CRYSTAL VIPER “Tales Of Fire And Ice” (2019)

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A staple of the Polish heavy metal scene, Crystal Viper arrive at an interesting crossroads with their seventh studio album for Tales of Fire and Ice. Originally delving more into a traditional approach with loads of British and German influences spurring their songwriting and outlook for The Curse of Crystal Viper and the follow-up Metal Nation, the band has consistently strived to improve on all fronts to develop a distinctive niche. Guitarist/vocalist Marta Gabriel possesses a sterling set of pipes to differ from the more prominent ‘siren/symphonic’ approach popular from many female singers in the symphonic or gothic genres, but it seems like in many aspects of this record there’s been a shift to commercialize or incorporate some of that Battle Beast-like charm to soften aspects of the band – which could lead to possible dissension from the long-timers used to the band’s conventional old school wares.

The dance-groove “Ballroom Blitz”-ish aspects in unison with the mid-tempo guitar riffing puts “Bright Lights” on notice immediately, Marta following much of the energetic hook in a rhythmic manner – while the Judas Priest-ish twin rhythms against the keyboard swirls for “Still Alive” make you feel like you are seesawing between Painkiller and Sabaton for comparison’s sake. The reliance on keyboards as the main foundation musically for tracks like “Neverending Fire” and “Tears of Arizona” steps away from the traditional veneer the band established – but fortunately there are other cuts on the second half of the record such as “Tomorrow Never Comes (Dyatolv Pass)” and the double bass/speed chugging “One Question” that provide proof that the band can still muster up the metal and high octane melodies/hooks when they want to. Depending on the version of the album you get the bonus covers differ – for this CD promo, we get “Dream Warriors”, the classic Dokken track from the Nightmare on Elm Street movie franchise, and it’s done with grace and tact – Crystal Viper excelling in capturing the pristine nature of the lower to higher vocal ascension and tremendous lead break.

This scribe has mixed feelings regarding the slightly commercial/keyboard-oriented focus on some of these songs, as if audiences will accept hearing some Judas Priest/Running Wild style tracks at the same time as feeling like Sabaton/Battle Beast entered the fold for a dynamic reprieve. Approach cautiously, as this may signal a permanent shift in Crystal Viper to remember.

Crystal Viper – Tales Of Fire And Ice (AFM Records)

ANGEL WITCH “Angel Of Light” (2019)

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As most will already be fully aware, Angel Witch‘s self-titled 1980 debut has, over the years, become somewhat of a landmark album – not just for NWOBHM aficionados but for lovers of heavy metal in general – and has influenced thrashers, black metallers and those enamoured with the ‘doomier’ side of metal the world over.

Led by mastermind Kevin Heybourne, Angel Witch have always embraced the darkness of metal’s myriad of sub genres – without ever losing sight of ingenious melody – and with its heady mix of menace, speed and grand guignol atmosphere, Angel Of Light is certainly no exception.

A decidedly decadent and mephistophelian follow-up to 2013’s incredibly well received comeback album As Above, So Below, Angel Witch’s 4th album comes at you with almost nihilistic intent. Opener “Don’t Turn Your Back” sets out the band’s uncompromising attitude and unbridled energy right from the outset before “Death From Andromeda” gallops at you with the force of an oncoming cavalry; full-throttle metal delivered by seasoned professionals hellbent on bringing down the crushing power of the heavens themselves.

This level of intensity is maintained throughout and at just 8 tracks, Angel Of Light is tight, focused and indefatigably lean, with the majority of tracks flying by in a blitzkrieg of high drama, occult leanings and an overarching sense of apocalyptic peril.

Token metal ballad “The Night Is Calling” even avoids mawkish sentimentality by again dialling up the threat level. A revitalised ‘lost classic’, which previously existed only as a scarce bootlegged live version, “The Night Is Calling” ultimately provides the albums focal point and its dusting-off proves to a canny decision.

Finishing with Angel Of Light‘s title track, Angel Witch close proceedings with unabashed grandiosity as an onslaught of riffs and demonic grandeur greet the ears and is a fitting end to an album which brandishes its wares confidently and coherently.

This is still a NWOBHM sounding album in essence and it’s clear that with Angel Of Light, this legendary band has retained their renowned mystique and sense of eerie menace. Furthermore, Angel Witch’s recognisably arcane sound is as vital, fresh and relentlessly addictive as ever!

8/10

Angel Witch – Angel Of Light (Blade Of Records)

METALITE “Biomechnicals” (2019)

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Metalite’s first release, 2017’s Heroes of Our Time, was a thoroughly impressive debut. They managed to capture the best parts of the modern metal sound (complete with bouncy, raging synths) and pair it with a more triumphant power metal base. Given that they’ve managed to nail down a sound that really works for the genre, it seems silly that they’d change much around this time. But even still, Biomechanicals feels just as strong as their debut – paving the way for some greater recognition with AFM Records now behind them.

The only notable difference between then and now is that vocalist Emma Bensing is out, and the band has brought in Erica Ohlsson, whom they originally snagged for live gigs shortly after Heroes was released. The rest of the differences are just some slight tweaks – bettering the sound and production of their debut. What that means is that the smile-inducing nature is still just as strong, if not even more so, than before. The production makes it sound great, augmenting some of the heaviness as well as providing a balance between the electronics and the rest of the instruments. New vocalist Ohlsson has a bit more dynamic to her voice – still not overpowering the music but she has a great range that fits perfect with the band’s upbeat vibe, adding an extra spin of triumph on songs like “Rise of the Phoenix” and “Biomechanicals.” As already noted, the band’s style is addictive for those into that more electronically fueled/metal hybrid. Some of the songs, such as the punchy and galloping “Warrior” and “Breakaway” feature some gorgeous hooks that instantly imbed into your skull. While other tracks, like “Far from the Sanctuary” and “Eye of the Storm” do the same, but also imbue a heavy power metal crunch alongside things in such a way that you are bound to not just be grinning ear to ear, but also impressed by the way that they can fuse the two so successfully.

If you have already become familiar with Metalite, Biomechanicals is going to win you over easily. For the uninitiated, the sheer number of hooks and earworm melodies should turn any modern metal fan in a matter of moments. Certainly one of the most catchy albums that you’ll hear this fall, and just a delight to listen to.

9/10

Metalite – Biomechanicals (AFM Records)

 

SONS OF APOLLO “Live With The Plovdiv Psychotic Symphony” (2019)

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Sons of Apollo’s debut ‘Psychotic Symphony’ was top of many Best Of lists in 2017. For me, the lightbulb moment was seeing the band play live in a club in Belfast, my hometown (which in itself is not regularly frequented by prog bands!), when they lifted the venue 30 feet off the ground, and then spent hours chatting to fans outside the venue on a warm summer night (equally uncommon for Northern Ireland!). Perhaps I over analyzed the original album a bit, or expected it to be a certain/ different thing. Either way, that was night that I “got” SOA. It was clear that this collection of virtuosos not only had the chops, but they had the ‘bandsmanship’ (I’ve made that word up?) to bring an audience and a venue to life and even exceed the expectations of a group of people who didn’t need to be won over. So a live release reflecting the X-Factor that those shows had has been much anticipated.

The setting for this show isn’t a dark sweaty club – oh no. The grandiosity of the performance is reflected in the venue chosen: an Ancient Roman Amphitheatre in Bulgaria! While you’re at it, why not add a full symphony orchestra, and choir, and play an additional set of cover versions to create the iconic SOA performance?

‘Live With The Plovdiv Psychotic Symphony’ is the complete SOA package – it gives you all you need to know about where they came from, be that their influences, reflected in the covers set; the story of the recording of the album, and the behind the scenes story of this monumental gig (and anyone as entranced by this as much as I have been will be glad to know we won’t have to wait too long to find out where they’re going next, with a new album well under way, it seems.

The first set is pretty much a reflection of what anyone who saw the band on tour heard in the regular set list… a large number of the album cuts, solo spots from Bumblefoot, Sheehan and Soto, together with a song from the Sherinian era of Dream Theater, “Just Let Me Breathe”. For me, the live versions of the album tracks have that extra spark and energy – “God of the Sun” is a brilliant opener, with its bombast, while debut single “Signs of the Times” rocks harder, with the Soto/Portnoy vocal combination in the verses, and collective harmonies in the choruses showing this band are more than just ‘shred’. Closing the band-only set is “Opus Maximus” which is a prog tour de force, as if you were in any doubt by this stage that the band could pull this sort of thing off!

Bulgaria, where this was recorded is culturally a melting pot with influences, gathering cultural influences from Greek, Slavic, Ottoman and Persian nations. That’s an (unplanned I’m sure) metaphor for the second set represented here where, not only do the American band combine with a European choir and orchestra, but the song selection traverses many styles and cultures, reflecting many of the band’s influences. “Kashmir” and “Gates of Babylon” which kick the set off are both songs that feature Eastern influences both in the musical and lyrical content – I have to say that the moment that choir and orchestra kick in during the chorus of “Gates…” the hairs on my arms stood up! Having the band and orchestra on tap also means the band can tackle full blown versions of more traditional tracks such as “Dream On”, “Comfortably Numb” and Queen’s “The Show Must Go On”. There are many highlights in this covers set: Portnoy as ‘The Doctor’ in “Comfortably Numb”, which concludes with Bumblefoot’s respectful but personalized version of the closing guitar solo of that track; Soto showing us he can take on Ozzy, Freddie and Steven Tyler and deliver; Derek pulling out all the stops, complimenting the orchestra while coming to the fore in the intro to “Gates of Babylon”; and it goes without saying that Sheehan and Portnoy are a shape-shifting rhythm section across this range of songs. In an era where our clubs and theaters are filled with cover tribute bands, this isn’t just a soundalike show. It’s more of a retrospective mission statement, with SOA saluting the music that made them who they are today, and which they get a buzz playing themselves – and you can see in the video that the crowd are ecstatic with the song choices and performances.

The video does deserve its own mention. Obviously, the venue itself provides an amazing backdrop for the show, but that in itself doesn’t necessarily make for a great video presentation. This is one of those truly immersive video experiences – no annoying fast cuts but instead a blend of wide shots of the setting and audience, close ups that highlight the “octopus pedigree” of the players , and magic moments that capture the sheer enjoyment this band have in stage – a smiling / crowd-conducting Portnoy features frequently!

The show ends with the band back on stage minus the additional players, delivering a killer run of tracks… “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Lines In The Sand”, the Sherinian co-writes from his DT years, solos from Derek and Ron, the “common ground” cover of Van Halen’s “And The Cradle Will Rock” (with Soto singing most of the song from deep in the crowd), before their own show-closing anthem “Coming Home” brings it to that place!

Musically, this is a first rate performance. Visually, the location is stunning and the video and lighting crew do a superb job of capturing the beauty and intimacy of this unusual venue. Sonically (ignore the YouTube comments and Facebook audio-“experts”!), this is a beautifully captured live performance that stands up with anything in the band members’ catalogues.

If you are a fan, you will want (who am I kidding – you already have pre-ordered) the deluxe art book version, because this is live great package. The band only played one show like this, probably never will again. For me, it also served as a timely reminder of the capabilities within this band, and the musical and live magic they will hopefully have in store for us in 2020.

Geoff Bailie

 

Sons Of Apollo – “Live With The Psychotic Symphony” (Napalm Records)

 

SINNER “Santa Muerte” (2019)

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Willing to accept the risk of alienating followers and introducing new members to the Sinner camp, bassist/vocalist Mat Sinner knows that he’s up for the challenge after releasing albums for 35 years with his namesake. Santa Muerte welcomes a second voice to fold – Giorgia Colleluori, where Mat noticed her with her original band Eternal Idol. Add in some special guest appearances with Ricky Warwick (Black Star Riders) and Ronnie Romero (Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow), and it’s apparent that Sinner on this go around add their melodic hard rock/heavy metal platform with some vocal versatility, ensuring a dynamic offering at the very least in terms of voices and melodies.

Those who love the twin guitar harmonies a la Thin Lizzy will find plenty of fire power from Tom Naumann and Alex Scholpp throughout “Fiesta y Copas” and “Craving”, a staple of Sinner for quite some time, and aligning well with the lower, bluesy register of Mat’s natural vocal delivery. Giorgia adds that upper register, explosive energy when the band chooses to push more of the double kick performances, playing off Mat well during early album highlight “Last Exit Hell”. Ricky’s appearance on “What Went Wrong” is a no-brainer – the main hook and chorus resembling classic Thin Lizzy, a very straightforward rocker featuring a proficient shred lead break that should go down a storm live should it make the final cut for a setlist. Sinner know how to lay down some sinister bluesy heavy grooves too, the interplay between bass, drums and Giorgia’s emotional melodies makes “The Wolf” a serious mid-tempo headbanger. You would think “The Ballad of Jack” would be… well, a ballad – instead tipping their cap to more Celtic/Irish cultural harmonies in an upbeat fashion, Mat and Giorgia joining voices together for an uplifting chorus of splendor.

The multiple voices paint broader color strokes for this material – which could pay dividends in the long run when it comes to writing material and picking proper spots for highlights. It’s a transitional effort that doesn’t take Sinner away from their dual guitar-infused melodic hard rock/metal wheelhouse, putting Santa Muerte in league with most of the studio albums they’ve delivered over the past decade.

9/10

SINNER “Santa Muerte” (AFM Records)

KOBRA AND THE LOTUS “Evolution” (2019)

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It’s been a period of upheaval for Canadian metallers KOBRA AND THE LOTUS. The quintet have steadily risen from humble, underground beginnings to one of the most respected heavy metal bands around today, not least because of the success of Prevail I and II, released in 2017 and 218 respectively. Now, with their sixth album this decade and third in as many years, the band have revamped their logo, gone back to the drawing board and delivered their Evolution, out now via Napalm Records.

Developing your sound is arguably one of the Ten Commandments of the Heavy Metal Bible – yes, there are those who have made illustrious careers with barely any significant modification to their overall output – here’s looking at you, AC/DC – but in a world as fast-paced as this and trends averaging a lifespan of the average housefly, the importance to stay on your toes and move with the times is bigger than ever. KOBRA AND THE LOTUS have decided that, in order to keep up, bigger is better, so they’ve gone hell for leather on attempting to create an album of real power. It works in places as well – the riff at the beginning of the title track is truly monolithic in size and lead single Burn! has not only a colossal chorus but an even more sizeable stomp. Talking of stomp, Thundersmith is going to become a staple of rock radio stations for years to come with its own riffage that, with a bit more distortion, wouldn’t look out of place on a MARILYN MANSON record. At the front of it all is Kobra Paige, who is the standout performer across the whole album. She has never sounded better, hitting her potential superbly and especially on the ballad-esque Wash Away, where she stakes a real claim to owning the best female voice in rock and metal music today.

It’s just as well Paige is on top form too, because on a number of occasions it’s her voice that carries songs through to their conclusion without fizzling out into mediocrity. In trying to create a massive sounding album, KOBRA AND THE LOTUS have gone all out on the production side of things, but so goes the saying ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’ and in this instance the impact of songs is curtailed by a production job that is all too clean, meaning the edge has been shined off. We Come Undone is one such example – Paige is exemplary, but there is a big feeling that the song could have been even better if it was rawer in quality. The same applies to Wounds, which builds steadily and fuels anticipation only to fall short of a real explosion when the song fully kicks in; again, the vocals soar impressively and keep it going. It’s not enough to truly derail the album, however – the guitar solos are well executes, particularly on Circus and the bounce on the anarchic Get the Fuck Out of Here is impressive, but as In the End fades out to finish, one can’t help but feel there was something missing.

Regardless, KOBRA AND THE LOTUS are not going to lose many fans or sleep over Evolution; when it hits the spot it’s a juggernaut of catchy choruses and great riffs. All they need to do is bring the production down a notch or two going forward and they’re going to scale even greater heights than they have already. In terms of album success over the last three years, this has definitely got them the hat-trick.

Rating: 7/10

Kobra And The Lotus “Evolution (Napalm Records)

CRAVE FOR DAWNING “Red Dawn” (2019)

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If there’s one person who’ll never run out of ideas it’s got to be Achim Schreiner (Woodlark, Blood Red Soul). In 2019 he already released albums with melodic/symphonic metal band Blood Red Soul and the power metal band Woodlark. One of his side projects is called CRAVE FOR DAWNING. Musically it ventures out into the funeral metal kind of vein with melancholic doom metal influences. Reminiscing of band like WHEN NOTHING REMAINS or DRACONIAN, CRAVE FOR DAWNING is an interesting new take on this.
The album features 15 songs which are a mix of instrumentals but also songs with female vocals as well as songs with male vocals, both clean and grunts.
The ambient overall feel of the album is omnipresent and it is a perfect background for closing your eyes and let your mind keep wandering off.
“Remedy” is a beautiful ballad with Judit, a vocalist from Hungary, on vocals who instantly remind you of names like Langhans or Stanbridge. But also Achim himself does do some singing in songs like “Burn Me Alive” (grunts), “Flames To The Fire” (clean), “Across The Borderline” (clean) and “Sanctuary” (spoken). The guitar work is immaculate, unsurprisingly. Playing most or all of the instruments himself, Achim must have put a tremendous amount of work in it. It’s one of the things that I kept on thinking while listening to these amazing soundscapes. The production though is not exactly on par with his other recent releases though. Both, the Woodlark and the Blood Red Soul album do have a better sound in my opinion. But that being said, in this genre the production is not as relevant as it certainly is on most other rock and metal genres. A lot of the doom/melancholic metal productions don’t shine with high-end productions though.
However, it is what it is and this not bad at all. Especially as it marks to be the first time Achim Schreiner was branching out into that sort of style at all.
My favorite definitely is the gigantic 15-minute title track “Red Dawn” which contains more ideas than others have on entire albums.
If you want to see a very different side of Achim Schreiner you should give this one a try!

7/10

CRAVE FOR DAWNING – Red Dawn (DK Records)