Release Day Roundup: 7/7/23

Rounding up new releases from Better Lovers, Blackbraid, Nita Strauss, Will Haven, PJ Harvey, Thelemite, Fen, Mystical Porn Heroes, a new old album from Taylor Swift and an all-star AOR tribute to Michael Bolton, among others.

a year ago

Top Picks

I have three top picks for you this week: one very cool one, one previously uncool one that has since come around to being very cool (and which I assure you is not at all ironic), and one deeply uncool one (which is only partly ironic). Let's start with the cool one, shall we?

Blackbraid – Blackbraid II (black metal)

Those with even half an ear to the metal semi-underground will already be well-aware of Blackbraid, but the band is the buzziest black metal act going around for good reason. While Blackbraid's sound aligns closely with the more expansive and melodic ends of the traditional Scandinavian and American black metal sound, few, if any acts are currently pulling it off as well as sole member Sgah'gahsowáh. Although perhaps underplayed sonically, given its prominence in Blackbraid's imagery, the band's Native American aesthetic is also intriguingly fresh and also happens to yield some extremely metal song-song, like "Moss Covered Bones on the Altar of the Moon".

Blackbraid II is a fairly continuation of its recent predecessor. Yet already there are flickers of progressive brilliance seeping into the bands sound. Whether Sgah'gahsowáh chooses to follow these more expansive inclinations remains to be seen, but Blackbraid I and II are as strong a start to a career as anyone could hope for.

Taylor Swift – Speak Now Taylor’s Version (country pop)

While I admire the power play of pop empress Taylor Swift re-recording all of her older material in order to reassert her rights to their recordings, I am also somewhat sceptical of them as a way to keep us discussing her music in perpetuity, amid countless "expanded" editions of her most recent records and not even having a chance at spending over $300 to sit at the back of a football stadium to watch one of her concerts. Speak Now, however, is well worth discussing.

Save for her the first, self-titled record (which is perhaps best forgotten...), Speak Now is in many ways the long lost Taylor Swift album. "Love Story" from previously-re-recorded predecessor Fearless (2008) is still her most recognisable and (over)played song and the also-previously-re-recorded follow-up Red (2012) remains the old-school hipster's choice, but you never hear anyone talking about SPeak Now, despite its suggestive title. Even the setlist for her supposedly comprehensive "Eras" tour only contains a single consistent song from Speak Now in the relatively unremarkable "Enchanted", while the misguided travesty that is 2019's Lover gets to open the show with a run of six cringe-inducing numbers (none of which are the sublime "Cornelia Street", by the way). What makes this truly unjust is that Speak Now far surpasses Fearless, Red, Lover, Midnights (2023), folklore (2020) or whatever other Taylor Swift album you care to name, that's not called 1989 (2014).

Speak Now is Swift at the peak of her country pop prowess. Although somewhat shocking at the time, in retrospect Swift's sudden shift into straight-up electro pop over her following albums was surely a necessity; having perfected her country-infused pop style, there was simply nowhere left to go, at the time anyway. The re-recordings of both Red and Fearless largely mirrored their originals, and while Speak Now doesn't branch out too much further, it's also a distinctly different product that benefits greatly from Swift's since-acquired perspective and maturity. Fearless is charming in its teenage naivety, which Red ironically plays off of via songs like "22" and "We Are Never Getting Back Together". There is also an innocence about Speak Now, which Swift originally wrote and recorded around the time she was 20, but it's a assertive innocence rather than a naive one that is only bolstered by the older Swift's notably shifted vocal style and world-wise delivery.

Speak Now was also in desperate need of a re-record, due to the way the original made my speakers buzz during the chorus of "Mine", no matter which version (CD,stream, download) I tried. The re-record does indeed rectify this problem, and while I'm not sure about the male harmonies she's added to the track—which I'm initially finding quite jarring and overbearing, despite their more effective and subtle utilisation elsewhere—that's about the only criticism I have of this otherwise undeniably improved version of what I am now realising is absolutely one of all-time favourite albums of all time. The bonus tracks aren't any good. Most are unremarkable, except for "Timeless" is a noticeably lesser version of both "Back to december" and "Long Love" (which perhaps benefits the most from the re-record's added perspective) and "Electric Touch" which might be decent enough, save for the involvement of leading "Worst Band of 2023" nominees Fallout Boy. Then again, Swift's excessive bonus offerings have never been particularly worthwhile outside of the "Deluxe" edition of 1989 (I happen to be of the opinion that part of what makes "All Too Well" one of the greatest songs ever written is that it's less than 10-minutes long).

Maybe it's just me, but while I can get through my umpteenth encounter with "Love Story" and all five-and a-half or ten-minutes of "All To Well" with nary a tear in my eye these days, the songs on Speak Now still cut me to the core and they hit even harder here. Amid the current sea of re-masters, re-imaginings, re-releases and re-recordings (even just within Swift's own catalogue), Speak Now is by far the most essential, and well worth re-visiting.

Various – Steel Bars: A Rock Tribute To Michael Bolton (AOR, hard rock)

The thing about Michael Bolton is that—much like fellow '90s punchline (and recent Imperial Triumphant collaborator) Kenny G—the main way he made it big was through an undeniable talent and undying persistence at his craft. That he was the spitting image of Fabio Lanzoni during his early-90s heyday probably didn't hurt his commercial prospects any, but whether during his '80s hard rock, '90s mum-core or mid-2000s ironic, Lonely Island-collaborating comedic revival, Bolton has always exuded a passion and charming eagerness about his craft that has long outshone his detractors. The dude can also really wail!

Never ones to fret about looking cool, the fantastic folks over at Frontiers records have put together a semi-star-studded cast to pay tribute to Bolton while also providing a welcome reminder of just how many killer cuts he has under his ample belt. Steel Bars primarily focuses on Bolton's pre-1990, hard rock era, with only the Bob Dylan-penned title-tack slipping past the censors. It would have been fun to hear one of the Frontiers crew tackle the big, sexy hooks of "When a Man Loves a Woman" or "How Am I Supposed to live Without You" (which totally would have qualified by the way), or even "Go the Distance" from 1997's sneaky-best Disney revival film Hercules, and the lack of these showstoppers is perhaps Steel Bars' one major weakness.

The compilation's offerings are instead mostly taken form Bolton's now-cult classic hair metal masterpiece Everybody's Crazy, to which its collaborators take with palpable enthusiasm. My man Girish Pradhan (sans Chronicles) leads the charge, opening proceedings with that album's title track and absolutely knocks it out of the park. While Pradhan's trademark intensity stands apart, most of Steel Bars's contributors aren't far off. Relative newcomer Dave Mikulskis (whose main credits so far include fronting ex-Survivor guitarist Jim Peterik's solo band) is in the power position with "How Can We Be Lovers'' and, although he probably could have hit the "We can work it out!" bit harder, otherwise rises to the challenge. Sarayasign's Stefan Nykvist embodies Bolton's trademark balladry with his version of "Call My Name", ex-Rainbow and current Elegant Weapons frontman Ronnie Romero brings a harder edge to break-up-denial anthem "Don't Tell Me It's Over", Landfall's Gui Oliver delivers a killer rendition of "Can't Turn it Off", while Stormwarning's Santiago Ramonda is responsible for what is probably the compilation's single strongest offering with his triumphant tribute to "Save Our Love''.

They aren't all winners though. FM frontman Steve Overland's unfortunately early version of "Fool's Game" embodies the embarrassingly lame side of Bolton's early career and About Us's Sochan Kikon could certainly have gone a bit harder with the compilation's title track. Most disappointing though is "Wait on Love" to which The Big Deal's Ana Nikolic and Nevena Brankovic take with all the vim and vigour of their fellow compilators, but ends up coming across somewhat muddled and flat. Other than that though, Steel Bars is a ton of fun and a solid tribute to one of rock's more overlooked and weirdly underrated superstars.

I can also confirm that that Better Lovers EP does indeed sound liek Greg Puciato fronting Every Time I Die. Lovely stuff.

Release Roundup

A Life Divided – Down The Spiral Of A Soul (heavy metal)

All For Metal – Legends (homoerotic power metal)

Anti-Sapien – Calculating Obsolescence (brutal crusty death metal)

Arav Krishnan – The Fallen System (slightly blackened thrash)

Better Lovers – God Made Me an Animal (DEP, ETID)

Blackscape – Suffocated By The Sun (melodeath)

Bloodbound – Tales From The North (power metal)

Butcher Babies – Eye For An Eye / ...Til The World's Blind (why tho?)

Chepang –  Swatta (grindcore)

Dark Tennis –  Wimbledoom (Ortho Stice-core)

Degreed – Public Address (dudes rock)

Demolizer – Post Necrotic Human (death thrash)

Diaböl –  Bestial Horrors (black thrash)

Eigenstate Zero – Machinery Of Night (extreme prog metal)

Eternity – Mundicide (black metal)

Eudaemon – Inhuman Flourishing (post black metal)

Executioner – Kingdom of Nocturnal Offerings (black thrash)

Fen – Monuments To Absence (progressive black metal)

Festering Process – Folkgore (death metal, deathcore)

Feuerchwanz – Fegefeuer (power metal)

1476 – In Exile (blackened folk metal)

Gateway – Galgendood (blackened death doom)

Gutslit – Carnal (brutal death metal)

Hazing Over – Tunnel Vision (metalcore)

Human Decomposition – Through the Omnipotent Implosions (brutal death metal, slam)

Iatrogenia – Compulsive Pathological Carnifexia (brutal death metal)

Iunehkal – Birth is a Curse (blackened electrocore?)

Jaodae – Nest Of Veins (instrumental prog metal)

Kikimora – For A Broken Dime (heavy metal)

Lobmur – Verdugo del tiempo (heavy metal, groove thrash)

Lockjaw – Relentless (butt metal)

Lycanthrophy – On the Verge of Apocalypse (grindcore)

Malicious – Merciless Storm (blackened death metal)

Mammuthus – Imperator (stoner doom)

Metide – Erebos (chill post metal)

The Mighty Bard – Beyond The Gate (prog rock)

Mimesis – Unbehagen (progressive black metal)

Misantropia – Portals to the Eternal Rest (blackened death metal)

Mystical Porn Heroes – Mystical Porn Heroes (somehow not homoerotic power metal)

Nasty Surgeons – Anatomy Lessons (death metal)

The Nihilistic Front – A Cavernous Descent into Filth (brutal dissodeath)

Nita Strauss – The Call Of The Void (heavy metal, melodeath)

Nuclear Dudes – Boss Blades (nuclear dudes rock, cybergrind)

Omnibeing – Recurrence (instrumental prog metal)

Ophidian Memory – Our Shattered Garden (blackened death metal)

Ornamentos del Miedo – El Cosmos me Observa en Silencio (blackened funeral doom?)

PJ Harvey – Inside the Old Year Dying (altish indie pop)

Putridity – Greedy Gory Gluttony (brutal death metal)

Rat Torture – Blood Fetish (deathgrind)

The Raven Age – Blood Omen (heavy metal)

Rêvasseur – Talisman (nu metalcore)

Rockin’ Engine – Altered By Evil (heavy metal, thrash)

The Scars In Pneuma – Woebegone, Raised By Wolves (post black metal)

Sélidor – Ecos del abismo (heavy metal)

Serpent Corpse – Blood Sabbath (blackened death metal)

Servant – Aetas Ascensus (black metal)

Seyr – 27 Million (extreme prog metal)

Snuffed On Sight – Smoke (slam)

Sterbenswille – Dunkelheit (melodic dsbm)

Struck/Down – To Witches (alt metal)

Stunner – Motor Worship (thrash)

Supayniyux – Genocidio Infernal (brutal black metal)

Temple Of Void – The First Ten (crusty death doom)

Thelemite – Survival of the Fittest (heavy metal, thrash)

Tortured – Genetically Engineered Monstrosity (brutal death metal)

Truth Decayed – Faded Visions II (prog death)

Under Victoria – Beyond the Shadow Veil (black metal)

Voidmilker – Labyrinthical (post black metal)

Wicked Sorcerer – Infernal Bloodcult Witchery (death doom)

Widow’s Peak – Claustrophobe (brutal deathcore)

Will Haven – VII (sludge metalcore)  

Winterage – Nekyia (symphonic power metal)

Withering Scorn – Prophets Of Demise (thrashy heavy metal)

Wyld Times – Nefarious Instinct (speed metal, black thrash)

Yawning Balch – Volume One (posty post rock)

Joshua Bulleid

Published a year ago