• Black Tower - The Secret Fire (2015)

    Black Tower is one of the most unique metal bands I have ever come across. The trio consisting of drummer, keyboarder and backing vocalist Dave Williams, bassist and backing vocalist Skottie Lobotomy and lead vocalist and guitarist Erin Ewing offers a mixture of melodic punk rock, traditional heavy metal and occasional black metal outbursts. Lyrics and artwork are inspired by Tolkien's literature. It's not surprising that a band with such an unusual sound is quite controversial and I have read many reviews criticizing the band while I have also come across very favorable opinions.

    I discovered the band by coincidence when they opened for brilliant doom metal band Loviatar and immediately got into the band's sound that manages to be atmospheric and catchy at the same time. Despite its seemingly eclectic genre mixture, Black Tower really has its very own sound that is present from start to finish. The Secret Fire might only be thirty-two minutes long but it has such a great flow that it invites you to spin it over and over again.

    Black Tower's band members have punk rock roots and know how to write short and concise tracks that will stay on your mind like the gripping ''Black Moon'' that is just above two minutes long. The band also knows how to employ gloomier sound with occult keyboard melodies as in the epic and almost progressive ''Winter''. Black Tower also manages to employ more aggressive soundscapes like in the compact opener ''Death March''. The band even offers an instrumental track with the closing ''(The Secret Fire)'' that comes around with campfire acoustic guitars and smooth keyboard sounds. One could perfectly imagine seeing the credits of a role play game rolling to this atmospheric tune that concludes the conceptual album perfectly.

    My favorite song is ''Riders'' that convinces with desperate and sinister verses culminating in a memorable and almost uplifting chorus you won't get out of your mind. The transitions between oppressive doom metal melodies and energetic punk riffs, plodding bass sounds and vivid sections, rhythmic drum patterns and fast and simplistic passages are absolutely stunning. One also has to point out the vocals. Even though they sometimes sound out of tone and aren't perfect from a technical perspective which goes along with the band's rebellious punk spirit, they are diversified, energetic and meorable as the singer shifts from low and dramatic vocal lines to more natural and melodic passages and occasional screams and shrieks. The vocals almost work like an additional instrument in this song to enhance the track's atmosphere. This surprising vocal technique represents the record's stylistics very well.

    Not everything is perfect with this album as the band still has room for improvement. The vocals could be a little bit more concise and skillful. The black metal elements could be a little bit more dominant to enhance the group's unique genre combination. The next record could be a little bit longer than just thirty-two minutes as well.

    However, I really dig Black Tower's occult hybrid of punk and metal stylistics. If one takes into consideration that The Secret Fire is the debut album of a low-key band from a place with a fairly limited metal scene, one has to applaud the trio for its imaginative first strike. I can only repeat myself by saying that The Secret Fire sounds like nothing else I have ever heard. If you like both metal and punk and are ready to open up your mind for something courageous, fresh and unique, then give this hidden gem a few spins. If you're a metal traditionalist however, then this surely isn't your cup of tea.

    Final rating: 85%

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  • Over Kill - Live in Overhausen (2018)

    Good evening, Overhausen! Thanks for calling your city similar to our band name. Overhausen, I like that! I will repeat this joke at least twenty times tonight. Let's rock, Overhausen!

    Alright, so you know that we have recently signed a worldwide deal with German label Nuclear Blast which is the reason why we record a live album in Germany and why I will try to say some stupid things in German from time to time. Alright, I've got a German joke for you: ''Es gibt zwei Sachen, die riechen nach Fisch. Eine davon ist Fisch!''

    Okay, back to topic, Overhausen! As you know, the first thing Nuclear Blast did after the signature of our worldwide deal is to release a highly expensive collection of mediocre records from our middle years, the stupidly titled Historikill. We thought we were done with living in the past and released a quite decent new studio record The Grinding Wheel. We wanted to record a live album with songs from our last four outputs but our label disagreed. People like living in the past, they said. You should play more classics, they said. In fact, you should only play classics, they said. So, we randomly chose two popular old records with Horrorscope and Feel the Fire and decided to play them in their entirety, one after another in anti-chronological order. 

    I know, this sounds sleep-inducing, Overhausen, and it is, but I also have good news. Apart of our groove metal years in the nineties and early years of the new millennium, we have always played ferocious thrash metal. No matter which album we're going to pick, it will always sound like Overkill. If this concept here works well, we will play The Years of Decay followed by Taking Over next time. Hell yeah, Overhausen! Tonight's show will include plenty of tough riffs, fast guitar solos, dominant bumblebee bass guitar passages and precise drum patterns. My band mates will deliver plenty of raw background vocals. Don't you worry about my vocals, I still sound like a mixture of Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott, AC/DC's Bon Scott and my own grandmother. I will make you bang, cheer and sing along to our classics. And I will of course make some jokes and speak some German to make you go crazy: ''Ich bin ein Overhausener!''

    So, if you like our signature thrash metal style with a raw and authentic live production, you are going to appreciate this record and get almost two hours of ferocious and timeless music. ''Kauft diesen Scheiß, Overhausen!'' Thank you and good night!

    Final rating: 60%

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  • Arch Enemy - Rapunk (2018)

    This exclusive Japanese release features four songs that were previously released on vinyl for the limited edition of the Will to Power record. The record is sold for about five dollars and features four tracks with a total running time of about three and a half minutes. Arch Enemy were clearly in it for the fun and decided to cover four songs by Swedish hardcore punk band The Shitlickers.

    As the band name, song titles and track lengths might suggest, the four tracks are straightforward hardcore punk that invites for violent dancing in concert. The riffs are distorted and fast, the bass guitar sounds like an angry bumblebee and the drums provide more noise than rhythm. The hoarse vocals make me think of a screaming pig and blend in perfectly with the instrumental work. The angry lyrics are short and concise.

    What I like about this release is its unpretentiousness. I'm not a big Arch Enemy fan but these violent four tracks are truly enjoyable while they last and made me discover a band I wouldn't ever have heard about. The short release with the cool cover artwork is a great exotic collector's items. To make things even more interesting, Canadian singer Alissa White-Gluz even sings in Swedish in one track. 

    This is the kind of album that you should crank up the volume to at four o'clock in the morning to piss off your neighbors. It doesn't have anything to do with metal but this is what makes this vivid release stand out. If you haven't purchased the limited edition of Will to Power and have a weakness for hardcore punk, this release is certainly worth five bucks.

    Final rating: 70%

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  • Within Temptation - The Q-Music Sessions (2013)

    Within Temptation had been a very influential symphonic metal band with intriguing folk and new-age elements in the first years of its career with records such as Enter and Mother Earth. The group shifted towards a more commercial sound on The Silent Force and especially The Heart of Everything but the song material was still catchy, diversified and memorable enough to be considered relevant. Things went downhill with the mellow conceptual symphonic rock effort The Unforgiving two years prior to this release. The Q-Music Sessions might however be the band's nadir. The band covered fifteen popular rock and pop songs for a Belgian radio station and decided to release eleven of these tracks on this album. Why did the band not release all fifteen tracks? It might be because the band doesn't want to offer as much as fifty-five minutes of music but only forty-two minutes of music for twenty dollars to exploit its new radio pop fan base. It's also possible that the band realized that some of its cover songs were quite unspectacular. Maybe there are also copyright issues related to the chosen song material. In the end, it doesn't matter if you listen to eleven or fifteen boring pop songs because that's exactly what you get here.

    Now, don't get me wrong, I don't mind occasional cover songs if they add something new to the original tracks and fit the band's own style. Within Temptation have covered Kate Bush's Running Up That Hill about a decade ago and have managed to transform a mythic new wave track into an atmospheric symphonic metal epic. None of the songs from the Q-Music Sessions comes even remotely close to this successful experiment nine years ago. The band covered bland radio rock and pop artists such as David Guetta and One Republic. Within Temptation covered these shallow songs in an uninspired way, offering fluffy pop sounds that might not even qualify as appropriate elevator music. Sharon den Adel's soothing vocals are enjoyable to listen to from time to time but the instrumental work is shallow. Keyboards are domineering the sound, the guitar work sounds toothless, the bass guitar is almost inaudible and the drums lack dynamics.

    The worst thing is that Within Temptation somehow managed to make several smooth songs even mellower which is truly sleep-inducing. Gnarls Barkley's 'Crazy'' is a quite rhythmic and danceable track but Within Temptation transformed it into an exchangeable piano ballad with fragile vocals that make me think of a thirteen-year old girl at a karaoke party rather than of a thirty-eight year old frontwoman of a symphonic metal band. The Who's ''Behind Blue Eyes'' suffers a similar fate and misses the desperate atmosphere of the original song. It's harsh to realize that nu metal outfit Limp Bizkit did a much better job covering this song because the band seemed to have understood the essence of this dramatic track much better. A song with such inspired lyrics doesn't deserve to be reduced to a shallow pop song that one could hear at any commercial talent show.

    The only reasons why this release doesn't get a worse rating are the fact that the mellow production fits the smooth pop stylistics and Sharon den Adel's vocals that work in a few tracks when she doesn't sound too quiet, fragile and exchangeable. Don't expect anything remotely related to symphonic rock or even metal music on this release. Even as a pop record, this album disappoints since the original tracks are performed with much more energy and inspiration. The Q-Music Sessions is the worst thing Within Temptation has ever released and represents the moment when I decided to give up on a once promising band.

    Final rating: 6%

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  • Augury - Illusive Golden Age (2018)

    From a technical point of view, Augury is one of the best metal bands in the world. The four musicians are experts of their respective instruments. The complex drum patterns never cease to change, rolling thunderously at one moment, to evoke elaborate rhythms in the next moment, just to slow things down by creating mysterious anticipation. The bass guitar play is out of this world as the rhythms are highly complex since they aren't just backing the drums but often dueling the guitars with jazz and progressive rock stylistics. The guitar play is just as brilliant, evoking smooth progressive melodies in one moment to unchain rapid yet complex extreme metal patterns in the next. The cold and fierce riffs are just as brilliant as the otherworldly melodic guitar solos. The brilliant musicianship of the four musicians is kept together by a destructive and dystopian science-fiction atmosphere that evokes a multitude of thoughts, images and ideas which are supported by the imaginative cover artwork.

    The extreme vocals meanders between shrieks, shouts and grunts and turn out being as diversified as the band's stunning technical musicianship. However, the vocals aren't even necessary and the band actually convinces most in its long instrumental passages and songs as the musicianship offers enough details to discover. The harsh vocals are often rather a distraction from than a clever contribution to the musicianship. A few mellower vocal lines here and there would have made the listening experience a little bit easier to digest as well.

    This is in fact the only element one could criticize related to the brilliant musicianship. The songs are at times hard to digest because the band tries to put too many sounds, ideas and changes into one single song. This isn't always a matter of length. The closing ''Anchorite'' is by far the longest track with a running time above eight minutes but is the most organized, fluid and fleshed out track on the album. The brilliant instrumental ''Message Sonore'' is the shortest track with three and a half minutes but comes as a welcome break without being less creative than the other tunes. Overall, the record's second half is clearly superior to the first half. If the band had opted for a few more instrumental songs and longer tracks taking their time to unfold, the listening experience of this record could have been much better than it turned out to be.

    Still, fans of progressive extreme metal and technical death metal must check this stunning output out and might even consider it an early highlight of the year. Almost nine years after its last studio record, Augury doesn't disappoint and seems to be back for good. Let's hope the next album comes around a little bit quicker than this one.

    Final rating: 75%

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