Dogbane – “Residual Alcatraz” (Heaven and Hell)
Dogbane certainly aren’t young dudes – in fact, most of them are pushing 40 – but at that age they certainly know what heavy metal is, having grown up during it’s birth in the late 70s and early 80s. As such this North Carolina crew play a straight up, no frills or Pro Tools HM with a stoner groove that very much harks back to that golden era: heavy warbling guitars, deep bass and cracking drums accompanied by Jeff Neal’s high-ish vocals define good, wholesome songs like ‘God Forgive You’, ‘Ride The Serpent’ and ‘How The Mighty Have Fallen’. What I like best about Dogbane is that much as they’re influenced by their youthful heroes of Sabbath, Priest etc, they don’t try to clone them or go for the retro approach – rather, they’re carrying on the HM torch that was handed to them by their fathers and faithfully executing it on the 10 honest tracks making up “Residual Alcatraz”, so rock on lads!
Mask Of Virtue – “In This World” (Rising Records)
Prepare yourselves for the Brit trance-core assault of Mask Of Virtue! Raw vocals and crunching riffs ride a magic carpet of electronica that will literally lift you off your seat it’s simply that overwhelming. I haveta confess I’m not a big fan of techno etc so something as blatant as this would normally have gone unnoticed by my hard boiled ears but programmer / sequencer Joe has done a remarkable job of carefully constructing his work into the band’s hardcore sound so songs like ‘The Bridges Will Burn’, ‘Never Coming Home’ and ‘Anger Of Me’ are given an invigorating and fresh appeal. There is some real talent here especially when considering how young Mask Of Virtue are and that they’ve only been going a coupla years – the question is whether the world is open enough to embrace their virtue?
Black Sabbath – “Iron Man: The Best of Black Sabbath” (UMC / Sanctuary Records)
Released to support the ongoing Black Sabbath 2012 Reunion Tour, “Iron Man: The Best of Black Sabbath” is a 14 track compilation of classic songs from across the band’s first eight albums, although bizarrely they’ve omitted stuff from “Sabotage” and “Technical Ecstasy” – and I’m not sure why especially when you consider classics like ‘Symptom Of The Universe’. Therefore the material is drawn from “Black Sabbath”, “Paranoid”, “Master Of Reality”, “Black Sabbath Vol 4”, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and “Never Say Die” – with old chestnuts like ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’, ‘N.I.B’ and ‘War Pigs’ once again featuring – although the track listing seems identical to their 2009 “Greatest Hits” compilation. With a fresh mix being the only seemingly discernable enhancement to this compilation, this would be suitable to anyone wanting to hear classic Ozzy era Sabbath without the fuss and sound quality limitations of the original vinyl.
Sabaton – “Carolus Rex” (Nuclear Blast)
Majestic power metal is what Sweden’s Sabaton play and certainly rousing it is! “Carolus Rex” may the existing band’s final album but it is also their finest hour. From heart pounding vocals to operatic choirs to glorious melodies to exquisite violins, songs like ‘The Lion From the North’, ‘A Lifetime Of War’ and ‘Long Live The King’ resonate tales of glory told with passion and classical fervor. This is the stuff that military bands dream of playing and Sabaton have it drilled to perfection! Traditionally basing their material on historical wars, this time they have returned home to tell the tale of Sweden’s ‘Stormaktstiden’ – essentially how Sweden became an empire – and its last proponent, Charles XII (aka Karl XII or Carolus Rex) who spent over half his life at war. Like I said, it’s chest beating stuff and not without contention given its modern day associations with Swedish nationalist movements, but politics aside, “Carolus Rex” is as regal as its title and befitting of an empire itself!
Candlemass – “Psalms For The Dead” (Napalm Records)
After 28 years, this will be Candlemass’s 11th and final studio album, after which the band will continue only as a touring band, although I believe vocalist Rob Lowe has already left them LOL! Well, the good news is that they are going out on a high note, if a lighter one in terms tempering their dark, evil tones in favour of returning to their roots of Black Sabbath. It’s still very much doom, but Lowe is actually singing songs like ‘Prophet’, ‘Waterwitch’ and ‘Black As Time’ very much like Ozzy rather than in the classic operatic soprano vein that defined Candlemass. Furthermore, the use of hammond organ and some light harmony vocals is definitely more in the 70s style and maybe giving a nod towards the stoner market – well, it’s their last album so why not milk it LOL. Still, it’s been a magnificent career for these guys right from when we first heard “Epicus Doomicus Metallicus” in ’86 to being the defining band of Swedish doom – Candlemass, I salute thee!
Grand Magus – “The Hunt” (Nuclear Blast)
I used to think that these Swedes were a pretty good stoner metal band but along with changing their label for this album, they seem to have gone back to their heavy metal roots. Remaining a three piece although now with Spiritual Beggars drummer Ludwig Witt to replace Sebastian Sippola, JB still possesses a fine voice and on songs like ‘Silver Moon’, ‘Valhalla Rising’ and ‘Son Of The Last Breath’ he now has the opportunity to showcase his ability to handle soulful and melodic stuff along with their more aggressive tones. Rhythmically the band is as tight as ever allowing them to ably handle the groovier and more harmonious material that I wouldn’t have imagined on their previous releases, so “The Hunt” has definitely progressed them now more into the realms of a traditional viking HM band. Grand Magus continue to remain grand, but they’ve cleaned up their act, taken a bath and emptied the ashtray on this one.
Dark New Day – “New Tradition” (Goomba Music)
DND is a hard rock supergroup made up of guitarist Clint Lowery (Sevendust), bassist Corey Lowery (Eye Empire), drummer Will Hunt (Evanescence), Troy McLawhorn (Evanescence) and vocalist Brett Hestla (Virgos Merlot). It’s been almost 7 years since we last heard from these guys with their debut ‘Twelve Year Silence’, yet unbelievably all the songs making up “New Tradition” were written only a year after that album! Whatever the case, the good news is that songs like ‘Take It From Me’, ‘I Don’t Need You’ and ‘Fiend’ don’t sound dated despite the agit cover and song titles, which related to some label beefs at the time. With a similar, if groovier sound to that of Alter Bridge with big Americana power rock riffs and soulful vocals, DND may have picked an opportune moment to release these tracks to a brand new market!
Natur – “Head Of Death” (Earache Records)
These Rhode Island stoners continue where Sabbath left for the dark world of doom. Playing early 70s occult rock amped up for today characterized by heavy fuzz guitar, booming bass and Weibust’s high wailing vocals, they also appear to live in a marijuana plantation judging by their far out songs like ‘Goblin Shark’, ‘Spider Baby’ and ‘Mutations In Maine’! Along with Hour Of 13, Cauldron, Barn Burner etc there seems to be quite a revival in ‘old metal’ and Natur are right up there with them, along with their own brand of upbeat stoner rock and given their fascination with the sea, could give the likes of Alestorm a run for their ale!
Sonata Arctica – “Stones Grow Her Name” (Nuclear Blast)
These Finns have been through quite an evolution in their time starting off as hard rock before becoming a Stratovarius inspired power metal band. On this album they have evolved yet again into a decidedly lighter direction that incorporates new styles from country to renaissance to medieval although it remains upbeat with Tony Kakko’s trademark high end vocals, chundering rock guitar and keyboard atmospherics all of which add up to make for strongly melodic songs that are both energetic and actually sound like the band are having fun! Rather than go for complexity, ballads like ‘Alone In Heaven’ sound like they’ve been composed acoustically before switching on the power, whilst the likes of ‘Wildfire Part III’ see SA almost going into Queen rock opera territory resplendent with loads of piano and tweeting birdsong LOL. If that isn’t strange enough then try ‘Shitloada ‘O Money’, which is a throwback to 80s LA rock n roll although the prize has to go to ‘Cinderblox’ – a country toon no less complete with fiddle and banjo so much so that I was expecting C.W. McCall to be rappin’ in – c’mon! Definitely one of the more bizarre releases this year….
A Silent Escape – “A Silent Escape” (www.asilentescape.com)
Get ready for the big one. From the ashes of Sweden’s Union Square comes A Silent Escape, who fuse punk pop vocals with In Flames guitar power melodies and Guns N Roses soloing! With over 11 years experience already under their belt, I wouldn’t say A Silent Escape are exactly new to this and the breathtaking confidence at which they belt out songs like ‘Final Chapter’, ‘God’s A Liar’ and ‘My Habit’ reflects those years as well as their talent to include some piano and electronics craftily without giving the game away. As Union Square only folded for contractual reasons with Warner (a major label no less), A Silent Escape is pretty much the continuation of a band that won best unsigned act from Bandit Rock (Sweden’s biggest rock radio station), MTV Sweden & ZTV!