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.

Helloween – Helloween (2021) Album Review

Trumpets, Keys, Stars and Rings

Wow, what a dream come true. After the fan fantasy Pumpkins United tour, the astounding live-album United Alive and the killer one-off single “Pumpkins United” it is finally time for the long-awaited new full-length studio album from the German Power Metal icons Helloween.

Helloween are one of my all-time favourite bands, and I like all eras of the band. They started off in the early ‘80s on their early EPs and first album Walls Of Jericho as a heavier and thrashier proposition, fronted by Kai Hansen (who would later take a back seat but stay on guitar for the following two albums, before leaving and forming the equally excellent band Gamma Ray). After the early EPs and debut album, world-class singer Michael Kiske joined the band in the late ‘80s and helmed their two most beloved albums, the genre-defining Keeper Of The Seven Keys Parts 1 & 2, which are utter indisputable classics of the Power Metal genre and form much of the band’s live setlist even to this day. Kiske also presided over the next two less-popular, increasingly commercial and increasingly un-metal albums before leaving the band. In the early-mid ‘90s after a period of turbulence, declining popularity and declining band morale, singer Andi Deris joined the band and has been with the band ever since as they rebuilt, endured and produced some of their finest work along the way.

Each singer has their own fans. Kai is the original and heaviest, Kiske is the most popular and best technical singer, and Andi is the longest-serving and best showman/performer. This new album, like the wicked live album that precedes it, features all three singers on it, sometimes alone or usually mixed together. They are cleverly blended on this record; without a proper analysis it feels broadly like about Andi probably doing 55%, Kiske doing about 30% and Hansen doing about 15% which seems appropriate given their relative longevity in the band, and their relative commercial appeal (and the fact that Kai had talked about singing less in Gamma Ray a few years ago). Interestingly too, as a tribute to the late Helloween drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg, current drummer Daniel Löble actually recorded his drum parts using Ingo’s old drumkit. Nice touch!


Although there must have been some temptation to just dive back into a retro ‘80s sound musically and sonically now that Kai Hansen and Michael Kiske back in the fold and Ingo’s old kit is being used, the results are actually decidedly more modern. While there is clear influence from the ‘80s it is not a simple rehash or retreading of old ground. Shameless fan service is in low supply and they’ve made a concerted effort to blend modernity and nostalgia in a classy way. The production (courtesy of Charlie Bauerfeind & Dennis Ward) is slick and modern, feeling much more like the most recent Derris Era Helloween albums, My God Given Right and Straight Out Of Hell in terms of actual sonics. Even album art evokes simultaneously their classic Walls Of Jericho, Keeper Of The Seven Keys and Time Of The Oath album artworks all at once, which again feels like a clever blending of the three eras together.

The song-writing does sound like recent Helloween albums first and foremost, not too much like the ‘80s and not overly like Hansen’s work in Gamma Ray or Kiske’s work in Unisonic (there are bits here and there, but its not the main flavour). This record is not a rejection of all the progress the band have made over the years, and it isn’t just the Helloween of the ‘80s back in an anachronistic inappropriate revival cash-in.

That being said, the three singers meets numerous guitar players dynamic does help it stand apart from recent albums too though. It isn’t just business as usual with a cheap gimmick slapped on the top either. What this actually is, is a new hybrid-Helloween, bringing a best-of-both worlds approach, injected with extra energy and enthusiasm on top if that for good measure. It is a good record, in fact a very good record, and a brilliant payoff for fans who like more than one era of the band. I highly recommend it.

However; while it would be tempting to get carried away for the sake of the story and say that it is their best album to date, or even their best album since 1990 or whatever, that would be incredibly unfair to some of the amazing albums the band have been releasing all along. It is a good album, easily in the top half or even top third of their discography, but to say it tops everything since the Keepers’ would be an inaccurate nonsense. This album is good, but let’s not forget some of the other great work they’ve made for the sake of a good hyperbole-filled headline. I genuinely hope people who come back to the band because of the reunion vibe now go back and check out killer albums like 7 Sinners and especially Time Of The Oath and see how strong the band can be without Kai or Michael as well (if you’re interested, check out my ranking of all Helloween albums from best to worst).

Ok. Soapbox moment done. Album highlights include the 12-minute album closer “Skyfall,” (varied and triumphant), as well as the majestic 7-minute album opener “Out For The Glory” and the shorter/punchier “Cyanide” (both premium modern Power Metal) and the more Hard Rock number “Mass Pollution” which has some of the most memorable guitar moments.

Overall; 2021’s Helloween is a very noteworthy album that manages to live up to its potential, with killer songs, killer sounds and a killer premise. I’m pretty over the moon about this album and I hope you will be too.

PS. I’ve already got tickets to see them live, postponed due to the pandemic from before the album was out, and now I really hope they drop a few tunes from this album into the set too.    

Gama Bomb – Sea Savage Review

Since being a teenager, my favourite subgenre of Metal has always been Thrash Metal. However, for some bizarre reason, when the New Wave Of Thrash Metal started, and lots of younger bands started making top quality Thrash, I utterly slept on it, not exploring it at all, or sometimes I even outright dismissed it.

This year I’ve been rectifying that, giving bands like Hazzerd, Harlott, Hyades, Havok, Power Trip, Lich King, Mosh-Pit Justice and Municipal Waste their fair shot and being won over time and time again.

The one exception to my New Thrash blind spot has always been Gama Bomb, maybe its because they’re my fellow countrymen, maybe its because they strike the right balance of humour and fun without descending into parody, maybe its just because they write the most memorable songs, but even when I had a “1980s or GTFO” attitude towards Thrash, I’d still find time to listen to Gama Bomb, recommend them to people, and I was even lucky enough to see them live (remember concerts guys?) when a guitarist I knew gave me a free ticket and transport (good guy!) back before I went to concerts regularly or was able to drive.

Many years since I first went in on the band with their Tales From The Grave In Space record, Gama Bomb have now released what I believe to be not only their best album to date, not only one of the best NWOTM albums I’ve heard, not only an album as good as what the ‘80s bands can put out nowadays, but one of the straight-up best Thrash albums I’ve heard to date from any era.

You heard that right. This album is their best one yet. This album can stand proudly up to the best things Slayer or Anthrax have been putting out since the ‘00s, and this album can stand up happily to some things Death Angel or Heathen were putting out in the late ‘80s. Never mind simply holding its own; this album is actively better than most of the output Thrash bands put out in the ‘90s and arguably better than some (if not a lot) classic Thrash and Proto-Thrash albums of 1983-1985 too!

I was a week one buyer (December 2020) after getting mega hyped by the pre-release singles, but it has taken me this long to write a review simply because I wanted to make sure how hard I like it wasn’t just hype or a sort of bubble-gum scenario where the flavour will go away really soon kind of thing. However, a few months later and I still think this record is a damn masterpiece of Thrash.

Songs like “Miami Super-Cops,” “Sea Savage,” “Ready, Steady…Goat!” and “Sheer Khan” just get stuck in my head for days. I have so often been on a walk these days and been unable not to sing aloud “Down, down, town!” during “Miami Super-Cops” when I had otherwise been walking in silence, sometimes leading passers-by to look at me like I am a lunatic. I don’t care, its so catchy it is irresistable!

Alongside top notch, catchy as hell tunes, everything else works perfectly. The production is tight, the playing is brilliant, the vocals just get better every time you hear them (some of those crazy Agent Steel-style screeches are so catchy) and the mixture between serious traditional Thrash music but goofy lyrics just works so well (but importantly, without being comedy music, which is always a turn-off for me). For example, when they go into “What shall we do with a drunken sailor” in the middle of the title track, it comes across as really clever even though it probably shouldn’t.

In summary, if you like Thrash Metal and can get over the fact that the band are not from the 1980s, you absolutely need this album in your collection, no questions asked.

Rob Zombie – The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy Review

2021 sees the release of the seventh full-length studio album from the horror and sci-fi obsessed industrial tinged larger than life rock icon Rob Zombie. Cumbersomely named; “The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy” sees Rob Zombie continued his tradition of excessively titled albums, but perhaps not topping his most OTT choice from a decade ago with his fourth record “Hellbilly Deluxe II: Noble Jackals, Penny Dreadfuls And The Systematic Dehumanization Of Cool.”

It was released on Nuclear Blast and follows up the very well received “The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser” album from 2016, which the general consensus around reckoned was one of Zombie’s best albums to date, but for me it was actually a bit of a let-down after my favourite album to date, Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor from 2013. Warlock had its highlights for sure, and I appreciated the attempt to be lean, succinct and have a big personality, but fell a bit flat a times in the song writing department of the deeper tracks.  

As such, I approached this new album with a bit of trepidation, but luckily ‘Kool Aid really knocked it out of the park in my opinion, as it seems to fuse the best elements from ‘Venomous (Catchiness, hooks, better song-writing) and ‘Warlock (immediacy, character, eccentricity).

This is the second album to be produced by Christopher “Zeuss” Harris. It doesn’t have as clean nor big a sound as the old Scott Humphrey produced albums of yore, but it does has a lot of energy and seems to be going for a bit of a slightly punkier vibe than a typically industrial or even stadium sound.

The band line-up is also the same as last time around. Former Marilyn Manson member turned solo virtuoso John 5 has been in the band for years and years now, but his influence is particularly notable on this record, with all the little funk asides and effects laden guitar parts. I feel like he has been allowed to shine much more than say Educated Horses for example. I would argue that in terms of sheer guitar playing fun, this is definitely one of the most colourful Rob Zombie records to date. Its also the third studio with former Marilyn Manson drummer Ginger Fish on board. Now that Manson’s career is looking to be fast going downhill, its great to see some of the members from the iconic Holywood line-up are still out there making an impact.

There are a lot of damn fine songs to be found here. From the single “The Triumph Of King Freak” and “The Eternal Struggles Of The Howling Man” to the much talked about country tinged “18th Century Cannibals, Excitable Morlocks and a One-Way Ticket on the Ghost Train.” The real highlights for me personally are the stompy “The Satanic Rites of Blacula” and the groovy “Shadow of the Cemetery Man” as well as “The Ballad of Sleazy Rider.” I’d already rank it higher in the discography than Hellbilly Deluxe 2 or Educated Horses and in fact there is certainly a much higher hit to miss ratio than ‘Warlock on the deeper cuts. It hasn’t been out that long so its probably too early to tell, but already I’d estimate that this is in at least the top half of his discography.

Its not all glory though. There are 17 tracks here, totalling 42 mins, but there is a bit of fat that could be trimmed. Six of the Seventeen tracks here are effectively intros or interludes and this cumulatively makes up a full five minutes of the record. Zombie has never been a stranger to intros and interludes, the classic debut Hellbilly Deluxe certainly has its fair share, and the platinum selling follow up The Sinister Urge had a couple, and while I appreciate that one or two can add flavour and break things up, I think this record has perhaps the most extracurricular activity outside the main songs, which may affect the flow a little bit (its not a deal breaker or anything, but I’ll probably find myself skipping them a lot in the future).  

To summarise; it has a silly name and a lot of interludes, it doesn’t sound as huge as the early records sonically, but it is consistently chocked full of strong and memorable songs, has some variety and in terms of quality it is even better than its much hyped predecessor. Well worth checking out.

Todd La Torre – Rejoice In The Suffering Review

[Warning: My most listened-to artist of the past 12 years by a large margin according to statistics from Last FM is Queensryche, so if you expect a review without mentioning Seattle’s finest, you may have to look elsewhere].

Rejoice In The Suffering is the debut full-length studio album by Todd La Torre, the man most famous for being the singer on the past three Queensryche albums (and drummer on the latest one too!) and who was in Crimson Glory before that.

It was released on Ratpack records and self-produced, but with help from bassist/guitarist/keyboardist Craig Blackwell, with mixing and mastering duties capably handled by Chris “Zeuss” Harris (Chimaira, Hatebreed, Shadows Fall, Overkill, Heathen, and the past two Queensryche records).

Now obviously, the first question you may be wondering is, “does it sound like Queensryche?” And the answer is a non-committal “sort of, a bit, in places, but also no.” Having the man who has been the revitalising force in the band and voice of their records for the past decade will obviously draw some comparison, as will tapping Zeuss who worked on their albums. That being said, the album feels like Todd wanting to use all the ideas he has that don’t quite fit in the Queensryche formula, or that might be too much of a departure if he did. This is not a Hard Rock record, this is not a Prog Metal album. This is a Metal album with a capital M.

The album is heavier, harder, faster and less progressive than 90% of the Ryche’s output, and because Todd doesn’t have to fit in with an established sound, his voice is much less like Geoff Tate’s than it is on Ryche records. While still sounding like himself, he really shows off all different sorts of voices here, from Rob Halford Screeches to that Bruce Dickinson/Ian Gillian talk-sing, to Chuck Billy melodic bark, to a few death growls and at one point an almost Dani Filth style creepy storytelling voice blended with a Johan Hegg roar, on one of the bonus tracks (“One By One”). Don’t let me dropping all those names capsize the boat or deflate your enthusiasm though, this is not to say the album is Todd-does-karaoke, Todd himself would probably be shaking his head if he were ever reading my comparisons; its just my limited language skills describing how broad the range of styles he covers is, he has his own unique spin on all of these voices.  

What about the music? Where does that fit in with? Well, to be honest, it reminds me a lot of the newest Andy Sneap-helmed albums by Accept, Saxon and Priest at times, but some songs on the other hand (like “Critical Cynic”) are a little more punchy and staccato with that crunchy guitar sound that modern Prong albums have, but also wouldn’t be out of place on a Five Finger Death Punch album, the sort of thing you get when you take Fear Factory’s mechanical style and make it more organic.

The semi-ballad “Crossroads To Insanity” on the other hand is exactly the sort of thing Queensrcyhe have been doing lately, and probably the one to try first if you aren’t into heavier material. I feel like this one could have just sat happily on The Verdict. Its not really representative of the whole album though, if you want to get sort of the average sound of the record, listen first to the crunchy mid-paced title track, and then to the speedier, thrashier “Vanguards Of The Dawn Wall” which is probably the hardest, heaviest number and closer to Testament than Queensryche. This song shows me why Todd deserves a solo album, as he utterly nails this track, but it would never have fit on The Verdict or Condition Human. Now imagine something mid-way between the two and you’ll get a ballpark idea for where the album sits most of the time.

Todd handles the drums himself and does a great job (he was a drummer since a young age), mixing in a bit of flare with also not overplaying and aforementioned Graig handles the riffs; doing a very solid job of it, serving the songs well. There are some brilliant guitar solos too, particularly on the album closer (not counting bonus tracks) “Apology.”

Good production, check. Good stylistic direction, check. Good music, check. Good vocals, check check check check check.

I don’t know if the album will still be listened to and talked about in 5, 10 or 20 years. I don’t know if Todd’s solo career will be an ongoing thing, or if this is just a one time pandemic-era release of steam while Queensryche can’t tour. I don’t know if I am just unduly fond of it due to being a massive Toddryche fanboy, but I do know that in and of itself, this album is well worth your time right now, and a stirling showcase of a master vocalist demonstrating a broader range than he gets to in his day job. Being selfish, I hope it doesn’t interfere in Queensryche in any way, but other than that one caveat, I have nothing but good things to say about this.