Granbretan Invasion: A Tribute to New Wave of British Heavy Metal
Bart Gabriel’s Skol Records label has developed a reputation for high-quality traditional heavy metal releases, including both brand-new albums (Mythra, Savage Master, etc.) and reissues (S.A. Slayer, Jag Panzer, Burning Starr, Sad Iron, etc.). One particular niche where Skol has excelled is in the area of tribute albums. In the last couple of years, the label has released outstanding tribute albums to Riot and Exciter (among others), featuring outstanding rosters of contributing bands and killer song selection, with numerous exclusive tracks not available anywhere else. This summer, Skol Records opted for an intriguing variation on the tribute album theme. Instead of honoring one specific band, the concept with this release is to honor an entire movement, namely, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Obviously, the NWOBHM tag is so broad and the available source material so vast that Skol could have taken this project in any number of directions, so it is quite fascinating to see how it finally took shape.
Ultimately, Granbretan Invasion is characterized by the same sense of balance and equilibrium that marks Skol’s prior tribute albums. What do I mean by that? A few examples illustrate the point. The roster of contributing artists includes both well-known veterans (such as Twisted Tower Dire, Enforcer, Cauldron, and Avenger) and up’n’coming acts (like Ironflame, Gatekeeper, and Substratum). The selection of songs covered involves both fairly obvious “hits” (Saxon’s “Strong Arm of the Law,” Raven’s “Don’t Need Your Money,” and Savage’s “Let It Loose,” for example) and more obscure cuts (such as Tredegar’s “Richard III” and Satanic Rites’ “Cast My Spell”). A couple of these recordings are previously released (i.e., the Savage Master and Substratum songs), but most were either freshly recorded for this tribute album or unearthed from a metaphorical vault somewhere for inclusion here. Indeed, the Enforcer contribution dates back to 2005, before there was even a real Enforcer band; and the Cauldron tune was recorded in 2010, but (to the best of my knowledge) never saw the light of day until now. Both are historical gems. The end result is a 12-song, 46-minute effort that is by no means encyclopedic or comprehensive, but that celebrates everything we love about the magical NWOBHM era.
Another thing that Granbretan Invasion has in common with prior Skol Records tribute albums is that it’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. Sure, you’ll naturally gravitate to some tracks over others, but there’s not a single skippable, subpar song. Everything on the album is eminently worthy of inclusion, and adds something of value to the final product. As for highlights, I simply adore Twisted Tower Dire’s brilliant take on “Calling for You” (originally by Persian Risk), in which they took a great song and made it truly their own; and Enforcer’s raw, fast interpretation of Savage’s classic “Let It Loose.” Other personal favorites worthy of mention include Gatekeeper’s epic metal rendition of “Richard III” (originally by Tredegar), Cauldron’s jammy, rockin’ run through “Free Country” (originally by Witchfinder General), Ironflame’s classy version of “Shoot Out the Lights” (Diamond Head) and Savage Master’s go-for-the-throat spin on “Death or Glory” (Holocaust). Just as this album was a labor of love for Bart Gabriel and Skol Records, so it plainly was for the participating artists as well. In the liner notes, band after band extols the virtues of the NWOBHM and its profound impact on their music. They took it seriously, and whereas many tribute albums suffer from bands half-assing their way through material, Granbretan Invasion finds the contributors diligently, proudly honoring music with which they feel a deep personal, artistic connection. It shows. I also really appreciate Gabriel’s decision to let the levels vary from song to song, without trying to buff and polish out the differences in the name of consistency. This effect gives the album a kind of “mix tape” feel that is most appropriate and accentuates the ambience and vibe brilliantly, even as you’re adjusting the volume knob with a smile from one track to the next.
Look, I know that tribute albums aren’t everybody’s cup of tea. But it’s hard to imagine anyone who enjoys the New Wave of British Heavy Metal or the original works of the contributing bands not digging the hell out of this. It’s a killer collection of songs that have stood the test of time for more than three decades, covered in a heartfelt manner by an exciting roster of artists representing some of the very best in underground traditional heavy metal today. What’s not to love?
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
(Loma Vista Recordings, 2018)
“Don't you forget about dying. Don't you forget about your friend Death. Don't you forget that you will die.” Oh, don't worry, Ghost. No listeners to “Pro Memoria” are likely to forget their own mortality anytime soon. This holds true for a couple of reasons: 1.) These rather morbid lyrics are repeated several times, and 2). The vocal melodies of this chorus are more infectious than the bubonic plague circa 1347 (how's that for some creepy morbidity, eh?) What's more, the telltale metal lyrical themes of darkness and evil are – somehow both tongue-in-cheek and un-ironically – ubiquitous in Ghost's songs.
The thing is, the total package of this proverbial musical specter is greater than the sum of its parts. Ghost's music – which effectively toes the line between traditional metal, ‘70s hard rock, progressive rock, and yes, bona fide pop – simply wouldn't sound as biting or creepy without the pensive pleas to Lucifer or eulogies to dying lovers; the fact that singer/songwriter/Ghost supreme overlord Tobias Forge (currently aka Cardinal Copia) sings these scary words so cleanly and beautifully only adds to their psychological impact. But the band's music would not be nearly so impactful without that unique blend of power, melody, mysticism, and dynamism. On Prequelle, Ghost's fourth album, Forge and co. have created another compelling gem.
Now, it is by no means a secret that Ghost loving and hating is very much in vogue. Either they're the greatest gift to metal-kind or the most overrated pile of musical milquetoast imaginable, depending on who you ask. While I don't subscribe to either extreme viewpoint, the sheer quality of Ghost's songwriting places me much closer to the former camp than the latter. Perhaps it shouldn't have helped the band's momentum and consistency when all former band members/Nameless Ghouls quit prior to the recording of Prequelle. But Forge has, ahem, forged bravely onward with a fresh set of Ghouls and an inspiring, instant-classic collection of tunes.
Any longtime Ghost fans will not be surprised at the limited amount of speed and aggression on Prequelle. Sure, heavier moments are not abandoned altogether; rather, the metallic elements are used more like a spice to complement the melodic sensibility of these songs. The album's heavier nature is mostly front-loaded: “Rats,” the debut single and first proper full-length track, is a driving, galloping rocker that deftly conjures Priest, Deep Purple, and B.O.C. The sheer catchiness of the vocal melodies creates an eerie discordance when combined with the lyrics: “Them filthy rodents are coming for your souls/never to let go/Rats.” Next up, “Faith" delivers a doomy vibe with a groove-based, Sabbathy main riff; here Cardinal Copia beautifully scours organized religion: “The Luddites shun the diabolical/a fecal trail across the land/although it…/stinks, feels, and looks identical/a pack of fools can take the stand.” Later, Ghost bust out the bluesy hard-rock riffs on the mid-paced ode to the Black Death, “Witch Image.” More importantly, such sinister and morbid lyrics have rarely sounded so sublime: “While you sleep in earthly delight/someone's flesh is rotting tonight/like no other to you…/what you've done you cannot undo.”
Forge's ability to intertwine stylistic diversity and a concrete musical vision really sets Ghost apart from the pack. He's not afraid, for instance, to write slow songs in major keys that feature the most gorgeous choruses imaginable (“See the Light"); “Dance Macabre” rides power chords atop a danceable pop beat and super-saccharine chorus. I want to “bewitch you all night,” too, darling. The aforementioned “Pro Memoria,” which showcases a lushly-orchestrated arrangement, may be one of the most brilliantly-written and memorable songs of recent years. As for closing piano-based ballad, “Life Eternal,” a more touching and melodic eulogy to a soon-to-be-lost loved one can scarcely be imagined.
Again, Prequelle won't win many awards from the more-metal-than-thou elitists. Yes, perhaps some greater variety in tempos and an increased aggression level could have upped the excitement factor here. But man, these songs are so damn good it hardly matters: “Can you hear me longing for you — forever?”
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot
--Tracklisting: 1.) Ashes 2.) Rats 3.) Faith 4.) See the Light 5.) Miasma 6.) Dance Macabre 7.) Pro Memoria 8.)Witch Image 9.) Helvetesfönster 10.) Life Eternal
SUBSTRATUM Permission to Rock
This album came out a couple of months ago already, but I’m just now getting around to writing the review for this most worthy effort. Substratum are a traditional heavy metal band from Seattle, Washington, who released their self-titled debut album via Swords& Chains Records at the end of 2016. A three-song demo cassette entitled Rough Rider followed in early 2017. After some delays, Substratum’s second album, Permission to Rock, finally saw the light of day in CD format this spring via Divebomb Records. (Interestingly, the band took advantage of the time lag to write and record six additional songs, released concurrently with Permission to Rock in the form of a strong EP entitled Stratosphere, so keep an eye out for that one too.) Substratum are an easy band to pull for. Here’s why: They believe in building community and supporting the scene. They routinely show up at festivals where they aren’t even playing, not to promote themselves but to hang out, rock out and support their friends. They contribute artwork/graphic design to bands and festivals. They even organized their own successful festival, the NW Metal Fest, in Seattle this spring. They don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk. We need more unselfish, giving bands like Substratum in our little corner of the heavy metal universe, for sure.
In light of the above, I’m especially pleased to report Permission to Rock is a smasher of an album. Substratum remain very much the same band who recorded the 2016 debut; indeed, they still play classic U.S. heavy metal, featuring the compelling vocals of Amy Lee Carlson and the terrific guitar riffs of Jonny Haynes and Max Nazaryan. But Substratum have unquestionably taken a step forward on Permission to Rock. The songwriting is tighter, stronger and more consistently memorable. They’ve trimmed away the fat and focused on delivering a batch of killer tracks, infused with perhaps a bit more rock’n’roll spirit this time around (see “Zero to Infinity,” for example). Songs like “Rough Rider,” “To Nothing, To None” and “Exxtremer (Permission to Rock)” have been staples of Substratum’s live set for some time. As a result, they are battle-tested and primed to strike for maximum impact. “Cemetery of State” is a knockout and just might be my favorite on the album. It is a longer tune, weighing in at 7 minutes, but it feels much shorter, sporting a magnificent chorus and a couple of nifty tempo changes. Another highlight is the three-minute closer, “Up on Wheels,” whose ripping main riff and breathless arrangement take no prisoners and deliver an exclamation point to conclude the proceedings with a flourish. Carlson sings her ass off on this record, summoning grit and power galore, and cementing her place as one of the finest vocalists (male or female) in the new wave of American heavy metal. Guitarists Haynes and Nazaryan supply a cache of killer riffs and solos, but also showcase an unexpected dimension with a pair of delicate, classy acoustic interludes, “Vulpeca” and “Triangulum,” that lend a sense of dynamics to the listening experience. Nicely done.
Don’t listen to Tipper Gore and the PMRC. They lost, so you don’t need permission to rock. But if you’re a self-respecting metalhead who loves the classic style delivered with skill and reverence, then you definitely need Permission to Rock. Substratum stand proudly in the top tier of new traditional metal bands, even though many haven’t discovered them yet. Check them out and spread the word. This album deserves to be heard, and the band is absolutely worthy of your support. I’ll look forward to seeing them at the next underground U.S. metal fest I attend. Hopefully Substratum will be on the bill, but I know I can count on them being there either way.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
RAVAGE The Derelict City
Holy return from the dead, Batman! Veterans of the U.S. metal scene may recall the Massachusetts band Ravage, who made some waves in 2009 with an excellent album called The End of Tomorrow on Metal Blade Records. At the time, Ravage seemed poised to lead the resurgence of traditional heavy metal in America. They were the complete package: great songs, killer twin guitars, a distinctive and cool voice, and a sound that combined elements of U.S. power metal, the NWoBHM movement, occasional thrashy tendencies, and even a touch of German power metal. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen. All appeared dark and quiet in the Ravage camp (at least, to those of us outside New England) for quite some time, and I assumed the band was over. Then last year they reappeared with a curious (but very good) remake of their first album, entitled Return of the Spectral Rider. Ravage took another step forward with a fantastic gig at the Legions of Metal Festival in Chicago in May 2018, and this week are embarking on a kamikaze four-week European tour with fellow Massachusetts acts Seax and Lich King, to culminate in an appearance at Germany’s prestigious Headbangers Open Air Festival in late July.
In a frantic burst of energy, Ravage released a brand-new EP entitled The Derelict City on the eve of their European tour. From the band’s social media postings, it was evident that completion of the EP was a race against the clock, with the outcome in doubt until the very last minute. Yet Ravage successfully met their deadline, and I am now holding in my hand a copy of the limited edition (300 units, I believe) CD version of The Derelict City. The five-song, 22-minute EP consists of four new Ravage tracks (two contributed by guitarist Nick Izzo, one by guitarist Eli Firicano, and one by bassist Tommy G), plus a cover of a song by obscure Massachusetts band My Pet Demon (circa 2002). Any fears that the EP might seem rushed or substandard because of the high-pressure circumstances under which it was completed are misplaced. Songs, performances, production, and recording quality are all top-notch on The Derelict City. Lead track “Till Heaven Cries” is a high-speed burner that explodes out of the gate with incendiary riffs, pounding double-bass drums, fiery leadwork, and strong melodies. This song belongs in every Ravage setlist from now until forever. “Chief of Lies” lets off the gas pedal somewhat and pumps up the majestic guitar harmonies throughout the entire anthemic track, with all the elements combining in a manner that somehow put me in mind of classic Gamma Ray, which is a good thing. The third track, “Derelict City,” features a pretty overtly Iron Maiden chorus melody surrounded by crunchy, galloping riffing and a fine vocal from Al Ravage, who sounds great throughout this EP. “New Age Survivor” doles out more thrashy riffing and superb guitar pyrotechnics from Firicano and Izzo. The combination of speed riffs and melodic themes is just dazzling, and all delivered within a decidedly traditional metal framework. The “Demons Are Forever” cover version is a straightforward sub-3:00 minute track with a punky vibe. Fun, but not in the same league as the Ravage originals.
In the liner notes, Al Ravage confirms that The Derelict City is simply a “little taste test” for what listeners can expect to hear on the next Ravage full-length album. This is excellent news. The quality of the material on this EP is uniformly excellent, and the performances equal or surpass anything Ravage have ever done before. I am genuinely excited to hear what they come up with on the next full-length album. Perhaps the promise shown on The End of Tomorrow will be fulfilled after all, albeit a decade later than anyone imagined. For now, though, I envy the lucky European audiences who will get to hear these stellar new songs played live in the coming weeks. Here’s hoping America gets a similar opportunity soon.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
True Metal Lives
The Voice Of The Underground