Napalm Records Roundup: Sojourner, Hällas & Grave Digger
For as long as someone’s gonna keep dropping these on my doorstep, I’m gonna be writing about them. And you’re gonna keep reading them.
Sojourner – Premonitions
This album sounds like atmospheric black metal in a sense similar to Summoning, though I don’t think they’re the best comparison besides getting you in the right ballpark. Riccardo Floridia’s drum performance already makes a huge difference between Sojourner and the former. The lively, shapeshifting beats aren’t tied to the rigidness of a machine, nor capable of duplicating the intentionally inhuman patterns over which Mike Lamb weaves layers of guitars and keys. You can very much recognize his melodic flavour from the death/doom of Lysithea, but it’s placed in a more vivid background here and as much as the two can complement each other, often it feels like they’re competing for space.
Undecided as I am on whether it adds to or subtracts from the band’s charm, Premonitions gets extremely busy so often, it takes a few rounds just to make heads of some songs. Chloe Bray’s tin whistle doesn’t really help, sometimes leaving two guitars, a whistle and keys all vying for attention. Though the songwriting on Premonitions isn’t rocket surgery, I mean science, the thickly layered arrangements can easily fool, especially when you add the “beauty and the beast” style dual vocals—the band’s Achilles’ heel. Emilio Crespo’s growls are both passable and fitting, despite operating on an understandably narrow range, he hasn’t got much counterpoint to feed off of, and as a result leaves a bit to be desired, as do Bray’s cleans. A fine singer as she may be, she hardly seems capably to carry these tunes. Her range sounds almost as narrow as Crespo’s, but with the added weight of melodies to carry, making for, surprisingly, the most monotone performance on the record.
Though the mix is plain loud, it’s clear and separating enough to feel more dynamic than it actually is. Bassist Mike Wilson, a fellow Lysithean, doesn’t often shine, but can at all times be heard, until a tasteful solo on the penultimate “Atonement” gives him a moment, and “The Event Horizon” places him (even) higher in the mix than before, almost as if afraid to put him back down. For an additional cool-ish detail, Borknagar’s Jostein contributes a fine solo to “Fatal Frame”, a song based on Fatal Frame 2, further deviating from the fantasy lore many of Sojourner’s ilk rely on. It’s a good album, at times even great, but suffers from a lack of focus and, more so even than its predecessor, from the lack of a song, or a motif, that would transcend catchy (not that it offers plenty of those either) to memorable.
3.5/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Hällas – Conundrum
Do you crave progressive rock with twin guitar harmonies, sweet, sweet organs and Tommy Andersson’s soulful vocals? Of course you do, and Hällas knows this. Their debut, Excerpts From a Future Past was a masterpiece in this regard, and Conundrum isn’t far off either. I’m not sure what route they’ve taken since the debut, because I can never quite shake the feeling that they’ve straightened up a few curves despite being able to tell the layers are deeper and arrangements more daring, even when the rhythm keeps it simple. Can it be both more straightforward and ambitiously progressive in a way that directly contradicts straightforwardness? No? Tough luck, Bucko, it’s your problem now.
It still sounds like it’s an actual excerpt from a future past though, even if the future, or past, isn’t always as explicitly ’70s as before. When the songs are getting a little too close to that, an unusual synth tone or a bombastic percussive arrangement tears it away, contradicting the forethought, bridging several pasts together. Singular moments can take you back to a particular band, era or event, but by now Hällas has established their sound as their own. No other band trying to recreate sounds from bygone eras sounds the same, and honestly, no band from back then sounded like this either, not outside a very general sense.
I’d like to keep these short this time, so I’ll refrain from saying much more than Conundrum is excellent and you should listen to it. And also, I thought we were over separating release dates between countries? What was the deal having this drop much later in the US and through a different label (that would be Napalm)?
4.5/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Grave Digger – Fields of Blood
20 albums down the line, Germany’s heavy metal stalwarts Grave Digger have made very few adjustments to their music. Fields of Blood seeks to capitalize on 20 albums and 40 years by returning to the same Scottish highlands theme that made Tunes of War a success story, and The Clans Will Rise Again slightly less so. You know what that means: slightly thrashy heavy metal riffs, compressed double bass runs, pseudo-anthemic choruses and Boltendahl’s trademark rasp. And bagpipes over historical accuracy.
And for a while Grave Digger makes it work as well as they have for the last decade or so. Neither “All For The Kingdom” nor “Lions of the Sea” feature Alex Ritt’s finest riffs, even if we’re only counting latter-day Grave Digger, but they get the job done well enough until the catchy choruses (choir-backed for clarity) hit and Ritt drops a fine solo for the former. “Freedom” raises the stakes and features one of the album’s only two legitimately vast-sounding choruses, alongside the otherwise tepid “Gathering of the Clans” marred by a weird vocal effect. Much of the remaining material repeats the same tropes, but for lesser gain. “Barbarian” briefly steps into Accept territory and I would 100% believe it if you told me it was a middle finger for Uwe Lulis, and “Union of the Crown” features another one of Ritt’s all too rare, agile solos, but has no other distinguishing features.
Besides the aforementioned “Freedom”, Fields of Blood features few highlights, only “My Final Fight”(likely closest the German’s will ever get to writing a disco track) is actually memorable. The biggest issue with Fields of Blood is not necessarily the lack A-game material, as it is homogeneity. The choruses may be catchy, but not earworms, and far from remarkable, but most of the riffs, all of the verses and even many of the choruses are interchangeable.
It’s also a difficult album to listen to, because all of the decent material is scattered and after a fine start, it takes a nosedive into shit pretty early on. No, I’m not talking about the 10-minute title track, I’m talking about the back-to-back one-two punch of the awkward half-ballad “Heart of Scotland” and the tacky, garbage cheese-fest of a ballad “Thousand Tears”. Boltendahl’s mellower tones could have brought some much needed variety and a sense of pacing to the record, but they’re not suited for carrying a tune, especially one that’s otherwise devoid of content. Battle Beast‘s Noora Louhimo’s late appearance only adds to the cheese and salvages nothing.
Grave Digger doing Grave Digger sums up the band’s career for at least the last 20 years, but not often has their well run this dry. They’ve recently announced they won’t be performing any stream-only shows, but will be dropping an album every year for as long as the Corona situation lasts. I cannot imagine doubling their pace will do much good for their songwriting when they should be using their time and energy trying to find a new water source.
2/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Sojourner and Hällas have already been released, but Grave Digger comes out on 29.5.2020, so keep your eyes open for it. Or, you know, don’t.