More reliably excellent stuff from the Norwegian black thrash icons. Aura Noir cast back to the early days of black metal’s “first wave”: the gnarly thrash of old Venom, Celtic Frost, Sodom and the like delivered with the cold intensity of “second wave” bands like Darkthrone and Mayhem. And on 2018’s Aura Noire the band grinds their sound down to the bare power-trio minerals. It feels significantly less face-flaying than their older stuff but the band’s supply of killer, twisted riffs and mischevious lyrics (“truly fictitious!”) is inexhaustible and the stripped-down sound allows their music to breathe with a natural, live energy. Aura Noire doesn’t strive to impress, so it’s tempting to write it off as merely solid. That would be a mistake. Dark Lungs Of The Storm, Grave Dweller and Mordant Wind are all charnel delights and the album’s old-school brio and confidence mark it out as a future favourite.
Unless your veins run with the blood of a coward you would do well to check out White Horse Hill, the 2018 comeback album from the UK’s Solstice. And fans of early Manowar and Candlemass should consider it essential. It’s confident, bracing stuff with riffs that power like mighty oars, harmonies that sound like they’re heading out on a quest and declamatory vocals that get the pecs swelling with pride. The folky strum of For All Days & For None is a mid-album lull and a penchant for rustic interludes hampers the pacing a touch but To Sol A Thane, Under The Waves Lie Our Dead and the title-track are glorious, bearing the weight of the album like mighty pillars.
The Devil rides out once more as The Antichrist Imperium follow up their 2015 debut with this second volume of unrelenting Satan worship. Of all the members of the sprawling Akercocke family tree, The Antichrist Imperium’s death metal sticks closest to the parent band’s legacy of progressive, debauched, blast-furnace goat homage.
And for the first three tracks of Volume II: Every Tongue Shall Praise Satan, blast-furnace goat homage is exactly what you get. A bit of diminishing returns starts to creep in here but once the album settles into a more adventurous mode with the sumptous Liturgy Of The Iconoclast/Blood Sacrifice it never looks back. Golgothan Heiros Gamos is occult ecstasy and Sermon Of Small Faith is an epic, joyous closer. Top marks to guitarist Matt Wilcock and drummer David Gray for whirling like dervishes throughout and the twin vocalists Sam Bean and Sam Loynes conjure up an increasingly captivating vocal chemistry.
It’s great stuff so fans of blasphemous and seductive evil metal should pee on a pentagram, leave it for three days, and pray for a third outing. Everyone else? Salt and mercury… effective against the dark forces.
The return of Swedish orthodox black metallers Funeral Mist has been one of 2018’s most welcome surprises. And Hekatomb, their first album in nearly ten years, is a raging reminder that the Devil still has all the best tunes. Tracks like Shedding Skin and Hosanna are absolutely flaying, a purist’s delight, and the rest of the album has imaginative depth and rich layers: In Nomine Domini’s addictive sliding riff; Naught But Death’s wicked mix of groove and gospel; Cockatrice’s ambient keys and the monk-y magic of Metamorphosis. It’s a stunning accomplishment from Arioch who, ably assisted by drummer Lars B, is the mastermind behind all the music, imagery and charismatically demented vocals here. Easily the album of the year so far. It’s so good I had to buy their entire back catalogue on vinyl.
Riot’s history as a band is the stuff of metal legend, thanks to decades of perseverance through bad breaks and tragedy. But musically I’ve been largely unfamiliar with the band’s career beyond the early Guy Speranza-fronted albums of the late 70s/early 80s. With the passing of founding guitarist Mark Reale in 2012 there is now no-one left from those early days. But the US band, respectfully renamed Riot V due to Reale’s passing, have vowed to carry on his good work.
And on their latest album Armor Of Light they do a pretty good job of it. Like a more polished version of 1988’s Thundersteel, it’s upbeat melodic power metal akin to Gamma Ray or Dragonforce. Todd Michael Hall’s soaring Kiske-esque vocals deliver some instantly memorable choruses with high-flying aplomb. Songs like Victory, End Of The World, Heart Of A Lion and Angel’s Thunder, Devil’s Reign sound like the sort of warring, singalong stuff that will go over a storm at festivals. The guitar soloing is superb too: jousting, harmonized Helloween-type stuff.
But there isn’t quite enough killer riffing here, and it all starts to go through the motions in the second half. The band is too content to chug along with the double-kicks, and many potentially interesting parts are drowned out by the relentless drums. But there’s good pure metal fun to be had here. The first side is a blast, I guarantee you a good two or three songs that will instantly embed in your brain and warrant further listens. A solid effort rather than a great one; but if the goal is to uphold the legacy of Reale and Riot then it achieves its aim. I definitely want to catch up and hear more.
Hard to believe it’s already eight years since Ghost’s debut album Opus Eponymous. Time flies when you’re having satanic fun. And on the plague, death and apocalypse themed Prequelle, Ghost are still all about fun. Like on its excellent predecessor 2015’s Meliora, Ghost’s fourth album is full of blissfully catchy theatrical rock that laces its spiritually uplifting hooks with diabolical twists. But it doesn’t do much that Meliora didn’t already do better. Two flat instrumentals pad out the running time, Pro Memoria is beyond Muppety and the fiendish lyrical slants aren’t as keen or effective (replacing “be with” with “bewitch” isn’t enough to add depth to the ABBA-tastic Danse Macabre). But all gripes are rendered churlish when faced with the excellence of tracks like the glam metal Rats, the passionately defiant See The Light and majestically melodic Witch Image. Prequelle might be a weak facsimile of its predecessor but there’s still enough devilish fun in its diminishing returns to make it worthy of devotion.
With Black Sabbath calling it a day in 2017, Judas Priest are now one of the oldest metal bands still on the go. They’re one of the genre’s most definitive, influential and original acts. But they’ve also been dogged by consistency problems for decades, making any new release equal parts exciting and fraught. While dodgy production and some weak songwriting hampered 2014’s Redeemer Of Souls it was promising enough to leave me hopeful that better was yet to come. And so it has proved, these old dudes are sounding pretty potent on their latest album Firepower.
The most obvious improvement is the album’s crisp, classic production, but the band’s performance is more assured too: the solos build excitement and Rob Halford is on commanding vocal form. The excellent opening title track and Lightning Strike immediately give this album the edge over its predecessor.
But the songwriting is still not totally consistent. Being more of a fan of melodic Priest like Desert Plains, I prefer the more anthemic tracks like Rising From Ruins and Never The Heroes and find the more hammering Painkiller-type tracks like Necromancer and Flamethrower too clunky. But all the songs have their moments and the varied tempo and style keeps the album engaging. And the band aren’t too long in the tooth to progress either: the doom-laden Children Of The Sun, malevolent Spectre and the raunchy Lone Wolf adding new flavours to the band’s style.
Firepower doesn’t quite have the audacity or vitality to put it in the top tier of the band’s discography but it is their best and most cohesive release in aeons. At a time when many older acts are bowing out or resting on their laurels, Priest’s impressive dedication to forging ahead keeps them at the forefront of the genre. Still metal gods, still defenders of the faith, still delivering the goods.