Sunday, 23 February 2014

Behemoth's 'The Satanist' - Album Review

I should probably mention before starting this review that 'extreme metal' (for want of a better term) really is not my area of expertise and is not something that I listen to very often. Every so often I try and make more of an effort to understand and enjoy it but these adventures usually fall flat. That being said, there are a few bands in the 'extreme' category that I genuinely enjoy like Dimmu Borgir but Poland's Behemoth are now being added to that small list! I know little of the band's history and, before hearing their latest and tenth studio album The Satanist, had heard very little of their previous work but I shall now make more of an effort to explore the band's extensive back catalogue as I have been enjoying The Satanist a lot recently. There seems to be a lot of debate over whether Behemoth's music falls into the black or death metal categories. I would say that they seem to be a perfect marriage of both sub-genres of metal that takes the best bits from each and creates a powerful sound that is complex in places and brutally raw in others. Despite not knowing too much about the band's past, I did know about frontman Adam 'Nergal' Darski's battle with lukemia throughout 2010 and 2011 so I am glad that he has made a full recovery. I suspect that his experiences with the illness and his subsequent recovery have influenced this album and the sense of anguish that permeates through it. His deep, harsh vocals and almost-traditional metal guitar riffs are the driving force of the album but the tight and dextrous rhythm section comprised of bassist Tomasz 'Orion' Wróblewski and drummer Zbigniew 'Inferno' Promiński create a solid foundation for Nergal's riffing and often steal his limelight with their immense talents. The band's line-up is completed by long-time session rhythm guitarist Patryk 'Seth' Sztyber who beefs up the sound with his solid riffs. One of the reasons I do not listen to a lot of extreme metal is that the production qualities used are often not to my taste. The really raw garage sounds often grate on me and I find it physically hard to listen to, but this album gets it right as far as I am concerned. It sounds huge and polished enough to make it easy on the ear but retains enough of the rawness that is essential to the overall sound of extreme metal.

The album starts off with the leading single Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel that opens with a swaggeringly simple guitar riff and Nergal's bellowing vocals before Inferno's drums begin to build up and the song evolves into a pounding mid-paced rhomp. Towards the middle of the song, everything drops out leaving Orion's solitary bassline before morphing into a real black metal workout complete with blast beats, demonic choirs and some dissonant guitar work. This song is probably the best example of the marriage of two sub-genres that I mentioned above and is sure to appeal to anyone who likes either. Furor Divinus is a faster song right from outset and has a real black metal vibe with the tremolo-picked guitar lines and the subtle string arrangements that envelop the whole song. Nergal's vocals throughout however are very much at the death metal end of the spectrum. He does not really use the high-pitched screams that black metal bands tend to utilise, and instead focuses on the lower register of his vocals. It is a short song that is over as soon as it has begun but it packs a lot into a short running time. Messe Noire is probably the epitome of the sense of anguise that I described earlier. The verses seem to be a cry for help before the more oppressive chorus sections crush all hope of redemption with some lightning fast work from Inferno. This song also contains one of my favourite moments musically on the entire album. Nergal's guitar solo on this song is something of real beauty and is an injection of simple melody in an otherwise very atonal and dark song. Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer moves back towards more traditional black metal territory but with a much simpler riff and structure that brings to mind melodic death metal and the so-called 'Gothenburg Sound'. Short breaks of lead guitar help to to emphasise this comparison before an anthemic mid-section comes in backed by a simple 4/4 beat from Inferno and a driving bassline from Orion. The swagger of the album's opening song is back throughout this section before the pace picks up again to close out the song. Amen is another furiously fast song with slow dissonant guitar leads that create a strange atmosphere over the really fast drumming. It is a very angry song that, like Furor Divinus, does not let up throughout it's relatively short duration. There is a really crazy, off-key guitar solo too that sounds awesome in the song's context.

The album's title track is up next and it starts out with a very haunting intro built around some clean guitars and tribal-style drumming from Inferno. The clean guitars carry on into the verses where they are backed up by some fat bass guitar and some hammond organ courtesy of Michał Łapaj (Riverside). The addition of the organ to this song gives it a slightly retro feel in places and the structure of the song is once again quite simple, giving the instruments and vocals space to shine. It also features another very good guitar solo from Nergal that, albeit short, is very moving. Ben Sahar follows on from The Satanist perfectly and carries on some of the themes established in that song. The clean guitars return in places but the pace is overall much faster as Inferno's simple double-kick drumming drives most of the song. The song occasionally slows down to more bass-lead sections that are rather atmospheric and this is continued with Nergal's guitar solo, as it is backed up by some nice strings. In The Absence ov Light marks the return of the blast beats heard on previous songs and sounds like a real black metal classic. However, it is not long before it reduces to a spoken word section backed by only acoustic guitars and some strained saxphone lines played by Marcin Janek. It is quite unexpected after the furious start to the song, but it is a welcome change of pace and it is not long before it returns to it's metal roots. It is probably the most varied and dynamic song on the whole album, and it has a distinctive progressive vibe throughout. The album's final, and longest, song O Father O Satan O Son! is also one of the most interesting and is a perfect way to round out the album. Orion's bassline at the beginning is full of melody before the song takes on an epic arrangement that Dimmu Borgir would be proud of! The strings are very prominent here and give the song a grandeur that is fitting for a closing number. The main guitar riffs and drumming is very simple though, which works well, as it lets the strings create the main melodies and atmosphere. The progressive vibe continues throughout this song and it moves through many distintive sections before coming a final, big close. Another spoken word section towards the end builds up to a dramatic climax and is a satisfying end to a powerful album. Overall, The Satanist is an excellent album that I am sure, come the end of the year, will be topping many people's album of the year lists - especially those who are more into extreme metal. While it probably will not be doing that for me, it has helped me to open a door on a genre of music that I have never really connected with and will persude me to try much harder with in future!

The album was released on 3rd February 2014 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Grand Magus' 'Triumph and Power' - Album Review

Swedish heavy metal band Grand Magus have been working tirelessly since forming in 1996 and have cemented their reputation as an excellent live act. Starting out with a more bluesy, doom influenced, sound they have moved down a more traditional heavy metal path on their last couple of albums: 2010's Hammer of the North and 2012's The Hunt. I love these two albums but I have not heard much of their material that came before them but you can be assured that I will investigate the rest of their albums as soon as possible. Triumph and Power is their seventh studio album and builds on the sound the band created on their last couple of albums. This a traditional metal record clearly influenced by early Rainbow and Judas Priest. For a three piece, Grand Magus make a lot of noise. Founding members Janne 'JB' Christoffersson on vocals and guitar (fresh from his contribution on last year's well-received Ayreon album The Theory of Everything) and Fox Skinner on bass have an excellent chemistry and drummer Ludwig Witt keeps it simple and powerful to bring the whole sound together. This is an album that will appeal to a lot of metal fans. It has enough melody and hooks to appeal to people who like classic and traditional metal but is not cheesy or overly polished so it will not alienate those who are more into doom or metal that is just a little heavier overall. There are plenty of sing-a-long choruses to be found here, but they never feel forced or trite. It is not the most original album but it is honest, powerful and extremely memorable. The riffs will stick with you and the choruses will make you wish you were at one of their concerts singing it at the top of your voice with a bunch of other metalheads. The album's production is also very good and Nico Elgstrand has done an excellent job getting the band's sound just right. It is raw but very tight, which is quite a hard sound to nail. Having an album that sounds too raw often sounds messy, but polishing up Grand Magus' sound would ruin the power and simplicity of the music. The drums in particular sound excellent. In a world of overly produced drums and triggers, these sound like the real deal. They are deep and booming and feel live. This is how drums should sound on this sort of traditional metal album and they have gotten it right here.

The album opens with the excellent On Hooves of Gold which is likely to work really well as a set-opener live. Sounds of rain, thunder and a galloping horse are the first things you here before some delicate, slow clean guitar and a tormented choir come in over the storm. The song slowly builds up and becomes a solid mid-paced rocker with plenty of rumbling bass and JB's deep, booming vocals carrying the melodies. The chorus is a real fist-pumping affair with simple lyrics that will go down a storm live. The guitar playing in Grand Magus is never flashy but JB's solos are always enjoyable and melodic. Steel Verses Steel is another really good song. The riff is really memorable and is probably the best on the album overall. The chugging verse is cliché but satisfying and at just the right pace to be able to headbang comfortably to. The chorus is very strong too. Songs about battles are quite commonplace for Grand Magus but the fans know that going in and will lap up powerful songs like this. The guitar solo is short but right out of the top drawer of traditional bluesy metal soloing. Fight follows but does not quite pack the same punch as the first two songs. It is a faster tune that is enjoyable but the melodies do not quite stick as well as the others. Skinner's bass sounds ridiculously big on this song. The thing about being a three piece is that the bass must also play the part of rhythm guitar and fill all the space left by the sole lead guitar. Skinner manages that well and his bass playing is an integral part of what makes Grand Magus sound so big. This song does have the best and longest guitar solo of the album so far though and the chorus is still pretty catchy. The title track is probably my favourite song on the album. The big riff sounds really dirty, almost like something you would expect to hear on Black Sabbath's Dehumanizer album, and the stripped back verses where Skinner's bass guitar dominates are in stark contrast to the really epic chorus. What a chorus it is! I defy anyone to listen to it and not feel the need to sing it stupidly loudly! The key change in the final chorus is also awesome. JB is not a singer with a massive range but he still manages to pull it off without sounding strained. Dominator is another solid metal song with a chugging riff and pretty predictable lyrics. It steams along at a good pace but it not up to the quality of the excellent song that came before it.

After a short bluesy acoustic instrumental Arv, we are treated to the heavy Holmgång. The choir from the first song returns (which just sounds like JB's voice layered opon itself many times). The guitars are really scratchy here which really helps with the overall mood of the song. The chorus is, again, massive and features some cool melodies and vocal phrasing to create something very catchy and aggressive. The Naked and the Dead is another excellent number. Driven by a simple, pounding beat from Witt, the guitar riffs are choppy and heavy. The chorus really sounds like something Ronnie James Dio might have come up with and is another one full of melody and big hooks. After another short instrumental Ymer, which is very similar to Arv, we get to the album's closing number The Hammer Will Bite. Some really nice clean guitar heralds the song's beginning before morphing into a heavy, plodding song that is the perfect end to the album. JB's voice really soars throughout this song. I really like the doomy section about two thirds of the way through where acoustic guitar cuts through the sludgy electric guitars and JB uses the lowest register of his voice to sound really menacing before letting rip with a short guitar solo. The last section of the song is an instrumental with some really melodic and hypnotic clean guitars that slowly fade out, bringing the album to a very melancholic close. It might seem like an odd way to end a metal album, but it brings the album full circle as it slightly echoes the introduction to On Hooves of Gold and the two small instrumental passages. At first, those two little pieces may seem pointless but they fit in with the overall theme of the album and give you a break from all the pounding metal as there are no ballads or slower tracks to really break up the pace. The fact that the sound occationally reduces back to a basic acoustic guitar line gives the album a certain flow and consistency that is welcome and interesting. Overall, this is another solid album from the Swedes that will please many a self-respecting metalhead. Sure, we might have heard it all before and this is not anything terribly original, but it's immensely satisfying and is sure to down to an absolute storm live!

The album was released on 3rd February 2014 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Triumph and Power.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Red Dragon Cartel's 'Red Dragon Cartel' - Album Review

While he may not quite be a household name like Randy Rhoads or Steve Vai, Jake E. Lee is still one of the big hitters when it comes to 1980s guitar music. Cutting his teeth on two excellent albums with Ozzy Osbourne, 1983's Bark at the Moon and 1986's The Ultimate Sin, and then breaking away to form his own band Badlands, Lee has always given guitarists something to talk about. His wide rage of styles, from flashy shredding to melodic blues, has always kept him near the top of the tree and is well liked and respected throughout the rock and metal worlds. Since Badlands broke up in 1993, not much has been heard from Lee. He released few low-profile solo albums during the late 1990s and 2000s, and appeared on Enuff Z'nuff's 2009 album Dissonance, but apart from that he seemed to be in a state of semi-retirement. Last year however, news broke that Lee was forming a new band called Red Dragon Cartel and he would revisit the genre and styles that made him famous in the first place. The band, formed by Lee and bassist/songwriter Ronnie Mancuso (Beggars & Thieves), released their debut self-titled album last month which has been pretty well recived by the rock and metal community. As well as Lee and Mancuso, the band features frontman Darren James Smith and drummer Jonas Fairley. Red Dragon Cartel is not really a band effort though, as only the first song actually contains all four of these people playing together. It is an album that was clearly recorded over a period of time with lots of Lee and Mancuso's friends being recruited to help out with the performances. As a result, we get some solid drumming performances from Brent Fitz (Union; Vince Neil; Slash); the rumbling bass of Rex Brown (Pantera; Down; Kill Devil Hill); and the guttural rasp of Paul Di'Anno (Iron Maiden; Battlezone; Praying Mantis) to name but a few. Despite the numerous people that were involved in the writing and recording of the album, it still manages to sound focused and it definitely has it's own sound. Those people expecting this album to sound like Bark at the Moon or Badlands will probably be disappointed. The album has quite a 1990s sound overall with a dirty mix that I really like. I am not usually a fan of this kind of production, but it works well here. Kevin Churko has been involved in the mixing and mastering of the album which is probably why it sounds the way it does. If you think about how Ozzy Osbourne's latest couple of albums have sounded, particularly 2007's Black Rain, then you will not be too far off imagining how this album sounds.

The album gets underway with probably it's best track Deceived. The opening riff is clearly a homage to Bark at the Moon but pulled into the 21st Century. While public opinion seems to be as yet undecided on Smith's voice, I really like it. His voice is not the best, but his attitude and delivery make up for that. He really gives it his all throughout the album (he sings on five of the album's ten songs) and it makes me wish that he sung on them all! It is clear from the off that Lee did not make this album to show off his skills. He made this album to showcase some great songs, so his solos and guitarwork is always tasteful and always to the benefit of the overall song. This is only song on the album that all four of the band members play, and that really bodes well for their future as an established band. Shout it Out has a very 1990s sound with a rhythm that borders on being industrial with Fitz's off-beat drumming. Cold atmospherics encase this song, giving the verses quite a bleak feel, and it is driven by a bass tone that sounds like it came from Marilyn Manson's 1998 album Mechanical Animals. The chorus is much more upbeat though and is likely to be stuck in your head for weeks after hearing it. Lee's solo in this song sounds dirty and tortured and that fits in with the overall mood of the piece. Not a song I expected to hear, but one that I like a lot. Feeder has been avaliable on Youtube for quite a while now and is probably the first Red Dragon Cartel song that most people heard. It features the Cheap Trick duo of Robin Zander on vocals and Tom Petersson on bass guitar, as well as Jeremy Spencer (Five Finger Death Punch) on drums. Zander puts in a good vocal performance and his strained deliver actually helps with the song's sound. It has another excellent chorus that really grows on you over repeated listens and plenty of tasty lead breaks from Lee. Fall from the Sky (Seagull) is the album's ballad and allows Smith to show us a gentler side of his vocals. It is a very hypnotic song that does not rely on big hooks or clichés to draw you in, but attempts to put you in a state of serenity. Lee's solo in this song is much more traditional though, making great use of melody, but does speed up towards the end to something more akin to his days with Ozzy. If anything will rouse you from the previous song's trance then Wasted will. It is a pure punk metal song and Di'Anno puts in a solid performance. There is not really much to say about it other than it is an uncompromising slab of metal that I am sure will go down well live.

Slave picks up from where Wasted left off with more heavy riffing and attitude. The song's main riff is probably the most interesting on the album, backed up by Spencer's double kick drumming and Brown's bass. Along with Deceived, this is probably my favourite song on the album because of it's great riff and passionate vocals from Smith. The solo from Lee is probably the album's flashiest too, which fits in well with the excellent main riff. Big Mouth features Maria Brink (In This Moment) on vocals and she does a good job singing over a very Sabbathy riff. It is quite a doomy piece that moves along at a slow pace and her expressive voice works very well. Her bandmate Chris Howorth also gets to trade off guitar solos with Lee at the end of the track. War Machine continues the Sabbath-esque riffing from the previous track and Smith even does a pretty good Ozzy Osbourne impression here. It is another really solid metal song that relies on very simple riffs and melodies to keep you entertained. It is songs like this where Churko's dirty production really works wonders. It turns what is a pretty average riff into a hulking monster and it sounds great. This is the last song on the album that features Smith on lead vocals, and overall he can be very proud of his contributions to this album. If this band turns into a full-time project for all involved, I look forward to hearing more of him on their next album. Redeem Me features Sass Jordan (S.U.N.) on vocals and her bluesy delivery is in stark contrast to everything that has come before on this album. It is probably the song closest to Lee's work with Badlands and fans of that band will find a lot to like in this song. Jordan has a very strong voice and sounds a little like Pamela Moore in places. It is the last rock song on the album and contains all the hallmarks of the band's sound up to this point. It leads nicely into the final song, Exquisite Tenderness, which is an instrumental played by Lee entirely on the piano. The album's liner notes say that it is the first song that Lee ever wrote, when he was learning the piano when he was six years old. It is a nice, if strange, way to end a rock album and shows that Lee is much more than just an 1980s shred guitarist. Overall, this is a solidly enjoyable album from someone who has been away from music for far too long. I just hope that the narrow-minded section of the rock community (which unfortuntely is quite large) will give this a chance and not dismiss it because it does not sound like Bark at the Moon.

The album was released on 27th January 2014 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Deceived.