REVIEWS ROUND-UP: Ghost, Lovebites, Babylon Fire, HammerFall and more…

 

The beauty to last weeks’ beast, the Ghost Cult album round-up is back for your vulgar delectation, and our final compilation of 2017 captures albums most Metal and most Melodic, shining a light on last-minute stocking fillers that St. Anne, rather than St Nick, would approve of…

A sneaky, unannounced (except for the accidental appearance of an order page on Amazon a few weeks ago for a few hours) double live album for you just in time for your Christmas stocking from melodic rock’s greatest contemporary act? Well, why not indeed! Capturing the set that wowed the US theaters and then the European festival scene, including a coming-of-age performance that swept all before them at Bloodstock Open Air, Ghost (BC well and truly optional these days) have every right to mark the closing of the opening chapter of their career in such fashion. There’s no arguing that the set on display is filler-free, and, fair play to them as all three albums are fairly represented. Yet it is, quite rightly, to the lead track from 2016’s Popestar EP (Loma Vista) that we go first, with the rousing ‘Square Hammer’. ‘From The Pinnacle To The Pit’ sleazes in next, and it’s clear that Ghost have chosen to mix their live album to sound very retro and much like the classic live albums of yesteryear, such as Made In Japan, plenty of reverb and with the crowd mixed down but highly appreciative, swelling-in high pitched during gaps. Papa Emeritus vocals are slightly more nasal live than on record and there is something a little distant about the recording, as if in the efforts to portray a genuine live sound, the guitars, and sound in general, is a little bit thin, with the drums often up front and centre. But the tone and sound is the only gripe as, the band, and Papa, are slick, sultry and simply swinging as they effortless reel off a series of world class songs. And don’t take that lightly. I mean a series of world class songs. A band on their third album shouldn’t already have a greatest hits set. But Ghost do. Fifteen of them, unfurled across eighty one minutes, and further proof that they are on track to take their place amongst the rock immortals. I’m not a fan of live albums in general, and the truly great live albums leave you with definitive takes of the songs on display, and this doesn’t do that – the studio versions are still the “one” (though ‘Year Zero’ and ‘He Is’ manage to stand out even when accompanied by an avalanche of awesome) – but even I can accept Ceremony & Devotion (Spinefarm) is a great way to close off an unholy trifecta of impure excellence, as good a sequence of first-three albums as any band has released in the modern day.  [8.5]

 

Back in studio land, there’s no doubting the conviction and high octane approach of Japan’s Lovebites on their debut album, the relentless pounding Heavy Metal of Awakening From Abyss (JPU). In fact, it’s full force mix of classic, power and speed metal, all presented with a slick modern sheen courtesy of an exemplary production, and it doesn’t let up. At all. And is all the more appealing for it as it sinks talons in and doesn’t let go. After a decent introductory couple of tracks, business well and truly picks up with ‘Warning Shot’, before a further step up with Lovebites mixing DragonForce with the faster moments of latter day Helloween all with Asami’s commanding vocals dominating, a slightly more theatrical take on Lzzy Hale’s strength mixed and Doro’s melodies, ‘Shadowmaker’ stands out enhanced by the touch of some superb virtuoso soloing from Midori and Mi-ya. ‘Scream For Me’ takes its foot off the pedal ever so slightly, rocking out like a bastard with a chorus that strays into Babymetal territory, before Asami opens up to hit some powerful notes and another impressive solo takes us off and away again; ‘Liar’ has a massive hook of a guitar motif under the chorus while ‘Burden of Time’ and ‘The Apocalypse’ race by in a torrent of melodies and talent. I was originally wont to opine that Lovebites could do with learning that less is, sometimes, more (just don’t ask Yngwie for his opinion on the matter…), as there are twelve tracks with several extending over six minutes, but I’ve been battered into submission and now believe not a moment is unnecessary because Awakening From Abyss is a tour-de-force of personality and helluva way for Lovebites to introduce themselves.  [8.0]

 

Intervals third album The Way Forward (Intervals Music) shines forth the type of instrumental guitar-based music that is the awkward cousin of rock and metal, as, soundtracks and film scores aside, instrumental music can be a difficult one to make stick. Aaron Marshall’s Intervals have that instantly smooth easy-listening sound that the very best virtuosos all display to the lead guitar playing, as the rhythms shuffle underneath. Technique is not an issue at all, this is flawless, so it becomes about the hooks that Marshall creates, and he does well on that score, looking to flavour each track with flecks and motifs to prevent it all coming across as widdly meandering, making ‘The Waterfront’ light-hearted ear candy, if a little bit ‘Erotic Nightmares’ reworked times ten. There is a summery feel sprinkled all over The Way Forward that makes this a very pleasant, if slightly gilded, listen. [6.5]

 

Sometimes being a rag-tag collection of not-quites can fire a band to success, and Hamka (mach two, and now featuring former Darkmoor vocalist Elisa C. Martin) have kick-started a faltering journey with a new line up and a second album in Multiversal (Fighter). Marketing themselves as Symphonic Power Metal, the reality is that description oversells both of those additional elements as symphonic bombast is somewhat lacking, as is much that makes Power Metal great. Being slightly harsh, but wholly honest, Hamka are a stock Heavy Metal act with some keyboard swathes. That isn’t to say this is not a release worth checking out as Martin is a strong vocalist, delivering powerful grit to the verses and enhancing the hooks of the choruses, but the outfit behind her plough a furrow already ploughed many, many times, usually to greater effect. S’alright, innit, no more, no less. [6.0]

 

Yet, that furrow is not a redundant one, as, for where Hamka bloat, Babylon Fire rage, with their latest release Heresy In Black (self-released/Devil’s Blueprint). Living in that beautiful sweet spot of updated melodic Heavy Metal with touches of Thrash and chug (but mainly swagger), Heresy… is a great fun listen of head-banging moments. Touches of Cowboys… era Pantera, Judas Priest and a host of classic metal tropes revisited abound with reverence and class, as these Manchester mavericks have added melodic quality to their riff-hungry arsenal to great effect. Dan Buxton provides the required versatility on vocals, ranging from barks and bites to insistent hooky cleans, and the Fire kick things off with an eight minute powerful epic like it’s no sweat at all, before the twisted riffing of ‘Devil’s Night’ maintains standards nicely with a cool staccato riff linking into Rishi Mehta’s memorable lead playing. Later on we head face-first into a thrash-tastic title track that’s not a million miles away from Savage Messiah, with touches of peak Annihilator and, interestingly, Mastodon. All in, this mini-album is a cocktail of most things Heavy Metal, with Babylon Fire delivering in spades. [8.0] (Order here)

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It is with great honour that I close my personal reviewing for 2017 with the 20th anniversary reissue of HammerFall’s Glory To The Brave (Nuclear Blast), the album that, two decades ago, gave me, an unashamed metalhead who felt like I was losing my true love as the landscape of music changed throughout the Nineties, hope that Heavy Metal wasn’t dead, and a band whose first three albums, especially, have brought me great joy throughout the second half of my life to date, including much grinning and gurning and the occasional involuntary Sign of the Hammer, delivered on loan from Manowar. It’s strange to reflect that, in a time where Kreator can grace our Top 5 albums of the year very comfortably, things weren’t always the case, and in 1997 Heavy Metal was below dogshit in the list of things that were palatable. Wiping faeces off a trainer was cooler than listening to anything remotely Heavy Metal. But then came HammerFall. And Nuclear Blast, a label who, due in no small part to their European origins and willingness to support the metal music they loved, who couldn’t give a fuck about nu-metal, and just wanted to pump out great metal music, trends be damned. And Glory To The Brave caused a stir. It had an orange cover, and a guy holding a weapon (steady now…). It had songs that weren’t about Daddy issues, or being a freak, but about wielding swords, and wounded dragons. It had riffs. And solos. And soaring, melodic vocals. And, in an interesting way, it wasn’t just a rehash of Helloween, it was an album with its own tone and identity that, along with Keeper of the Seven Keys I & II (Noise) is absolutely one of the most important albums not just in the evolution of Power Metal, but also in the restoration of Heavy Metal music to being acceptable. Because, and above all, this is the overriding factor about Glory To The Brave, it is utterly brilliant. Each song is memorable, distinctive, hosts either a sing-a-long or a punch-the-air moment, but usually both, and is the work of a group who so perfectly encapsulated a dying breed of music and didn’t just breathe new life into it, but cosmetically and organically enhanced it to greater health. The remix brings the production up to modern standards of volume and thickness of guitars, and actually improves the listening experience (which most reissues don’t normally do). The only negative is that the bonus CD is throwaway, particularly the modern day Glory To The Brave medley, whose lacklustre and soporific going-through-the-motions  is put to shame by the archive recordings surrounding it – Justice medley it is not… It would have been great to have found a different, better way to flesh out this reissue, but, in all honesty it matters not, because this 20th anniversary re-release of not just one of the most important Power Metal releases, but one of the best (though Legacy of Kings is even better), is excellent Heavy Metal. If you don’t own this album already, you now have absolutely no excuse. [9.5]

 

STEVE TOVEY