Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Alestorm's 'No Grave but the Sea' - Album Review

It is fair that Scottish folk metal heroes Alestorm took the metal world by storm when their released their anthemic debut album Captain Morgan's Revenge back in 2008. Their keyboard-heavy brand of folk and power metal, coupled with their Pirate-themed lyrics, made the album, and subsequently the band, a bit hit. While only the bands founding member, vocalist, and keytar player Christopher Bowes is left from the band's original line-up, Alestorm are still going strong nine years on. Three more albums and plenty of world tours have followed, and the band have created a global fanbase of loyal supporters in the meantime. While the pirate theme has become the bands USP and has made them stand out from the crowd, I also feel it has become a bit of a rod for their own backs. There are so many songs that a band can write about one fairly narrow topic, and many of the same tropes have been trotted out album after album. I feel that your average Alestorm song will fall into one of two camps. Firstly you have the band's more 'serious' offerings, which are usually songs about great pirate adventures and battles; and secondly you have the more 'comedic' offerings which are often based around alcohol humour. The latter, usually, does little for me; whereas the first is excellent and is what makes me an Alestorm fan. While all of their songs are firmly tongue in cheek, there are few bands that can create an image for a stormy sea with a ship tumbling in the waves quite like Alestorm. The band's first two albums, the aforementioned Captain Morgan's Revenge and 2009's Black Sails at Midnight, were balanced more in the favour of the epic, storytelling songs. I loved these albums and still listen to them regularly, and it is these albums that I think of the most when thinking of Alestorm. The next two, 2011's Back Through Time and 2014's Sunset on the Golden Age (which I reviewed here), definitely seemed to rely more on humour than epic songwriting to get them by. While I do not dislike either of these albums, and in fact there are still plenty of enjoyable songs on each, I felt the balance had been tipped in favour of endless references to being drunk to please rowdy metal crowds at festivals. This is why I am glad that on the band's fifth album, the newly released No Grave but the Sea, the balance has been tipped back into the favour of the epic adventures! The synthesised accordion sound that really dominated the band's early sound is back, and the addition of guitarist Máté Bodor (Wisdom) has really helped to add more weight to the riffs and solos. A few of the more light-hearted songs are present here, and a handful of those songs are always welcome, but the majority of this album really takes me back to listened to those first couple of albums in the late 2000s! Incidentally, this is also the band's most collaborative effort yet, with Bowes sharing songwriting credits with Bodor and/or keyboardist Elliot Vernon on many of the songs. The large writing contributions by these two has certainly helped to strengthen Bowes' material and has helped to make this album as strong as it is.

After an explosive drum intro from Peter Alcorn, the album's title track gets underway with a keyboard-heavy riff that sits upon a simple guitar line that packs a real punch. This song really takes the listener back to the band's early days, with a tale of piracy and sailing the seas. A mid-paced verse soon gives way to a more upbeat chorus with a slightly dancy rhythm and plenty of powerful gang vocals to back Bowes' rasp. Harsh vocals, sung thoughout by Vernon, are more widely used on this album, and they are used in a supporting role in the chorus to really increase the power. A lengthy keyboard solo fills the middle of the song, and helps to enhance the song's folky melodies. Mexico opens with a melody that sounds like something from an old video game soundtrack, before opening into another highly melodic keyboard-led riff. This is one of the band's more light-hearted efforts, with lots of references to drinking, but the chorus is so infectious that I can see this becoming a live staple for years to come. A polka-esque beat drives the verses, before the pace picks up in the choruses with a shanty-like melody and more powerful gang vocals. To the End of the World is the sort of song that made me fall in love with Alestorm in the first place. I really like it when their songs have a bit of a sinister edge to them, and this is one of those numbers. A crunching metal riff, with that trademark synth-accordian over the top of it, is the song's driving force and the overall heaviness of this riff sets the tone for the song. The verses certainly have more dirt under their nails than many of the band's recent offerings, and the chorus is a real winner with a great mix of clean and harsh vocals. It is songs like this that make you realise just how good a band Alestorm can be, and they really excel when they stay away from the overtly humorous lyrical matter. Bowes and Vernon, the band's two keyboardists, really outdo themselves here with plenty of folky melodies and doomy soundscapes that really enhance the song's mood perfectly. Bodor gets his first true guitar solo on the album too, and shows that he is probably the best guitarist the band have had with some extremely tasteful lead runs. The next song, a self-titled effort, is enjoyable but is a real barrel-scraper when it comes to lyrics. Musically, the song is fantastic with a strong upbeat feel, choppy guitars, and powerful keyboards. It is also gives Vernon a real chance to show off his vocal skills with extended periods of harsh vocals being used exclusively to good effect. The lyrics really are awful though, especially during the choruses, but I suppose it does sum up the band's USP which is key being a self-titled effort. Bar ünd Imbiss does the meatheaded pirate metal so much more convincingly than the previous number and definitely sets out the band's stall much better. Co-written by Bodor, the song is quite guitar orientated with some strong grooves in the verses and plenty of little lead breaks for him to real sink his teeth into. The choruses has a bit of a feel of Nancy the Tavern Wench but with a heavier overall vibe which makes me think that this is another song that will become a live favourite.

Fucked with an Anchor is everything you would expect it to be. Filled with angst and humorous lyrics, this song is sure to become a fan favourite. It is one of the album's most instantly memorable numbers, with a chorus that will bury itself in your head and you will probably find yourself singing at extremely inappropriate situations. The verses are acoustic-led, which gives the song a bit more of a minimalist feel, but things do pick up during the choruses with plenty of gang vocals and crunching power chords. Pegleg Potion is a real throw back to the band's early sound with a slightly thrashy rhythm and powerful guitar chords. Vernon has plenty of harsh vocal sections here too, and his voice mixes perfectly with Bowes to create a dynamic and heavy song that is still filled with melody. The chorus is packed full of catchy little keyboard leads which really make the chorus one the album's best moments. Musically this is a very strong song, with plenty of virtuosity throughout including a keyboard solo and the guitar/keyboard duel which really sounds excellent. Man the Pumps is probably the weakest number of the album's second half, and fails to pack the punch of the songs that surround it. The chorus is pretty good, and again has quite an old-school Alestorm feel, but the rest of the song has quite a plodding feel. While I do enjoy their more mid-paced numbers, I just feel this song lacks the atmosphere that the best of their mid-paced numbers possess. The guitar solo is pretty good too, and goes on for a good length, but it does not fully redeem what is a less interesting number. Rage of the Pentahook opens with a fast riff, and the verses slow things down somewhat with a solid slab of groove metal in Bodor's riff and Bowes' storytelling lyrics. There is a lot of music packed into a relatively short song and shows the band's versatility. Alcorn really shows off his skills here, with great groove-based drumming and fast thrashy beats at other points to fit the mood that is required. There is even a little acoustic-based melody at the end that is very different from the rest of the song and ensures that it ends on a strange, but also satisfying, note. The album's closing number Treasure Island is fairly lengthy and shows off all of the band's best songwriting assets. The song's intro has a bit of a prog metal feel with an off-kilter beat a layers of melodic keyboards. There are plenty of strong guitar riffs throughout, which is unsurprising considering that Bodor co-wrote this one as well (he co-wrote four of the album's ten songs in total), and that provides a bit of a change from the usual keyboard-heavy sound. That is not to say the keyboards take a back seat, as their pomp is still felt here in spades, but there definitely seems to be more emphasis on guitars here than usual. It is certainly an ambitious song, and ensures that the album ends on a high. In fact the acoustic outro, which reprises a melody from the album's title track, is really very nice indeed and has the feel of a calming sea after a nasty storm! Overall, No Grave but the Sea is easily my favourite Alestorm album since Black Sails at Midnight as it contains all the hallmarks that made that album and their debut album so great. I am glad that the band have moved away from the humorous songs somewhat and focused again on epic songwriting and storytelling.

The album was released on 26th May 2017 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Mexico.

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