• Annihilator - Triple Threat (2017)

    Triple Threat is a package made for faithful fans and with some reserves also for potential new followers. It introduces the current Annihilator line-up that has been around for less than a year. This release exists in different versions but the most complete ones offer three different auditory and visual experiences. This package offers a regular concert recorded at Bang Your Head!!! festival consisting of eleven tracks and a running time around one hour. The second threat comes in form of an acoustic set filmed and recorded at Jeff Waters' home studio close to Ottawa with guest singer Marc Lafrance and guest guitar player Pat Robillard who played ten tracks for a running time slightly below forty-five minutes. As an additional gimmick, there is also a comment section where Jeff Waters discusses each of the ten acoustic tracks for about thirty minutes in total. The last chapter offers a documentary including interviews with former and current band members, friends and musicians as well as fans from all around the world for a running time around one hour.

    Let's take a look at the three different parts of this release. The regular concert is what you can expect from such a festival recording. The cuts are a little bit too fast in my book but the sound is overall massive apart of a section in the final track ''Phantasmagoria'' where the sound is off for a few short seconds on two occasions. It's possible that this is only the case for my copy but since I have read about the same issues concerning the same but also other songs in other reviews, I guess it's a general problem that couldn't be fixed. That definitely rates this section of the release down as it is a lack of attention, professionalism and quality but since it's only a minor problem, it will not reduce the overall quality of an overall strong concert. The new line-up has great chemistry and the four musicians clearly enjoy themselves on stage but still manage to play very professionally and nearly technically perfect. Rich Hinks and Aaron Homma are running around the stage like there's no tomorrow, Fabio Alessandrini nails his performance on the drums and Jeff Waters delivers his own triple threat by entertaining the audience, playing the guitar and singing all songs. The German festival audience is audibly enthusiastic which makes the show even more immersive. The set list focuses on the band's first four and current two records only but is rather satisfying for such a festival appearance. However, those who already have the special edition of Feast including the band's festival appearance at Wacken Open Air three years earlier, don't really need this new recording. Half of the set list is the same, the atmospheres are equally great and the bands delivered the goods on both occasion. A recording of a full regular Annihilator concert with some rare material would have been much more interesting. My final verdict is that this part of the package is very solid but not essential.

    The acoustic set is something Annihilator has never tried out so far in its long career. The band chose ten calmer tracks which consist mostly of ballads or half ballads. While all these songs are great in their own way and performed very well, they also end up sounding quite alike and the set gets a little bit redundant after a while. It would have been interesting to transform a few of the heavier tracks into acoustic cuts to have a more diversified selection. The performances of the bass and guitar players are compelling and guest singer Marc Lafrance, who does lead vocals on all songs, are appeasing and enchanting. On a few occasions, he struggles with some higher notes here and there but his overall performance is surprisingly solid. It's questionable whether this experience needed to be filmed. While the audio version makes sense to me, it's not exactly entertaining to watch five guys sitting on chairs in a basement for forty-five minutes. The additional comment section by Jeff Waters proves two things: Jeff Waters is a sympathetic guy who has been through a lot of interesting things but he also talks way too much. While some of his comments were interesting enough, others were repetitive and could be skipped. In the end, this section delivers outstanding music with boring visuals and an ultimately unnecessary comment section.

    The last part consist of a documentary that is all over the place. We get to hear interview segments with current and former band members, colleagues and partners of old date as well as fans from all around the world. Jeff Waters also answers fan questions in between and takes us on a ride through parts of his home town from downtown Ottawa over Dunrobin to Constance Bay. While Canada's capital region looks gorgeous and this documentary inspired me to go swimming at Constance Bay next summer, I wonder what the point of this documentary is. Jeff Waters probably wanted to put as many different aspects and ideas as possible in a running time of about one hour but the final product is lacking structure and includes both quite interesting parts as well as less compelling sections. Even the quality varies from cheap and shaky webcam sections with fans to very professional interview sections with the three new band members where images and sounds are crystal clear. After all, this documentary section is for very faithful fans only and has many ups and downs. On the other side, its unorthodox approach also has a sympathetic side to it.

    To keep it short, Triple Threat is an above average package with several highlights such as the acoustic songs and the energizing festival performance, some average material in form of the documentary and an unnecessary part with comments on the acoustic songs. Faithful fans should absolutely get their hands on this overall entertaining package. Occasional or new fans should only purchase this release for a low and reasonable price and should otherwise stick to one of the band's numerous compilations included as bonus discs on several regular albums or purchase the excellent Japanese greatest hits release Welcome to Your Death which came out less than three years ago.

     Final rating: 72%

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  • Seventh Dimension - Recognition (2015)

    I'm not a fan of Seventh Dimension's fluffy progressive power metal debut Circle of Life but since a good friend of mine asked me to give the Swedish quintet a second chance, I decided to give the group's second release a spin. As it turns out, Recognition is completely different from Circle of Life and a massive step in the right direction for the band. My friend was right when he told me that this band deserved a second chance.

    Gone are the airy vocals, floating keyboard passages and saccharine guitar melodies. The vocals sound much darker, lower and quite grounded overall but manage to remain melodic and hit some higher notes in a few select songs. The vocalist sounds much more skilled than before and has also found a more unique style. The keyboard passages have become sadder, more melancholic and slightly numbing which is a surprising change compared to the debut effort. While the keyboard is still a dominant instrument within the band sound, it's less dominant than two years earlier. The keyboard sounds aren't annoying and offensive this time around but add an epic, mysterious and progressive background atmosphere throughout the release. The guitar play has become much heavier and also more technical without sounding too straight and complicated. The guitar player offers everything from chugging riffs over technical passages to extended melodic guitar solos. The rhythm section has also improved. Especially the drum play is much more creative and diversified than before. Concerning the production, the drumming sounds a little bit too dry and tinny overall and doesn't do the improved efforts of the musician justice. The bass guitar play isn't audible enough in most songs. While the production is overall acceptable because the vocals, keyboards and guitars sound great and since it underlines the gloomy and dystopian mood of the album, it wastes some potential by burying the improved soundscapes of the surprising rhythm section.

    Concerning the song material, the three least interesting tracks actually start the album which isn't a clever decision. The first three songs make me think of a light version of Dream Theater during the Black Clouds & Silver Linings era without coming close to the quality of said release. The opener for instance tries to be too diversified and ends up being all over the place and especially the different vocal techniques sound odd and incoherent to me. The album really starts to shine when ''The Raven'' appears. Seventh Dimension really takes its time to develop a gloomy, gothic and mysterious atmosphere with elegant vocal parts, haunting piano melodies, longing guitar sounds and occasional weather sound samples. This song changes the momentum of the record and is also its magnum opus. Another stand-out track is the melancholic and timeless ballad ''Paradolia'' that never sounds cheesy and convinces with genuine emotions carried by enchanting piano sounds and soulful vocals. This is the way a truly inspired progressive ballad must be done. A last highlight in my book is the surprisingly vivid instrumental track ''Metanoia'' that evokes mysterious futuristic soundscapes that should be used as soundtrack for science-fiction television series or video game. Usually, I'm not a fan of long instrumental songs but in this particular case, Seventh Dimension reaches the elevated standards of Ayreon, Dream Theater and Unbeing. The song might not sound completely unique but it blends in perfectly with the rest of the record.

    In the end, Seventh Dimension's second release is a massive improvement over the average debut record. While the band's first release reminded me of Epiclore, its second output rather makes me think of Katatonia in terms of atmosphere. Fans of melancholic progressive metal can't get around this inspired release. Apart from the average opening trio, the album only includes creative, skilled and soulful pearls. Despite an extensive running time close to eighty minutes including three tracks cracking the ten-minute mark, the album has a natural flow and never decreases in intensity between the fourth and the final tune. Seventh Dimension is back on my radar and after two completely different releases in terms of quality and style, I'm curious to see what the future holds for the Swedish quintet.

    Final rating: 85%

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  • Nokturnal Mortum - 22 Years Among the Sheep (2016)

    22 Years Among the Sheep can't be seen as a greatest hits release but rather as a representative collection of Nokturnal Mortum's development over the past twenty-two years. The first warning sign is the fact that this compilation actually opens with an overture and what we get are indeed fifty-three songs over a running time of far over six hours. You will be able to wash your dishes, do your tax declaration, clean your entire apartment and write a review for this record while listening to this extensive collection of music. As you might realize by now, this is a classic example of quantity over quality. This release includes original tracks taken from previous records, previously unreleased alternative versions, live cuts and rehearsal tracks as well as three discs filled with Nokturnal Mortum songs covered by mostly unknown underground extreme metal bands. This compilation is all over the place in terms of production and song writing quality and is therefore not recommendable for potential new fans but on the other side a quite interesting release for die-hard fans.

    Nokturnal Mortum offers exactly two types of music. The first one is epic black metal with occasional symphonic elements. This style works very well in the short and concise tunes but drags on for far too long in many of the longer tunes. The second type is pagan metal with Eastern European folk influences. Sometimes, these folk sounds are played by authentic instruments and sound great and unique but at other moments they seem to come from the keyboard which makes them sound plain horrible.

    This record really has its ups and downs concerning sound and production. While some tracks such as the atmospheric opener ''Black Moon Overture'' or the much improved ''The Voice of Steel'' have been remastered and sound really gripping and organic, other songs sound absolutely terrible. ''Goat Horns'' is a potent track but the vocals are almost inaudible and the production sounds muddy to a point where that can't be justified by trying to keep some occult underground credibility anymore. The reason why we get a live version of ''Kuyaviva'' when the audience can't even be heard and no live atmosphere is being developed is also completely beyond me. The rehearsal version of ''Free Hendrik'' sounds as if it had been recorded with a potato and ruins what could otherwise be one of the better tunes on this compilation.

    The song writing is just as messy as the engineering. A perfect example is this compilation's longest track ''As the Steel Eagle into Golden Svarga''. The track opens with gloomy and almost droning guitar sounds that evoke an interesting atmosphere. All momentum gets lost when the band stretches an initially promising idea to three repetitively numbing minutes. Instead of a transition after this endless build-up, the band suddenly speeds up things and bleak vocals kick in almost instantly. The main part of the song is actually compelling. The vocals are diverse and emotional, the riffs develop a depressive atmosphere without sounding redundant and the occasional folk and symphonic influences aren't overused and blend in very well. After seven minutes, the main part ends and a folk section with joyous melodies kicks in. The same joyous melody is repeated more than half a dozen times until it lost all its charm and what we get then are boring variations of the same melody in different forms for five vapid minutes until the end of the song. This song with a running time close to fifteen minutes represents this compilation very well because it offers everything from concise tracks with solid song writing, songs with both outstanding and uninspired sections and other tunes that are sleep-inducing in their lack of creativity.

    The cover songs blend in very well because some of them are inspired and offer interesting variations on the original songs, others have a few energizing moments but are otherwise too similar to the original tracks and some are completely forgettable. 

    In the end, quality should have mattered over quantity. Nokturnal Mortum should have offered one disc with its greatest tracks in remastered form and one disc with the best cuts from the cover tunes. Since the band didn't do this, 22 Years Among the Sheep is extremely hit and miss and is overall far too long. This record is a missed opportunity to focus entirely on the band's strengths and present some promising local underground bands to the world.

    Final rating: 50%

    Listen to it right here: https://nokturnalmortum1.bandcamp.com/album/nokturnal-mortum-22-years-among-the-sheep-5xcd-digifile-a5-2

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  • Tengger Cavalry - kAAn

    Tengger Cavalry once was a quite intriguing Chinese folk metal band inspired by traditional Mongolian folk sounds and tales. Along with Nine Treasures, the band started a trend that went viral with many international acts copying this particular sound and the bands getting international recognition. While Nine Treasures remained modest and faithful to their sound, Tengger Cavalry’s founder Zhang Tianran decided to sell out. The artist parted ways with the initial line-up, moved to the United States and gathered a completely new line-up around him. This line-up unnecessarily re-recorded numerous records from the past, delivered shallow alternative acoustic versions of several songs and released several short live records. In certain cases, there exist half a dozen different versions of the same song and instead of improving on the original versions, the new takes sound much less inspired and original than what the band did in its early years. Since Ancient Call three years earlier, Tengger Cavalry has only released disappointing records that seem to have no other reason to be than to grab some cash from international fans.

    The fact that Zhang Tianran exchanged artistic creativity for financial strategies even had an impact on the band’s live shows. I went to see the band in concert not long ago and was very disappointed. Instead of the regular line-up consisting of five musicians, only three were actually on stage. Aside of Zhang Tianran, there were a bassist and a drummer on stage while the musicians performing the traditional folk instruments that make this group stand out weren’t there at all. The band delivered faceless heavy rock with some throat singing and Zhang Tianran would only play a traditional instrument in a handful of songs during the concert. What the band offered didn’t have much to do with what Tengger Cavalry once stood for and most people in the audience felt cheated.

    kAAn is now the first EP featuring only new material in almost three years. You can buy this release on Bandcamp for eleven bucks and get eighteen minutes of new music, including an unnecessary intro and a short outro as well as a vapid demo version of one of the new songs. This means that you actually only get about thirteen minutes of music and that you are encouraged to pay almost one dollar for each minute of new music. If a band like Dream Theater had the same attitude, you would have to pay one hundred thirty bucks for their last record, just to give you an idea how incredibly ridiculous Tengger Cavalry’s present marketing strategy is. Zhang Tianran’s aggressive capitalism makes Jari Mäenpää almost look like Mother Teresa in comparison.

    That whole dishonest attitude would still be tolerable if the thirteen minutes of new material were at least convincing but even that isn’t the case anymore. The only positive parts of the music are the use of exotic instruments such as igil and molin khuur that add the longing and melancholic soundscapes the band was once known for. The rest however stands for everything that is wrong about the band these days. The bland fast drum patterns and the one-dimensional electric guitar riffs don’t fit with the folk instrumentation at all. They remind me of an untalented death or thrash metal band playing in a garage at best. Several songs sound unfinished and end with uninspired fade-outs after less than three minutes that prove that the band’s song writing was so weak that they didn’t even know how to accurately finish their songs. The worst thing are though the vocals that were once the band’s most charismatic strength. Even though Zhang Tianran still performs throat singing, his vocals are lacking diversity and power. They sound strangely monotonous and tame throughout the record and every single song is performed in the very same style. This repetitive pattern is so uninspired that one could actually copy the vocal lines from one song and paste them onto another track and one wouldn’t even hear any difference.

    Don’t get fooled by the band’s fake cultivated and intellectual image. The only thing this so-called band is interested in nowadays is to make a maximum of profit with a minimum of effort. If you are genuinely interested in Mongolian folk metal, go grab the original Blood Sacrifice Shaman, the double-album Cavalry Folk and the band’s final tolerable release Ancient Call. Every other record consists partially or completely of shallow re-recordings or uninspired new tunes from the exchangeable present line-up. kAAn is as close to Asian folk metal as a cheeseburger with some soy sauce poured on it is to Asian food. The only thing you will get from both is stomach pain. Avoid it at all costs.

    Final rating: 0.5/10

    This record doesn't deserve a video clip.

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  • Overkill - The Grinding Wheel (2017)

    With the release of The Grinding Wheel, Overkill extends its streak of high-quality thrash metal records to four. Even though this album is slightly inferior to its predecessors, it's an early year highlight for genre fans. If compared to other American thrash metal bands, Overkill's new album might not be as spectacular as some other recent genre releases but the quintet from New York has established itself as the most consistent genre band since the beginning of the decade.

    Still, there are a few differences between this output and the previous one. First of all, the tracks on here are a little bit longer than usual. This doesn't mean that the tunes have become more progressive. The instrumental sections have been extended and the lyrics have gotten some more content. Secondly, the drum sound has become slightly better and sounds more organic than on the direct predecessor that had a rather dry production. Thirdly, the record has a few less impressive guitar solos than usual and rather works with transitions from up-tempo passages to either groovier breaks or some early doom metal influences.

    The rest is business as usual on a constantly high level. Overkill still is one of the thrash metal bands with the most charismatic and dominant bass guitar sound and the instrument also has its shining moments on this output. The riffs are still heavy and sharp and take influences from genres such as hard rock and doom metal of the seventies as well as heavy and thrash metal of the eighties. The vocals sound as energizing and juvenile as ever. The Grinding Wheel has the same vivid spirit as Overkill's first five studio outputs.

    Among the outstanding songs, one has to mention the rebellious anthem ''Goddamn Trouble'' that represents the angry spirit of thrash metal best on this album. The lyrics and the video clip are spot on while the thunderous rhythm section, the aggressive riffs and the pissed vocals are highly efficient. Along with the new band anthem ''Our Finest Hour'', Overkill delivers two memorable tunes that have the potential to become classics and should find their righteous spots in the set lists for years to come. Another track that sticks out is ''Red, White and Blue'' because it might be the most aggressive and fast track on the entire album while the middle passage convinces with a mean groove and rebellious gang shouts you won't get out of your mind. This is the perfect track to give you a jolt in the morning to see whether you're really awake or not. If you don't feel like banging your head, raising your fists and shouting along to this track, you're either deaf or thrash metal just isn't your cup of tea. The final highlight is the rhythmic closing title song ''The Grinding Wheel'' with an almost epic length of eight minutes that ends with some majestic symphonic elements and sinister choirs to end a ferocious release on a more atmospheric coda. It's probably the most creative and unusual song on the album with the most diversified vocal performance but it's still one hundred percent Overkill alright. The title song is my personal highlight on this record.

    In the end, The Grinding Wheel is a mandatory purchase for anyone who loves thrash metal or wants to discover this genre. Die-hard fans should get their hands on the Japanese edition that features two strong cover songs honoring Iron Maiden and Thin Lizzy as well as a bonus DVD with eight excerpts from a festival performance recorded two years ago. Who in his right mind needs the eighties back if a band like Overkill has been on such an impressive roll over the past seven years and counting?

    Final rating: 82%

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