Clutch – Sunrise On Slaughter Beach review

Clutch are one of the most consistent and hard working bands in rock and roll. The Maryland Stoner Rock outfit released their thirteenth full-length studio album, Sunrise On Slaughter Beach, in 2022. It was produced by Tom Dalgety (Ghost, Royal Blood, Pixies) and released on the band’s own Weathermaker Music.

I think its fair to say Clutch have never made a bad album, and although some albums are more popular than others, if you like Clutch you are probably in for the long haul, enjoying something off of each of their varied but always distinctly Clutch-sounding albums. Sunrise On Slaughter Beach is a great album. I mean, of course it is, it’s a Clutch album, that almost goes without saying, you know you are going to get a couple of songs you’ll remember for the rest of your life, a load of clever quirky memorable lyrics, some cool guitar/bass lines that get stuck in your head for weeks and exceptional drumming beyond all of their peers… but even for a Clutch album, and the inherent high standards that implies, this is a strong outing.

The first two singles from the record, “Red Alert (Boss Metal Zone)” and “We Strive For Excellence” were so ridiculously strong, so profoundly catchy, so superbly satisfying and intensely memorable that I was convinced this would be in the top their of their discography before it was even released. For weeks (or is it months, my memory is failing) I’ve been listening to those songs multiple times daily, and got into a ritual of not getting out of bed until I’d heard them. With songs this strong, I was guaranteed to love the album, and sort of envisioned another Earth Rocker / Psychic Warfare style all killer, no filler, heads down, hyper focused hard rocking affair.

Their previous album, The Book Of Bad Decisions, was also excellent, but if there was one criticism to be laid at it, this would be that it was perhaps a bit too long and one or two songs could be cut to make it more streamlined. ‘Slaughter Beach seems aware of this, and clocks in at barely half an hour long, with songs that are concise, succinct and have not an ounce of fat on them. Contrary to my initial expectations however, it isn’t the heads don’t pedal to the metal rager I thought it would be, but rather is arguably their most diverse and exploratory album in a decade and a half, although crucially, having learned the lessons from their focused period, this is not bloated, self indulgent or superfluous experimentation the way some critics of the second halves of their longer records might previously have accused them of, the album is a best of both worlds, allowing the band to stretch their wings and broaden their horizons without sacrificing the flow of the album, the efficiency of the song writing or the patience of the more sober listeners. There are some really cool touches, such as soul singer backing vocals, theremin, vibraphone. However, its still just half an hour of the utmost, cleverly crafted, high-quality bangers, rather than the loosey-goosey jamming of say, Jam Room.   

There are only nine songs, so its hard to sit here and pick out highlights, as there isn’t a single one I wouldn’t want to hear live or have in a compilation (in fact, on a recent livestream at time of writing, they played every single song from it live, amongst classics from various eras of the band’s history, and it all fit so well), but if forced to pick some stand-out tracks to recommend to new commers, the first three singles are all utterly essential for all new Clutch fans forevermore. A clever blade-runner and pandemic-conspiracy inspired utter fist pumping banger, a truly triumphant tale of young kids building a bike ramp that sounds like the very best moments of the first three QOTSA albums filtered through Fu Manchu’s most catchy moments and Pure Rock Fury’s personality (the bass groove when the cowbell kicks in makes me grin like a schoolboy every time), and a groovey as hell Sabbathy stoner anthem title-track that educated me about horse-shoe crabs having blue blood overused by the pharmaceutical industry to the point of threatening extinction on the species.

Tales of D&D twelve-sided die and chaotic evil, or being accosted in space by an unknown menace to rumbling drums and expansive sounds almost match this for quality, as do ghost and witchcraft stories that are more moody and diverse, but the other real highlight for me is the enormously catchy “Three Golden Horns” with its almost Thin-Lizzy-esque lyrical story telling and super catchy “Jazz Music Corrupts The Youth” chorus. The album ends on a more sombre note, about previous heroes/legends being cast aside as criminals/tyrants by future generations that seems to subtly reference recent turning in political tides towards previously lauded forefathers who are now viewed less favourably due to their problematic deeds, with an almost folky slow drum beat and ghostly guitar lines that sound like the emotional climax of a movie.

This is an album I’ve been listening to on repeat, listening to every day since its release at time of writing, and which I will absolutely rinse for the next few years, if not forever. I couldn’t recommend it enough. Just put it on, get into the vibe, and repeat until in love with it. More highly recommended than water or oxygen!

Parkway Drive – Darker Still review

To say I was highly anticipating this album would be something of an understatement. Australian metalcore turned stadium band Parkway Drive’s 2015 album Ire had been my album of the decade, their 2018 album Reverence was a very strong follow-up, and when I saw them live it was and remains to this day, the (no exaggeration) best concert I have ever seen. Better than Rammstein, Alice Cooper, Slipknot, Ghost, Tool or any other famously good live band I’ve ever got a chance to see. Since those two concerts I saw from that tour (one at Download Festival and one in Cardiff headlining) my estimation of the band has only been higher and higher over time.

When I heard the first single from this album, “Glitch,” I was a bit underwhelmed to be honest, but then the second single “The Greatest Fear” got me properly excited, and having listened to “Glitch” so many times since then, I actually really like it now too.

Now, realistically, I can never expect this album to be as good as Ire, literal album of the entire decade, but if they could make something even half as good as Reverence then I’d still be a very happy customer, and it would still be an album of the year contender. The first time I listened to the record in full, it didn’t totally land with me. Part of that was my fault, I rushed in right as it came out, listening to it for a song or two in the shower, then a song or two when I was getting ready for work and the kids were screaming, and then listening to the rest at work in one earphone only whilst preoccupied.

My initial gut reaction was something along the lines of “Oh, they’ve gone too clean, too commercial, too stadium and the good bits of Nu Metal that they’d mixed into the last two albums have been replaced with the bad bits of Nu Metal.” However, I’d paid for it, so I was damn well going to listen to it again and again, in all sorts of different conditions, walking, driving, working, resting, on in the background and hyper focused.

…Well, I’m glad I put the effort in and didn’t go off my initial disappointed reaction, because this album is a delight. Its definitely more of a grower and a slow burn than the instant gratification of Deep Blue or Ire, and its less an obvious natural progression than Reverence was, but the more you listen to it, the more you see why this was absolutely the right album for them to make.

There’s no getting away from it, Parkway Drive are a massive band now, who play big stages to big crowds, and they just couldn’t get away with Killing With A Smile-level heaviness anymore… it just wouldn’t sound right on those big stages. While my initial assessment that this album is cleaner and more commercial than previous records, and that there are more touches of Nu Metal in the sound, it is in all the right ways. This album is an album to jump up and down to, an album to sing along to, an album to have a good time with, an album that sounds like a party, perfect fodder for big concert fun. The songs are deliberately designed to worm their way into your memory and make you want to move.

I wouldn’t say its been dumbed down, its been stream-lined for maximum fist pumping. Songs like “Soul Bleach” and “Like Napalm” just feel good. Dynamic, catchy, crunchy and bouncy. ‘Napalm also has some really tasty lead guitar lines that would feel at home on a European heavy metal festival. I love how Parkway mix that element in more and more as their albums go on.

Its not all festival bopping bouncy fun though. The album does feature some diversity, a few slower more contemplative, darker moments. There are strings, moody moments and a touch of class. The title track is quite understated and subtle (well, at least until the huge November Rain music video mountain top style guitar solo bursts out), and the closer “From The Heart Of Darkness” tries to be a hybrid of the heavy and quiet ones and succeeds really well, with the violins adding a really triumphant feel.

I could talk for hours about this album, but at the end of the day, I think the take home message of the entire review is going to be, “don’t listen to your cynical first impressions, just let it wash over you, accept it for what it is, and with repeat listens it will seriously frow on you.” I really love it now. I find myself singing “Imperial Heretic” in the shower or when doing the dishes without even realising it.

Megadeth – The Sick, The Dying And The Dead Review

2022’s The Sick, The Dying And The Dead is Thrash Metal legends Megadeth’s 16th full-length studio album. At just shy of an hour, the Mustaine / Chris Rakestraw produced record is a nice, easily digestible slice of modern Megadeth.

The album’s backstory will doubtlessly overshadow the music (you know it all by now, Dave’s triumph over cancer, Ellefson’s removal from the band, Steve Di Giorgio’s stepping in etc). The music probably won’t be talked about as much, especially in a few year’s time.

Stylistically, its sort of the same direction the band have been doing since United Abominations. There are some pretty strong tunes that fans will love “Soldier On” “Celebutante” and “Night Stalkers” are all quite memorable, but there is a little bit of filler and like the previous album, Dystopia, its a lot of the right style with great guitar and drums, but slightly forgettable actual songs, that don’t live up to say Endgame or the first six albums. 

The special digital edition of the album ends with two cover tunes, a Dead Kennedys B-side and a Sammy Hagar tune where Sammy himself actually provides guest vocals. A nice bit of fun as a bonus to round out the album and send you on your way. They end up being two of the most memorable tracks on the record. I would recommend this version.

TSTD&TD is an absolutely fine modern Megadeth album, and there are three or four songs from it that could make it into the live show for a short time, which at this stage in their career is really all you can ask for. Ranking it against their back catalogue, it feels kind of around the same tier as maybe Thirteen. Go in with tempered expectations, and you should have a good time. Just don’t expect an absolute career highlight. It’s the best album you can reasonably expect… just remember to have reasonable expectations.  

I Went to see Rammstein at Cardiff Principality Stadium on Thursday 30th June 2022

This was my first concert, gig or night out at all since the pandemic. I actually got the tickthts for this as a birthday gift in 2019! 

Other bands who I had tickets for pre-pandemic, like WASP castagencelled their gigs, some postponed theirs until it wasn't possible for me to go anymore, with work or around the birth of my second son. One, I was just straight up was too anxious to go, having been stuck inside too long and I eneded up chickening-out and just giving the tickets away for free to a random fan on the internet. 

I still didn't really feel ready for this gig yet either, and thought about cancelling many times... but the idea of it being a birthday gift, and of having the tickets for basically three years now, kind of made me feel obliged to go. 

In the run up to the event, I had seen news peices about how Cardiff wasn't a good city for stadium gigs, with travel chaos and inadequate infastructure, people missing gigs due to being stuck in the car etc, which didn't help my trepidation any. 

Despite me only living a 25 minute drive from Cardiff (35 until parked and out of the car), I only arrived at the stadium exactly 40 seconds before the band played their first song, having had a ridiculous commute with lots of shenanigans, including taking of 40 minutes to drive down a road no longer than 200m that I drive through in mere seconds any other time I visit the city, then getting to my usual car park to find it full (but the "full" sign is not visible until you already enter the building, thus being totally pointless, and condeming you to a 5 minute loop de loop to get back to the very start of the road, and thus sufffer another 40 minutes again to get down the same 200m you just drove). 

After accidentally going down a one way street, missing my correct turn due to a psychotic taxi driver tailgaiting me too aggressively for me to safely turn, I then proceeded to get stuck in a residential street whilst trying to lose the taxi guy as any more beeping of his horn and I would probably get out of the car, murder him and end up in prison. After deciding prison didn't seem like the best option,  I trued to do a 3 point turn in about 18 turns, then finally make my way to an alternative car park after some more shenanigans involving a train track, and finally hoof it across the city to the stadium.  
The Welsh flag, as the intro music played

After a quick trip to the bathroom, I walked out onto the stadium floor, and 40 seconds later, the band started playing.

The band taking the stage, hard to see because the ground had adverse camber

The setlist was mostly drawn from their first 3 albums and their newest 2 albums, with approximately 3-4 songs from each, and then just 1 song each from LIFAD and Reise Reise, plus nothing from Rosenrot at all. Mostly hits and fan favourites, maybe 1-2 unexpected songs, but with a crowd this size that’s exactly the right call.

Pyro

This was the first gig I had ever attended at the stadium, and I am not too impressed with it as a music venue. It is clearly a sports venue, and the flooring they put into it to protect the grass was weird, at the wrong angel, slippery, and made it hard to see the band as it felt like you were downhill, and hard to keep your footing (I saw so many people fall over compared to normal gigs in clubs and theaters, or even arenas). It definitely wasn’t the ideal place for a rowdy metal crowd who need firm footing.

That being said, the venue wasn’t all bad – the staff were very friendly and trained, the bathrooms were good, and best of all the sound was very good, probably the best thing about the stadium experience.

Rammstein’s pounding, simplsitic, mostly mid-tempo industrial style suits a big arena sound, its not too busy for the sound system. Big gigs often have poor sound, but I was very happy with this, I could hear every thing – every drum, every bass line, every guitar chord, every word.

Light show

As you have no doubt heard if you pay any attention to metal music, Rammstein put on a good stage show.

There were all sorts of things to make the show visually interesting. Lights, lazers, confetti, foam, explosions, sparks, flames, fireworks, a flamethrower-guitar, band members using different parts of the stage or an alternative stage at times, lots of props, an elevator, a treadmill, musicians going out into the crowd. Basically, it wasn’t low-effort.

Sparks shower
Keyboardist Flake ascending into the sky on an elevator for a DJ set.

Of course other bands do big shows too, in the last few years I’ve seen Alice Cooper and Ghost do props and confetti, Slayer‘s final tour did pretty good pyro, and Parkway Drive do the flames and sparks and elevator plus going out to a second stage and going in the crowd, Slipknot do the cool stage set and treadmill. I didn’t see it with my own eyes because I didn’t want to spend the money at the time with Vince Neil’s voice being bad and with me not having time off work, but I know Motley Crue do the flame-thrower (bass) guitar thing, you can see it on their The End DVD.

Rammstein was kind of like seeing all of that in one show. It didn’t quite seem like it was living up to the hype for the first few songs, they started off without much spectacle, but they built more and more over the course of the show, and by the time it went dark outside, and they played “Sonne” I was starting to think maybe this was at least bigger than anything I’ve seen.

The band on an alternate stage in the middle of the crowd doing a piano ballad reimagining of early hit Engel.

The crowd were pretty decent where I was standing, no crowd-killing, everyone respecting eachother’s space, drunks and pot smokers just merry – not falling down or vommiting or fighting. Quite respectful of wheelchairs and mobility scooters too, which wasn’t always the case in previous gigs I’ve been to. The crowd didn’t seem full or sold-out, but there is a pandemic and the show was rescheduled twice, so they did well to have it quite full.

Because I was deliberately trying to hang back at a quite spot with lots of breathing room and space for pandemic reasons, and not getting up and sweaty, I didn’t really buy into the atmosphere of the gig, and it was mostly just an “ok” gig for me, rather than something amazing or life-changing, but the music was good, the sound was good, the stage show (if not something I’ve never seen before) was still good, and the band’s performance was pretty decent. They definitely put a lot of thought, planning and effort into it, and they did well to fill the size of the venue.

Was this the best show I have ever been to? No. Was it nice to be back at a concert after two years? Yeah, kind of, but I just worry I’ve contracted Covid after being so careful and avoidant for such a long time (time will tell). Would I go back to this stadium for any other band? Probably not, unless it was something really special that I couldn’t see anywhere else, like AC/DC maybe. Would I see Rammsteing again? Definitely, but only if it was in a better venue, in a city with better infastructure. If this same show was in the same place at the same time next year, I’d give it a miss (and I wouldn’t say that for Slipknot at the Motorpoint Arena for example).

The way home was luckily much less eventful and chaotic – just a nice orderly queue for a very long time, then a clear shot home. Once I got out of the city centre, I was arguably home faster than during my normal work day commute.

Had this have been in the Motorpoint Arena instead, or had it been in a pre-pandemic world, I probably would give it an absolutely gushing rave review, but all the stress and the feelings or risk and the subpar venue took a little bit of the rose tint away for me personally.

Don’t get me wrong though, great band and I’m glad I went, I’ll probably just not be in the mood for this sort of thing the same sort of way I used to be for another year or two. I’m currently debating whether to go to any gigs at all this year (there are some tempting ones, like Machine Head, Parkway Drive and Volbeat coming to Cardiff at various points this year) but I’m still a bit uncomfortable being outdoors or in crowds at present.

Ghost – Impera review

Swedish Rock/Metal band Ghost return in 2022 with their fifth full-length studio album, Impera, an empire themed three-quarters-of-an-hour journey through various musical twists and turns. There are three brief intros/interludes and nine “real songs” including epic stadium-destined power balladry, weird creative diversions, and some big bouncy anthems.

No two Ghost albums are alike, and this album doesn’t sound much like their previous album Prequelle, nor indeed any of the albums that came before that either. They have evolved markedly over the course of their career, and you could make a solid argument for any one of their albums being their best one.

If you are expecting a St. Vitus or Pentagram album, because someone once mentioned the word “doom” or “occult” to you in reference to Ghost several years ago, then this album might be a bit of a shock. This album is perhaps their brightest, shiniest, most “stadium” sounding record to date. The media has been quick to throw out Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and Van Halen comparisons, and in all honesty, those do seem fairly close to the mark. They don’t sound specifically like any one of those bands, but there are tinges of the feeling they evoke – just mixed with dozens of other influences. Ghost are such a melting pot and no two listeners will describe it exactly the same way. You’ll be picking up hints of all sorts of different reference points, from ‘60s and ‘70s Psychedelic and Prog music, to that ‘80s MTV sound, to classic Hard Rock, and maybe even bits of Ozzy and Dio, and all sorts of other things. In addition to all the rock and metal, Tobias has also always had a big ear for pop music, and the 70s/80s pop stylings are dialled notably up. The producer, Klas Åhlund, has worked in various capacities for people like Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears, the Sugababes, Paloma Faith and numerous others. I’ve heard it described in all sorts of different ways, from Dr. Feelgood by way of “Mama Mia,” to Mercyful Fate covering “Panama,” to the alternate reality where Rabin-era Yes wrote The Black Album.

The mixture of pop, rock and metal has always been a cornerstone of the Ghost schtick, and the ratio and specifics change slightly each time, but it always sounds like Ghost. I would be hard pressed to say you would ever dislike this if you liked any of their previous work, even if it is sonically quite a far cry from Opus Anonymous.

It is hard to pick highlights, because there are only 9 real songs, all of them serve a specific purpose in the journey, three of them were singles anyway already (at time of writing) and none of them are skippable. Its quite a tight, succinct, well-paced, fat-free affair. Definitely the kind of album you listen to in one whole sitting from start to finish. That being said, I’ve always loved the obvious “hits” like “Square Hammer,” “Kiss The Go-Goat” and “Rats” from other releases, so “Hunter’s Moon” is very noteworthy for me. The opener, “Kaisareon” doesn’t fit that previous “hit single” mould, but its supercharged hook after hook after hook approach (its almost like it has 4-5 different album defining choruses in one single song) is a standout in a whole new way. From the reaction it is getting in the media, I can foresee “Darkness At The Heart Of My Love” being a massive concert favourite, and every time I listen to it, it feels important somehow, like some sort of milestone moment.

As usual, Ghost deliver a great new album that gives more of what we want, in quirky and unexpected ways, and sounds exactly and uniquely like themselves while both never repeating themselves and also sounding like a Jukebox of dozens of other disparate things you like or at least recognise from elsewhere. As usual, Ghost deliver a top notch set of songs that will stick with you for years to come, that you are desperate to hear in the live setting, that you couldn’t imagine a playlist without. As usual, within the first few listens, you’ll be convinced its an album of the year contender.      

Bullet For My Valentine – Self Titled (2022) album review

Bullet For My Valentine are one of those bands that everyone seems to hate, who get no respect, who get a critical savaging, and yet somehow have a huge fanbase (so many times I’ve heard them described as “the biggest British metal band since Iron Maiden“).

After their career momentum aggressively stalled and their fortunes took a major downturn with the ill-fated Temper Temper album from 2013, the band have seemed a bit lost, constantly searching for the next idea to bring them back to the biggest of the big leagues. They released the fabulous, mature and relatively heavy (for them) Venom album (and the especially superb Live From Brixton live album) to much lower sales than usual and seemingly total critical indifference, and then released the much cleaner and more commercial-sounding Gravity album to increased live-draw-status but critical savaging, comment-section-joke-status and loss of core-fan respect. It seems like the band just can’t win, when they do well artistically – it feels like no-one cares, they do well commercially – it feels like everyone hates them for it.

This time around, BFMV seem to be chasing respect and credibility moreso than their own artistic fulfilment and what you’d expect the original fans liked about them (Venom) or indeed moreso than commercial success (Gravity). It feels like the plan is that they want to be liked in the comments sections online instead of being the butt of all jokes by self-professed “true” Metalheads (basically, imagine if Blink-182 wanted people in GBH and Exploited shirts to stop slagging them off).

As such, the band known to haters for their pretty-boy watered-down overproduced overtly-commercial sound (the opinion of the trolls, not me) and immature lyrics (a fair criticism for their first four records) are going to try and win over people who probably would never like them anyway, and consequently have made their heaviest album to date and have dialled down the melody, muddied up the production and generally released something uglier and more abrasive than usual.

The results are a qualified success. The album certainly achieves its mission of being the ugliest, dirtiest, heaviest thing the band have put out to date and if it was the first thing a new band who had no reputation put out, no-one would pile the hate onto it the way they hate on BFMV usually. However, it does loose some of what makes BFMV stand out from the crowd usually… I can’t see the masses of teens and lighter rock fans digging it. If hypothetically it didn’t have their name attached and was a totally new release, I don’t think anyone would particularly care about it at all. In this hypothetical world, all I would say to this new band is qualified-congratulations, sure hard to please neckbeards in Waitain and Sarcofago shirts aren’t trashing it anymore, but now no one is talking about it at all.

Ok, that’s enough about the story of the record, what about the music? Grittier vocals, dirtier production, twice as much double-kick drums as usual, noisier guitar tone, guitar solos in every song.

After a much too long intro, the album starts of with the very angry “Parasite” which is the heaviest album opener Bullet’ have released to date. This is followed up with “Knives” which is the nastiest single Bullet’ have released to date. Mission acomplished on the new-look heavy Bullet. This opening one-two throat punch makes you think the album will just be a one-dimensional bludgeoning, especially with the media promises of no soppy ballads, however luckily the album does open up more as it goes along.

At first listen, I felt like the album itself was a bit forgettable and the songs were a bit unmemorable. On repeat listens however it has grown and grown on me. There is a lot of depth to the record that only reveals itself over time. There is some diversity with the more memorable, rhythmic “Can’t Escape The Waves” or the multifaceted “Rainbow Veins” and the slightly more dynamic album closer “Death By A Thousand Cuts.” There are moments on the album that are reminiscent of Devildriver (The first 30 seconds of “No Happy Ever After” for example) and quite often the lead-guitar reminds me a lot of Chimaira (especially as several songs break into a groove for the lead guitar moments, rather than have them over the faster parts).

On the postive side, the record doesn’t outstay its welcome, it is tight, concise and filler-free.

On the negative side, the production is a bit of a mis-fire for me. It doesn’t sound crunchy, metallic and satisfying to please the heavier crowd they seem to want to impress, it isn’t clean enough to satisfy their core audience, instead it is a sort of thin, noisy, tinny sound that would suit a chaotic hardcore band better, but which doesn’t really fit either what Bullet actually are, or what they are trying to be. I can’t entirely shake the feeling like this was a misjudged attempt to please non-fans instead of the more logical doubling down on what seems to have worked for them before.

The band have talked about the start of “Bullet 2.0” and this record shows a lot of potential, if they continue in this direction I think the next album will be the real winner, once they’ve got the kinks worked out (and especially if they figure out the right production sound for this type of material). While I still hold my position that this record will probably not win over a single hater, and is quite at risk of alienating sections of their fanbase who actually like their previous output… I do think this is a relatively strong album for what it is. I’m glad to have this consistent, succinct and unexpected record in my collection.

Volbeat – Servant Of The Mind Review

2021’s Servant Of The Mind is Danish Rock/Metal band Volbeat’s eight studio album, it was produced by Jacob Hansen (with Michael & Rob from the band) and follows up 2019’s Rewind, Replay, Rebound album.

I first got into the band after seeing them live on the cycle for Seal The Deal & Let’s Boogie, and fell in love instantly, then devouring their back catalogue and becoming obsessed, listening to them more in one year than it takes me a decade to listen to most other bands, but when it finally came time for me to get in on the ground floor with a new release; 2019’s Rewind’ was a bit of a disappointment for me (especially at first, but to be fair it was a grower), as it initially felt like it was missing a lot of the charm, variety and quirkiness of their earlier work, and also was significantly less heavy or metallic than my favourite side of Volbeat’s many sided style. For me, Rewind’ leaned much too heavily on the band’s radio rock side. That’s always been a part of their sound – but not the whole sound, and to me Rewind’ just focused on it too deeply, too often.

Servant Of The Mind by contrast seems to be very conscious that the previous album was a bit too far away from their metal side, and is a pretty hard and deliberate course-correct towards heaviness. There is much more speed, power, groove, crunch, umph, tiny bits of Thrash-esque moments here and there, even one cheeky Death Metal riff hidden in there once.

Tracks like “Becoming,” feel built for fans who like the band’s heavier material (think “Slaytan”), while “The Devil Rages On,” “Step Into The Light” and “Say No More” more than make up for the previous album’s lighter touch. Heck, “The Sacred Stones” seems to be a deliberate tribute to Black Sabbath’s “Heaven And Hell.” In addition to Metal though, they’ve also always had a bouncy punk tinge at times, and “The Passenger” covers that side of them as well.

While I may be banging on a bit too much about the metal; Volbeat have never been entirely all about heaviness – it is an important part of the puzzle, and it is nice to see it get enough focus again, but it is only part of the bigger picture. For those fans who like the bigger, catchier moments, the album does still have some nice radio rock moments, for example the single “Dagen Før” (featuring Alphabeat’s Stine Bramsen doing guest vocals) covers that kind of “Cape Of Our Heroes” or “Last Day Under The Sun” melodic vibe, and the choruses of even some of the heavier tracks lean into big American radio rock at times (its still there, its just blended better on this album).

Volbeat have also always had a fun side, and while I sort of make it sound like I didn’t like their previous album, it certainly had its great moments. This record takes some of those great moments and builds upon them. Single “Wait A Minute My Girl” has a jaunty saxophone solo, kind of like the fun “Die To Live” from the previous record, while “Step Into The Light” with its reverby twisted surf-rock guitar lead feels like a sequel to the previous album’s “Sorry Sack Of Bones.”  

Now, while I have spent most of the review describing the album’s stylistic decisions, being heavy, or melodic, or bouncy or fun is pretty pointless if the album isn’t actually good. Luckily, the material is really strong. There are riffs that will stick in your head for days, choruses you’ll be dying to sing along to, memorable fills and a very clear production job. More than three quarters of the album I want to see live, I’m spoiled for choice over which songs I’d include in a best-of compilation or playlist.

While I wouldn’t make an argument that it is their all time best album, it is certainly in the top half of their discography, pleasantly surprising, and I would whole heartedly recommend it.

Ps. If you can, try and get the edition with the bonus tracks, the extra cover songs are brilliant!

Trivium – In The Court Of The Dragon Review

Florida based Metal band Trivium have been on a seriously good run of form over the past half-decade. Their career up until that point had been almost cursed with a boom and bust critical reception of incredible praise followed by critical trashing over and over. For the past two albums (The Sin And The Sentence from 2017 and What The Dead Men Say from 2020) they’ve been on an incredible high again critically and artistically, and now with 2021’s In The Court Of The Dragon they’ve pulled their third absolute classic out of the bag in a row. While I am partially to all of the band’s albums to different degrees, never before have they unleashed three absolute masterpieces straight in an unbroken row.  

Over the years the band had tried a few different directions, mid-00s Metalcore, Thrash, classic metal, commercial radio metal, and they’ve also hidden in tiny little snippets of death and black metal every now and again for a bit of extra flavour. For the most recent three albums now though, they’ve mixed all their various directions into one broad but cohesive whole and developed their own speedy, stompy, melodic, aggressive, technical, blunt mashup identity. Matt’s singing, screaming, growling and shouting voices have never sounded better and have never blended together so seamlessly. Matt and Corey’s guitar work has never been as memorable, and Paolo’s bouncy high-in-the-mix bass lines are always entertaining.

The real turning point for trivium however, was the astounding one-two punch of incredible new drummer Alex Bent joining the band, and producer Josh Wilbur finally figuring out how best to blend the band’s classic and modern sides together and make them sound like their own thing altogether. Now, some of the band’s previous productions were good, and most of the band’s previous drummers were very good (much like Sepultura in that regard) but this combination of drummer and producer has unleashed an x-factor that elevates ‘Sentence, Dead-men’ and ‘Dragon to a higher level than most of the rest of their discography.

With all that preamble out of the way, you wouldn’t be given a dunce cap to wear if you guessed that “if you liked the last two, you’ll love this one” and “this is one of the finest albums of the band’s career.” Stylistically, this is very much a continuation of the previous two (not a mere repetition of them mind you, it is still engaging, original and forward thinking).

Highlights include the groovy “Shadow Of The Abattoir” the catchy “Like A Sword Over Damocles” and the lengthy “The Phalanx” (which actually started life as an offcut from their Shogun album, and has a bit of a Shogun-esque flavour, but has clearly evolved a bit since that time).

Some people may still brush Trivium off as just ear-plugs, Overkill t-shirts and the too-commercial chorus to 2005’s “Dying In Your Arms” but to do so is folly, and just results in you missing out on one of Metal’s finest bands of the moment, and especially makes you miss out of three of Metal’s absolute best albums of the past 5 years. There is nothing even 1% “Emo” about ‘Dragon. If you like bands like Judas Priest, Death Angel, Fear Factory, Manowar or Metal Church but have never checked out Trivium because it just makes you think of eye-liner and youths, I strongly urge you to check out “No Way Back, Just Through.” Ignore this band at your own detriment!

Gojira – Fortitude Review

I have been putting off reviewing this album for a while since I feel a little unqualified to talk about it. Sure, I bought their live DVD about 7 years ago and listened to it a few times, and I bought two of their studio albums as a gift for my brother about 5 years ago and have heard those in passing. I’ve always known I should get into Gojira, but never quite got around to it. Basically, I have been hearing a constant gushing stream of praise about this band since about 2005 in print, online, in podcasts, from word of mouth and just about every source imaginable, yet somehow never really properly tried the band enough, and had certainly never personally “got” them.

For a good few years I had heard that they had toned down the extreme metal sections and upped the amount of prog on their previous album, Magma, which I kept meaning to buy but didn’t get around to, but I heard one single from it at the time which I was thoroughly impressed by, and I had already always said to myself, “if they get a little bit less extreme, I’ll start listening to Gojira.” Cut to 2021, and the environmentally-themed French Prog—Metal released their seventh full-length studio album (on Roadrunner Records), and to my delight all the reviews and press beforehand had been talking about how it was less heavy and more proggy, with a huge chunk of groove metal added to their palate. I finally decided to take the plunge.

Review in short: Love. At. First. Listen.

I listened to it every single day, sometimes twice, for about a month after release day and still try to listen to at least some of it very regularly now. I’m going to be coming back to this for years. I don’t think it is unfair to say this album has had as big an impact on me as some game changing album that you heard back in high-school and bonded with forever. Wow, I wasn’t sure you could get that feeling again as an adult, but wow, this record really floored me.

Take all the best parts of the proggy but accessible Crack The Skye by Mastodon, mix it with the best parts of the groovy but experimental Against by Sepultura, add in the best sort of Architects’ thought provoking the-planet-is-doomed lyrics, blend them together with an utterly unique and singular musical voice (which is the Gojira signature sound, I later discovered when going back to all their previous albums after this), and out comes Fortitude, one of the most instantly loveable metal albums I have heard in years and years.  

From the teasing drum build-up of the disjointed and rhythmic opener “Born For One Thing” to the delicate acoustic fade out (following the otherwise brutal sonic bombardment) of “Grind” this album is sheer bloody perfection from start to finish, with not a wasted second. Everything is so perfectly balanced; each song is such an intriguing and hypnotic journey and they strike the perfect balance between expansive and catchy. It feels at times just about as cosmic and floaty as you can without disappearing up your own ass, but then by contrast still so instantaneous and crushingly metallic when it wants to, bouncing between the two at just the right moments so you never get sick of one style, and never staying at one pace long enough to get boring.

You know how some albums have to be listened to from start to finish in one go? This isn’t one of those. Its certainly benefits from that don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t reliant one it. The album has a brilliant flow, sequencing and journey, and travels across the sonic landscape with a clear beginning, middle and end, however, if you want, all the songs sound great without that context, and literally any single track from it sounds great away from the album if it comes up on shuffle. Basically, it has all the best features of a concept album without the drawbacks.

The production, by singer/guitarist Joe Duplantier is majestic, and Andy Wallace (who mixed Iowa and Toxicity) mixes everything to perfection. The actual sound of this record feels like it was made just to appeal to me. I can’t get enough. I just melts in the ear. Speaking of Duplantiers, drummer Joe Duplantier is one of the most instantly loveable drummers I have ever heard. What a drummer, such a unique drumming “voice.” Such a balance between virtuosity and restraint. Utter magnificence.

Possibly the best thing about the album though, is that I always wanted to like Gojira but was a bit intimidated, and this album finally “unlocked” them. I’ve since gone back and been blown away by all their other amazing albums (I’m damn partial to a bit of The Way Of All Flesh now, and can finally see for myself what everyone was telling me about From Mars To Sirus for years. I guess some fans who love the heavier early days could potentially be a bit disappointed by the band being a bit too accessible with this album, but on the other hand, if anyone else like me out there knows they could like Gojira but don’t yet, this album is the way in for sure. For a few years, one of the thing that stopped me fully going in on Gojira was that the vocals were just a bit too abrasive for me, and the music was a bit mysterious. However, like the leap between Mastodon’s Lifesblood EP and their Crack The Skye album, the vocals here are so advanced and impressive compared to the earlier Gojira records my friends all told me to love in college like The Link of the fan-beloved From Mars To Sirus that it is like night and day. Sure, the more brutal vocal stylings suited those albums because the music was more brutal itself, but here, you can actually say, these are objectively fantastic vocals. The mid-section vocals on “Hold On” send a shiver up my spine in the way Tool sometimes do when they’re being particularly majestic.

If I was to choose one song to suggest to newcomers to test the waters, I think I would recommend the groovy mid-paced “Sphinx.” It has a few heavier moments, it grooves, the lead guitar section is proggy and weird and overall I think it is probably the mid-point of everything on the album. That said, if you do like things heavier, the one to go for is definitely the energetic and punchy album closer “Grind” which despite the aforementioned outro, is the most punch-to-the-face pick-scraping stomper on the record, and the closest thing to their more famous albums. For the opposite end of the spectrum, the surprising stoner-rock left turn of “The Chant” has the cleanest vocals of any Gojira to date, so if you don’t like any extreme metal at all, that is the one to check out first, after which you can graduate to “The Trials” which reminds me a bit of a darker version of the Title Track to Coheed And Cambria’s The Afterman mixed with the haunting end of Roots Remain by Mastodon.

Never a dull moment, delicate, crushing diverse, intriguing, infinitely replayable, Fortitude is all these things and more. I don’t use this word often, and my opinion might not be worth much coming to the band so late, but to me this album is an utter masterpiece. Can’t recommend enough.

Fear Factory – Aggression Continuum Review

2021’s Aggression Continuum is the tenth full-length canonical studio album (discounting compilations, remix albums, demos, and their almost-debut Concrete – which doesn’t count) by the veteran Metal band Fear Factory. It has a long and storied history, which you can go into at length online should you wish, but the gist of it was that the band recorded an album called Monolith a few years ago, featuring less polished versions of these tunes, but that record got delayed due to legal issues and wasn’t released. Most of the various old band members hate each other, and all of them seem to hate guitarist and current band leader Dino Cazares, who crowdfunded for the cash to improve Monolith and turn it into this current album via a series of small upgrades. He used the cash to hire Mike Heller on drums (who’d done a great job on their previous album Genexus) to replace Monolith’s drum-machine tracks with actual drums, and to add in additional keyboards, electronics and atmosphere to flesh the whole thing out and give it the finishing touches. In the meantime however, iconic singer Burton C. Bell left the band in a less-than-amicable split, but rather than start afresh with a new singer, Dino decided to keep just his old vocal recordings from 2017 and release the album anyway, as a weird hybrid of old and new.

A messy genesis to be sure, but you better believe I crowdfunded this record and was looking forward to it, because despite the recent mess they have become, Fear Factory were actually one of my favourite bands growing up and when they are on top form they can be one of the best bands in the entire genre. After the uncivilized sniping by the press; I really wanted one more record from them, and I wanted it to be great. Even though it is sad to see how the mighty have fallen, and hard to believe they would ever continue without Burton, it is still good to have this one last record.

Even going in wating to like it, I am a bit skeptical of the album, and feel there is something a bit cynical on some of the tracks. Perhaps the biggest fault on Aggression Continuum is that there isn’t enough importance placed on the drums or especially not enough focus on the bass, whereas the band had one of the best rhythm sections in the history of Metal in the 90s, which was an equally big selling point to their sci-fi lyrics, clean/growl vocal dynamic and crunchy staccato guitar style that made them famous. Sure that was the hook, but there was always more to it than that. Maybe there is bit too much repeating old glories (one of the songs is a pretty shameless fan service reference to their ‘90s hit “Replica”) and maybe there is a bit to reliance on formula. The album lacks the diversity and nuance that made their earlier work pop, focusing instead on the aforementioned surface level similarity between those early records. Whereas their first four albums were a constant evolution and no two albums sounded that much alike, ever since Raymond and Christian left the band, Fear Factory have kind of just fall into a formula of what they think they should sound like, rather than pushing what they can sound like or even what they did actually sound like. Before, there was a signature guitar and lyrical style in a diverse catalogue. Now its all just riffs and robots, but lacking in all the other parts that complemented the surface level similarity of recurrent crunchy metallic terminator vibes, and stopped a recognisable style from being a gimmick, instead turning it into the basis for some utterly classic albums.     

That all being said however, this album isn’t the worst thing the band have released. It may be a bit by-the-numbers. It may be a bit cynical. However; It is more realized and less rushed than 2005’s hit and miss Transgression, and it is better produced and less boring/forgettable than 2012’s The Industrialist (having a human drummer instead of a drum machine certainly helps it compare favourably to that record).

Sure the spark that made their best albums really shine is missing, but there are a few really quite good tracks, such as the exciting opener “Recode,” the energetic title track “Aggression Continuum,” the bouncy single “Disruptor” and also the deep track “Monolith” which has a nice little guitar solo (a rarity in Fear Factory songs). Its also short enough not to overstay its welcome, which is always a plus. I don’t think in years to come this album will be anyone’s absolute Fear Factory album, but it is an OK end to the Burton C Bell era of the band, and it is not an embarrassment.

Overall, not their best release, but not without its merits. Buy if you are already a fan, don’t start here.