Welcome to Heavy Metal Spotlight! On here you can find reviews and features about metal bands both known to many, and known to few. Sharing my discoveries, or adding to the discussion about well known metal music is something I deeply enjoy, and I'm delighted that it reaches people who are interested from time to time. Don't forget to like the facebook page to keep up to date more easily with what I'm reviewing, to make suggestions about reviews, and the blog in general, and to annoy me as much as you please.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

#385 Iron Maiden - The Book of Souls

You don't get a new Iron Maiden album every day. Not these days, anyway. The 80s were another story, of course - Iron Maiden, Saxon, Mötorhead... all releasing a new album every fifteen minutes or so. Now, things are different. A lot has happened since The Final Frontier - its been almost five years - which, to put that into perspective, is roughly the temporal distance between "Iron Maiden" and "Piece of Mind". Regardless, where the band have slowed down in terms of prolific output, they come to reimburse in terms of sheer ambition. We all knew that the band were moving towards extremely long records - you could project if from existing data... But this is the first of their records that has ascended into the form of the famous - or infamous - double-album; in the process, making it one of the longest records I've reviewed in some time. Fortunately, the music was good enough to make eternity feel nothing but a short while...

Not all Iron Maiden albums are created equal, but throughout their career the band always seem to make an effort. 'Maiden are, perhaps first and foremost in the world of giant metal bands, equipped with enough self-respect to steep even their most unremarkable works in a sincerity and attitude which other bands might be wise to take inspiration from. By this point, a vague bond of trust exists between Iron Maiden and every listener; you can probably expect a solid album. Nonetheless, the journey up to - and then past - a records release date is always an interesting one, particularly of a record of such magnitude as this. The rise in the intensity of expectations, the excitement, the enthusiastic first-listen to the single - which in this case an excellent old-fashioned romp of a track reminding you that the band are, first and foremost, of the heavy metal persuasion. Then, of course, time is taken to digest the entire record. Nowadays, I listen to a record like this quite a bit before casting forth any views about it. New records always have a mind-warping aura to them; they sit "highlighted" in the perspective of the bands catalogue - to review a record the day it comes out can often lead to saying things you yourself disagree with barely days after. Nonetheless, the positive first-impression of "The Book of Souls" has stood the test of a dozen listens. Fleeting hype gives way to sincere satisfaction - heck, outright enthusiasm and cheer. The record certainly deserves praise - it has the freshest production and quite possibly the greatest reserves of energy found anywhere in the bands recent back-catalogue; a vitality sometimes lost in the extensive and ambitious labyrinths of Iron Maiden's more progressive and hefty work - but not this time.

It's not that The Book of Souls is less ambitious however. A brief scan of the song-lengths reveals plenty of massive epics. No, the secret to this album lies in its seemingly inspired song-writing, as best I can tell. It's been a few years, and it sounds like they have been well spent crafting and honing the record. Even the extremely long tracks, - the monumental album closer being a prime example - have a memorable, sharp and lean feel; delivered with a clarity which was sometimes seen to meander out of focus on previous records. Extremely inflammatory and potentially hyperbolic proclamations sell very well, as far as review snippets are concerned. Mine, for this record, would be something along the lines of "this is the best-executed 'Maiden record since Seventh Son...". Brave words indeed... but the fact is, at some of the crescendos, peaks and most inspired parts of the record, I damn well believe it, too. Sure, the band don't push any sort of barrier with regards to tempo - the album tends to stick with the comfortable and spacious mid-tempo they have favoured of late. Sure, Bruce doesn't quite have the slick smoothness his falsetto used to, but I would never say it's knackered - it's just antique, and in that paradigm, it leads the charge with as much power and class as ever. It sounds older, but not, necessarily, worse - indeed, for what little wear and tear the band seem to have sustained over the decades, they don't show it one bit. Perhaps the thing which gives the record the appeal to me, personally, however, is the throwback-like feel to some of the material -  and more than just in the "Isn't that the melody from The Clansman...?" sense. The album has a balance of progressive and ambitious with downright fun that in retrospect might have been skewed far towards progressive for a long time - in fact, the great sonic victory of The Book of Souls is that it reconciles everything the band have stood for over the years; flamboyance and pomp, grit, and good old fashioned rock n' roll - exceeding expectations all the while.

"The Book of Souls" is strong. Almost surprisingly so. Iron Maiden aren't in the business of making bad albums - they never have been - but after forty years, you could be forgiven for thinking they might not be in the business of making albums which are quite this good, either. Once again, the band continue to carve a brave path, never once acting as if their legacy is over. The band always give the impression that their new album carries as much validity as anything they have ever done - and without that attitude, who's to say we'd be seeing such an excellent album by them in 2015.

This is an 8.5/10.

Iron Maiden Official Site 
Iron Maiden on Facebook
Iron Maiden on Metal Archives

Saturday, 19 September 2015

#384 Ahab - The Boats of the Glen Carrig

I can say with some confidence that Ahab are among my favourite bands. A band who have managed to capture my attention again and again, in different ways, but always ding so positively. First with the churning, engulfing atmosphere of their début - a doom record widely considered essential. Then with the blissful mournfulness of "The Divinity of Oceans", followed by the more experimental and unusual leanings of "The Giant". Each record has had its own distinct character, and yet the band have consistently managed to deliver works which not only please my ears, but have delivered me through hard times, and into calmer seas. "The Boats of the Glen Carrig", consequently, has been one of the albums this year that I have been most excited to listen to. I haven't listened to much else since it was released...

"The Boats of the Glen Carrig" is once again - as ever - a concept album. Based on the novel of the same name by William Hope Hodgson, which I happen to have read. In fact, I read it specifically because I discovered that Ahab were making an album about it... I read Poe's "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" under the same circumstances; both are excellent, might I add. Regardless, reading the source material certainly increased my anticipation for the records release, gifting the soundscapes later to be experienced with a pre-existant grasp of the book's atmosphere and narrative. In true Ahab fashion, the material lends itself to the bands music - and vice-versa. Ahab tend to write music which suits their source-material. "The Giant" is a relatively ethereal and strange record by their standards, and it's definitely no coincidence that the book on which it is based is itself a very strange one, particularly towards the end. The record reflects its source material. So too in the case of this record; the ugly strangeness and threatening denizens of the lands through which the characters in "The Boats..." travel are extremely well brought to life by, for instance, the crawling, jarring elements of "The Thing that Made Search" or the despair of "To Mourn Job". In short, Ahab have always been in the evocation game, and they continue to excel in so doing.

More conventional than its predecessor, "The Boats..." is steeped in Ahab's familiar crushing and absorbing style, with somewhat less overt experimentation and glittering sublimity - perhaps to the approval of many, although I consider myself a huge fan of both works. Behind perhaps the début, with its unique, almost one-of-a-kind tone, "The Boats..." sits very high on the table of heaviness; at times more crushing than a considerable swathe of the bands back-catalogue - and effectively done, too - a return to the reconciliation of potent atmosphere with the crushing waves of doom; the softer parts do not feel at odds with the heaviness around them. Arguably, in fact, it is something of a refinement of the Ahab recipe; the twisting, oceanic leads and tumbling riffs remain strong, while the clean-vocal crescendos once again steal the show at times, creating moments of sublime and incredibly powerful beauty, particularly during "The Weed Men" - host to one of Ahab's finest moments, as far as I'm concerned, and perhaps the stand-out track on the record. The album as a whole could pleasingly be considered to deliver not just some but all of the elements which made past Ahab records great; the murky and claustrophobic atmosphere of the first; the almost operatic uplifting power of the second, and the spirit of experimentation from the third record. The colourful artwork may have worried some, but when the day came, Ahab brought forth a record as strong as any they've made before - every bit as well-written, constructed, and played. 

Often, the more you're invested in a band, the more paranoid you become about them slipping-up; to many of us, bad records feel like an inevitability, and we fear them as such. One can never say never, after all... but for everyone worried about Ahab releasing a sub-standard work, "The Boats of the Glen Carrig", from its most crushing riff, through to its most ecstatic and cathartic soft-section replies with a resounding "Not today". The fourth album is a strange place for any band to sail through, but Ahab have navigated those weird waters well.

This is a 9/10.

Ahab Official Site
Ahab on Facebook
Ahab on Metal Archives

Monday, 31 August 2015

#383 The Ruins of Beverast - Rain Upon the Impure

The Ruins of Beverast have been something of a stand-out band of the black metal scene over the last decade or so, offering a unique take on the darkness and atmospheric elements present in the genre - and if you're skimming through, I dare suppose that praise summarises this review as a whole. In the process, the band has created some of the most thick, substantial and successfully ambitious records the genre has ever seen, whilst at every hurdle succeeding in avoiding the trappings of gratuitousness, pretentiousness and insincerity. Whilst I could have reviewed any of the bands four full-length albums happily, my focus today falls on "Rain Upon the Impure", which, as my introduction to the band at the start of this year, cements it as one of their most significant works, in my mind. By coincidence as much as anything else, it also appears to be one of their most highly regarded works throughout the community at large.

"Rain Upon the Impure" is 79-minutes long. Not because that's about as much as you can fit on a CD, nor out of any pretentiousness; the album is not needlessly extended, but is such a sonic leviathan  because it needs to be. It works that way. The record is as a vast set of catacombs, in which the listener is engulfed and overwhelmed by its murkiness and vast, sprawling scale. Through the gloom, sublimely absorbing choral atmospherics ensnare and widen the eyes; a surreal descent through vast subterranean ritual halls. None of the run-time is wasted; all contributing to the individual beauty and atmosphere of its moments and tracks, while also forming a rich and cohesive whole; an album which, despite having a length which could easily be considered to be "hard work", nonetheless feels healthy and well utilised. The whole thing drips and oozes with atmosphere, cavernous but coherent, superbly composed and constructed as it churns and undulates. The crawling, pulsating soundscape lures the listener into a darkness which to the untrained ear may resemble that which many black-metal records can conjure, but which is nonetheless different. In a genre where albums often take the listener to unusual places, The Ruins of Beverast take the listener to somewhere before unexplored. While the occult atmosphere carries a striking familiarity - that's easy enough to grant - it also takes the black metal sound to Cyclopean subterranean depths to create something which no other band seems to.

The hazard which often befalls albums with extremely long songs - or simply long albums - is that of songs meandering purposelessly, or outliving their welcome. Through one factor or another, this simply does not appear to be true of "Rain Upon the Impure". Looking at a piece such as the album closing title-track reveals a 14-minute behemoth of a song in which every second is nonetheless utilised; lean and mean, but nonetheless enormous. Perhaps to reiterate the above, much about the album is so vast because it needs to be. It's a testament to strong song-writing ability to create a record of such magnitude with very few, if any, moments which leave the listener idle or bored of the soundscapes being offered up. As well as being compositionally impressive, "Rain Upon the Impure" demonstrates equally impressive musicianship; the drumming hits a level in terms of precision, technique and endurance which most black-metal drummers can only dream of, resulting in a deeply pleasing percussive integrity and intensity throughout. The choices with regards to guitar tone, sampling, and vocal-style all also collaborate excellently in the mission of rendering the album magnificent in its execution, whilst simultaneously avoiding many of the production-related follies which befall most one-man projects. Indeed, the testimony of my ears to my mind suggests that the record is one with very, very little wrong with it at all. 

 "Rain Upon the Impure" is truly a record of advantage without disadvantage. Vast without being bloated, unusual and bizarre without being comical or excessive. Crushing without sacrificing clear and potent production values... the list goes on. The record is an epic one in the earnest and meaningful sense of the word. For my money, it deserves to be held aloft aside almost any of the very best that the last ten years has to offer - within black metal, extreme metal in general, or even metal as a whole.

This is a 9.5/10.

The Ruins of Beverast on Bandcamp
The Ruins of Beverast on Facebook
The Ruins of Beverast on Metal Archives