Mastodon – Once More ‘Round The Sun (Reprise)
After the first week, Mastodon entered the Billboard Album Chart at #6. That’s a pretty great placing for a metal album, even though some think it somehow means metal is in decline since one of its best bands can’t sell as much as Metallica. Durrr, no. That makes no sense. With metal fests flourishing around the world and tons of sold out tours, metal is doing just fine. But there are so many genres now, no one is going to agree on one singular band to represent metal. Though if you go strictly by sales the past few years, then I guess it’s a close race between Avenged Sevenfold, Linkin Park and Five Finger Death Punch. While it is true that fewer metal albums take the top positions in the charts, look at who we had in the top 100 in 2002 — Creed, Linkin Park, Nickelback, Puddle Of Mudd, P.O.D., Kid Rock, System Of A Down, Incubus, Korn and Staind. So yeah, who gives a flying rat’s ass?
I’m just amazed that Black Sabbath’s 13, which debuted at #1, actually sold enough to be ranked #86 in sales for 2013. Perhaps there is hope. But we don’t need Mastodon to save metal. They’re doing just fine, doing what they do, selling out venues that are larger than I prefer to see them in. That’s no problem, I saw them plenty of times in small clubs from 2003 to 2012, and they’ve gradually grown their audience despite all the bitching that they “lost their way” after Leviathan (2004) or even Remission (2002), ha! Their prog metal odyssey Crack The Skye (2009) was one of my favorites, and The Hunter (2011) scaled back the ambition for simplicity, it was still a good album. I was definitely anticipating the new one, particularly when they revealed the stunning artwork by Oakland artist Skinner. And it’s just about as great as I imagined, aside from the fact that based on the artwork I thought they might go in a more psychedelic direction. That didn’t really happen, though it is a great summary of their strengths, improving on the melodicism of The Hunter, some complex prog metal and occasional glimpses of their sludgier past.
Mastodon balance elements that keep fans of several different sub-genres interested, which is why critics probably use them to project all sorts of baggage, good and bad. They’re certainly not meant to be all things to all fans of, say, Triptykon, Agalloch, Tombs and Behemoth. So while it’s ridiculous to say they’re hand down the best metal band of the past decade, they are certainly one of the great ones, and deserve any of the mainstream love they may or may not get. There’s no need to go into song-by-song detail, as pretty much every magazine and blog on the planet have already done so. Now to scratch my itch for some truly psychedelic albums…
Electric Citizen – Sateen (RidingEasy)
What a great surprise. I’d been paying attention to the Riding Easy label, which has put out a handful of favorites this year in Monolord, Hornss and Salem’s Pot, but this July 1 release seemed to come out of nowhere. The Cincinnati band specializes in heavy psych and proto-metal with a female lead. But let’s make this clear right away. Having a woman as a lead singer is not a gimmick, and there is not a “glut” of such bands. While there have been a handful of new female-lead bands coming up since I first wrote my Metal Sirens piece a couple years ago, it’s merely a small contribution to balancing out a huge cosmic imbalance in the rock world. Of course women rock, and of course many of them can sing heavy music better than most men. It’s about time someone put a dent in the boring dominance of males, and their sorry-ass attempts to exaggerate their masculinity by attempting to sound like they’re gargling rusty nails, or having their nails slowly extracted from their fingers.
Despite having formed only a year ago, the band seems to have much more cumulative experience. I imagine they came together from different bands with creative juices overflowing, and had most of their songs written right away, having released an EP just six months later. Now they have already taken part in a successful tour with stoner rock legends Fu Manchu. They also seem to have some nice record collections with hints of influences from all sorts of obscure heavy psych and proto-metal from 1968 through the early 70s. Their name comes from the song “Death of an Electric Citizen” by the Edgar Broughton Band, an anarchic bluesy psych group from the UK. Laura Dolan’s vocals sound like she isn’t naturally the strongest belter in the world, but multi-tracking solves that issue no problem. Works for Ozzy and a million other singers. There’s also some rollicking, harder rocking moments that cherry pick from the NWOBHM era. That’s my jams! The closest contemporary comparison might be Portland’s Satyress, who they actually shared a bill with on a Northwest date of their Fu Manchu tour. I’d have love to been there. This Saturday they’re opening for Budos Band at Metro, but I’ll be at a wedding, dangit! Highly recommended. | Buy
Les Big Byrd – They Worshipped Cats (Höga Nord/A Records)
This psych band is probably not what you’d imagine coming from Sweden. While there may be a tiny element of smoky 70s heavy psych that’s primarily popular in their country, they are primarily influenced by kosmische/Krautrock, with more in common with early Stereolab singles, Spiritualized, Moon Duo and Föllakzoid, but with even better honed melodic instincts. They retain just the right amount of garage fuzz to avoid too polished a sound, but the infectious pop qualities, danceable beats and ridiculously awesome album art put this band in serious danger of becoming equally loved by critics, hipsters and pretty girls. I could see a Tame Impala-sized audience catching on, and it would be well deserved. If I end up tolerating a huge, sweaty, annoyingly young and probably drug-addled crowd waving day-glo sticks in 2015, it’ll likely be for Les Big Byrd.
Holy Mountain – Ancient Astronauts (Chemikal Underground)
On to the foggy bogs of Scotland, we return to some heavy fuzz. The relatively young band had put their influences on their sleeves, and their name, taken from an album by stoner doom pioneers Sleep, (or the film by Alejandro Jodorowsky, but they totally listened to Sleep) especially on their first EP, Earth Measures (Chemikal Underground, 2012). On their full-length debut, they live up to the title’s statement of intent, drifting outwards into space steering slighting towards the meditative orbits of Om and the psychedelic space sludge of the massive black star that is Ufomammut. Not that you could mistake them for those bands, as they also retain their distinctly loose-limbed style with high energy riffing. Oh yes do they have riffs, fat, bluesy and feisty, along the lines of a sped-up Elder or Wo Fat. Their sound, however, is less dense and monolithic than those bands, leaving more space for the addictive guitar solos. This band made sure their spaceship was equipped with a basement practice space with wood panels and deep shag carpet. | Buy
Messenger – Illusory Blues (Svart)
There’s always a fine line in prog rock between complex music that can be fully captivating, and completely boring. London’s Messenger occasionally teeter, but successfully stay on the good side, referencing everything from 60s psych, space-rockin’ era Pink Floyd, and folk spanning from traditional to Angels of Light and gorgeous violin-assisted Americana. No wonder Finnish avant psych label Svart snapped them up as they expand their reach to include them and American pastoral psych rockers The Golden Grass. Compared to my usual fare, Messenger are rarely heavy. But their graceful, ornate music draws me in.
The Vintage Caravan – Voyage (Nuclear Blast)
When Iceland’s The Vintage Caravan formed in 2006, the hard rock power trio were just barely teenagers. 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 a couple years ago. Check out the world-weary ballad “Do You Remember,” where they sound like battleworn old souls. That vocal hook is amazing, and would have been a huge hit 30 years ago. With similarities to a precocious young Paul Rodgers, Óskar Logi’s voice does not sound like that of a teen. The whole album exudes massive talent and confidence, hence Nuclear Blast signing them. “Let Me Be” features great, thick and fuzzy guitars, while the arrangements and extended solo on heavy psych rocker “Expand Your Mind” matches the instrumental prowess of older bands like Radio Moscow and Rival Sons. They get even more ambitious on “Winterland” and “The King’s Voyage” by incorporating some prog circa King Crimson. I can’t wait to hear how another two years of growth sounds on their next one.
Radio Moscow – Magical Dirt (Alive Naturalsound)
Radio Moscow is also a power trio based on the Cream/Hendrix/Mountain template, heavy on the blues with some psych. They sound like they could be Swedish, but actually started in Story City, Iowa. Main man Parker Griggs had gone through a few rounds of musicians, but with the sound and vision in his control, their four albums have continuity, despite losing some talented members who went on to form Blues Pills, who comes out with their debut full-length in a couple weeks. Now based in L.A. the band hasn’t veered away from their riff-heavy blues psych since the last album, The Great Escape of Leslie Magnafuzz (2011). What we get are just a great new batch of songs that may lack the hooks of the occasional single from The Black Keys, but make up for it in tight musicianship and a perfect, heavy sound.
Rival Sons – Great Western Valkyrie (Earache)
With their fourth album, Rival Sons are at the peak of their powers, and seem poised for world domination. Which is why I was shocked to see it reach only 104 in the Billboard charts after its release last month, with only 3,150 copies sold. What?! This band had been building a huge buzz since their second album, Pressure And Time (2011), winning over audiences with a fiery live show. Their not-so secret weapon is singer Jay Buchanon, who’s vocal work has reached a new level with this album. He has a deep toolkit that includes soulful wails rivaling Steve Marriott (Small Faces/Humble Pie), husky croons (Paul Rodgers of Free/Bad Company), vibrato (Roger Chapman of Family) and of course Robert Plant’s screams. I’m not saying he’s totally derivative, just that he’s one of the best rock singers around who can only be compared with the best of the best. The band brings it all together with musicianship that surpasses most of their peers. While I have a preference for more psychedelic leaning sounds, their bluesy ballads and rockers are top notch. Great Western Valkyrie is a better album than Black Keys’ El Camino, the 10th best selling album of 2012 and even 79th of 2013. Not to keep picking on the Keys, whose recent Turn Blue is quite good. Just not as good as Rival Sons. I’m certain that within the year, another million people or so will have figured that out. I just caught their show the other night near the end of their tour, and they were amazing. Some younger guys were losing their minds because they probably had never seen a truly great rock show before. I’m sure I’ll never get to see them in a club that small again, as they take their rightful place near the top of festival lineups before long.
Three Seasons – Grow (Transubastans)
Back in 2011 I binged on nearly everything on Transubstans roster which was probably a bit too much at once. I was on the fence on their debut Life’s Road. Though singer Sartez Faraj was in Siena Root who I like, Three Seasons seemed to abandon heavy psych for a bit too Ten Years After/hippie jam band. On their third album, these Swedes have focused their sound, with Faraj kicking off the album with some wailing worthy of Humble Pie or Rod Stewart’s work with Jeff Beck. Some prog elements help keep the blues rock fresh. They’ve reached a level of musicianship on par with the likes of Radio Moscow, The Golden Grass and Blues Pills, and occasionally hints of Graveyard influence. I went back and listened to Understand The World (2012) and it’s nearly as great. My only reservation is that the recording seems to completely lack bottom end, and is very trebly compared to records from the other bands. It must be a conscious choice to stand apart from the others for a more twee pre-1968 production style, but I don’t think it works. I’m sure hearing them live would put the difference between the albums and their show in stark contrast.
Liquido Di Morte – Liquido Di Morte (SSTARS)
While their Bandcamp page mentions post-meal and post-rock, this sounds like pure psychedelic space metal with just a touch of prog and sludge, possibly inspired by fellow Italians Ufomammut. On “Ozric Pentacles,” over a great circular riff, what sounds liek a clip from a sci-fi movie recites some great lines that concludes with, “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” The credits only say this of the lyrics: “Stolen.” Ha ha ha.
Judas Priest – Redeemer Of Souls (Sony)
It’s hard to believe that Judas Priest first formed way back in 1969 as Freight. Within a year they had changed their name to Judas Priest, not long after another Birmingham band called Earth became Black Sabbath. They took a bit longer (nearly 6 years) to evolve their sound from hippie psych into the definitive modern metal band. But for a band that probably inspired a number of scenes in Spinal Tap, they sound remarkably spry. It’s amazing to think that the last time they made a comeback of sorts after their first lull in quality output with Painkiller (1990), the band seemed like ancient masters. Yet they’d only been around for 20 years by then. It’s now been another 24 years since that album, and they sound as if their wilderness years with the wrong lead singer and valient comeback efforts like Angel Of Retribution (2005), where they slowly slide further down the rabbit hole of irrelevance, never happened. Redeemer Of Souls revisits some of the successes of the past that made them great, while still sounding like it was recorded this year. And it smokes.
Bongripper – Miserable (Burning World)
Chicago’s Bongripper has been laying low in recent years. It’s been four years since their last full-length, Satan Worshipping Doom (2010). They did do a couple split EPs last year to remind the world of their existence and forthcoming impending instrumental stoner doom, including a split with Conan. They haven’t changed that much, but for some slow-moving entities, evolution is overrated.
Ocean Chief – Universums härd (I Hate)
A few years back I was turned on to Ocean Chief after buying an EP from up and coming Swedish stoner doom band Spelljammer (who hopefully have a full length on it’s way soon). Fellow Swedes Ocean Chief have been putting out heavy slabs of psychedelic space doom/sludge since 2004. On their fourth and latest full-length, vocals are kept to a minimum, reserved only to embellish peak moments of existential fury, somewhat like Ufomammut. There’s not a lot of obvious hooks to draw you in. Rather, you just have to let it envelop you, and revel in the oppressive textures.
Blues Pills – Blues Pills (Nuclear Blast) July 28/Aug 5
There’s a lot of excited anticipation for this one. I first wrote about Blues Pills back in April 2012 (Metal Sirens) when they emerged fully formed on the Bliss EP (Crusher). It’s truly an international mix of highly accomplished musicians from Iowa (Cory Berry and Zach Anderson formerly of Radio Moscow), bluesy powerhouse vocalist Elin Larsson and drummer Jonas Askerlund (Dead Man) from Sweden, and budding superstar guitarist Dorian Sorriaux from France. From their tip-top songwriting, musicianship and performances from previous recordings on the aforementioned EP, Devil Man EP (Crusher/Nuclear Blast, 2013) and Live At Rockpalast EP (2014), this band could become pretty popular to a cross section of people who like not only heavy psych and blues, but just great rock ‘n’ roll. Reviews are trickling out, but Nuclear Blast USA doesn’t seem to deem Fast ‘n’ Bulbous significant enough to merit a review copy. Fortunately, you can get a cool track-by-track preview with commentary by Elin below. It comes out in Europe July 28 and U.S. August 5, with some cool packages available for pre-order. | Preorder