Anyone watching That Metal Show can be forgiven for thinking hard rock is dead. Eddie Trunk smooching the wrinkled asses of washed-up rockers is not a pretty sight, and their focus seems to be forever on side projects of former sidemen of former greats. I mean, the dudes gotta make a living, and I am drawn to the spectacle like moth to flame. I probably should check out the new Black Star Riders at some point. The frustrating thing is that there are a bunch of younger bands bringing a lot of new energy and life to to hard rock, who are almost completely ignored by the show, the mainstream press and music buyers. The other guys do occasionally give props to the likes of Witchcraft and Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats on the Pick of the Week segment (Trunk can’t be bothered with any new bands). Occult, doom and some psychedelic bands that lean toward indie rock are getting some attention, but there’s also some really strong hard rock bands. These hairy dudes may not make sexy copy in the gossip columns and blogs, and are probably not on a career path to fame and fortune, but they do really fucking love to play, and have put out some pretty great music recently.
When I reviewed Demon Eye’s Tempora Infernalia last week (full review here), I realized there are so many great hard rock releases out and are coming out soon, it would be hard to pick out just one other single release to review, and I needed to do another genre rundown type piece to catch up. A lot can fit in the hard rock category, which doesn’t have to be as generic as it sounds. Most of my picks here focus on proto-metal, prog, heavy psych, and some references to doom and NWOBHM.
Valkyrie – Shadows (Relapse)
When I first saw Valkyrie play at the Alehorn Of Power fest in Chicago seven years ago, they were already an extremely potent twin-guitar force to reckon with, having just come out with their second full-length Man Of Two Visions (2008). A lot has happened since then with Pete joining Baroness and taking them to some pretty special heights with his lead guitar. However, I was just as excited to see Valkyrie was still honing and performing their righteous proto-metal when they opened for Torche and Baroness a few years ago. Now their long-awaited third album is finally here, and it’s so worth the wait. Seven years of progress and growth are properly reflected in more filled-out, multi-faceted sound and richer songwriting. It’s more guitar-focused than ever, but just with more varied, heavier tones. Rich in melody and kickass solos, it really is something special, elevating Valkyrie to top tier levels alongside the likes of Slough Feg, Hammers of Misfortune, and now labelmates Baroness and Christian Mistress.
Mirror Queen – Scaffolds Of The Sky (Tee Pee)
I had a feeling just before the release of this NYC hard rocker’s second album that it would be something special. Since their decent debut From Earth Below (2011), they’ve worked hard touring the US and Europe, playing with Greenleaf, Truckfighters, Earthless and honing their craft. For the past month the album has constantly grown on me, their particular mix of psych prog and space rock unfolding more with each listen. Somewhat similar to Mondo Drag, they stake out their own cosmic territory in the spaces between classic hard rock (UFO), psych prog (Captain Beyond, Hawkwind) and NWOBHM, particularly its roots in twin-guitar pioneers like Wishbone Ash, Thin lizzy, Maiden, Priest.
Mondo Drag – Mondo Drag (RidingEasy)
Recorded back in 2012 when they were still in Iowa with the rhythm section from Radio Moscow who eventually defected to the Blues Pills, this was released earlier in the year by Kosmik Artifactz, and reissued last week via RidingEasy. Mondo Drag, now based in Oakland, drop most of the blues influences from those bands and go full-on psych prog, with a sound augmented by organ along the lines of Deep Purple and Uriah Heep, and some magnificent cosmic jams like “Plumajilla” and “Pillars of the Sky” that will please fans of both Hawkwind and early Floyd.
Vidunder – Oracles & Prophets (Crusher)
With Sweden’s Crusher records label’s track record of Dead Man, Horisont, Spiders, and Blues Pills, I take keen note when they introduce a new band to the roster. Vidunder’s self-titled 2013 debut was promising, with some enjoyable Graveyard influenced tunes, but felt a little stiff. In the past couple years, the band has gotten the benefits of playing gigs with most of the bands mentioned, and learned a thing or two. Their second album definitely finds them coming into their own, infusing a breathless rush of garage rock energy, exemplified perfectly by their first single (and hilarious video) “Gone With Dawn.” While I doubt this band has ever heard them, it reminds me of seeing Soul Asylum back in their prime (1988 to be exact). Another brilliant contemporary that might have rubbed off on Vidunder the right way is Troubled Horse, who mix elements of classic rock, proto-metal, psych and an interesting injection of American roots and garage rock.
The Vintage Caravan – Arrival (Nuclear Blast)
When Iceland’s The Vintage Caravan formed in 2005, singer/guitarist Óskar Logi Ágústsson was just 11 years old! Like Free and Stray, growing up in a band was key to developing a mature voice very early on. After a self-titled debut in 2011, they enjoyed a big growth spurt for their follow-up Voyage, which they self-released in 2012, and was picked up by Nuclear Blast last year. On the world-weary ballad “Do You Remember,” Óskar sounds like a battleworn old soul, much like the precocious young Paul Rodgers did as a teen. The amazing vocal hook would have made it a huge hit 30 years ago. In the meantime the band relocated to Denmark and has done some hard touring with Grand Magus and Blues Pills, and Óskar Logi played a role in the Icelandic film Metalhead, though he is killed in a horrible fashion within the first few minutes. Two and a half years is a long time for a young band like The Vintage Caravan to grow, and I was curious how they would evolve. They already sounded like a mature, professional band with instrumental chops at least on the level of Blues Pills, and classic songwriting skills like Rival Sons. I thought maybe they would go in a more prog direction hinted at on the last album, but instead, they got heavier, darker, and more focused on melody as opposed to proggy jams. I hear more of a Graveyard influence, which is totally welcome. That’s not to say they don’t let loose on their instruments. On single “Babylon,” there’s no shortage of changes and solos to keep you on your toes, and they maintain a psychedelic edge. “Eclipsed” and “Innerverse” stretch out to nearly 7 minutes, and on the 8:46 “Winter Queen,” they build slowly, with a pretty sweet payoff. “Carousel” is another highlight, hitting some minor keys for a more metal feel, including some nimble bass playing worthy of Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris. Out now in Europe and June 2 in North America, this album could totally blow up this Icelandic band’s audience to the point that they’re headlining tours within the year.
Venomous Maximus – Firewalker (Shadow Kingdom)
These Houston rockers got me crazy excited with their first EP The Mission (2011). Beg Upon The Light (2012) was great, but I kind of missed the sloppy doom punk approach to the EP. On this album they brought back some of that looseness while still experimenting with some keyboard sounds and somewhat unpredictable sounding production along the lines of some QOTSA recordings while at the same time being the inverse of their style of robo-rock. For example, “Dark Waves” manages to reference the post-new-wave production of mid-80s The Cars and Black Sabbath. Vocalist Greg Higgins has a pretty distinct approach that may not be very melodic, but works great as a narrator, conveying both mock terror and true occult horror.
Corsair – One Eyed Horse (Shadow Kingdom)
Through the course of their career of two EPs and two albums since 2010, this Charlottesville, Virginia band has not been shy about the fact that they worship progressive rock and early metal, particularly the twin-guitar harmony pyrotechnics of Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden. Their second album One Eyed Horse is a clear improvement in songwriting, with more attention paid on vocal melodies and assembling dynamic, memorable songs. This pays off big time with the incredibly catchy “Brothers.” The vocals on the title track even manage to channel Phil Lynott’s soulful melancholy, no small achievement. I’ve been listening to this all year, and while it didn’t stay at the very top of my list, it has held up very well, and is highly recommended to those excited for the new Valkyrie and crave more.
Spidergawd – II (Cripsin Glover)
Norway’s Spidergawd were formed in 2013, and includes the rhythm section of psych prog legends Motorpsycho. Spidergawd eschews the prog for more balls-out heavy psych along the lines of early stoner psych pioneers Monster Magnet and Fu Manchu. Their self-titled album came out to little fanfare last year, and as soon as I heard it late in the year, it was already announced that their second was coming out soon. No side project, this band is firing on all cylinders and hopefully primed to start touring beyond Europe soon, as all indications are they are a balls-out greatass live band.
Cherry Choke – Raising The Waters (Elektrohasch)
For the longest time I totally thought these Brits were German, due to their association with Colour Haze via the Elektrohasch label. I was a big fan of their brand of 60s/early 70s influenced garage psych on their 2009 debut and A Night in the Arms of Venus Leads to a Lifetime on Mercury (2011). To be honest I was a little surprised they veered from their garage psych into heavier rock territory on the new album. However, it’s no doubt a worthy entry in the canon of what seems to be this decade’s hard rock renaissance. Whether this is simply an artistic revival or actually goes commercial remains to be seen.
Many of the albums are being released by tomorrow (Tuesday May 19) and should show up in Spotify then, so check back then. Demon Eye will show up at some point, and The Vintage Caravan probably not until June 2. Also coming out is The Darkness, Last Of Our Kind June 1, Goatsnake, Black Age Blues (stoner doom) on June 2, Lucifer, Lucifer I (psych noir) on June 16, FOGG, High Testament and Freedom Hawk, Into Your Mind both on June 23.
Freedom Hawk – Into Your Mind (Small Stone)
A reliable source of riffs and hooks in Virginia since 2005, Freedom Hawk take a big step on their fourth album with some really top notch songwriting. Their core sound of catchy hard rock along the lines of Fu Manchu and Gozu is intact, but adds some subtle psychedelic touches here (“Lost In Space”) and there (“The Line”). T.R. Morton still sounds a lot like peak Ozzy Osbourne, which continues to work, since the band is markedly different from any of Ozzy’s bands. In addition to standouts “Blood Red Sky” and “Journey Home,” the album is remarkable for its consistency, with nothing that could be considered remotely boring filler. What boggles my mind is that there is a huge audience out there who crave something just like this, yet they dick around with bullshit like Lindemann, Tremonti and Incubus. There’s really no reason Freedom Hawk should be rocking stadiums and festivals.
Sammal – Myrskyvaroitus (Svart)
Sammal are a Finnish all-out prog band who are not that hard, but certainly give nods to 70s hard rock influences like Thin Lizzy, Camel, Birth Control, Budgie. Like a few other Finnish bands, they prefer to sing in their native language, which makes the music sound that much more mysterious and exotic, but also slightly harder to get into. Their self-titled debut came out just a year ago. Just like Demon Eye and Spidergawd, they’ve come out with a strong follow-up within a year. I hope this becomes a trend!
Captain Crimson – Ageless Time (Transubstans)
On the Swedish band’s debut Dancing Madly Backwards (2012), they referenced proto-metal and prog along the lines of The Groundhogs, Cactus and Captain Beyond. While they always had some blues roots, the new one goes more in that direction and a general 70s boogie sound, which doesn’t immediately get me excited. However, their playing is better than ever, and the album has much to recommend.
Abrahma – Reflections In The Bowels Of A Bird (Small Stone)
Small Stone is a label that almost never steers you wrong for great hard rock. After a string of knockouts last year including Jeremy Irons & the Ratgang Malibus, The Socks, Dwellers, Greenleaf and Wo Fat, I’m ready to just sign up for a lifetime subscription and take everything they put out. I have to admit the French band’s 2012 debut Through the Dusty Paths of Our Lives was a bit too generic for my tastes, but it wasn’t a bad start. However their second album is a big improvement, including some pretty far-out psychedelic aspects that make them much more interesting, while still maintaining an intensity that reminds me, of all things, 90s indie rockers Drive Like Jehu. Well done.
The Atomic Bitchwax – Gravitron (Tee Pee)
These New Jersey guys are lifers, having released their debut 16 years ago, and formed over 22 years ago. With two of them also members of Monster Magnet, they are part of an elite few including Fu Manchu that have bridged the eras of the beginnings of stoner rock through it’s literal explosion throughout Europe this past decade. And they sound better than ever — a strong case can be made that their sixth album is their best, or at least as great as their debut.
Death Alley – Black Magick Boogieland (Tee Pee)
One of the things I find charming about heavy bands from Europe (Death Alley are from the Netherlands) is their sheer un-selfconscious enthusiasm at embracing terms like “Boogieland.” Their love of the roots of both proto-metal and pre-punk does indeed involve a little Grand Funk type boogie along with MC5, Sabbath and the early brass knuckle speed rockabilly of Motörhead.
Denizen – Troubled Waters (Argonauta)
French hard stoner rockers Denizen came out with a promising debut, Whispering Wild Stories back in 2011, where they rocked with abandon, with a touch of post-hardcore punk/sludge fury, bravely (naively?) covering Creem’s “Sunshine Of Your Love.” That same charming fearlessness persists in their latest, Troubled Waters, but with upgraded sound and riffs.
That covers all the favorites that currently made my top 100. Just outside is Halestorm, who are a good band, but I’m not into their polished style quite so much. They are immensely successful and don’t need my help! Also recommended are the post-hardcore of Louisville’s Coliseum and Canadians Conduct, who probably feature more post-punk and noise rock than hard rock, but are pretty dang hard.
Faith No More – Sol Invictus (Reclamation!)
I’ve never really been a fan. I like some of Mike Patton’s projects, and I admired Angel Dust (1992), but was never inspired to listen to them a lot. But they are a good hard rock band, and this is a pretty big deal, their first album in 18 years. On first listen it’s not too bad, but still not my thing. It certainly merits mentioning, and will probably outsell all the other albums above combined. I would just politely implore all you masses of FNM fans to check out some of the other releases above too!