Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Holiday Hack-fest, 2021


Off for the Holidays doing family stuff! Will return in January for more reviews, including a few more discographies I'd like to polish off. Best to you and yours however you celebrate or anti-celebrate or whatever! - autothrall

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Picture - Every Story Needs Another Picture (1986)

I was hardly any hesher hunk to take advantage of the 80s hair metal sex and fashion, I was too young and dweeby at the time (and the latter does remain an apt description for me now), but something within me always stirs, partly from attraction and partly from laughter, at all these smutty old album covers. She's got a picture...of the band Picture...and she's stalking some private eye dude down the steamy city street in nylons, high heels and leather skirt. And it's on Backdoor records! If you used this as a cover today, I'd still think you were awesome, but there was something so sleazy and entertaining about it back in the day, and I like the color scheme and it strangely sort of mirrors the colors of their better known, more evil looking 1983 album Eternal Dark.

These Dutchmen are best known for that early 80s batch of records, at the crossroads between NWOBHM style heavy metal and more mainstream hard rock, which put them on trajectory for a level of international renown that they sadly didn't ever quite achieve. It's kind of cool to have a couple Picture albums around if you're showing off your old vinyl collection, but even then it's not a group I ever see a lot of people having discussions over. Every Story Needs Another Picture was already the group's sixth album, and it certainly seemed too timid in a year that was producing records like Master of Puppets, Somewhere in Time and Reign in Blood, but listening back on this one now with a fresh appreciation, it was actually a bit more busy and developed than some of their earlier, more straightforward stuff, and it has the sort of authentic 80s atmosphere to it that a lot of bands today fall over themselves trying to emulate. This album effectively sounds as it looks, something you'd chase into the urban nightscape, blaring out of the open windows of your Corvette or Trans Am or whatever was popular to drive in Holland at the time.

The guitars have a heavy foundation of hard rock and blues to them, sometimes using effects as you'd expect from a group like The Dire Straits on their ginormous hit, or ZZ Top, but just as often you've got a traditional feel that reminds me a lot of Whitesnake throughout the 80s. There are some synths here to give it that radio appeal, but also a lot of organs and such which also summon up some Uriah Heep or Deep Purple references. I'd venture that tunes like "Burning for Your Love" even leap off into a mix of mildly prog rock influences with the keyboard lead,s mixed with AOR arena rock for the predictable but functional verse guitar riffs. Vocalist Bert Heerink, who had taken over for Pete Lovell on the previous year's Traitor, has a nice, slicing high pitched voice which is smooth at encompassing all the melodies required over this material. The album does suffer from some softer rock anthems like "Stay With Me" or dull rockers like "She Was Made for Lovin'", but where they get a little more bombastic and intense like the first track "Battle Cruiser" and its cool opening choirs, or "Moving Down the Line", it's quite good stuff..."You Took My Money, You Took My Pride" and "Stand Back for the People in Charge" are also quite fun, the latter even with hints of Boston or Zebra in it.

I just wish there were more ambition here. I think if you like group such as Lion or Dokken, there is a chunk of this album worth your time, and a kernel of their sound was trying to go a little bit further than just the mundane butt-rock that they were undoubtedly pressured towards at the time, because it was either write some giant radio or hair metal hits, or get utterly fucking trampled by the heavier strains of the genre that were hitting in full-force by that time. Every Story Needs Another Picture does not accomplish either of those ends, but as an artifact of the 80s it's not bad if you have a soft nostalgia for AOR or lighter metal that really treads the line.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Sonja - Nylon Nights/Wanting Me Dead (2018)

Melissa Moore is best known for her work in more extreme metal acts like Absu (as Vis Crom) Rumpelstiltskin Grind and XXX Maniak, and in particular I really enjoyed her writing and playing on the 2011 album Abzu. But if I'm being quite honest, and if these two tracks are a reliable measuring stick, I think she's found her calling with this retro heavy metal act Sonja, which has only produced this single to date, but goddamn is this excellent material. It's the sort of riffy, memorable and exciting heavy metal which is, yes, largely a throwback to the 80s style, but like some of the better bands doing that today, also feels like it is actually taking that style forward into the future rather than relying entirely on aesthetics of the past. The two tracks here are so well done that I've been slavering for a full-length ever since...

The vocals are excellent, higher pitched without being screamy, and echoing with resonance in both the studio and emotional departments. I guess a good comparison would be Canada's Cauldron, in how she uses sustain and notation, but she's just a fraction or two higher. There also hooks for days going on in these cuts, especially "Nylon Nights", and I love that springy, organic tone she uses, which is one thing that absolutely sets this apart from a lot of the more direct 80s imitator bands. When she's just diving into those guitars in the bridges it feels so fresh and adventurous even if technically it's not novel. It's almost like High Spirits if you really ramped up the memorable and pounding on the guitar. And it doesn't hurt that she's got Grzesiek 'Gunslut' Czapla of Woe laying down the beats, and ex-Tombs bassist Ben Brand with some bass lines that anchor the tone of those vocals and guitars perfectly. Fantastic stuff that fans of Haunt, Traveler, Night Demon, Pounder, Enforcer, Spell and the bands I already named should track down this instant. If they'd put out an entire full-length of this quality in 2018 it might have made my AOTY.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Powerwolf - Best of the Blessed (2020)

I adore me some Powerwolf, but the last 5-10 years of the band's career have been littered with stuff you might consider cash grabs, from the number of live offerings, limited edition or otherwise, to all the other stuff like deluxe multi-disc versions of all their albums, covers album, orchestral versions, and so forth. Some of these, like The Symphony of Sin, Metallum Nostrum, and The Metal Mass - Live, make for pretty good products, but even then I'd have to say the band is laying it on thick, perhaps victims of their own productivity or maybe they just really need the cash?! Or maybe some of these weren't really the band's ideas. At any rate, Best of the Blessed is the 'greatest hits' package you just knew was coming, and at the very least it offers a pretty good amount of content, depending entirely on the version you buy.

And by that I mean, avoid the standard single disc edition entirely, because it's not a good value at all. 16 tracks, about half of which are re-recordings that do little more than bring some of the tunes off the first three records 'up to code', and I'll tell you, they didn't sound that bad in the first place, at least not to the degree that I'd ever imagine the band wanting to redo them in less than 30-40 years' time. It's not that the new editions of "Saturday Satan", "Resurrection by Erection" and "Kiss of the Cobra King" are I've said numerous times, Powerwolf is highly professional, but nonetheless, this one feels unnecessary. Maybe that professionalism is a double-edged sword...a great collection would have included a bunch of rarities, things we haven't heard, maybe a couple brand new tunes, but perhaps the band is so consistent they just don't have much left on the cutting room floor to offer. Anyway, if you're a fan of the Germans then you've already got all of this. The cover art is quite good, I like how it uses the various cover wolfs, and it comes with a nice booklet, but the musical content of the core compilation here is nothing to write home about. Not a total ripoff, since they put in a little work doing the new versions, but unneeded by any but their most devout audience.

Where it becomes a more interesting proposition is if you get the 2CD or 3CD earbook or mediabook which includes either one or two live offerings...we've already covered stuff like The Metal Mass - Live, and a lot of this stuff does seem redundant to that and their other, less impressive live albums, but at least there are a few different tracks here, and the sound quality is up to par. Plopping down the cash for all of this at once, rather than just some repressed tunes and re-recordings seems the far superior bargain. That said, this sort of thing really leads to exhaustion with a band, they seem like they're really milking it all dry. I get that they always love offering up these deluxe products, to give the fans something substantial, and you're by no means required to buy it all, but I think it's time they focused in on some killer new Lupus Dei-quality material and less on the assembly line.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10] (for the 3CD version), Fail [3.5/10] for the one CD.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Powerwolf - The Symphony of Sin (2020)

The Symphony of Sin is such a pompous and over-the-top idea that you wonder why Powerwolf didn't pull it off any sooner. Okay, so it's not their first attempt, they did a couple orchestral versions as bonus tracks for Preachers of the Night, but not this well, and not to this extent. Clearly the sweep and dynamic range of their material has had a heavy imprint from opera and classical influences, ever since the earlier albums, and now the German ghouls and lycanthropes get to live it. And like so much of their output, it's carried out with a professionalism that is far beyond what you'd have expected they could adaptation of The Sacrament of Sin that, for my money, is just about as potent in this medium as it is was with the electrical guitars and thundering drums.

In fact, although it does have the sort of Wagnerian menace that you equate with a lot of metal, if I hadn't already heard the 'heavy' version, I'd have thought much of this was written for this very context. Attila's obviously a natural, and the choir does well to support his voice as well as give a similar impression to when the band is using one of its own gang choruses. You want screams or ethereal female vocals to break out? They do in "Demons are a Girl's Best Friend". The horns are brazen, the keys, organs and pipes all sound truly resilient, as if you're hearing this while traversing some haunted fortress in a modern-day Castlevania sequel. Percussion gives it a theatrical, exotic flare and barbaric seriousness worthy of Basil Poledouris. To its credit, even at its most glorious, it still maintains the superficial sense of darkness which fuels most of their better material, and it's done to such a degree here that you wonder if these fellas had a more promising career in opera?!

Maybe that's too far, but The Symphony of Sin is quite a lot of fun. If you're bored of all this sort of orchestration, it's not about to change your mind. I sometimes get a mixed opinion on it, like the new Blind Guardian Twilight Orchestra album, which is nowhere as good at this. But what makes this release valuable is just how you can feel the currents of these particular tunes shift into new dimensions that are equally valuable to the metal versions. I was also a little impressed that they did it for this entire album, and focused in on that rather than assembling a 'greatest hits' through their career, which might not have gelled so well. This is also another release which the band originally included on a multi-CD deluxe set, which I missed out on, but it's since been given its own treatment.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Powerwolf - Metallum Nostrum (2019)

I touched a little on this material when I was reviewing the Powerwolf full-length Blessed & Possessed that it was originally attached to, a whole disc of covers that added most of the value if you were lucky enough to grab the deluxe version of that album, which I thought was otherwise one of their weaker studio efforts which was starting to just sound redundant to what they'd already released. But I wanted to come back around to Metallum Nostrum, especially as its got its own release that can be picked up by anyone who missed out the first time around, and because it's developed into one of my go-to cover albums by a power metal band, standing proudly aside Hammerfall's Masterpieces from 2008.

Powerwolf is a band I really enjoy for both the quality of much of their output, as well as the blend of Gothic horror and sacrilegious snark that stands out as so unique among the rest of the German heavy/power metal field. They're basically the Universal Monsters of the scene, and listening through Metallum Nostrum they pretty much lay bare the sorts of influences you would have expected them to cultivate into what they've become. I've come to believe that just about every choice here was well-considered and makes for something that can naturally help pad out their sets when in need of a cover that will fit snugly with their originals. From the power metal of their countrymen Running Wild's "Consquistadores" and double coverage of Judas Priest's Painkiller with "Night Crawler" and "Touch of Evil", you can tell where a lot of the propulsion of their style originated, and then from others like "The Evil That Men Do", Ozzy's "Shot in the Dark" or Sabbath's "Headless Cross", they're touching on a lot of the classics without just picking the most obvious hits, and its much appreciated.

Something like Amon Amarth is a little more far afield, and yet they once again took this one and turned it into Powerwolf proper with all the pomp and majesty you equate with their own material. Most of this stuff is just glittering with the moonlit pipe organ tones they use fluently, and Attila does a fantastic job at maintaining his own vocal identity rather than just clinging to all the other bands. "Edge of Thorns" is a sore spot for me since I'm just not a fan of those first few Zak-fronted Savatage discs, but I can totally understand how these guys would be a fan of that, and although it's the weakest tune for me, I think I like it with Attila singing a little more these days. The production is just all-out here, there might be some points where it's a little blander than on their own albums, but a lot more went into this than just taking the piss in their garage with some covers and its a fun collection that stacks up well with the rest of their catalog.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, November 15, 2021

Powerwolf - The Sacrament of Sin (2018)

There was nothing inherently 'wrong' with Blessed & Possessed, the band's previous album, but it felt like a clear case of diminishing returns, Powerwolf writing more or less the same types of songs with only an arbitrary amount of variation. Plenty of fodder for the live sets, where most of these fist pumping horror-tinged power metal anthems can tend to run into one another, but just not a lot that was standing out in my mind even a half hours listening to it. Its follow-up, The Sacrament of Sin, doesn't exactly thrust the band back into the thundering graces of their first three albums, which for me remain the pinnacle in terms of songwriting ideas and truly catchy hooks and choruses, but there is something slightly more subdued and mature about this one that just ever slow slightly gets the Transylvanian express back on the tracks.

If you still want your mug-swinging, organ hymnal critiques of the Church of the past, you know the naughty Christians that hunt all those benevolent critters like vampires, werewolves and witches, and catching a lot of innocents in the crossfire, then you've got a tune like "Killers with the Cross" which is basically like Sabaton, the Haunted House edition, and it's not the only case here. "Demons Are a Girl's Best Friend" is probably one of the breakout singles here, a little naughty but busting out a nice chorus flow that surely gets a lot of folks singing along at the shows. There's also the big, sweeping "Where the Wild Wolves Have Gone", which is more of a lighter flicker, operatic escalation wrapped in power ballad aesthetics; it just comes across as the band spreading its (gargoyle) wings to try something marginally different, and that one also hits a satisfying chorus. The title track, "Fist by Fist (Sacralize or Strike)" and "Nightside of Siberia" are also a couple of favorites here which give a steady ass kicking even if they're not quite so memorable as some of the amazing things they've written in the past. The latter has a little melodic chugging pattern similar to Amon Amarth's stuff, ironic since Powerwolf covers one of their tracks on Metallum Nostrum. It works.

Production and performance are at the same high standard the band always sets for itself...even though this is not the 'classical' version of this album, it still gives that impression with a lot of the bombast created through the backing vocals, organs and synthesizers, all accompanied by simpler, driving guitars that make the band sound like its constantly on the march. Attila stretches himself pretty far with a couple of the howls here, and he's not doing anything too unique in terms of advancing or innovating his style, but the guy just sounds good whether the band is hammering away behind him or he's belting out some pompous lines to the accompaniment of only the organs or choir. In the end we're talking about an album which doesn't stand out too far above the rest, but matches up with Preachers of the Night or Blood of the Saints, dependable and slightly more inspired than Blessed & Possessed, but not much. And full disclosure: I actually think The Symphony of Sin is quite a lot better than this, you might be swapping out the metal, but those orchestrated versions are just more interesting, and alternatingly dark and glorious. Compared to that surprise, this sacrament feels a mite insipid.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, November 12, 2021

Powerwolf - Preaching at the Breeze (2017)

Preachers at the Breeze seems like an act of pure redundancy after The Metal Mass - Live from the year before, with the caveat that this one I believe was technically recorded BEFORE the other, at the Summer Breeze Open Air in Germany the same year (2015). I don't know if there's a huge market for Powerwolf live albums with a following similar to Dave Matthews Band, Grateful Dead or Primus where you've got rabid fans that want recordings of every show the band performs, but that's doubtful since these Germans aren't really known to improv or structure their sets drastically different than one another. As such, this feels like a total waste, especially on the heels of that great live package the year before, and several others they had put out through magazines or limited editions or whatnot.

I also think this one sounds a little rougher than The Metal Mass - Live. Perhaps that was due to the festival atmosphere, the far bigger and louder crowd, but while you can pick out the 'highs' on this album like the pipe organs and Attila's voice quite well, the guitars seem a little murkier. Overall, I would be satisfied if there wasn't a better option. The set list is also practically identical for both albums, with only 1-2 exceptions, like this one has a slightly different intro and is lacking two of the tracks from that later set. Makes sense, since the list is from the same stretch of months in the band's history and it wasn't likely to change much, but it just makes you wonder why this needed to really exist in any capacity. If you're actually on the prowl for one of the Germans' live packages, this one certainly isn't bad, but spend the money on The Metal Mass - Live if you're seeking after an audio live album you can play in your car. I think this also might come with a limited edition of Blessed & Possessed, so if you're getting this, that album, AND the covers album, it's more worth your while. There's something to be said for consistency, and at the very least they show it here in terms of production qualities and packaging.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Powerwolf - The Metal Mass - Live (2016)

Powerwolf has so many deluxe double disc releases of their albums that this probably wasn't their first rodeo with a proper 'live' effort; I know they had one that came with a Metal Hammer magazine, but at least for me, this was my first experience hearing these loveable Saarland spook-metallers on a full live recording, and I expected they'd give it as much effort as they seem to do anything else. This was right around the time I had started to lose a little interest in their studio material, not because I thought any of it was bad, just that I thought they were feeling a little redundant with both the writing, the cover art choices, etc. That ghost ship would eventually right itself, as I've enjoyed The Sacrament of Sin more than Blessed & Possessed, but at least hearing it live would possess some novelty.

Spoiler: it does, but at the same time, the band has an insanely professional sound here which is not a far cry from how they sound in the studio. Attila's voice soars here with all its Romanian bombast, the guy is no joke...he's not the highest pitched or most versatile, but he's got a burly tone that just takes command of the audience and he doesn't really fuck up, hardly, at all. Some might consider that a bit of a weakness, since they want to hear the more 'real' attack on stage, but in a European scene whose power and Gothic metal bands are so honed in on polish and presentation, what I'm hearing from these Germans has to place them right at the top of the pile. The guitars and organs sound awesome, the drums have a nice slap to them which sounds especially good when they're doing the marching beats alongside the operatic arrangements, and I've rarely heard such a smooth mix of the audience almost sounds too good to be true. Doesn't hurt that it's also being recorded on their home turf, so you can hear Dorn speaking to them in German between tunes and even that sounds just about perfect!

The set list is definitely where it misses out a little, almost entirely ignoring my favorite album Lupus Dei other than the title track...but no "In Blood We Trust", "When the Moon Shines Red", "Mother Mary is a Bird of Prey" or "We Take it from the Living", tunes I'd figure would be staples. I don't think the debut makes it on here at all, but Bible of the Beast through Blessed & Possessed are all covered well enough if you dig those, and they do such a flawless job representing that stuff that it's hard to hold a grudge...they were probably just tired of the earlier material, and much of the band's popularity picked up in the 2010s as they had built a solid live presence for tours and festivals. This is quite a good live effort, and Powerwolf has proven that they do not screw around, whether it be their studio output, cover songs album, live performances, or even the more recent symphonic version of The Sacrament of Sin. They believe in themselves, and spare no expense or effort to succeed, and as silly as they can seem with their ghoulish stage makeup, they demand respect and they've got mine. I still haven't tried out their board game though, Armata Strigoi...that will be the ultimate test...

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Beast in Black - From Hell With Love (2019)

Although its formula isn't a far transition from that of the debut Berserker, From Hell With Love doesn't take more than a track or two to prove that it's already a better album than the debut. It starts off on a very strong footing with a full on arena rager, and then doesn't really let up as it cycles into its hybrid of chorus-grabbing power metal, synthesizer-heavy AOR and just the ever-so-slight breezes of proggier climes. This is all about those dressing up those enormous sing-a-long style choruses with competent riffing, lavish but tightly controlled avenues for shredding, and keyboards all over the place that play second fiddle to nobody, which becomes obvious as soon as the titular second track erupts.

Another curiosity is how they use a lot of the electric drum fills that seem like they're spun off the same 80s pop influences that the synths draw upon, they do such a great job of meshing that all together with the big chords and ever-improving performance of Yannis, who sounds on this album as if he's already cracked the all-time ranks of European power metal royalty. From Hell With Love is a veritable hit machine, and while it's apt to annoy anyone for the same reasons other groups like Sabaton would, it's honestly better crafted. As someone who was reared on a lot of hard rock at the same time I was delving into all the heavier, more evil and obscure metal, I can find an appreciation here because Beast in Black won't let me think any other way. 'This kicks ass...but it's soooo lame...but it's still kicking my ass. What is wrong with me?' I mean I'll be honest in that I don't really care for a lot of Anton's earlier band Battle Beast, I find myself nodding off at a lot of their riffs on the last couple albums...the singer's hot, but so what? 

I've got no such opportunity on this album, because it demands attention at every curve, from the throwback synth tones that should have stopped being cool 35 years ago, to the elevating chorus progressions and the way it just revels in all its cheesiness and does not give a fuck. There are a couple moments where it might go a little too far, like the track "Oceandeep" where it seems to be channeling a bit too much Nightwish, but at least the first five tracks in a row thoroughly rile up the hackles on my ghost-mullet, and it does later recover with scorchers like "Unlimited Sin", or "True Believer" which once again goes for this outrageous 80s synth wave sound and then just layers on the butt rock, or "This is War" which reminds us that metal is still with Beast in Black and we've got nothing much to worry about...they were just kinda sorta testing our limits.

They've also got some cool covers on here, having the audacity to throw some roiling synths into "Killed by Death" by Our Lord Lemmy and friends, while keeping the vocals kind of nasty. "No Easy Way Out" from Rocky IV is probably more obvious, I mean the whole band's sound is meant to sound something like that, so why not pay it back? Add the sexy sword & sorcery cover art, the massive modern production and it's just a fun banger to spin as you cruise the city streets, but maybe keep the windows up since you don't want those friends who think you only listen to Pissgrave and Teitanblood to catch you.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]