This week’s Heavy Music HQ reviews include releases from Acephalix, Alice Cooper, The Dead Daisies, Drowning Pool, Escuela Grind, Hexed, Labyrinth Of Stars, Mamaleek, Moonspell, Sonata Arctica, Soul Dissolution, Tankard, Terra, Umbilicus and Vardan.
The ratings are on a 5 star scale.
Acephalix – Theothanatology (20 Buck Spin)
Greeted by distant chanting and giving way to crushing buzzsaw riffs, you have entered Acephalix’s fourth album Theothanatology, which deals with the concept of God being dead. This being their first album in five years has brought on some changes with Erika Osterhout and Adam Walker joining on bass and guitars respectively, though the band has nary lost a step in the time since Decreation dropped. “Godheads” features crushing sections where riffs, guttural vocals and drums become blurred, moving at lightning the fast speeds that Acephalix can conjure for the listener at a moment’s notice.
“Abyssal” starts with Osterhout’s bass being spotlighted prominently before giving way to Daniel Butler’s vocals and David Benson’s heavy drum work all while a creepy and distant spoken word portion pops in and out of the fray, allowing for the full effect of the band to slip into your subconscious. Theothanatology is another solid entry from one of the heaviest bands from the Bay Area.
Alice Cooper – Live From The Astroturf (earMusic)
In 2015, the original Alice Cooper Band reunited for a one-off performance at a Dallas record store. The gig was filmed for a documentary, and the audio recording of Live From The Astroturf is getting a re-release this month. Somewhat surprisingly (at least to this writer), this performance is phenomenal. Not only is the sound quality powerful and raw – like an upscale bootleg – the band sounds as if they’d been playing together across the decades, instead of after a 40-year gap.
All the hits are here: “I’m Eighteen,” “Under My Wheels, “School’s Out,” and more. What makes this collection even more entertaining is the inclusion of between song banter, providing evidence that whatever animosity caused the band to split appears to be in the past. Alice (the man) has maintained a long and successful solo career, but nothing beats the original.
On paper, The Dead Daisies seem like a soulless proposition – a wealthy businessman using his fortune to hire a rotating cast of talented rockers to be in his band? Come on! Well, luckily for founder David Lowy, it’s a physical impossibility for anything to be soulless when Glenn Hughes is involved. Taking over both bass and vocal responsibility for their latest release, Radiance, Hughes brings his distinctive vibe to the proceedings, and the band is all the better for it.
Not unexpectedly, Radiance features strong echoes of recent Hughes projects, in particular the ill-fated California Breed project, the band delivering a high energy mash-up of AC/DC-style rave-ups (“Hypnotize Yourself”) and drop-tuned riffing reminiscent of Alice in Chains (“Cascade”). With rock solid contributions from powerhouse journeyman drummer Brian Tichy and guitarist Doug Aldrich, The Dead Daisies prove you can’t judge a band by its origin story.
Drowning Pool – Strike A Nerve (T-Boy/UMe)
Drowning Pool seemingly had the hard rock world at their feet two decades ago. They had a bona fide smash album in 2001’s Sinner, which spawned nu-metal dancefloor favorite “Bodies”. However, since vocalist Dave Williams’ death they’ve perhaps never enjoyed quite the same momentum. Points for perseverance though – they’re now on their fourth singer, Jasen Moreno, and issued their first record in six years, Strike A Nerve.
If you’re even remotely familiar with Drowning Pool, you’ll have a fair idea of what Strike A Nerve sounds like – groove-laden heavy rock that doesn’t neglect accessibility. The title track and “Choke” boast hooks with an eye on rock radio playlists. The latter’s seemingly a middle finger to their detractors too, and lyrics like “you do you and I’ll do me/Now stay the fuck away from me” (“Stay And Bleed”) reinforce the quartet’s defiant mindset. There’s a token ballad, and some quickly forgettable tunes. However, the record finishes strongly with “Mind Right,” a southern metal stomper with a heavier edge that pays tribute to fellow Texans Pantera. There aren’t any songs here that will be covered on America’s Got Talent, but diehard fans won’t care.
Escuela Grind – Memory Theater (MNRK Heavy)
Massachusetts based four piece Escuela Grind are back with the follow-up to their critically lauded debut Indoctrination, with sophomore effort Memory Theater. While a more bite-sized affair at just over 20 minutes, Escuela Grind pack in plenty of riffs and fury into these 9 tracks as evidenced by manic vocalist Katerina Economou and their infectious energy. Songs like “Cliffhanger” aren’t afraid to let guitarist Kris Morash and bassist Tom Sifuentes slow things down to a doom-like crawl while drummer Jesse Fuentes manages to balance the changing of speed with technical aplomb.
Changing speeds really sets the band apart with sections of rapid grind moments buoyed by some powerviolence tendencies on tracks like “Forced Collective Introspection,” something that allows the band to play to many crowds. If you are looking for a heavy, albeit short album while having an absolute blast whittling away your neck, look no further than Memory Theater.
Hexed – Pagans Rising (ViciSolum)
Hexed established their melodic blend of progressive and symphonic metal on their 2018 debut Netherworld, and don’t mess with it much on Pagans Rising. There are the stirring female vocals, the bitter harsh male vocals, stirring keyboards, escalating guitar solos, and punchy choruses that get repeated many times on each song. All of this was already key to their first album and are transferred over to this one with slight tweaks.
The male vocals are highly present on “Blasphemy” and “Repentance,” the symphonic layers are more prominent, and the antagonistic tempos of the opening title track and “Prophecy” are great. These are incremental changes in a sound that Hexed are comfortable in, and Pagans Rising is a polished take on that, with accessibility at the forefront.
Labyrinth Of Stars – Spectrum Xenomorph (Translation Loss)
Labyrinth Of Stars see nothing but terror in the skies above us on Spectrum Xenomorph, which puts a cosmic spin on battering death metal. The majority of the album settles into a compact, claustrophobic space fraught with stressful music. The exception is a throwaway ambient closing track, “Transmission Delta – Exile,” which spends almost 13 minutes in a floaty environment that feels disconnected from the rest of the album.
That misstep doesn’t degrade the 20 minutes that comes before it. Nothing about Spectrum Xenomorph is rudimentary, as opener “Star Pervertor” and its driven strength is the closest thing to predictable the band gets. This record is entertaining for its unconventional ways.
Mamaleek – Diner Coffee (The Flenser)
Mamaleek return with Diner Coffee, an album that evokes varying levels of insanity while also feeling like the entire thing could be the inner machinations of someone enjoying a daily cup o’ joe at the local greasy spoon. Feeling at times like a sludge album and a Mr. Bungle album with a ‘50s backdrop often within the same minute on tracks like “Boiler Room,” you get that sense of the walls closing in on your own reality, while not knowing quite what will happen next.
“Badtimers” seems to juxtapose background sounds that have a trip hop-like quality against harsh vocals and piano work that continue to vary this listen progressing through horns and ethereal vocals before the whole package comes through impressively. This anonymous musical collective pushes boundaries and melds genres that we didn’t know could be done, but on Diner Coffee, a no holds barred affair unto itself, anything is possible.
Moonspell – From Down Below – Live 80 Meters Deep (Napalm)
With countless live albums released every year, it’s difficult to come up with a unique angle or approach. Moonspell have managed to do so with From Down Below – Live 80 Meters Deep. It was recorded in a cave: Grutas de Mira D’Aire, which one of Portugal’s seven natural wonders.
In this very distinctive setting, Moonspell play last year’s Hermitage album from front to back. They also play “The Great Leap Forward,” which was a limited edition vinyl bonus track. The performances are excellent, with passionate vocals from Fernando Ribeiro. It’s an interesting companion piece to the original album, and is available in numerous configurations including digital, vinyl, CD and DVD/Blu-ray.
Sonata Arctica – Acoustic Adventures Volume Two (Atomic Fire)
In January, Sonata Arctica issued the 12 track Acoustic Adventures Volume One. They follow that up with the second installment, which also includes a dozen songs. It follows in the vein of the first album, though Acoustic Adventures Volume Two has a brisker tempo overall.
It includes fan favorites such as “FullMoon” and “Flag In The Ground.” Sonata Arctica don’t simply play the songs exactly the same but acoustically, they shift and rearrange things, giving some tracks a very different vibe. That includes shifting tempos, such as slowing down “San Sebastian.” As the first installment showed, the band’s songs translate extremely well in an acoustic setting, and if you liked Volume One, you’ll certainly enjoy Volume Two.
Soul Dissolution – Sora (Viridian Flame)
Japanese culture and art are a part of Soul Dissolution’s third album, Sora (Japanese for sky). Custom calligraphy is used for the cover art and the first three songs feature haiku poems from Japanese authors. The music itself is in line with etherical black metal, featuring an equal share of ferocious riffs and beautiful melodies to get enveloped into.
There are parts of “SORA I” and “With Open Heart” that are gorgeous, as if being wrapped in a cathartic sonic blanket. To go from that to the lead-footed “SORA II” would be jarring if done by an inexperienced band, but Soul Dissolution have polished their style to avoid any major roadblocks.
Tankard – Pavlov’s Dawgs (Reaper)
German thrashers Tankard have been singing about drinking and partying for nearly 40 years now. They gave their livers a bit of a break, waiting five years between One Foot In The Grave and their latest full-length, Pavlov’s Dawgs.
In addition to showing a sense of humor and love of a good time showcased on tracks like “Beerbarians” and “Metal Cash Machine,” they inject some social commentary from time to time without ruining everyone’s buzz. The current lineup has been together for over 20 years, with founders Gerre (vocals) and Frank Thorwarth (bass) still on board. There’s not a lot of new ground explored on Pavlov’s Dawgs, with Tankard delivering the good time thrash they’ve perfected over the years with skill and flair.
Für Dich Existiert Das Alles Nicht is an intimidating album. How can it not be when Terra are offering four songs that average 15 minutes each? Add in their forte being oppressive black metal, and that can make the group’s third album seem impregnable. This shouldn’t surprise anyone aware of their first two albums that were released in back-to-back years in 2015 and 2016. Gigantic songwriting is their thing, taking after groups like Weakling and Krallice.
For over an hour, Terra wade through the entrails of darkness. All of it leads to a dour piano outro on closer “The End, My End,” which is a definitive way to live up to a song title like that. That’s the reprieve given to a listener who endures Für Dich Existiert Das Alles Nicht, though the uncompromised horrors before that will push the resolve of even the grimmest black metal fan.
Umbilicus – Path Of 1000 Suns (Listenable Insanity)
Umbilicus’ Path Of 1000 Suns is a new side of Cannibal Corpse drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz and The Absence/Deicide guitarist Taylor Nordberg, the two members of the band best known for their contributions to death metal. Umbilicus, on the other hand, goes a few decades back before the invention of the genre, to where bands like The Scorpions and UFO were in high demand. This album is ’70s-inspired hard rock/heavy metal, with a psychedelic aura over it.
Mazurkiewicz does use some double bass drums on “I, Human” and “Traveler,” and there’s some guitar shredding, but restraint is the key theme here. That doesn’t always follow for everyone, with singer Brian Stephenson letting loose with banshee falsettos. Path Of 1000 Suns may surprise fans of the band members’ other projects, though Umbilicus works because of how dedicated they stick to the era they are inspired by.
Vardan – No Exit From The Forest (Moribund)
When it comes to being prolific, few exceed the Italian one-man black metal project Vardan. He has slowed down a bit over the past few years, only issuing one album per year recently after releasing as many as nine in a single year. No Exit From The Forest is his 34th full-length release since his 2007 debut.
The album, divided into six parts, is slow and atmospheric. Keyboards are at the forefront, with some guitars along with harsh black metal style vocals. Vardan showcases some semi-melodic vocals as well. The songs range from about 5 to over 12 minutes long. It’s an introspective album that can be mesmerizing at times, but the lack of variation in tempo leads to monotony at other times. Overall though, Vardan fans should enjoy No Exit From The Forest.