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In the last years there has been an incredible influx of female-fronted psychedelic rock/stoner/doom metal bands. It seems every label is searching far and wide to find its own Jess and The AncientsSeremoniaHigh Priest Of Saturn or Jex Thoth. The difference is that Jex Thoth, the band centered around vocalist/keyboardist Jessica Bowen, was at least a forerunner of this particular subgenre going all the way back to 2007 when they were active as Totem. As always with these kind of bands Black Sabbath is an obvious influence as far as their heavier material is concerned. In the band’s more gentle moments influences from grunge and classic rock (think Fleetwood Mac, for example) are hard not to notice.

500x500The band derived its name from the husband-and-wife team of Jessica Bowen and now ex-member Jackson James Thoth. Marital difficulties aside, a continually fluxuating line-up hasn’t hurt Jex Thoth or creative mastermind Jessica Bowen at all. Through out all these trials and tribulations they have managed to maintain a steady output, now consisting of two full lengths (this being the second) and a handful of EPs. Jessica or Jex rather is the type of frontwoman seen far too less in this genre. Combining elements of wicca, pagan nature-worship, hippy and stoner rock frontwoman in one package that is breathtaking and awe-inspiring, she remains relatable yet there’s something uniquely charming about her. If I’m being really honest with myself, there are superficial similarities with “Rabbits On the Run” era Vanessa Carlton as far as visual representation and clothing style is concerned. But that’s really in the eye of the beholder and up to debate when it really comes down to it. It is worth noting.

Bowen’s wonderful voice deserves a paragraph all its own. She isn’t especially operatic or over-the-top, but within her range and register she’s one of the best singers on the scene today. Her vocals combine the timbres and techniques of people like Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering), Diana Krall, Heather Nova and some passages also recall Swedish country/punk singer Sunniva Bondesson of Baskery. She will never rasp like Cadaveria (ex-Opera IX), but there are a few commonalities in the application of different styles. That is to say, Bowen doesn’t allow herself to get pigeonholed to a certain category or technique and her vocal lines grow naturally from the music she is singing to. The thing about Jessica Bowen is she never lets her voice dictate where the music should go, and she isn’t afraid to not sing at all. The point is that both music and voice work in unison, and neither takes prominence over another.

Atmosphere is another strong suit of this record, which is something sadly absent from many contemporary metal acts, regardless of genre. Take for example ‘Into A Sleep’, the fourth track of this album, which opens up with a gentle melody, some light keyboard playing and the barest minimum of guitar work. It simultaneously channels Pink Floyd’s later laidback prog wanderings, Tori Amos and Björk’s ‘Venus As A Boy’ without the Eastern melodies. The song is really too short and an entire EP or album of this type tracks sound like a very appealing concept. Subsequent instrumental track ‘And the River Ran Dry’ takes the same idea but fleshes it out in a more guitar-and-drum oriented framework. The organ melodies in the track ‘Keep the Weeds’ are both tripped out and haunting at the same time. It’s wonderfully simplistic but incredibly effective. The cello in closing track ‘Psyar’ is wonderfully sublime in conveying a morose atmosphere. When it comes right to it this track sounds like a folk song for the recently deceased. If it wasn’t for the overarching doom aura and the lack of country instruments, this could have been culled from a Baskery record, including the harmonies on the vocals. As an additional bonus the closing and very emotionally phrased guest solo/lead is the ideal closer to a record that ticks all the right boxes across a variety of genres yet never drowns in incoherence.

Black Sabbath is the obvious influence for the majority of material present, and it is understandable that for clarity’s sake this band labeled as doom metal. Is this doom metal then? To a reasonable extent, at least, it is. The music is played at a steady slow pace that is reminiscent of Thorr’s Hammer, Burning Witch and Khanate’s faster cuts. But there’s more to this band than just that, as a lot of the times when this band is playing gently this could just be snail-paced pop/rock. The uptempo segments have a general stoner rock feel, and Bowen’s voice could be applied in any musical context, in and outside of the metal genre. Which is a compliment, because a lot of times metal bands tend to go to ridiculous lengths to prove just how metal and extreme they are, or can be.

This band has nothing of that mentality, at all, which is incredibly refreshing.

In the end it’s up to the listener to decide what he/she finds the most important. Whether a release needs to be brutal, technical or whatever else adjective is hot this week. Speaking from personal experience, I value songwriting and feeling above anything else mentioned before. Jex Thoth doesn’t really qualify purely as metal as there’s plenty of influences from more mainstream genres and even singer-songwriter type artists. This is what sets Jex Thoth apart from so many other underground artists in the metal scene, Bowen is a singer-songwriter at heart – that her backing band happens to provide Black Sabbath-inspired doom metal for musical framework is secondary at best and not even important at worst. This is something for people who like music from the heart that is directly aimed to touch your soul. Come and be mesmerized by this enchanting witch.

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The story of Deicide is one of the most banal in metal history. After starting off with the promising self-titled debut, and following it up with the intensely savage, abstractly technical and loosely conceptual “Legion”, the band had delivered two classic death metal albums. It isn’t very surprising that the band fell into a rud afterwards, releasing competent but unremarkable records with the likes of “Once Upon the Cross” and “Serpents Of the Light” before finally descending into mediocrity and irrelevance. In 2004 the band briefly resurfaced with the so-so sounding “Scars Of the Crucifix”, after which an interpersonal meltdown split the ranks in half, exiting the Hoffman brothers.

amon-band2Since their unceremonious exit from their most known project, the Hoffmans set on to resurrect their original band, Amon. Only in 2007 would the Amon line-up consolidate, with the addition of vocalist/bassist Jesse Michael Jolly and drummer Mike Petrak.  “Liar In Wait”, the long awaited and eagerly anticipated debut, would finally see the light of day in 2012. With an incubation and gestation period this long, the question on any sane person’s mind is: was this album worth the wait – and are the brothers able to one up their former band mates in Deicide? The answer to that is twofold; yes they are and no, they aren’t.

For starters, Amon has an interesting concept in the sense that it deals with alien lifeforms, abstract cosmic themes and New World Order type subjects. The lyrics are interesting to read, and are leagues better than the Satanic claptrap that Deicide are still peddling. Now having said that, the record certainly isn’t without its faults. Given the brothers’ background and an album title as “Liar In Wait”, it isn’t really that hard to imagine that people come into this expecting a Deicide retread. While the comparison holds up musically, conceptually Amon is entirely its own entity. That is to say, it is for the most part. Tracks such ‘Liar In Wait’, ‘Spat Forth From the Darkness’ and ‘Lash Thy Tongue and Vomit Lies’ appear to be, at least in part, holdovers from the Deicide days. The lyrical focus is abstractly anti-religious with a light sci-fi angle. In fact, they are more closely tied to a Deicide track as ‘The Truth Above’ than to any other Amon originals.

From a musical perspective, Amon is what Deicide was in their better, more brighter days, albeit it in a decidedly low profile manner. The album was recorded at Redroom Recorders with producer Mark Prator (Iced Earth), and while it is far from terrible, it does lack that extra layer of gloss and smoothness you’d reasonably expect from musicians of this caliber. The thing is that the record sounds surprisingly good for an entirely self-financed product, but that’s about it. My biggest qualm with this record is that the guitar tone, for however heavy and thick it is, isn’t the clearest and extra clarity and definition would have helped a lot. The same could be said about Petrak’s drum tone. The kickdrums and cymbals sound good enough, but the snare drums and toms sound hollow and aren’t exactly the embodiment of a worthwhile drum production. At least they sound organic and natural, I’ll give them the credit due for getting that right.

Which brings me to the next point of the performances and writing. Brian and Eric noticeably have changed little in regards to their style. The most obvious influences are still Slayer and Possessed, but with Amon their palette has certainly broadened. In terms of leads/solos, the brothers are similar to neo-classical shredders such as Ralph Santolla, Dave Suzuki and John Li. In comparison to those they are surprisingly restraint and not nearly as overindulgent and excessive, which is a welcome breath of fresh air. I can’t say a lot about Jolly’s bass playing because it is inaudible most of the time. It would be interesting to hear him popping away, given the amount of strings his instrument has. Unfortunately he is buried deep beneath the all-encompassing guitars. Petrak’s work behind the kit is fairly non-descript and quite straightforward, he isn’t going to be mistaken for Inferno (Behemoth), Mike Smith (ex-Suffocation), Lee Harrison (Monstrosity), Alex Hernandez (ex-Immolation, Fallen Christ) or Leon Macey (Mithras) anytime soon. If anything, his brand of playing is closer related to Aantar Lee Coates from Tampa stalwarts Diabolic and Unholy Ghost fame.

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Although the cover artwork looks a budget version Doom clone, the design and lay-out are competent and well-handled. Each band member is represented by a unique sigil and the photography is stylish and without excess. Just like the artwork and presentation reek of ‘90s nostalgia, so does the music. Nothing ever comes as a surprise, and while the album is competent in its own right, it doesn’t really do much to advance the brothers’ status or profile. They play faster, and the leads/solos are more ambitious than the Deicide days – but how much is that saying exactly? That they got better? After 25 years they better be. In closing, “Liar In Wait” is exactly what you think it is. This is Tampa, Florida death metal with no strings attached and no new ideas to speak of.

This isn’t the second coming of “Legion” (more like a contemporary interpretation of “Serpents Of the Light”, if anything else) or a breakthrough record on the level of “Dechristianize”. No, far from it. If anything, this album merely consolidates the brothers’ work of the past, and gives them a platform to continue delivering the brand of extremity that they are known and loved for. The Hoffman brothers have proven that they still can deal the damage as good as, if not better, as the younger generation. The real question is: do we, and the scene in general, need them still?