• If translated literally, 腐尸爱美丽 would be called Carrion Loves Beauty but the band goes under the name Twilight Blooming instead since the last two years. The record 远方, which literally translates to Distance, is known as Far Away and is the first studio album of the sextet from Chengdu in Central China, a city that has come around with quite a few interesting metal bands over the past few years, varying from quite mean gothic black metal bands like Original Sin to smooth folk metal bands in the key of Darkness over Depth. Twilight Blooming can be seen as a mixture of both extremes but rather tends towards folk than black metal.

    Far Away sometimes flirts with emotional and varied black metal vocals but also features calm melodic clean vocals. Musically, the songs are overall mid-paced which is quite unusual for a group with extreme metal influences. The slow riffs and precise rhythm section rather remind of doom metal stylistics. The tracks often have an epic atmosphere and offer detailed and diversified song writing without being overlong. While similar bands stretch their songs to excessive lengths, Twilight Blooming gets to the point as no song is longer than five and a half minutes. One thing that is still missing in the song writing are some truly catchy and memorable passages. The songs sound quite atmospheric and have great flow but still fail to stay on your mind or to surprise in any way.

    However, there already is one specific element that really sets this band apart. This is their accordion player. The instrument isn't overused but strategically employed. It can give the longer and slower songs a melancholic feeling while it adds an almost joyful sound to the shorter and more lively tracks. The choice of this instrument is quite unusual for a Chinese folk metal band but it pays off and is what got my attention for this group in the first place.

    If a Chinese folk band with a great accordion player that flirts with doom metal soundscapes and black metal vocals sounds as intriguing to you as it does to me, go give Twilight Blooming's first studio record Far Away a chance. The band already has its own distinctive style that convinces with both melancholic and lively atmosphere. The song writing could be a little more fleshed out but the sextet from Chengdu shows a lot of potential and promise. Let's hope the band soon comes around with a sophomore effort. Twilight Blooming is a name that should be on the list of any folk metal fan.

    Final rating: 80%

    Please note that this song is taken from the band's 2013 debut EP entitled 江边的命运 / The Fate Alongside the River.

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  • U.D.O. - Steelfactory (2018)

    U.D.O. offers yet another solid heavy metal record with Steelfactory. It's already the sixteenth solo record of the former Accept singer. Despite being sixty-years old, his raw, mean yet at times pitched vocals still sound timelessly charismatic. Udo Dirkschneider has made a few interesting changes to his line-up in the past few years. Young guitarist Andrey Smirnov has been on board for the past two studio albums and he delivers his best performance yet on this quite versatile release. His mixture of gripping heavy metal riffs and a few neoclassical influences certainly recalls Accept's Wolf Hoffmann but isn't a far cry from Victor Smolski's style of Rage fame either. Since Dirkschneider is particularly popular in Russia and even collaborated with local heavy metal heavyweights Aria, it made sense to hire a Russian musician. New on board is Udo Dirkschneider's son Sven who has already played the drums for the side project Dirkschneider focusing on reinterpreting classic Accept material. His style isn't particularly skilled but very tight and fits the mid-paced heavy metal material rather well. He isn't only there because he is the son of a famous singer but actually a decent musician, inspired by drummers like Mikkey Dee of Motorhead fame or Saxon's Nigel Glockler. The quartet is completed by bassist Fitty Wienhold who has been in the line-up since the mid-nineties and who plays his instrument accurately if unspectacularly.

    The fact that Udo Dirkschneider was touring the world performing Accept songs for one last time might have influenced the songwriting on this album. The influence of neoclassical elements can be heard in the exotic ''Keeper of My Soul'' with its Middle Eastern soundscapes or the closing half-ballad ''The Way''. Well-paced heavy metal stompers like the energetic opener ''Tongue Reaper'' or the quite rhythmic ''Make the Move'' that will make listeners move indeed present the more traditional hard rock and heavy metal soundscapes of the band. The record is overall quite balanced even though there are more heavy metal influences than neoclassical elements on Steelfactory.

    The record's middle section is losing some steam and especially the singles ''Rising High'' and ''One Heart One Soul'' are predictable at best and unspectacular at worst. The other four aforementioned songs that sound quite fresh would have been much better single choices.

    In the end, Steelfactory is a solid classic heavy metal record featuring Udo Dirkschneider's unique vocals with a few successfully employed neoclassical elements performed by Andrey Smirnow. Sixteen songs were written for this record and three of them can be found on different import and limited editions. About half of these songs sound energetic, fresh and tight while the other half reminds of more or less successful attempts to go back to the classic Accept style. A shorter record focusing on eight to ten songs would have been much more efficient in my opinion. Fans of Accept, Dirkschneider and U.D.O. will of course get what they expect and should purchase the album without any hesitation. Occasional fans should however rather start with one of the group's numerous live records released over the past ten years such as Back to the Roots, Navy Metal Night, Live from Moscow, Live in Sofia or Mastercutor Alive.

    Final rating: 70%

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  • Van Canto - Trust in Rust (2018)

    Most people have been through a story like this. Imagine you are seventeen years old or so and you meet a girl you madly fall in love with. She is different from all the other girls which makes her completely unique. You get to know each other and can't help but soon get involved in a passionate relationship. You are convinced she is the love of your life. People around you aren't so sure. They claim she is still very young and that you're her first boyfriend. Some people say she is too different from you to be the perfect match. Others argue her behavior is at times erratic and that there are more beautiful women out there anyway. But you don't care and are fully invested in this relationship. In the beginning, you seem to be right and everyone else was seemingly wrong. Your relationship prospers, you spend wonderful moments together and the chemistry is wonderful. After a few years, there are first setbacks however. You encounter first serious problems She is too fragile to deal with them while you are much too emotional about them. You grow distant from each another and barely recognize each other anymore. You're almost about to break up but you don't want to give up after all those wonderful years spent side by side. You decide to give each other another chance and to make compromises. In the beginning, things seem to work out much better than before but soon old problems resurface and new ones appear at the horizon. You spend more time arguing with each other than appreciating each other's presence. Those who never believed in your relationship are suddenly back and remind you that your relationship was bound to fail sooner or later. Even new acquaintances suggest you to break up with her and she goes through the same process on her side. You refuse to make the first move but it is inevitable to separate. It's quite a nasty split and the first weeks are particularly difficult but in retrospect, you know it was the right decision and you start to see the split as an occasion to move on and try out new things you enjoy. You don't look back in anger or regret and are proud of your stamina to have kept such a relationship going for such a long period of time at a young age. But you are ready to break free and look for a better match as exciting times are ahead.

    Why am I telling you this story? It's because it applies perfectly to Van Canto. The idea to combine heavy metal stylistics a cappella singing was quite courageous and unique when the band saw the light of day twelve years ago. Many critics and fans were skeptical and saw this genre combination as a mismatch. The band made the headlines however and took advantage of all the attention. The group played numerous festivals and the fans welcomed them with enthusiasm and were craving for rakkatakka versions of Metallica and rama-rama-ding-dong renditions of Manowar. The group also wrote its own songs which weren't all that bad but its shows reached their peaks when the group honored Iron Maiden or Nightwish as I could witness myself at a festival eleven years ago when the band had just started to become successful. The naysayers were quiet for a while, especially when the band hit the top twenty-five of the German charts on two occasions. The group earned some credibility when collaborating with famous heavy metal singers like Blind Guardian's Hansi Kürsch, Grave Digger's Chris Boltendahl and Sonata Arctica's Tony Kakko. However, after initial success and a quick rise to fame, the band failed to reinvent itself. The collaborations with famous singers declined. The original material failed to impress fans. The new cover songs weren't as surprising as the first attempts. The chart positions slowly pummeled. The male lead singer left the band.

    The band then released Trust in Rust, with the album title being as boring and predictable than the actual song material. The band attempts to cover AC/DC and Helloween and fails miserably because it can't reproduce the atmosphere and spirit of the former or the ambition and pace of the latter. The original tracks often sound quite repetitive and the six singers' at time cacophonous performances are often headache-inducing. If compared to the band's first record released twelve years earlier, there is no evolution to be heard and one can rather speak of a regression. The group's concept was clever back then but feels worn-out these days. The big festivals aren't much interested in the group anymore either and the naysayers claiming that the group was bound to fail are back again while some of the early fans have completely forgotten about this once acclaimed group. One can't help but think that the band should have left on a high note in the beginning of the decade after four or five studio albums.

    Sometimes, I happen to like a song on Trust in Rust such as the melancholic ''Neverland''. But even then, I can't help but think how great the song would sound if it were played by a proper symphonic power metal band. It would have more diversity and energy, sound more moving and organic and be overall quite efficient. Listening to eleven songs where six singers constantly chant instrumental and vocal passages accompanied by an isolated drummer is quite tiring, It's no better than listening to a series guitar solos for over fifty-one minutes. Only a few die-hard enthusiasts will have a great time while most people will either feel annoyed or bored if not both.

    Van Canto had its reason to be and managed to add a breath of fresh air to the metal genre. The history books shall always remember the Germans as pioneers of a unique sub-genre called a cappella metal. But the days of glory have long passed. Instead of keeping things going, the band should pull the plug and the different members should look for alternatives. The bonus disc with orchestral songs shows how good some of the lead singers sound in a different context. Male lead singer Hagen Hirschmann could pursue his career with power metal band Logar's Diary. Female lead singer Inga Scharf would be a perfect fit for a young and hungry female-fronted symphonic metal band out there. Stefan Schmidt is already involved in the promising group Heavatar. It's time to try out something new. It's time to get a new girlfriend or to be single.

    Final rating: 25%

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  • Lords of Black - Icons of the New Days (2018)

    I was introduced to this band by my father who described Lords of Black as a mixture of Helloween and Iron Maiden with long song structures and a talented singer. I couldn't have said it better myself. 

    The Spanish quartet offers traditional melodic mid-paced heavy metal with occasional uplifting power metal melodies and rhythms without ever getting saccharine. 

    The songs are at times very long and also slightly repetitive but the band surprisingly convinces most in its longest tunes. Clocking in at eight minutes, ''King's Return'' is a heavy metal epic that could also come from a band like Dio and impresses with stunning melodies and diversified vocals. ''All I Have Left'' is a power ballad evolving into a mid-paced heavy rock stomper with a length of almost twelve minutes that reminds of bands like Rainbow without ever sounding old-fashioned or tiring. 

    Despite these great references, Lords of Black has its own style thanks to fantastic singer Ronnie Romero whose style is almost incomparable. The singer I know who comes closest to his style would be Jorn Lande who seems to have similar musical influences as this band. Ronnie Romero manages to find the perfect balance between a melodic approach and a slightly rough undertone. He sounds like a classic hard rock singer with the technical capacities of a heavy metal lead singer which makes him incredibly versatile. 

    A special shout out goes to the fact that Lords of Black offer twelve songs with a running time of almost seventy-three minutes on the regular edition of this release alone. The limited edition includes two more original tracks as well as four cover songs, including a skilled rendition of Queen's ''Innuendo'' and a tight interpretation of Anthrax's hit single ''Only''. The Japanese version includes an excellent acoustic version of the band's own ''Forevermore'', shortening the song by almost half its length and transforming it into a playful folk rock ballad. This is how alternative versions should sound: creative, different and distinctive.

    Despite a few fillers in here and there, Icons of the New Days is a record that should please both fans of epic hard rock and heavy metal from the late seventies to the mid-eighties and those who like the more grounded and mid-paced aspects of the European power metal genre brought forward from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties. Lords of Black certainly is one of my greatest discoveries of the year and I would recommend to keep an eye on this creative and productive Spanish quartet.

    Final rating: 80%

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  • Bleeding Gods - Dodekathlon (2018)

    Bleeding Gods is a Dutch sextet that combines fast-paced death metal as well as atmospheric and blistering black metal with epic symphonic metal soundscapes. 

    If compared to similar bands like Fleshgod Apocalypse or Wintersun, Bleeding Gods remains firmly rooted in the extreme metal genre at all times and the keyboards remain mostly in the background to add atmospheric layers to the band's conceptual records. Former Cradle of Filth keyboarder Martin Powell was responsible for the orchestral soundscapes on this release and he certainly did an expert job. 

    The melodic side of the group is rather brought forward by the versatile guitar play with some convincing melodic leads and a handful of passionate solos. A few prolonged instrumental sections and acoustic interludes show the musicians' talent and the band's knack of flirting with progressive song structures. The few calmer passages in the longer tracks are welcome breaks that add atmosphere and depth.

    The harsh side is brought forward with numerous cold, fast-paced, hypnotizing and at times even thrash metal influenced bass and guitar riffs. Versatile and often fast drums and percussive elements add to the energizing mayhem. The harsh vocals meandering between black and death metal influences are supported by George Oosthoek, formerly of gothic death metal pioneers Orphanage, on ''Hera's Orchard'' which is, along with the closing ''Hound of Hell'' that follows immediately after, the best track on this release.

    The only downsides are a few longer tracks that overstay their welcome and the fact that some tracks end up sounding a little bit too similar in approach in my book and end up being somewhat exchangeable throughout this record's middle section.

    The band's second studio album Dodekathlon reminds me of recent efforts coming from bands like Atrocity, Dimmu Borgir and Sepctiflesh which are certainly very good references. While Bleeding Gods doesn't revolutionize the genre, its dynamic mixture of black, death and symphonic metal with occasional progressive and thrash metal elements is entertaining over the course of one gripping hour and twelve songs. The lyrical concept inspired by Greek mythology along with the great cover artwork makes for an even more immersive experience. If you like intellectual extreme metal, you should give Bleeding Gods' Dodekathlon a few spins.

    Final rating: 80%

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