Heathen – Empire Of The Blind Review

Empire Of The Blind was released in September on Nuclear Blast. Heathen are perhaps not the world’s most prolific band, having only released their fourth studio album since their 1980s inception in 2020, but when they do put something out, you can be sure its going to be good.

Carrying on the general sound and vibe of their previous album, The Evolution Of Chaos, this new album sees the band once again blasting out crunchy Bay Area Thrash Metal riffs, a variety of fast, slow and mid-paced material, great melodic catchy choruses and superb melodic lead guitar lines. (Guitarist Lee Altus clearly uses Heathen nowadays as a vehicle to let out the cleaner catchier stuff that wouldn’t fit with his other band, Exodus).

The only main shift in direction from the previous record would be the amount of mid-paced or groove based parts is higher, and the number of speedy parts is a bit lower (although thankfully, without crossing the barrier into being ploddy).

They don’t frontload it and shove a bunch of filler at the end, it starts off restrained, opens up as it goes along, with the power-ballad just after the middle as a bit of a breather. It arguably gets better as it goes on, and also doesn’t drag on too long, clocking in at a solid 47 minutes with 10 proper tracks, an intro and an outro. The production is flawless, the vocals are remarkably good for singer Dave White’s age (holds up a lot better than many of his ‘80s contemporaries), and the overall flow of the album is just right.

Highlights include the tight and bouncy “Blood To Be Let” and the speedy “The God’s Divide” (I wish that was the album opener actually) as well as and the muscular “In Black” which feels like it could be played at sporting events, and reminds me a tiny little bit of the meatier material on Metallica’s Death Magnetic album (think “Judas Kiss” and “Broken, Beaten, Scarred”). The instrumental “A Fine Red Mist” is the real standout moment however, which balances the faster more powerful riffing with grand guitar textures and victorious mountaintop vista, sword-in-hand feel.

Kragen Lum has been handling the heavy lifting in the song-writing department, and seems to be more into creating a mood and leaving room for the singer and lead guitars to show their stuff, rather than just breaking teeth. The balance is not too dissimilar to recent Queensryche albums actually, (I don’t see how someone who loves Condition Human for example wouldn’t enjoy “Shrine Of Apathy”) although still unmistakably Heathen.

If I was to make a slight criticism, it would be that the album could maybe do with one or two faster songs to keep the Thrashing up. For example just one more “The God’s Divide” would have elevated it from good to very good for me, but that’s just nit-picking and personal preference really, and Heathen have never exactly been a Dark Angel or Razor focusing on relentless speed anyway. As long as you don’t go in expecting Darkness Descends, Violent Restitution, Reign In Blood or Pleasure To Kill however, this album is sure to satisfy and if you enjoyed their previous album The Evolution Of Chaos then there’s little chance you’ll be disappointed with the quality of the songs or the performance of the musicians.

Riverside – Wasteland Review

Polish Prog Metal band Riverside suffered the terrible loss of their lead guitarist Piotr Grudziński less than half a year after their superb sixth full-length studio album; Love, Fear & The Time Machine.

After the difficult decision to carry on without replacing him, their next and at time of writing newest album was released in 2018 via InsideOut Music and met with deserved acclaim (and surprisingly in this day and age, sold relatively well for a prog album, continuing their streak of gold albums in their homeland).

It can’t have been easy carrying on without such a key member of the band, who’d been there since the very start, but somehow they managed to create a beautiful, affecting, and very interesting album with no loss of quality, while also not losing their ‘sound’ or ‘spirit’. If they had understandably chosen not to continue after 2016, they would have been leaving us with a wonderful catalogue. As it stands however, on Wasteland they do a masterful job of continuing their genuinely near-flawless discography and only solidifying their legacy as absolute masters of the genre.

The actual playing and vocals are top notch. The production and mixing and have a tasteful, stripped back, classic-sounding, raw feel that perfectly suits the material and the place in the band’s discography.

The real magic of the album however, comes from the material here, which is simply wonderful from start to finish. There isn’t one track I would lose, edit or alter. Nine perfectly balanced no-fat tracks over 50 minutes and not outstaying its welcome.

Its so good all the way through it could be difficult to choose highlights, but if you like the band at their proggiest, then check out nine-and-a-half minute “The Struggle For Survival” which features a bit of a 21st Century Schizoid Man/Heart Of The Sunrise/The Necromancer vibe with a lot of instrumental muscle flexing with some brilliant bass and keyboard showing off (and Maciej Meller’s guest guitar solo is especially quite entertaining in a Fripp sort of way). If however you prefer the band just writing good songs; then the varied ‘Veil Of Tears’ and the haunting and touching semi-ballad ‘Guardian Angel’ for example are two of the best songs the band have ever released to date.

This is a record with a lot of up front charm and instantaneous gratification, but a lot of mood, atmosphere and subtle depth as well and even the tracks that don’t drop your jaw right away become favourites in time (I like “River Down Below” more every single time I hear it for example, and I do mean every single time, I can’t say that for many other bands). As with all the Riverside albums to date, I can’t recommend it enough.

Overkill – The Electric Age Review

Overkill are one of the hardest working, relentless, dependable bands in Thrash Metal. Much like Motorhead were, they were constantly on the road or pumping out album after album, flying the flag and keeping the faith over the years (and still are) wether the media were paying attention or not.

Their first four albums are pretty indispensable Thrash Metal must-haves that I am very find of. I keep a framed vinyl copy of The Years Of Decay on my wall as decoration. I can’t claim to be their biggest ever fan, for example I didn’t give their ‘90s output as much attention as I should have until recently, but I have been slowly rectifying that, and I still have a very high regard of the band even if I don’t know every single thing they ever released. Public opinions seem to be mixed on almost everything after their WFO album, but I remember clearly when almost the whole media, fan community and internet were united in love for their 2010 album Ironbound. That was a fantastic, reenergised, retro but modern, firecracker of an album that filtered what was good about classic Overkill and modernised it, and crucially had the songwriting and performance to back up the production and brilliant formula. To make a Testament comparison, it was very much their Formation Of Damnation.

What happened after Ironbound though? Was it an anomalous high-water mark like Megadeth’s Endgame but then they slowly slipped back down from the heights? Or was it a kick up the ass that was just the beginning of a new period of great album after great album?

Luckily, it was the latter. How do you possibly follow up a career rejuvenation like Ironbound? “Easy,” said Overkill a mere two years later, and promptly issued forth another fired-up, teeth shattering, razor sharp collection of classic yet modernised tracks that give the fans exactly what they want, but somehow without just recycling old material. Stylistically, it is a continuation but also a fine-tuning of what they did on Ironbound, with a few less over-long songs, and a slight rejigging of the ratio of Thrash to Classic Metal to Groove aspects, with a bit less groove this time around and a lot more thrash.

Another superb production job with great guitar tone (and more importantly for Overkill, bass tone), another impressive Ron Lipnicki drum performance, another example of Blitz’s singing/attitude at his very best (gotta love his sarcastic sounding angry snarl) all serve to compliment that aforementioned style and add to the quality of the record as a whole.

Highlights include the single “Electric Rattlesnake” as well as the brief but satisfying “Old Wounds, New Scars” and best of all is probably “Save Yourself” which is just a perfect example of the sound, spirit and style of Overkill.

If you liked Ironbound, this is a tighter, faster, even better version of what that album achieved. If you ever liked Overkill at all, there’s practically no chance you wouldn’t like The Electric Age. Sixteen original studio albums deep into their forty-year career, it was/is pretty exciting to think that the band were/still are able to make material this good.

Heathen – The Evolution Of Chaos Review

Heathen are one of the better of the underrated Bay Area Thrash Metal bands, from their melodic and catchy 1987 debut Breaking The Silence, to their dense and slightly progressive Victims Of Deception in 1991. After a long period of inactivity with only occasional appearances, they finally returned with 2010’s The Evolution Of Chaos (or 2009, if you lived in Japan).

Their guitarist Lee Altus has been making a name for himself in Exodus in recent years, and Exodus repay the favour with guest appearances on here by singer Rob Dukes and guitarist Gary Holt.

This album is very much modern Thrash done right; catchy melodies, memorable choruses, a good mixture of tempos but not forgetting to rock out and speed up, and utterly magnificent lead guitar work.

The production, from Juan Urteaga, is absolutely top drawer and equal to any of the modern Thrash releases by the likes of Andy Sneap. It sounds so clear and smooth, highlighting Heathen’s melodic aspirations really well.

In terms of direction, they do try and balance the style of both their more direct debut and their more ambitious sophomore effort, with steps into the future in the form of a whole new approach. The balance of those three key ideas has lead to a very fine record that fans of the band, and the genre at large need to check out.

If there was a slight criticism to be levelled at the album, it is quite long (68 and a half minutes!) but to be fair, there isn’t much in the way of filler either, so I guess we should just be grateful for having a lot of high quality material, even if it is hard to find the time to listen to it all in one sitting.  

Here’s include the catchy “Arrows Of Agony,” the direct “Dying Season” and the varied “No Stone Left Unturned.”

Whereas some other heritage bands came back and their album was more of a step in the right direction (Forbidden) or a disappointment (Nuclear Assault), Heathen just nail it here. Well-written, well played and well produced. This set a standard for me against which comebacks can be judged (recently topped by Sacred Reich, but for the past decade, its definitely been one of the best).

Coroner – Grin Review

Coroner were one of the more unique Thrash Metal bands. While their earliest material was a bit more pure-Thrash, with each new release they became more technical, more progressive and more unique.

By the time of their final full-length studio album, 1993’s Grin, they had pushed the envelope so far, most of the album is hardly reminiscent of pure Thrash at all.

It opens with the hypnotic tribal “Dream Path” intro, which sounds more like Lateralus-era Tool than it does Reign In Blood or Darkness Descends. That should be the first sign this isn’t your average full-speed-ahead thrasher.

After the brief intro, the record bursts into the first full-length song, “The Lethargic Age” which has a bit of a Beg To Differ era Prong feel to it. There’s still crunch and direction to the riffs, but it also intermittently gives way to jangly post punky ringing too.

That’s followed by the faster “Internal Conflicts” which picks up the pace, but also has a bit of a Ministry-Meets-White Zombie vibe, with its stop/start song structure, bouncy chorus, samples, but tight mechanical verse riffs. That then gets capped off with a sweepy Dream Theater sounding guitar solo.

“Caveat (To The Coming)” which follows, opens with a Beatlesy psychedelic jingle jangle intro, before evolving into a sort of proto-Nu Metal groove. Very bass driven and not as fast as you’d think of when you think of the word “Thrash.”

I won’t get into a full track-by-track but you get the picture, the band are expanding their style, looking in many different directions, trying new styles. It is the 90s after all, and very few Thrash bands are keeping it simple and sounding like its still 1986.

As a bit of a Thrash nut, I’ve spent most of my teens and early ‘20s with a sort of “80s rules/90s sucks” mentality when it comes to this sort of music (aint nobody gonna tell me Green is a better album than Forbidden Evil for example), but as I grew older, I definitely began to appreciate the sometimes underrated 90s releases from 80s bands a bit more. I’m sure if I’d have heard Grin when I was younger, I’d have balked a bit when hearing it. As I didn’t discover Coroner until much later, it just seems like another excellent album from the ex-Celtic Frost roadies. Being a Prong fan first also definitely helps.

I think there’s enough of what makes the previous Coroner albums great. There’s the technical prowess, the willingness to explore and the ambition in general. The vocals are still the same as the early albums (don’t expect any Cobain-isms or Alice In Chains-esque harmonies). The lead guitar is excellent – in fact, I’d argue that some of the band’s best solos to date come on this album and the band in general never fail to be interesting. The only thing that’s missing really is the breakneck speed or the warm fuzzy feeling of classic Thrash charm.

If you want a taster track to see if the album is for you, try the 8-minute, multiple-time signature “Paralized, Mesmerized.”

Overall; is this an appropriate album for adding to a Thrash playlist alongside Pleasure To Kill, The Legacy and Bonded By Blood? Honestly, no, probably not. However, if you are already a fan of ‘80s Coroner, should you shun this album because it is different? No, definitely not.

Metal-Nerd Blog 2020 Round UP and AOTY list, part 2:

I know, I know, it is probably two weeks too early, but I’m in the middle of moving home and working 65 hours a week on top of that, so may as well get it in while I have the chance. It’s the tenth year of this blog, and I’d hate to miss out on what is now a yearly tradition.

Last week in part 1, I wrote a round-up of what I’d been buying and listening to this year, and links to reviews of the concerts I had been to prior to lockdown.

Next up;

Here are my most-listened-to artists of the past 12 months according to LastFM:

Quite a mix there; Classic Metal, Classic Rock, Metalcore, Thrash, Prog, Hair, Power, Groove, Death, even a bit of indie. Old favourites, new discoveries. Nicely balanced, didn’t even mean to.

And finally; since it is December now, here is the Metal-Nerd Blog Album Of The Year List, 2020:

Honourable Mention: Salem – S/T EP. – Creeper went from being a fun pop-punk band with some Halloweeny lyrics to a ‘90s Britrock band tapping into older American sounds. Afterwards, their singer has a side project basically making a fun pop-punk band with Halloweeny lyrics. Highly recommended to fans of early Creeper (or Alkaline Trio).

10. BMTH – Post Human Survival Horror – Review here.

09. Five Finger Death Punch – F8 – Review here.

08. Annihilator – Ballistic, Sadistic – Review here.

07. Creeper – Sex, Death & The Infinite Void – Review here.

06. Haken – Virus  – (Rhymes with Bacon, not Kraken) British prog metal wizards release a captivating sequel to their previous album and continue to escape comparisons to other bands and forge their own identity. Might have even been higher, but I came to it late and haven’t even fully unpacked all its hidden glories yet.

05. Lamb Of God – S/T – Review here.

04. Testament – Titans Of Creation – Review here.

03. Protest The Hero – Palimpsest – Review here.

02. Trivium – What The Dead Men Say – Review here.

01. Sepultura – Quadra – Review here.

Sacred Reich – Awakening Review

Over the last decade and a half, many of the great Thrash Metal bands have had decent or even good comebacks, some have even had great comebacks. Arizona’s Sacred Reich managed to do something rather special with their 2019 comeback record… over two decades after their most recent studio album, they’ve actually made the best record of their whole career.

Now, up until I heard this record, if you told me they’d make a better overall album than The American Way I’d have laughed in your face (not really, I’m a nice guy, I’d have respectfully disagreed, but that doesn’t make as bold a statement, now does it?). I’m sure there’s lots of people who feel the same about their angrier debut album Ignorance, or their popular EP Surf Nicaragua. Top the classics? Not a snowball’s chance…

However, remove nostalgia, expectation, and scepticism, and just go in with a blank slate and you should, like me, be bowled over by the sheer quality of this album. Utterly perfect production job (other bands please take note, this is how it should be done), massively catchy choruses, superb riffing and grooving, interesting lyrics spat out with conviction, and inventive drumming from Dave McClain (back in the band after a long stint in Machine Head), this album contains all the elements of a masterpiece.

Its only half an hour long, and its all good, so it is hard to choose highlights, but I feel like the best introduction or tester to the album for those curious about whether to buy it or not, is to listen to the three song curve of the more melodic “Salvation,” into the guitar-focused and more traditionally Thrashy “Manifest Reality” into the absurdly catchy “Killing Machine” (boy, does that song hit the spot!).

As long as you aren’t put off by the band’s very political message (internet comments sections the world over seem to be, these days, as if all the other Sacred Reich albums weren’t political as hell!?! Their name alone…anyway, nevermind), there is no question that this album is an unquestionable must-have for fans of the band. They’ve done such a good job of mixing different parts of their whole career, selecting only the best bits, shaving off any fat, and then blending it together with a really satisfying mix and performance that just sounds so vital and relevant.

It is relentlessly old school, yes, but it also doesn’t feel like it is just rehashing old ideas. It does that near impossible task of sounding old and new at the same time. Maybe its just that fire-in-the-eyes revitalised energy spilling out through the speakers, but I can’t explain it. Just listen to “Revolution” to see what I mean.

[PS. If you can, try and get the song “Don’t Do It Donnie” too, its on a split with Iron Regan and is a fun little two minute bouncy crossover song, that is the most perfectly fun little succinct track they’ve released since the title track of Independent. Its kind of like D.O.A’s “Fucked Up Ronnie” for the modern day! I’ve just added it to this album on my phone and iTunes. I can’t listen to one without the other anymore].

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Annihilator – Ballistic, Sadistic Review

If I had to describe this album in three words? Absolute. Guitar. Pornography! – Thrash fans the world over can rejoice, because on their 17th studio album, Canada’s best Thrash band (no offence to Sacrifice, Exciter and Voivod fans) are truly on top form. I don’t know what has happened in Jeff Water’s life, but he sounds absolutely super-charged. Best vocals of his career. Superb song-writing. Astounding solos. Performances like a man possessed. If the band had broken up after their second album and this was their comeback, the music press would be all over this like ants on a picnic.

As it stands; Their previous album was a step in the right direction, but this album is an Olympic sprint in the right direction. Chocked full of lead guitar that would make most of the great virtuosos blush, fast enough to make modern Megadeth albums feel like a Doom Metal band, fun enough to make it endlessly memorable, Ballistic Sadistic is quite possibly Annihilator’s best album of the modern age. Perhaps their 3rd best ever.

The production is crystal clear but with nice crunchy rhythm guitar and hard hitting drums, all the instruments are perfectly balanced, nice thick bass, vocals not too loud. Its only 10 songs, no intros, no ballads, no joke tracks, just absolute “give the people what they want” thrashing. I mean it isn’t devoid of variety (they don’t call this man the Eddie Van Halen of Thrash Metal for nothing) but it is hyper-focused and filler-free.

Highlights include the opening three songs, including the very Never, Neverland-reminiscent single “Psycho Ward” (Jeff’s lyrics were never the most progressive when it comes to mental health, but I the music is brilliant) as well as the speedy “The End Of The Lie” and “Out With The Garbage” which channel the band’s faster material from their late ‘80s style and not forgetting the brilliant “Lip Service” which carries on that fun guitars cut out, rhythm section takes over style of song that the band tried on songs like Knight Jumps Queen” and “Pastor Of Disaster” in the early ‘90s.

When Annihilator are on, they are really on, one of the best bands in the whole genre when they get it right, and this my friends, is the band on and righter than right. Do you like to headbang? Do you like your air guitar? Do like a bit of melody with your Thrash? Then this red-hot scorcher of an album is highly recommended.

Metal-Nerd Blog 2020 Round UP and AOTY list, part 1:

Leaving aside any talk of the pandemic (you’ve read enough about that this year, this is a light-hearted site, I barely even post bad reviews) 2020 has been an interesting year musically and personally. On a personal level my first and only child celebrated his first ever birthday and my wife and I have just finally bought our first home. I also had a nice break at work at the start of the year where they moved me to an easier job for two months, which was a welcome if brief change. I also managed to loose one stone in weight recently after having put on too much around the pregnancy and new-fatherhood stage.

Musically, before the world turned upside down, I got to go to some fabulous concerts, in the form of Slipknot (childhood favourite but hadn’t seen since I was a teen, wearing the tour t-shirt as I write this), Five Finger Death Punch (better than you’d expect, and Megadeth supported!) and finally Testament, Exodus and Death Angel together (Dream come true line-up, shame a load of the band members and crew caught the virus from this tour).

In terms of new music, some icons like Ozzy released a new album, lots of bands have been releasing short one-off singles or mini-EPs (like Machine Head), some of my favourite bands released albums which obviously made it to my Top-10 list, and some other less-obvious bands surprised me.

In terms of old music; I’ve spent a hell of a lot of the year listening to Def Leppard, (expanding my knowledge of the band beyond just the early NWOBHM days), discovering Danzig, as well as expanding my Motorhead collection. That and as per most years, listening to a bunch of Thrash Metal (just got into Canada’s Sacrifice and LA’s Agent Steel recently, and Hirax earleir this year, there’s always more Thrash to explore).

I’ve also been reading band biographies and music books where I can find the time between work, exercise, parenting and trying to get a house. Max Cavelera and Dee Snider’s books were particularly good. I read Fiver Finger Death Punch’s drummer’s book too, but it’s a bit too simplistic Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll for me, or I should really say erectile dysfunction, alcoholism and metal (if you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I mean).

Due to all my Def Leppard listening, I’ve just finished Phil Collen’s book (which is a real easy read, very smoothly written). Most recently I’ve just started fellow blogger 80s Metal Man’s simi-fiction, semi-history of Metal/Rock coming of age novel Rock N Roll Children, and obviously if you’re reading this blog, you should read that book, I’ve not finished it yet but its compelling so far so can still recommend it.

I like a good audiobook too, and have listened to autobiographies on audible by the likes of Sammy Hagar, Phil Collins, Rick Wakeman, Rob Halford, Alice Cooper and Steve Tyler, all of which I’d recommend, (except maybe the Steve Tyler one as it is a bit too lyrical and overwritten at times, but still good a lot of the time).

So that’s the introduction, a round up of the year. Part two will see a list of my most-listened-to artists of the past 12 months and of course the actual AOTY list (gotta be December before I post that, I haven’t even put up the Christmas tree yet!). Stay tuned.