That’s a mighty tasty looking batch of album covers, don’t you think? Luckily, their contents are just as fun and colorful as the art. As far as the album releases that speak to me, the first quarter of 2017 has been dominated by hard and heavy rock. Recently I was watching Dr. Strange, and the use of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” was a perfect accompaniment to the psychedelic experience of the movie. Now if only if the music producers of these movies would use some of the amazing contemporary hard rock and psych, the films would be better for it. Movies I had trouble getting into, like The Love Witch and Mad Max would have also greatly benefited from the current rock offerings here. No joke, these bands from the U.S., Sweden, Norway, Germany and Denmark that probably collectively will sell less than 100,000 albums this year, with a wise matchup, could nudge a movie into making millions more. Some rock for thought movie people!
As expected, Mastodon’s seventh album, Emperor Of Sand has hogged the attention this past week. And for good reason, from 2002-09 Mastodon released four nearly flawless metal albums, some of the most influential of the past decade and a half. Since then, they have moved on from progressive sludge and explored a more polished hard rock sound on The Hunter (2011) and Once More ‘Round The Sun (2014). Compared to those last two, they have become both more pop and more prog, while still maintaining an epic, ambitious approach. Conceptually I’m all for that. However, I’m not impressed by their execution. For example, “Show Yourself,” while it has a decent vocal melody, reminds of Queens of the Stone Age, but filtered with an approach more like bland mainstream alt rock. “Precious Stones” goes even more in that Stone Temple Pilots/Alice In Chains direction. I’ve never liked either band very much. By trying to anchor these songs on vocal hooks, they are revealing their greatest weakness — their vocals. Their musicianship overall is still tip top, making the album definitely worth hearing. But in striving to throw in some variety and pop accessibility, they failed to have much variety in dynamics. Meaning it’s a very dense, busy mix, and ultimately too fatiguing for me to make it through all 51 minutes in one sitting. If they can learn put a little air in the arrangements in the production and give up on the boring mainstream vocals, they just might have another masterpiece in ’em. As it is, there’s at least 13 other hard and heavy rock albums out this year so far that do a better job.
Troubled Horse – Revolution On Repeat (Rise Above)
So far my hard rock album of the year is the second album from Sweden’s Troubled Horse. A week and a half since it’s official release, I’m still waiting for my CD to arrive. Such is the limitations of the UK label Rise Above, lead by Lee Dorrian. They boast one of the best rosters of any indie label, but have not gotten the hang of properly promoting, let alone distributing, their bands in North America. Since their debut in 2012, they have been one of my favorite current bands alongside Graveyard, Witchcraft, The Hidden Masters, Wolf People, Spirits of the Dead and Syd Arthur. Highly recommended. | Full Review
Pallbearer – Heartless (Profound Lore)
Since their 2012 debut Sorrow And Extinction, Pallbearer have been remarkably celebrated, winning over a good sized audience beyond the cult doom metal community. While I didn’t feel they immediately surpassed contemporaries like Serpent Venom, Witch Mountain, Apostle Of Solitude and Goatess, they were exceptionally melodic and emotive along the lines of Warning’s classic Watching From A Distance (2006), and were clearly talented. They grow more accomplished with each album, and on their third, there’s much to love, including progressive rock flourishes and a freewheeling, original approach to songwriting that leaves behind traditional structures like bridges and choruses. This has rendered many fans awestruck, but fair warning, to those who more casual than deep listeners, it can end up a bit of a boring slog. It depends on my mood, but when I’m focused, I’m way into it. It’s not bad as background music either, as it wraps around your surroundings like a python, and you don’t realize you’re in their grip until you’re enveloped.
Royal Thunder – Wick (Spinefarm)
Another band that matriculated into the rock world with a debut in 2012, Atlanta’s Royal Thunder is just as original as Pallbearer. So why aren’t they getting as much attention and respect? While there are plenty of great bands lead by women, I still wonder if they aren’t getting their due because of the residual misogyny that’s been so rampant in the rock world. If any band can overcome it, it’s Royal Thunder as they are true road warriors. Most years they pass through town up to three times a year on various tours. They are relentless, and dedicated to honing their craft. The work is paying off, as Wick is pretty stunning, with Miny Parsonz’ vocal performance outdoing pretty much all their peers. Her range, from fragile vulnerability to blazing vengeance is stunning. The band is more than capable of framing the songs with a bewitching fusion of powerful hard rock and ornate, psychedelic touches, building moody backdrops. “We Slipped” features the prettiest melodies. Rather than revisiting the catchy chorus, however, they choose to spend the second half of song floating to the ether with some delicate overdubbed harmonies from Parsonz. They make sure to give Parsonz room to shine with a little bit of space in tracks like “Plans,” “Push” and the closer “We Never Fell Asleep.” While I won’t begrudge the talent of women in the pop world such as Beyonce and Adele, I find the music of the likes of Blues Pills and Royal Thunder much more satisfying. They are more convincingly soulful to my ears, and have clearly lived through some blues. Is it too late for bands like these to become stadium-filling stars? I wouldn’t think so, but until then consider ourselves lucky to get to witness giant talent like this in close proximity in small clubs. | Buy
Horisont – About Time (Century Media)
Horisont’s debut Två sidor av horisonten (2009) was sung half in Swedish, half in English, and was more rooted in semi-obscure Swedish 70s heavy psych influences like November and Träd, Gräs och Stenar. On their subsequent albums they have become simultaneously more accessible and more ambitious. Shinier production, keyboards and catchy tunes sometimes recall some of the best aspects of 70s and 80s AOR stadium rock. There are no tongues in cheeks or parody. The band seriously loves this music and it shows. They finally made their way to North America to tour last year, and are already in the middle of another tour here, a rare thing for a Swedish cult hard rock band. While Time Warriors (2013) and Odyssey (2015) also boast sci-fi themes, the band seems to be having more fun than ever here, with some of their most accomplished, sticky songwriting. “Without Warning” is heavy on keyboards straight out of Rush’s 1982 album Signals, but keeping the rock hard and brisk like it’s 1975. “Night Line” touches on the Celtic soul and guitar harmonies of Thin Lizzy with great success, while “Point Of Return” is an amazing mix of Who-sized anthemic vocals, proggy changes and even a jazz fusion interlude, all in a succinct 3:51 package. The album ends with the longest track, the appropriately epic and psychedelic title track, ending with some movie dialogue that suggests the story is not yet finished. There’s a treasure trove of killer tracks on all of the band’s five albums, but the latest is definitely the best place to start. Enjoy the journey. | Buy
The Obsessed – Sacred (Relapse)
Talk about long-awaited. This is the first album from doom metal pioneers The Obsessed in over 20 years. That’s a lot of anticipation to live up to, and depending on your expectations, Sacred may meet or exceed them, or it might disappoint you. One could imagine what they would have done after The Church Within (1994). There are clues in the albums Wino participated in since then with Spirit Caravan, The Hidden Hand and A Place Of Skulls, and the rest of the band who became Goatsnake. Those projects expanded The Obsessed’s rock ‘n’ doom sound into something more expansive, psychedelic and sludgy. So perhaps they might have sounded more like High On Fire. On the other hand, Wino felt the 90s should have been his moment to reach a wider crossover audience, so the next album might have been more stripped down and melodic. As I said in my “I Want A Wino Doll” piece a few years back, my favorite albums from Wino are The Obsessed’s Lunar Womb (1991) and The Hidden Hand’s Mother Teacher Destroyer (2004). I craved more of his psychedelic projects, with more focused attention on guitar tones like on The Hidden Hand. That is definitely not what we get with Sacred. But I’m not disappointed, as I got a preview with The Obsessed’s live tour over a year ago, and it was an excellent show. The little I heard of the new materials sounded engaging and hard-hitting. The band has achieved a really satisfying, thick but clean, pounding sound, a perfect balance of heavy and sharp, that previous projects from Saint Vitus and Goatsnake didn’t quite reach. Wino also toured with Spirit Caravan in recent years, but The Obsessed is special, it was his band from the beginning in the 70s. While this lineup includes two Spirit Caravan alum, Dave Sherman and Brian Costantino, it is a shift between bands.
Opener “Sodden Jackal” nods to the doomy past along the lines of Pentagram and Saint Vitus, while “Punk Crusher” could almost be a tribute to Lemmy of Motörhead with whom Wino shared a similar maverick/outlaw, but down to earth public personality. The succinct riffing and tight rhythms also remind me of ZZ Top. The band’s disciplined, soulful blues funk can be heard in tracks like “Its Only Money” and “Razor Wire.” One of Wino’s bluesiest tracks can be found in the bonus “Crossroader.” One of the darkest, moodiest tracks is the menacing “Stranger Things,” which would be an amazing addition to the TV show of the same name. The album wraps up with another quickfire, catchy highlight in “Be The Night.” Those who have the bonus tracks can enjoy the extended jams of the 9:06 long “On So Long.”
I’d love to see this album take off and win over the masses, but as sleek and concise as it is, it’s still a bit too raw and too real for the mainstream to digest. Nevertheless, no doubt it will be celebrated as a triumph in the communities that matter as The Obsessed are treated as returned heroes on their victory lap.
Spidergawd – IV (Crispin Glover/Stickman)
With members who have ties with Norway’s psych prog behemoths Motorpsycho, you might expect virtuoso rock with some showoffy solos. But with Spidergawd, it’s all about party rock packed with riffs, hooks, and unsentimental, sometimes silly lyrics, plus a saxophone. You’d think with four albums in four years, this formula would run dry, but their fourth is also their best. The secret is that these guys ARE virtuosos. They just keep the song lengths disciplined, the structures deceptively simple, but the songs very immediate and memorable. “Is This Love..?” could be a hybrid of Van Halen, Monster Magnet and Foo Fighters. All the best parts, of course, with the agility to be able to poignantly depict heartbreak and celebrate freedom. “What Have You Become” is another near-perfect adrenaline rush of a windows-down rocker. While the songs seem to fly by, they’re not all super short, with two at five and a half minutes and “What Must Come To Pass” stretching out to 8:17, playing with their psych prog roots a bit with an extended, majestic solo (their 2014 debut album featured the 14:25 long “Empty Rooms”). Okay, so they show off a little bit. I feel that a lot of people are starving for some hard rock that isn’t moronic, whiny or douchey, and they’ve given up on finding something fun and colorful that manages to have both dumb riffs and clever songs. Many have given up. They just haven’t heard Spidergawd yet. | Buy
The Devil And The Almighty Blues – II (Blues For The Red Sun)
Also from Norway, The Devil And The Almighty Blues, as you can imagine from their name, sport a jammier, bluesy approach to heavy rock. While some comparison could be made with a band like All Them Witches, that band uses the blues as a jumping point for some fairly restless explorations, while The Devil And The Almighty Blues (that’s a mouthful, let’s call them Devil Almighty) luxuriate in the blues like a natural spring bath in a way that Norwegians are comfortable with. While it would seem that the last word in the blues and heavy rock would have peaked with Hendrix, Cream and Led Zeppelin. However beyond covers, I can’t think of any Cream or Zep original that uses the blues as convincingly as “North Road.” It’s a tall order to compare to behemoths from another era, so let’s compare to one of my favorite bands, Sweden’s Graveyard, who incorporate some blues into their music. Devil Almighty matches their musicianship, but their passion arguably outdoes the Swedes. And the 10:57 long intro track, “These Are Old Hands” features a circular guitar riff that I just can’t get enough of. It reminds of of the riff on another Norwegian band, Spirit Of The Dead’s “Wheels Of The World,” the lead track to their last album. I could put both songs in a loop and listen to them for hours. But the album offers many other pleasures, like the brooding, sensual “When The Light Dies,” and “How Strange The Silence.” After the propulsive title track, the album simmers at low speed for over 25 minutes, until 3:50 into this track, the band injects some power, fluidly reaching a thrilling crescendo. “Neptune Brothers” ends the album on another high point with more memorable guitar hooks. At over 47 minutes it’s not a short album, but those riveted by these six tracks may be left craving more. For now their 2015 self-titled debut will do nicely, as it’s nearly as great.
Colour Haze – In Her Garden (Elektrohasch)
Circumstances sure are different from when I wrote “Colour Haze: Kings of Stoner/Psych Rock Mountain” in 2011. Still huffing the fumes of one now appears to be their career peak, All (2008), I was slavering for their next album, which took four long years to complete. The expansive double album She Said (2012) finally came out, and it was great. However, I did hope the band would also fulfill the promise of the sparkling psychedelic songwriting that All overflowed with. Bandleader Stefan Koglek did evolve and experiment, but more with loosely structured dabblings with Middle-Eastern structures and even modern classical music on To The Highest Gods We Know (2014). That album was unceremoniously released somewhat unexpectedly at the end of the year. Distribution was slow, so the album pretty much slipped under radars and missed out on year-end lists. Relatively brief (41:57) for a Colour Haze album, it felt like a step back from their usual forward progression, or at least a side-shuffle. But it was still one of my favorites of the year, because Colour Haze are awesome, dammit.
In Her Garden also surprised me. In fact, I didn’t know about it until a couple weeks after it’s March 10 release date. It doesn’t help that it’s not going to be distributed in the U.S. until May. I just don’t see that discrepancy benefiting anyone. Anyway, here it is, at 73 minutes, it’s their third longest album after She Said and what some fans consider their peak, Los Sounds de Krauts (2003). While “Black Lily” sounds like typical Colour Haze, if a bit slightly rougher hewn, “Magnolia” introduces keyboards, the kind of vintage Hammond (courtesy of Jan Fassbender) you’d hear on old jazz fusion records. They resurface on “Lavatera” and “Islands,” and while Koglek has always had a bit of a jazzy flair, the music pretty much sticks to the Colour Haze’s psych jam script rather than doing Bitches Brew. “Sdg I,” “Sdg II” and “Sdg III” are brief interludes of experimental pieces ranging from modern classical chamber music, to electronica to sitars. They are interesting palate cleansers, but it would be more interesting if their were incorporated into full-blown songs. The woodwinds and horns do reappear at the end of “Labyrinthe,” which is a nice touch. Strings also make an appearance on “Lotus.” For the most part, Koglek sticks to what he does best, expansive, jammy psychedelic rock with serpentine guitar lines and sweet, fuzzy tones. The sound seems to have a more up-front live feel, as you can almost imagine the wind sweeping in from the Tyrrhennian Sea onto the sandy hills in Sardinia, Koglek’s favorite place to play via Duna Jam. Unless I can make it to one of those performances in Europe, I’m resigned to only hearing their recordings. Last year they were scheduled to play Psycho Las Vegas, and I had a hotel booked and was all set to go, until they canceled at the last minute. Until then, one can do worse than this latest album. | Buy
Telekinetic Yeti – Abomidable (Sump Pump)
It amazes me that Telekinetic Yeti hails from Dubuque, IA, because when I was growing up there it was a dreary, decaying post-industrial hellhole. Except unlike Birmingham, there were no awesome bands at the time. The city bounced back economically in the decades since I left, and it’s actually pretty nice, especially when they can lay claim to this dynamic guitar and drums duo. Drifting in the dank, dark cracks between fuzz and sludge, the riffs are really unpredictable, bringing to mind late 80s era Melvins. Much of the album’s 41+ minutes are instrumental, but Alex Bauman does pitch in some shouty vocals now and then, like the slightly more tradionally structured “Stoned And Feathered.” The longest, trippiest track, “Colossus,” has a touch of prog along the lines of Elder at first, before slowing down into a lumbering doom break, then dissipating into ethereal space rock. These guys are really gifted, and I’ll be looking out for future shows and albums with keen interest.
Ecstatic Vision – Raw Rock Fury (Relapse)
Somewhat less fashionable in recent years than The Stooges, MC5 have had a colossal influence on punk and heavy metal (Deep Purple credited them with inspiring them to create In Rock). And now Philly’s Ecstatic Vision answers the question of what would have happened had MC5 gone with a more free-form, space-rockin’ Hawkwind direction on their albums. Raw Rock Fury continues the path that Sonic Praise (2015) began to find transcendence in sound and fury, digging deeper into the hard grooves, and also exploring a more trance-inducing blend of global music and a taste of free jazz and Mahavishnu Orchestra style fusion, particularly on the three part “Twinkling Eye.” I got to see them twice last year, including a smoking set at the legendary Roadburn festival in Tilburg, Netherlands. It’s their live shows where their power truly ignites.
Saturn – Beyond Spectra (Rise Above)
Since Swedish hard rockers Saturn released their debut album, Ascending: Live In Space (2014), they show an evolution from groovy proto-metal and psych into a brisker style of hard rock and heavy metal, similar to the evolution of Scorpions, UFO and Judas Priest during their transition from the early days of heavy psych prog and space rock. While their musicianship is plenty tight, there’s also a relatively raw, loose vibe to the recordings that suit them. Too many bands polish their sound into a dense obsidian obelisk of sound that make me just zone out, while Saturn is more unkempt hair with stray bits of sandwich and weed buds. The sound is familiar, but there is a fresh variety to the pacing of the album, making it hard to predict what will come next. The band are young and obviously having a blast. Enter their world Beyond Spectra and you will too.
Orango – The Mules Of Nana (Division/Stickman)
Where do all these great Norwegian bands come from? Oslo in the case of Orango, who are on their sixth album since 2003. They play bluesy hard rock with elements of folk and country soul (check out their three part vocal harmonies on the cover of Stephen Stills’ “Carry On”). To be honest I’ve found this earnest approach to rootsy southern hard rock a bit of a bore coming from most contemporary bands, but Orango are just such masters of the form at this point, I find myself completely absorbed by the incredible sound quality of the production, and those harmonies. By the time the cosmic country of “Ghost Riders” wraps up the album, I’m much more inclined to dig deeper into their discography than to listen to The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Demon Head – Thunder On The Fields (The Sign)
Danish hard rockers Demon Head are back after their debut album, Ride The Wildnerness (2015) which was great fun. Imagine The Damned’s Dave Vanian fronting an all-star lineup from Graveyard, Ghost and Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats. While Demon Head’s brand of doomy psych noir and proto-metal shares some elements with those bands, their melodies sound slightly off-kilter, which gives them a uniquely sinister effect. Nothing sounds straightforward — they even manage to make the acoustic intro to “Hic Svnt Dracones” sound evil.
Honorable mention goes to former Witchcraft, Troubled Horse and current Spiders guitarist John Hoyles, who released the short (21:38) but fabulous debut solo album, Night Flight, a departure from his previous projects that aims for more of a late 70s pub rock and garage-punk power pop vibe, along the lines of stuff that came out on Stiff Records. It includes “Police Car,” a solo track recorded by Larry Wallis of the Pink Fairies when he was house producer at Stiff Records! Hoyles also has yet another band called Big Kizz, where he’s playing bass with former Graveyard drummer Axel Sjöberg and guitarist/singer Pontus Westman of Swedish garage rockers Lady Banana. Their debut 7″ EP Eye On You comes out June 9 on Tee Pee records, with a full-length coming later in the year. Judging from the cheeky name and their covering Roky Erickson’s “White Faces,” I’m guessing this will also be more garage punk and power pop.
Thirteen to fifteen albums not enough for you? There’s much more out there, check out the monthly Doom Charts that I sometimes participate in. More along the lines of garage psych were great releases from Ty Segall, Fogbound and the upcoming Doug Tuttle album, which I will hopefully cover soon.