Monday, 27 October 2014

#363 Electric Wizard - Time to Die

Electric Wizard are a real staple if you tread the path of doom, and I can safely say I've listened to all of their records to varying degrees of a lot. Paradoxically then, comes my admission that as much as I love their work, I've never quite known what to think; their classic records truly are classics, and yet there's never been the one in their discography - even Dopethrone, which is a monolithic statement of what stoner-doom is about. They don't have a bad album, either, despite being at times a seemingly inconsistent band. Generally speaking, they're quite enigmatic. In short, I wasn't sure what a new album was going to do for the wider landscape into which it would fall... indeed, it took me a long time to decide whether I even liked the new record, let alone think of anything substantial to say about it.

After skimming through the sample tracks online before Time to Die came out, I had mixed feelings. I wasn't at all sure whether I was going to enjoy it, and, indeed, in many ways prepared myself to not like the record. Of course, the worst thing which can happen to someone who has hastily prepared to not like something is for said thing to arrive, and be very good indeed, because that requires revaluation, and being wrong is no fun. As it happens, that's what Time to Die is - it's very good indeed - considerably more-so than I was initially expecting. In some ways - aesthetically, especially, it's more of the same, carrying on from the visual tone set by Witchcult Today and Black Masses, and sonically, this is also true to some extent; it's got the same direct riffs, it meanders less than, say, Come My Fanatics, and in general aims at catchiness more than outright delirious atmosphere. Of the three most recent records, however, I'm tempted at this stage to consider Time to Die as doing the best job, or at least, realising the band's vision most truly; it's hazier, heavier, and more drugged-up sounding than the previous two; records which are almost bare-bones by Electric Wizard standards. While I'm a fan of both, Time to Die delivers something a little more unhinged, nihilistic and negative; a return, perhaps to the triumvirate of Satan, Drugs and Negativity, as opposed to the upbeat leanings of late. For the first time in a couple of albums, Electric Wizard are playing doom metal which sounds doomed; everyone is high, but nobody is especially cheerful, and that's what I liked most about the band.

Time to Die is the most sprawling and out-there the band have been in a while, and in this regard the album is lifted a few degrees above a simple more-of-the-same verdict. It could be labelled a return to form, but it's perhaps more accurate to call it a return to an earlier style; it's got that buzzing, universe-imploding guitar tone, laced with reeling, weaving lead. The record feels less streamlined, and in Electric Wizard's case, this is a positive. Granted, the record is long, but there's surprisingly little wasted space. The first impression is one of a record which has simply got more going on, and subsequent listens reinforce it; it's thick and enveloping - granted the band never really made an album with truly non-trippy music, but Time to Die is definitely on the "oh shit, I should have taken half that much" end of the scale, which, for an Electric Wizard album, is very good news indeed. Like Dopethrone or Come my Fanatics, this album is mind-altering, and can be listened to as such with great relish. It's not the most out there record the band have ever done - but it has certainly had enough of whatever it's having to reach the brain-dissolving glory of the old days.

Nowadays, stoner doom has truly exploded into a cosmos of bands, and Electric Wizard are arguably no longer leading in their field, but with this record, they renew their license to spin some of the best doom out there. I'm pleasantly surprised, but in many ways I shouldn't have been; Electric Wizard albums are almost inevitably pretty good, and this one is no exception. It is, in fact, very good. When you get into one of these groups, there are only a couple of ways you can get out. One is death, the other is... being Mark Greening.

This is an 8.5/10.

Electric Wizard Official Site
Electric Wizard on Facebook
Electric Wizard on Metal Archives

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Live Review #012: Manilla Road w/ Firebrand Super Rock and Farseer

Sometimes, you can predict the goings on of the live-music scene to some degree. There are bands that will almost inevitably swing by this neck-of-the woods; spend enough time in the metal scene and when someone announces that Havok are playing Glasgow, your response will probably be "what, again?". It's easy to run the risk of feeling a bit jaded at the live scene; shows can become repetitive - bands who tour a lot swing past every few years, while the bands who don't tour very much continue to play their much sought-after shows in places which are very, very far - places which are better at doing metal than us. Mainland Europe, basically. I'll always enjoy live music, but you soon come to learn that not every gig - even with bands you look forward to seeing - is going to capture the highest distillation of that live-music buzz, which leaves you wondering when the next truly stand out show is going to be. In answer to that question, fate replied out of the blue with two words; Manilla Road.

It's quite tricky to truly attend to opening-acts when the headlining band is one which quite so many people have spent years dreaming of seeing some-day, including myself. Manilla Road have never come north of the border before, and their shows are few-and-far-between to begin with. Just about everyone is here for one thing, and that's not really a well kept secret. Nonetheless, the opening acts do a solid job of warming up the crowd. Farseer play solid power-metal; not too frilly and fancy, and with a nice hint of roughness - a sort of weaponized Iron Maiden. The riffs are fun, the vocals accomplished and falsetto-tastic, and the drums deliver the goods rhythmically. I'd love to compliment the bass player as well, in the name of balance, but I know almost nothing about bass. Overall, the band play a tight and accomplished set. I've seen them before, and as good as they were then, they're even more solid this time around - there were no mistakes, slips or stumbles as best I can recall, which started the show with a fresh-coat of professionalism which is reassuring to see.

Firebrand Super Rock are second up. I'm not allowed to judge bands with unusual names, considering the name of the one I'm in, but if instinct tells you to be weary of Firebrand Super Rock, ignore it. Besides, the name grows on you. They're damn good. Few vocalists look so passionately enthusiastic about what they do as Firebrand's does, and she carries one heck of a stage-presence. Backing up the excellent vocal delivery are thick riffs which really are some kind of super rock; or at least, indicative of the band's larger than life, 'hundred-percent heavy rock n' roll approach. I've seen them a couple of times, and they've never, ever played a bad show - every time they're called upon to deliver, they do - this time, they're certainly good enough to be enjoyed in their own right, instead of being something which stands between me and Manilla Road - the rest of the crowd's reaction is similar, and they receive enthusiasm from the gradually swelling numbers.

Manilla Road do their own sound check. If I was a pretentious man, I would wax lyrical about this symbolising their eternal position of underground heroes, hands-on, no nonsense... so forth. As an even more pretentious man, I'll just bring attention to it by apophasis instead. It's the usual story - a fifteen-minute sound check - the crowd occasionally start "Manilla Road" chants. Some drunk guy cheers every time a sound issues from the stage. It's probably the most excited I've been to see a band in some time, and when they begin, the whole crowd roars very earnestly. At some shows you cheer because you're supposed to - at shows like this, you cheer because you want to. I'm awful at remembering set-lists, but the band rumble through countless classics; The Ram, Cage of Mirrors, Divine Victim... legitimately countless, in fact, because they're playing an hour-and-a-half set which seems to consist of just about every song I hoped they would play. Some bands play "long" hour-length sets. Manilla Road raise the stakes a little. Considering they played a two-hour set in London the night before, and Mark the Shark got "three hours of sleep and then drove the band up here", they show impressive stamina.

The playing itself is excellent - appropriate of a band of such venerable veteran status. Bryan Patrick's vocals are excellent, reminiscent enough of Mark the Shark's vocals to feel comfortably familiar, whilst not feeling too overtly like a copy. Mark still provides backing vocals and throws in a chorus or verse here and there, but Patrick does a superb job of making-the-grade, equipped with comfortable, flowing stage-banter, to boot. The live guitar-playing from Mark the Shark outright made me realise just how damn good he is as a guitarist; you can take it for granted on the records, sometimes, getting caught up in other elements of the tracks, but the solos which he plays live are truly blistering - especially impressive when he plays sections behind his head, which is something guitarists over a certain age are just allowed to do.

The tone is superb too, doing untold amounts of justice to the bands work in a live setting; songs like Witches Brew and Masque of Red Death are given a roaring, cutting sound which sounds immense. By about half-way through, the band have fired through so many classics that you can't imagine them managing to keep raising the bar... but they do; even in the closing sections, Necropolis and Crystal Logic having been played, the crowd still roars when an "encore" of sorts - The Ninth Wave followed by Heavy Metal to the World - is played. As everyone silently asks themselves "how can they top that", they are answered. It's impressive of any band to be able to play for ninety minutes, let alone play for ninety minutes whilst keeping the set dynamic and interesting.

Seeing Manilla Road, to me, has been one of the best moments in my "career" as a metal-fan. It's a truly wonderful moment for such a band to come to my small, relatively non-profitable corner of the world. The band didn't even play to a sold-out crowd, with empty spaces littering the venue floor, but play they did, and an amazing show at that; they are heroes for coming, and the promoter was a hero for putting them on. Alas, this "review" may read more accurately as a codex of "I love Manilla Road", but in so doing, I'd be being very truthful. There's no school like the old-school, and nothing comes close to embodying this in the way Manilla Road do. Very probably the best live-show I've seen this year.

Farseer on Facebook
Farseer on Metal Archives

Firebrand Super Rock on Facebook
Firebrand Super Rock on Metal Archives

Manilla Road Official Site
Manilla Road on Facebook
Manilla Road on Metal Archives

Friday, 17 October 2014

#262 Midnight - No Mercy for Mayhem

I've been meaning to review the new Midnight record for quite a while now. Some years ago, I discovered Satanic Royalty, the band's d├ębut full-length; a record which has been consistently enjoyable to spin since I first heard it during one of those late-night Odyssey through YouTube in which were you end up isn't where you started, and you can't remember where you started anyway. I think I discovered Whipstriker that night too... regardless, I remembered Midnight first and foremost. More or less constantly since that discovery, I've kept a vaguely-vigilant eye on the arrival of a follow-up record. Earlier this year, I discovered, to my excitement, that a second-album, titled "No Mercy For Mayhem", had arrived.

"More of the same" isn't a stand-alone phrase. It is always a phrase which needs some qualification. Before I brand "No Mercy For Mayhem" as such, it's best to clarify what I mean. There are a few ways that it can work, as a term of critique. Sometimes, the context is "Thank fuck it's more of the same". Sometimes, it's more of an "oh for fuck' sake". As far as this record is concerned, being more of the same is a great plus; immediately making it feel welcome, and snugly slotting it into the band's back-catalogue. No Mercy for Mayhem feels like a continuation, a extension, and a worthy counterpart to Satanic Royalty. The similar art-style, song-style and general aesthetic-choices immediately make the listener feel at home, and re-assert that as a project, Midnight absolutely and unapologetically knows what it's doing, and where it's going, and I'm more than willing to wager that this is exactly the album most of us were hoping for. Indeed, the album fits expectations like a glove, immediately - short intro notwithstanding - unleashing a tidal wave (no bonus-track related pun intended) of gritty, nasty, but magnificent rocking goodness. Lots of bands have reaped the results of the "Motorhead but with more Satan" formula, but few - even the most renowned ones - can do it quite as well as Midnight do, and as the record demonstrates with ease, still do.

There are a lot of bands which combine the raw leanings of black-metal with a more speedy, rock and roll vibe - heck, that's what black-metal was before the Norwegians came along and had their fun. Midnight, it has to be said, sit amongst the cream-of-the-crop when it comes to doing it. Stand out features like the ear for twisted melody which this album has - quite possibly more-so than the bands previous work give Midnight a memorable and outright cool sound, in a non-contrived sense of the term; the wailing but fulfilling melodies in the title-track, for instance, have a real sneering swagger. It's the sort of music which you almost instinctively know is badass - with some genres, especially the more inaccessible manifestations of metal, it takes a while to learn how to appreciate it. Midnight on the other hand? You know it's good right from the onset; it sets you're rock-sensibilities all-a-tingling. It's fast and loud, the way it should be, and No Mercy For Mayhem offers us another serving of metal done properly. In the best possible way, Midnight could very comfortably be the house band in the Titty Twister from "Dusk 'til Dawn". If you're familiar with said movie, I'd go as far as saying the twist half-way through makes the above statement, if anything, more apt.

It's the little things in life. Often, album of the year lists are populated by large, scholarly albums; those big sixty-minute progressive genre-defining, pipe smoking ones. However, I can safely say that when it comes to looking back on 2014, the thirty-six minutes of cacophony on No Mercy... are going to have every bit as much pride of place as any other record. Some albums prove their point with scale, intricacy and complexity - Midnight do a better job than most with rock n' roll, grit, and a sprinkling of Satan.

This is an 8.5/10.

Midnight on Facebook
Midnight on Metal Archives

Monday, 6 October 2014

#361 Argus - Beyond the Martyrs

Argus are a good example of a band I listened to on testimony, expecting something quite different from what I got. They are, fortunately, also a band that, while unexpected, were still extremely good - a happy ending indeed. "Epic" heavy metal has a great multitude of cloaks with which it can enshroud itself, much in the way terms like "heavy" or "intense" can do very much the same thing. Argus represent an interesting take on the genre, one which has been going from strength to strength throughout their discography. Their third and, as I write this, most recent record "Beyond the Martyrs" is a heavy-metal experience up there with the best of them.

Beyond the Martyrs is a well executed example of a band having an epic sound without it being nauseatingly flamboyant. There are none of the overindulgence and pomposity of a genre like prog, or European-power-metal here; simply reverence to the old-school concept of epic and, for my money, proper way to do it - albeit without being a simple re-rendering of old cliches. Beyond the Martyrs ticks a great many of the abstract boxes of epic-metal; great melodies, memorable soaring vocal-lines, glimmering solos, and massive-chords. Stylistically, Argus sit somewhere on the line between a traditional and doom-laden metal sound - a style which is quite often apt to befit the term epic, and very much a style which Argus are clearly comfortable to use to its full potential, with a tempo to match. The record weaves very smoothly between slow sections which carry a hefty load of stored-energy, with chords being allowed to ring-out and bring all of their force to bear, and a plethora of victorious, striding sections which breathe triumph. At their slowest, Argus becomes a lumbering powerhouse, ready to spring into action - albeit not one which gives the impression of stalling-for-time... quite the opposite, in fact; the slow sections can often be the pay-off of the faster ones. That isn't to say that the band are one of two-extremes; the album in fact seems to avoid going especially close to high-tempos, and as opposed to an omission, this is unapologetic; the music doesn't need to go fast to do what it does best, and the striding, mid-tempo feast of riffs and melodies is easily enough to demonstrate that. Not only does the record contain songs which you remember after a single-listen, it contains songs which you know that you're going to remember while you listen to them for the first time.

Interestingly - especially for something aiming at an epic-sound, Beyond the Martyrs has quite a tidy, warm production; there's a lot of open space in the mix, as opposed to silences plugged by the decaying remnants of guitar reverb or general... noise, of some sort, as one might expect. This use of empty space in the riffs set Argus apart from a lot of their peers, and certainly gives the record a very distinctive sound. If I could better name what is going on, I would - but for now I urge the reader to listen for themselves. It is in this respect that Argus differed from my expectations - I've very seldom heard an "epic" sound succeeding as well as theirs does with production - heck, with a riff-style quite like this; the album, and the bands previous work, for that matter, feels very aerated, as opposed to cloyingly thick. It is here that I mislead myself when first approaching the music; I half-expected epic-doom, but it has to be remembered that Argus lean far more towards traditional metal than I had expected. It is an epic-sound born entirely of musicianship, transcendent of production, which in many other bands ends up as a tool with which to augment atmosphere. In this regard, Argus are epic in the manner more of a band like Dawnbringer or Pharaoh than in the manner of say, Atlantean Kodex. The record is extremely well-written, memorable, and sincere - not once does the album give the impression of winking-an-eye, or playing games; it's an earthy, honest and - if I hadn't made it clear - "epic" installation of heavy-metal.

I have put myself at quite some risk of spending the entire review discussing the concept of "epic". I hope some praise of the record has filtered through - and hopefully is present in the review both implicitly and explicitly. If more is needed, then I can safely say that Beyond the Martyrs is, itself a superb immersion into the concept of "epic" - and certainly does a better job with music than I can possibly do with words. Metal like this is fantastically enjoyable, sincere, and - at risk of sounding like an elitist (which considering I am an elitist, doesn't pose that much of a worry) - is utterly true. 

This is a 9/10.

Argus Official Site
Argus on Facebook
Argus on Metal Archives