Saxon-Thunderbolt

Well, lookee here!  A brand spanking new Saxon album.  Let’s break out the checklist to see if everything is in order.

1. Songs about rockin’:  Check.  (They Played Rock and Roll (Motorhead tribute))
2. Songs about fast cars/motorcycles:  Check.  (Speed Merchants)
3. Songs about battles/dying in glory:  Check.  (Sons of Odin and Sniper)
4. Songs about the brotherhood of metal: Check.  (Roadies’ Song)
5. Songs about events in history:  Check.  (The Secret of Flight)
6. Songs about mythological gods:  Check.  (Thunderbolt)
7. Songs about fantasy/horror:  Check.  (Nosferatu and Wizard’s Tale)

Yep.  Textbook Saxon album

I kid of course.  I fucking love Saxon.  They are one of those quintessential metal bands.  They are one of the originals of the NWOBHM and if they have a bit of a familiar pattern nearly 40 years into the game, so be it.  What they may lack in breaking new ground, they more than make up for it by shooting pure professional no-nonsense metal straight into your veins.  Thunderbolt is just vintage Saxon.  Crunchy guitars.  Bombastic drums.  Biff and his trademark nasally wails and bellows.  They even work in a duet with Biff and Amon Amarth’s Johan Hegg which is absolutely perfect.

Go see these guys when they open up for Judas Priest when the two British legends tour the States during the Spring.  It’s going to be a blast of classic metal done proper.

4 flip flops out of 5

Howling Sycamore-Howling Sycamore

I mean this in the most positive manner as possible, but this is one seriously schizophrenic album.  This debut album seems to take elements of power metal, blackened death metal and jazz and combines them in a manner that actually works quite well.

I’m not entirely sure that you can fully characterize Howling Sycamore as a proper band.  It seems more like the brain child of former Ephel Duath guitarist, Davide Tiso, and he has enlisted admired musicians to flush out this chaotic musical vision.  You’ve got ex-Necrophagist drummer, Hannes Grossmann, Gorguts/Dysrhythmia guitarist Kevin Hufnagel and Yakuza sax man, Bruce Lamont all playing on this thing.  So, the lineup is fairly formidable.  The most interesting choice of personnel is having ex-Watchtower and Dangerous Toys vocalist Jason McMaster on the mic.  Everything about this project just screams death metal vocals.  Instead, you’ve got McMaster providing some downright soaring classical heavy metal vocals overtop of the musical madness.  I was skeptical at first (I mean, this is a long way from Teas’n Pleas’n and Sportin’ a Woody), but dammit, he really nails it.  The whole thing is just so out of left field that it really struck a nerve with me.  I kept being reminded throughout of the post-Death Chuck Schuldiner project, Control Denied.  Howling Sycamore has the same progressive death metal sound with clean soaring vocals that I think Schuldiner was ultimately going for in his post-Death career.  I haven’t come across any band that comes close to the same sound as that lone Control Denied album.  I think we have finally found a worthy successor in Howling Sycamore.

4 flip flops out of 5

Tribulation-Down Below

So, I might be off base here, but this is the sense that I get when I see/hear Tribulation.  If you took the New York Dolls and made them a little more gothic instead of the street shabby chic glam look they had and they played a stripped down punk-flavored version of occult-rocking death metal, you’d pretty much sum up Tribulation in a nutshell.  Hell, the first time I saw them play live, I could have sworn that guitarist Jonathan Hultan was channeling a dark version of Stevie Nicks.  A little androgyny and death metal are a weird mixture, but these guys manage to pull it off.  Once again, here’s another band trying to put the traditional metal norms on its collective head.

These guys started making a name for themselves with their previous release, Children of the Night, which ended up on quite a few best-of lists for the year of 2015.  They hit some prime opening spots during the touring cycle for that album (Abbath and Ghost) and it really felt like this was a young band with a bright future ahead.  Which means that this new release is an important album for them.  After a couple of listens, I have to say that I’m not entirely sure that they knocked it out of the park.  The album is not bad by any stretch, but it doesn’t quite live up to the old school rocker vibe of the previous release.  All in all, the songs just don’t crackle.  It all feels just a little staid.  A little too by-the-numbers.  Maybe it’s just how it was recorded.  These songs may come alive more in a live setting than in the studio.

3.5 flip flops out of 5

Orphaned Land-Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs

Orphaned Land is a metal band from Israel.  The main focus of this band has been the downright kooky idea of unifying people of Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths.  Yeah, that’s right.  A metal band with a goal of peace in the Middle East.  Suck on that, Jared Kushner.  Next time someone tells you that metalheads are just a bunch of devil-worshiping troglodytes, you tell ’em to stick Orphaned Land in their pipe and smoke ’em.  I’m not really sure what that means, but you get the picture.

Musically, you’ve got a mixture of traditional and death metal combined with traditional Middle-Eastern instruments and melodies.  I love metal bands that come from non-traditional locales because they general bring some of their local flavor to the traditional tropes of metal and they create something wholly unique.  Lyrically, the songs are fairly ambitious.  The current album is an allegorical tale that cautions one against sitting on the sidelines when confronted with injustice and authoritarian regimes.  So, you know, topical if you happen to live on Earth.  I don’t think the new album quite lives up to Orphaned Land’s epic The Never Ending Way of the ORWarriOR, but it is definitely a stronger effort than their last release, All Is One.  Added bonus on the album of notable guest spots by Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kursch, At the Gates’ Tomas Lindberg and Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett.

3.5 flip flops out of 5

 

Agrimonia-Awaken

Crusty.  This seems to be the keyword for everything I ever read about this band.  I’m not really sure where it started, but somehow it just managed to stick to this band.  Sure, they’re a little rough around the edges, but I’m not really sure “crusty” is the right descriptor for this band.

I stumbled upon these guys a few years ago when they released their second full-length, Rites of Separation.  To me, that album was a loud announcement that an ambitious and forward-thinking death metal band had arrived.  It was just full of inventive and hard-driving riffs.  And then, silence.  It just seemed as if these guys appeared and then dissipated back into the mist from which they mysteriously appeared.  Oh, so happy was I when I saw their name pop back up on the release calendar.

So, how’d they do upon their long-awaited return?  Damn close to five years of gestation for these songs, I had to expect that these would be some well-crafted epics.  You’ve got five proper songs with one additional instrumental interlude.  My first pass on the album left me with an overall impression of “Hmmmm.  Good, but not entirely blown away.”  On my second pass, the nuance of the songs really started to come out.  This is a very dense beast and it’s still going to take some time to fully come to terms with it.  Ultimately, this is a band to reckon with.  There’s not much flash to their game.  I think a better descriptor than “crusty” would be “earthy”.  There’s just something organic about their sound.  I have a feeling that by the end of the year that this album will just continue to rise in terms of its lasting impact.

4 flip flops out of 5

Arkona-Khram

Pagan metal tends to come in one of two forms.  The first kind is a light-hearted romp through the forest.  There are fairies and sprytes and hobbits and shit.  Band members in animal pelts.  A lot of the time, this kind of metal goes way over the top and veers into the land of cheese.

On the other hand, you’ve got the brand of pagan metal that doesn’t fuck around.  Ancient forests containing evil secrets.  Various rites and spells.  Think of the musical version of the movie The VVitch and it may give you a hint of what to expect.

Arkona is not only a pagan metal band, but they are a band that hail from Russia.  Hence, bleak as fuck.  Their lyrics are all in Russian.  As a result, I have no idea what is going on in the songs, but none of it sounds like it ends well.  Oh, and vocalist Masha “Scream” composes her lyrics in longhand in her own blood (reproductions of the lyric sheets are included in the album insert).  I mean, nothing really says “Fuck off, poseur!” like penning your handwritten lyrics in blood.

The music presented on this latest album is a diverse set.  The main backbone is a traditional black metal foundation with the addition of all kinds of worldly instruments, such as bagpipes, flutes, mandolins, to bring that pagan authenticity to the proceedings.  Hell, I believe they actually break out a hurdy gurdy at some point on here.  Masha “Scream” lives up to her name by provided blood curdling screeches interspersed with clean vocals.  One the creepier moments on the album occurs with what sounds like an ancient chant or spell sung by a choir of children.  There is just something downright disquieting about the chant.

Overall, this is a really ambitious album and one that definitely brings a unique voice to the metal game.  I really hope to see these guys bring their live show over to the States.

4.5 flip flops out of 5

Joe Satriani-What Happens Next

Satriani just keeps on plugging away.  Every two to three years or so, he cranks out another of these collections of instrumental musings.  This is going to sound very backhanded and I really don’t mean it in that way, but every time I see a new Satriani album pop up on the release calendar, my first reaction is of exhaustion.  Like, “Damn, he really put another of these things out?  Wow.”  OK, now that I type it, it really is a horrible first impression.  But, then I sit down and listen to it and I’m reminded why this dude is held in so high esteem by so many guitar-centric folks.

The new album is vintage Satriani.  No surprises.  No punches pulled.  Same guitar tone.  Same guitar delivery.  Same strong song structure and musical voice.  You just know it’s Satch when you hear it.  Overall, this one won’t stack up real high in his discography and is a bit of a step down from his last album Shockwave Supernova.  I was a little disappointed by the overall quality of the songs on this one since he enlisted Glenn Hughes of Deep Purple and Trapeze on bass and Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on drums.  On paper, it’s one hell of a power trio, but in practice it resulted in a sort of middle-of-the-road dad rock instrumentals

3 flip flops out of 5

Corrosion of Conformity-No Cross No Crown

The wait is finally over.  After a multiple year absence of focusing on Down, Pepper Keenan has finally come home to roost with his merry band of sludgemeisters in Corrosion of Conformity to release a brand-spankin’ new album.

Corrosion of Conformity is one of those bands that feels like a comfortable and familiar space.  They feel lived in; like a nice, broken-in easy chair that you can just melt into after getting off work.  There’s just something downright organic about their sound.  To me, COC is the direct descendant of ZZ Top…that is if ZZ Top never ventured into that awful Afterburner mess of the mid-1980s.  Seriously, go put on Rio Grande Mud and Deliverance back-to-back and tell me these bands aren’t joined in some spiritual sense.

So, on to the new album.  It’s a damn solid album and it’s one that I feel is going to get even better with repeated listenings.  I can’t say that it is going to end up matching some of their earlier classic albums, but this is a really good album.  It’s definitely COC.  It has all the hallmarks of their classic sound.  I just wish that some of the riffs stood out a little more than they do.  COC is kind of known for writing these licks that are instantly identifiable as classic riffs.  The music is good, but the songs are just lacking that little extra spice to push them into the legendary realm.  On a positive note, I will say that it is just outstanding to hear Pepper man the lead vocals again.  His voice perfectly captures that worldly-wise weary traveler that these songs need.  Once again, pair him and Billy Gibbons up and you have the same sort of troubadour.

All and all, this is a really good comeback record.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s really nice to hear the core four guys back together on some new songs here in 2018.

3.5 flip flops out of 5