Scaphoid, Absent Passages review (Shunu Records 2020)

The first full-length album from Scaphoid is a straight-forward exposition of instrumental guitar fervor.

Scaphoid is Matt Hobart, an Austin, Texas musician who is a one man orchestra. In late 2016 he released a 25-minute EP (Dies Mercurii) under the Scaphoid name and since then has been quiet on that front. Absent Passages is a long awaited and very welcome return.

My earliest exposure to instrumental rock/metal guitar music was Frank Zappa and Shut Up ’N Play Your Guitar (1981). What an eye-opener that was. That album (3 LP set) was a collection of individual pieces Zappa had played from many different places, so it didn’t have a cohesiveness that a planned instrumental album would have. I heard that for the first time in Surfing with the Alien (1987) by Joe Satriani. Since then, for more than thirty years now, I have been constantly on the lookout for high quality instrumental rock guitar. I just found another one.

The single off the album is “Marauder,” and it leads off with a “let’s get acquainted” easiness. The Prog starts to pop at about the one minute mark, and the music takes off from there. When the lead appears, we know we are out of the parking lot and on the road. The style is matter-of-fact, the tone is establishing. Throughout the set ideas and emotions emerge and evolve, as with the very next song, “Shores of Ruin,” that moves the needle from the opener, then has some of its themes reëmerge later in songs like “Celestial Ego.” There is a direction, a trajectory that winds past many wonders but keeps heading for the destination. The closing number is “Infrastricken,” a fourteen minute mini-epic that might just be that destination we saw on the horizon or it could also be a launching pad for whatever comes next. The guitar work by this point has gone through many manifestations and takes, yet there is still more. The creativity and exploration of this final element of Absent Passages is an elegant summary and conclusion to the collection of songs, and could also easily be a stand-alone EP. High regards. Recommended.

On Friday, October 9th you can lay your head back and let the music seep in. Shunu Records and Bandcamp have the goods at the links below.

Links.

Scaphoid Bandcamp, https://scaphoid.bandcamp.com

Scaphoid Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/scaphoidmusic

Shunu Records, http://www.shunurecords.com

Scaphoid, Absent Passages review (Shunu Records 2020)

The Ocean, Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic, review (Metal Blade Records 2020)

German/Swiss/Swedish ensemble The Ocean (Collective) is back with the sequel to the renowned Phanerozoic (2018) album, part two of a paleontology concept work.

Robin Staps is the driving force in The Ocean ensemble/collective. As the principal guitarist and composer, Staps orders the ideas and molds them into the expression we hear. Of course, Staps did have an outline with for this long concept: the most recent 541 million years of the geologic history of the earth. It might seem like a big story, and it is, but The Ocean got their arms around it.

The album is broken into two parts, “Mesozoic,” which is covered in the first two tracks, and “Cenozoic,” the last six tracks. There is an extraordinarily detailed description available about the meaning of each passage, so you can check that out by doing a quick web search. In the context of this short review I will concentrate on what the music sounds like.

The first part is two long songs, together running about twenty two minutes. They begin with a solo, echoing acoustic guitar and ethereal synth passages. Very quickly the music turns upbeat, adding instruments and active assertions. At times like this, the music has a Tangerine Dream feel to it – that might be a good baseline to start thinking about this music. A melodic voice tells us part of the story, and for some time this is fairly quiet Prog Rock. Big guitar riffs crash in here and there, and coarse vocal instantiations now and then. There is a lot going on here and the musicians have 22 minutes to work with, so sit back and enjoy. As with much of the music in this lane, dramatic extremes are exhibited. The guitar leads are somewhat reminiscent of Camel on the Mirage album here and there, and that is very appealing. Excellent vision and execution.

The second part of the album is comprised of six shorter songs, each in the four minute range with the final two being a bit longer. This section seems more linear than the first, but that could be due to the deliberate segmenting of the musical passages into smaller bits. Indeed, the first song, “Palaeocene,” sounds almost like a radio cut, with fan-pleasing guitars and aggressive but digestible vocals, and the second track is almost a ballad. “Pleistocene” starts out humble but turns into an all-out Death Metal assault before it is over. The closer, “Holocene,” has a comfortable desert vibe to it and eases us out in a perfect cooldown. There is a lot to take in with the second part, too, so give yourself some headspace.

Look to Metal Blade Records for the CD and digital (through Bandcamp) and to Pelagic Records for the vinyl of Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic on September 25. The Bandcamp digital download has the complete album in an instrumental version included with it, which is an excellent alternate way to experience the music. If you are up for the challenge, Prog and Post-Metal live in this album. Recommended.

Links.

https://www.facebook.com/theoceancollective

https://www.indiemerch.com/metalbladerecords/b/the-ocean

https://theocean.bandcamp.com/

The Ocean, Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic, review (Metal Blade Records 2020)

All Them Witches, Nothing As The Ideal review (New West Records 2020)

Not only is Nothing As The Ideal the newest release from All Them Witches, it also stands well apart from their earlier work.

The Nashville trio of Ben McLeod on guitar, Robby Staebler on drums, and Charles Michael Parks, Jr. on bass (and vocals) have produced an impressive amount of music in the less-than-ten years they’ve been together – six studio releases and now this new one. Every album they have released has different feel to it and Nothing As The Ideal is the most different, if that is a possible thing. Each subsequent release is recognizable as an All Them Witches album but they are all clearly their own thing, too. That approach might not be great for branding, but it produces amazing results for the music.

“Saturnine & Iron Jaw” begins the album with a tolling bell and a scratchy metallic weirdness growing out of the void and creeping slowly up to you. Ninety seconds in, an echoing guitar starts a soft minute-long climb into an urgent appeal, “Nothing, that’s the ideal.” The next song is “Enemy of My Enemy” and it starts out in a rapid patter infused with ethereal peakiness. And then there is “Ethereal,” quiet and wispy and beautiful strumming with a blunt homage to The Alan Parsons Project’s Turn of a Friendly Card. “See You Next Fall” closes out side one with nearly ten minutes of musical story. There is a lot going on in this very long song, with looped non sequitur voices at the front and distorted guitars traveling along with pulsing rhythm and percussion. None of this seems or sounds discordant or even odd. It all fits together as a whole – “I’m not grinding my teeth / I’m not lying awake.”

Side two leads off with the roots sounding “The Children of Coyote Woman.” Second is “41” which felt to me like an extended plea, while “Lights Out” is a traveling fist fight. “Rats In Ruin” is the closer, another long song passing nine minutes. It has avant-garde passages and a long, sorrowful guitar solo that carries sadness like I have not heard since the refrain in Zappa’s “Watermelon In Easter Hay.” It was an ending I didn’t see coming but just the right one for this album.

Nothing As The Ideal is out now from New West Records. You can hit the links below to get yours in whatever form you like best. Once you get started with All Them Witches, it is hard to stop. Recommended.

Band photo by Robby Staebler.

Links.

https://allthemwitches.bandcamp.com/album/nothing-as-the-ideal

https://www.facebook.com/allthemwitches

http://www.allthemwitches.org/

https://store.newwestrecords.com/

All Them Witches, Nothing As The Ideal review (New West Records 2020)

Cult of Lilith, Mara review (Metal Blade Records 2020)

Cult of Lilith release their first full-length album, Mara, in a stunning display of far reaching creativity and Prog Metal exploration.

Bands from Reykjavík, Iceland, might have faced isolation obstacles in the past, but in the modern world the distance from and to everywhere else is easily overcome and their music can be accessed and heard by everyone. Cult of Lilith could tell you that. Formed in 2015, they released their first EP, Arkanum, the following year. After adding a new singer from abroad (Spain), the creative forces solidified and the creation of Mara began. The band is Mario Infantes (vocals), Daníel Þór Hannesson (guitar), Kristján Jóhann Júlíusson (guitar), Samúel Örn Böðvarsson (bass), and Kjartan Harðarson (drums).

The music is described as “Necromechanical baroque.” It is a fusion of Death Metal in the tempos and rhythm with Prog Metal in the guitars interlaced with a wide variety of other musical influences ranging from classical to jazz and beyond. The lead guitar work has the speed and technical precision that rivals virtuoso metal bands like Exmortus. That is the Prog side coming out, the extraordinarily high level of musicianship required of the complex compositions. The other elements are expertly laced throughout into a seamless whole.

The album opens with 20 seconds of solo harpsichord before punching out blast beats under a monster guitar riff supporting rapidly shifting vocals, from death-coarse to melodic, all in the first minute. That is “Cosmic Maelstrom.” The lead guitar in the opener is lyrical and swirling, and the song ends in a mad rush. The next song is “Purple Tide,” and it does make you feel like you are at sea. It has a more serious and sinister tone than the previous song, including an almost maniacal screaming and whispering from Infantes. What you start to realize is that, while the compositions are wildly diverse and approach technical perfection, the vocals lead and direct the emotion of the songs. The music remains mostly fast and variegated throughout. Some songs have a slower tempo, like “Atlas,” but that does not stop them from being surprising and filled with creative changes and dodges. And then there are songs like “Profeta Paloma,” which have significant passages that are soft, acoustic moments of quiet and beauty surrounded by chaos. There is no chance to get comfortable listening to this album because there is too much going on. Cult of Lilith truly is a unique experience. Recommended.

While you are waiting for Friday to come, you could go to Spotify and listen to the Arkanum EP. It is exceptional, and a good launching point to get ready for the new (even with the different vocalist, Jón Haukur Pétursson). Plus, two singles are available now in advance of the full set dropping in a couple days on September 4. Metal Blade is offering CDs, vinyl, and downloads, and a t-shirt as well.

Links.

http://www.cultoflilith.com/

https://cultoflilith.bandcamp.com/album/mara

https://www.facebook.com/cultoflilithband

https://metalblade.com/cultoflilith/

Cult of Lilith, Mara review (Metal Blade Records 2020)

Chaos Over Cosmos, The Ultimate Multiverse review (Narcoleptica Productions 2020)

High concept Prog Metal duo Chaos Over Cosmos release their second album, The Ultimate Multiverse.

I wrote “duo,” and it is true, but the driving force behind the project is Rafal Bowman who started Chaos Over Cosmos with Javier Calderón in 2017. The two musicians, Rafal in Poland and Javier in Spain, never met in person and collaborated at this great remove to create The Unknown Voyage in 2018. There is a message here and an example for us all in the current state of world affairs, isn’t there. Javier moved on to other things after that first album, and Rafal worked with Joshua Ratcliff (Australia) on the new set in the same remote way. Rafal is credited with guitars, synths, drum programming, songwriting, and Joshua with vocals, lyrics, songwriting. The collaboration has produced an expansive soundscape that reaches across genres of contemporary music.

If you wanted to land this album in one category, it would be Prog, and you might refine it to Prog Metal. “Cascading Darkness” plants a flag in the land of Prog at the jump, with a swirling opening that puts you immediately in mind of bands like Saga. The guitars kick in soon, though, and they are bigger and heavier than you hear in most Prog acts. And then there is the vocalizations – the first ones we hear are very much Death Metal, morphing into a kind of sinister screaming whisper, and alternating (occasionally overlaid) with clean vocals. The percussion holds a driving tempo throughout, shifting up and down as the terrain changes. The keyboards are technically astute and creatively exploratory. All of this on the first song. As you progress through the set, you get alternate takes and new musical vistas, things completely different and some familiar homages as well. Most of the songs are on the long side, except the closer, “Asimov,” which is radio length and kind of a curtain call for the overall performance.

The Ultimate Multiverse is available for download now at Bandcamp. In the Prog Metal lane, Chaos Over Cosmos is creating a solid place in the world for its music.

Links.

https://chaosovercosmos.bandcamp.com/album/the-ultimate-multiverse

https://www.facebook.com/chaosovercosmos/

Chaos Over Cosmos, The Ultimate Multiverse review (Narcoleptica Productions 2020)

Northern Crown, In A Pallid Shadow review (2020)

Another exploration is launched with Northern Crown’s third full-length album, In A Pallid Shadow.

The band is a little bit hard to pin down if you are looking to label them in a category. I have most often seen them called a doom metal act, but that isn’t quite right. Elements are there, it is true, but that is not their overarching vibe, at least not to me. Prog, too, I’ve seen quite a bit. That category is broad enough to encompass a wide array of bands, but I wouldn’t call Northern Crown prog, either. A hybrid band, then, a crossover, or maybe just a category all their own. One thing is certain: every album sounds different.

The credits listed in the press materials make no reference to anyone playing keyboards, but they are a prominent feature of the music, literally in every song. Maybe it is more mysterious that way. The album begins with “Leprosarium,” which has a very grungy sound to it. I kept expecting Eddie Vedder to jump off a balcony. That’s it for the grunge, though, because in the next song, “The Last Snowfall,” the music turns to campfire storytelling with the non-vocal instruments playing supporting roles. That is true in the first half. Past the midpoint, the music fills in the story and the playful lead break has something to say as well.

A solo piano line opens “A Vivid Monochrome.” Appropriate. Slow and quiet in the first half of the song, electrified strings muscle some of the placidity out in their roll toward the end. “8 Hours” has a quiet beginning too but it is a tease. Heavy riffs and dramatic vocals insist the song in a theatrical direction. The closer, “Observing,” pops on like a heavy metal Kansas song with Point of Know Return keyboards and guitars. Not for long – the rest of the song has more in common with a Dio anthem than with the 1970s pre-prog masters. There is much to appreciate in this new album, and it comes at you from many different angles.

Available on July 3, make it a point to catch up with Northern Crown and see where they are on their journey.

Links.

https://music.northerncrownband.com/

https://www.facebook.com/NorthernCrownDoom/

Northern Crown, In A Pallid Shadow review (2020)