Death Hawks – Sun Future Moon

12038117_896899493712506_4634922042602080706_n

The snowy vistas and verdant forests of Finland are more often associated with the grimmest of black metal pandas than the out-there world of psychedelia but it seems no-one told Riihimäki natives Death Hawks, for they have just released their third album in the short space of four years and sound as if they have just stepped off a Californian freeway, so breezy and sun-kissed is their third album Sun Future Moon (Svart).

Employing elements from a variety of disparate genres including blues and world music, Death Hawks clearly have no musical boundaries and like all good psych, aim to transport the listener to a different world altogether. Opening track ‘Hey Ya Sun Ra’ is a languid, trippy opener you might hear at a hippy yoga retreat as thoughtful keys intermingle with heavy-lidded vocals and skittish yet gentle drums. The pace quickens on the engaging ‘Ripe Fruits’; an upbeat hip-shaking little number where trumpet, jangling piano and spacy keyboard swells co-exist gracefully. ‘Dream Machine’ follows with its engaging vocal hooks, instantly hummable guitar licks and those ever-present bubbling sound effects in the background to remind you that Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Unfortunately, the middle and second part of the record fail to maintain the levels of intrigue and beguiling wonder that the first part set so well. ‘Behind Thyme’ is a deadly boring stroll through pastoral acoustic folk that you half suspect will segue into ‘Kum ba yah’ at any minute, ‘Seaweed’ is the kind of elevator muzak meets whale-song that plays in shops that sell dreamcatchers and crystal skulls, while the lazy synths of ‘Wing Wah’ are what you’ll hear at a psy-trance rave at 5am when the DJ decides to make stuff up on the hoof.

Truly a record of two halves, Sun Future Moon has some treats for those who enjoy quirky psychedelic rock but far too much quasi-mystic fooling about for this embittered scribe.

 

6.0/10

 

JAMES CONWAY

[amazon asin=B0153CGRP6&template=iframe image]

Funeral Horse – Divinity For The Wicked

Funeral-Horse-Divinity2015

Back in the early 90s, doom and stoner were pretty much the uncoolest of genres to be associated with. Playing fast and brutal was the order of the game and those who still clung to the belief that Black Sabbath were the coolest cats to ever strut their stuff were roundly ignored in favour of blastbeats and death grunts.

Now of course the tables have turned and everywhere you care to look you’ll see groups of scruffy young urchins in flares and suspiciously new looking Witchfinder General shirts being hyped to oblivion by record labels eager to show just how hip their latest purveyors of fuzz really are. If they sing about Satan; even better!

Now, without wishing to sound completely cynical, many of these bands are talented, hardworking and deserve to do well. After all, Sabbath really is the greatest and there’s no disputing it. Unfortunately however, there are numerous bands riding the coattails of this retro-rock/doom/stoner trend and Houston, Texas’s Funeral Horse are one of the worst examples.

Debut full length Divinity for the Wicked (Artificial Head) has a stripped down, no-frills sound that reduces the songs to the bare bones of hard rock and stoner. Sadly, the songwriting is generic in the extreme with riffs being repeated over and over with little thought for progression. When the members eventually do decide to switch tempos or riffs, the transitions sound clunky and amateurish. Add in some inexcusable long pauses during and between songs, a production thinner than Kate Moss and terrible, out-of-tune vocals and you’re left with a record that isn’t fit to serve as Wino’s drinks coaster.

Hopefully the band will note their failings on this record and return to some of the Sub Pop influences they displayed on earlier EP’s, as there’s really no place in such an overcrowded genre for something this weak.

 

4.0/10

 

JAMES CONWAY

My Dying Bride – Feel the Misery

My Dying Bride - Feel The Misery

When the history of doom metal is written, English miserabilists My Dying Bride will have their own chapter; preferably written in gothic script by a quill. As part of the ‘Peaceville Three’, along with Paradise Lost and Anathema, they helped redefine doom by blending it with the aggression of death metal and in the process created timeless classics such as Turn Loose the Swans and The Angel and the Dark River, the latter of which earned them a support slot with none other than Iron Maiden.

While their contemporaries have strayed from the path and ventured into electronic and prog territories, the Bride have steadfastly remained committed to northern darkness, with each release brimming with misery, despair and loss. Twelfth full length Feel the Misery (all Peaceville) is no exception, and while a cynic may claim that such a title indicates the band are falling into self-parody, only a fool would doubt the sheer mastery of the songs contained within.

After years spent dealing with an inconsistent line-up with drummers here one minute and gone the next, things looked even bleaker last year with the departure of long-term guitarist Hamish Glencross. However a replacement was soon found with original guitarist Calvin Robertshaw returning to the fold, and his presence has been an undeniable shot in the arm.

Opening track ‘And My Father Left Forever’ is vintage Bride, featuring pacy riffing, ghostly keyboards and some typically morbid lyrics from vocalist and figurehead Aaron Stainthorpe. Written about the recent death of his father, it’s an absolutely gut-wrenching way to open an album, with Stainthorpe opening his heart about the grief he experienced. The heaviness is jacked up with the grimy chugging and guttural vocals of ‘To Shiver in Empty Halls’ with both Robertshaw and fellow axeman Andrew Craighan perfectly in sync with each other. The snail-paced second half with its stark atmosphere and spoken word spills into funeral doom territory before finishing with a macabre folk song that in any other band’s hands would sound absurd, but here is perfect.

‘A Cold New Curse’ flits between lurching riffing and sprawling melancholy with Stainthorpe sounding utterly furious and disgusted over the thunderous fretwork while the devastating riff of the title track would have stood proud amongst the finest material on the aforementioned The Angel and the Dark River, not least for the desperately sad violin-led chorus where Stainthorpe plaintively asks “Is there hope for me?”

While the guitars play a prominent part and sound as harrowing as ever, it’s on tracks such as the beautiful ‘A Thorn of Wisdom’ where a basic piano motif, choral ambience and a snaking bassline from the understated yet competent Lena Abe take the listener on a emotional journey. This mellower avenue is further explored on the heartbreaking ‘I Almost Loved You’, where the overwhelming bleakness threatens to take over, recalling tracks such as the seminal ‘Sear Me MCMXCIII’ from Turn Loose the Swans.

The Bride’s brand of tar-thick chords and personal misery will always be an acquired taste and their straddling of the doom/death and gothic metal scenes have lead to them being rejected by purists. However, while their dismissal by the masses may appear a travesty at face value, their staunch authenticity and willingness to continue exploring the avenues of misery in uncompromising style is to be cherished. After twenty-five years in the game, their long march towards the sinister continues and Feel the Misery has to rank among their best works.

 

8.5/10

 

JAMES CONWAY

Ghostfest – Motion, Bristol UK

Ghostfest_2015_new_additions

Ten years is one hell of a good run for any music festival, but for one with the DIY, underground origins of Ghostfest, it’s a monumental achievement. Beginning in Leeds in 2005, the festival has showcased the best in UK underground metal and hardcore every year (except 2007) with more than a few international acts along for the ride. Early fests featured artists as diverse as Bring Me The Horizon, Cult of Luna and The Berzerker, but since 2009 the emphasis has strongly been on deathcore and hardcore with beatdowns and neck tatts the order of the day.

Venturing out of Leeds for the first time this year with a show in Bristol, the future for Ghostfest appeared rosy but a mid-week announcement that this year’s event would likely be the last had undeniably cast a shade over proceedings. That being said, there was a strong turnout at the Motion and Marble Factory (also the venue for the revered Temples Festival) with the audience determined to enjoy a full day of seriously angry music.

 Blood Youth, by Steve Watkins

Blood Youth, by Steve Watkins

After a delay caused by, of all things, deer on the motorway, the savage death metal-cum-hardcore of Venom Prison rattles the rafters of the Warehouse stage (actually a cow shed) before Casey do their best to enthral with an intriguing set of eerie post-hardcore heavily reliant on wavering guitar-led ambience as well as obligatory crushing riffs. They’re not quite there yet but the ideas are good. Up next are the energetic and impassioned Blood Youth who play as if they’re headlining Wembley despite only having one EP to their name, with tracks such as the anthemic ‘Failure’ calling to mind a more emotive Modern Life is War.

 Oath Breaker, by Steve Watkins

Oath Breaker, by Steve Watkins

Over on the Marble stage, the furious black metal style assault of Oathbreaker goes over the heads of the br00tal kids in the crowd, but for those who stick around, their utterly furious barrage of Converge-meets-Wolves In The Throne Room noise is nothing short of spellbinding, with frontwoman Caro Tanghe’s hunched over Sadako (evil girl from The Ring) impression a perfect visual contrast to the restless energy of the guitarist and bassist.

And now for something completely different…

 Seafoal by Steve Watkins

Seafoal by Steve Watkins

Is Ghostfest really the place for an acoustic set from a small girl playing Fall Out Boy covers as well as her own material? You bet your longsleeve Nails shirt it is, as a visibly nervous Siana Sweeney aka Seafoal takes the stage and proceeds to wow all in attendance with her simply stunning voice and gentle guitar playing. A nice bit of backing ambience from a friend on electric guitar helps the songs come to life and although only thirty or so people are present, the change of pace is welcome, the voice a tonic, and her appearance on the bill wholly justified.

 Rise Of The North Star, by Steve Watkins

Rise Of The North Star, by Steve Watkins

French manga obsessives Rise Of The Northstar are a big draw for many here today and as a result, it’s virtually impossible to get anywhere near their set over on the Marble stage but they certainly give it their all, with bouncy riffs and hip-hop laced vocals jostling for prominence. Unfortunately a muddy sound neuters their impact somewhat which is a shame, for tracks such as ‘Demonstrating My Saiya Style’ have the potential to sound absolutely massive.

Ghostfest crowds love a good beatdown and Southampton wrecking crew Desolated have them in spades. Unfortunately that’s all they’ve really got going for them and the repeated bass drops are like catnip for that curious species armspinner pitwanker who get their kicks from punching innocent bystanders. Sadly, their cretinous behaviour mars several of today’s sets.

 Heart Of A Coward, by Steve Watkins

Heart Of A Coward, by Steve Watkins

The large Motion stage is where Heart Of A Coward looks most at home with their powerful, if slightly generic metalcore sounding huge, with vocalist Jamie Graham working the crowd like a pro. However, said crowd is surprisingly sparse for a band that has packed the tent at Download not too long ago. That’s possibly because the cowshed (sorry, Warehouse) stage is filling up in anticipation for the visceral deathcore of Martyr Defiled, who play one of the sets of the day as cuts from last year’s No Hope. No Morality (Century Media) cut a swath through the throng and prove just how far the Lincoln lads have come since their below-par early days.

Despised Icon, by Steve Watkins

Despised Icon, by Steve Watkins

Having said that, they don’t draw nearly as many punters as reunited deathcore daddies Despised Icon, who deliver a systematic pummelling over on Motion as the poseurs and imitators in attendance are well and truly crushed. The dual vocal assault of Alexandrie Erian and Steve Marois may have been derided in the past, but it’s in the live environment where their presence is really felt. Plus you simply can’t fuck with tracks as brutal yet well-crafted as ‘A Fractured Hand’ and ‘In the Arms of Perdition.’ How long they’ll stick around for is anyone’s guess, but their existence is proof that the dreaded ‘D’ word isn’t so dirty after all.

 Emmure, by Steve Watkins

Emmure, by Steve Watkins

 

After Emmure, the only logical band to close proceedings is Hatebreed, an act pretty much every band on the bill owes their existence to. Jamey Jasta’s band of brothers are a lean, mean, metallic hardcore machine and are one of the few acts to transcend the bridge between metal and hardcore, something they achieve not only with their sheer professionalism, but by having a set of seriously catchy yet hard hitting anthems that fans of Slayer and Agnostic Front can dig equally. Tonight’s set has an air of triumphalism about it, with a career-spanning setlist that has heads banging, arms flailing and fists pumping from front to back.

 Hatebreed, by Steve Watkins,

Hatebreed, by Steve Watkins,

If this does prove to be the last Ghostfest, it will be a cause for sorrow. The vast majority of the bands here are hard working, don’t rely on major labels, and constantly have to put up with arseholes claiming they’re “not metal” because they wear bandanas instead of face-paint. However, there is the lingering sense that it may have run its course. A glance at the bills for previous events shows a troubling recycling of acts, with some bands seemingly guaranteed a place on the line-up year-in-year-out. With such a vibrant hardcore scene in the UK and beyond, there is certainly a deep pool for the organisers to dip into. The reasons for the ominous announcement concerning the fest’s future are still unknown at time of going to press so it wouldn’t be appropriate to speculate. So if this does prove to be Ghostfest’s last stand, it certainly went out with a massive fucking bang.

 

 Hatebreed, by Steve Watkins,

Hatebreed, by Steve Watkins,

[slideshow_deploy id=’32635′]

WORDS BY JAMES CONWAY

PHOTOS BY STEVE WATKINS 

 

Indesinence – III

a1920412192_16

Boasting members from illustrious UK acts such as Fen, Binah and Code, London doom/death dealers Indesinence are packing a pretty impressive line-up. Having been lurking in the shadows of the underground for nearly fifteen years now, their previous two records Noctambulism (Goat of Mendes) in 2006 and Vessels of Light and Decay six years later won numerous plaudits but were too far under the radar for most people to take notice of the ominous darkness contained within. Third record, the imaginatively titled III (both Profound Lore) is unlikely to win many new admirers, but for those who already dwell in the shadows, it’s a welcome treat.

While most doom/death acts are content to rip off My Dying Bride and hope the listeners are too miserable to notice, Indesinence have their own clearly defined sound; one that uplifts as well as bruises, with shades of dappled light amidst the stygian gloom. They’re still slaves to the lengthy track however as songs evolve over several minutes, with riffs unfurling languidly to strike at their own pace, while the stark, pounding drumbeats batter the listener into submission.

First track proper ‘Nostalgia’ is appropriately titled, for it calls to mind the sheer bleakness of US masters Evoken, as the devastatingly sad lead guitar work provides the perfect counterfoil to the gut-punching of the rhythm section. ‘Embryo Limbo’ sets the scene with some stately clean-picked notes before giving way to some crushing riffs that flirt with mid-paced mid-90s death metal, like Incantation after a heavy dose of lithium.

The first real burst of pace occurs on ‘Desert Trail’ with brisk blastbeats and strange melodies contributing to a strong feeling of malaise but the best is saved for the end of the album as the tortuous crawl of ‘Mountains of Mind/Five Years Ahead (Of My Time)’ soon gives way to a frantic chugging section, aided by eerie keyboards before a gloriously exuberant solo emerges from the mire and it becomes apparent that the band have wandered into full-on dark prog territory. The triumphant end-section is worth the price of the whole album.

Most bands would call it a day there, but Indesinence decide that things need to remain grim, which they do with aplomb on the seventeen minute dirge of ‘Strange Meridian’, an oppressive crawl through agonized soundscapes. The riffs are depressing, the vocals are truly anguished and were it not for another burst of soaring lead-guitar to end things again on a breathless, stargazing note, the whole thing might get too much. There really is no need to tack on a ten minute dark ambient closing track to finish things off though.

A difficult and undeniably too-long album, III is nonetheless a masterful and imposing piece of work. Doom/death is a naturally restrictive genre, but Indesinence have proven themselves to be one of the finest acts working in its field. Full-on misery can often get a bit one-note without some other forces to counteract the despair, and there are enough ideas going on here to ensure that even for an album approaching eighty minutes in length, attention will be maintained and engaged. The heirs to Disembowelment? Why not, eh?

 

8.0/10

 

JAMES CONWAY

Cathedral – In Memoriam 2015

11703493_10153460377904265_2842130024845153176_o

When doom metal legends Cathedral finally called it a day in 2013, there was much sadness but also a great outpouring of gratitude for the music recorded in their twenty-three year career as titans of the doom scene. A thoroughly British institution with a penchant for eccentricities, the quartet would in later years branch into stoner and prog territory, but their birth in 1990, with vocalist Lee Dorrian having decided that life in Napalm Death wasn’t for him, came at a time when doom/death was in its infancy; and it was that sound, or rather a more traditional doom one that Cathedral would go for on their first demo In Memoriam. First re-issued in 1999, the time is now right to re-visit this first effort, again via Dorrian’s own Rise Above Records, and, with the benefit of hindsight, appreciate how bloody good Cathedral were.

Opening track ‘Mourning of a New Day’ is slow, ponderous and menacing, demonstrating the power of taking it slowly at a time when the rest of the world wanted to play as fast as possible. The guitar tone is stark and heavy, Lee Dorrian’s vocals are guttural and a tad awkward, and the whole thing seems drenched in a miasma of pain and sorrow with tales of vampire suns and Witchfinder Generals nowhere to be seen. A suitably downbeat cover of Pentagram’s classic ‘All Your Sins’ follows with all the hippie vibe stripped away before a grimly powerful early cut of ‘Ebony Tears’ rears its head. Final track ‘March’, a joyless, militaristic number doesn’t really go anywhere and would have been a better fit for industrial legends Godflesh, also newbies at that stage.

The live tracks, recorded in Europe in 1991 show a young band with a fiercely professional outlook and a tight, devastatingly weighty sound. The first three tracks of the demo are replicated here along with forgotten classic ‘Neophytes for the Serpent’s Eve’ from the band’s second demo and a gut-wrenching version of Forest of Equilibrium (Earache) classic ‘Intro/Commiserating the Celebration.’ Dorrian’s stage banter is polite and to the point and while the muffled cheers from the audience hint at Cathedral’s limited appeal in the early days, their skill and power was never in doubt.

A timely reminder of where it all began, when four miserable lads from Coventry decided to replicate the grimness of their surroundings and in doing so created one of the most important bands in the history of underground music. We are poorer for having lost them but with classic re-issues such as In Memoriam, their legacy will live on forever.

 

8.0/10

 

JAMES CONWAY

Hope Drone – Cloak of Ash

0005154638_10

With the Australian underground scene arguably one of the best in the world at the moment, US big-hitter Relapse Records has struck gold with the signing of Brisbane, Queensland quartet Hope Drone, for début album Cloak of Ash. Eschewing the morbid bleakness of fellow countrymen Woods of Desolation, Hope Drone have embraced the quintessentially American sound of post-black metal, with furious riffs, mournful soundscapes and tortured vocals the order of the day. The cover art is fantastic and worthy of mention; an arresting image of cloud and wave merged into an enveloping maelström that threatens to consume all and sundry. It’s the perfect metaphor for the band’s sound.

Starting any record, let alone your début off with a twenty-minute track is a seriously brave move, yet Hope Drone appears to be utterly unfazed. ‘Unending Grey’ begins with a torrent of cascading riffs and anguished howls before the pace stems and the listener is guided through a devastatingly beautiful section of sombre guitar notes and stark percussion. However the respite is short-lived, for when the pace picks up again, it’s utterly ferocious, with the band reaching speeds that the likes of Deafheaven can only dream of. That they do it while maintaining the same feeling of alien bleakness through the entire twenty minutes is nothing short of amazing.

After the devastating fury of pretty much a full EP’s worth of material as a mere opening track; the ten minute follow-up ‘Riverbeds Hewn in Marrow’ almost feels trite by comparison. However any doubts are soon washed away by the soaring guitar-lines and restless, pummeling percussion. This is continued with the billowing darkness that opens ‘The World Inherited’ but the rug is once again pulled from under our feet as the track decays into a tortuous crawl through near-funeral doom territory where release is an abstract hope.

The influence of noisy US black metallers Ash Borer and sadly missed Irish trailblazers Altar of Plagues is keenly felt throughout Cloak of Ash with Hope Drone devoting equal time to the crushing slow section as well as teeth-rattling speed. However, rip-off merchants they aren’t, for there is none of the tree-hugging, ritualistic elements of the former influence and little of the urban, ambient coldness of the latter. Instead, Hope Drone appears to have cultivated a vaguely nautical feel with song titles such as ‘The Waves Forever Shatter Upon Our Shores’ and ‘Carried Apart By the Ceaseless Tides.’ Indeed the overriding feeling is being swept up and torn asunder in the teeth of the almighty ocean; bereft of hope and powerless to withstand the awesome power of nature.

While they need to be careful to avoid falling into the trap of fast bit/slow bit/fast bit, and let’s be honest; seventy-seven minutes is way too long for any album, Hope Drone have done pretty much everything right on their first effort and even in a scene full to bursting, prove that it just takes a bit of imagination and ambition to stand out from the pack. Fantastic effort.

 

8.0/10

 

JAMES CONWAY