solos. H.E.A.T might not be the most original band out there, but they are one of the best modern AOR acts going in my opinion, and their back catalogue has a wealth of anthemic songs. H.E.A.T II is probably one of my favourite albums from the band so far too, and this is because it just goes for the throat throughout. Each song is packed with a killer chorus, while the overall songwriting is sharp and perhaps a little heavier than the band are often known for. Like Lamb of God's album, H.E.A.T II is a back-to-basics release that ensures that the Swedish five-piece remain at the top of the tree when it comes to modern melodic rock. It is also retrospectively notable for being the band's last album with frontman Erik Grönwall, who left the band in October to be replaced by the returning Kenny Leckremo. It is a shame that Grönwall never got to tour his final effort with the band, but H.E.A.T II is a fitting end to his era of the band.
Listen to: Dangerous Ground, Come Clean & Heaven Must Have Won an Angel

While 2016's The Prelude Implicit was a great comeback album for the legendary American band, The Absence of Presence sees the Ronnie Platt era of Kansas really take off in a big way. The nine-track album is filled with all of the band's trademark sounds - with progressive rock, arena rock, and intricate musicianship all coming together to create something which is greater than the sum of its parts. What is more impressive is that the band's two newest members, guitarist Zak Rizvi and keyboardist Tom Brislin, essentially wrote the whole album - showing that a band can continue to thrive following the departure of their main songwriters and still produce excellent material. In truth, this is an album that could have been higher up the list, but I think my relative lack of history with the band is what is keeping it down at 'only' Number 5. Kansas are a band that I am continuing to explore and enjoy, and if I was to revisit this list again in a couple of years I can see this one placing higher. Nevertheless, The Absence of Presence is an album that I have been enjoying an awful lot this year, and I have to credit it with finally making me 'love' Kansas, rather than merely 'liking' them.
Listen to: The Absence of Presence, Jets Overhead & The Song the River Sang

4) Cats in Space - Atlantis
If H.E.A.T II was the best pure AOR album of the year, then Atlantis is the best overall melodic rock release of 2020. Borrowing more from the British glam rock scene of the 1970s than AOR, Atlantis is the British six-piece's fourth studio album - and their first with frontman Damien Edwards. All eyes were on Edwards here, but he knocked it out of the park from the off and proved throughout why he is the perfect choice to take the band forward. While I still feel that 2019's Daytrip to Narnia is a better album overall due to its slightly more progressive nature, the individual songwriting on Atlantis is some of the band's strongest yet. A few of the songs here would have been huge hits in a fairer world, and the lush production that the band have become known for sounds as good as ever here. In fact, there are times throughout the album that sound the biggest the band have ever sound - with layers of Queen-esque guitars and Def Leppard-esque vocal harmonies creating a sonic tapestry that all classic rock fans will enjoy. Cats in Space have never been shy of wearing their influences on their sleeves, and as a result Atlantis is a great retro rock album that is packed full of memorable songs and performances.
Listen to: Spaceship Superstar, Listen to the Radio & I Fell Out of Love with Rock 'n' Roll

3) Deep Purple - Whoosh!
Despite my review of Deep Purple's Whoosh! stating that I thought that Now What?! represents the best of modern Deep Purple, I think that over the past few months Whoosh! has surpassed the band's excellent 2013 release. Now three albums into their relationship with producer Bob Ezrin, the veteran British band are sounding more vital than they have for a long time. Now What?! is a great album, but I feel that Whoosh! has a real confidence and swagger about it - with keyboardist Don Airey in particular turning in a fantastic performance. This is possibly his finest recorded performance of all-time, which is staggering considering the amount of albums that he has been involved in over the years, but the rest of the band manage to match him for intensity. There are plenty of great instrumental trade-offs between Airey and guitarist Steve Morse; while the aging Ian Gillan finally seems to have found a way to use his diminished vocal powers appropriately. Gillan's performance throughout Whoosh! is wonderfully assured, and his unique lyrical and vocal phrasing that fans of his have become accustomed to over the years is still present despite his change of approach. While Blue Öyster Cult's album was more of a surprise due to that band's lack of studio activity of late, Whoosh! takes the crown for being the best album by a veteran classic rock band of 2020.
Listen to: Drop the Weapon, Nothing At All & Man Alive

2) Bruce Springsteen - Letter To You
Despite enjoying 2019's sparse Western Stars, what I really wanted from Bruce Springsteen was a new album with the legendary E Street Band. Prior to the release of Letter To You in October it had been 11 years since the Boss has recorded an album that solely featured his multi-talented backing band, but Letter To You turned out to be everything that I wanted it to be and more. Despite initially feeling that the album was short a couple of potent rockers, Letter To You has continued to improve with each and every listen, and I do not think that there is weak song here at all. Springsteen's knack for storytelling and cramming a number of deep themes into his compositions is as strong here as it ever has been, and the E Street Band sound really fired up throughout. From Roy Bittan's piano to Stevie Van Zandt's trashy guitar rhythms, Springsteen never sounds as good as when the E Street Band are behind him and Letter To You is a real tribute to this - with much of the album being recorded live by the band in the studio in a matter of days. Everyone gets a chance to shine throughout, but of course it is Springsteen that comes out on top. Pretty much every song here is now an earworm for me, and that is the reason that it has placed so high on this list. I really hope that he is able to tour this album soon too, as most of these songs are begging to be played live.
Listen to: Burnin' Train, If I Was the Priest & Ghosts

1) Conception - State of Deception
I said at the start of this piece how hard it was put this list together, and deciding which album was going to top it was no different. In the end I went with the album that hit me from the off with its power and moody tendencies, and it is also probably my most-listened to album of the year (one of them certainly). Conception's first album since 1997 has certainly received mixed reviews, but I loved it from the off and spending many months with it now has not changed my view. I like the album's compact nature, which makes it a very easy listen, but there are enough progressive twists and turns here to keep long-time fans of the band happy. As a long-time Roy Khan fan however, it is great to hear how vital and enthused he sounds here. His full vocal range is put to great use here, and it is probably his best vocal performance as a whole since Kamelot's 2005 masterpiece The Black Halo. Each time I listen to the album I hear something new, and it is usually something from Khan - a slight inflection or injection of emotion that just makes the song that little bit better. State of Deception is not just the Khan show however, with the whole band a few guest musicians pulling together to create something truly great. It would have been nice to hear a few more guitar solos from the great Tore Østby, but in truth his slightly restrained style fits in with the album's dark and moody tones. It is also these tones that have made State of Deception the perfect soundtrack to a pretty depressing year overall, which is why it is fitting that it should top this list and be considered my Album of the Year.
Listen to: The Mansion, By the Blues & She Dragoon

While the above is what I consider to be the best of 2020 from an album perspective, it is in truth only a snippet of the music that I have enjoyed this year. As I said earlier, there are a number of other albums that I could have included here, some of which I was sure would end up in this list. Some of them missed out as I have not quite given them the time that they probably deserve, while others have not been included as perhaps they did not quite live up to expectations despite still being enjoyable. Both Delain's diverse Apocalypse & Chill and Magnum's explosive The Serpent Rings could have easily been included here, as could Marko Hietala's excellent debut solo album Pyre of the Black Heart. His day job, Nightwish, also missed out as Human. :II: Nature. has not stuck with me as much as I thought it would have done - and also for the fact that the album's second disc still does little for me. I also wanted to include Paradise Lost's doomtastic Obsidian in the list too, but in the end there were other albums that I preferred just that little bit more. It just goes to show what a good year 2020 was for new albums, and also just how similar in quality many of them were. 2019's list was easy to put together as there were a number of absolutely stellar releases put out during that year that easily rose to the top, but this year was more consistent quality-wise. I have already looked forward to 2021's releases in yesterday's post, so all that is left for me to do now is to thank you all for reading my reviews throughout 2020 - and let's all hope for more strong albums to enjoy over the coming months!

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Music of 2020 - Part 1

For those of us who love music, and particularly live music, 2020 has been a pretty dreadful year. I have not really discussed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic (or, rather, the impact of the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic) on music on this blog previously - but I think that it is safe to say that the overall effects have been devastating. For those of us who regularly attend gigs, and often travel great distances to do so, seeing the contempt for which our hobby has been treated this year is nothing short of depressing. With governments the world over falling over themselves to impose the toughest restrictions on our everyday life, live music has been treated as a pariah - with those at the top totally failing to properly address, or even acknowledge, the damage that they have done to the industry. The nadir of this attitude came in the form of a comment from Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak a few months ago that essentially implied that being a musician was no longer a viable job, and that musicians may wish to seek alternative employment or training opportunities. While there was eventually a bit of a government climbdown from this particularly offensive viewpoint, Sunak's comments nevertheless showcase what the average modern career politician thinks of anything cultural - as it is not just live music that has essentially been shutdown at the stroke of a pen. That is to say that they simply do not understand it - and have no wish to do so. As a result, those of us who love live music have spent much of 2020 feeling hopeless, but we have also been trying to do what we can to support all affected - and this fight will go on into 2021.

I, personally, however am not feeling very optimistic for the new year from a live music perspective. The continual doubling-down on failing lockdown policies is making the return of gigs look even less likely any time soon - and I even wonder if the new vaccines (the carrots that have continually been dangled in front of our faces as a light at the end of the tunnel) will alter much. After all, the government has seen how easy its power can be wielded - and the precautionary principle is now, more than ever, at the centre of all policy making. I have no doubts that gigs and the like will still be outlawed for quite some time 'for our own good' even following what seems to be a successful on-going vaccination programme - and that thought continually gets me down. One saving grace this year however has been the amount of excellent new albums that have been released. Due to the lack of gigs, I think that I have written more album reviews this year than in any other year. I still did not manage to get to everything however, so as always I would like to draw my readers' attentions to a few other releases that are worthy of your time. In this blog post, I will briefly cover five albums that, for whatever reason, I did not review throughout 2020. As always too, I will also cover my favourite live release of the year - which arguably is more important this year than ever before.

The first album I would like to cover here is the fifth album by the Finnish AOR act Brother Firetribe: Feel the Burn. The reason I did not review this one is the fact that Amazon decided to not deliver my copy until nearly two months after its September release date, but eventually it turned up! In many ways, Feel the Burn feels like a bit of a transitional album for the band. It is the band's first album released after the departure of guitarist Emppu Vuorinen, although his playing is still featured on a couple of songs here. The other songs feature a mix of new guitarist Roope Riihijärvi and One Desire's Jimmy Westerlund - who also produced and co-wrote much of the album. As a result, the more cinematic sound that One Desire exhibit has certainly permeated the Brother Firetribe sound here - which has its pros and cons. Feel the Burn is a bit of a different-sounding album for the band, but on the whole I think that the experiments pay off. It might not be quite as bombastic or as overtly-hook laden as their previous work, but the album's overall sound is lush and packed full of strong songwriting - it just takes longer to digest than the in-your-face AOR of their previous albums. While start-to-finish I do not feel that the album is as strong as much of their other work, there are some fantastic songs contained within. The trio of Night Drive, Chariot of Fire, and Rock in the City are all up there with the best songs that the band have ever written, and with a now-settled line-up I am interested to see how the band develop this new sound going forward.

Moving away from AOR and into the realms of traditional American heavy metal, another album that I have been enjoying a lot of late is the third release from New York's Hittman: Destroy All Humans. Hittman are a band that I only discovered around a month ago, but their self-titled debut album and Destroy All Humans have been on regular rotation on my iPod ever since. Anyone who loves 1980s American heavy metal is sure to love Destroy All Humans, from the razor-sharp riffing to the expressive vocals of frontman Dirk Kennedy - who sounds a little like a more restrained version of Crimson Glory's Midnight at times. He does not really go in for the high-pitched screams of the late Midnight, but his tone and control is very similar - and his performance makes the album's eight songs all very enjoyable. Occasional proggy twists, soaring choruses, and a great production make Destroy All Humans a great album - and it is one that I wish I knew about sooner. If I had picked this up back in September and had spent some more time with it, I have a feeling that it could have crept into my Albums of the Year list. It is certainly an album that I will be listening to a lot in the new year.

Last year I spent a lot of time with Eluveitie's excellent Ategnatos, and 2020 saw two of the members from the band's current line-up launch a new project in the form of Illumishade. The progressive/power metal five-piece's sound is very different from the dense folk of Eluveitie, and it allows frontwoman Fabienne Erni and guitarist Jonas Wolf to show off different sides to their songwriting. Their debut album, Eclyptic: Wake of Shadows, is an eclectic mix of sounds - but it is also very digestible. While most progressive metal albums are well over an hour long, this one is only around 40 minutes long - which means that it is an album that can be put on and enjoyed at any time. Despite this however, Eclyptic: Wake of Shadows is an album that I have not spent as much time with as I should have. I have only heard it a handful of times, but each listen gets better and better. It has a very lush sound, but there is an angular side to the band that allows modern tech-metal riffing to sit side-by-side with more traditional symphonic trappings and big choruses. Despite the short runtime, there is still a lot going on here - and it is an album that I can see myself listening to a lot more over the coming months.

Toto's 2019 hiatus lasted less than a year, as Steve Lukather and Joseph Williams have already put together a new line-up of the legendary band for a 2021 tour (hopefully). 2020 also saw the stand-alone release of Old is New, which is part-new album and part-compilation. Originally released in 2018 as part of a very expensive box set of their whole discography, Old is New is an album that saw the then-current version of the band finish off a number of old demos and release them as a new album. Three of the songs had previously been featured on the 40 Trips Around the Sun compilation album, but the rest were all newly-released songs. Being a collection of finished-off demos, the quality is somewhat variable, and I would not count it as an 'official' studio album as a result - but for Toto fans the release is essential, particularly for those who cannot afford the big box set. Old is New is worth it for the fantastic Devil's Tower alone, but when songs like Alone, Spanish Sea, and Williams' soaring Chelsea are included too then it makes the whole album worth listening to. While some of these songs were probably left on the cutting room floor for a reason, those who approach this with a similar mindset to approaching Toto XX: 1977-1997 are sure to find plenty to enjoy here.

The last new release that I would like to give a shout out to is the debut solo release from former HIM frontman Ville Valo. Released under the name VV, Gothica Fennica, Vol.1 is a three-track EP that came out with basically no fanfare back in March - but any HIM fan who has not yet heard this slender release needs to check it out. Gothica Fennica, Vol. 1 picks up exactly where HIM's final album Tears on Tape left off, and it delivers three great songs - one in each of HIM's trademark styles. Salute the Sanguine is a catchy, poppy single; Run Away from the Sun is a whimsical ballad; and Saturnine Saturnalia is a brooding, doomy track - and each song perfectly captures one of Valo's familiar songwriting styles. While the EP sounds almost no different to the sound that Valo cultivated over the years with HIM, it shows that the Finnish gothic heartthrob still has a lot to offer. Valo always was HIM, and Gothica Fennica, Vol. 1 demonstrates this. I hope that the other volumes that are sure to come out at some point are of the same quality of this little taster.

All rock and metal fans can do a lot worse than giving those five releases a listen, and it goes to show just how much great music was released this year. 2020's saving grace has certainly been its album releases, but there have also been a number of strong concert films and live albums released this year. Even some of the gigs that took place in January and February of this year have been immortalised on film - which is important in my opinion. My live release of the year however was actually recorded back in 2018, but for whatever reason it took the band two years to release it! I Am The Empire: Live from the 013 features the current line-up of the American symphonic/power metal band Kamelot doing what they do best - and it was a long-overdue release considering that it had been 14 years since the release of One Cold Winter's Night. Now three albums into the Tommy Karevik era, I Am The Empire pulls heavily from Karevik's contributions to the band's canon - with only a handful of older songs making the cut. As much as I love many of Kamelot's classics, for me the focus on the band's newer material was wise. Karevik is a great singer and songwriter, and it feels right that his contributions are fully showcased on this extensive live release. Being a specially-planned show to make the best live release possible, a number of the band's regular guest vocalists including Elize Ryd and Alissa White-Gluz add their unique talents to the songs here - but in truth it is the five-piece Kamelot that shine the most. The band will celebrate their 30th anniversary in 2021, and in many ways I Am The Empire acts a fitting tribute to the band's career - particularly the last decade or so that has seen their current line-up go from strength to strength, with founding guitarist Thomas Youngblood holding everything together perfectly.

That wraps up my additional coverage of 2020's excellent musical releases, all that is left to do is look forward to my Albums of the Year list, which will come tomorrow, and to 2021. As I only got to six gigs this year I will forego my usual Gigs of the Year rundown as it seems rather pointless, but I am looking forward to sharing with you my personal favourite releases of the year - it was as hard as ever to choose them. While 2021 is certainly promising to be no better than 2020 at the moment, one thing that is certain is that there will be another glut of great albums released next year. It is not clear yet what extend the pandemic has had on the recording of new albums, but January to March at least certainly looks to be busy. I already have a number of albums pre-ordered, but the few that I am looking forward to the most are the debut solo album from Queensrÿche's Todd La Torre Rejoice in the Suffering, the new one from Sweden's Evergrey Escape of the Phoenix, and the no-doubt dense and expansive Omega from Epica. There are a number of other albums that I am excited to hear too, and no doubt more will be announced in due course. All we can do at this stage is hope that 2021 will see the light at the end of the tunnel for this pandemic, and the political machinations that have come as a result of it, but sadly at the moment I feel that hope is rather futile. I hope to be proved wrong however!

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Mark Kelly's Marathon's 'Mark Kelly's Marathon' - Album Review

While technically not a founding member of the band, as Brian Jelliman occupied the keyboard position for their first couple of years of existence, Mark Kelly has been an integral part of the British progressive rock act Marillion since the very early days. He joined the band in 1981, and has appeared on every official release that they have ever put out - starting in 1982 with the Market Square Heroes single/EP. In that time, Mark Kelly's mind has rarely been away from Marillion. This is because the band have been extremely busy over the years, releasing albums fairly regularly and touring all over world - all while continually modifying their sound to stay relevant in an ever-changing world. The band's latest album, Fuck Everyone and Run (which I reviewed here), came out in 2016, and in my opinion it is one of the band's best works to date. It is rare that you can say that about a band's 18th studio album, but it is testament to the band that they still care deeply about their new material and continually push to better themselves. Mark Kelly has always been an important member of the band, even if his role has changed over the years. While his keyboard playing on the band's more recent work might not be as flashy or as leading as it was back in the 1980s and early 1990s, his soundscapes and piano work are still an integral part of Marillion's sound. The Marillion of today is a very atmospheric and expansive beast, and much of that is down to Mark Kelly's all-enveloping keyboard layers and delicate synth work. Due to his dedication to the band, he has rarely operated outside of it - although over the years he has guested on albums by Jump, John Wesley, and DeeExpus. He even played live with Travis of all people back in 2005 but, despite these occasional excursions, he has never indulged in a project of his own outside Marillion - until now. Nearly every other member of the band (with the exception of drummer Ian Mosley) have released solo albums or are members of side projects; but it has taken Mark Kelly until 2020 to strike out on his own. His new solo project, Marathon, released their self-titled debut album last month - which Marillion fans the world over greeted with excitement. While Mark Kelly's Marathon is somewhat seen as Mark Kelly's solo project, the album has much more of a band feel - which according to interviews is the vibe that he was going for. The album is very song-based and melodic, and is not just a vehicle for Mark Kelly to showcase his keyboard skills. Marathon is a six-piece band that, besides Mark Kelly, includes vocalist Oliver Smith, guitarists John Cordy and Pete Wood, bassist Conal Kelly (Mark Kelly's nephew), and drummer Henry Rogers (DeeExpus; Touchstone; Mostly Autumn). Musically, Mark Kelly's Marathon has been put together by the two Kellys and Smith, with lyrics from Guy Vickers. The result is a lush, but easy-on-the-ear, album that should please all Marillion fans - as well as anyone who is into the modern melodic prog scene.

Considering that most of Marillion's albums, especially the recent ones, are dense, lengthy affairs; Mark Kelly's Marathon surprised me when I first put it into the CD player and I discovered that it was only around 45 minutes long. I was expecting another lengthy epic, but it was actually a pleasant surprise to receive something more digestible. As much as I like Marillion's lengthy albums, sometimes a shorter album is welcome - and it certainly allows the ideas here to shine a little brighter. Despite this however, the album is still quite 'progressive' in structure. It is bookended by two long, multi-part songs; with three more compact tracks appearing in between. Despite what I first assumed, Mark Kelly's Marillion is not a concept album, but each track certainly tells a story. The CD's booklet includes extensive liner notes from Vickers detailing his inspirations and the themes for each song. This is a welcome addition to the album, and it shows how much thought and care all involved have put into not just the music, but the album's presentation as a whole. There is lots of exposition in the booklet regarding the album's first song, the lengthy and three-part Amelia. It somewhat tells the story of Amelia Earhart's doomed attempt to fly around the equator and her disappearance - based on news articles claiming that her remains had been found on Nikumaroro in the Pacific Ocean. The instrumental part Shoreline kicks things off with swirling synths and the sound of birds. Shoreline is very typical of Mark Kelly's soundscape work with Marillion, but the song opens out and diverges from the sound of his main band with the introduction of the rest of Marathon on Whistling at the Sea. In many ways, the three-part Amelia is the perfect introduction to the sound of Marathon. The band's laid-back, groovy, atmospheric sound is perfectly captured here, with the prominent bass work of Conal Kelly driving everything - while the two guitarists interlock nicely with chiming melodies and expansive chord work. Drawing everything together is Smith, who's emotive vocals really bring Vickers' tales to life. Lots of listeners to the album have compared Smith to Peter Gabriel, but to me he sounds more like John Mitchell - and this album has a very similar vibe to Mitchell's Lonely Robot albums in my opinion. Surprisingly, Smith dominates the album. This is not a virtuosic release on the whole, although there is a fantastic guitar/keyboard duel towards the end of Whistling at the Sea that sees Mark Kelly employ some 'lead' keyboard sounds that he has not used extensively for many years. The song's final part, 13 Bones, is a little bouncier and 'West End', with a jaunty piano melody to drive everything while Smith seems to play many different parts vocally. There are moments here where he sounds a little like Toto's David Paich a little, which I was not expecting, but it works well to contrast with his more typical delivery. 13 Bones continues to build until the end - with Rogers' drumming becoming more frantic and powerful, while numerous synth leads and old-school keyboard layers counter Smith's vocals.

While the following three songs are not as expansive as Amelia, the core Marathon sound is still very much on display - and the compact nature of the material allows for the melodies to really shine. When I Fell is more of a ballad, but Conal Kelly's bass is still the song's main driving force. The laid back verses are lead by his grooves, while Smith's layers of tight vocal harmonies give the song quite a 1980s feel - despite the modern synths and production techniques used. This is also the song here that is probably the closest to Mark Kelly's work with Marillion, and with a few tweaks it could have sat on one of their albums. Rogers' drumming is very similar to Mosley's less-is-more style throughout, and Mark Kelly's soundscapes give the song a real emotional depth. There is not a lot of lead work on display here, with the instruments mostly coming together to form a backing for Smith's layered vocals, but there is a great Hammond organ solo part way throughout that allows Mark Kelly to show off a little. Long keyboard solos are a rarity in Marillion's music these days, so the old-school Hammond is a welcome addition to the track - and I think it is fair to expect at least a handful of keyboard solos on this album! This Time is still packed full of grooves, but the song ups the pace and bite in comparison to When I Fell. Despite the atmospheric sound that the album goes for as a whole, there is still a lot of focus placed on the band's rhythm section. Conal Kelly and Rogers have already struck up a strong relationship here, and their grooves and interlocking playing are key to the band's sound. This Time really showcases this, and the subtle grooves are Steely Dan levels of tight and infectious - which contrast well with Mark Kelly's usual style. I think it is this mesh of styles that makes Marathon such an interesting band. You can certainly hear elements of Marillion here, thanks to Mark Kelly's songwriting, but they have been mixed in well with other sounds to create something different. The punchier overall arrangements allow the grooves to have much more of an impact, and the vocal dominance of Smith creates a much more song-based, digestible feeling overall. Puppets is a bit more atmospheric however, and recalls the expanse of Amelia somewhat. This Time was much more of a groove-based track, but Puppets allows Mark Kelly's keyboard and piano work to dominate once more - with layers of guitar also contributing to the overall dense sound. Mark Kelly's Marillion bandmate Steve Rothery contributed some of the guitar work to the track, and his contributions are instantly recognisable. His guitar style is very much his own, and the moment that he launches into a solo here you know that it is him - and his aching melodies sound as good here as ever. Rothery's solo starts a lengthy instrumental section that features him and Mark Kelly trading solos and melodies in a way that they have not really done so since the early 1990s - and this section is a nice throwback to those early Marillion albums.

The album's final song is the four-part Twenty Fifty One, a song that seems to borrow from a number of science fiction novels and films. It seems to deal with aliens visiting Earth, but Vickers' explanation of the song is quite lengthy and academic so I have a feeling there is more to it than that. Despite enjoying the whole album, I think that Twenty Fifty One might be my favourite thing here. This is because of its dense soundscapes and the overall more progressive and harder tone that it sets. The science fiction themes allow Mark Kelly to really go all-out with a number of different synths, and the spoken-word (courtesy of Giorgio Tsoukalos) opening section Search really demonstrates this. His sparkly keyboard work allows the song's themes to shine - but Cordy and Wood also contribute to this with some spacey lead guitar work. Arrival sees Smith enter the track vocally, so the arrangement does simplify itself somewhat to allow him room to sing - but the song still sounds big. There is a lot going on here, and that is another reason why it is my favourite cut. It feels like the song where Mark Kelly has allowed everyone to really let their hair down, and the intricacies of the song really show this. A muted guitar lead or a synth run is never too far away - and this is a song that relies less on groove and more on fantastic lead playing. The guitar playing here is smooth and packed full of emotional phrasing, but there is still plenty of atmosphere to be found thanks to the many keyboard layers and Conal Kelly's melodic bass playing. Twenty Fifty One is also the song here that has the most twists and turns throughout, which is evident when Trail of Tears kicks in with its pseudo-heavy guitar riff and a warm keyboard lead that could have easily found a home on 1983's Script for a Jester's Tear. Trail of Tears is the band's most obvious instrumental 'workout' moment, and it is filled with progressive goodness, flashy guitar jabs, and spikey keyboard runs. The album rarely goes in for this sort of indulgence, but it works well here given the length and nature of the piece. It is great to hear everyone cut loose, even for a brief period, and it makes the song's closing section Brief History hit harder as a result. Brief History has more of an anthemic feel overall, with Smith's vocal melodies pushed to the fore - with the occasional cutting guitar lead to back him up. It is one of those closing sections that really brings everything that has happened in the previous six or so minutes of music together - and it works well not only to cap off the song, but also the album as a whole. The album fades out on one final guitar solo, which befits the song's spacey themes perfectly. Given both the cohesion and the diversity of what is on display here, it can only be concluded that Mark Kelly's first true solo project is a real success, and in many ways Twenty Fifty One is the song that best sums up what he was trying to achieve with this album. It is a very enjoyable piece of modern progressive rock that looks to his past occasionally, but that mostly just does its own thing and does it differently to Mark Kelly's day job with Marillion. I would certainly like to hear more from this group  of musicians going forward, and hopefully Mark Kelly can find the time in the future to produce a follow up.

The album was released on 27th November 2020 via earMusic. Below is the band's promotional video for This Time.

Thursday, 24 December 2020

King King's 'Maverick' - Album Review

Despite becoming aware of the British blues rock group King King in 2016 when they supported Thunder at the Wembley Arena in London, and also having seen them twice more by default in 2018, it was not until last year that I became a proper fan of the band. Those who know me will know that blues is not my favourite genre of music, but over the last couple of years I feel that my appreciation of the genre has grown. In fairness to me, most of the blues that I have been exposed to over the years, at least live, is what I call 'Man in Pub Blues' - i.e. third-tier bands that play for 20 people in the local pub on a Friday night, or play on the smaller stages of the smaller rock festivals. King King are certainly not 'Man in Pub Blues' however, although it certainly took me long enough to realise this. I remember somewhat enjoying their set opening for Thunder - but it was possibly the two 2018 shows that opened my eyes further. The second of the two, which was when I saw the band open for Europe in Cardiff, was a particularly impressive performance - and the band certainly made a few new fans for themselves at the St. David's Hall that night. Since then, my appreciation for the band has only grown. I now have nearly all of the band's albums, and I have become quite familiar with their back catalogue and unique, diverse sound. To me, the band sound like a mix of the more overtly-melodic end of Free, Bad Company, and Joe Bonamassa's more soulful output. There are even the occasional hints of 1990s Toto (when Steve Lukather fronted the band) and the smooth grooves of the Atlanta Rhythm Section to be found too. King King are certainly a blues band at heart, but there is a strong melodic side to their songwriting that makes each cut stand out - as well as the occasional twist and turn to keep things interesting. Fronted by Alan Nimmo since the band's 2008 genesis, King King have gone through a number of changes over the years. Nimmo has always been the band's main songwriter and focal point, but a few other great musicians have contributed a lot to the band over the years. 2019 saw a rather large shake-up in the band's line-up - and last month saw the release of their fifth album Maverick, their first since 2017's Exile & Grace, which features almost an entirely different band to its predecessor. Gone are founding bassist Lindsay Coulson, keyboardist Bob Fridzema, and drummer Wayne Proctor; and in are Zander Greenshields, Jonny Dyke, and Andrew Scott in their places. Dyke is slightly less of a new face, as he has been playing with the band since at least 2018, but the other two are still relative newbies - especially considering that the band's touring opportunities have been curtailed of late. These four musicians form the core of Maverick, but there are also lyrical and backing vocal contributions from Alan's brother Stevie. He has also joined the band as a second guitarist since the album was recorded, bringing the band up to a five-piece for the first time in their history.

Despite the big line-up change, Maverick more or less picks up exactly where Exile & Grace left off three years ago. King King have a clearly defined sound at this point, and with Nimmo at the helm and directing traffic the band are not likely to divert too far from it. The opening cut Never Give In is testament to this, and the riffier number follows in the footsteps of the band's previous harder rocking tracks. The Bad Company vibes are extremely prevalent here, and I have often thought that Nimmo was the 21st Century's answer to Paul Rodgers. He is a fantastic singer as well as a great guitarist, and he is truly the star of the band. Never Give In really showcases this, with a strident verse based around a simple riff - before a smooth chorus packed full of subtle harmonies brings the best out of him vocally. Despite Nimmo getting, and deserving, most of the plaudits here - Dyke should also receive a lot of credit for his keyboard performance throughout the album. Keyboards have always been a big part of the band's sound, but his style seems to really dominate here - and the keyboards on this album are possibly the best on a King King album yet. Fire in My Soul really showcases this in my opinion, as the opening riff sees Dyke and Nimmo join forces for a punchy keyboard/guitar combo that brings early Deep Purple to mind, before anthemic piano rhythms provide a backing for the nimble verses. Piano and Hammond organ are put to great use throughout the album, and Dyke seems to be the perfect foil for Nimmo - his ever-present keyboard wizardry complimenting both the guitars and vocals. The song is one of my favourites on the album partly for this reason, but also because of the energy that it creates. The band are never truly heavy or fast-paced, but this is one of their songs that comes the closet to such a description - with a stadium rock feel present throughout the big chorus, and a ripping guitar solo that is packed full of bluesy venom. Songs like Whatever it Takes to Survive perhaps showcase King King's core sound at its best however. Songs like Rush Hour and A Long History of Love are some of the band's best-loved tracks for a reason, and Whatever it Takes to Survive sounds like a natural successor to those tunes - although with a slightly more compact feel. The song does not extend on quite as much as those two songs do, but it is felt that when the band play the song live they are likely to bolster it out with longer guitar and keyboard solos - and it is likely to become another real fan favourite. It perfectly showcases the band's soulful side, and the chorus is one that really sticks in the head thanks to Nimmo's fantastic vocal delivery; as well as the Hammond backing from Dyke that perfectly compliments it. This is only aped by the fantastic guitar solo that comes towards the end of the song, and it helps to elevate the cut to one of the album's best.

I Will Not Fall is a little funkier, and showcases the occasional twists and turns that the band sometimes like to take - and that Toto influence that I occasionally hear in their sound. The song is a real showcase for both Dyke and Greenshields - the former's electric piano riff driving the whole track, while the latter's busy bassline provides a counter-groove to Dyke's boogie. It seems strange to have a King King track where Nimmo's guitar takes something of a backseat, but it works well and it allows the rest of the new line-up of the band to really shine. The guitars largely just provide meaty rhythms here, but Nimmo still gets to shine vocally - and he seems to relish singing atop the grooves caused by the rest of the band. A lyrical guitar solo however reminds us that this is indeed a King King song, but for me this is a song that is much more about the grooves and the tightness of the band than any individual virtuosity. While Whatever it Takes to Survive was more slow-paced and expansive, By Your Side is more of a true ballad - and it opens with Nimmo singing atop Dyke's piano. The first verse and chorus of the song maintains this stripped-back vibe, and it works really well in my opinion. King King are a band that usually have quite a big sound, with walls of keyboards and lots of solos, but they also operate well in this more reflective mode. The guitars, bass, and drums do join in from the second verse onward; but the song still remains fairly low-key. It never really explodes into a big-sounding number, but for me that is the right choice. There are lots of songs here that do have a big sound, so focusing more on simple arrangements and heartfelt vocals here was certainly the right choice - although the short, cutting guitar solo is still a welcome addition. One World has more of the band's Bad Company influence on display, although a little of the funky groove that made I Will Not Fall so enjoyable are also present here. They are not as prominent this time around, but Dyke's electronic piano during the verses helps to showcase that vibe a little; but the rest of the song is much meatier with big guitar chords and lashings of warm Hammond. In many ways, One World showcases the band's core sound perfectly. It is simply a strong slab of blues rock that sees the whole band pulling in the same direction - with a catchy chorus to top it all off. Everything Will Be Alright is an upbeat, yet laid back, rocker that is filled with positive energy and joyous melodies. The verses are a little stripped back, with Greenshields' prominent bassline creating a strong groove, but the choruses are packed with the band's trademark big sound. Dyke's busy piano playing really boosts the choruses with his barroom style; while big vocal harmonies and feel-good lyrics bring the best out of Nimmo. Even the song's excellent guitar solo has a jaunty feel to it, and it helps to keep the song's upbeat vibe present throughout its entire duration.

When My Winter Comes is another ballad, but it is even more stripped back than By Your Side. The song is a collaboration between Nimmo and Dyke - the former providing his soulful vocals, while the latter lays down some emotive piano lines. Songs of this nature often grow in size, with additional instrumentation being added throughout its length, but When My Winter Comes is a very low-key number - and it could be the most sparse that the band have ever sounded. With the exception of a few vocal harmonies added to the choruses, this song could have been recorded by Nimmo and Dyke in one take - with the piano and the vocals being its only ingredients. While I love the band going all out with their big blues rock sound, occasional moments such as this are always welcome - and this song really showcases how great a singer Nimmo is. Dance Together gets back to the band's core sound however, and also has something of an upbeat sound similar to Everything Will Be Alright. It is possibly not quite so joyous as that song, but there are still plenty of infectious grooves and melodies to be found here. Greenshields' bass once again really dominates the verses, but elsewhere it is Dyke's Hammond that fills the speakers. The song is not quite as catchy as Everything Will Be Alright however, but there is still lots to enjoy here. The guitar solo is another standout moment, its slightly thin sound helping it to stand out from the crowd. The album comes to a close with End of the Line, another highlight in my opinion that mixes the band's core sound with some of those aforementioned Toto vibes for a big sounding ending moment. The verses are quite groovy, with a playful guitar lick driving them, but the choruses are pure King King with all-enveloping Hammond and plenty of soulful vocal harmonies. In many ways, the song is one that brings together many of the ideas that are present throughout the album into one cohesive whole. The guitar licks throughout are similar to some of the funky vibes used elsewhere, while the band's core sound sounds as good as ever. It also contains possibly the album's best and longest guitar solo - with Nimmo really stretching out with lots of bluesy phrases and emotional moments that showcase what a great player he is. The song is a great closing number as a result, and it is another real highlight on an album that is filled with them. Overall, Maverick is another very memorable album from King King and one that showcases the new line-up in a great light. While this album and Exile & Grace have somewhat consolidated and streamlined the band's sound; as they do not feature the band stretching out as much as they used to; the compact arrangements really allow their best features to shine. This is an album that is extremely easy to listen to at any time, and those who love soulful and bluesy rock ought to check it out.

The album was released on 27th November 2020 via Channel 9 Music. Below is the band's promotional video for Never Give In.

Sunday, 20 December 2020

Cats in Space's 'Atlantis' - Album Review

Despite first being introduced to Cats in Space back in 2017 when I saw them open for Deep Purple in Birmingham, I have only been a true fan of the band for the past 18 months or so. While I enjoyed the band's performance in Birmingham three years ago, for whatever reason I never followed it up by checking out the band's albums. I did start to follow the band on social media however, so I was somewhat aware of their progress, but it was not until their original frontman Paul Manzi left the band last year to be replaced by Mark Pascall that I started to take notice. Pascall lives locally to me in the South West of England, so I have been seeing him in various bands locally over the years. His latest band, Departed, is one that I am quite a fan of, but I was pleased for him when he joined Cats in Space. His talents have always deserved to be heard by a wider audience, and it seems like Cats in Space, a band really in the ascendancy, was a great opportunity for him. As a result, I went out and bought a copy of 2019's Daytrip to Narnia (which I discussed briefly here), the band's third album which was released a few months before Manzi's departure, and instantly loved it. I was gutted that I had not been following the band more closely since that Deep Purple support slot, but to make up for lost time I gradually amassed the rest of the band's (thankfully small) back catalogue. This stage of my fandom of the band came to a head in December 2019, when the band came to The Wharf in Tavistock on the back of the release of their Christmas-themed EP My Kind of Christmas Album - Pascall's recording debut with the band. With a new album promised in 2020 to capitalise on the success of the new line-up, things were certainly looking rosy for the band. While things certainly are rosy for the band now, with their fourth album Atlantis now just under a month old, the process to get Atlantis out there was not without its challenges. The main hurdle was the sudden, and seemingly rather unceremonious, firing of Pascall a few months ago. While it was a shame to see him let go, especially as I thought that he had done a great job with the band on stage and on My Kind of Christmas Album, I have learnt over the years to not get too bogged down with band line-up changes! Pascall's position was filled a month or so later by Damien Edwards, who seems to have largely had a career in musical theatre rather than in touring bands up to this point, and work on Atlantis continued. As much as I like Pascall, and continue to do so via Departed, Edwards is a perfect fit for Cats in Space. His voice is very similar to Manzi's, but with perhaps a slightly more theatrical edge - unsurprisingly. This makes him the ideal frontman for a band who list Queen, Slade, ELO, and Supertramp among their biggest influences - and the Cats in Space sound that the band have forged on their previous releases is certainly alive and well here. Atlantis, however, is perhaps a little heavier than usual - with more Slade than ELO this time around. The guitar riffs of Greg Hart and Dean Howard seem bigger than ever, but the soaring vocal hooks and keyboard flourishes that define the band's sound are still present and correct. This may be down to the fact that Hart's regular songwriting partner Mick Wilson (10cc) has not contributed to the writing and arranging of the songs this time around. He still contributes backing vocals throughout, along with Emily Lynn and Lara Smiles, but Atlantis is truly Hart's project - with the occasional writing contributions from other members of the band to help flesh out his visions.

While I do not think that Atlantis quite reaches the heights that Daytrip to Narnia reached last year with its expansive and semi-conceptual approach - the band's fourth album excels in other ways and is certainly up there in quality with both 2015's Too Many Gods and 2017's Scarecrow. Atlantis is a much more song-based album than Daytrip to Narnia, but that album's lushness has been repurposed nicely here - and forged with the aforementioned riffier vibes. The atmospheric instrumental piece Dive! opens the album out in a swirl of watery sounds, layered guitar leads, and occasional vocoder-enhanced lyrics to give the effect of a submarine descending to the depths. This is a theme repeated throughout the album's artwork, but the album itself does not really echo this concept - with the exception perhaps of the closing title track. Instead however Atlantis tackles a number of a different themes, with its song-based structure getting off to a fine start with the bombastic Spaceship Superstar. In many ways, Spaceship Superstar is quintessential Cats in Space - and it is the perfect introduction to Edwards. One listen to the song should convince anyone that the band have found the perfect replacement for Manzi - as his soaring vocals really compliment the band's throwback 1970s-esque sound, and blends perfectly with Hart and bassist Jeff Brown to replicate those trademark three-part harmonies. Everything that has made the band great over the past few years is present here - from the catchy, anthemic chorus to the plethora of guitar leads and solos from both Hart and Howard. It is a song that takes only one listen to sink in, and it is a perfect opening number as a result. Revolution showcases a little of the heavier vibe that the band have gone for here, with an urgent riff opening things up while Edwards lets rip with an ear-splitting scream. Fear not however, this is not a metal track - but there is certainly more weight here than usual. The verses have a certain crunch that has not often been utilised by the band previously, while Brown's bass is pushed to the fore to add depth and additional snaking melodies. The band's trademark sound is still here however, it is just pushed through a heavier filter. The chorus is filled with big vocal harmonies and catchy hooks, and Howard's fast-paced solo is full of the band's usual melodic phrasing. As a result, Revolution is still Cats in Space - but not quite as we know it! Sunday Best showcases the band's more quirky side, allowing the band to let their inner Sparks to shine. Andy Stewart's jaunty piano melodies drive the song, while subtle Queen-esque vocal melodies elevate Edwards' voice to the next level. His history in musical theatre is put to good use here, and the song sounds like something that could have come from a musical. It has that upbeat, lyrical vibe that fills most musical soundtracks, but the band's core sound is still present thanks to a playful Hart guitar solo and a restrained grandness that hints towards their more expansive sound.

While Cats in Space are a band that are certainly influenced by the British 1970s rock scene, there are occasional American influences that also creep into their sound. I sometimes hear bands like Cheap Trick and Boston in the band's sound, and Listen to the Radio really channels the latter. In another world, this song would have been a huge hit - with Edwards' Brad Delp-esque soaring vocal melodies knotting perfectly with Hart's simple guitar chugs. Cats in Space have written a tonne of catchy songs already in their career, but this song might be their biggest earworm yet. The chorus is ridiculously catchy, and it is filled with the band's trademark harmonies and big driving piano chords. This is a song that is almost certain to become a feature of the band's live sets going forward, and it is easily my favourite cut here as it contains everything that is needed to create a perfect melodic rock/AOR track. I Fell Out of Love with Rock 'n' Roll, the album's main single, is a bit more diverse and theatrical - and sounds like a bit of a throwback to the more expansive sound of Daytrip to Narnia. Famed orchestral arranger Mike Moran adds his string knowledge to the track, while the ladies on the backing vocals add a bit of a Pink Floyd-esque vibe to some of the song's quieter moments - their voices complimenting Edwards' perfectly. As a result, the song is one of the most bombastic cuts here - and I love how it moves from a gentle, piano-based opening to a more expansive harder rock sound with emotional slide guitar lines and a powerful vocal climax that builds on some of the melodies found elsewhere in the song. It is another highlight of the album for me, and showcases that the slightly more progressive tendencies that crept into Daytrip to Narnia have not been abandoned completely here. Marionettes is similar, but it is more of a dynamic cut than a bombastic one. It was put together by Hart and Stewart, so unsurprisingly the song is quite keyboard driven. Piano melodies drive the song most of the time, but there are plenty of other great synth sounds used throughout. Despite this reliance on keyboards however, there is also a chance for the band's new-found heaviness to be displayed too - with a hard rocking and fast-paced mid-section that sees the guitars ramp up and Steevi Bacon's drums to crash through the mix. It is another great track that showcases the band's diversity, while still allowing their core sound to shine. Queen of the Neverland is another riffier track, with a great Bacon drum groove throughout, and it allows the band's desire to take things up a notch to take hold. Hart and Howard's guitars really drive the song with their choppy riffing and interlocking leads; while Edwards takes a slightly more aggressive approach vocally that showcases his diversity. The song might not be as catchy as some of the band's other efforts here, but the energy that it creates and the riffing more than makes up for this - and it is great to see the band branching out a little and indulging in more hard rock aesthetics this time around.

Magic Lovin' Feelin' has more of the band's Boston influence on show, with a big acoustic guitar presence throughout, thin guitar leads, and plenty of soaring vocal harmonies. This is the sort of song that was just built to be a vehicle for hooks - and it shows. Musically it is very simple, but as a result every little guitar flourish and vocal inflection really shines. It is possibly the song here that showcases Edwards the best, as the song has clearly been written to allow the vocalist to shine. This is another song that could have been a big single in another world, as it instantly lodges in the brain and does not easily get dislodged. Can't Wait for Tomorrow is more of a ballad, with lots of acoustic guitars throughout and a simple arrangement that rarely includes any percussion. The guitars and the subtle keyboards are largely all that back up Edwards' more emotional vocal performance - but there are vocal harmonies employed throughout to boost the sound somewhat. There are occasional moments that expand the song a little, such as a short harmonica part from Bacon and a simple keyboard solo, but on the whole this is a song that strips back the band's usual large and expansive sound into something more simple and acoustic-based. The band have done songs such as this before, and they help to provide brief changes of pace that give the listener a short break from the otherwise kitchen sink-esque approach that the band usually employ. Seasons Change is a song that merges the band's aforementioned Sparks-esque quirkiness with their current wish to be somewhat more rocky with strong results. It is great to hear some more big guitar riffs here, but they are merged well with some prominent piano melodies and synth parts to stop the heaviness from becoming too domineering. I get the impression that songs like this are the sort of direction that the band want to take going forward, and I would certainly be interested to hear more tracks like this in the future. This heavier vibe works well for the band, and they seem to have managed to fuse it well with their core sound - which will keep the band's long-time fans happy. The album's title track closes the album out, and it is one final return to the slightly more progressive approach of the previous album - but with a little theatrical goodness from Edwards thrown in. The song starts with just some piano and Edwards' expressive vocals, but it is the sort of track that slowly expands over time with the second verse building on the first with a bigger sound - before it explodes into a big chorus and a strident guitar solo. I like the way that the song is not structured in a traditional way either, and once the main chorus section has been reached it basically comes to dominate the rest of the track - with bigger vocal arrangements each time, more strings from Moran, and plenty of shredded guitar solos. It is a powerful song that brings the album to a bombastic and emphatic close - and again shows a slightly different side to the band's playing. In truth though, the whole album is really strong with so many of the tracks here becoming earworms after only a couple of listens. I still maintain that Daytrip to Narnia is a better overall album due to its scope, but some of the songs here are among the band's best yet - and I look forward to seeing how the band proceed from here now that they seem to have a stable line-up again.

The album was released on 27th November 2020 via Harmony Factory. Below is the band's promotional video for I Fell Out of Love with Rock 'n' Roll.

Friday, 18 December 2020

Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons' 'We're the Bastards' - Album Review

The death of Ian 'Lemmy' Kilmister in 2015 brought about the end of one of the most legendary British rock bands of all time, Motörhead, after a storied 40 year career. The band's demise also left both guitarist Phil Campbell and drummer Mikkey Dee out of a job - but two such well-respected musicians were never going to find themselves unemployed for long. The latter joined the Scorpions in 2016, but Phil Campbell, who was Motörhead's guitarist for 31 years of that 40 year career, decided to strike out on his own. While Phil Campbell had been occasionally touring with his sons and frontman Neil Starr as 'Phil Campbell's All Starr Band' prior to 2015, playing covers up and down the dive bars of the country, Lemmy's death made the All Starr Band Phil Campbell's main project. Rebranded as 'Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons' in 2016, the band have become fixtures on the live rock and metal circuits. Motörhead were known road dogs, often touring for months at a time, and Phil Campbell has continued on that trend with his new band - it is all he has ever known after all! The covers were soon dropped, and the band put out their debut self-titled EP in 2016 - with their debut album The Age of Absurdity (which I discussed briefly here) following suit in 2018. I did not pick up The Age of Absurdity on its release, but after I saw the band put in a stellar performance at 2018's Steelhouse Festival I took the plunge. A sweaty show at Plymouth's Junction later that year confirmed my fandom, and the band are now one of those that I will go and see live whenever the opportunity presents itself. It is not just on the stage that Phil Campbell's work ethic can be seen however, as he has been very busy with new album releases of late too. The aforementioned EP and The Age of Absurdity clearly were not enough for him, as last year he also released his debut solo album Old Lions Still Roar (which I reviewed here) - a diverse and punchy collection of songs that featured a number of guest stars from throughout the rock and metal worlds. I think that Old Lions Still Roar had been in the works for some time, but that did not stop Phil Campbell from writing and recording new music with The Bastard Sons however. Released last month, We're the Bastards is The Bastard Sons' second full-length album, and Phil Campbell's fourth release of original material in as many years. That is a return that is rarely seen these days; but his fans can be reassured by the fact that the quality has not been harmed by this regular release schedule. We're the Bastards picks up where The Age of Absurdity left off two years ago, with fast-paced tracks similar to his Motörhead compositions mixed in alongside slower, murkier numbers. While this new album is very similar to The Age of Absurdity in style, those who love good old-fashioned heavy metal, with the occasional modern twist, are sure to find plenty to enjoy here.

Anyone who wants to know what Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons are all about need only listen to the first two tracks here to get a good sense of their core sound. Weighty riffs, keen speeds, and engaging but not particularly flamboyant vocals are all key ingredients of the band's sound, and all three are on display here early on. The title track opens the album in fine fashion, and it sounds very familiar to many of the punchier songs on The Age of Absurdity (which is name-checked in the song's lyrics), with a strident riff driving the verses - while some percussive Dane Campbell drumming occasionally breaks up the pace to allow Starr to sing. Starr might not have the best voice in the world, but his primal style really fits the band's style perfectly - and he can still deliver a strong melody when required. The song's chorus is a great example of this, which is sure to go down well live with its anthemic melodies and rallying cry style. A bluesy, but expressive solo is the icing on the cake - but sadly the booklet does not credit whether Phil or Todd Campbell is responsible for it! If We're the Bastards is the band at their most anthemic, then Son of a Gun showcases the remnants of Motörhead in their sound with a roaring bassline from Tyla Campbell opening things up - before the song steams ahead with a pacey drum groove and a choppy riff. Phil Campbell wrote tonnes of songs like this with Motörhead over the years, and it is great to see that style still very much alive and well in The Bastard Sons. While Starr is no Lemmy, his no-nonsense vocal approach still works well within the context of the song - his delivery a great balance of aggression and melody. Promises are Poison is a little more groove-orientated, with a southern-fried riff opening things up before a bouncy verse showcases the band as a tight unit. There is something of a modern alternative rock/metal vibe here, which is something that the band flirted with occasionally on The Age of Absurdity but seem to have expanded on a little here. The style works well for the band however, and the song's riff is possibly one of my favourites on the whole album - especially when it backs the simple, but catchy, chorus. Bands like Shinedown certainly seem to have influenced this track, but with the band's core sound and grit still present - especially during the screaming guitar solo. Born to Roam is a bit on the slower side, and is somewhat reminiscent of songs like Dark Days from the debut album. Born to Roam is not quite so sludgy however, and it has a bit more bite and energy than the grungy Dark Days - but the vibe overall is similar. As much as I like Starr's delivery during the pacier tracks, I actually think his voice is better suited to singing songs like this. He manages to conjure up a surprising amount of emotion during this slower, weightier piece, and he really shines here. It is another strong track, with Pantera-esque grooves running throughout and another great bluesy guitar solo.

Animals returns to the Motörhead-esque pace of the band's core sound, with a style very similar to Son of a Gun with a driving metal riff and a powerful Tyla Campbell bass presence. Songs like this are probably where the band feel the most at home. Despite their slower numbers being great, and perhaps Starr being better suited to them, these faster numbers really bring the energy and allow everyone to let their hair down. Starr's aggressive delivery is on full display here, with the chorus in particular featuring a spitting performance that really adds to the overall attitude of the piece. We have heard numerous songs like this from Phil Campbell over the years, but thankfully the formula never seems to get old. Bite My Tongue opens with another stand-out riff that is packed with wah and strident, bluesy melodies - which recalls early Black Stone Cherry at times. In fact, the song as a whole has a bit of a modern southern rock vibe throughout, with great grooves and a strong sense of melody - all while the band's trademark attitude is still present. I would like to hear more songs like this from the band in the future, as the grooves throughout are great - and they allow the band to get even bigger and more expressive with their riffing. Desert Song is somewhat similar to Born to Roam, but with a more stripped-back bluesy sound that incorporates some occasional bursts of harmonica. This more stripped-back approach is another slightly new sound for The Bastard Sons, but those who are familiar with Motörhead tracks like Whorehouse Blues will recognise the style - although that rootsy style is a little more beefed up here with a grungy, emotional chorus. Desert Song allows the band to a show a different side of their songwriting, and it proves to be a great mid-album change of pace. Keep Your Jacket On returns to the band's core sound, and it sounds like a brother piece to We're the Bastards with a strong mid-paced groove and plenty of catchy riffs. Like We're the Bastards too, there is a real anthemic vibe here - especially during the faster choruses which feature some great choppy riffing and stuttering vocal melodies. Songs like this are The Bastard Sons in their natural habitat, and Keep Your Jacket On brings the best out in everyone, with bluesy solos, riffs, and melodies aplenty. Lie To Me opens slowly with a feedback build up, before it explodes into another sledgehammer of a riff that drives the song with its weight and grooves. It is possibly the heaviest track here, and the slower pace really allows this heaviness to rise to the top. The album's simple production style helps too, with great guitar tones adding to the heaviness - while Tyla Campbell's bass is very high in the mix to give the song a great rumble. Despite the heaviness, the song is still very accessible however. Starr's vocal melodies are infectious throughout, and the great pre-chorus sections that see the heaviness drop out to be replaced by some hypnotic melodies help to break up the otherwise relentless riffing.

Riding Straight to Hell opens with a choppy driving riff that reminds me a little bit of Queens of the Stone Age's No One Knows with its staccato rhythm and punchy overall style; but otherwise the song is pure Bastard Sons with its strong mid-paced groove and overall grit. While not as anthemic as a song like We're the Bastards for example, this is still a song that was clearly written with being played live in mind. The chorus features some gang vocals, which is not a technique employed by the band very often, and there are plenty of melodies throughout for a crowd to latch onto. The part near the end where the guitars drop out and leave the bass and drums alone to play the main riff is made for the stage; and the song overall is another strong addition to the album. Hate Machine picks up the pace, and is possibly the most Motörhead-esque track here. Tyla Campbell's bass has a lot of distortion on it here to ape the sound of the late Lemmy, while Dane Campbell throws in some double bass drum rolls to keep the pace up. There is a real attitude present here, and it is probably the album's grittiest piece as a result - with a great snarling Starr vocal throughout. Those who really like the last few Motörhead albums will instantly recognise Phil Campbell's songwriting style here, but The Bastard Sons have now made that sound their own, and Hate Machine is one of the band's best cuts yet as a result in my opinion. Destroyed is similar, with a fast-paced riff and plenty of attitude - but with a big punk influence this time around. There is also a little more of the band's modern alternative rock/metal influences to be found here in the production style, but overall the song is very reminiscent of many of the songs found on their first album. It is a great final burst of energy however, and it works well as a penultimate number to really give the album one final kick up the backside before the slower closing number. Waves is possibly the absolute antithesis to Destroyed then, and the slow ballad is something quite different for the band. It might seem like a strange way to end what is overall quite a heavy and fast album - but I think it works well. The song has a great bass presence throughout, which often provides the main melodies, but the guitars chime in throughout with clean arpeggios and the occasional big chord. The star of the show however here is Starr, who really nails the song vocally. His emotional performance is perfect for the song, and the vocal diversity he shows throughout the song is unlike anything else he has showcased with the band before. It helps to end the album on a real high and, as much as I like the band's core sound, I would like to hear more songs like this from the band in the future. Despite this low-key closing moment however, We're the Bastards is largely a high energy affair that picks up where The Age of Absurdity left off two years ago. There are a few twists and turns throughout, but this is largely a good old-fashioned metal album with plenty of hooks and strong riffs. These songs will no doubt sound great live, and I am sure that the band cannot wait to get back on the road and showcase them.

The album was released on 13th November 2020 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Son of a Gun.

Saturday, 12 December 2020

Pyramaze's 'Epitaph' - Album Review

If there is a progressive/power metal band out there that is perhaps the best deserving of the 'Best Band That You Have Never Heard Of' award - then Denmark's Pyramaze are probably that band. While the band certainly have their fans, and their five studio albums have all received excellent reviews throughout the years, they are certainly deserving of a much greater dose of attention. I discovered the band in probably 2008 or 2009, when I purchased a copy of their second album, 2006's Legend of the Bone Carver, from a second hand CD stall at a local market. My knowledge of metal, and music in general, at the time was nowhere near as vast as it is now - but there was something about the artwork that drew me in. I knew nothing about the band, but I instantly knew that they were a metal band and that they would probably be right up my street. When I got home and played Legend of the Bone Carver for the first time, I was hooked. I was getting into Iced Earth in a big way at the time, and Legend of the Bone Carver sounded to me like a much brighter and somewhat more progressive version of Iced Earth - but with a big helping of keyboards. This was before I knew about Matt Barlow's brief stint fronting the band between 2007 and 2008! Not too long after I got into the band however, Pyramaze essentially ceased to exist. When the band's founding guitarist and principle songwriter Michael Kammeyer left the band in 2011, I assumed that they would be finished. It indeed seemed that way for a while, but in 2015 the band were reactivated by keyboardist Jonah Weingarten, drummer Morten Gade Sørensen, and guitarist Toke Skjønnemand - with their producer Jacob Hansen joining the band as a second guitarist, alongside new frontman Terje Harøy. This five-piece line-up remains in place today, and the band have released two excellent albums since reforming in 2015. 2015's Disciples of the Sun (which I reviewed here) and 2017's Contingent (which I also reviewed here) are both fantastic albums (particularly the former) and, while Legend of the Bone Carver remains my favourite Pyramaze album due to the impact it had on me many years ago, Pyramaze are arguably the strongest that they have ever been at this point. The strength of their recent work does not seem to have gone unnoticed however, as recently the band signed to AFM Records - which is the home of their newly-released sixth album Epitaph. In my view, Epitaph is the best album that the current iteration of Pyramaze have put together yet. It takes the best elements of both of the previous albums: the soaring melodic hooks of Disciples of the Sun and the cinematic, progressive grandeur of Contingent; to create an album that is easily the band's most ambitious and diverse release to date. There is a lushness and a confidence present throughout this album that helps to set it apart from the band's other recent albums - and it is amazing how much grander, and indeed heavier, everything sounds here. I really liked the band's last couple of albums, but in my opinion Epitaph really sees the current line-up of Pyramaze come into their own - with their core sound finally forged after fusing their previous selves together. As with the band's last two albums, most of the lyrics here were written by Henrik Fevre (Anubis Gate); with some contributions from new contributor Christoffer Stjerne - but Epitaph ends in a real treat with a guest lyricist that brings the band's discography full circle.

With Weingarten being one of the in-demand composers for symphonic album intros these days, it is unsurprising that Epitaph opens in a grand fashion. The album's short instrumental title track is full of lush orchestrations and emotional piano melodies; and it works to really set the tone for what is to come. Epitaph as an album is packed full of different emotions and vibes; and the title track manages to wrap all of this up in a relatively short package - which leads nicely into the opening song proper A Stroke of Magic. One thing that is clear as soon as A Stroke of Magic kicks off with its heavy, mid-paced riff is just how heavy some parts of this album are. This is easily the heaviest and darkest album of the Harøy era yet, but the soaring melodies that the band have made their trademark are still present in a big way. I said this during my review of Contingent, but the real star of the show throughout this album again is Harøy. He has improved in confidence as a frontman with each Pyramaze album - and here he puts in his best performance yet. The song's verses, which feature something of a Tesseract-esque tech metal chug, see him taking a somewhat more aggressive vocal approach than he is known for; but his usual soaring style is unleashed during the cinematic chorus - which is the album's first real big hook. In many ways, A Stroke of Magic is a real microcosm of the album. The heavier riffing that makes this album tick is present in a big way, but the huge orchestrations of Weingarten's keyboards link things back to the band's long-established sound. It is instantly familiar as modern Pyramaze, but with a lot more grit and confidence - and it is only the just the beginning. Steal My Crown opens with some swirling keyboards, which come to dominate parts of the song, but overall it is pacier and more lush sounding than the heavier opening number - with Skjønnemand's pulsing progressive riffing propelling one of his compositional creations forward. Steal My Crown is something of the opposite to A Stroke of Magic, with the melodic sound of Disciples of the Sun really pushed to the fore. Everything here really serves the song's overall melodic quality, with the dancing synths and choppy rhythms all providing a tight backing for Harøy's smooth vocals. The chorus really sounds like something left over from the Disciples of the Sun sessions, and it is great that some of the songs here still exhibit that core melodic focus. Knights in Shining Armour is much pacier, and one of the most 'true' power metal numbers here. Written by Weingarten, the song opens with a great guitar/keyboard lead that morphs into a crunchy verse with a lot of twinkly keyboard melodies which act as a great contrast to the tougher rhythms. In true power metal fashion, melody is key here. Even though the song fits into the heavier mould that the album is pushing overall, there is still a lot of emphasis on hooks here. The chorus sounds like an old-school Stratovarius moment, but forced through a modern, cinematic filter. Sørensen's fast double bass drumming propels the anthemic chorus at speeds that evoke the Finnish band, but the modern production style and Harøy's smooth voice stop it from sounding like a pastiche.

Bird of Prey sounds like another throwback to the Disciples of the Sun sessions. It is a grand-sounding piece, but it is also quite dynamic - with somewhat heavier sections sitting side-by-side with more reflective moments. This approach works really well, with the heavier opening riff setting the tone; before the relatively sparse verses allow for a more reflective moment. The guitars are mixed somewhat into the background during the verses, their presence simply providing a subtle chug while the keyboards and vocals take the centre stage. The choruses see the return of the heavier riff from the opening moments of the song however, and the sound overall grows in stature to allow the band's core cinematic approach to really shine. Choppy guitar leads and thick orchestrations are the perfect backing for Harøy and his subtle vocal harmonies - and the chorus is another great hooky moment. Your Last Call is heavier, and opens with a flurry of drums and riffing before a twin-guitar lead kicks in to provide the song's main hook. This is a song that, like A Stroke of Magic, represents the band's now-established core sound. There is more of the band's heaviness on show here, with tech metal grooves and pulsing synths during the kinetic verses, but the vocal hooks are to die for with another killer chorus and lots of more organic piano melodies throughout to counter the modern synths and grooves. In my opinion it is songs like this that best showcase what Pyramaze are about now; with the band's mix of styles really meshing together perfectly. Particle is a similar, but there is a real focus on vocal melodies this time around. The song is still quite heavy in places, but the grooves really allow Harøy to shine. There are moments here where he sings some almost modern RnB/pop-esque patterns atop some staccato drum patterns - but his smooth delivery works alongside the synths to stop the track sounding like something from a generic modern pop album. I like the fact that the band have the confidence to try something like this however, and the song still has its heavy moments to reassure the listener that the band are still a metal act at heart. The song might not be as grand in scope as many of the others here, but the hooks and slightly strange take on the band's sound makes up for this divergence. Indestructible is very much Pyramaze to their core however, with a lush symphonic metal intro giving way to a chugging, heavy verse that slows the pace down and allows Harøy to lay down one of the best vocals of his Pyramaze career so far. During the verses he actually sounds like Kamelot's Tommy Karevik a little, which is a different vibe for him, but his usual style is employed during the huge choruses - which are the band at their cinematic best. Despite this heavier, more symphonic sound, the song is still extremely hooky. Harøy's emotional verse vocals really draw the listener in, and the explosive chorus hits them with powerful melodies and orchestrations. There is also a great Skjønnemand guitar solo towards the end that is perhaps somewhat slower and bluesier than one might expect, which is a nice twist on the overall symphonic metal genre.

Transcendence features Brittney Slayes (Unleash the Archers) duetting with Harøy, her gritty, yet melodic, vocal delivery meshing well with his smoother croon. I am unfamiliar with Slayes (although Unleash the Archers are a band that I have been meaning to the properly check out for a while), but her contributions enhance the poppy and hooky track - although I get the impression that she might be holding back a little here, as I understand that she can be quite the vocal powerhouse. Despite this however, she still sounds great and really adds another dimension to the memorable song - with her and Harøy's voices meshing together particularly well during the groovy yet frenetic choruses. One of the song's best moments however is the guitar solo, which is one of the fastest and most-explosive of the album. Skjønnemand outdoes himself here with a great flurry of notes that is something of a contrast to the more precise, melodic nature of the rest of the song. Final Hour is heavier and faster, with a great old-school power metal sound again on display - but with a good helping of the band's more cinematic approach grounding the track within the album. The chorus is one of the album's most instantly-memorable moments, with Harøy's soaring vocals really leaping out of the speakers while the keyboards dance away behind him. There is definitely a good helping of the Contingent sound here, but with some of the heaviness of the band's early albums on display too. It is a great mix of old and new, but with an overall forward-looking feeling. World Foregone also sounds like a bit of a throwback to Disciples of the Sun, with a great smoothness to its sound and a big piano presence throughout - which is unsurprising as Weingarten wrote it. It might not be the most explosive number here, but the orchestrations and the more deliberate pace helps it to stand out in another way. It is quite an emotional track with topical lyrical themes; and the content here really allows Harøy to shine. His vocal performance here is another of his best, and he manages to convey the emotional weight of the lyrics perfectly; while still ensuring that there are plenty of hooks for the listener to latch onto. The band saved the best for last however, with the epic The Time Traveller not only being the best thing here - but it might well be the best Pyramaze song to date. This is the treat that I mentioned earlier, as it is a song that brings all of the eras of Pyramaze together. Kammeyer is the guest lyricist that I teased, and both of the band's former singers, Lance King and Barlow, have returned to provide their unique voices to the lengthy, progressive song - who perfectly play off Harøy throughout. The song really is a best of Pyramaze's previous five albums - with moments that recall 2004's Melancholy Beast, Legend of the Bone Carver, 2008's Immortal, and the Harøy era all coming together perfectly. This song is a real feast for long-time fans of the band, with the band's old power metal sound being pushed to the fore at times with flashy keyboard solos and King's high-pitched vocals; while the grit of Immortal is represented by chugging riffs and Barlow's ageless croon. In many ways, this song is pure fan service - but it is executed so well that it does not matter. Each singer sounds great, and contributes their unique style to the varied song, and the rest of the band holds it all together - with solos and barrelling riffs aplenty. It is a shame that Pyramaze will probably never produce something so complete and epic again; but The Time Traveller is a real 'lightning in a bottle' moment that is easily one of the best progressive metal moments of the year. Despite The Time Traveller easily being the best song here, it is a tribute to the rest of the material here that the album as a whole still stands tall. Epitaph is a great release from a band that continues to improve; and for me it is where Pyramaze's current line-up has really come of age. There is such diversity and maturity here, but the melodies and hooks from the past are still here in spades. For me, the best albums of 2020 have largely been classic and hard rock releases, but Epitaph stands tall as one of the best examples of metal this year.

The album was released on 13th November 2020 via AFM Records. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for A Stroke of Magic.

Music of 2020 - Part 2