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.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

#387 Windhand - Grief's Infernal Flower

Stoner doom - and its more-or-less psychedelically inclined henchmen - amount to a sub-genre which, without overstating, there's a fucking lot of at the moment. Especially in the last half-a-decade or so, the swarm of artists playing it, or similar styles, has reached saturation point - not necessarily a bad thing - a genre flourishing, many would say... But likewise, the generic, the unadventurous and the derivative within doom are at something of a high-tide of late. Indeed, at times it reaches an extent enough to slightly turn me off the genre - or at least take a break and listen to something else. Not through any sort of elitism, you understand, but more an intermittent reluctance to believe anything especially exciting was being done - particularly in the more conventional realms. In a world where so many bands make something reasonable out of the established tropes of a sub-genre, it takes something that bit more special to make something great from those very same ingredients. That's where Windhand come in.

Windhand's new record "Grief's Infernal Flower" is as good a launchpad back into enthusiasm as anything else I've crossed paths with recently. How much the band re-invent any kind of wheel is debatable - their work is distinct in several ways, particularly the powerful, haunting and instantly recognisable vocals of Dorthia Cottrell - but likewise, the guitar-work borrows very overtly from the bible as written by the greats of the genre; particularly Electric Wizard. Many of the hooks, riff-styles and approaches to solo-playing are clearly following that line of influence - embodying stoner-doom tropes with great comfort indeed. However, as picked-clean that doom-bible might appear to be -  however many of its pages have been used for roach-cardboard over the years, there's still some good stuff left in there, and while, as hinted above, there's no wheel-reinvention going on, the band nonetheless comfortably carve their own sonic empire. "Grief's Infernal Flower" keeps a tight hold on the reeling, mournful banner of it's predecessor "Soma", whilst refining it into a record which is arguably a step up from it. Immediately memorable and potent vocal lines and patterns differentiate the character of separate songs with ease, casting the bands vast, ethereal and mournful atmosphere with greater clarity and focus; while still a sprawling and intoxicating soundscape, this one meanders less, and achieves more.

Tonally, Windhand have always had something special - and as the record demonstrates keenly, something which continues to ripen and blossom; the bruising and engulfing guitar-tone at once succeeds in being heavy to the point of being noteworthy, but likewise has a pleasant texture, and is something which can be enjoyed on that basis - some doom bands have a tone so filthy or distorted that enjoyment comes not from how pleasant it is, but how extreme. This is not the case here; the surreal and magical world of "Grief's Infernal Flower" - cold, awe-inspiring, melancholic - is absolutely complimented by the tone used - and indeed, more broadly complimented by the coming together of all the elements used. Nothing seems out of place - and while for the most part the record is quite a conventional one, it is in some way optimised - in some way honed and put together in such a way as to best capitalise, bringing together, fruitfully, elements not just of stoner doom, but a more sombre and sober side reminiscent of more traditional doom metal (the artwork itself is, by accident or by design, reminiscent of "Die Healing"), conjuring forth the intoxicating atmosphere not just - or chiefly - a narcotic haze, but the colder intoxication of the bare and captivating night-sky, all the while drawing the listener out of their body with a sincerity which other bands are often wont to squander.

The fact I can't think, off-hand, of any other 2015 stoner doom albums at this moment does not mean that's the sole reason I'm willing to consider "Grief's Internal Flower" one of the best of the year. The album is, beyond that, genuinely very good indeed. Time will tell, of course, but my satisfaction with the record over the last month or so of listening has been consistent, and I'm more than happy to label this record Windhand's best output yet.

This is an 8.5/10.

Windhand on Bandcamp
Windhand on Facebook
Windhand on Metal Archives

Sunday, 18 October 2015

#386 - Black Breath - Slaves Beyond Death

I got into Black Breath just as "Sentenced to Life" came out, back in early 2012. Among other things, it was the first time I'd ever heard a HM-2 guitar tone used, which definitely played a part in how incredibly blown-away I was by how monstrous it sounded. Of course, several years later, I've heard plenty more bands utilising that classic Swedish sound  - many of them actually from Sweden - but my appreciation of Black Breath's work has not been diminished by a grown understanding of the musical context within which they exist. In fact, it has been quite the opposite; both of the band's full-length albums are still among the records I listen to the most. Another, perhaps more relevant side-effect of discovering the band just after the release of "Sentenced..." is that it's the longest time I could possibly have waited for a new album - and consequently, the prospect of "Slaves Beyond Death" was an exciting one indeed...

Before tackling the meat of the album - in short, what it sounds like - some words about artwork are needed. Paolo Girardi is an extremely talented artist - much in the way that Christophe Szpajdel is a great logo designer. Both suffer from the same problem; a lot of their output looks more or less the same. While all of Girardi's artwork is very accomplished, its often limited palette and thematic content leaves the artwork of "Slaves Beyond Death" just another beige cobblestone on a road paved by his work. It's also unclear how well it suits the bands ethos and sound; lacking in the appropriate sharpness and power to evoke the band's music. The idea itself is a powerful one, but could have been executed better. Of course, the sway of the aesthetic element of a record is generally outweighed by the musical one - and so it would be wise to swiftly move along to that. "Slaves..." is a solid, if slightly confusing, listen. The record is much less compact than its predecessors - more sprawling, arguably more ambitious, and, consequently, sometimes less intense. The songs are substantially longer - at times granting the music more room in which to make its impact, but often leaving them feeling diluted, and at its worst, haphazardly arranged; several tracks reek slightly of the gratuitous; their intros feel like they have intros - we're 01:35 into the song now, are we quite done? The bursts of energy are slathered and tarred in mid-tempo riffs - sometimes to the point of weariness. The production feels more blunt; the vocals quieter - in striving to be more evil and more - for want of a better word "proper" as opposed to the unrefined roaring in previous records, they lose quite a bit of impact, both in the mix, and overall in their delivery. Likewise, the guitar work can come across as a little bit neutered of the extreme heaviness found previously, even if, and I'm more than happy to admit, the riffs still truly ooze with skull-splitting heaviness, which, for all the criticism I just delivered, is still true.

Nonetheless, despite all that I've just said, I'm not as displeased as it might seem. I did enjoy Slaves Beyond Death, but it's certainly an enjoyment tinged with surprise - the record represents a pronounced change in direction, and, perhaps bravely, perhaps foolishly, a step away from the sheer intensity which, as far as I understood it, was Black Breath's thing. At times the record steps up to the familiar strobe-lit Armageddon that the band traditionally deliver - but chiefly, the shattering glass and wide-eyed abandon evoked previously now has as an accomplice a fair bit of experimentation with the grandiose, with the obtuse and the vast interlaced into it - and while it would be overly harsh to call it "experimentation gone wrong", it doesn't make it past "experimentation gone... okay" in my eyes, at least if I try to compare it strictly to the previous records. Maybe the story behind all of this is simply thus; maybe records like "Heavy Breathing" and "Sentenced to Life" are beyond replication? Maybe the band thought so, at least. Maybe the band thought that recipe had run its course - and I find this most plausible... but I dare say a lot of us didn't feel like it had run that course just yet. Whatever the reason, "Slaves..." is a very different record to what came before, and one which makes it challenging to listen to; the question of what to look for in the labyrinths of its sound is ambiguous; to understand it in the paradigm of the Black Breath of old is to be disappointed - but to understand it, or attempt to, with regards to its own, isolated merits reveals a competent and enjoyable record - not the record I expected, or, indeed, quite the record I wanted, but nonetheless one that bears at least most of the marks of being a good one. Wherever the bands sound is destined - and with an eye to where it came from, I think "Slaves..." is destined to be viewed as a transitional work, and perhaps, with time, one which might become viewed as underrated.

 "Slaves Beyond Death" is a worthwhile album - that's still absolutely true. Approached with an open mind, it's solid stuff, and maintains a degree of the captivating genre-ambiguity which the previous records had. A change in style, for sure, but not so drastic as to fall dead from the presses. It will disappoint some, be met with indifference by others, but, for the most part, meet with a reasonable level of approval, I expect. Different, and a bit of a shock to those expecting or hoping for "more of the same" - but not the sort of shock which ruins the album. I'm already looking forward to the next record - not least so I can say I "called it" if this one proves to be a transitional work.

This is a 7/10.

Black Breath Official Site 
Black Breath on Bandcamp
Black Breath on Facebook
Black Breath on Metal Archives

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