Avatarium were originally devised as a combination of crushing doom and 70s prog. But on their third album Hurricanes and Halos there’s very little doom left at all; the focus is now firmly on retro rock stylings of swirling Hammond organ and sultry psychedelia.
Into The Fire/Into The Storm is a bold opener that makes full use of Jennie-Ann Smith’s forceful, dramatic lung power and The Starless Sleep is a wonderful mix of dark fable and summery 60s pop. But there’s a sense of diminishing returns on album number three. Although it’s one of the doomier tracks, Medusa Child is overlong with cheesy child vocals. And the breezy, bluesy When Breath Turns To Air and the closing instrumental parp of the title track barely register. The album’s uneven second half is saved by the stomping Uriah Heep worship of The Sky At The Bottom Of The Sea and the ominous beauty of A Kiss (From The End Of The World), one of the band’s best tunes to date.
It’s another strong effort from the Swedes but it finds them veering away from my own taste. As the band dial down the doom I find myself less engaged. But the band’s charismatic and summery take on classic 70s rock will win them more fans and appreciation than they lose. And those listeners may well find this the band’s most accessible and enjoyable album so far.
In Trance was the Scorpions’ third album, their first of many with producer Dieter Dierks and their first proper hard rocker. But we’re still back in the Uli Roth years here so there’s a strange mix of styles and moods. There are real driving, hard-hitters like Dark Lady and Top Of The Bill but there are also many songs like Life’s Like A River and Living And Dying that are mystical, almost-psychedelic and loaded with melancholy. Two different kinds of heavy, basically. Scorpions’ circa 1975 show off a complex mix of styles and influences: Uli Roth’s post-Hendrix, pre-Malmsteen guitar mastery; the mellow wistfulness of UFO’s Phenomenon; the epic scope, bludgeon and layered vocal harmonies of Uriah Heep and Queen and a distinctly European/power metal vibe. The combination of Rudolf Schenker’s granite riffs and Uli Roth’s scorching leads create real sparks and edge that never appeared in other incarnations of the band. There’s so just so much to love here and tracks like the bombastic pomp-rocker In Trance and the bonkers cyber-metaller Robot Man just never get old. The Scorpions would score big later with a simpler, streamlined metal style so this strange and formative early effort isn’t in the hallmark Scorps style but it is one of their best and the album, and era, I return to the most. By a long way. And that’s why it’s my top pick from this band’s impressive discography.
I finally made the sacred pilgrimage to see The World’s Greatest Guitarist®. My expectations had been lowered after seeing the enjoyable but sluggish Memories In Rock footage and then hearing the banal single released a few weeks back but… Ritchie F. Blackmore! It was incredibly exciting to know I was finally going to, not just see him play live, but see him play rock.
The band’s recent recording of Land Of Hope And Glory played over the PA before the “we must be over the rainbow” sample heralded the band’s arrival on stage. Opening with HMO fave Spotlight Kid rather than Highway Star was a good move. Blackmore played tentatively and awkwardly but come the closing outro of the next song I Surrender he was warming up. He was taking some shortcuts in his lead and rhythm playing throughout the night but given his age (and arthritis?) it’s unfair to expect the intensity of his youth. He still played well and had that mercurial, unique quality. It was great to hear his instantly recognisable guitar voice in person.
The band was good too. A definite improvement on the 2016 footage/recordings with a much more convincing performance from the rhythm section in particular. Ronnie Romero was in superb voice and an entertaining, personable frontman. He suits some songs more than others but he was impressive all night. He’s a huge talent and a great find.
My only quibbles were an interminably long keyboard solo and some overly shrill shrieking in Child In Time, a song I can’t be arsed with at the best of times anyway. And, although it’s good to hear Blackmore playing them, I wasn’t too fussed about hearing other Purple stuff like Black Night and Smoke On The Water either. That said, some of the sets best moments came from the Purple albums: a stunning version of Burn and a very moving Soldier Of Fortune. The Rainbow selections were similar to previous shows with the welcome addition of I Surrender,All Night Long and a hugely unexpected and wonderful Temple Of The King. But the mighty Stargazer remains the absolute standout track of the set: epic metal bliss delivered with deadly conviction by Romero. Goosebumps.
Ultimately, I went to see a guitarist whose music and playing I have obsessed over for years. And I was not disappointed. In fact, I was often thrilled and excited. That’s pretty good going. Age and arthritis be damned, Blackmore is still the man.
The Swiss power trio Coroner has often been called the “Rush of Thrash” for their progressive bent and formidable performances. And their albums don’t get much more progressive and formidable than their fourth, 1991’s Mental Vortex. Here’s one of my favourite tracks from it, Son of Lilith. It’s still got enough crunch and neck-snapping intensity to please thrashers but this song is more about precision and groove. It’s got an earworm of a chorus and a guitar solo to die for. Total class.
Schammasch’s Triangle is high-concept stuff. The Swiss group divide their latest album into stages with three themed CDs (The Process of Dying, Metaflesh and The Supernal Clear Light of the Void). The three discs each run to 33 minutes and all signify a stage of a spiritual journey. The concept is enhanced by the wonderful box set package and its eye-catching, symbolic imagery (by the talented Ester Segarra). It all screams masterpiece! Well, apart from the music. The album has a befittingly grand production but the music of Triangle is a chore. The first disc is a sub-Behemoth slog and the third disc, while it has a pleasant cinematic ambience, goes nowhere fast: five tracks where the final two would have had the same effect. The second disc is more successful. Its Monotheist-style evil, glassy prog and mysterious chants offering up the album’s hookiest passages. But there’s just too much padding throughout. And treating each disc as a separate album doesn’t help either when two of them are such a slog. The scale of the project keeps me returning to it, hoping it will finally click, but after coming away from another listen feeling nothing I have to finally accept that Triangle is just overlong and unrewarding. It looks and sounds incredible but there are not enough engaging moments to justify an hour and 40 minutes of my time.
Alex Harvey was not only one of Scotland’s most legendary rockers, he was also steeped in showbiz. This album, his third with SAHB, came out in ’74 but Alex had been around in music and theatre since the late 50s. He formed his “Sensational” band, with members of prog rockers Tear Gas, in the early 70s and often referred to them in terms of movies and the stage: he was their director. And The Impossible Dream is their most theatrical and cinematic album, the culmination of Harvey’s decades of experience. It’s comparable to Alice Cooper’s School’s Out: an adventurous extravaganza. From the tribal, comic book stomp of Vambo and Man in the Jar‘s gonzo noir to the dancehall Sergeant Fury, the skittery blues of Weights Made of Lead and the riffing pirate yarn Tomahawk Kid this album is a total romp. Yo ho ho! And as Anthem closes the album out, it’s extremely moving too. It’ll make ye greet.
I wish I’d heard HEart of the Ages when it was released. Mixing extreme metal with prog and folk hardly seems all that audacious now but when In the Woods…’ debut album came out in 1995 this was a leap forward for black metal. There were similar attempts from Ulver and Primordial in the same year but, even compared to those great albums, HEart of the Ages sounds more forward-thinking and groundbreaking. 21 years later their style might not seem as startling but the music still has a fresh zing of originality and there’s plenty to love in its combination of Burzumic shrieking, melancholic doom, heathen folk and Floyd/Crimson soundscapes. Latecomers should buy the recent Heart of the Woods box set for a particularly plush version of the album. The Norwegians are also due to return later in 2016 with their reunion album Pure. If like me, you’ve missed out on In the Woods…, now is a great time to get involved.
As the Earth and the world of metal complete yet another revolution of the sun… it’s time for HMO’s Top Albums of the Year! This is the second end-of-year list to feature at HMO and, like the proverbial second album, it has proven most difficult. 2014 had some very clear outliers but in 2015 there was very little to separate the albums on my list. Placing them in order was a challenge and whittling it down to ten was tough. As a result, there were some especially painful omissions: Europe’s War of Kings; Australasia’s Notturno; Un’s The Tomb of All Things; Possession’s 1585-1646 and Macabre Omen’s Gods of War – At War. In a weaker year any of these albums might have made the cut but, much as it pains me, I couldn’t include them here.
So, without further ado… the list! Drum roll please.
THE HMO TOP ALBUMS OF 2015
NUMBER TEN: Obscene Entity – Lamentia
Obscene Entity don’t reinvent any wheels on their debut album but they do kick the absolute fuck out of them. Tight, accomplished, well-written and intensely performed death metal. It’s impossible to tear your ears away from this.
NUMBER NINE: The Antichrist Imperium – The Antichrist Imperium
David Gray and Matt Wilcock continue the work of their former band Akercocke with their new project The Antichrist Imperium. And it’s the devil’s work! The dual vocals of Sam Bean and Sam Loynes add a sexy eclecticism to proceedings but Wilcock’s guitar performance is the star here. He riffs and solos like a man… umm… possessed.
Paradise Lost go deathier and doomier: reintroducing some long-abandoned extreme elements from their early days. The added fire and brimstone of the band’s delivery mixes with the band’s more established melodic goth metal to ensure this is less a throwback and more a new beginning. Few bands of their vintage sound this vital.
As soon as you hear the opening, ringing chords you know this album is going to be the real deal. It’s black metal in the most classic sense: frosty and nihilistic. The music expresses a bleak sense of hopelessness but it’s also strangely inspiring. So never mind your broken dreams or the shitey sky hanging over you, just enjoy this new chapter in the handbook of classic black metal.
Matt Adnett (Obscene Entity) and Sam Loynes (The Antichrist Imperium) make the list twice by teaming up for Shrines’ impressive and moreish debut album. A couple of right list-hogs! Myriad styles and influences weave and thread throughout the album and Loynes’ idiosyncratic vocals make Shrines one of the most hypnotic and magnetic listens of the year. A very promising debut indeed.
It might be tempting to call this “business as usual” for the still-prolific metal legends but there’s magic at work on album No. 21. Thanks to Hell’s Andy Sneap, this is the best-sounding album they’ve put out in aeons and the tracks are all well-crafted and fully-realised: the veteran band finding the perfect intersection between their Hard and Fast metal pounding and their uncanny knack for melody. And the best of it is, you know Saxon will be back with more of this in a year or two. All hail the old school!
NUMBER FOUR: Avatarium – The Girl with the Raven Mask
Avatarium’s 2013 debut was a big act to follow but they pull it off by expanding their sound into a glorious technicolour of classic rock. The whole band sound like they’ve been allowed more input here: there’s Heeps of Hammond, a vibe right out of Purple’s Soldier of Fortune, awesome Blackmore-esque leads and it’s all topped off with Jennie-Ann Smith’s magnificent and sumptious vocals. But the whole thing rests, as always, on Leif Edling’s songwriting wizardry and bottomless well of quality riffs.
NUMBER THREE: Tribulation – The Children of the Night
Sweden has produced more than its fair share of quality metal bands over the years and Tribulation thrillingly combine elements from a whole bunch of them: the classic rock and occultism of Ghost; the snarling danger of Watain; and the crusty, dug-up goth and swagger of In Solitude’s Sister. I knew I had to get this the moment I heard the opening track but, as well as being immediate, The Children of the Night has a lot of depth. It rewards repeat listens and I keep finding new things to like.
Earlier in the year I would not have predicted a top spot on the podium going to Faith No More. I was not a fan of the initial “singles” from the album but even the best Faith No More albums took many listens to reveal themselves and Sol Invictus follows that tradition. The album just oozes confidence, wit and theatricality. It’s a more modern and mature sound and even the tracks I thought were crap at first now sound like old favourites. Classic Faith No More then! Reunions don’t count for anything unless they’re backed up with new music and Faith No More have made their reunion count with Sol Invictus.
But there can be only one! And the HMO Top Album of 2015 award goes to…
NUMBER ONE: My Dying Bride – Feel the Misery
My Dying Bride’s recent albums have been more solid than remarkable but they’ve pulled off an incredible return to form with Feel the Misery. It’s their first in 15 years to feature original guitarist Calvin Robertshaw and his return seems to have brought new life to the band. The album heaves with colossal riffs, profound lyrics and a rich atmosphere that transports you right back to the glory days of the “Peaceville Three”. Of that unholy trinity, I’ve always preferred Paradise Lost and Anathema but My Dying Bride have surpassed both with this masterpiece. And delivered the best metal album of 2015 while they’re at it.
As the great philosopher-poet Paul Stanley once said: I think the daytime is a fine time… but the night-time is the right time! Australasia seem to agree. As you can maybe gather from the title Notturno, this album has something of the night about it. An almost entirely instrumental project led by multi-instrumentalist Gian Spalluto, it’s an evocative musical journey through the wee small hours.
A nocturnal quality isn’t exactly new in my listening but the music on Notturno is unusual in that it tries to evoke and express the nocturnal world of nature and the beauty of the night. It succeeds. There’s plenty of ghostly ambience and shimmering, starry synths but the album predominantly uses a tapestry of layered, distorted guitars which are often gothic sounding or employ black-metal tremolo techniques to add to the haunting, moonlit vibe. The layers are often discordant too, which helps evoke the scurrying, chirping denizens of the dark: most notably, and appropriately, in Creature. There’s a lot of tension and release too as these discordant passages often resolve into sweeter, harmonic areas to uplifting effect. It’s a technique that’s tempting to overuse but Spalluto wisely keeps all these tracks flowing and shifting into different styles and moods rather than relying on the constant epic build. Invisible is the only track here that does keep building, the climatic vocals (the only singing on the album) tipping it over into cloying territory.
But songs like Eden and Amnesia keep the balance just right, adding enough grit and driving momentum to avoid becoming too saccharine and Kern brings to mind Judgement-era Anathema, another band that skirt skilfully on the edge of mawkishness. The album is cohesive and well-paced, rarely outstaying its welcome and holds your interest remarkably well for a predominantly instrumental record. As the beautiful, nostalgic piano of the title track plays you out it’s hard to believe 40 minutes have passed. Notturno has added a welcome variety of colour and mood to my listening and is one of my favourite discoveries of the year. The night-time really is the right time.
It’s the band’s first album but Shrines already has a lot to live up to. Vocalist and guitarist Sam Loynes is also a member of Voices who last year released London – not only the HMO Top Album of 2014 but also the best album to have happened so far this decade.
Shrines’ music is a different beast from Voices and even if their debut doesn’t quite pull itself out of London‘s shadow it shows considerable promise. Blackened tremolo guitars and deathly Morbid Angel riffing weaves seamlessly with spacey prog and Gojira-esque technicality to dreamy effect. The musicians handle the shifting flow of styles with aplomb: Daniel Blackmore’s precise drumming holds everything together while the guitars are crisp and tight. But the album is at its dreamiest with the clean, harmonised vocals of Loynes. They have a beautiful, tremulous and choral quality. While there are long instrumental passages and also gruffer vocals, it’s the clean vocal delivery on tracks like Ariadne’s Thread, The Drowned and the Saved and Broken Man that are the emotional heart of the album and the parts that resonate after listening and draw you back.
I’d have liked to have heard more of the clean vocals, but they do mix well with the growlier parts. It’s no obvious “nice bit/heavy bit” alternation; the whole album threads and winds through its various approaches subtly and magically. But the variation and my preference for the clean vocals does mean some songs are more affecting than others.
Rather like The Antichrist Imperium debut earlier in the year (also featuring Loynes), Shrines is one of the best things I’ve heard in 2015 but it’s not as startling or as fully-realised as London. But neither was Voices’ debut album. This is a strong and captivating debut and I’ll be very keen to hear what Shrines come up with next.