Thursday 12 April 2012

Albatross/Vestal Claret split

I've liked all of Philip Swanon's projects (although Hour Of 13 is my favourite of the bands he's associated with) and Albatross' bassist/lyricist/plastic-snouted mascot Riju Dasgupta and Madhav Ravindranath, who runs the label that released this split, are a formidable promotional team, so here I am, absorbing this split CD. Like everyone, I was put off by That Song on Albatross' Myspace, but when Madhav foisted their debut EP, Dinner Is You, on me, I gave it a listen and realised that aside from the unfortunate mannerisms on that one track, Albatross had a pretty good thing going - melodic epic heavy metal with more than a touch of classic US power metal influences. I like my heavy-epic-metal to favour the Manilla Road side of things rather than the King Diamond and Iced Earth vibe Albatross often channels, but I also like metal music that tells stories, has dramatic vocals and spins songs out at epic lengths - so Albatross' sound works rather well for me. It helps that the pint-sized Riju refuses to induct band members who are taller than him, so the band looks a lot like a tribe of hobbit-minstrels, miles away from Middle-Earth.

The guitarists in the new line-up heard on this album are a great power duo, alternating between fluid legato runs and scorching shred fests. The riffs have thrashy elements and a certain slightly modern vibe at times rather than the out-and-out old school vibe you'd expect from Riju's frequent online poncing on the topic of educational institutions and senescence, but that isn't a bad thing, the mix of elements keeps the sound fresh and original.

Albatross' contribution to this split is a 4-song mini-concept album, something about a town called Raptorsville that is being destroyed by a plague of flesh-eating flies. This is the band that kicked their career off with a concept EP about a cannibal cult, after all.

The opening track, 'Wither' is a short piece with vocals intoned over a roiling bed of weird atmospheric sounds,by way of a prelude. Things get off to a proper start with the groovy, metallic opening riffs of 'Uncle Sunny At The Tavern', quickly segueing into some very catchy verses that showcase vocalist Bipro's keening, energetic style and a chorus that has him reaching for some impressive high notes. Some great solos and effective tempo shifts propel the rest of this song - I really like the vibe in the second, mid-tempo section and even made out some interesting subsonic rumbling from PlasticSnout's fretless - but the real high points are Bipro's screams later on and an epic solo by Nishith, the shredder you can't buy a beer for. The title track follows - a nice meaty track at just over 10 minutes, pushed along by a simple but very catchy recurring guitar motif and some great solo breaks where Vignesh shows that his flowing solos are every bit as effective as Nishith's more speedy work. There's an atavistic thrill in hearing a band where two excellent lead guitarists play off each other - it takes me back to classic Judas Priest or Megadeth moments, and this song brings a bit of that rush. Actually, it brings a lot of that rush. Parts of this song feel a bit repetitive to me - I can take this sort of iterative arrangement at the more measured pace of doom metal, but at this speed I could do with less bars of repeated passagework. In the balance this song is a most effective center-point to Albatross' segment, and it's a great live song as well. I'm not in love with Sahil Makhija's growly guest spot on this song - it's just too squared-off and monotonous pitted against some of Bipro's most epic vocals. I called 'Kissing Flies' the center-piece of this sequence of songs, but the closing track, 'From ashes comes life' might just be its apex. A slightly shorter track at 8 minutes and change, it moves from an eerie, vaguely dissonant opening into a great arena-ready riff that makes way for some very doomy verses. Man, this band could be a kickass Candlemass cover act if Riju ever gets over his childish obsession with writing original songs. The verses move into a chugging, mid-tempo groove then circle back. It's really effective, like a collaboration between Tony Martin-era Black Sabbath and Mercyful Fate. The song builds up to a very effective finale, paralleling the macabre final twist that the narrative takes.

In short, good, clean headbanging fun. It's like the aural equivalent of a classic Hammer horror film - and that's high praise from me, so high that it's probably flown right over Riju's head. The production is really crisp and clear, I just wish they'd been able to record the drums, that would have give this EP a much more powerful rhythmic bedrock.

Now we come to the Vestal Claret song - a 17-minute slab of classic British doom called Black Priest. The bar has been set rather high for this sort of thing this year by who-thought-they-still-had-it-in-them scene vetrans My Dying Bride's EP, 'The Barghest O' Whitby'. To Vestal Claret's credit they rise to the challenge admirably, with a suite that builds slowly from an Eternal Idol/Born Again title track-style opening to a hint of heavier, but equally slow-paced riffing before providing the song's first solo. The slow build resumes again, consummated in a more extended solo, meandering and lyrical. A chuggy classic doom riff rings the changes next, heralding the second sequence of this song, with Swanson's dark preaching taking on a more overtly sinister tenor. The riffs are all of comet vintage and Simon Tuozzoli seals the deal with another great solo after which the music moves, Ouroboros like, to nuzzle its own tail with a return to the eerily shimmering chords of the opening. Some rifing in the tempo I like to think of as 'monumental' brings this immorality play to a close.

If Albatross' segment was like a Hammer film, then 'Black Priest' reminds me of the film which rebuked a later Hammer, drifiting into self-parodic bosom-heaving territory with a take on its own costume-drama techniques, shot through with a brutal intensity that Hammer had in its first Dracula and Frankenstein films but gradually moved away from - 'Witchfinder General'. The sound is again most effective.

Albatross' songs tread into doom territory here and there while remaining epic/power metal for the most part. Vestal Claret's track is traditional doom, with the shadings into heavy metal territory that implies. It's a combination that works rather well and I hope it finds the audience it deserves - metalheads of every stripe who like a good melody, a great solo and a chilling storyline.

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