Thursday, November 30, 2023

Sodom - 40 Years at War: The Greatest Hell of Sodom (2022)

The prospect of re-recording albums full of thrash classics is obviously not lost upon the German veterans; Destruction has released a few of their Thrash Anthems comps, Tankard has done one, and even Sodom has issued a full, expanded re-recording of their cult In the Sign of Evil EP, and a handful of other tracks have been revisited on other albums and EPs. 40 Years at War: The Greatest Hell of Sodom is an attempt to throw together 17 tracks which cover much of the band's career into a new whole, and it certainly succeeds at that, in particular the earlier tunes that, while charming, were admittedly (and understandably) somewhat sloppy in execution when the guys were young. 66 minutes of Sodom, who are frankly on a tear with their last handful of new studio outings, honing their weaponry into a production level that can contend with their most recent albums, possibly welcomed by younger fans, and after blazing through this a few times, welcomed by this old fart too.

The track selection here isn't terribly predictable, either, so if you're just expecting the 'greatest hits of Sodom', they have avoided that to just focus on really improving some pieces. No "Nuclear Winter", "Sodomy and Lust", or "The Saw is the Law" here, but a ripping volley of tracks like "After the Deluge", "Electrocution", "Body Parts" and "City of God". Regardless of the material's original era, it has all been smoothed over to sound consistent as a whole, as if 40 Years at War were just another new studio album, and while you can figure out the differences based on the relative technicality or punky feel of the tunes, it still sounds like it all belongs to the same band. Tom's vocals sound flawless, Frank and Yorck have a tone that stays loyal to the later 80s recordings but pumps a little more power, and the drumming is as peppy as it needs to be to encourage all the sore necks. Lead guitars are functional and don't attempt to leap out of the mix too much, and the bass production is also pretty good although it lets those iron-clad rhythm guitar riffs take control.

Although the Thrash Anthems collections were quite solid themselves, Sodom has surpassed them with what must be the best of these re-recording sprees, because I can honestly tell you that in many of the cases here I'd probably prefer listening to these very versions. Not every song is amazing, but the fact they didn't just go with the safer picks raises the value of this in my estimation. Like their peers in Kreator and Destruction, Angelripper and crew show no signs of slowing down, even the older members sound just as strong as they did in their formative 80s years, and 40 Years at War is another worthwhile exhibition of their dedication and power. I also really enjoy the cover art with the band's two iconic mascots going at it with one another, very representative of the recording as a whole, that fusion of old school and later thrash.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Lunar Tombfields - An Arrow to the Sun (2023)

Last year's The Eternal Harvest was a tasteful, atmospheric black metal debut out of France, and An Arrow to the Sun looks to continue that style as it shifts between its more measured, contemplative passages and then the surges into the more conventional blast patterns. The band also has a slightly interesting sense for melody, sure the tremolo picking styles are the same that you are used to in the genre, and a lot of the chords do end up in the direction that you predict, but once in awhile they'll spit out a guitar line with a more distinct progression. Lunar Tombfields does stick to its moniker in delivering very sorrowful material that is probably best experienced under some shade of moonlight, but I think this is the very definition of a 'mood record', because when I'm not quite in the headspace to absorb it, I did find myself occasionally phasing out in the longer tracks, which is all of them after the opener.

I think it's that structurally there are not a lot of surprises to be had...the duo performs all the instruments well, the vocals bear the burden of the dour and desperate emotions, and I actually love some of the tones on the guitars when they splay out the slower, spacious chords. The acoustics or cleaner distorted guitars are wonderful, and the rhythm section is tight-knit as needed, the band also balances off the coldness and warmth through some of the chord choices and that offers and air of romance to the music redolent of the debut. But often I found myself combing through the material for just one little surprise lick or tempo break, and they pop up a little too rarely in such swollen songs. I feel that some of them lose their luster after about 5-6 minutes, or they would have that much to hold my attention combined within them.

That said, this is still a decent follow-up to The Eternal Harvest, and from a production standpoint it sounds quite good, especially the glint of the guitars and the drumming. If you're just out to behold the sheer atmosphere of it, you could find far worse than An Arrow to the Sun to explore, but I just felt that there were only a limited number of payoff riffs nestled among the more predictable pieces. The closer "Le Chant Des Tombes" is probably the most balanced of the 8-9 minute tracks for me, but even that one had a moment or so of unneeded excess. Interestingly, the tracks are shorter than the debut but I still found myself more immersed in that one. Regardless, they've still got the wonderful artwork and a style that merits the patient, so if you enjoyed the last album this one isn't far off at all.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

RüYYn - Chapter II: The Flames, the Fallen, the Fury

French one-man act RüYYn's debut EP from a couple years back hardly lit my world on fire, not that its wintry and isolated disposition was intended to do so, but it was rather long on the anticipated atmosphere and short on memorable compositions. Still, there was some obvious potential there that has now been followed up through the first 'full length' proper, and right away you can notice a stark elemental difference, fire and fumes and darkness as opposed to the blinding white squalls of its predecessor. Like that debut, the songs here are numerated rather than named, the usual double edged sword which can promote cohesion to the whole via individual anonymity, but also sap the tunes of some level of remembrance in the process...

That is to say, if they are not good, and Chapter II: The Flames, the Fallen, the Fury takes only a few tracks to prove that it's a notable improvement over the prior material, with a heavier sense of loss, emotion and urgency that is cultivated through more distinct riffing and overall songwriting. This is traditional European black metal embellished with the post-modern dissonance and atmospherics that are rather widespread these days, but it's also very well balanced with some spaced out, higher pitched guitars and melodies that capture a sense of longing and melancholy (even right off in the bridge to the first track, "Part I"). The bass has a tangible presence, flooding beneath the streams of chords, and Romain's vocals, which have a little more robustness than your typical rasping, and a good level of sustain when he wants to bark a line out over the desperate, melodic hostility of the guitars and beats.

Although there's the same sort of uniform sense as there was with the debut, I think the tracks here are just set up far better, for example how the first cut breaks away and surges into "Part II" with that great double bass-driven attack. Each ends and begins with a renewed sense of identity and a wonder for the listener at what is going to happen, and to their credit, almost all of these seven pieces is fleshed out rather well with some interesting atmosphere, bleak or brooding trepidation. Where the EP had its limitations, Chapter II is far more of the 'total package' that one can wander through repeatedly, and cements RüYYn as a project to pay attention to amongst the ever-present French BM scene. Not as wild or experimental as a Blut Aus Nord or Deathspell Omega, but also not entirely conventional or predictable.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, November 27, 2023

Voivod - Ultraman EP (2022)

Two of my favorite things, together at last? I've made no secret of my love for Canadian sci-fi thrashers Voivod, they are my favorite band by an order of magnitude, but I'm also a huge fan of tokusatsu shows like the legendary Ultraman. In fact, the genre has been having a bit of a renaissance lately, with Stateside Blu Rays and DVDs for series from Super Sentai, Kamen Rider, Gridman, and especially the dozens of Mill Creek releases of Ultraman shows spanning the last 50-60 years. Young autothrall would have killed to get some of this growing up, there were a few shows available to watch on TV, but usually it was fansubs only when the internet arrived, and I was never big into the Power Rangers adaptations, the original Japanese shows they were culled from were just far whackier and more entertaining.

But yeah, it doesn't surprise me that the coolest band ever shares this passion, and they mete out a split medley of 9 versions of the Ultraman theme, shifting between instrumental and vocal versions, with a few different languages in there too. It's fun, but obviously this is a novelty, much like their old cover of "Batman" which was weirdly relevant to their 80s evolution. The themes are really short, and play it fairly close to the originals, but there's a slight edge of innovation in the guitars, and Snake's punk-wrought vocal style is a smooth fit, turning them into this almost space-surf-punk feel.  For the B-side, they've included a pair of 2018 live recordings of "Voivod" and "Overreaction" that sound phenomenal, with great angry vocals, booming bass and shuffling percussion to support Chewy's energized renditions, you even get a Piggy chant from the band and audience if I'm not mistaken. All told, the Ultraman EP will have a limited appeal, the A-side is a little repetitive and it's obviously not as powerful as their original material, but it's a cute collector's item to hang on your wall, and one wonders what might happen if they put out a whole album covering obscure sci-fi/superhero themes, maybe some prog and such. Earns a big smile, but not really mandatory beyond its collectible nature, there's just so little to it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Penitencé Onirique - Nature Morte (2023)

Penitencé Onirique is another French black metal act with its post-black influences anchored rather solidly in the more traditional elements of the genre, and their first two records had some great aesthetics when it came to packaging and style, even if the the music itself wasn't constantly winning me over. There was a slight step up in quality between V.I.T.R.I.O.L. and Vestige, and Nature Morte ups their ante yet again with an even more measured and memorable of melody, atmosphere and aggression, not to mention the curious and creepy, thorny floral photography which stands out as a little unique and artsy, yet perfectly melded to the flavor of the songwriting itself.

This one had me right as I got my foot in the door with its excellent intro to "Désir", a swell of percussion and cinematic ambient/orchestration that surged relentlessly into the blasting. It's actually this constant hovering of the symphonic vibe right on the edge of the searing intensity that really rounds out Nature Morte, there is always something tantalizing to the ear, and while I couldn't tell you that every riff is strikingly unique or catchy, there are more than enough to fit that latter category, and the tunes are paced very well to provide potent breaks or balanced against the blazing speed of some of their attack. A spacier, slower tune like the title track works equally well, and allows a little more verve to the bass lines and power to the drawn-out, impassioned rasps, with some really climactic moments that nearly knocked me out of my chair.

There's not a lot of experimentation, necessarily, but for example they have the dramatic instrumental "Lama Sabachthani" which is a lovely respite from the more relentlessly-paced material, and it's just further proof of how well balanced this whole disc is. I was stunned into submission through most of its 46 minutes, the perfect template of tempering a more traditional BM style with epic atmospherics and mildly progressive overtures to keep it present in the listener's conscience, Hands down one of the better French black metal records I've come across this year, and a formidable elevation from the material that preceded it, not that there was anything terribly wrong with that, but if I'm recommending albums from this niche, I'll direct you straight to this as one of the stronger examples in that second tier beneath the more internationally respected (or infamous) groups from that scene. An awesome album and more importantly, a worthwhile experience.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Friday, November 24, 2023

Destruction - The Butcher Strikes Back (2022)

Vic Records' The Butcher Strikes Back is one of those 'deep fan' sorts of releases, slapping together some random material onto a single recording that might have evaded some of the band's audience. This is a part of the label's M.O., to get demos and other obscurities out into the hands of the metal crowd, but I often find that the quality or presentation is lacking, and would prefer to check out their more original releases or pure album reissues. This disc features 12 cuts, including the demo recordings of the same title that came out as the band were getting back together after the debacle that some refer to as Neo-Destruction; a handful of Japan only bonus tracks, and then the entire latter half is devoted to some live tracks from a Wacken performance. Right off the bat, I can say that this already feels like a disjointed product without hearing a single note...

Individually, though, there's nothing terribly wrong here. The demo tracks sound pretty sharp, and the production shows you they were ready to return with a vengeance for All Hell Breaks Loose and then their reunion masterpiece The Antichrist. Still a bit disheveled and demo sounding, but they aren't too far below the official studio recordings. The Tank and Motorhead covers are both serviceable, the production on the former a little more might and iron-flecked than the latter, but both of the tunes work well with Schmier's snarling and adding a little more German steel to them, and these are obvious influences on their own sound from the early years. There's a Japanese version of the Schmier-only fronted "Alliance of Hellhounds" which feels superfluous, and then it's on to the live material, which has a mix of reunion and older tracks but doesn't sound all that good from a band with better live offerings that you can experience in full, like their legendary Live Without Sense, or even the more recent stuff like Born to Thrash or Live Attack!

That's not to say it sounds bad, all the instruments are present but they feel a little cluttered at how they are entering your ear space. The bass sounds livid, the drums tinny, the guitars muscular enough and just enough of Schmier to fully embrace their infernal energy, but it's certainly no big draw towards this product as a whole. And that's rather the issue here, who is this for other than those who have to own absolutely everything? The cover art is just derivative of Infernal Overkill and Mad Butcher, and it just feels like a garden variety, second or third rate fan package which isn't necessarily terrible, nor is it expensive; but you'd be better served picking up a new CD, cassette or vinyl from some band you just discovered, or one of the Destruction albums not already in your collection. If you MUST have it all, though, I have heard far worse than this.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Tankard - Pavlov's Dawgs (2022)

As much as I love the first three Tankard full-lengths, and enjoy some of their material since, there can be no doubt that a lot of their albums of the last 20 years suffer from a sameness syndrome in which you could swear you've already heard the riffs a half-dozen times. Of course, even this period had a standout for me in The Beauty & The Beer, and I cite that title because their latest, 18th (?) full-length Pavlov's Dawgs has a lot of the same sense of melody to it as that one. Rather than the more punk and splatter-fueled alcoholic thrash of their formative era, they've been infusing a lot more of a heavy metal sensibility into their tunes, which ends up working well below Gerre's vocals, because the guy's vocals are just timeless, and even here, almost 40 years after their debut, he still sounds fantastic.

The production is likewise pristine, a vibrant and iron-fisted rhythm guitar tone redolent of the last couple decades of Destruction, and everything is crystal clear, which works well to leverage the nastier vocals and then the melodic, well-constructed leads from Andy Gutjahr which are quite good here. Frank's bass thumps along heavily and Olaf's drums are flawless in his 28th year with the band. In fact, from a pure production/accessibility standpoint, Pavlov's Dawgs might be the band's highlight of the entire post-Disco Destroyer period, and sounds killer on every speaker I've played it through. The downside is that, while there's no question of the effort that went into this album, the tunes are just not highly memorable on any level of consistency. They sound like more of the same that you heard on the last 5-6 discs, with perhaps a slightly elevated sense of melody, but there aren't many killer chorus parts or riffs that truly hook you under the keg and fill you to bursting with mosh-brew.

Now, having said that, I am so attracted to the Tankard aesthetic in general that it's still a pretty decent listen if you just shut your mind off. I mentioned Andy's guitar playing, and that's a particular point which excels here, he's hurling in all these trad/power metal dual harmonies in there and you can constantly sense this potential to explode as he reaches some new level of six-string mastery. Though the riffs and rhythm section are rushing and crushing along through the entirety, the way the vocals soar almost creates a mellow vibe off the top, like it's intense and laid back simultaneously. While the tunes don't slay me, I also can't say it's boring, just like a very 'matured' version of this band which strides forward with full drunken confidence. The album does feel like Beauty & the Beer filler, so whether or not you're going to dig it might depend on your reaction to that one, or maybe 2017's One Foot in the Grave. It's probably impossible at this point that we return to the explosive controlled chaos of The Morning After or the steelpunk-driven Zombie Attack, but I'm alright with this, and I'll keep buying their albums even if just to support their determination and consistency.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Children of Technology - Written Destiny (2020)

Italy's Children of Technology has always been a band I've wanted to like more than I do; their aesthetic blend of punk, thrash, speed metal, societal decay, mutant apocalypse leather and spikes has that inbred appeal to my inner child of the 70s and 80s, and they have always felt like what might have occurred had Voivod swerved their first few albums into a more Stateside crossover style. Now, I'm glad those Canadians did NOT do that, because they're the most amazing band ever and I've enjoyed just about every step of their journey...but I just mean to say that Children of Technology have that genuine 'cool 80s B-movie' vibe about them, and they've maintained it even through my mixed reactions to their full-length albums, of which Written Destiny is only the third...

And I'm happy to say, their best! 2010's It's Time to Face the Doomsday was fairly stylin', but their sophomore album didn't really further my appreciation. Written Destiny hit on all cylinders so fast for me that I purchased it almost instantly after giving it a test listen. There's a maturity here, a willingness to just settle into some great riffing blend of heavy/thrash metal which catches your attention right away and then holds it. I'm not saying that they've brought much nuance or invention to their niche, but straight up, the brazen metal crunch and wailing leads of "Soundtrack to No Future" set up their scythe-wielding, biker mutant aesthetic, and then the screaming and speed metal take you away to a far-flung land of radioactive bliss. Raw, nasty vocals, great gang shouts that resonate past them, and incendiary rhythm guitar tone just rattle every pleasure center in my being, and this one doesn't let up. There's DEFINITELY a huge nod to Voivod's War and Pain, and this almost sounds like a better mixed cousin to that, especially on the killer title track or the shuffling wasteland of "Desert City".

Granted, the vocals here have more of a mix of nasty nasal pinch to them than Snake's punked out pitch, but the use of the howled cleaner vocals also draws some comparisons, so they spice that up further with the occasional grunt and growl, and epic early Tom Araya screams. Riffs are very simple, like War and Pain filtered through some NWOBHM, a couple of the frillier riffs you'd expect from the blackened/speed sect so popular these recent years (for good reason). They writhe in some tremolo proto-death metal riffs here or there too, and it all gels together so well while maintaining a very down to earth, blue-collar feel to it. The riffs are never technical, not even original, but the album is simply a blast and everyone should own it, whether your jam is Manowar or Hellripper. Italy's got quite a good little scene of these bands, with Bunker 66 and Baphomet's Blood also whipping out some strong albums lately, and while Written Destiny definitely has more of the true heavy metal coursing through its nuclear bones, it's certainly one of the best in that scene to date.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Kreator - Hate über alles (2022)

Kreator's another of our enduring, legendary thrash metal bands that took a few lumps during more their experimental self-exploration phase, which usually comes around a decade after their ascent through a slew of thrashing masterworks. All things considered, though, it was never really that bad...Cause for Conflict felt mediocre, although well within their realm of typical aggression, and Endorama's moody, melancholic tinge of Goth rock influence wasn't a total disaster. Their other, more industrial-driven records like Outcast and Renewal ranged from good to great for me, however. I bring this up, because the first track I heard off this latest album, "Strongest of the Strong", featured an interesting use of tasteful female vocals that led me to believe that they'd forayed off into a new direction...and not an unpleasant one.

But it turns out that particular song is an exception here, because this is just a heavy as fuck Teutonic thrashing which put my neck and numerous other limbs in braces. Don't get me wrong, this is richly produced, mature, modern Kreator, more atmospheric than their 80s classics, but it hits like a ton of bricks with some of the fastest pure riffing the band has ever manifest. All of the decades behind them have structured and informed this record, and the only real modernization is a matter of production and tighter musicianship. You've got the utter savagery of your Pleasure to Kill or Terrible Certainty filtered through the more melodic works of recent years like Phantom Antichrist, and then a few refreshing elements like the guest vocals above, which work amazingly well, like a shade hovering above the lightning tremolo picked riffs. Mille's raving bark sounds just as rich as you'd hope, and it still shocks me how the 'Big Four' German thrash frontmen (Mille, Schmier, Gerre and Tom) are still at the top of their game after all these years. This guy is 55 fucking years's astonishing.

He's not the only shining star here, because Ventor still has his hustle behind the kit, and Sami's interplay with Mille's guitars provides a number of ecstatic, melodic moments that really help contrast and balance out the pure ferocity that the band are meting out on the lower end. These tracks sound like 30 years of evolution stacked on top of the ambition they showed with records like Terrible Certainty or Coma of Souls, and while individual riffs might not come across as distinctly catchy, or the chorus parts as obvious, Hate über alles has a lot to unpack, and all of it good. When I see people complaining about this modern Kreator, I have to wonder what they are even thinking. What more could you expect than this?!? It's advanced and interesting, moody and atmospheric, and STILL has the hostile undercurrent the group created in their youths. It's not full of hits that will challenge the Germans' Golden Oldies, you've still got your "Flag of Hate" and "Riot of Violence" available whenever you want to hear them, but they've used all of their experience to produce records with a lot of depth that will forever retain me as a card-carrying fan until I'm wormfood. Stellar record, my fave from them in over a decade.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Iron Maiden - Senjutsu (2021)

It might be tempting to take my recent review of Book of Souls, copy and paste it with all the appropriate titles changed, because Senjutsu suffers from a lot of the same issues I had with that record. However, I think the difference is that the lows here are lower, and the highs are debatably higher than anything on that 2015 offering. Keep in mind that this is still a legendary band, capable of legendary metal tracks, with much of its classic roster in place, taking its sweet time between new studio offerings, yet unable to really compose on the level of their younger selves, with all that money, and all that time. Don't get me wrong, they have EARNED such breaks, unquestionably, because of their incessant touring and advanced ages. Iron Maiden has nothing to prove, with a stellar, classic backlog, loads of popular merchandising, and tours that do their damnedest to give you your money's worth. The band has given me so much that I cannot really ask more of them...

Still, I'm baffled why a band with such an enormous resource pool can no longer create the sort of top shelf tuneage which put them on the map. On its surface, Senjutsu does look cool...I dig the stark simplicity of the artwork (as with Book of Souls), and Samurai Eddie is surely a thing. The 81-82 minutes of this might have easily been quashed onto a single CD, but once more the band has opted for the double-album, with a number of lengthy tracks, although nothing as long as on the prior disc. We're talking several pieces that are 9-12 minutes, and the odds of Maiden being able to fill all that bulk with the quality of a "Powerslave" or "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" seem bleak. The first single I heard off this, "The Writing on the Wall", had a decent animated video, and a folky feel to it which felt fresh for the band, although it's ultimately a pretty dull track without a memorable chorus. "Stratego" had me more excited, the flow on that one brought me back to the Maiden I loved of that mid-to-late 80s period, but with a slightly fresh mood to it (and another animated video). That's still one of my favorite songs on this album, but if you're asking me to put together a collection of a few dozen tracks for a road trip, it's not going anywhere NEAR that list.

Most of the lengthier tunes here feel rather empty, not that they lack emotion or melody, because Bruce still delivers as one of the high points of Senjutsu; but I almost never feel like there is any positive payoff to spending all that time within the music. There are tracks like "Lost in a Lost World" which feel like pure callbacks to some of my favorite Maiden material, but then there's nothing new or remotely refreshing about them. The shorter tracks here ("Stratego", "Days of Future Past") are much more engaging, while cuts like "Death of the Celts" and "The Parchment" seem to be building to something impressive, and then the work crews up and retire for a lunchbreak and never return. "Hell on Earth" is more successful at grabbing me, but again all the good stuff could have been condensed to a track half the length and I would have missed nothing.

Now that I've covered my disappointments, I will say that I don't quite dislike the album, this is not Nostradamus by a long shot; it doesn't suck at all, and it once again squeaks by on some of its positive factors. The production feels a lot more natural and resonant to me than The Book of Souls' smoother, cleaner mix, and as a result the historical, windy, epic nature of the lyrical matter seems better suited to the sound of the actual instruments. It's just as pleasant to put on in the background as its predecessor, because hey, that's Iron Maiden back there. But compare for a moment what this band is churning out compared to some of its peers...the last two Saxon albums kick ass in their traditional blue collar heavy metal. The most recent Judas Priest album was the most charged up they've been in almost 30 years. The last four Satan albums, since the reunion, leave Iron Maiden and every other NWOBHM or NWOBHM-adjacent band in the fucking dust. Bruce and the boys just sound bored and exhausted by comparison, and I hope that with these last two double albums, they've shaken off these 'epic' urges, and can fire off a few more concise efforts like Piece of Mind or Number of the Beast before we have to inevitably say goodbye to one of our favorite bands. Senjutsu is decent enough, but could have been so. much. more.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Iron Maiden - The Book of Souls (2015)

Iron Maiden's first double-album arrived at an era in which the band would be highly unlikely to fill 90 minutes with the sort of immortal, quality material that marked their ascent through the 80s, but the hope is that you can pick through all of its bloated carcass and find a few bits of tasty meat within, which you can then carve away from the fat. After years of trying, I can't seem to find enough of that choice protein. The Book of Souls is no hit machine, but rather the sort of record one grows to appreciate merely because of its experiential qualities. A good 90% of the material present on these two discs is harvested from similar and superior songwriting from across the band's past, but reconfigured just enough to feel like it still might be relevant, and the result is a pretty pleasant chunk of Iron Maiden lite that is well suited to background aural radiation...but you see, it's still Iron Fucking Maiden, and that matters.

I enjoyed this one for what it was when it first dropped, but admittedly had it shelved for years before deciding to finally draft up some thoughts on it. Listening now, it's much as I felt back then, professionally and competently executed Maiden with all the trademarks: mid to slow, plodding, majestic rhythms that occasionally stir an emotional response, Bruce Dickinson's distinct pipes sounding as well oiled as they've been in the 21st century, and a lot of interesting subject matter to inspire its lyrics. Toss in a production so clean that you could sniff Eddie's mummy dust off its surface without contamination, and add to that a rather simplistic but effective cover with the mascot looking his creepy best. Being an hour and a half of content with 11 tracks, there are bound to be a lot of overstuffed songs, and few of them really warrant the riffing and arrangement to justify that; but even if you take "The Red and the Black" at its 13 minute whole, there is still enough of the dreamy escapist quality to their classic material circa Somewhere in Time or Seventh Son of a Seventh Son or even Brave New World to not hit the Skip button. "Empire of the Clouds" at 18 minutes seems a little more adventurous, akin to a "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", sans the excellent payoffs and narrative quality of that track.

When they do occasionally manage to pick up the pace for chunks of  "When the River Runs Deep" or "Death or Glory", you immediately perk up, because it just stands out from the more gleaming, polished melancholy that comprises so much of the remainder. Both of these tunes are worth hearing extracted from The Book of Souls as a whole, but even then if I were to compare them to the classics of yore, they still tend to come up short in terms of having legendary choruses. The leads throughout the album are serviceable, but again you rarely get anything past 'just alright', and Iron Maiden is never a band that should settle for 'just alright', or anything less than excellence. I've seen other refer to this album as Iron Maiden 'covering' themselves, and I don't know that I agree with that, it all seems genuine enough, only played too safely, like the well of ambition behind these legends has run dry, and they've sealed it off rather than wait for that rainfall of ingenuity to arrive again. The Book of Souls gives them something more to tour on, to rally around, to churn out a bunch of non-challenging, acceptable tunes, but I'd much rather they tried to kick us all in the proverbial balls again (in a good way, not a Virtua XI way) and fail, then summon up another lukewarm offering like this one.

This album does manage to squeak by on my scale, hitting all the superficial chords I expect, with decent lyrics and production, but there's just no "Wicker Man" here. No "Can I Play With Madness?". No "Powerslave". And hearing how obviously competent the band remains, I think they could still pull such glories off, it's just going to require a little more pickiness in the writing phase, and a long look in the mirror without the shave.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, November 6, 2023

Amorphis - Halo (2022)

Coming off a strong stretch of albums like Under the Red Cloud and Queen of Time, I had really high hopes that Halo would ascend to the level of masterpiece Amorphis was putting out in the mid 90s. That was an unrealistic expectation, of course, and in fact this record is a step back even from its predecessors, but that's not to dump on it too hard, because Halo has all the hallmarks you've come to expect from the Finns, and it's nothing less than pleasant to experience, with some heavier material spun in there to create a good balance. In fact, this album has most of the components of an album like Elegy, which I still worship to this day. The mix of cleans and growls, the organs, the combination of prog, folk, and death metal, it's all intact, but for all the effort and professionalism, a lot of these tunes are in one ear and straight out the other.

Don't mistake me, if you want that sensation of sailing through the lakes and rivers, hair blown back as you hallucinate on Finnish myth and history, Halo, like most of the Tomi Joutsen era albums, will warm your ears. Both of his vocal styles are as strong as ever, and the guy's got a powerful projection to his timbre which fits wonderfully over the uplifting, epic nature of the music. But once you dissect the bits of this record, a lot of the chugging low end guitars are dull, the melodies with all their hippie effects seem redundant with others the band has been producing since Elegy and Tuonela, and the chorus hooks just don't have much to stand out to you, although they are always competent and easy on the soul. A lot of the proggier pieces like "The Moon" seem bog standard in tempo and structure, and even the more soothing passages like the intro to "Windmane" just seem to drift on by as mere setups for other, harder rhythms that don't deliver something I'm going to think of in 5 years (or months).

Actually, I couldn't remember a single track on this before I went back to visit it...maybe "Seven Roads Come Together" or "When the Gods Came" left a slight impression, but individual riffs or vocal lines escaped me until I was spinning the disc again, and I do feel like the middle and late tracks are more potent. The production has a great depth to it, but the songs really don't beyond the band bringing together those clean and heavier guitars, synths, etc. I like this one more than a Circle or Far from the Sun, the two Amorphis albums I never revisit, so this comes off like a stronger alternative, but even after giving it several more listens to compose my thoughts, it falls firmly into that 'decent' or 'alright' territory, there is nothing incendiary or distinct when mixed and matched against many of their past works. It's fully safe, there are no surprises to be had, no risks whatsoever waiting in its wings. Likeable enough to spend a little time with, but I wouldn't put a ring on its finger.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, November 3, 2023

Amorphis - Live at Helsinki Ice Hall (2021)

It was about the time I started listening through Live at Helsinki Ice Hall that I realized I don't think I've heard a full-length live record before from Amorphis. I've SEEN them live, a few times, sure, and I thought I could recall them putting out another live a few years before this one, but I must never have gotten around to it. It turns out that this one is quite substantial, recorded in their home turf, with two discs of tunes totaling almost 90 minutes. The caveat here is that the majority of the material is taken from the Tomi Joutsen years of the band, with a few treats for the older fans, so if you're expecting a run through of The Karelian Isthmus and Tales from the Thousand Lakes, you might come away disappointed, but this is really to be expected as they would focus on the records they're currently writing and selling.

The mix is pretty good, there's a great atmosphere created by the synthesizers and faint audience noise or feedback, so that you get this huge amphitheater-like shell of sound. Guitars sparkle along at their most melodic, but don't pack a lot of punch when they hit the lower end, but fortunately the bass and drums bulk the whole mix up. I actually think Tomi sounds off in some places, his delivery is powerful in both the cleans and growls, but especially on the later content it just sounds like he wavers a fraction off some of the desired notes, or my ears are playing tricks on me. His growling on some of the older Elegy or Tales material is pretty good though, and like I hinted, he can certainly carry the show with the pure belting he gives out. There are some nuances, effects and such here too that come off quite nice, but the album soars most when they hit upon that super atmospheric material like "The Four Wise Ones" where the synths are striking, Tomi is grunting and the leads are ringing out. Where it needs to be climactic, it delivers well enough, especially since I don't have much to compare it with!.

I'm a fan of most eras of this band, with the exception of Far from the Sun, and they seemed to have skipped that one here, as well as Circle, another that I just found mediocre. So I'm all in with the track selections, and I think they do a fairly apt job of mixing in the heaviness to remind us of their roots, especially when they take on an older number like "Into Hiding" and mix and modernize it so well alongside the more recent, progressive, mellower pieces. I don't know that Live at Helsinki Ice Hall captures the perfect Amorphis experience, or if any live recording ever could, but it's a good enough showcase to remind you of why you've enjoyed the wonderful band for three whole decades and counting.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]