Reviews Round-Up May 2021
• HANGING GARDEN – ‘Skeleton Lake’
• KLONE – ‘Alive’
• CIRITH UNGOL – ‘Half Past Human’
• BURNING WITCHES – ‘The Witch Of The North’
• JAMESON RAID – ‘Raiderstronomy’
• AMORPHIS – ‘Live At Helsinki Ice Hall’ / ESA HOLOPAINEN – ‘Silver Lake’
Is it fair to say that HANGING GARDEN are the perfect band to personify the trying times of the past twelve months? The Finns’ catalogue tends to offer a bleak reflection of reality and ‘Skeleton Lake’ (Lifeforce Records, 21 May), their seventh album, is no exception, doing nothing to brighten an already desolate landscape. But in desolation there lies beauty: ‘Skeleton Lake’ is a powerful and stately offering, demanding and prepossessing and beautifully hewn from the harshest of gothic, doom-laden melancholy from which the members of Hanging Garden reach for the stars. Nine magnificent compositions are infused with both darkness and light, and songs like ‘Field Of Reeds’ and the title track in particular wrestle with the whole spectrum of human emotion. Although relatively new, the interplay between vocalists Toni Toivonen and Riikka Hatakka has become a crucial element of the band’s sound since Hatakka became a permanent member in 2019, but the instrumentalists deserve great credit for painting a broad canvas on which the singers can weave their magic. The middle order offers up a more sanguine version of the band, as in ‘Winter’s Kiss’ and ‘When The Music Dies’ the male vocals are clean and the ensuing duets offer an almost uplifting and moving alternative to the solemnity found elsewhere on the album. But it’s a brief respite, just the opposite side of a spinning coin, and, like an unforgiving Finnish winter, the harshness soon returns.
One of those bands that seem almost determined to be a well-kept secret, KLONE came together in 1999, although their roots can be traced back to Sowat, put together some four years previously. The French progressive metal band plough the same furrow as the likes of, say, Riverside, with brooding, melodic arrangements and beautifully-delivered vocals that hint of desperation and despair, and with six studio albums under their belts (and disregarding their self-explanatory ‘Unplugged’) 2021 sees them unveiling their first live album ‘Alive’ (Kscope, 11 June). The downside is that the album has been pulled together from two very distinct shows – the first recorded at ProgPower Europe in October 2016 and the second from a gig in France some thirty-seven months later. In one respect that gives ‘Alive’ the chance to showcase more than just the album they were touring when they decided to do a live album, but the audience fades between some of the tracks is something you need to get used to once more. But, that quibble aside, ‘Alive’ is a splendid album, and a fabulous showcase for this amazingly under-rated band. Listen to songs like ‘Rocket Smoke’ and ‘Give Up The Rest’ and revel in the band’s craftsmanship. ‘Alive’ is available on vinyl and CD, but ‘The Last Experience’ is omitted from the CD.
Back in the day CIRITH UNGOL were almost the ultimate cult band. With their distinctive cover art and Tim Baker’s idiosyncratic voice, the band’s four albums released between 1981 and 1991 bookended a glorious decade for what was then the Californian quartet, after which they disbanded. Bassist, promoter, manager and all-round metaller Jarvis Leatherby prompted a re-union in 2015 and as a five-piece (with Leatherby joining Baker, Greg Lindstrom, Jim Barraza and Robert Garven – all Ungolites of past formations) Cirith Ungol have been on the festival circuit and in the studio since appearing at the second Frost & Fire fest in October 2016. Following on from 2020’s ‘Forever Black’, ‘Half Past Human’ (Metal Blade, 28 May) is a stonkingly good twenty-two minute EP which shows that the band have lost none of their bite nor their bluster, and although it’s hard to pick a particular favourite from the four cuts on offer the seven-minute title track is a true epic in every sense of the word, grinding away until the pace picks up for a stunning finale. A spectacular release from a pioneering band.
There’s that old quote from ‘The Third Man’ that from brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace Switzerland could only produce the cuckoo clock, but writer Graham Greene had never come across BURNING WITCHES. It’s impossible not to like this band. ‘The Witch Of The North’ (Nuclear Blast, 28 May) – the band’s fourth album – sees yet another shuffle in the line-up, with guitarist Larissa Ernst replacing Sonia Nusselder, but other than that it’s business as usual for the metal queens. From the choral intro tape ‘Winter’s Wrath – you can visualise the phone torches waving in the air as it plays – to the end of ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’ an hour or so later the supercharged Swiss quintet and flag-flyers for traditional metal romp through fourteen songs, riffing and soloing away to their hearts’ content. The self-explanatory ‘The Circle Of Five’ is a real feast of delights, and never a band to shy away from the odd cover version their spin on ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’ (with Chris Caffery on hand to add some solos) is an enthralling homage to the Savatage original.
With so much new music doing the rounds it’s easy to forget what’s gone before, and although things must move forward it’s essential not to neglect the past. ‘Raiderstronomy’ by JAMESON RAID (High Roller Records, out now) simply wraps up the seven tracks from their two EPs (‘Seven Days Of Splendour’ and ‘The Hypnotist’) and adds ‘Hard Lines’, their offering on 1980’s ‘Metal For Muthas Volume 2’ compilation. The result is a fascinating snapshot of one of the many NWOBHM bands who should – and could – have gone all the way, had the dice fallen in their favour. In Jameson Raid, Terry Dark, Ian Smith, John Ace and Phil Kimberley created something truly special, and although the production dates the material the songs themselves are in a class of their own. As a bonus, the CD version of the album features a remix of the three tracks from the ‘Seven Days Of Splendour’ EP; these tracks appear in updated replica artwork as a stand-alone 7” single with the LP, along with the usual ephemera the lads at High Roller usually add to their releases.
Let’s wrap things up with another Finnish lake. But first, whereas some bands inevitably peak and become a parody of themselves, others just keep improving with age. In the latter camp sit AMORPHIS who, despite being around for twenty-plus years, seem to get better and better. ‘Live At Helsinki Ice Hall’ (Nuclear Blast, 21 May) was recorded in December 2019 and so is a real gig taped in front of a real crowd (anyone remember those?). Amorphis are not only a great band, but they are an even greater live band, and the fifteen-track performance bristles with vitality. If you could bottle the presence this band has you could sell it for an absolute fortune. So once you’ve bought ‘Live...’, and their expansive ‘Vinyl Collection 2006 – 2020’ (Nuclear Blast, 21 May), you’ll need to investigate ESA HOLOPAINEN’s ‘Silver Lake’ (Nuclear Blast, 28 May). The debut solo album from Amorphis’s incredibly talented lead guitarist is like a chest of treasures, and the deeper you dig into it the more riches you discover. The songs Holopainen has written for the album are, in the main, quite different from the day job, and the acoustic opener – the title track – might lead you down a false path as to what to expect. Once the album starts to reveal itself though you’ll notice that ‘Promising Sun’ does have traces of Amorphis DNA, and ‘In Her Solitude’ (featuring bandmate Tomi Jousten) could sit happily on an Amorphis album. Elsewhere though ‘Silver Lake’ sways from gentle pop to ‘let’s-take-this-outside’ belligerence, and a fabulous guest list of singers (or should that be a guest list of fabulous singers?), including the ever-gifted Anneke van Giersbergen, Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse, Einar Solberg from Leprous and Björn Strid (Soilwork / The Night Flight Orchestra), help bring the guitarist’s album to life. An exceptional debut from an artist of no mean vision...
© John Tucker May 2021