Album review: Heathen “Empire of the Blind”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

California band Heathen goes beyond thrash metal on its terrific new studio album.

Heathen, formed in San Francisco in 1984, was part of the original Bay Area thrash metal scene. Their debut album “Breaking the Silence” arrived in 1987 and now the band’s fourth studio album, “Empire of the Bind” is about to be released. Heathen may be less known than some of its Bay Area peers, but there are some decent skills and pedigree in this band. Co-founder and guitarist Lee Altus is also a member of Exodus and has previously played with Die Krupps and Angel Witch. Kragen Lum, the band’s other guitarist who joined Heathen in 2007, has in recent years filled in for Gary Holt in Exodus while Holt has been touring with Slayer. Heathen is a thrash metal band but on this new album they mix things up considerably with many modern influences and contemporary sounds and as a result, “Empire of the Blind” is a very varied album. “The Blight” is a cool song with traditional thrash metal verses and then a more melodic rock chorus. “Sun in My Hand” is a powerful, modern and melodic metal song and a ballad-style track like “Shrine of Apathy” is very far from Heathen’s thrash metal roots. But we also get other things, including the smashing instrumental pieces “This Rotting Sphere”, “A Fine Red Mist” and “Monument to Ruin” as well as more straightforward thrash metal on songs such as “In Black” and “The Gods Divide”. No doubt, a few thrash purists will be upset, but I like the fact that the members of this fab band are not afraid of creating new music without limiting themselves to stay within imaginary parameters.

Heathen’s new album “Empire of the Blind” will be released on 18th September in Japan via Ward Records and Nuclear Blast internationally.

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Album review: Hell Freezes Over “Hellraiser”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Japanese heavy metal is not all about veteran bands. Hell Freezes Over is at the forefront of a younger generation of terrific Japanese metal bands. Now they are releasing their gloriously old-school sounding debut studio album, “Hellraiser”.

Five years after I saw this band live for the first time, when they opened for Evil Invaders and Unleash The Archers in Tokyo, the still young Japanese lads in Hell Freezes Over have finally their debut full-length studio album ready for release. They play an excellent cross of NWOBHM and thrash and speed metal with an early to mid-80s sound. That’s rather impressive as these lads were not even born then. Two years ago they released the splendid “Speed Metal Assault”, a four-track EP which featured some of the songs that are now included on this full-length album. The album kicks off at breakneck speed with the title track “Hellraiser” and continues with “Roadkill”, one of my favourite tracks on the album (think early Paul Di’Anno-fronted Iron Maiden). “Hawkeye” is another terrific fast and riff-happy track and so is the splendid “Overwhelm”. This is distinctly old-school heavy metal – the songs, the production, the performance, the visuals. These twenty-something Japanese musicians eat, dream and live 1980s heavy metal. They are inspired by both the American metal (Bay Area thrash metal) and British metal (NWOBHM). The ten-track album, which is overflowing with raw energy, closes with the terrific “Eternal March of Valor”, a splendid instrumental band jam clocking in at more than seven and a half minutes. What a great metal album these lads have put together. There is still hope for the future of Japanese heavy metal.

Hell Freezes Over’s album “Hellraiser” will be released on 26th August via Carnal Beast, a division of Japanese label Spiritual Beast.

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Album review: Enslaved “Utgard”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Norwegian band Enslaved’s new studio album offers us a tasty mix of blackened folk metal and progressive rock.

“Utgard” is Enslaved’s fifteenth studio album since guitarist Ivar Bjørnson and vocalist/bassist Grutle Kjellson founded the band in Norway in 1991. It is, without doubt, one of the band’s best albums to date. The band’s deep Norwegian roots have always been very present in its music. Enslaved’s Viking metal is a glorious and unholy mix of black and folk metal and progressive rock. Somehow they manage to both carry on the folk metal tradition and explore new musical territories. To my ears, this band sounds distinctly Nordic. The music is beautiful in a cold, dark and haunting way. It is dreamy (at times this sounds like Sigur Rós meets Bathory) only to take violent turns into extreme metal. Throughout the whole album, there are constant tempo and musical style changes. I love it. No rules, no limits, just great music with deep Nordic roots and lyrics based on Norse mythology. The band’s two newest members, drummer Iver Sandøy (Trinacria) and keyboardist Håkon Vinje (Seven Impale), prove to be great recruits for the band as the addition of their clean vocals make the prog-sounding bits excellent. The current line-up of the band is rounded out by guitarist Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal (Audrey Horne, Demonaz, Ov Hell, Trinacria), who joined in 2002. The album kicks off in folk metal valley with the track “Fires in the Dark” and it continues to take us on quite a musical journey over the album’s nine tracks. One of my favourite tracks is “Jettegryta” where we get to hear the many sides to this fabulous band. The song is a terrific melting pot of contrasting styles. The epic nature of “Homebound” also makes that magnificent track a favourite of mine. What a great boundary-pushing album Enslaved has put together! I hope we get to see them perform these songs live on stage soon. This epic material deserves to be performed in a live setting.

Enslaved’s new album “Utgard” will be released on 2nd October via Ward Records in Japan and internationally via Nuclear Blast.

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Interview: Stuck at home with Jeramie Kling of Venom Inc and Massacre

Jeramie Kling on stage with Venom Inc in Tokyo in 2019. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Jeramie Kling, perhaps best known as a member of Venom Inc and Massacre, checks in with Roppongi Rocks from his Florida home to talk about being more than a drummer, his great new punk album with FORE, his fruitful relationship with Taylor Nordberg and much more.

Jeramie Kling on stage with Venom Inc in Tokyo in 2019. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

You are best known as a drummer, but you also play the guitar, sing, produce, you’re a studio engineer, a live sound engineer and so on. Do you see yourself first and foremost as a drummer? “I suppose this is a great question to lead with! First and foremost, I see myself as a human, driven at times and lazy as hell at other times. I have never liked the idea of identifying with one particular thing, I always felt that was quite limiting… wouldn’t you agree? I remember one Christmas I got drumming-related ornaments for my Christmas tree. I remember thinking ‘I am a fucking snare drum to these people!’ I decided to mix it up right then and there.”

FORE is one of your new projects. It’s a punk band consisting of seasoned metal guys from the US, Canada and Germany. What’s the story of the birth of this terrific punk band? “Thanks so much for the compliment! Well, Taylor Nordberg and I really just play the styles of music that we want to do, period. We were talking last summer about starting a punk band. Taylor went and wrote 13 songs in two days. They sat on shelves until the coronavirus hit. We were just too busy to make it happen. Through the early stages of the pandemic, we did a sweet quarantine project with about 25 other musicians. It was a song a day, written, recorded, mixed, mastered and released. During that project, we found quite capable like-minded musicians. That’s where we first worked with Speesy and Brian Stephenson! I tracked the drums for the punk band and then we asked those fellas if they wanted to rip with us! The rest is magic.”

Jeramie Kling on stage with Venom Inc in Tokyo in 2019. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

You have a FORE album coming out now and also a new Venom Inc album in the making. Has the forced stay-at-home situation unexpectedly given you more time to get more recordings done this year? “Yes and no. I had made time for the Venom Inc record already and I already tracked the drums for the new Massacre that is coming out as well! And the new The Absence.”

You’re involved in a ton of bands and projects – The Absence, Venom Inc, FORE, Massacre, Ribspreader, Goregäng, Smoke & Mirrors, etc. How do you prioritise your commitments? “I do it as it comes. The only band that really has priority is Venom Inc, but I manage to make everything happen regardless of those commitments.”

Jeramie Kling on stage with Venom Inc in Tokyo in 2019. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

You and Taylor Nordberg do many things together in the music industry. How did that professional relationship start and why has it been so fruitful? “Well that’s a really loooooong answer… but the short is we started working together when we both played in Infernaeon. We gelled very well as musicians. I was able to say things in my infantile drummer’s perspective and he could make it musical. So, he moved back to Florida six years ago and we have been plugging away ever since! It’s fruitful because we respect each other and we are quite kind to one another. In ten years of being that dude’s best friend, we have never once fought. At all, not even close. Be kind and courteous is our motto and no ideas are ‘stupid’ or ‘not worth exploring’.”

What are your thoughts on the future of live music now that most gigs and tours have been halted and seriously impacted musicians’ livelihoods? “Well, what I think and what the reality may be could be completely different. I have hope. Hope saved the rebels in Star Wars.”

What’s coming up next for you? “I am currently mixing the new Ribspreader record. Lots of studio stuff coming up too. I am happy to be working. Many colleagues of mine are fully not working.”

Jeramie Kling on stage with Venom Inc in Tokyo in 2019. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

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Album review: FORE “Hombres”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Seasoned metal musicians from Kreator, Venom Inc, Massacre, Skull Fist and Annihilator get together to play excellent punk-rock in new band FORE.

FORE is a brand new punk-rock band formed earlier this year. The members of this American-Canadian-German punk-rock band are seasoned metal guys. The line-up consists of guitarist Taylor Nordberg (Massacre, The Absence, Soilwork, Gus G), drummer Jeramie Kling (Venom Inc, Massacre, The Absence), vocalist Brian Stephenson (Skull Fist, Annihilator, Old James) and bassist Christian “Speesy” Giesler (Kreator). The songs on FORE’s debut album “Hombres” are fast and short, just the way we like our punk. On the track “Diagnosis” we get punk rock of the American kind. It’s straightforward, bursting with energy, loud and noisy yet melodic and with heaps of attitude. Most of the songs on the album follow the same format. It’s perfect for beer drinking, uncontrolled and uncoordinated dancing and shout-along screaming matches but perhaps a tad bit too fast for lovemaking. In FORE, these metal guys can relax, have fun and play good-fun punk rock without overthinking things. “What’s Right For You” is a smashing track while other favourites of mine include “Pet”, “It’s Not You, It’s Me”, “Song for a Friend” and “Movement”. The terrific song “Today We Rise (No Tomorrow)” clocks in at a mere one minute and 14 seconds and the lyric sums up the band’s punk-rock attitude in its few short lines:

“I’m gonna live, live for today / I gotta do it, there’s no other way / I’m gonna fight, gonna fight for the truth / I gotta fight, ’cause there’s nothing else to do / Today we rise – no tomorrow, no tomorrow / Today we rise – no tomorrow, no tomorrow”

Well, there may be no future, but today this is good fun and music with a great heap of raw energy. FORE’s debut album “Hombres” will be released on 7th August.

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Album review: Onslaught “Generation Antichrist”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

British thrash metal band Onslaught has a new vocalist and a terrific new album ready for an assault on your ears.

Thrash metal band Onslaught was formed in Bristol, England in the early 1980s and released its debut album “Power from Hell” in 1985. Only guitarist Nige Rockett remains from the original lineup of the band, but who cares? Onslaught in 2020 is a fantastic band. “Generation Antichrist” is the band’s seventh full-length studio album. New vocalist Dave Garnett does a stellar job on this album. He is a very good fit for the music. Onslaught somehow manages to combine old-school thrash metal with more contemporary sounds to arrive at a spectacular modern thrash metal sound which is different and better than most thrash metal out there. The album was recorded in Uppsala, Sweden with Daniel Bergstrand (Behemoth, In Flames, Meshuggah). Perhaps it is his production that has brought the best out of this band. The result is very good. I absolutely love it! It’s uncompromising, in-your-face thrash metal music. Aggression has always been part of Onslaught’s music, but here it gets properly channelled and used to the best advantage of the music without messing things up. Lyric-wise the album deals with the mad world we live in today with political and religious nutters stirring shit up. The relentless raw and punk-like energy of this band is combined with first-class songwriting. Really terrific stuff. I haven’t felt this excited about thrash metal since I saw Anthrax live for the first time in 1990. There are so many great and pummelling songs on this album. Some of my immediate favourites include “Strike Fast, Strike Hard”, “Bow Down to the Clowns”, “Generation Antichrist”, “Addicted to the Smell of Death” and “Religiousuicide”. It’s a non-stop guitar attack. “A Perfect Day to Die” (a re-recorded version of the song that was released as a single in 2019) is described as a Motörhead tribute and there certainly are some great Motörhead nods in there, not least the rumbling bass. OK, it’s only August, but this is a major contender for album of the year. It hits you right in the brain with terrific thrash metal.

Onslaught’s new album “Generation Antichrist” is out on 7th August via AFM Records.

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Album review: Thundermother “Heat Wave”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Sweden’s fabulous Thundermother is back with a new album filled with bluesy hard rock of the best kind.

Band founder and guitarist Filippa Nässil had to form an entirely new line-up of Thundermother in 2017 and what a line-up she got together! Especially vocalist Guernica Mancini is terrific with her bluesy voice with attitude. Just listen to the ballad “Sleep” to hear how great of a singer she is. But she is equally fantastic in the faster blues rocking songs that dominate this album. “Heat Wave” is Thundermother’s fourth studio album since the band was founded in Sweden in 2010. It is their best so far. There’s not a weak song on it and the playfulness is all over the place. This is a playful, high-energy bluesy hard rock album. The delivery seems so natural and effortless. It is simply excellent. I love it. There are plenty of nods to the 70s and early 80s (think buckets of influences from bands such as Deep Purple, Whitesnake, a bit of The Runaways and Girlschool and even AC/DC on songs like “Ghosts” and “Free Ourselves”), but this is not retro rock. It is here-and-now music built on a foundation of classic rock’n’roll and it is bloody good. The fast rocker “Somebody Love Me” is a knockout and one of my clear favourites on the album. Another obvious one is the very catchy “Back in 76” which has terrific guitars, great groove, heaps of energy and THAT voice. The almost Motörhead-esque “Into the Mud” is also splendid. I want to see this band live. This new material will no doubt be absolute killer in a live setting. Let’s get them a Japan tour once we can have gigs again.

Thundermother’s new album “Heat Wave” is out now via AFM Records.

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Album review: Unleash The Archers “Abyss”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

On “Abyss”, its new studio album, Canada’s Unleash The Archers shows us some new sides to its creativity. There are more keyboards and some pop, but the fierce metal riffs are still there and so is the fabulous voice of Brittney Slayes.

Songs like “Abyss”, “Return to Me” and “Soulbound” are classic Unleash The Archers but with more keyboards. They’re fast, powerful, riff happy and melodic songs. “Faster Than Light” is, yes, fast. Very fast. It is power metal played like speed metal. Love it. “Afterlife” is classic Unleash-style power metal but with some cool Nightwish touches to it as well. “The Wind That Shapes the Land” is a terrific combo of classic Unleash with some more contemporary influences. “Legacy” is another refreshing track that is a melting pot of various styles and influences. I really like how the band can walk deep into new territory without getting lost, whether it is a dark and dense Finnish forest or a sunny Californian pop beach. The Japanese edition bonus track “Sunglasses at Night” (a Corey Hart cover) is my favourite track on the album. It takes the band into pop music mixed with guitar riffs and Brittney Slayes’ voice. The result is terrific. This metal band is not afraid of making use of whatever musical influences they happen to discover. It is impossible to describe Unleash The Archers without zooming in on what sets them apart from most other bands: that voice with a four-octave range. Brittney Slayes has a voice that is beyond sensational. She has the power, the range, the skill, the knowledge and the attitude. She was born with a world-class voice, but she also has the skill to know how to use it in different situations. When Unleash The Archers played Japan for the first time in 2015, I was floored by that voice. But this band is not all about that fantastic voice. They also have a tight rhythm section and terrific guitars as well as some of the best songwriting to come out of Canada since Neil Young was still living in Canada.

Unleash The Archers’ new album “Abyss” will be released on 21st August via Ward Records in Japan and Napalm Records internationally.

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Album review: Primal Fear “Metal Commando”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Primal Fear’s new studio album “Metal Commando” shows us that this band is a German stallion and not a one-trick power metal pony.

On its new studio album, Primal Fear, formed in 1997 by bassist Mat Sinner and vocalist Ralf Scheepers (ex-Gamma Ray), has matured. The album shows us that this band is far from a one-trick power metal pony. No, this is a German stallion! “Metal Commando”, the band’s 13th studio album, is a rather varied album with a number of different styles. Primal Fear is obviously a very competent band and how successful they are at playing the different styles comes down to taste. How do you like your metal served? “Along Came the Devil” is classic heavy metal of the Judas Priest kind, “Raise Your Fist” sounds like it could fit on an Accept album, while “Halo” is a fast number combining heavy metal verses with a more melodic power metal-style chorus. The contemporary-sounding “Hear Me Calling” is one of the strongest tracks on the album. It has great melody and a very catchy singalong chorus. There are also great guitars on it. Terrific stuff! It’s Primal Fear at its powerful and melodic best. “My Name is Fear” is straight-up, world-class power metal. “I Will Be Gone” is a full-on power ballad with acoustic guitars and the powerful voice of Ralf Scheepers. The closing track “Infinity” kicks off slowly and innocently before adding some serious speed, energy and attitude. The track measures more than 13 minutes and thus have plenty of time to make a number of different twists and turns, including a terrific instrumental part in the middle of the song. I welcome the variations on the album. Primal Fear has been around for a long time and hearing some new things in the mix makes it more interesting and keeps it fresh.

Primal Fear’s new album “Metal Commando” will be released on 24th July in Japan via Ward Records and internationally via Nuclear Blast.

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Album review: Ensiferum “Thalassic”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Finnish folk metal band Ensiferum returns with its eighth full-length studio album, “Thalassic”.

Finland remains a major force in global heavy metal. It has great bands playing many different kinds of metal sub-genres, but perhaps it is the world number one in folk metal. Ensiferum, formed in 1995, is no doubt one of Finland’s best folk metal bands. There have been numerous line-up changes over the years, but founding guitarist Markus Toivonen still leads the band. The band’s Nordic roots are obvious throughout everything it does: in the lyrics, visuals, choice of instruments and attitude. These are a bunch of proud Finns who don’t try to fit in or deliver what is considered to be cool. They just get on with playing the music they want to play. Their music has more variations and fewer self-imposed parameters for the music to fit into than some of their fellow Finnish folk metal bands. Ensiferum is certainly best described as folk metal. It is catchy, melodic, energetic and with some great brutality in places. At times this is power metal mixed with melodic death metal and great folk music touches to bind it all together in its Finnish glory. A song like “Andromeda” shows this beautifully and so does “Run from the Crushing Tide”, my favourite track on the album. But we also get almost straight-up folk music on songs like the fabulous “Merille Lahteva”. The album also features a magnificent cover of “I’ll Stay by Your Side”, originally done by 60s Danish pop band The Lollipops. But no matter what genre certain songs fit into, Ensiferum’s music on this album is simply terrific. The Japanese edition contains a terrific raw demo version of the single “Rum, Women, Victory” as a bonus track.

Ensiferum’s new album “Thalassic” is out now via Metal Blade Records internationally. The Japanese edition will be released on 24th July via Ward Records.

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