Tuesday 30 November 2021

ALBUM REVIEW: Exodus, “Persona Non Grata"

By: Richard Maw
Album Type: Full Length
Date Released: 19/11/2021
Label: Nuclear Blast

“Persona Non Grata” CD//DD//LP track listing:
 1. Persona Non Grata
 2. R.E.M.F.
 3. Slipping Into Madness
 4. Elitist
 5. Prescribing Horror
 6. The Beatings Will Continue (Until Morale Improves)
 7. The Years Of Death And Dying
 8. Clickbait
09. Cosa Del Pantano
10. Lunatic-Liar-Lord
11. The Fires Of Division
12. Antiseed
The Review
Exodus are back. Gary Holt is back in the fold full time and the rest of the band are present- with Steve “Zetro” Souza still at the mic. Tom Hunting laid down his drum parts before his battle with cancer (get well soon) while Lee Altus and Jack Gibson round out the line-up.
I've never made a secret of the fat that I favour Rob Dukes as THE Exodus front man, but no one (including me) can deny that “Zetro” has a fine voice for thrash and is viewed by most as the definitive Exodus vocalist. “Blood in Blood Out” was a fine reunion record, but a little front loaded and missing some of the spite of the Dukes years. 
“Persona Non Grata” comes after several years of Holt moonlighting with Slayer and a global pandemic. You'd expect, then, that the creative juices would be well and truly flowing as the band members focus on Exodus (and Heathen) full time.
The title track is up first and is a speedy thrasher- but it is too long. Much like some of the Dukes era material, it needed editing. It's vicious and speedy but it does, well, go on... “R.E.M.F” and “Slipping Into Madness” are more concise and thus more effective, with the latter being a convincing addiction tale that you can't help feel might be hitting close to home for a few or all of those playing it.
Exodus slow things down occasionally, too. “Prescribing Horror” is an example- and an effective one.  The advance track “The Beatings Will Continue (Until Morale Improves)” is simply vintage Exodus; a short, sharp cut that is made for the pit. It's magnificent, prescient in theme and has everything great about the band in three minutes.
As the album progresses, it takes shape. This is similar in approach to “Blood In, Blood Out”. It's occasionally speedy, always aggressive but its bark is a little stronger than its bite on some tracks. There is a lot of fairly mid-paced material over the course of the hour long playing time which is not something that the band necessarily excel at. Much like Iron Maiden, Metallica and some of the other classic thrash acts (even my beloved Overkill): editing is needed. Some tracks could say what they have to say in less playing time and also there is nothing wrong with delivering the best ten tracks rather than stretching material a little thin over twelve tracks.
It's churlish, but sometimes less music really is better than more. Exodus are better on razor sharp songs like “Clickbait” than they are on the blunt force of “The Years of Death and Dying”. It makes the album a little frustrating as my attention wandered a little from track to track- even if the production, lead work and performances are all great. There is a cool instrumental in the form of “Cosa Del Pantano” and it is a welcome detour into a different sonic sphere prior to the lengthy but effective “Lunatic Liar Lord”- which is as heavy as lead  and benefits from the thrashy pacing- and classic Exodus time changes. It's an example of the band doing an epic thrash track well but it loses momentum through the middle and outro sections.
“Persona Non Grata” is available HERE

Band info: facebook

Wednesday 24 November 2021

ALBUM REVIEW: Overkill, "The Atlantic Years 1986 - 1994"

By: Richard Maw
Album Type: Boxset
Date Released: 03/12/2021
Label: BMG

The Review:
There are no less than six albums by Overkill collected in this lavish package. Vinyl, download or CD; the choice is yours... I've actually forked out for the vinyl release, but as it is not due for delivery until December these MP3 files serve as a nice taster of what I'm getting. These six albums represent the start of Overkill's career- and cover what many would assume to be the band's golden years through the peak of thrash metal and beyond. However, it does NOT include the Megaforce classic debut, “Feel The Fire”. That album is readily available in multiple re-issue vinyl versions, but it does feel like an opportunity missed... even if the title does specify their major label days only.
For fans and collectors, this box set is still a must. It has several vinyl re-presses which are very hard to get hold of; “Years of Decay”, “Horrorscope”, “I Hear Black” and “W.F.O.” The fact that many fans may own one or more of these and probably have some kind of copy of “Taking Over” andUnder The Influence” is neither here nor there, really. If you want the rest of the albums you are missing, then you buy the lot. It is also interesting to note that CD issues of Taking Over” are like hens teeth- and expensive. So... there are pros for both the vinyl and CD sets.
I cannot comment on the presentation here; I only have the MP3s, but I HOPE that the vinyl reissues come with original sleeves in a box set; only time will tell. Of the music, well, it's no secret to regular readers of my reviews that I rate Overkill highly. Very highly. As in, I think they are the best thrash band EVER. At the least, they are certainly the most consistent and have had the most longevity. Their extensive and impressive catalogue knocks all other band's efforts into a neatly cocked hat. Yes, yes, Overkill may not have a “Reign In Blood” or a “Master of Puppets” to their name, but both those bands had less than a decade at the top of their game. Overkill have been consistently good (and even great) since 1985.
Of the albums, there is a great deal that can be said. “Taking Over” is a firm fan favourite, features ludicrous cover art (guns aimed at the camera, biceps bulging, lurid colours jumping out at you...) and a solid collection of songs; including a few Overkill classics. Strangely it is not one of my favourite albums of theirs. Yes, it has “Deny The Cross”, “Wrecking Crew”, “Fatal If Swallowed”, “Power Surge” and “In Union We Stand” but it doesn't quite reach the heights of the debut for me. It's a powerful thrash album from the genre's golden era, but it is not their best. The remastering here is good- it sounds a little clearer, a little sharper but it still, of course, sounds like an 80s thrash album done on not much of a budget.
“Under The Influence” has “Hell From The Gutter” and a consistent set of songs but for me is the weakest of their early albums. The production is a little weak, the drums a little too large and indistinct, the band a little subdued. It's like Overkill with the teeth and fangs filed down. From there, though, things REALLY take off.
“The Years of Decay”. “THE YEARS OF DECAY”. It's immense!! It had the production and the songs- the remaster makes it sound even more powerful. Terry Date produced and the sound is a dead ringer for his work, a year later, with Pantera. It's tight, muscular and clinical and it simply rips. The songs are superb. The first three tracks are simply metal perfection; “Time To Kill”, “Elimination”, “I Hate”. It's a hell of an opening. The record also contains a really doomy track- “Playing With Spiders/Skullkrusher”- that is immensely heavy and dark. You get
Evil Never Dies” at the end as well... and the title track and so on. It's a metal classic and is widely regarded as one of the band's best. Its way underrated by those who don't know the band and it remains a high point of the golden thrash era.
Evil Never Dies” at the end as well... and the title track and so on. It's a metal classic and is widely regarded as one of the band's best. Its way underrated by those who don't know the band and it remains a high point of the golden thrash era.
Incredibly, the band kept things going with 1990's “Horrorscope”. It's another classic and even if the original guitar player, Bobby Gustafson, parted ways with the band (fans still talk about this) Bobby Blitz Ellsworth and DD Verni simply recruited two guitar players to replace him and wrote a superb set of songs. Sid Falck plays his best drumming on this one. The whole album is great; clinical production (probably a little influenced by … “And Justice For All”, but with the bass left in) and a strong set of songs and overriding evil vibe make a winning combination. “Coma”, “Blood Money”, “Thanx For Nothing”, “Infectious...” all killers. Even the Edgar Winter cover (Frankenstein) rules. It's such a strong record and my favourite (even above, gasp, “Years of Decay”) of their earlier work.
The band thus entered the 1990s on a high and seemed to be on an unstoppable roll. However... grunge happened, the bottom fell out of the thrash market and Overkill found themselves frozen out of the Big Four and playing second fiddle to (kind of) new upstarts like Pantera. Metallica and then Megadeth simply went commercial. Testament pretty much went MIA after “Souls of Black”. Exodus were nowhere, Anthrax got buried under record company indifference. Overkill, incredibly, didn't go grunge but they did make their most leftfield album: “I Hear Black”.
It's the one oddity in their catalogue, but rest assured it is still metal to the core.... just with a little more Sabbath flavour. The band slowed down and introduced new drummer Tim Mallare to the fray. For me, it's one of their best albums. I've listened to it probably as much as any of their others. Some of the writing is a little undercooked- that's even admitted by the band- while the production and mix probably sounded INCREDIBLE on the studio speakers... it sounds tinny and underpowered on a regular stereo. The separation of instruments is great, the individual sounds are good, but the bass (on all instruments; guitars, drums and bass) weight is just not there. Even the remaster- which has improved it a little- can't save it. What it really needs is a full re-mix.
Strangely, this makes me love the album a little more; it's imperfect and the sound of a band trying to survive. “Dreaming In Colombian” is ace. The title track is heavy. “Spiritual Void” is a Sabbath style groove machine, “Weight of the World” is speedy and good quality and the album finishes strongly as well. I'm prepared to forgive misfires like “Shades of Grey” and “Undying” because the overall vibe of the albums is great. For me, “TYOD”, “Horrorscope” and “I Hear Black” represent three different aspects of the band's sound- with a common theme of dark and unsettling compositions at their core.
After that, only “W.F.O.” remains of their major label tenure. Again, it's quirkily produced; tinny and overly bassy (!) but it brings back the speed that “IHB” lacked. The opener “Where It Hurts” proves that thrash is back, “Fast Junkie” rams that point down your throat and from there the albums is absolutely solid. The songs are good and often really catchy. Inevitably, it sounds a little too influenced by what was big in metal at the time- in terms of production and the backing vocals- but it stands as a strong exclamation point to the band's years in the music biz big leagues.
I'd score all of these albums four stars or above (with the possible exception of “Under The Influence” which is a strong three for me) and a couple of them reach the full marks score level. With that being the case, why did Overkill not get much bigger?! Well, Blitz's voice is an acquired taste- shrieky and gravelly is an odd combination and it seems to me that they never got the press support that some other band's were gifted (or paid for). On the plus side, it meant that the band kept going as a relatively underground proposition with their integrity intact.
From here, the band weathered the turbulent mid 90s by simply going independent; indie labels, booking their own tours and keeping going. It's that blue collar work ethic that endears them to so many of their fans- me included. They'd go on to make even better albums (“IRONBOUND”!!!) and worse ones (“ReliXIV”, “Necroshine”) but they have never slipped below that three star standard. As an average, the band are running at four stars and these six albums represent a rock-solid chunk of their discography. I implore you, if you've never bothered, to check out all six records or at the very least “Years of Decay” and “Horrorscope”. This is superlative metal and utterly essential.

Band info: facebook

ALBUM REVIEW: Black Label Society, "Doom Crew Inc."

By: Richard Maw
Album Type: Full Length
Date Released: 26/11/2021
Label: eOne


“Doom Crew Inc.” CD//CS//DD//LP track listing:
1. Set You Free
2. Destroy & Conquer
3. You Made Me Want to Live
4. Forever and a Day
5. End of Days
6. Ruins
7. Forsaken
8. Love Reign Down
9. Gospel of Lies
10. Shelter Me
11. Gather all my Sins
12. Farewell Ballad
The Review:
BLS return after the unexpected career high point of “Grimmest Hits” a few years back. Zakk has kept personnel familiar and when pressing play on this latest offering, the question is: “will this rock or will it be a more laid back affair?!”
BLS have had a habit of making some fairly mediocre records in the past. Frustratingly, they can go from killer on one release to filler on the next (“Sonic Brew” to “Stronger Than  Death”, “1919 Eternal” to “Hangover Music Vol. 4”... the mid-period slump of “Mafia” and “Shot to Hell”...). It seemed that Zakk and sidemen were poised for really big things in the mid 2000s but it never quite happened. The quality just wasn't there and the image became cartoonishly macho.
With this in mind, I would say that the last decade has seen some excellent BLS albums. “Order Of The Black” would be one of my favourites- it rips from start to finish and slugs it out impressively with “Sonic Brew” as the definitive BLS album. “Catacombs of the Black Vatican” had its moments; it was a restrained and dark listen which only improved over time and really wormed its way into my affections. “Grimmest Hits” was superb- from start to finish it blended the best aspects of BLS; riffs, hooks, Sabbath feel, ballads and song writing.
“Doom Crew Inc” is apparently a kind of paen or tribute to the band's road crew, but anyone expecting a wholly raucous affair on that basis would be off the mark. Instead we get... a very good and solid album with no shortage of riffs and solos. As eOne have only furnished the mighty SLUDGELORD with a stream, it's been hard to listen to this repeatedly. However, over the course of several listens, the quality has shown through.
On that basis, this is closer to “Catacombs...” than it is to “Order...” so is thus perhaps a cousin to “Grimmest Hits”. The sound is thick and convincing, recorded at Zakk's Black Vatican studio you would expect nothing less. Opener and advance track “Set You Free” is fairly indicative of the record- not adrenaline inducing, but instead weighty and insistent. “Destroy & Conquer” is a quality follow up- nice feel and rhythms. From there, “You Made Me Want To Live” is the band in sombre but rocking mode.
Of course, this being BLS there are ballads. “Forever and a Day” is the first of these and is of course a completely competent hard rock ballad with a good vocal performance and a rather lush production.  How good is it? Well, it's a ballad- I don't think it is up there with “Blind Man” or “January Day”, but it is... fine. You know that with twelve tracks there will be more of this kind of thing, but... I sometimes wish there would be a bit less. Just cut to ten tracks of solid steel, you know?
That said, BLS has always made pretty varied records and it would also be true to say that each record has its own discernible identity- for better or worse. “Doom Crew Inc.” certainly has its own niche and it is to be praised for that.
“End of Days” is another laid back rocker- echoing much of the “Catacombs...” material. It's finely crafted but is still pretty restrained- a little too much so for my liking. At the halfway mark, it would appear what kind of album that “Doom Crew Inc.” is going to be- restrained, but well put together. “Ruins” has that Sabbath groove and is well put together with a fair bit going on. It should be noted that the overall production has more to it than the previous couple of releases by the band- vocal layering, lots of twin guitar work and a fair few changeS in each track.
The riff in “Forsaken” is a cracker and it uses dynamics convincingly; switching from heavy as lead to breezy and back again with ease. It's the latter half of the record which has the longest run times- BLS are no strangers to tracks of 5-6mins plus as “Sonic Brew” proved- but there is no sense of wasted time here. The solos are great throughout and each track, again, has its own identity. There are two more ballads to go through, of which “Farewell Ballad” is the better of the two. “Love Reign Down” is simply too overwrought for my tastes. Zakk at the piano and emoting is not my thing, so we move on.
Fortunately, we move on to “Gospel of Lies” and its beastly Sabbath-esque doom opening. It's great and a wonderful antidote to what went before. It picks up the pace, of course, but doesn't break any speed limits. It's a slow burning head nodder with, yes, a superb riff at the mid point. Those bouncy kind of shuffle guitar riffs are something that Zakk excels at (“World of Trouble” springs to mind) and it elevates the track by bringing in a  great idea and fully realising it.
The album enters the home straight with “Shelter Me” which again brings dynamics, mid paced tempos and some sizeable riffage. It does what other tracks on the record have done, but with not quite the same impact on the first few listens. Jeff Fab's drums sound excellent when brought forward in the mix and that is another plus point.
Of the remaining two tracks, “Gather All My Sins” is my pick- in fact it's one of the picks of the whole album: it rocks hard, is a straight up headbanger and pulls no punches. We are into old school BLS territory here. It's killer. The trading solos section is also an absolute winner. The aforementioned “Farwell Ballad” closes things out. It's the best ballad on the record and once again has a kitchen sink production but is nicely put together with a good intro solo section and benefits from being guitar led with some good vocals once again.
Overall, this is undeniably a strong BLS record and it is also one that will undoubtedly reveal hidden depths. I think this requires multiple listens to really get into and understand. I also think it is a bit of a mood piece. It's dark and a little restrained like “Catacombs...” but it has more immediate hooks and a better production than that one- which has only grown on me over time.
So, this is most likely a good-great BLS album; not quite top tier, but not too far off as things stand. That Zakk and co. are still around and putting out quality records is to be celebrated in itself. That the records are this good is an even bigger bonus. It's one to look forward to, get into and enjoy. I'd say it would fit in the top half of the catalogue, or thereabouts.
BLS have enough of a history and catalogue to warrant a favourite to least favourite list, Here's mine:
1.     Sonic Brew
2.     Grimmest Hits
3.     Order of the Black
4.     1919 Eternal
5.     Catacombs of the Black Vatican
6.     Doom Crew Inc.*
7.     The Blessed Hellride
8.     Stronger Than Death
9.     Mafia
10.   Hangover Music Vol IV
11.   Shot to Hell
*Subject to change. This might go up a place or so. It is, without doubt, better than the albums below it on the list.

“Doom Crew Inc.” is available HERE

Band info: bandcamp || facebook

Thursday 11 November 2021

ALBUM REVIEW: Rivers of Nihil, "The Work"

By: Richard Maw
Album Type: Full Length
Date Released: 24/09/2021
Label: Metal Blade Records

“The Work” CD//DD//LP track listing:
1. The Tower (Theme From “The Work”)
2. Dreaming Black Clockwork
3. Wait
4. Focus
5. Clean
6. The Void From Which No Sound Escapes
7. MORE?
8. Tower 2
9. Episode
10. Maybe One Day
11. Terrestria IV: Work
The Review:
Rivers of Nihil are certainly one of America's most interesting metal exports these days. Their last album, “Where Owls Know My Name” was positively avant garde- bringing new sounds and textures in a way not heard since perhaps Opeth or Celtic Frost to the death metal genre.
Indeed, the band are now quite some distance from 'death metal.' I would hazard that this is best described as progressive metal. There are death metal building blocks here and there- Adam Biggs' growl, the riffage in places, blasts etc... but, really, this is progressive fair. The album is a series of movements and soundscapes (in common with Opeth), and a mixture of clean singing and growls (ditto) but there are many touches of classic rock, prog and even industrial music in the rhythms, synths and so on.
The lead work is uniformly good, the production is solid but a little homogenous for my tastes. There is a sheen throughout that is not perhaps entirely welcome and the drums thud rather than crack- belying their processed nature. These are small gripes, really, as there is nothing wrong with the album at all. As a collection of musical pieces, it's adventurous and daring. Fans of Opeth, Mastodon et al will find much to enjoy here.
I first got into the band for album number two- “Monarchy”- and truthfully it is still my favourite as it is techy, brutal and pretty straight up death metal. That said, there is once again saxophone on this record, there is huge variety and a lot of lateral movement within each composition. That could not be said of the music on “Monarchy”, so the band have legitimately evolved, softened and expanded. It's to be commended, as they could have stuck with what they did and just kept doing it.
The brutal moments here (right next to the sax on one occasion) serve to highlight how sparsely they are used. This is not a death metal album- it just incorporates elements of the genre. It's impressive, varied and wide ranging in scope.
How you feel about all of this will probably be informed by where you climbed aboard the Rivers of Nihil Train- if you liked the progressive elements of recent albums, this is assuredly for you. If you are looking for tech death- look elsewhere. If you are looking to sample this, pick the track “More?” for brutal death. Pick the track “The Void From Which No Sound Escapes” for progressive experimentation and try out “The Tower” (the opener) for a bit of a flavour of a few elements in one. Overall, this is impressive and probably worthy of the plaudits that will be heaped upon it.
“The Work” is available HERE

Band info: bandcamp || facebook