This week’s Heavy Music HQ reviews include releases from Alcatrazz, The Amity Affliction, Ara Solis, Arjen Lucassen’s Supersonic Revolution, Botanist, Def Leppard, Ghost, The Ocean, Omen Astra, Radien, Sweet & Lynch, Thulcandra, VHS and Yakuza.
The ratings are on a 5 star scale.
Alcatrazz – Take No Prisoners (Silver Lining)
The original incarnation of Alcatrazz issued three albums in the ’80s before disbanding. After a few different reunions they recorded a new album with original singer Graham Bonnet, 2020’s Born Innocent. Bonnet then formed his own version of the band, with Doogie White (Rainbow, Michael Schenker) taking over his vocal duties for 2021’s V and their new album Take No Prisoners.
It follows closely in the path of V, with a classic metal approach. The songs are melodic and hooky with White’s potent vocals. Alcatrazz balance uptempo rockers with ballads like “Strangers” and the bluesy slower paced “Salute The Colors.” Tracks like “Battlelines” showcase guitarist Joe Stump, with an extended solo and plenty of memorable riffs. With the band’s history including Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai, Stump has a daunting task, but is up to it. Take No Prisoners, though not groundbreaking by any means, is very well executed and flies the banner for ’80s metal.
The Amity Affliction – Not Without My Ghosts (Pure Noise)
The Amity Affliction are major stars in their native Australia, with a slew of number one albums, and gold and platinum plaques adorning their walls. The metalcore mob’s commercial success hasn’t always been matched by critical approval, but it seems to have mattered little as they’re on to album number eight, Not Without My Ghosts. Long derided for adhering to formula, the group recently flirted with Bring Me The Horizon-like pop sensibilities. Here, they’ve adopted a noticeably heavier approach ala their roots, and also enlisted several guests. The more aggressive tack works at times – “Show Me Your God” meshes their dual harsh/clean singing approach with orchestral elements and gang chants to memorable effect.
Late rapper Louie Knuxx briefly infuses some fresh elements on admittedly bruising “I See Dead People.” Conversely, the moody title track fuses synths, clean melodies and screams, and a winning performance from pop artist Phem. Their songs typically contain emotional heft – as therapists like to say, it comes from a very real place – as singer Joel Birch’s lyrics explore suicide, gun violence, religion and mental illness. That said, there are times whereby the group’s attempts to brutalize aren’t completely convincing, and there are still plenty of by-the-numbers moments throughout “When It Rains It Pours,” “It’s Hell Down Here” and “Death And the Setting Sun” (featuring Andrew Neufeld from Comeback Kid). Not Without My Ghosts retains the familiar elements that have brought them to the dance, and offers enough points of difference to elude creative redundancy. Expect its sales and streaming numbers to spawn another chart-topper.
Ara Solis – Ashvattha (Iron Bonehead)
Hailing from Galicia, Spain, the occult black metal duo Ara Solis have stepped into the darkest underground black metal scene with their debut studio album Ashvattha Their intention is to delve into the most evil and foggy roots of ’90s black metal, and this is an utterly impressive work that can gain them a respectful image.
Ashvattha is precisely the point where atmospheric, raw and ambient black metal intersect. Built on minimalistic construction which repetitive riffs and melodies are riding on eerie keyboards and accompanied by reverberating shrieking vocals. It’s a magnificent recreation that resembles classic albums such as Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and Arckanum’s early works. Ara Solis have quickly marked the point of reaching the elevation of atmospheric occult black metal; a goal that has been achieved to an acceptable extent in their debut, while the way to reach that peak has been paved, maybe on their second album.
Arjen Lucassen’s Supersonic Revolution – Golden Age Of Music (Music Theories)
Arjen Lucassen‘s latest project was formed to record a cover song. It went so well he decided to write and record an album of original material inspired by the ’70s. The lineup includes Lucassen’s longtime collaborator Joost van den Broek (keyboards) along with vocalist Jaycee, who appeared on the last Star One album.
The production on Golden Age Of Music is modern, but the vintage keyboards give it that distinctive ’70s prog vibe. Tracks like “The Rise Of The Starman” have extended keyboard sections where it’s front and center, while other songs use the keyboards more as atmosphere. It flows well in terms of tempos and intensities. There are 11 original songs along with four covers: T. Rex’s “Children Of The Revolution,” ZZ Top’s “Heard It On The X,” Earth Wind and Fire’s “Fantasy” and Roger Glover’s “Love Is All.” Fans of Lucassen’s other projects like Ayreon and Star One will find plenty to like on Golden Age Of Music.
Botanist – VIII: Selenotrope (Prophecy)
For the past decade plus, Botanist have been issuing creative and unpredictable albums. Their trademark is using hammered dulcimer in place of guitars, but the San Francisco experimental post black metal collective led by Otrebor brings something new to the table for each release, including their latest album VIII: Selenotrope.
New to the party for this album is vocalist Mar (Empyrean Throne), but on most of the album vocals are secondary. Vocals are most prominent on tracks like “Angels Trumpet” and the 15 minute closer “The Flowering Dragon.” It’s also a mellow album, with keyboards taking front and center. That’s augmented by some creative drumming on “Sword Of The Night” along with ethereal vocals. There’s little if any metal to be found on VIII: Selenotrope, but like previous Botanist albums, there’s something new and different around every corner.
Def Leppard – Drastic Symphonies (UMe)
There has been a long history of collaborations between rock/metal bands and orchestras. Def Leppard decided to work with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to transform 15 of their songs. Drastic Symphonies is designed to be a selection of tracks that work well with an orchestra, not just Def Leppard’s biggest hits.
In additional to using the original music augmented with the orchestra, Def Leppard also did some new recording of vocals and guitars, which at times results in both new and old vocals from Joe Elliott on the same track. There are many Leppard staples, such as “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” which is dramatically transformed into a mellow ballad; “Animal,” which sounds very regal with orchestra; and “Bringing On The Heartbreak,” whose arrangement is pretty true to the original. There are also several other lesser known songs such as “Turn To Dust” and “Love” that are ideal for the symphonic approach. Drastic Symphonies is an interesting exercise in reimaging Def Leppard songs, and most work very well.
Ghost – Phantomime (Loma Vista)
In their dozen years of Existence, Ghost have become one of metal/rock’s most successful bands. Their last three albums have landed in the top five of the Billboard 200 album chart, with last year’s Impera garnering the number two slot. It hit number one in several other countries. They are following that up with the five song covers EP Phantomime.
As you’d expect from a band as creative as Ghost, they don’t tread the typical cover song path. Instead, they pick an interesting and varied collection of tracks. They open with “See No Evil” from punk legends Television, and also tackle another ’70s punk classic in The Stranglers “Hanging Around.” They contrast that with a couple of ’80s pop songs: Genesis’ “Jesus He Knows Me” and Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” They do cover a metal track, going back to Iron Maiden’s self-titled debut for “Phantom Of The Opera.” Ghost’s renditions are fairly close to the original arrangements, but they still manage to put that unique Ghost spin on each song. Phantomime is not essential, but is certainly is enjoyable.
The Ocean – Holocene (Pelagic)
Progressive post-metal juggernauts The Ocean took a slight left turn in the closing track “Holocene,” off their fantastic 2020 album Phanerozoic II. It was a pensive song dominated by electronic flourishes, and it also happens to be the name of this album, which closes off the band’s paleontology-themed album arc which began way back in 2007. On this final outing, clean singing, electronic atmospheres, and haunting melodies envelop the listener.
For the most part this is quite a departure for The Ocean, but they do still bring the heaviness at times, particularly on the second half of the album. Listeners willing to allow the band to go beyond the heavy post-metal they are known for will be handsomely rewarded. Tracks such as the “Atlantic” – “Subboreal” pairing brilliantly bridge old and new sounds into truly stellar material, and the epic track “Unconformities,” with haunting vocals from Karin Park (Årabrot), is mesmerizing and, in the back half, furious. All told, this is another fantastic outing from one of post-metal’s best bands.
Omen Astra – The End Of Everything (Hypaethral/Protagonist)
Omen Astra’s inspirations for their debut album The End Of Everything ranges from Neurosis to Gojira to David Bowie. Just the three of those may conjure up a bit of confusion as to how they can mesh together, yet the band expertly makes those comparisons valid. Chunky riffs squash the light out of the music, though vocalist Christopher Gray does his best to keep some in there with a wonderful range.
He can do a lot with his voice, whether it’s screaming to the skies or singing a forlorn melody. It all cumulates in the closing track, “This Is The End Of Everything,” where both harsh and melodic tones harmonize over the sight of our existence fading. In an album full of heaviness, this last song on The End Of Everything tops them all in terms of extinguishing the flame of life.
Radien – Unissa Palaneet (Svart)
Raiden’s blackened sludge metal has gone surreal on their second album, Unissa Palaneet. Meant to be heard as a single composition, with noise and ambient interludes leading one song into the next, this is an evolution of their previous output. With the help of guest musicians, including Inter Arma’s Mike Paparo and Full Of Hell’s Dylan Walker, the group has taken the devastating muscle of sludge and drawn it outside those lines without dimming its edge.
Unissa Palaneet opens with instrumental “Myrskyn Silmä,” a psychedelic beginning with heavy usage of acoustic guitars. The creativity grows from that point on, all cumulating in a 21-minute title track that is split across three parts. Synths/piano, female vocals, bass guitar interludes; Raiden throw every bit of themselves into this mega closer. It encapsulates the album’s concept of a person who sees visions of the end of the world that become reality, a scary circumstance made plausible by the band.
Sweet & Lynch – Heart & Sacrifice (Frontiers)
The post-heydey years of 1980’s heavy metal have become an endless parade of “side projects” – as if every time two former rivals meetup on a Monsters of Rock cruise, the encounter ends with, “hey, we should do an album together!” Guitar virtuoso George Lynch has certainly been no stranger to these collaborations, likely due to his continued avoidance of a lucrative Dokken reunion. Here he teams up with Stryper main man, Michael Sweet for their third release Heart & Sacrifice – a solid, if not especially original, collection of melodic hard rock.
Enjoyment of this record largely hinges on your tolerance for Sweet’s operatic wail. Remarkably, he still nails some impressively high, falsetto notes (see “Where I Have to Go”). Lynch fans have plenty to dig into here, though. Dark, innovative riffage and melodic shredding elevate stand out grinder, “Will It Ever Change,” while “World Full of Lies” features a laid-back, Hendrix-y vibe.
Thulcandra – Hail The Abyss (Napalm)
Hail The Abyss, the German blackened death troupe Thulcandra’s fifth full-length, brings the Dissection worship to the table. The band has a penchant for this mid-tempo black metal and hits all the right spots. The guitar riffing is suitably melodic, yet harsh and very appealing. Drums form the backbone of the band. Vocals are nice and grim and fit the style of the music well.
There isn’t quite enough change from previous albums and this is largely the issue I’m having with Hail The Abyss. On future releases, I would like to see the band evolve. This is still top-notch stuff, the combination of melody and brutality done quite well indeed. Fans of Dissection will most certainly find something to like here.
VHS – Quest For The Mighty Riff (Wise Blood)
The Canadian death/punk/grind band VHS are inspired by movies, especially ’80s horror films. For their latest release Quest For The Mighty Riff, they take a slightly different tack, paying homage to ’80s sword and sorcery movies.
With lyrics inspired by flicks like The Highlander, Conan The Barbarian and Masters Of The Universe, the music on Quest For The Mighty Riff is sometimes dense and heavy, other times groovier and more accessible. There are also several guests, including Molder’s Aaron Pantke on “Cleave ‘Em and Leave ‘Em” and Hellripper’s James McBain on “Are You Afraid Of Dragons?” Most of the songs fly by in a minute or two, with a few longer tracks such as the aforementioned “Are You AFraid Of Dragons”” and “The Beastmaster.” If you’re on a quest for quality, ’80s inspired death metal, Quest For The Mighty Riff will hit the spot nicely.
Yakuza – Sutra (Svart)
It has been about a dozen years since the Chicago band Yakuza last released an album. Their brand of avant-garde, experimental, progressive, jazzy metal was always well-received but they hadn’t issued anything new since 2012’s Beyul. They make their long-awaited return with Sutra.
Yakuza have always had the ability to write songs that are complex and unique that also have groovy and catchy moments. “Alice” has doomy riffs that instantly embed into the listener’s cortex, while “Echoes From The Sky” is more avant-garde with a lot of twists and turns. “Embers” is a slow build, while “Burn Before Reading” is immediately intense before backing off and incorporating the band’s trademark saxophone. Creativity is in ample supply on Sutra, a welcome comeback from Yakuza, whose ability to create compelling and challenging songs is fully intact.
Looking forward to hearing how The Ocean have evolved on Holocene.