Columnus Metallicus: March In Heavy Metal By Louise Brown
, March 16th, 2016 09:49
Louise Brown is both the Iron Fist and the velvet glove of heavy metal. Bow down and quiver before her album selections for this month
Ivar Bjørnson and Einar Selvik portrait courtesy of Ester Segarra
Ah the music review; the widely contested platform of ego and opinion. In some corners of the internet it is suggested that sites like tQ would be better off posting a list of Soundcloud links and having you all make up your own minds. Those humble 150 words of biting criticism, which could once make or break a band, are now as fiercely debated as Brexit, Corbyn's insistence on wearing a Marks & Spencer cardi to PMQs and the Guns N' Roses reunion line-up.
But without the humble music review how would anyone know what I deem worthy of parting with your cold cash for, after all isn't that what everyone wants to know?
March is the Spring awakening of Heavy Metal. After the grim, frostbitten months of winter, albums are popping up like delicate bluebells, and are not at all, in any way, a cynically timed release to coincide with the summer festival circuit. The music industry's archaic rules dictating release dates however is our gain as we plunder the spoils of war and fill our social network timelines with meaningless status updates such as “Early contender for album of the year” and “Three months in and I already know what my fave album of 2016 is.” Over at my day-job, as editor of the somewhat elitist “heavy metal should only be played by people with denim cut-offs” bible, Iron Fist magazine, we have spent the past few weeks mourning the newest Diamond Head album, being perplexed that Saxon are insisting on reminding everyone that they made albums that weren't Strong Arm Of The Law with their latest boxset and listening to Motörhead. However, we did put Overkill down long enough to recommend these sounds of Spring '16.
Breeze Least – Breeze Least
Breeze Least aren't a real band. Someone is pulling the leg of Shadow Kingdom honcho, Tim McGrogan with this “reissue”of a 1986 Japanese rarity. (Henri Sorvali, is this you?) From the band name to the song titles ('Dolphin Tradition'? 'Must Be Crush'?) to the liner notes ("Guitar play and produce: Kazuhiro Yamaguchi") it's all too Japanese. After some sceptical digging it turns out this is legit however. How this escaped the ears of this writer, who thinks Bleak House's Rainbow Warrior to be the greatest moment in British heavy metal history with no iota of irony, is frankly embarrassing and exciting; for here is a new band to add to the list of denim and leather clad (and feather boa if rare photos are to be believed) forgotten warriors. With a nod to sketchy NWOBHM bands who never made it past their debut 7”, Uli Roth-era Scorpions and synth-heavy ballads that go toe to toe with Angel Witch's Sorceress for power fist use, Breeze Least is a true gem that deserves a second sweep.
Moonsorrow – Jumalten Aika
Last year, musical genius and relentless prankster Henri Sorvali convinced the world that fashion brand H&M had “stolen” the logos of underground heavy metal bands to use on their clothing. In fact H&M had invented heavy metal “looking” logos to co-opt our culture for some bizarre reason and actually Sorvali had cleverly created music to match each logo from the Mexican death-thrash cult Mortus to the occult rock of Mystic Triangle to call them out. Confused? Google it. It was troll perfection, which is ironic, because Sorvali is in a band called Finntroll. However, when he gets serious he's good, really good and serious is what he does in Moonsorrow, a band he started in 1995. Taking glacial black metal that is icier than a Finnish winter and weaving it around ancient Scandinavian lore, Moonsorrow may have not followed the stratospheric prog-trail of Norse brothers Enslaved and Ulver but have kept their folk metal mercifully free of the Pagan elf-ear and sword-waving gimmicks of their kin. Jumalten Aika is their seventh album and it's as evocative and expansive as you've come to expect from this heathen horde. And for those who can't stomach their more epic fare, there's even a martial, blackened jaunt of hurdy gurdy and marauding chants that comes in at under eight minutes, a rarity for a band who tend to like their songs closer to the 30 minute mark.
Ivar Bjørnson and Einar Selvik – Skuggsjá
(Season Of Mist)
Staying in the folkier realms of the metalsphere, Ivar Bjørnson is famed for having tendency to take the black metal foundations he laid down with his band Enslaved and push them to their progressive extreme and here, alongside Wardruna's Einar Selvik, he has weaved a musical tale that conjures the beauty of the landscape that inspired them. Having been commissioned to create this piece of music to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian constitution at the Eidsivablot festival in Eidsvoll, Bjørnson and Selvik (who also composed music for the hit TV series, Vikings), along with their birch-bark lutes, bone flutes, tagleharpas and harding fiddles, gathered friends from their respective bands to create a musical tale that transcends what we know of Pagan metal, folk music and Nordic history and build a sonic landmark that is perhaps the most jaw-dropping album to reach these ears this March, and which may go on to be one of the most bar-raising records to drop in 2016.
Cobalt – Slow Forever
Talking of jaw-dropping, it's taken since 2009 for the metal community to gather together their collective mandibles only for Cobalt (sans one controversial founder Phil McSorley) to get their act together in the form of Slow Forever and loosen them once again. Let's admit it, USBM gets a bad rap. It's not the bands' fault they're geographically challenged in their proximity to Norway's burning churches, but Cobalt have managed to escape the wrath of the elitists by embracing American culture (Hemingway speeches, Outlaw country, Native American music) in the way the second wave black metallers went in for traditional Nordic tropes. Spinning as much Neurosis and Swans as Hellhammer and Darkthrone in their jam-room, former Nachtmystium drummer Charlie Fell rasps into ol' McSorley's mic while Erik Wunder (by name and nature) conjures the caustic barrage of icy guitars and Killing Joke-esque rhythms that summon an aggressive almost-hardcore assault. Since 2009, black metal has slithered its Chthulu tentacles in a myriad directions and it's left to be seen if Cobalt, who were worshipped for their genre-breaking obstinance, still have the power to turn heads. They left the gate open after Gin for bands to dare to break the mould but Slow Forever shows that they're still writing their own rules when it comes to extreme music.
Vektor - Terminal Redux
Staying both in America and with bands who like to break the mould, Vektor didn't quite leave us hanging as long as Cobalt for a new album, but Terminal Redux comes a full five years after Outer Isolation and for the sci-fi thrashpack that's too long. 2016 is a world of Pertubator and bands dabbling with synths a-plenty and so Vektor have come back to a willing crowd for their Commodore 64 fetishised frash metal. David DiSanto sounds as strained as a teenager schooled on Emperor trying to ape Chuck Shuldiner and there's a charm in that. This is not black-thrash in the Nifelheim sense, Vektor aren't cool enough for that, but there's black metal and there's thrash and there's a lot of love for Voivod – just see their logo. Ultimately these alien-loving thrashers will never be fashionable, they like reading books and just don't get the nuances of irony – even that Tom G Warrior style OOUGH isn't in there for effect – but if this had come out in 1985 it would have had a Banzai swirl slapped right on it, MFN would have licensed a track for their Speed Kills comp and they'd be on their second reunion tour of the Wacken circuit by now. The truth is out there.
Cauldron – In Ruin
(High Roller/The End)
Talking of bands born too late, Cauldron just can't catch a break. Let's get the Cliff notes: they formed in 2006 after bassist/vocalist Jason Decay broke up his Cathedral-esque doom band Goat Horn. He joined forces with walking metal encyclopedia Ian Chains and got picked up by Earache Records for their Chained To The Nite debut just when every label was falling over themselves to sign bands that sounded like Diamond Head. Learning early on that to have any sort of crack at success if you embrace the old metal traditions you need to wear a pope's hat or hire a witch/high priestess to front your band, Cauldron sort of stumbled on tenaciously wearing their influences, literally (Ian Chains started an old school metal pin badge business), on their sleeves. 2016 sees the band tirelessly pursuing the steel with new album In Ruin for heavy metal stable High Roller Records but also saw them flip their van on the exhausting toilet circuit of North America leaving Chains hospitalised. Can the gods of heavy metal please have some mercy? They were Thor's backing band for god's sake, what does it take? The Canadians are almost Anvil-like in their quest for heavy metal and the new album may lack some of the fire of their early records but as they sing in the song 'Burning At Both Ends' they're actually burning out. We can't allow this to happen. There is some NWOBHM-styled gold on this here LP that needs to be headbanged to. Is there such thing as a kick-starter for heavy metal morale? Cauldron are the steely stalwarts that we would regret losing to apathy so go support them.
Lizzies – Good Luck
For every exhausted Cauldron however there is a new band following their lead in worshipping the old and true metal. It seems these bands spring up every week, summoned perhaps by Fenriz himself who fears he may run out of traditional sounding bands for his band of the week blog. These bands will keep Muskelrock, Brofest and Live Evil Festival in support slots for years to come and frankly, keep my rag, Iron Fist soldiering on. This month it's the debut Good Luck by Madrid's Lizzies that is rarely off our Grundig RR 1000. The bass player is called Motorcycle Marina and we could stop the review there because you must surely be running to YouTube by now to check them out. Singer Elena Zodiac rolls up the sleeve to her red leather jacket and gets stuck in with a high-voltage delivery while the band throw out some nimble fingered prowess that would impress Iron Maiden themselves. Like speed metal maniacs Enforcer before them, Lizzies have penned a song about Japan ('Night In Tokyo') knowing that they'll go down a storm with the metal legions in the land of the Rising Sun and with a song called 'Speed On The Road' they're setting their stall out as the new girls of the highway. Girlschool, watch out, there is a new class with no class about to enrol.
Wytch Hazel – Prelude
Staying in the Muskelrock/Live Evil world of old sounding traditional heavy metal, Wytch Hazel forgo the speed but keep the steel. From time immemorial heavy metal bands have sung about wizards and battles and swords and this pack of cosplay Robin Hood bandits from Lancashire are taking up the mantle from Jethro Tull, Wishbone Ash and the underrated Ashbury. And from time immemorial heavy metal bands have sung about spirituality and myths, often coming at it from the darker side of the tale and what makes this precociously young band stand out is that they're unashamed in their lyrics of a Christian bent. Could this be 2016's most rebellious band? Maybe so. Taking Prelude purely on its merits, the musicianship is top-notch. Drummer Jack Spencer is registered blind and unparalleled in clever playing that drives the songs forward without ever feeling the need to show off. Guitarist and singer Colin Hendra has a voice that cracks and wavers but even on those high notes he's riveting. There is a progressive, folky bent on Prelude that shows musical maturity – and let's be honest taste – that goes beyond their young years and ultimately it's a humble, sincere debut that shows great promise for such a bunch of heavy metal whippersnappers.
Blood Ceremony – Lord Of Misrule
Wytch Hazel could learn a lot from touring with Blood Ceremony. This isn't their first rodeo, having released their eponymous debut in 2008. Lord Of Misrule is their fourth album and it reminds all which witch band rule the misrule. Since they appeared on the scene, occult bands have been ten-a-penny but Blood Ceremony have something truly sinister within their magick spellbook. Singer and Pan's piper Alia O'Brien snarls crone-like across this album, sounding sometimes punky; maybe she's evoked the ghost of Wendy O, we wouldn't put it past her. They could equally show bands like Wytch Hazel that it's great to go all Laurel Canyon and wistful if it's ultimately to entice you in to a Dionysian orgy of rock and roll debauchery. At points on Lord Of Misrule Alia takes us on a '60s girl group trip – totally far out – but that's not to take away from their original MO of riff-heavy rock of a Sabbath bent. When doom metal gets into that deep, deep groove and the honeytrap vocals hypnotise there's nothing you can do but to submit.