This week’s Heavy Music HQ reviews include releases from Aeon Zen, Cognizance, Drott, Grinder Blues, Hellsword, Nefariym, A Pale Horse Named Death, Skepticism, Sleep Token, Spiritbox, Succumb, Tentation, Tremonti, Waldgefluster, Withering Soul and Wraith.
The ratings are on a 5 star scale.
Aeon Zen – Transversal (Layered Reality)
When a band calls it a day, there’s always a chance they will reunite down the road. But for now, the veteran UK prog band Aeon Zen say that Transversal is their swan song.
If this is indeed the end of the line for Aeon Zen, Transversal is a worthy farewell. It’s one composition divided into ten chapters. It’s a dynamic album, containing both mellow and heavy parts with the progressive forays you’d expect. Andi Kravljača sings with emotion and power, bringing extra dimensions to the songs with his expressive delivery. The arrangements are complex with sacrificing the riffs and hooks that make songs memorable. Transversal is a strong way to wrap up their run.
Cognizance – Upheaval (Prosthetic)
For their second album, the UK death metal band Cognizance expanded from a quartet to a quintet, adding second guitarist Apostolis “Yage” Karydis.
Upheaval is the perfect description of the effects of the pandemic on the world. The album address real topics such as those effects, but also delves into the world of science fiction on tracks like the two part “Syntheticus.” Cognizance’s brand of death metal utilizes brutality, technicality and groove. The songs are streamlined, most in the three minute range, but they accomplish a lot in that time frame in terms of twists and turns. When the music is melodic, the harsh vocals provide an interesting contrast, and when it’s intense, it just adds to the extremity.
Drott – Orcus (By Norse)
Drott features members of Ulver and Enslaved, yet Orcus sounds nothing like either of those bands. It’s instead a sort of amalgamation of the chilled electronic of the former and the atmospheric prog of the latter, complete with jazz and psychedelic influences. All of this is bundled as a largely instrumental album with cinematic aspirations. The terror in the air of a song like “The Marauders” would fit in any sort of occult-themed horror film.
In contrast, the acidy, electro bite of “Psychopomp” is cold to the touch, while “The Strait” seems like something that could’ve came out of the same time period as Camel or Iron Butterfly. Each song offers a new perspective on Drott, though this sort of fluidity doesn’t mean they lack a coherent sound. They combine a whole array of different genres for something that makes Orcus a rarity in a “been there, heard that” climate.
Grinder Blues – El Dos (Metalville)
To many hard rock fans, recent blues music can often seem too reverent and too safe, more like something that belongs in a museum rather than a living, breathing art form. Then there’s Grinder Blues – a trio featuring King’s X singer/bassist dUg Pinnick and brothers Jabo Bihlman and Scot “Little” Bihlman, on guitar and drums respectively. As shown on their second release together, El Dos, there’s still plenty of grit left in the old blues rock machine.
Similar in tone to Pinnick’s PGP side-project with Eric Gales and Thomas Pridgen, but with less focus on virtuosic playing and more on low-down dirty grooves, the presence of Pinnick’s downtuned, dirty bass alone is enough to elevate “Who Wants a Spankin” well above the norm. “Gotta Get Me Some of That” funks up the joint and the odd-time changes in “Hold Me Close” pulls this further into unexpected territory.
Hellsword – Cold Is The Grave (Emanzipation)
After more than a decade as a band, the Slovenian black metal group Hellsword are finally releasing their debut full-length. Previously they issued a demo back in 2011, and an EP in 2014.
They wear their first wave of black metal influences on their sleeve, inspired by classic bands such as Hellhammer, Bathory and Venom. The songs range from mid-paced numbers like the title track and “Cursed Blood” to up-tempo blasters such as “Satan, Death and Fear” and “Evil’s Rebirth.” While there’s not a lot of originality on display, Hellsword’s execution is strong, with a batch of excellent songs hearkening back to the genre’s early days.
Nefariym – Morbid Delusions (Inverse)
Nefariym’s Morbid Delusions is what would happen if a death metal band were somehow cryogenically frozen in 1995, thawed out in 2021, didn’t bother to listen to any music released in the last 25 or so years and wrote an album. The CD version even includes a cover of Celtic Frost’s “Circle Of The Tyrants,” which is a move a band from that era would do (see Obituary and Opeth).
There’s not even a half-hearted attempt to modernize their sound, with a production so rough it’s like the mix was scrubbed with sandpaper before release. The death/doom-inspired material that dominates the second half of Morbid Delusions holds firmer than the looser, barrel-chested songs. Nefariym have taken a sound long since diluted and melted it from its frozen hibernation without coming off as a contrived tribute.
A Pale Horse Named Death – Infernum In Terra (Long Branch)
Type O Negative alum Sal Abruscato returns with his fourth A Pale Horse Named Death album, Infernum In Terra. Type O still seems to be an influence on his doom and gloom riffing and tones. There are still moments where his voice recalls the same type of eerie resonance as Layne Staley. Songs about depression and drug abuse are still his muse.
While still finding solace in personal struggle, a sinister quality previously absent pervades throughout the album. The song title conveys hell on earth, while three interludes feature the sounds of hell. Whether metaphorically or actual anthropomorphization of evil, songs such as “Cast Out From the Sky,” and “Lucifer’s Sun” are in league with the devil. “Believe in Something (You Are Lost)” and “Slave to the Master” are perfect anthems for the alienated and lost. APHND once again proves their massive worth as masters of the gothic doom sound on Infernum In Terra.
Skepticism – Companion (Svart)
When it comes to funeral doom bands, few have been around longer than Finnish pioneers Skepticism. Even though their history dates back to the early ’90s, Companion is only their sixth album.
Their records are usually worth the wait, as is the case this time around. The arrangements are painstaking, with depth and atmosphere added to the heavy riffs and harsh vocals. The six tracks are lengthy, ranging from about 6 to 10 minutes. The songs are slow builds, with numerous ebbs and flows that keep things interesting throughout. Tempos are usually glacial, but Skepticism pick up the pace periodically on tracks like “Passage.” They are faithful to the style of past albums while incorporating a few new twists into their arsenal.
Sleep Token – This Place Will Become Your Tomb (Spinefarm)
For a band as shrouded in mystery as London’s Sleep Token, the music does most of the talking. What their new record This Place Will Become Your Tomb has to say is unfortunately a series of platitudes and mixed messages. This is an album that is fraying at the seams as its strengths cancel each other by pulling in opposite directions.
The sultry R&B and nocturnal pop textures work well on their own, but Vessel’s heavily affected vocals gives the songs a campy faux-emotional veneer that removes any emotional weight. The heavy riffs don’t add much impact to the songs, and the album would flow much better if most of them had been left on the cutting room floor. A few songs do work very well, especially “High Water” and “Alkaline,” but all in all, this record left much to be desired.
Spiritbox – Eternal Blue (Rise)
A few years ago Courtney LaPlante and Mike Stringer left Iwrestledabearonce. They ended up forming Spiritbox and have issued a couple of EPs. They have released several well-received singles over the past year or so, whetting the appetite for their full-length debut Eternal Blue.
It’s an album of contrasts. There are smooth, rock/pop parts alongside intense metal. They embrace numerous genres from post metal to djent to prog to alt metal. Keyboards and electronics provide atmosphere, but riffs and groove drive the songs. LaPlante is a tour de force, mixing throat shredding harsh vocals with melodic singing. Of of the most accessible songs on the album is “Secret Garden,” featuring all melodic vocals and catchy hooks. It’s followed by “Silk In The Strings,” one of the album’s heaviest. The album is pretty evenly split between songs with exclusively melodic singing and those with both singing and screaming. Eternal Blue lives up to the hype, a varied album with memorable songs that should appeal to a wide cross section of metal fans.
Succumb – XXI (The Flenser)
Many extreme metal albums begin with mellower interludes before the bludgeoning begins. Not so with the San Francisco death metal band Succumb. Their sophomore album XXI blasts the listener from the opening moment of “Lilim.”
Succumb shift between oppressive and dense sections and groovier, mid-paced parts. They slow down to a glacial, doomy tempo on “Graal” before rocketing back to hyperspeed on the following song “Aither.” Vocalist Cheri Musrasrik utilizes potent death metal growls to deliver lyrics that take an allegorical look at the elements and their related mythologies. At just over a half hour, XXI is the ideal length to achieve maximum impact without too much fatigue from the album’s intensity.
Tentation – Le Berceau Des Dieux (Gates Of Hell)
Tentation are a French heavy metal group releasing their debut album, Le Berceau Des Dieux, after almost a decade together. They reach back to the early-to-mid 1980s, when every metal album seemed to bring something new to the equation, to craft their high-energy sound. Songs like “Heavy Metal” and “Le Couvent” veer in a thrashy direction that give the album a sharp ignition that is missing on tracks like the mundane ballad “Baldr” and the two interludes that stop the album’s momentum.
Even on something like “Baldr,” extravagant guitar solos elevate the album. That also goes for the bass guitar, which gets several lead spots on “Blanche.” The vocals are sung entirely in French, save for some gang chants of the song title during “Heavy Metal.” That may limit the appeal for some, yet it gives Le Berceau Des Dieux some unique flair.
Tremonti – Marching In Time (Napalm)
Some punters may not afford his endeavours a second glance given his tenure in Creed, but Mark Tremonti (also of Alter Bridge) is the real deal. He’s the teenage thrash fan who just so happened to wind up playing in a mega-selling rock act. Marching In Time, his fifth solo outing is a hard rock affair that’s aggressive, yet accessible.
He’s also a virtuoso guitarist who can knock out bruising riffs (one-two punch of “A World Away” and “Now and Forever”) with aplomb, yet without neglecting the need for crafting melodies. Boosted by a well-drilled band, Tremonti’s confidence as a frontman and singer has also grown. Cuts like ballad “Not Afraid To Lose” may not be to the liking of those primarily seeking fret fireworks, but inject variety. The seven-minute, closing title track may be the pinnacle of this project thus far though – the prog-tinged effort infuses an infectious chorus and stellar guitar solo. There are a few less memorable cuts that could have been culled, and Marching In Time largely continues rather than reinvents what the Tremonti outfit is all about. But overall, it works.
Waldgefluster – Dahoam (AOP)
The German black metal band Waldgefluster have been very prolific recently. Dahoam is their third album in the past three years, and seventh overall.
It starts with the acoustic interlude “A Taglachinger Morgen” before the black metal kicks in on “Im Ebersberger Forst.” That sequence of mellow instrumental followed by black metal continues with “Am Stoa” and “Am Tatzlwurm.” The closer “Am Wendelstoa” is also an acoustic number with melodic singing. It shows the band’s versatility and ability to shift from dense, traditional black metal to non-metal and back again. What makes the album effective is that those shifts manage to avoid sounding disjointed, keeping things cohesive.
Withering Soul – Last Contact (Mortal)
Last Contact, the latest album from the Chicago band Withering Soul, has a strong Dissection type of vibe that makes it harsh and melodic at the same time. The juxtaposition of elements from a variety of subgenres works to the band’s benefit.
Their sound has strong elements of black metal associated with it and a malevolence to the sound that is magnificent and wonderful to behold. However, there is a slight lack of melody, giving the album a sound that is less vibrant and accessible than it could be. The vibe of the band demonstrates that they are fresh, but still somewhat primitive in their approach. Last Contact has all of the elements to make it enticing and appealing to the listener.
Wraith – Undo The Chains (Redefining Darkness)
Black thrashing speed metal, you say? I thought we were lacking in this department in 2021 seeing as I hadn’t seen the name Midnight pop up in my newsfeed in a while. Wraith are a band of similar ilk who thrash hard and heavy, major emphasis here on darkness, leather and of course chains. There is the gruff vocal approach which brings to mind Toxic Holocaust frontman Joel Grind.
“Dominator” sounds like the best possible combination of Primal Future: 2019 and Rebirth By Blasphemy, ripping ferocious riffs and growls with the intention of summoning Satan. In playing their self-proclaimed “No b.s. speed and thrash,” the band keeps their rough exterior intact, ripping 12 tracks in a concise 33 minutes, enough for you Speedwolf fans to get in the left lane with your fellow werewolves for eternal runs. Undo The Chains is a fun album that showcases just how much fun this genre can be, speed thrashing, punk black metal.