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MUSIC TO MY EARS

Mountain music and hot metal

Be bewitched by Mountain Man's Appalachian folk rock; judge if Metallica is back to form; and check out Esoteric's network player

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Mountain Man: Made the Harbor

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Metallica: Hardwired . . . to Self-Destruct

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The Esoteric Network Audio Player N-05, S$8,850

*Mountain Man: Made the Harbor

NEVER judge a book by its cover, or in this case, a band by its name. Instead of hairy, bearded, axe-wielding woodsmen that one might think make up members of Mountain Man (MM) - when asked to guess, a colleague in The Business Times certainly thought so - MM are three young women from Vermont. Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Randall Meath met as students at Bennington and their delivery of sparse, Appalachian folk rock has been described as "bewitching", "haunting" and "unadorned".

This 2010 album was recorded in an abandoned factory, so there's a cavernous, spectral quality to the tone but this doesn't detract from the music - if anything, it enhances it. Apart from the three beautifully harmonised voices, there's only a gently plucked acoustic guitar for accompaniment and some tracks are sung acapella.

This is music from an ancient wellspring that offers a welcome alternative to most of today's synth-derived drudgery and is well worth a listen.

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*Metallica: Hardwired . . . to Self-Destruct

For 25 years, Metallica have suffered from "follow-up" or FU syndrome, a dreaded curse that can haunt a band after it releases an instant classic. We're referring of course, to the 1991 "black album" which contained the anthemic Enter Sandman, Nothing Else Matters and Sad But True that went on to achieve 16x platinum status.

After the forgettable Load and Reload and the disaster that was St Anger, Death Magnetic offered a glimmer of FU hope, but it is this double album that comes the closest to being an FU worthy of the name.

They're all here - Hetfield's impeccably timed chugging guitars, Hammet's shrieking solos and Ulrich's metronomic (if somewhat one-dimensional) drumming. Metallica's influences are obvious - Atlas, Rise! sounds like it would fit nicely in an Iron Maiden album (Hetfield even sounding like Bruce Dickinson in parts), Now That We're Dead could have been recorded by Judas Priest (though Hetfield admittedly doesn't sound like Rob Halford).

It's a fine return to form that begs the question - is this the FU for which fans have been waiting patiently? You'll have to be the judge but it's mighty close.


*HiFi esoterica

Purist audiophiles might insist that vinyl sounds best, but there's no denying that the majority of music lovers are moving towards digital streaming, networking, Internet radio and subscriptions to services such as Tidal.

So it is that most major audio firms now offer mainly digital products and there should be no surprise that Japan's Esoteric Company has this year jumped on the bandwagon. Its Network Audio Player N-05 is said to produce "total sound quality without compromise" and has all the bells and whistles demanded of today's cutting-edge media player.

It isn't cheap at a list price of S$8,850 but it's built like a tank, proudly made in Tokyo and should provide endless hours of musical joy.

The same goes for Esoteric's other new offerings - two integrated amplifiers to match the N-05. Listed at S$14,700, the F-03A is a 30W pure class A amp, something of a rarity in today's environmentally friendly world because of the heat such a design produces, and the 120W S$12,000 F-05 that operates mainly in class AB.

Both are derived from the company's flagship Grandioso line and weigh a back-breaking 32kg each. When I listened to them in the showroom with the N-05 driving Focal Sopra speakers, they delivered the impressively clean, neutral and musically engaging sound for which Esoteric is renowned.

Both can be fitted with a digital-analog converter board that has one coaxial, optical and USB input each for an additional S$1,200.

Available at Absolute Sound, #03-37, The Adelphi.

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