Columnus Metallicus: Heavy Metal Album Reviews For July

Mistress of metal Louise Brown - with some help from Angela Davey - reviews this month's major releases including LPs from Prong, Accept, Melvins and Dead Cross

This column is coming to you in the middle of an electric storm blackout. It doesn’t get more heavy metal. But it does make you think about summer festivals. As we weigh up the pros and cons of Extreme, ZZ Top, Dokken and Glenn Hughes at Ramblin’ Man Fair, we wonder about the benefits of staying inside with some Ovaltine and watching glitchy recordings of the California Jam on YouTube instead. Just like last July’s column, the Stormbringer himself, Ritchie Blackmore is on one’s mind, having just completed a run of shows with Rainbow in the UK, that gave this writer more than her fill of live music for the year, at least. But the summer isn’t over yet, there’s Ramblin’ Man, Ghost headlining Bloodstock Festival and a trip to Midgardsblot to see Solstafir at a Viking reenactment settlement in Norway. Wait, maybe things can be more metal than reviewing Pagan Altar by candlelight.

The trip to Norway is part inspired by this month’s go-buy fanzine. Compiled by Norwegian artist Una Hamilton Helle, this perfect bound, black tome, Becoming The Forest 2 features interviews with Occvlta, Hexvessel and Fen but includes some amazing articles on the mythological connection of spruce trees, mapping the Norwegian Spruce’s DNA, an introduction to Theodore Kittlesen and a poignant diary of the illness of Aaron Aites, who made the film Until The Light Takes Us (about Nordic black metal), as told through his film-making and life partner, Audrey Ewell. It’s an incredible fanzine that draws a connection between nature, poetry, music, art, life and death and absolutely worth hunting out.

Maggot Heart – City Girls

(Teratology Sound Vision)

Talking of fanzines, try and get a copy of Dead Beat #2 if you can. Editor Linnea Olsson has compiled interviews with Jaz Coleman (Killing Joke), Dave Brocke (Hawkwind), Carl-Michael Eide (Virus) and Jerry A (Poison Idea), all with no photos, in her words, “for the love of a good conversation”. If you read an interview with her in last month’s fanzine plug, Bardo Methodology, you get the sense that she’s fed up of compromises. She’s been a journalist for over two decades, having written for National Swedish newspapers and big-name music mags, like Metal Hammer, as well as served time as guitarist for Sonic Ritual, The Oath, Beastmilk and Grave Pleasures, and she’s had enough. As she snarls on Maggot Heart’s debut EP “I’ve been working like a dog for something real”, and we hope she’s found it with her own band, and the first one she’s fronted. With friends and past colleagues, Uno Bruniusson (drums) and bassists Gottfrid Åhman and Sam Segarra, her band’s titular heart is the one on her sleeve, and it’s a jolt in the arm for any musician or writer or creator or artist teetering on the edge of breaking free and doing something completely for and of themselves. Digging into her unsurprising well of influence, from Patti Smith to Voivod and Stooges to Misfits, City Girls is dystopian street poetry with a glimmer of hope. Not heard in the music perhaps, that’s dark as fuck, but it’s simmering underneath, a force to be reckoned with. The city girls are revolting and they’re taking back the night. [LB]

Ruby Hatchet – Planetary Space Child

(Tee Pee)

As the last track, ‘Lightning Comes Again’, reaches a climactic (Hammond) orgasm, worthy of any band on the California Jam bill in 1974, lightning fills the room. The heavens open, thunder rolls and your scribe has to down tools for a little Bacchanalian dance in the garden (as the cat shoots in from whatever hedge she’s been hiding under). This is the third album from New Jersey’s drop-outs, Ruby The Hatchet and a fitting, sweaty, filthy summer stormbringer that’s worthy of taking a punt on. The band who once did a limited run of their EP in a stash box have no qualms letting you know what they’re all on, but this time it seems the quintet, including the formidably lunged Jillian Taylor on vocals and an organist (it’s always great when a band has an organist!) have put down the bong for some more experimental contraband. The album title gives you a clue, as the band dish up a hypnotic concoction of occult stoner that puts them in the leagues of your Ghosts and Uncle Acids, but also nods to a groove laid down by classic rock giants Purple, Zep and Yes. A mighty dose of British boogie coming from a barn in the Pennsylvanian woods, where the band camped out, in self-imposed isolation, to create this heady brew. ‘Gemini’ is a right rock & roll stomper, while ‘Symphony Of The Night’ starts with a comedown-inducing low, an almost dreampop atmosphere, before building up into a freak-out buzz. Stand-out track ‘The Fool’, with it’s creeped out jazz intro, sees Ruby on a par with any band playing in the Bang Bang Bar in the Twin Peaks reboot. With the thunder raging, and the storm tripping the lights, it reminds me to re-watch episode eight in the dark. Be right back. Got a light? [LB]

Bardspec – Hydrogen

(By Norse)

Speaking of thunder, here’s an offering to Thor. Having shared numerous live bills with Wardruna, as well as creating cinescape soundtracks with Skuggsjá, a dormant yet insatiable desire for ambient music has awoken within black metal Norse God Ivar Bjørnson (Enslaved), and sees him give life to newest project Bardspec. There’s a high profile roster lending their talents, with Steve Austin (Today Is The Day) on guitars/effects, David Hall presenting the live visual aspect of the project and artwork/imagery created by Josh Graham (A Storm Of Light). While Bjørnson certainly may have taken some inspiration from Wardruna in putting together an ambient musical group, that is where the similarities end; Bardspec is entirely minimalistic, relying on the simplicity of stripped back guitar pedal effects, synths and field sounds to create contemporary yet texturally rich soundscapes of meandering, hypnotic pieces of music. The full 55 minutes of this record, when consumed as whole, are an entirely meditative experience with an aim to tap into a heightened sense of awareness. A far cry from the hard rocking, progressive riffs that Ivar is otherwise known for, but an ultimately uplifting listen if approached with an open and relaxed mind. The effort that’s been put into the visual aspects of this release suggest it’s one best experienced live. [AD]

Skelethal – Of the Depths…

(Hell’s Headbangers)

Despite being active as a band for five years, French death metal duo Skelethal have only just released their debut album Of the Depths…, following a string of demos and EPs, and it’s most certainly worth the wait. Remember when Morbid Angel were relevant? Skelethal will incite mass nostalgia for old school death metal in all who hear this. The production quality gives the impression that this entire album was recorded in an echo chamber, with the drums being placed so high in the mix it feels like your ears are being given a battering. Of The Depths… is a maelstrom of razor sharp riffs which rage alongside meaty percussion with an occasional frenzied solo mixing up the tempo with just enough groove to keep things interesting. And it’s worth purchasing simply for the CD-only bonus track of a cover of Dismember’s ‘Soon To Be Dead’, which retains just enough of the original song’s qualities to be familiar, while the band still make it very much their own. It’s time to take your terrible haircut, acid wash denim and hi-tops out of retirement; Skelethal are bringing death metal back to its glory days, and it’s never sounded better. [AD]

Portrait – Burn The World

(Metal Blade)

A crack in the space-time continuum appeared somewhere in Scandinavia in 2007 and suddenly stocks in denim and leather rocketed. Bands oozed from every car-boot record crate, all on a mission to twist and reboot the holy trinity of Maiden, Priest and Mercyful Fate. Some went hard, signing to bigger indies and pounding the road, some burned the candle out too soon, and some, like Skåne’s Portait, lurked in the shadows, minding their heavy metal business and now, ten years after forming, are putting out album number four of flawless traditionally-steeped steel. It’s a cop-out to keep treading the Maiden/Fate comparisons a decade down the line, but these Swedes make those Denner/Sherman/Murray/Smith twin-guitars seem as smooth as David Coverdale’s chat-up lines. Per Lengstedt’s vocals are as high as Chris Holmes and the production is as full as Doro’s gillet. Burn The World ticks all the right boxes. But Portrait, while not playing by the rules in terms of touring relentlessly or wearing the right spandex, have not stopped evolving and this album has two remarkable future metal classics, in ‘Martyrs’ and ‘Pure Of Heart’, two epic, proggy masterpieces that nod to Queensryche and even a little AOR Europe. Triumphant moments of flair on an album that deserves to see Portrait take centre stage in true metal revival circles. [LB]

Pagan Altar – The Room Of Shadows

(Temple Of Mystery)

Before we start to review Pagan Altar’s fifth album, do you care about the drama? Should we waste word-count on who played on this record and who’s cross they didn’t play on this record? No? Good, let’s move on and give this triumphant album a proper review and Terry Jones, South London’s heavy metal godfather, a tribute worthy of his contribution to this tentacled, sprawling genre. Pagan Altar, for all their cult status, had a bit of a Sisyphean career. Four albums, all written in the proto-metal heyday of 1978-1984, but not even released, in non-bootleg format, until 1998. Pagan Altar material became unburied by time and dust throughout the 2000s and the band enjoyed a resurgence as did many of the other bands of that time. But Terry Jones and his revolving door of pallbearers were stunted and stalled at every turn. The sad truth is that Pagan Altar are one of those fabled acts who touched by magic and inspired greatness, but never got their due. You might spot moments of Warning, Atlantean Kodex, Candlemass, and indeed Portrait within The Room Of Shadows and that would be because Pagan Altar are in the very DNA that runs through the vein of contemporary heavy music. The Room Of Shadows is funeral music, it’s reverent and respectful of the music that came before, and the music that came after, and of Pagan Altar’s canon itself.

The songs here, that draw from Kansas and Wishbone Ash as much as Black Sabbath and traditional English folksong, were written 13 years ago and this album has been a long-time coming, but had it come out in 2003, it would perhaps had been too early for what became a heady revival a few years later. But now, the tragedy is that it’s too late, as Terry Jones passed away in 2015 after battling cancer. His son, Alan Jones, has crafted a beautiful posthumous album that does his father, and the band’s legacy, delicate justice. ‘After Forever’ is a touching, poignant ballad and at 1 minute and 33 seconds closes the album, and the band as we know it now. RIP Terry. [LB]

Melvins – A Walk With Love & Death


26 albums over a 34-year career span is pretty impressive and, when you’re a band with the longevity that Melvins has, you earn the creative freedom to do whatever the hell you want. For latest record A Walk With Love & Death they’ve done just that and released a double album. The first half, simply titled Death, follows a pretty standard Melvins blueprint of an explosive marriage between grunge and stoner rock. The groove-laden surf rock sensibilities of ‘What’s Wrong With You’ are a definite highlight, featuring guest vocals from Joey Santiago (The Pixies), Teri Gender Bender (Le Butcherettes/Crystal Fairy) and Anna Waronker (That Dog). Love is the score to the Jesse Nieminen directed, self-produced short also titled A Walk With Love & Death. This latter half of the album is a different beast entirely; made up mostly of background noise of busy streets and conversations, with the occasional guitar squeal. Love is excruciatingly atmospheric and will set fingers creeping along spines. There’s the occasional exception to the rule, with the likes of ‘Give It To Me’ deviating back to a more typical Melvins dynamic, however, without the context of the film, Love really adds nothing to this release. [AD]

Prong – Zero Days


American crossover thrash heroes, Prong, return with their 13th album just a year after the poorly received X – No Absolutes. After the bashing their last record received it’s clear the trio have something to prove with Zero Days. Every track is punchy and groovy, with songs such as ‘Divide And Conquer’ possessing a sing-a-long anthemic quality. If this album were presented as a standalone opus, without the reputation that Prong have built up for themselves over the last three decades, then it would no doubt go down a storm with the Kerrang! crowd. However, knowing that Prong are capable of industrial tinged feats such as Force Fed and Beg To Differ, the sound of their latest effort seems tame by comparison. Tommy Victor’s vocals are missing their vivacity and the composition of each song is not dissimilar to the Killswitch Engage numbers you’ll often see people spilling their Jägermeister to at 3am in a dingy rock nightclub. In attempting to chase after what once made them great, Prong have lost their sense of raw, unbridled aggression and the music is weaker for it. [AD]

Accept – The Rise Of Chaos

(Nuclear Blast)

There’s a song on Accept’s 15th album loosely based on the Jonestown Massacre, it’s called ‘Koolaid’, so loose is being polite. But the song alludes to strange brews being drunk back in 1978, and since these German overlords of heavy metal were a year off their debut in that very same year, it can be argued that a new cult arose when Udo Dirkschneider, Wolf Hoffmann, Jörg Fischer, Peter Baltes, Frank Friedrich ran through the empty streets looking for some girl called Louise (wise fellas!). Times they are a-changing, but Accept are not. Okay, they’ve shed a few members with just Baltes and the Hoff remaining of the original wrecking crew, but any naysayers of the “But it’s not Udo” kind need to step outside for this one, because Accept in 2017 are fucking slaying it. Seriously, this album is balls to the wall anthems of heavy metal magnificence, and relevance. How they had not written a song as good as ‘Die By The Sword’ by now is as shocking as the fact they had not written a song called ‘Die By The Sword’ by now. Gushing aside, Accept also happen to know their target audience really well. They know what they wanna hear, they know they want that Metal Heart beating fast, but there is a song here called ‘Hole In The Head’. It’s a love song. It’s a love song to the old ball and chain. It’s a love song about “her inside” with lyrics like “I need you like a prison term”, and it’s kind of endearing. Almost every Accept fan in 2017 is going to have an experience of the better half telling them they need to clear out the garage and they can’t go to Ramblin’ Man until the skirting board is painted. It’s beautiful. There is also a song called ‘Analog Man’, about having to get your kids show you how apps work, we presume. We hear you, guys, we hear you. So Accept in 2017 are a little less restless and wild, and finale ‘Race To Extinction’ sounds a bit like it’s a race to the sofa so they can put their feet up, but they deserve it. Accept still rule. [LB]

Dead Cross – Dead Cross


The analog guys in Accept are in luck, as according to Dead Cross ‘The Future Has Been Cancelled’. All that worry for nothing, lads. But if the future has been cancelled, does that mean we never discover the true potential of this most super of supergroups? Let’s bring you up to speed here. Dave Lombardo got unceremoniously chucked out of Slayer in 2013. Unfortunately his other band Fantômas weren’t exactly busy, with frontman Mike Patton getting Faith No More back together. He got a post-punk band on the go, called Philm, sat in the drum stool for Misfits and Suicidal Tendencies and then, thankfully, hooked up with hardcore loon Justin Pearson of Retox and Locust (along with Retox/Locust members Mike Crain and Gabe Serbian). Any band with Lombardo behind a kit is going to get mouths frothing; he’s not called one of heavy metal’s most influential drummers for nought. But when vocalist Gabe quit, they were left in a pickle.

Having approached his old mucker’s label, Ipecac, for a deal, they mighta mentioned to Mikey that they were lacking a singer. Not one to pass up an opportunity to scream acrobatic gibberish into a microphone, and tempted by the band’s clear, and infatuated, influence of DRI, Siege and the Accüsed, Mike headed to his basement studio (for unpolished rawness) and the resulting takes were given to Mr Ross Robinson (Slipknot, Sepultura) to stitch into 28 minutes (one minute shorter than Reign In Blood, screw you Slayer) of chaotic joy. Seriously, how can a song that’s just shy of 2 minutes 40 seconds sounds like three songs? When you’ve got the masterminds of Pearson, Patton and Lombardo working together, for unbridled shits and giggles, making music they loved in their youth, with nothing to lose and nothing to prove, that’s how! If you’re a fan of Slayer, Philm, Melvins, Fantômas, Mr Bungle, Faith No More, Locust, Retox, this is for you and it’s completely gleeful. Get it for the frankly ludicrous ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ cover alone. [LB]

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