Erik Martensson: Lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Magnus Ulfsted: drums
My Fear and My Faith
Because of Us
Walk Me Through the Fire
New Life Begins
The Final War
Rock’s Still Rolling
The Best Thing I Never Had
Back in 2016 two old pros of the nordic hard rock scene: Ronnie Atkins of Pretty Maids (Denmark), and Erik Martensson of Eclipse (Sweden) joined up to make the first Nordic Union album. It turned out to be a decent, listenable amalgam of the two bands, with one or two great hard-rock stompers (notably the track “Hypocrisy”). It was good enough that news of a follow-up was welcome.
Three singles were released and two of them showed some serious promise; alas the third was a slow moving and unabashedly political take-down of Donald Trump. I didn’t much like it, and it remains my least favourite track on the album.
At any rate, the album also has a lot of slower, more ballady numbers, and while Atkins has a real talent for those kinds of songs they are not my favourites, I prefer the face-melters. So I was prepared to be disappointed again, for the most part. Two or three good rocking tracks and an okay batch for the rest of the album…but somehow, I kept listening. And somehow, the whole album started to dig its way in. I realized after about a week or so that I was listening to this album – all of it – pretty relentlessly. It was also supplying way more than its share of my daily dose of earworms.
Overall Second Coming is much more consistent than the first album; I find the songwriting to be more mature and confident, which I suppose is to be expected with the experience these guys bring to the table. Even the slower tracks have a satisfying heaviness. “It Burns” is still not great, but it is easier to overlook now. Lots of melody here, lots of thick guitar, and of course Atkins’ mighty sledgehammer vocals. The standout tracks for sure are “Walk Me Through the Fire”, and “Because of Us”, both relentless hard-as-granite headbangers, and I have an inexplicable fondness for “The Final War”. Ronnie Atkins’ Christianity is not a thing I have ever heard him say a single word about, but it is clearly evident given some of the songs that make their way onto Pretty Maids albums. This track is explicitly The Book of Revelation’s End of the World with a pounding beat, and to be quite honest if we are all to die in a conflagration of good versus evil (which these days does not seem so farfetched), it may as well be to a heavy metal soundtrack.
Mariusz Duda: vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, bass, piccolo bass, banjo, guitar solo on “Lament” and “Wasteland”
Piotr Kozieradzki: drums
Michał Łapaj: keyboards and synthesizers, rhodes piano and hammond organ, theremin on “Wasteland”
Maciej Meller: guitar solo on “Acid Rain – Part 2: Dancing Ghosts”, “Guardian Angel”, “The Struggle for Survival Part II – Battle Royale’” and “River Down Below”
Michał Jelonek – violin on “The Day After”, “Lament” and “Wasteland”
Mateusz Owczarek – guitar solo on “Vale of Tears”
The Day After
Acid Rain: Part I – Where are we now?; Part II – Dancing Ghosts
Vale of Tears
Struggle for Survival: Part I – Dystopia; Part II – Battle Royale
River Down Below
The Night Before
If you have been reading reviews for Wasteland, you already know how they tend to start, so I will not repeat all that. In summary: Wasteland is probably the most fraught album in Riverside’s career, awaited with enormous anticipation, apprehension, trepidation…and so on. As fans, we all know why.
The big question is: Did the decision to continue as a trio, with no permanent replacement for the beloved Piotr Grudziński, actually work? Did they pull it off? The responses have ranged from enthusiastic “absolutely!”s to carefully worded versions of “nope”, and everything in between. The only thing we knew for sure about Wasteland was that it wasn’t going to be the same as the previous albums, but Mariusz Duda always says that. I did have a hint of the sound to come, hearing something early in the spring albeit in an unfinished form, and I liked it very much; but auditory memory being what it is (bad), I wasn’t willing to bet the farm on that few minutes of a demo heard once.
Three singles were released in the weeks before the album hit. Promotion, marketing – it is an understandable practice, but it is fair to say that for the most part, these songs caused more consternation than relief among the fanbase. I was certainly among those consternated. The first, “Vale of Tears”, despite some interesting moments, came across as a rather cliché poppy mashup of … well, everything. What on earth was that all about? There was a gradual improvement with the next two such that by the time “Lament” appeared, folks had gotten their hopes up again…but still, doubt had been sown.
Catherine Morgan, Chris Brierly, Mark Pharoah, Robert Woollard: strings
Mark Barratt: trumpet
Eden on the Air
Eat it Up Worms Hero
Fiery Gun Hand
Insect Hooves on Lassie
Fairy Mary Mag
A Horse’s Tail
Wireless/Peril on the Sea
Flap Off You Beak
Quiet as a Mouse
Red Fire Coming Out of His Gills
Nurses Whispering Verses
Once upon a time, I watched a YouTube video. It featured several middle-aged, somewhat grizzled gentlemen and a younger man with wild black hair, playing various instruments and videoed from rather odd angles. The bass player sat, substantial and impassive, wearing nothing but a small pair of underwear.
What I saw (and heard) is hard to describe – I barely understood it the first time through and had to immediately watch it about six more times. Whatever these guys were doing, it was like nothing I had ever heard (or seen) before. Imagine a slightly psychotic pop song, except with more rhythmic shifts and time-signature changes and sudden breaks and mad musical ideas packed into four minutes than most artists can fit on an entire album, pulled off by guys who looked like the sort of guys who get together to jam on amateur night at the local pub. And pulled off absolutely flawlessly, tighter-than-tight, with maniacal skill.
The band was, of course, Cardiacs, and the video was “Jibber and Twitch Rehearsal”. This review isn’t about that video, but it illustrates the basic process I went through while listening to Sing to God. Which I believe (but honestly don’t remember) was my next real foray into the labyrinthine musical miracle that is Tim Smith and Cardiacs, after poking around on YouTube and ending up overwhelmed.
Mariusz Duda: bass and acoustic guitars, piccolo bass, keyboards, percussion, programming, vocals
Wawrzyniec Dramowicz: drums
He Av En
Under the Fragmented Sky
Rinsing the Night
The Art of Repairing
“And it’s going to be the best story of your life….”
The tracks from this short album/EP/however you want to call it, were written during the Fractured sessions, but clearly did not fit that with album’s feel or direction. However, they were good enough (and I think recognizing how much of a departure from LS Fractured really was), that Mariusz Duda decided to gather them together into their own release.
In fact, I submit that Mariusz Duda had no choice but to release this album. Under the Fragmented Sky is an astonishing collection of music, so deeply evocative of everything Lunatic Soul as an idea stands for that I wonder whether LS really is an entity unto itself and Duda can only bow to its demands for life. I barely dared hope for something even half as good (especially after the disappointment of Fractured).
Or the tl:dr version of the previous paragraphs: Under the Fragmented Sky is a miracle.
Mariusz Duda: bass and acoustic guitars, piccolo bass, keyboards, percussion, programming, vocals
Wawrzyniec Dramowicz: drums
Marcin Odyniec: saxophone
Sinfonietta Consonus Orchestra
Blood on the Tightrope
Crumbling Teeth and the Owl Eyes
Red Light Escape
A Thousand Shards of Heaven
It is no secret by now (to anyone) that Fractured, the fifth Lunatic Soul album, was not the album of 2017 for me. I stuck it in at Number 5 but that was probably higher than it should have been. To say that I was disappointed and baffled would be an understatement. No matter how hard I tried, it just wouldn’t take. Fractured is anomalous, an outlier, straddling the border between Lunatic Soul and Riverside, not really one or the other: but perhaps closer in spirit to the last half of Love, Fear and the Time Machine than to any Lunatic Soul album.
It is hard to pin down exactly where the problem lies. I know this might sound a bit…self-serving, but the warning bells rang when so many people, heretofore not particular LS fans, embraced the album with enthusiasm. Lunatic Soul is a project with a fundamentally different feel than Riverside, darker and more ambient, less hard (but not “soft” by any means) dense and percussive, more adventurous and syncretic, perhaps even more nuanced. It is a project that has a rather more specialized audience, and perhaps a more dedicated one; certainly a much smaller following than Riverside. So it seemed distinctly odd that suddenly so many Riverside fans should profess to love the new album so much.
It is indeed an album of high accomplishment, with the trademark beautiful melodic passages that are a Mariusz Duda forté, and with some very powerful moments. But somehow, it doesn’t add up. The whole is not more than the sum of its parts. It is an album of fragments, a couple of very good songs (“Blood on the Tightrope”, “Fractured”) and exceptional bits from other tracks (“A Thousand Shards of Heaven”, “Battlefield”). But it has few of the attributes of Lunatic Soul. Duda has been moving away from lush analogue sounds towards more electronically-driven music, so the sound is sparser, more open, cooler. The rich density of small percussion is largely absent, replaced by a lot of guitar and electronic effects. This trend began with Walking on a Flashlight Beam, but that album retains the Lunatic Soul gestalt. Fractured has moved in a different direction.
Two reasons for this post: 1) to make a list of the stuff that is out/will be coming out/has been rumoured might appear at some point this year; and 2) to keep the blog alive. I really do need to actually write stuff for it…otherwise why am I dishing out $150 a year?
It might be a bit early to talk about new releases (for me; I do not accumulate new music at the pace of some others I know), but there does seem to be enough interesting stuff upcoming to make it worth taking a look to the future. There is a spate of albums coming out this spring, and then we wait for the fall season. If certain rumours/promises come true, it could be another epic year.
So far in 2018:
The Temperance Movement: A Deeper Cut : This album is seriously kicking my ass. Great blues rock from England. These guys are sharp and tight as hell, and clearly know what they are doing.
Dope Default: Ofrenda: Loose and dirty hard/stoner rock from Greece. Ofrenda is their debut album, and it sounds like a debut album, but it is certainly listenable and has some good moments. They are worth keeping an eye on.
Upcoming for sure/preordered (or will be):
Riverside: I have heard one track from this album, in demo form … and ohboy ohboy ohboy. If the album lives up to that promise…well, The Boys are Back. Fingers crossed.
Lunatic Soul: Under the Fragmented Sky (EP) – tracks that did not make it on to Fractured but are worth a release. As above – I heard one track from this, and it revives my hopes for a return to the LS of old—or more precisely the LS that sets hooks deep in my soul.
Solar Fields: Ourdom – time for some classic industrial electronica. I like some of his stuff more than others; I preordered the album on the basis of the youtube preview. I hope it is worth it.
Amorphis: Queen of Time. One track (“The Bee”) released so far. The Finnish folk-metallers sound much more symphonic and expansive, while retaining the heaviness and their signature growl/clean vocal tradeoff. Based on this track I’m not sure it will equal the last album.
Awooga: Conduit – nice heavy metal/hard rock, they had a great EP from 2016 which I would play more often if I didn’t have to switch to 45 rpm (details details…). A couple tracks already available to preview, they seem to have developed a more spacious sound.
The Fierce and the Dead: The Euphoric — I like them, but often what they do tends to get a bit too far into the technical/alt/art-rock region for me to love them. But when they are good they are great, and I think the new one holds some promise. Preordered based on the released track.
Toundra: Vortex – I have all the previous albums from these Spanish post-rockers, that I don’t play all that often…but once in a while they hit the spot. The single “Cobra” sounds pretty much like Toundra, dense and heavy.
Front Line Assembly: WarMech – new soundtrack for a new game. I find myself kind of up and down about these guys, I much prefer Leeb’s other project Noise Unit, but on the strength of the previous game OST (AirMech, which is pretty nice) I sprang for the preorder.
VNV Nation: Noire – Out in October, described as “dark and intense”, first studio album since Transnational in 2013.
Leech – The only Swiss band in my collection. It has been what – 5 years since their last one? Six? Anyway, it was a pretty nice post-metal album, and the only album I tried purely because of the cover. Be interesting to hear what the new one will sound like.
Nordic Union: wherein Ronnie Atkins of Pretty Maids (Denmark) lends his iron pipes to the sound of the hard rock outfit Eclipse (Sweden). At this point it is just the promise of a new release, no other info. But that is enough for me: hopefully it will be the same kind of straight-up kick-ass hard rock as the first one, which I love.
Rumoured for 2018:
Au4: Last fall an American internet radio guy scheduled a playthrough of 2014’s …And Down Goes the Sky, and had the guys live on the air to talk about it. They said a new album should appear this year. I surely hope so…if it is anything like that last one, it will be a strong contender for album of the year.
Missed from 2017:
Hypergiant: Father Sky – interesting doom/psych rock. It has its moments, and the track “Colossi” is truly epic, but the album might be a bit too much all at once.
Believe: VII Widows – a band that has been around for a while, in various incarnations, guitarist Mirek Gil’s vehicle since the end of Collage. I am not a fan of long-winded modern prog, as many of you know, but VII Widows is surprisingly good, very nice arrangements and passages, and I must say beautiful guitar themes (Gil on here reminds me of Steve Hackett, and there is nothing wrong with that). I am not crazy about the somewhat overblown and mannered style of the vocalist, but there are few enough vocal sections that he ends up intruding less on the experience than would otherwise be the case. Nice and listenable.
Decapitated: Anticult – I confess that I checked this out mostly out of morbid curiosity; the band found itself in deep shit in late 2017 while on tour in America (i.e. they were tossed in jail in Seattle for three months; charges were all dropped). Not generally being a fan of thrash metal (or so I thought), I had not paid them any attention. Well, you just never know: when I listened to Anticult I found, inexplicably, that I liked it a whole lot: in fact, it would have been one of the stronger releases of last year had I found it sooner.
It has been an interesting year for music – lots of good releases, a few disappointing follow-ups from bands I had found earlier, strong entries in genres I did not expect. The best albums of the year examine the human condition and find it wanting, and this year the expression of it has crossed all genres: the thrash-metal anger of Heart Attack and While She Sleeps, the existential philosophy of Alex Reed (Seeming), the bleak vision of Gary Numan, the push-back rage of race and poverty from Ice-T and Ice Cube. A beloved musician – one who is no stranger to lyrics of pain as it is – placing his torn-up heart on view with an album whose intensity of self-examination is almost too personal. It has been a tough and exhilarating year for listening.
This year brings a new Lunatic Soul, always a cause for celebration even if the album itself doesn’t strike quite as hard as previous ones. Once again, a plethora of unknown names with some great releases, and well-established acts who finally caught my interest with worthy efforts. In terms of genres: still some metal, still industrial electronica, some albums on the edge of prog (but no actual prog to speak of), some albums on the edge of pop, and this year a bit of…gangsta rap. Well, as I often say, You Just Never Know.
2017 also heralded the discovery of a band whose (recent, anyway) music has hit me inexplicably hard. They have been around for thirty-five years and I suspect for most of that time I would not have paid them any attention (if I had heard of them) … but their last four albums (new producer, entirely new sound) have just blown my head off. Those albums (and the related side-project by the lead singer) have all been on pretty heavy rotation since early spring, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Every year brings its particular sorting challenge, but this year it is a bit different. The top two spots are not in dispute; the issue here is that these albums tower so far above the rest of the pack I have given them their own slots, and kept 15 albums for the rest. In other words, I have a list of 2 and a list of 15, or I have a list of 17…whatever.
After the first two…well, things get much harder to sort out. Most of the subsequent fifteen albums are almost equivalent in quality; the mix of genres and styles is so wide that blunt comparison may as well be decided by closing my eyes and pointing: how does one fairly compare an album of country-rock by Swedes to gangsta-metal by an experienced Los Angeles media stalwart? Each album brings its strengths, and its weaknesses, and it becomes a matter of deciding which strengths are stronger and which weaknesses are least intrusive to the listening experience. That said, the first six albums in the List of 15 are almost equal in quality. But we will start with Number 17 overall (15) and work our way up. Continue reading Welcome to the Post-Apocalypse Or: The Year of Introspection 2→
The Music of 2017, Part 2 — Honorable mention, and albums 17 to 8.
You can read the introduction to the Music of the Year posts here.
Tune – III
I did not receive this album until the second week of December, which is too late for it to be considered for a spot in the Album of the Year list. But I do want to comment on it.
Tune are a rather odd bunch, a quirky art rock quartet out of Poland; I liked their second album (Identity) from three years back, showcasing clever and accessible pop songs but with a bit of an edge, but still there was something a bit too fey about them.
III is a step in the right direction. It is a very short album, pretty much EP-length, but I have never really been concerned with that sort of thing. It is better to have an album on the short side than one that outstays its welcome. At any rate: the songs here are darker, heavier, much edgier, demonstrating maturity and experience, and less quirk. The production is rich and up-close, showcasing the nice chunky bass sound and guitar – suddenly it is obvious that these guys are pretty damned good musicians. Hopefully this album will bring them a bit more attention – it is worth the listen.
Steven Wilson – To the Bone
Steven Wilson continues down the road well-traveled as he heads closer and closer to pure pop. The last album had its pop moments, but this one Is pretty unapologetic: breakthrough is what he wants, and To the Bone gets him a lot nearer. It is not a bad album but it is a rather boring one, really; Wilson is sticking to the safe route. There are those who excoriate him for his apparent abandonment of the prog that made him so beloved in the first place, but he has always been an International Pop Star at heart. Album review is here.
Necro Deathmort – Overland
Another new album from one of the more prolific of the ambient electronic acts out there. Necro Deathmort never seem to be overt: they don’t promote themselves much, they don’t have a major social media presence, but they never quit and somehow I have amassed quite a collection of their stuff. Overland is smooth and chill and unsettling, as befits the best of their music. The duo appeared on Steven Wilson’s latest album and they have slyly made use of the same colour scheme on Overland.
Eclipse – Monumentum
Eclipse is a hard rock quartet from Sweden, been around for a few years now, and they make pretty decent no-frills rock songs: melodic and heavy and not too long, definitely worth a listen or two. I like the album, and I really like two or three tracks from it. Eclipse joined with Pretty Maids singer Ronnie Atkins to make one of the better hard rock efforts from 2016, Nordic Union. Rumour has it they will do it again in 2018. Thumbs up for that one.
Glass Apple Bonzai – In the Dark
Upbeat synthpop from Toronto, cheerful retrowave about satanism and devil-worship. Well…why not? It is actually a pretty good album. And the guy does have a great voice.
Nathan Gray Collective – Until the Darkness Takes Us
In July, I said this: “At some point in his life, Nathan Gray lost his faith in God and it made him very very angry.” Well, he’s still pretty pissed off, but the album has grown on me a bit. Dark and dense and pretty heavy at times, and Gray certainly sounds like he means what he says.
These guys are a metalcore quartet from Sheffield, been around for a decade or so, and with You are We they have created a pleasingly melodic but face-meltingly heavy collection of tracks well worth checking out. Alternating between screams and clean singing, they have a bit of a Linkin Park vibe, but in a good way.
Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar
An outfit that has been around for a while, but I can’t say I have paid them much notice. They do seem to shift styles and genres to a considerable degree, however, and this incarnation has managed to catch my attention. This version of Ulver seems very synth-driven, dense and musical, and they do some interesting things here. Definitely worth a listen.
The Quill – Born From Fire
Stoner blues rock from the southern US, an album about redemption, reclamation, conversion, finding God.
Oh wait – these guys are Swedes.
Well, they do this thing very well indeed. I’ve been putting a lot of mileage on this album, and if I’d started playing it a bit earlier, it might have risen higher than 10. It is certainly engaging, and I like it a lot better than I thought I would.
Royal Blood – How Did We Get So Dark?
Everyone needs a little pop in their lives, I think. But make it good pop. Real pop, heavy and fun – like Royal Blood, the British bass-and-drums power duo. These guys are pretentious, popular, and very good at what they do, and I have an unaccountable fondness for them. The album is short and to the point, and they put out so much wattage you would swear they have onstage help – but I have seen them. They don’t.
Mastodon – Emperor of Sand
I never really paid much mind to Mastodon, and at this point in the year I don’t even remember why I listened to the new album. But I did, and I liked it a whole lot, and went to see them live and everything. In the meantime Emperor of Sand continued to grow on me. I don’t know if I will dig into the back catalogue, but I’m happy with this one.
Before we get to the actual releases of 2017, I will begin with this year’s discovery of a couple of bands who have put out albums that are truly great to my ears, and they come from two very different genres. Both are old, well-established acts, but as far as I know only one is still active. But boy – are they ever active.
The first is Noise Unit, an industrial electronica duo out of Vancouver, with links to Front Line Assembly and Delerium, who began back in 1989 with the album Grinding Into Emptiness. As far as I can tell, their last one was 2005’s Voyeur. I sampled a few things from Grinding into Emptiness, and Response Frequency, and Decoder, and they were good, interesting, but not attention-keepers.
Then I found Drill, released in 1997. That was the game-changer. What an album this is…the epitome of industrial electronica EBM, dense and intricate and as sophisticated as all hell; every time I play it I notice new things. Melodic and addictive, definitely one of my best discoveries for a long time.
Pretty Maids: Pandemonium (released 2010)
And then there is Pretty Maids. Yeah well what can I say. The music we love the most digs into places in our psyche that other things don’t get to, and I have found that there is no predicting what that will be. That Drill would work was not enormously surprising because I am not averse to the genre to begin with…but Pretty Maids surely was. Established way back in the hair-metal heyday of the mid 1980s, at first glance they epitomize everything I don’t like about old-time classic hard rock and metal, and frankly their early albums don’t do much to change that perception. But in 2010 something happened. Well, Jacob Hansen, a new producer happened, and the resurrection of Pretty Maids makes Lazarus rising from the dead look like a parlor trick.
The last four Pretty Maids albums have rocketed to the top of my all-time album list; I started with their 2016 release Kingmaker and worked backwards from there, and then I hit 2010’s Pandemonium.
By jesus (as my dad would often say) this album might just be THE perfect melodic hard rock album. It has everything — crunching heaviness, relentless energy, massive performances, even decent lyrics. The vocal performance on this album is absolutely monstrous: Ronnie’s pipes must be made of cast iron. It don’t think there is a less-than-great song on this album (well, maybe “Cielo Drive”…), but that title track…it doesn’t get much better than that. By anyone. Pandemonium astonishes me – it fires every metal synapse in my brain every single time I play it, and I have played it almost daily since I stumbled on these guys. Not just the discovery of the year — this album is the discovery of the goddamned decade, if not the century.
Sometimes an album comes along that reduces you to awed silence – there is so much to say about it that you actually have no idea what to say about it. This album is one of those.
Seeming consists of a couple of academics: Aaron Fuleki, a software and application technologist and designer, and musician (obviously) from Denison University in Ohio, and Dr. Alex Reed, professor of music at Ithaca College. Reed seems to be the main driving force: composer and author and musician and performer and clearly stuffed with so many ideas that he can hardly keep up with himself. Along with the album Sol are accompanying EPs that provide different mixes of the tracks, and some additional background context for the development of the ideas in Sol. Since all of that is too much to take in for one year, I will stick with the main release.
Sol is a masterpiece of dark post-industrial pop-rock, richly lyrical, sweeping and chunky and ironic, and so incandescently intelligent I’m surprised my speakers have not burst into flames. The main theme of the album seems to be about human transformation — it is time for humanity to move on, to change from the creature we are now into something more transcendent, or at least less harmful to the environment, other species, and ourselves. Those are the broad strokes. Every song presents this existential dilemma in a different manner; I could fill this entire review with nothing but quotes from lyrics of the songs, but best you hear them for yourself. As with most philosophy, everyone will have a somewhat different take on what Reed is trying to say here, and a different favourite song that conveys it.
The album relies profoundly on its lyrical content, so vocals take centre stage: Reed has a very good voice, rich and powerful at times if not particularly distinctive, well-employed and well-articulated – a lyric sheet is almost unnecessary. Around those words swirls music that ranges from dense and relentless post-gothic industrial (“Let’s Talk About Bones”) to delicate electronic pop (the poignantly ironic “Citizen”) to beautiful ballads (“Wildwood”), to broad orchestral sweeps of sound (horns included) in “Doomsayer”, and remarkably each track blends seamlessly into the next, despite their differences.
It is hard to pick out one outstanding track – each one possesses a slightly different identity, a unique shift in style, a surprising twist of construction – somehow apt given the theme of the album. However, I gravitate towards “Doomsayer”, the monster opening track that pummels with breathless declaration of obsession, shifts towards delicacy and then pounds one again with an electronic hammer – I recall the first time hearing it, with my jaw hanging open. Between the words and the music, it was all too much to absorb in one sitting.
In the end, the best I can say is: Sol: A Self-Banishment Ritual really is an astonishing album and this review doesn’t come near to doing it justice. Simultaneously challenging and accessible, it rewards repeat listening—hell, it demands repeat listening– because between the music and the lyric ideas there is so much going on that it is impossible to take it all in at once. It is sing-along thinking-man’s music for the future of us. If we are lucky.