Lesser-Known Gem: Hydrotoxin – Oceans

Band: Hydrotoxin | Album:Oceans | Genre: Progressive metal | Year: 1996

From: Hanover, Germany | Label: Crystal Rock Syndicate

For fans of: Dream Theater, Fates Warning, Pain of Salvation, Queensrÿche

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It’s been a while since I’ve done a Lesser-Known Gem. I’ve got no shortage of new music in my queue to cover, but I also love highlighting more obscure releases from the past. Today’s topic is one of my favorite albums of the 1990s. I have not been shy about my general indifference (often bordering on distaste) for a lot of prog from that decade, but Hydrotoxin’s one full-length release, Oceans, is one of the best distillations of the classic ‘90s prog metal sound.

I discovered this album when I was 18 or so and I searched “progressive metal” on YouTube. Somehow, the nine-and-a-half-minute title track was one of the top results. (It might have even been the top result.) Running that search now will yield primarily playlists and contemporary releases, which makes more sense. 2008 YouTube’s search function often left something to be desired, but in this quirkiness it was sometimes easier to find interesting oddities.

Very, very little information about this band can be found online. ProgArchives has the most information, but even that source is sparse and effectively limited to the band members’ names. Rate Your Music claims they put out an EP in 2007, Signal Denied, but I’m willing to bet that this is a mix-up with an identically-named band since neither Discogs nor ProgArchives lists this EP on the band’s page. (Note: I cannot find an easy way to legitimately acquire a digital copy of Oceans. CDs can be purchased through private sellers on Amazon UK and Discogs.)

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Odds & Ends: September 6, 2021

Band: Antinode | Album:The Canary the Named the Stars | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp

The three songs on this long EP/short LP are solid, spacey progressive rock with subtle touches of jazz, metal, and indie rock. I’m a big fan of the instrumental tones and textures, and despite the songs’ lengths, they never feel like they’re dragging. There’s significant internal variation on all three tracks, and there’s a natural flow to the way the compositions evolve.

Score: 81/100

Band: Big Big Train | Album: Common Ground | Genre: Neo-prog, Progressive rock | Bandcamp

I have never understood the appeal of Big Big Train. They’ve got the occasional decent song here or there, but I’ve never enjoyed an entire BBT album. They often come off as saccharine and glossy, like a worse version of Spock’s Beard. Maybe I’m too much of a dour Debbie Downer to enjoy such unashamedly major-key music, but the opening “The Strangest Times” exemplifies my lack of fondness for this act. It’s bright, sunny piano-pop that doesn’t strike me as particularly proggy in any definition of the word. Successive tracks are significantly better, though it’s still not exactly my cup of tea. Much of this album comes off as soulless and plain, to say nothing of the bloat. The band sounds stuck in the mid-’90s’ prog scene, a sound which was fine for its time but was rightfully cast aside at the turn of the century. The lushness hobbles the band’s ability to make any real splash, and everything on here has been done much better previously by other artists, often half a century ago.

Score: 51/100

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Album Review: Leprous – Aphelion

Band: Leprous | Album:Aphelion | Genre: Art rock | Year: 2021

From: Notodden, Norway | Label: Inside Out Music

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Leprous are one of the bigger names in the current progosphere. I love their first three albums, and Bilateral, especially, is fantastic. Their sound has changed a lot over the years however, and they’ve moved decidedly away from metal in a manner that has left fan opinions sharply divided.

I have not minced words about my disappointment in Leprous’s recent musical direction. To quote my coverage of their 2019 album, Pitfalls, “This album fucking sucks.” My thoughts on Malina, their 2017 release, aren’t an awful lot kinder. I saw them on tour twice in 2018 (opening first for BTBAM and later for Haken), and the experience was dull, to say the least. Pared-back arrangements and vocalist Einar Solberg going, “Ooh-aah” as pulsing white lights blinded me? Disappointing. Both sets were unvaried in their tonal and dynamic palettes: LOUD-quiet-LOUD-quiet, without any deviations to spice it up. Pitfalls was like a studio version of this experience.

Naturally, I didn’t have high hopes for Aphelion. I was fully anticipating this would be another micro-review, like my coverage of Pitfalls, or an Odds & Ends entry. But I’m familiar enough with the band’s output, and I found enough to discuss, that I could write a full-length review.

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Album Review: Between the Buried and Me – Colors II

Band: Between the Buried and Me | Album:Colors II | Genre: Progressive metal | Year: 2021

From: Raleigh, USA | Label: Sumerian Records

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It’s not often I’m this on top of a new release (only three days out!), but BTBAM are one of my favorite bands. They’ve managed to blend death metal and metalcore with the tonal and structural language of progressive rock to forge a distinct niche for themselves.

The decision to do a sequel to their best-known album 14 years after the fact struck many (myself included) as an odd choice, but I did my best to keep an open mind. I don’t pay attention to lyrics, and harsh vocals barely even register as words to me, so if you’d changed the title to something else, I doubt I’d know this was a sequel. It is undoubtedly a BTBAM album, but there’s not much inherently Colors-y about it.

I’m also glad that this album was released whole, unlike the weird, two-part release of Automata. Automata works better as one unified piece, and it’s a full 10 minutes shorter than Colors II. I’ve read some speculation that that may have been due to interference from Sumerian Records. If true, I’m glad they held back from issuing Colors 1.5 and Colors 2. (And side note–why does Sumerian Records have the Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza as their logo? Couldn’t they have used a ziggurat?)

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Odds & Ends – August 2, 2021

Band: Albion | Album:Pryderi | Genre: Progressive metal, Progressive rock | Bandcamp

Albion is the latest in a long line of acts that take the very English genre of progressive rock and make it sound even more English, with a significant injection of folk. Think of bands like (mid-to-late ‘70s) Jethro Tull and Gryphon. This quartet is quite a bit heavier and more bombastic than any of that first wave of prog-folk-rock acts. There are some neat ideas on this EP, but there’s also just a lot of stuff that sounds like it’s been done before. A lot of this is power metal-based, and I will admit, that’s not my favorite metal subgenre. If you’re into some of the more fun-time, corny folk metal acts out there, you might enjoy this.

Score: 62/100

Band: The Dark Monarchy | Album: All Roads Lead to Rome | Genre: Progressive metal, Power metal | Bandcamp

This album has flashes of brilliance, but it never is able to maintain it for too long. The cheese factor on this album is incredibly high, and most of the songs run together into an unidentifiable mush. The opening track, “I Am Lucifer”, is especially strong, but there isn’t enough here to have this record go on for 45 minutes.

Score: 60/100

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Album Review: Papangu – Holoceno

Band: Papngu | Album:Holoceno | Genre: Progressive metal, Zeuhl | Year: 2021

From: João Pessoa, Brazil | Label: Independent

For fans of: Mastodon, Magma, ‘70s King Crimson, Oranssi Pazuzu

Bandcamp

Zeuhl and metal are two genres which I’ve long felt would make fantastic bedfellows, but almost every instance of an attempted fusion I’ve found has been lackluster. Magma’s Šlag Tanz EP bills itself as jazz-metal, and that’s not too far off the mark; and the bands ni and PoiL frequently have moments where these two styles merge. Most other attempts at blending zeuhl and metal have come off as muddled, meandering morasses of aimless dissonance and irregular drumming.

Brazil’s Papangu, though, might be the best-realized example of zeuhl metal I’ve run across to date. Holoceno, their debut album, has been seven years in the making, and it tells the story of an environmental apocalypse–something Brazilians would understandably have on their minds.

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Odds & Ends – July 12, 2021

Band: BaK | Album:Crater | Genre: Progressive rock, Progressive metal | Bandcamp

BaK is a bombastic Australian act which blends the sound of acts like Pain of Salvation and Dream Theater with Middle Eastern instrumentation and rhythms. The closest parallel to BaK is probably the Tunisian power metal act Myrath, though some of the weaker moments on this EP do remind me of Grorr. The integration of those more exotic influences is done better than most acts who attempt similar genre fusions, but it’s still really tough to not come off as corny.

Score: 71/100

Artist: Christian Cosentino | Album: Lawn | Genre: Progressive metal | Bandcamp

This proggy atmospheric black metal album makes extensive use of lush, programmed orchestration. Many parts of this record feature piano as a co-lead instrument alongside guitar, and strings are almost always present. Normally I’m not the biggest fan of this type of arrangement, but I credit the success here to the fact that he went in a more atmospheric direction, instead of something more traditionally proggy, technical, and overblown.

Score: 81/100

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Album Review: Neptunian Maximalism – Solar Drone Ceremony

Band: Neptunian Maximalism | Album: Solar Drone Ceremony | Genre: Drone, Krautrock, Experimental metal | Year: 2021

From: Brussels, Belgium | Label: I, Voidhanger Records

For fans of: Om, Sunn O))), Ash Ra Tempel, Van der Graaf Generator’s weirder stuff

Bandcamp

I briefly covered Neptunian Maximalism’s (NNMM) last album, Éons, in an Odds & Ends last year. I said that I liked the idea of that album—an abrasive, sax-forward assault of drone, psychedelia, zeuhl, and more—more than its realization. I’m not a big fan of drone, but I sensed that NNMM could put forward something a bit more palatable to my tastes while still maintaining that genre’s aesthetic language.

Solar Drone Ceremony is the second full-length studio release from this Belgian ensemble, and it contains just one 52-minute track. It’s a creepy, occultic album wrapped in befittingly H.R. Giger-inspired artwork showing some sort of sexualized alien ritual.

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