Category Archives: Reviews

Candlemass – Epicus Doomicus Metallicus (Review)

The 1986 debut record of Sweden’s Candlemass casts the kind of pure Heavy Metal spell you’d expect to find scrawled in some dusty old grimoire found in a subterranean chamber. As well as giving the Doom Metal genre its name, the album’s title also describes its contents perfectly. Six ancient tales of myth, legend and tragedy told through Metal of portentous and quaking heaviness.

On Epicus… bassist and songwriter, Leif Edling, offers up a treasure-trove of timeless riffs, all heftily delivered by rhythm guitarist Mats “Mappe” Bjorkman, from the snaky, neoclassical riffs in Demons Gate and Crystal Ball, to the windswept bludgeon that opens Black Stone Wielder and the Am I Evil-esque riff that fires up Under the Oak. In addition to the lumbering guitars, the album’s acoustic passages and doleful harmonies add a bleak, gothic atmosphere.

Vocalist Johan Längqvist’s baritone is sincerely and chillingly emotive: anguished in funereal opener Solitude and channelling some arcane evil in Crystal Ball. He tells all of Epicus’ tales with theatrical flair and melodrama. Lead guitarist Klas Bergwall provides chinks of light and a very European flavour with his lyrical, neo-classical leads and drummer Matz Ekström proves to be the album’s secret weapon, filling the gaps between snail-paced chords with massive fills that sound like the raging elements.

It’s surprising, considering the musical chemistry and cohesiveness, that Candlemass wasn’t really a band at this point. They had been signed to France’s Black Dragon label on the strength of Edling, Bjorkman and Ekström’s demos. Längqvist and Bergwall were hurriedly drafted in for the album’s recording sessions but were uninterested in joining the band on a more permanent basis and after the recording finished, Ekström left the band too. Despite a positive critical reception, Epicus… sold poorly but the next line-up of Candlemass would record another masterpiece that helped boost the reputation of the band, sending many back to the debut.

The legend of Epicus… would grow in stature over time, becoming a mainstay of best-album polls and increasingly cited as an important influence by other bands. While forever associated with its titular sub-genre, it’s a timeless, magical classic for Metal fans of all stripes and still casts a powerful spell to this day.

HMO Rating: 10 out of 5

Book Review: Murder in the Front Row – Harald Oimoen and Brian Lew (Review)

I was initially disappointed when this hardback turned up in the post. I wasn’t convinced a book crammed with photos of young, sweaty guys gurning and flipping their middle fingers was something I’d want to look at very often. But I was missing the point. Bazillion Points are doing a great service to Metal with books like this. Harald Oimoen and Brian Lew were part of the Bay Area Thrash scene from the very beginning and Murder in the Front Row is a beautifully put together documentation of the movement as seen through their lenses.

Oimoen and Lew contribute written recollections of their involvement with the genre, along with contributions from Ron Quintana, Gary Holt, Alex Skolnick and Robb Flynn, but the main attraction is the atmospheric photography. Many historic moments and formative band line-ups are captured here. Metallica feature heavily. There are great shots of the Mustaine/McGovney line-up as well as the very first photos of the band with legendary bassist Cliff Burton. While Exodus’ importance in the scene is often overlooked, they are given the profile they deserve here and, mainly due the larger-than-life presence of frontman Paul Baloff, they embody the wild and chaotic vibe of the movement. They also provide the book’s title via the lyrics of their classic Bonded by Blood.

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Being an LA band, Slayer’s earliest eye-liner days aren’t included but by the time they hit the Bay Area they were already a darker and more visually striking prospect. The images of their first Bay Area shows seem to leap out of the book and Oimoen was on hand to capture Kerry King’s short-lived stint as guitarist in Megadeth. His spike-wristed appearances in early ‘Deth shows provide some of most fascinating sights in the book. The early Megadeth shows also illustrate the changed attitude of Dave Mustaine: his determined, sneering demeanour speaking volumes about his intent following his dismissal from Metallica.

Alongside the obvious main players, the grassroots moments of many other crucial bands are also included along with plenty of backstage meetings, drunken antics and – a crucial element often overlooked by professional Rock photographers – fans like Toby Rage who illustrate (often in mid-air) the audience mayhem these bands became notorious for.

So, although on first glance this is a book of photos of young sweaty guys, the authors’ dedication to the genre and their candid amateur photography turns it into something more: a brilliant evocation of the blood, sweat and beers of a unique and vibrant scene. Murder in the Front Row is essential for fans of the genre: it tells the story of Bay Area Thrash Metal more effectively and honestly than a bazillion words ever could and is the next best thing to having actually been there.

[Exodus – Bonded By Blood]

Trapeze – Medusa (Review)

Trapeze - Medusa
Trapeze – Medusa

For many years I knew Trapeze as a historical footnote and not much else. Usually prefixed with “ex-” as former members Glenn Hughes (bassist and “Voice of Rock”), the late Mel Galley (guitar/vocals) and Dave Holland (drums) all moved on to higher profile gigs with other bands. Hughes joined Deep Purple, Galley appeared in Whitesnake and Holland served time in Judas Priest before… well… serving time.

In the early ’00s, a run of brilliant Glenn Hughes solo albums finally inspired me to investigate his old band. Medusa was Trapeze’s second album but the first to feature its most famous power trio line-up of Hughes/Galley/Holland. It was released in late 1970 and, as was often the case with the era’s Hard Rockers, it’s an album of light and shade. This means Led Zep often come up as a comparison but I hear more of a Free influence, especially in groovy Rockers like Black Cloud and Touch My Life. Although the funky, stop-start rhythms of Your Love is Alright get a little bit frustrating the band sound tight and confident, leaving plenty of space for everyone’s contributions to be heard. And with the tasteful exception of Mel Galley’s guitar jamming on Makes You Wanna Cry, there is very little instrumental showboating on Medusa which leaves the focus squarely on Glenn’s superb voice.

It’s fascinating to hear him at this early stage, with a rawer tone and delivery that brings to mind Paul Rodgers and Steve Marriott. And his voice is even more remarkable in the album’s longer tracks. Jury, Seafull and the title-track have a more progressive feel. Pastoral acoustic passages build up to intense, heavy climaxes that would appeal to fans of Uriah Heep or early Judas Priest. When Glenn employs his full vocal range at the climax of Jury the results are spine-chilling.

Medusa is an album of real maturity and depth from a group with tangible chemistry. Before going their separate ways, Trapeze would record one more excellent studio album and enjoy some live success in the US but it’s a shame their recorded output didn’t achieve more success or recognition. While it’s unsurprising that the musicians involved went on to bigger things, together they deserved way more than footnote status.

HMO Rating: 4 out of 5

2008 Edition on Ork Records. Great remaster and liner notes
2008 Edition on Ork Records. Great remaster and liner notes

Venom – Welcome to Hell (Review)

Venom - Welcome to Hell
Venom – Welcome to Hell

Extreme Metal pioneers Venom waged war from the very depths of Hell, raging against the early-80s New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands they considered tame and the heroes that they felt had pulled their punches.

They combined the filth and fury of Punk and Motörhead with the larger-than-life images of KISS and Priest and the kind of Devilish allegiance that would have Sabbath crying “Please God help me!” Conrad, Tony and Jeff became the far more demonic-sounding Cronos, Abaddon and Mantas and their classic album cover set out their allegiance to Beelzebub in black and gold. And they had the sound to match their demonic image.

Another trip to the beach ruined
Another trip to the beach ruined

The band used demo sessions for the final album, signalling their primitive purity and honesty. Welcome to Hell sounded under-produced and unholy. The Motörhead influences are obvious, especially in the opening tracks Sons of Satan and Welcome to Hell, but the brio with which they mangle these rockers is thrillingly rudimentary. Cronos’ appropriately named “Bulldozer” bass piles over everything, Mantas peels off some fun wild solos and Abaddon’s caveman drumming tries to keep up. The sense of limits being pushed gives the performance a chaotic edge, especially during the lurching changes of pace. The debauchery of tracks like Poison and Red Light Fever is often criticized but really it all just adds to the shock factor and what’s the point of being one of the Great Horned One’s Legion if you can’t indulge in a bit of hellraising hedonism?

On Side 2 the band enter more original and scarier territory. Witching Hour is seminal proto-Thrash, Angel Dust is face-ripping and In League with Satan is addictively catchy while still sounding ominous and threatening. The band tightens their Metal grip as the album progresses and the most influential musical moments come from the record’s second half. Welcome to Hell has many elements of the Heavy music that preceded it and its fast pace, growled vocals and evil vibe can be heard in so much Metal that came after. But it remains unique and divisive. In fact, it’s a hellish maelstrom of just about everything I love about Heavy Metal while also embodying everything the genre is criticised for.

Venom’s raw, no-holds barred approach would prove to be massively influential on Thrash, Death and particularly Black Metal. Although Venom hadn’t gotten around to christening it yet, many key components of BM began here: particularly the occult, evil atmosphere and rotten production values but also the iconography, aliases and instrument descriptions (Bulldozer Bass, Chainsaw Guitars and Nuclear Warheads!)

But most importantly, Venom’s greatest legacy was their harder/faster/scarier mind-set which became the ethos of much of the Metal that followed. With Welcome to Hell Metal became Extreme and for that we should all praise Satan.

HMO Rating: 10 out of 5

2013-09-21 18.32.34 2013-09-21 18.29.37

Carcass – Swansong (Review)

Fuck all on the telly as usual
Fuck all on the telly as usual

Swansong was released in 1996 after Extreme Metal pioneers Carcass had an unlikely stint as a major-label act in the US. With Columbia unwilling to release the album it was given back to the band and their UK indie label Earache to release, by which time the band had already split up (hence the title). The album met with a muted reception. While the diehard Metal underground felt it was too watered-down it was also way too extreme for mainstream acceptance.

This is Carcass’ “Rot n’ Roll” album. The groovy, stripped-down feel of the performance gives the album a Classic Rock vibe but the up-front delivery is defiantly Metallic with speaker-rattling production from Colin Richardson. Meaty and sophisticated guitar riffs are topped with deft, melodic solos and underpinned with a powerful bass sound. Ken Owen’s drumming is sublime and Jeff Walker’s exasperated snarl and nihilistic lyrics offer the album’s most extreme components. In many ways, the qualities Carcass exhibits on Swansong are very similar to those of Megadeth’s 90s output, albeit a Death Metal equivalent.

Carcass - (on left panel) Jeff Walker (v,b), Carlo Regads (g), Ken Owens (d), Bill Steer (g)
Carcass – (on left panel) Jeff Walker (v,b), Carlo Regadas (g), Ken Owens (d), Bill Steer (g)

Opener Keep on Rotting in the Free World’s rumination on the Western economy still sounds relevant and, as the seriously weighty guitars open up into the harmonised chorus riff, it’s a truly exciting way to kick off an album. Tomorrow Belongs to Nobody’s opening riff salvo is just about the best HM riffing you’ll ever hear and the arpeggios of Child’s Play offer the album’s uplifting lighter-waving moment.

However, Swansong suffers from a mid-album lull that it struggles to recover from, largely due to the lack of variation in tempo. The album regains its footing in the second half with Generation Hexed, Firm Hand and the Thin Lizzy-esque R**k the Vote standing out as album highlights.

Although flawed, Swansong’s enthralling blend of power and flair has a strong appeal. The combination of Classic Metal sensibility and grinding delivery make this an ideal starting point for anyone interested in exploring heavier terrain and there is enough depth to reward repeated listens. On the eve of their comeback album Surgical Steel there is no better time to revisit their great underdog album.

HMO Rating: 4 out of 5

[Carcass – Tomorrow Belongs to Nobody]

The Swansong DualDisc edition. With Part 5 of "The Pathologist's Report" on DVD and stickers!
The Swansong DualDisc edition. With Part 5 of “The Pathologist’s Report” on DVD and stickers!

Metallica – Creeping Death (12″ Single – Review)

Oh look! There's a wee skull in it. Metal.
Oh look! There’s a wee skull in it. Metal.

(Single taken from The Good, the Bad & the Live: (6½ Year Anniversary EP Collection) that I bought back in January 2013)

Metallica’s second European single was released after its parent album Ride the Lightning to promote the band’s European tour. The A-Side song Creeping Death is a stone-cold Metalliclassic, a nuclear biblical epic. The B-Side Garage Days Revisited consists of two faithful covers of NWOBHM tracks (Diamond Head’s Am I Evil? and Blitzkreig’s Blitzkreig). Everyone would have already been familiar with the title-track when this was released but, especially outside the UK, fewer listeners would have known the B-Sides.

It seems that the classic Metal bands of the 70s weren’t doing many covers and the few exceptions were songs lifted from outside the genre and given “heavy” treatment. But in the 80s bands like Metallica and Iron Maiden seemed keen to indulge in a bit of “Record Collection Rock”: recording many covers and, crucially, covers of other heavy and hard rocking bands. Both Maiden and Metallica proved vital in my musical education, pointing me towards other great artists (as well as some great films, books and TV shows).

I miss the orange demon dude.
I miss the orange demon dude.

Were Metallica simply self-serving in making these powerful, but largely unheard, songs their own? Or were they benevolently offering a helping hand (and some welcome royalties) to some great bands that hadn’t found an audience, for the greater good of Metal? I’d say there were elements of both but I would also credit Metallica for having the confidence to put an astounding song like Am I Evil? alongside their own, especially when Metallica’s sound and style was so clearly indebted to Diamond Head. But Metallica’s own compositions had more than enough firepower of their own and enough credit was given to their beloved NWOBHM heroes in interviews and on their T-Shirts to avoid accusations of exploitation.

A Metal Classic
A Metal Classic

While Metallica’s cover versions of Am I Evil? and Blitzkrieg might not quite have the charm or impact of the originals, Metallica admirably put their own crunchy, barky stamp on both tunes. The realisation that there were older bands capable of penning tunes that could hold their own against a classic Thrasher like Creeping Death had many a fan, myself included, scurrying off to their nearest record store. The Metal genre, and my music collection, are much better off thanks to Metallica, one of the greatest gateway bands of all-time.

HMO Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Further reading:

Metallica – Jump In The Fire (12″ Single)

The Box Set from whence this came!
The Box Set from whence this came!

Ozzy Osbourne – Blizzard of Ozz (Review)

2011 Edition - The one to buy
2011 Edition – The one to buy

I imagine few people expected Ozzy’s first musical venture after his expulsion from Sabbath to be this good. In fact, I imagine few people expected any musical ventures at all (including Ozzy, who would have probably just continued wallowing in a last hurrah of beer and pizza deliveries if a pep talk/kick up the arse from his management hadn’t sent him out looking for new bandmates). But then, who knew about Ozzy’s talent for assembling shit-hot bands? Ex-Rainbow bassist Bob Daisley and ex-Heep drummer Lee Kerslake were joined by US guitarist Randy Rhoads whose astonishing playing had the flash and glamour of Van Halen and the Blues-free, hard-edged style that fit in with the burgeoning NWOBHM scene.

2002 Edition - The one to avoid
2002 Edition – The one to avoid

The band’s performance is top notch. Joyous, bouncy tunes like I Don’t Know, Crazy Train and No Bone Movies are topped with deft, choppy guitar riffs and euphoric soloing. Dramatic, epic compositions Mr. Crowley and Revelation (Mother Earth) are the album’s centrepieces, Rhoads’ neo-classical runs and phrasing reaching almost unassailable heights on these tracks. Buoyed by his band’s energy, support and creativity, Ozzy came into his own as a vocalist and performer, establishing his now-famous persona in crazy tales of booze and sex, with a hint of the diabolic in Mr. Crowley and in the sinister cover art. And, while his delivery is warm and upbeat, there are hints of doubt and desperation. These endearing chinks in Ozzy’s wild-man armour are a large part of the album’s emotional power (and the power of much of Ozzy’s solo work).

1995 Edition - The one with the shitey cover
1995 Edition – The one with the shitey cover

It could be argued that subsequent Ozzy albums improved on this but, as a statement of intent, Blizzard of Ozz is hard to beat, and provided many of the classics that remain at the core of Ozzy’s live setlists. It’s an absolute comfort-blanket of a record and a genuine Metal classic. Ozzy might not remember much of the 80s but this album remains unforgettable.

HMO Rating: 5 out of 5

Thanks to Mike! His review of The Ultimate Sin put me in a right old Ozzy mood.

KISS – Lick it Up (Review)

A KISS Klassik on CD and Vinyl
A KISS Klassik on CD and Vinyl

I discovered KISS in the late 80s. Up until Crazy Nights, they had never made much of a splash in the UK, so without much info on the band or their history I generally just ordered the cassettes that had the coolest titles and, subsequently, Lick it Up was an early acquisition. I didn’t know or care that it was their first album sans make-up so let’s not get into that too much. Suffice to say KISS had been floundering around for a few years, not quite sure what they wanted to do or who they wanted to do it with. A thrilling moment of discovery came with the stunning Creatures of the Night album. KISS were a full-blooded Metal band. Unfortunately, the sales were less than stunning so KISS played their trump card, removing the make-up for publicity and also signifying their new found musical confidence.

Lick it Up is the sound of that confidence. Not quite as dynamic and anthemic as Creatures… but the solid sound of a band that means business. And business was good! Lick it Up became their first album to go Gold in 3 years.

There’s a real sense of danger and threat in these songs. Tracks like Exciter and Million to One cut and thrust with emotively strained and dynamic vocals from HMO man-crush, Paul Stanley. Gene Simmons’ songs mostly rumble and lurch menacingly with little of the Blues/Rock N’ Roll licks he would rely on for the rest of the decade. Gimmie More and Fits Like a Glove are filthy raunch and All Hell’s Breaking Loose and the title track (it’s basically sex music) provide the anthemic relief. Drummer Eric Carr hits hard and reins in the tempo which adds to the muscular vibe but the whole album is tied together by its star player, lead guitarist and songwriter on 8 of the 10 tracks: Vinnie Vincent. Curbing (or forced to curb) his widdlier tendencies, his classy riffs, licks and solos are the most remarkable and creative contributions to the album.

Unfortunately, Vinnie would soon be gone and, although KISS would continue to release superb albums for the rest of the decade, they were never quite this good or this assured again. Lick it Up is not only a strong contender for the greatest KISS album of all-time but a strong contender for my favourite album of all-time. Don’t agree? Well, listen bitch! I’ve got news…

HMO Rating: 10 out of 5

[KISS – Exciter]

CD Rear Cover
CD Rear Cover

Metallica – Jump in the Fire (12” Single – Review)

The Orange Demon Dude!
The Orange Demon Dude!

(Single taken from The Good, the Bad & the Live: (6½ Year Anniversary EP Collection) that I bought back in January 2013)

Can I be honest here and admit one of my main reasons for wanting this was the incredible cover? I love the orange demon dude. He looks so pleased with himself. And so he should! He is adorning the first (if you’re British, anyway) Metallica single!

Jump in the Fire is taken from Metallica’s seminal debut, Kill ‘Em All. It’s one of the more old-school Metal tracks on the debut with its mid-tempo rhythm, bluesy soloing and a sing-along chorus (which always reminds me of Deep Purple’s Space Truckin’). It’s a fun track but not one of the debut’s more promising efforts. Hammett’s soloing and Hetfield’s hoarse vocals sell the song and, thankfully, the band replaced the shagging lyrics from the No Life ‘til Leather demo version with something more orange demon dude friendly. Besides, no-one should have to imagine James Hetfield moving his hips in a circular way. Ever.

The Back Cover with the Studio and "Live" Sides
The Back Cover with the Studio and “Live” Sides

Apart from the orange demon dude, the main attraction of this single is its live B-Sides. Unfortunately, these “live” versions of Seek and Destroy and Phantom Lord were actually recorded in a studio. Reverb was added (most audibly on Hetfield’s voice) to replicate the acoustics of a larger venue and crowd noises were added on. I’m sure I can remember reading that the crowd noise was taken from a classic live album but I’m not sure if that’s true or not (answers on a postcard please) but the crowd noise does give the impression that the band had amassed a pretty large following at this early stage in their career!

Like, Hetfield's hips, this record moves in a circular way
Like Hetfield’s hips, this record moves in a circular way

If you can get over the naïve fakery involved, these lively alternate versions are still well worth hearing. Both of the B-Side tracks are more representative of the band’s early, influential Thrash style than the A-Side. While these versions are missing the breakneck intensity of Metallica’s actual live performances, Cliff Burton’s fabulous bass playing is clear as a bell, Kirk’s soloing is free of bum notes and the performance as a whole is pretty tight. Pleasingly, Hetfield’s voice is starting to sound more like it would on future albums but his exhortations to the imaginary crowd (“let’s go, c’mon”) during Seek and Destroy are embarrassing.

Sans the fakery these are still excellent performances. If they had been radio sessions instead they would have been more appreciated and it’s probably preferable to think of them along those lines. For future releases, Metallica would lose the naiveté… and the orange demon dude.

HMO Rating: 4 out of 5

The Box Set from whence this came!
The Box Set from whence this came!

Blue Öyster Cult – Imaginos (Review)

Imaginos LP Cover
Imaginos LP Cover

[Unused Stephen King intro to the album]

BÖC ended their tenure on Columbia with the ambitious concept album, Imaginos. It’s easily one of BÖC’s heaviest efforts in all senses but there were still enough keyboards, reverbed drums and glassy clean guitars to ensure it fit in with the musical trends of the mid-80s. In typical BÖC fashion, however, they added their own eerie and psychedelic quality to the mix. If you ever have a nightmare about the 80s it could easily sound like this!

The album had a long gestation and is really a combination of two projects. It started out in 1981 as the solo project of fired original member, Albert Bouchard. This project was rejected and later reworked as a Blue Öyster Cult project. Even though some of the original BÖC members were no longer in the band, the convoluted saga of the album’s making meant that all original members appear on it, giving the album the illusion of being a reunion effort. There are also many guest musicians and vocalists as a result of its long gestation.

Imaginos CD Cover
Imaginos CD Cover

It’s perhaps surprising, then, that the album sounds so focussed. Del Rio’s Song has hooks to die for and serves as light relief amidst all the mystery and darkness. The Siege and Investiture of Baron Von Frankenstein’s Castle at Wisseria is explosively dramatic with superb guest vocalist Joey Cerisano channeling Chris Cornell. The album’s concept comes from poems written in the 60s by the band’s mentor and manager Sandy Pearlman. These ideas have featured in many songs throughout BÖC albums and some of this older material appears here in reworked form (including an upbeat, galloping take on the classic Astronomy).

Although the production does seem over-produced compared to the sparser sound of their classic albums, the lavish sound does suit the theatrical concept and feels like an updated version of the band’s dark, arcane style to me. The use of lyrics and music from previous eras also creates the sense of this album as the definitive statement of BÖC’s career and mythology. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the band’s worst seller for the label and would be their swansong as a Columbia act. They wouldn’t release another studio album for 10 years. It’s a real shame because this album is creative, bold and uncompromising: a secret treat for anyone wanting to check out overlooked gems from the 80s.

HMO Rating: 4.5 out of 5

[Blue Öyster Cult – The Siege and Investiture of Baron Von Frankenstein’s Castle at Wisseria]