Thursday, February 26, 2015

Trial - Vessel (2015)

Vessel is an album which is thematically and stylistically similar to its predecessor, yet written and produced with a more professional veneer that frankly contributes to what is one of the best examples of its medium that I've heard in several months. From the excellent Costin Chioreanu artwork to the sheer quality of the studio mix, it trumps the debut while begging forgiveness for any of that record's shortcomings, which were not at all cumulative to the point that it wasn't at least a decent, enjoyable effort. Vessel is simply on an entirely higher plane, a studied and measured collection of cuts which create a more varied experience while offering tunes that are much in line with their forebears, only far superior. I wouldn't say that this is a level of evolution on par with what In Solitude underwent between their sophomore and third records, but it's certainly deserving of a spot on that same radar which vaulted these other Swedish throwbacks into a modicum of international recognition.

Right from the intro track, "Vessel" itself, you will be hooked, despite the misleading simplicity. A slow floe of bright, shining chords crashing against Linus Johansson's focused and improved lines and harmonies, it sets up a more somber, melancholic environment bordering on a doom-like quality. And then, with "To New Ends", the illusion is shattered with some of the same heavily melodic speed metal, imbued with some great tremolo picked lines and chord progressions which feel fresher, more modernistic and easily more memorable than anything on the prior album. From there, the album seems to teeter back and forth between these slower, more controlled sequences ("Ecstasy Waltz", parts of "Through Bewilderment") and some sinister, atmospheric power/speed metal like "A Ruined World" in which the riffing is more subversive and angry. In fact, where Vessel hits the hardest, it's a tangibly more 'heavy' experience than The Primordial Temple, with a genuine savagery to it which strides in a lockstep with the band's more elegant, melodic qualities, and it's almost as if the debut were this tapestry of grey hues that the Swedes suddenly decided to splash various colors upon, making the brights brighter, the darks darker...

Memorable stuff, both the individual tracks and as a coherent, functioning whole. The USPM influence circa bands like Fates Warning and Omen is still evident, but on the whole the way the vocal lines are structured just seems a little more unique. No longer does Trial feel as if it's just a 'retro' band the way they were on the first disc, but one which is committed to channeling its influences into something vibrant, bewitching and fully belonging to the current decade. From the fantastic percussion, the wondrous, swooning bass-lines to the progressive, uncanny licks that sneak their way into tunes like "Where Man Becomes All", this album has proven nearly as riffy as the great Pharaoh's Be Gone, an album I was very taken with last decade. Not quite so flawless and melodic, perhaps, but striving towards that same justification that this niche of the metal realm is every bit as viable and poignant as it was 30 years ago. This all adds up to one of the best albums I've heard yet in 2015, deep and rewarding on a good number of repeated spins, and unlikely to fade from my rotation anytime soon.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (let the words be spoken forever)

https://www.facebook.com/TrialHeavyMetal

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Trial - The Primordial Temple (2011)

I notice a lot of 'Swede fatigue' when talking shop with my fellow metalheads, but it's hard not to be humbled when a single country seems to excel in so many individual branches of the medium, hearkening back to the 80s when artists there were starting to meddle with the most baseline strains of the genre. This is of some importance when discussing Trial, because here is a group which mirrors countrymen like Portrait, Enforcer, In Solitude, or even Ghost in turning the clock backwards. However, unlike most of those I just listed, a Mercyful Fate influence is not the foremost imperative for this band, but rather a sounding board of antiquated European and USPM acts whose glory days existed within that same time frame. In experiencing The Primordial Temple, and the records to follow, I felt myself drifting back to the Walkman Days of the first three Fates Warning albums in particular, mixed with a little Omen, and some Swedish forerunners like the first couple Europe records and even a handful of atmosphere, obscure bands like Proud, whose Fire Breaks the Dawn disc is underrated to this day.

In particular, this debut is an effort which evokes the Metal Blade period of the mid 80s, with some forcibly structured rhythm progressions intricately laced with more melodies than you could fire off a can of hairspray at. In addition to the bands I tagged earlier, I caught the wafting fumes of old Lizzy Borden, Exxplorer, Helstar, Sound Barrier and other bands that wrote these hazy, dreamlike heavy metal escapes which delighted in skirting the realms of the then-fantastic, without the boldest or heaviest production and entirely negligent of the concepts of grooving and moshing that usurped the public perception metal throne throughout the 90s. At its core, much of the composition on this album is a pretty straight shot from the Iron Maiden school of thought, but brought to an Awaken the Guardian level of complexity. Controlled wanderlust. The album lacks nuance or innovation of any sort, but it does seem to tap directly into the lifeblood of what so many of us metal dorks envisioned in our youths when we fantasized about Corvettes and big-haired blondes & brunettes in Def Leppard tees that would not give us the time of day when any greaser of an even cursory muscular physique was present. That is to say, there is little to nothing original about The Primordial Temple, but it sure sounds like a lot of heart and spirit were fomented in its assembly.

Linus Johansson's vocals might be a sticking point for some listeners, since they don't manifest the glass-shattering range or unique qualities that many of the great 80s front men were known for. His syllabic delivery is quite similar to the great John Arch, albeit with less of that unearthly, ethereal shrieking quality, and more of the stunted, everyman quality that populated the middle and lesser rungs of the metal catalogs of that decade. I do think he's a work in progress though, since his presence on subsequent recordings is an improvement over this, and sometimes the wavering notes and 'flaws' in his voice actually give the phrasings a little bit of character and vulnerability. But the real stars on this record are the guitars, the harmonic passages populated the depths of tunes like "Progenies of the Avenger" and the thundering of "The Sorceress' Command". Bass lines here are a little more pronounced than your average recording from the old days, with the notable exception of Steve Harris who is quite obviously an influence. The drumming is solid, with a lot of energy, splash and pop that help kick the riffs in the ass even when they're slacking off a little.

The album also seems to grow in quality as it proceeds through the seven cuts, with "Opener of the Way" and the 13-minute epic "Phosphoros" numbering among my favorites, though I'd say the strength of the material overall is consistent enough across the entire 40 minutes. Trial doesn't make broad leaps in style or substance here over its inspirations (with even lyrical callbacks to Fates Warning, though they might not be conscious), and there is no reason to believe they are in any shape to do more than tickle the nostalgia centers of our brains, but if you're looking for a direct, dextrous exhibition of melodic heavy/power metal which eschews the prospect of modernity and conventional, overly loud and compressed production, this does serve as a decent second stringer to the formative works of In Solitude and Portrait, and if you're constantly mining the rosters of labels like High Roller and StormSpell for a new aural time machine, I can save you some of the trouble and instruct you to just check this band out right now.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (this is my home, I'm here all alone)

https://www.facebook.com/TrialHeavyMetal

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Scanner - The Judgement (2015)

It's been 13 years since Scantropolis, and while many who had a negative reaction to that record might feel this absence was likely for the best, I didn't find that album quite as much of a stain on the Scanner legacy. Sure, it was an extremely accessible, almost AOR style of hard rock/metal with but few traces of what made the band so great in the 80s, yet there were certainly a few strong riffs and chorus sequences there that had me spinning it a few times. Well, these days, Axel Julius has put together a fairly new lineup, none of whom have appeared on a prior Scanner record, and done a bit of a 180 degree turn from Scantropolis, in that this is an earnest attempt to return to the roots of what made the first two albums so special, while not entirely abandoning the more contemporary progressions they were making on Mental Reservation or Ball of the Damned in the 90s. It's a midlife sort of crisis effort that might have come too late, but I can't say I'm entirely disappointed that it has come at all...

Almost immediately (after an intro) you're dialed back to the frenetic power/speed metal guitars that placed Scanner on the map alongside their countrymen Rage, and introduced to the new vocalist Efthimios Ioannidis, who performs with a less-shrieking, more controlled mid range thank you'd expect on a time machine album like this. He occasionally shifts up the scales, for a few frilly Halford-meets-Henning Basse, high-pitched lines, but he simply doesn't excel at that uncontrolled, explosive scream which characterized the band's classics, and dwells more in an area that Peavey Wagner has been rather comfortable with ever since HIS band abandoned their 80s volatility for maturation, at the expense of momentum. In fact, some tunes here like "Nevermore" felt almost like an analog for that guy, with a few James Rivera-like barks ("Warlord") thrown in for good measure, and plenty of versatility, even when he hurls out a low, guttural growl. He has some character, but for whatever reason there are just too few choruses or individual lines that 'nail' something memorable, and in the end it seems as if the writing itself holds him back from really busting a nut in your earspace.

The rhythm guitars are tinged with a number of small, interesting melodies that lend a little more compulsion to the chord patterns, but I have to say that about half the guitar riffs on the disc are quite predictable, typical connect-the-dots second-tier Euro power which relies far too much on the upper strata of atmosphere that the vocals and harmonies just can't pull off. Now, some would say that these guys were always on that level, but there was something so impactful, so crystalline, so off the hook about Hypertrace and Terminal Earth that I still spin them both today and they haven't aged at all, while I struggle to retain The Judgement even after a few hours. The overall performances here are consistent and solid, and Julius still has an ear for a melody that elevates most of the tunes above the level of boring mediocrity, but it wasn't until "The Judgement" itself that I really started to bang my head and pretend I was listening to a successful Scanner album; it builds into a pretty potent Euro power metal anthem circa Gamma Ray, but still lacks a chorus that will floor you. "Battle of Poseidon" and "Pirates" are also decent, the latter having some of those gang shouts you might remember on the first album; and the closing pair of "The Race" and "The Legionary" are likewise highlights, most of these having a fairly immediate and bracing atmosphere.

In the end, though, all of the components of the band simply don't gel together. When the guitars are going strong, you haven't got great vocal lines. When the drums are battering away with a fervor, the chorus just never hits that interesting, unexpected string of notes that you'll be singing to yourself for the next 25-30 years. Is The Judgement a worthy wayback machine to when Scanner was one of the most promising lesser known acts on the impeccable Noise Records roster? Perhaps, but what it does possess in spirit, it somewhat lacks in actual songwriting quality. Competent power metal which does service to the dystopian and science-fiction atmospheres the band was always so swathed in over the decades, but not the killer comeback I'd have hoped. Hell, for all its flaws, I think at least the first two cuts on Scantropolis were more memorable than these. Having said that, this is very far from a bad album, or even much of a letdown. The lineup is tight and capable, and now that this one is under their collective belts, I wouldn't put it past them to dig into whatever asteroid field they reside, mine for some even better material, and go streaking back across the universe.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

http://www.scanner4u.de/

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Exhumed - Platters of Splatter (2004)

I've mentioned a few times in the past that Exhumed was around for quite awhile before striking up their deal with Relapse which produced their debut Gore Metal, and Platters of Splatter does a hell of a job giving the ardent fan a comprehensive glimpse at not only those earlier demo years, but also a bunch of split material and unreleased tape that was woven around their full-length records up to this point. Clocking in three discs with nearly four hours of content, it's pretty much a dream come true for anyone who wanted to collect their split appearances, demos, and rarer recordings in one place, rather than the arduous trials of bootlegging and tape trading all the originals, what originals were still around. I should point out that this is not the 'complete' discography of the Californians, spanning 1990-1998, but it seems like it was at least a genuine stab at such, and exceptions probably have a good reason for their omissions, maybe sounding far too shitty or just lost to the ages...

Beyond the fact that it's just so massive, with over 70 tracks, it also features a lot of damn fun tunes that would not wind up on the band's better known studio efforts. In fact, you could probably pick out a dozen or so cuts on this that, if polished up, might have made for a great studio album themselves. The style is largely British goregrind-influenced (Carcass, Napalm Death), with a few tunes veering off into a thrashier territory, some others representative of a more old school US death terrain circa 80s Death and their like. Unlike a lot of other grind-evolved acts, Exhumed had a lot more structure to the material, with songs generally hovering around the 2-3 minute mark, not just 30-60 seconds of spastic excess but a very riffy take on the medium which took the more political overtures of earlier Carcass and transformed it into a serial killer streak inspired by serial killers and other staples of horror, both real world and cinematic. The Carcass naming conventions thrived in a lot of tracks like "Necrovores: Decomposing the Inanimate", "Dissecting the Caseated Omentum" and "Carneous Corneal Carbonization", but they also had some good old 90s brutal USDM silliness like "Necro Transvestite", "Oozing Rectal Feast" and "Bone Fucker".

As much of a treat as it is to hear tunes from the 92-95 demos, I think the strongest material is some of the split work like the whopping 11 cuts they did alongside Hemdale (In the Name of Gore, 1995), which are more or less full-blown Exhumed constructions that feel flush with the studio material they'd put out a few years later. There are also a few covers present here which are thankfully NOT redundant with the Garbage Daze Re-Regurgitated covers album they put out later. Granted, a few like Possessed's "Death Metal" just come across as cluttered, clamorous and forgettable, and other obvious choices like Carcass' "Exhume to Consume" are too close in nature to the originals and just nowhere near as compelling, but hearing them mince up King Diamond's "No Presents for Christmas" is worth a laugh or two, though I think the irony is self-evident and I might have preferred they left off the shrill vocal tribute and just went all out gore on the thing, making it 100% their own.

The second disc features a lot of the content, and some of it sounds bloody fresh despite the decade that had elapsed before they were released on this compilation. I think the one disc that just doesn't hold up to the rest is the third, featuring a lot of alternate and live radio recordings of tunes that are redundant to those you'll find elsewhere. Not that they sound bad in that context at all, but it's hard to pair up stuff like this with old, rare tunes I genuinely haven't heard and maintain my interest level. It's a solid close to the compilation, but personally I found most of the hideous highlights confined to the earlier discs. All told, though, this is a pretty thorough retrospective of a band that is honestly among the brightest and most visceral we've had in the states through the late 90s and 21st century, surely derivative but actually honoring their forebears and then putting some genuine, energetic spin on the formulas, not ignoring other inspirations in their metal canon and imbuing some thrash and melody in their momentum away from just Reek of Symphonies of Necroticism Part III.XS. Awesome band, and even though I'd make a line straight for their studio full-lengths first, if you did find this lying around at a decent price then it's packed with gut-sawing entertainment.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

https://www.facebook.com/ExhumedOfficial

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Exhumed - Gore Metal: A Necrospective 1998-2015 (2015)

I'm a little conflicted over whether or not an album like Gore Metal even warranted a re-recording. Not that it's my call to make, but the original was an excellent, gruesome launching of  Exhumed from the demophiliac ranks into national recognition, and even if it was surpassed by Slaughtercult in my eyes, I'd still argue that the first was a contemporary classic of US death metal, shucking the cliche Suffocation-inspired trajectory for a slightly more antiquated style, that of British gore-grinding legends Carcass, and then applying a little more modernist meat to the bone, if only to saw it right back off. On the other hand, having been a musician myself for most of my life now, I can understand the little perceived flaws that can build up on an artist's conscience, how he or she might have gone about a recording differently if there were different equipment, production facilities, or mixing ideas in place at the time. Whether or not Gore Metal: A Necrospective 1998-2015 is redundant or not becomes moot, because the product has arrived, it's got a cover image paying homage to its original incarnation, and for younger or newer fans who don't care about hearing or officiating music in context to its creation, this might as well become the de facto version of the album...

Now, I didn't have a lot of quips with the production of the original, but I think the point of this was to bring the guitar tones and mix of the other instruments into a more level balance with their recent records, and that certainly works, but at the cost of the record feeling a lot less vulgar and grotesque. But the biggest change here is how those higher-pitched deathgrind rasp vocals that were originally cultivated from the Carcass influence, in how they interacted with the gutturals, have here been supplanted with a voice that is more akin to the splatter-thrash of filthy 80s punk/crossover/thrash bands, most notably Blaine Cook of The Accused. It really makes this sound a little more unique within its niche, and the dirtier fuzz on the guitars helps to make it feel a lot more like the proto grind this band was partly reared on through its formative years; while some of the faster mute chugging sequences (as in "Open the Abscess") bring to mind the early years of Death, Autopsy, and so forth. Exhumed is also a band which has consistently developed its frenzied lead style through the years to incorporate a lot more melody and structure, something they interestingly seem to eschew here as they adhere more to that random Slayer lead style that became so vital to the death metal groups that actually gave a shit about incorporating them to begin with.

Gore Metal: A Necrospective has a more 'organic' feeling than its forebear, a bit more of an earthen depth and tone to it than the pure flesh-carving of the original which felt like a more 'street' version of stuff like Symphonies of Sickness meets From Enslavement to Obliteration. But that said, for any of its flaws, I really preferred the original to this, even if it wore influences a little more boldly on its sleeves, I just feel like it hit me a lot harder then than this one does now. So, if you were fond of Gore Metal 1998, as I am, I really don't know that I can give this a recommendation. It doesn't lack that level of energy, and the vocal change is surely a good one, but maybe one I'd like to hear them explore more on an album of new content altogether. The songs overall on this simply do not 'fire' the originals, and if I want some organ-grinding sickness, I'd rather go with those. But if you're open to a mildly altered mutation of the tunes, with a few different musicians in the mix (but a lot of the original guys doing guest spots), then this is by no means bad. Maybe the creator really wanted it to sound like this all along? I just won't reach for it over Gore Metal, Slaughtercult, Anatomy of Destiny, or even the last two albums for that matter, and time is in short supply these days, so it's not much more than an ugly curiosity I'll forget about. But it's nothing to get my panties in a bunch over, unless of course it leads to Slaughtercult 2.0. Don't do it, guys!

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

https://www.facebook.com/ExhumedOfficial

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Exhumed - Garbage Daze Re-Regurgitated (2005)

When it comes to a collection of covers like this one, I'm always more interested in hearing how bands can transform tunes that you might not expect into something which sounds naturally their own, rather than just picking a potpourri of popular metal tunes they grew up on and playing them closer to the hilt. To the credit of Exhumed, Garbage Daze Re-Regurgitated isn't just some paean to a who's who of death and grind influences (Carcass, Napalm Death), which would have been obvious. Nope, it reaches pretty far into the realms of punk, thrash, doom and classic hard rock, and while the results are often middling or less than impressive, at least if feels like they didn't wanna put too much thought into selection, but more into creating a 'party' sort of tribute record which remains frantic and fun with a few odd ducks in the row. But ironically, it's some of the metal tracks they cover that seem to work the best, given an injection of visceral energy not unlike what the Californians were pulling off on their first few full-lengths.

The Cure's "A Reflection", which opens this disc, is probably the most out of place; they basically just heavily electrified and harmonized the central melody, a cover of an intro serving as an intro, and it doesn't exactly reflect the 'fun' tone of the majority of choices here. Prevalent are the punk and violent hardcore tunes (Samhain, GBH, Siege, etc), the best of which is probably the brutal chugging and dual growl/snarls used on Amebix' "The Power Remains", though none of these are particularly memorable beyond the fact that they are successful transplants into a medium arguably nastier than their original forms. Where Exhumed excel is once again those harmonies in the bridges and lead, which really breathe fresh air into this track, as well as Master's "Pay to Die" which just fucking rips in their murderous mitts, and is ironically my favorite cover on the disc, despite what I mentioned earlier about how I'd rather the bands stayed out of their stylistic safety zones. The middle of the album does have a pair of semi-safe choices in Zeppelin's "No Quarter" and Metallica's "Trapped Under Ice", they grind up the latter efficiently but I'd have to say neither of these were really among the highlights here.

A couple more West Coast thrash tunes, Sadus' "Twisted Face" and Epidemic's "In Fear We Kill" seem like natural enough fits, but despite being slathered in Matt Harvey's Carcass-esque ravings they lack the visceral punch of their original incarnations. On the other hand, Pentagram's "The Ghoul" sounds just monstrous with the raunchy crunching rhythm guitar tone, baleful harmonies, and the toilet bowl level gore vocals. Unseen Terror's "Uninformed" is the sort of selection I would have expected all over this album, but of all the tunes it takes the least liberties and I'd rather just throw on the original. Then again, that's the case for everything here...songs sound loud, vulgar, and straight to the face, but it all just lacks that carnal punch of Exhumed's original material. Oftentimes you'll get a death metal cover like Cannibal Corpse doing Razor's "Behind Bars" which is surprisingly fun, but here I felt most the moments I was most interested in were the leads, and there are really no strange choices made anywhere except the intro, which is just a brief instrumental. Sounds like the guys had some fun putting this together, and I've certainly heard worse from these sorts of projects, but it's a solid 'pass' from me in the end, I'd rather spin Gore Metal, Slaughtercult or Anatomy is Destiny again than bother.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

https://www.facebook.com/ExhumedOfficial

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Acherontas - Ma IoN (Formulas of Reptilian Unification) (2014)

Hellenic black metallers Acherontas have yet to waste my time with any of their full-length records, yet I'd be hesitant to claim that they'd fully knocked one out of the park. Until now. Efforts like Theosis and Amenti flirted with greatness, but Ma IoN (Formulas of Reptilian Unification) immerses us within a fully realized, matured sound that offers paeans to both the gnarled, grisly black metal tradition and the occult atmospherics that have long lingered in the eaves of celestial darkness that populate their discs. To wit, it's not a massive stylistic departure, rather just a refinement of those present contrasts in the earlier material, but a damn good one. If it seemed like there was this ceaseless tirade of quality amidst the Greek scene in 2014, with killer sophomore albums by newish bands like Thy Darkened Shade, Hail Spirit Noir and also a career effort from the legendary Varathron, then this quintet of extremely seasoned musicians has seen fit to 'extend the reign', perhaps not on that same level of dominance, but extremely close...

The two deciding factors on why I enjoyed this more than their other albums are just how far they've come along with the ambient components and frisky leadwork, the former imbued with all manner of raw percussion, vaporous swells and pads, brooding chants, articles of ethnic antiquity. The solos in tunes like the intro "Fires of Prometheus" are just amazing, slicing and frivolous exhibitions of chaos that remind me of death metal cult classics like that first Nocturnus album, only embedded within chord progressions that are purely black metal circa older Bathory, Mayhem, Marduk, etc. There is a constant, unhinged feeling throughout the record due to the abusive charisma of vocalist Acherontas V. Priest, whose garbles and grumbles function both when they're straightforward and ugly, and also bouncing off the vaulted ceilings of the recording thanks to some tasteful reverb. Many of his lines might fall within the same wheelhouse of structure and tonality, but I found it nearly impossible to predict what syllables he was going to spit in any succession and thus the album, while possessing a solid rhythmic backbone, feels fresh and sporadic (not unlike that latest Varathron).

Riff phrases are nearly as psychotic, shifting between banks of turgid, bleak chords and flightier ascensions into tremolo pickings to accompany the blasts. Percussion is everywhere on this disc, from thundering toms to hissing cymbals and it all contributes to a sense of this black vortex which does a service to the excellent, alluring cover art. Bass lines swerve and cavort among the sickly coupling of the beats and guitars. But what's better, once the band segues into this completely dusky, ethnic piece like "Convolut-ion, Manifestat-ion, Secret-ion, Karma-Iravatl the Thunders Emerged" it really fits into the patchwork nature of the ritualistic concepts. I was ensnared by every single dark ambient distraction on the entire effort...even when they're placed back to back like "Permutations in the Aetheric Void" and "Shaman and the Waning Moon". Fortunately they'll often toss of a few of the grimier black metal rasps or whispers in among these to keep the experience coherent.

Now, I'll be honest, I haven't the fucking clue what the band is on about most of the time...the '-ion' suffix gimmick is an interesting one that had my head reeling. I am just not ancient enough. I know it scares me, and I would not want to be abducted by these guys while I was on a summer vacation in Crete or Mykonos or somewhere. Is this entire album just one massive love letter to the Gorgons? A serenade for the serpentine embodiment of the Medusa? It certainly turned me to stone, no easy feat when you consider that with 70 minutes of material this could very easily have gone off the rails. Oh, it does, it does so with pride, all the while plummeting with a cackling joy into the Underworld it longs for. At times calming, at times frenzied, a night storm sweeping across the Aegean, the best of Acherontas yet.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Acherontas/144671698890576

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Hail Spirit Noir - Pneuma (2012)

The marriage of black metal to the many faces of progressive rock is probably not a novelty by the second decade of the 21st century. Bands like Enslaved were early adopters of the hybrid, but it is one that has never ceased to enthrall me personally, since I possess no aversion whatsoever to all the mixing and matching if it provides me a fresher listening experience. No, it won't always work, it won't always distribute evenly enough to gel the styles, but then a gem like Hail Spirit Noir comes along and redefines just how much this mutual integration can become its own, seamless form. More than so many other bands, I don't listen through Pneuma or its brilliant younger sibling Oi Magoi as if they 'clash'. Contrast, yes, but the Greeks make it all sound so natural that I wonder why the two weren't a whole in the first place. As if this very record could have existed somewhere in the late 70s, the product of some guys with huge imaginations who might not have had the vocal talents of an Osbourne, Dio or Halford, so instead retreated to the deep Underground, providing quasi-soundtracks for unreleased Hammer horror flicks.

Oi Magoi was ultimately my favorite metal record of 2014, but listening back to this, I can't honestly tell you it was that massive an improvement. Catchier, perhaps, but the genius bastardization of genre was already in full flux a couple years earlier. Lots of 'expected' folksy and proggy instruments here, like organs and old synths, loads of cleaner guitars performed with a bluesy tinge, crested by Theoharis disgusting harsh vocal and his wavering, accented cleans which often seem like a Hellenic Nick Cave or Johnny Cash hovering over the edge of perdition. Chords contribute to slower, dramatic riff progressions here that almost feel strangely Beatles-esque, only if you the Fab Four had ingested countless mushrooms and frolicked naked in the fields within satyr-nymph love trysts. Pneuma possesses an idyllic and ugly dual nature which is captivating through the end, even when a few of the individual riffs might not shine as much as the overall work; there's even a tint of trashy old Cleopatra Gothic vibe in a handful of the tunes like "Let Your Devil Come Inside" which in at least a few spots sounds like Christian Death or Mephisto Walz performing occult rock. I couldn't tell you if that were some conscious decision, but the real wealth of Pneuma is in that esoteric reaction.

I'm also reminded pretty often of Nocturno Culto, especially his presence in the band Sarke, where you get those raw, unfettered post-Frost vocals mired in some fuzzy, caustic primal metal chord patterns ("Against the Curse, We Dream"), but they really evade so many direct comparisons to any one source because you just never have any idea of what will happen next. Some parts seem like Opeth if they were much better at evoking that archaic prog rock nostalgia, only tainted with the fabric of nightmares; others are more fluidly black metal, just the really fundamental kind that groups like Vultyr shat forth in their own aspirations to rewrite the script. I would actually go so far as to say that, while there aren't songs here nearly so evocative as "Satan is Time", this debut is a fraction more consistent in construction than the followup. Great drums, nuttier percussion, fuzzy and spurious little lead harmonies, variation everywhere, even in the track lengths. An amazing debut that sets up what I dearly hope with be a lengthy career in which the experimentation and fusion never ends.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (let your fantasy grow wild)

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Hail-Spirit-Noir/260062670728238

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Blind Guardian - Beyond the Red Mirror (2015)

Beyond the Red Mirror is one of those albums of which the first track is not necessarily representative of the work as a whole. This has never been a band alien to the concept of orchestration or other mild experimentation on their classic power/speed metal formula, but even as someone open to such practices, I was a little thrown off when I heard the first tune. "The Ninth Wave", a bloated piece led off by choirs affixed with electronic percussion and more vocal arrangements bouncing to and fro than some weird Gospel setup accompanying a shitty rap act at a Superbowl halftime show, I was immediately inundated with 'future sickness'. Did the beloved Blind Guardian finally jump its shark and record a concept album about Buck Rogers in the Disco Century? Or did they succumb to the bland 'go big or go home' fever that they partially helped invent, which has infected all manner of hack European Gothic/power metal hybrids with female vocalists and lavish stage productions with all the substance of Disney's Frozen?

I find the first few minutes of this record slightly obnoxious, if only because they seem to have put all this effort into layering these disparate elements into a unified whole but along the way forgot to make it catchy. Thankfully, as soon as the digital dust clears, and the band remember that they can sound like they're scoring a large budget German computer RPG by just being themselves and not TRYING to sound that way, Beyond the Red Mirror is actually a pretty damned solid outing which embodies much of what the band represented over the last 25 years, albeit with that slightly more fulfilling stereo production which supplants a little of that processed, heavily layered tone which they have been gradually distancing themselves from since that 1992-2002 creative pinnacle. Don't get me wrong, Olbrich's rhythm guitars still pop a lot here, and he's not bringing many new tricks to the kennel, but everything about this album sounds much 'richer' than the last few, immersive and fully modernized to the detriment of only those fans who wish they still sounded like Follow the Blind or Somewhere Far Beyond...only, they kind of do. Behind the sweltering studio facade, the Germans still beat with the dorky power metal heart that has pumped from the start, with a substantial selection of those flighty, simmering speed metal licks that put them on the map.

Apart from the intro, the orchestral arrangements through the album actually do it justice. Strings and other instrumentation used to great effect in "At the Edge of the Time", which evolves into a pure triumph that wouldn't have felt out of place on Nightfall in Middle-Earth or A Night at the Opera, only with far more bombastic horns leading the charge of the palm muted, constantly shifting rhythm guitar patterns; not the fastest Blind Guardian material, but quite complex in how they structured that all out, constantly attempting to one-up their inspirations Queen if not quite succeeding when it comes to the raw ability to deliver an unforgettable melody or chorus. "The Throne" is another great implementation, which almost has a spy-like aesthetic that felt like they were writing some metal for a future installment of the James Bond franchise. "Miracle Machine", a non-metal tune, is probably the closest they come to Queen or Journey with all those pianos and vocal arrangements, but I don't find it essential whatsoever (would have been a better bonus track/B-side). That said, the entire album has this enormous, worldly sense of momentum which is felt in both the neoclassical harmonies gleaming from within the meaty, punching rhythms and the occasional flare for a more exotic, Eastern note progression. Hansi is as always the central focus of the band, but while he delivers as always, it's Olbrich and Siepen who seem to be having the best time, and it's their frolicking little nuances in tracks like "Sacred Mind" that make, rather than break, the album.

I would like a Blind Guardian record with better bass guitars. Most of Barend Courbois' lines (on loan from Vengeance) are scantly noticeable, and this is a region in which the band has long suffered from a deficit that would better support all those booming symphonic swells, eclectic riffs and leads. I notice the instrument is there once in awhile, but it becomes too easy to forget about amidst the constant piling on of dramatic orchestration and Hansi reaching for the vaulted ceilings of whatever cathedral he imagines himself singing in when he records one of these things. Frederik Ehmke, on the other hand, manages all of the band's vivid eccentricities with firm planning, loads of potent fills and a lot of attention paid across his entire kit. The choirs, strings and other instruments thrown in here all sound high end, though they don't always consistently add much beyond breadth to the riffing. It's a vast, airy, state of the art record, which is going to titillate the modern metal audience while further alienating those who covet their copies of Tales from a Twilight World and cringe at change, which let's face it, already happened a very long time ago once the band decided to put out a concept album about The Silmarillion.

I flounder about in both camps, really, but considering this band even wrote a song about Peter Pan that could find emotional resonance with me, I have no aversion to the scope of what they were trying to accomplish here. With the caveat that the intro and "Miracle Machine" are things I could very easily skip, I find that the guitar work and the song arrangements here are marginally better than the last full-length. Is it on par with that decade of excellence now removed by another 13 years? Not on your life, but it's aspiring, dramatic. Far more functional than it isn't. Pompous. Elegant. As goofy as ever. Still Blind Guardian, still plucking at the heartstrings of men. Halflings. And elves. And that hot chick at the LARP. You know the one.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (Gods will come and gods will go)

http://www.blind-guardian.com/

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

SinBreed - Shadows (2014)

Sinbreed's 2010 debut When Worlds Collide was a solid enough addition to the decades-spanning German power metal dominance (in popularity, if nothing else); but not exemplary to the degree that it could rival Frederik Ehmke's more recent, celebrated employer Blind Guardian, which was the opportunity of a lifetime. Several lifetimes, really. To the drummer's credit, he didn't just go and drop the lesser known commitment, but even managed a bit of brilliant backwash by drafting Guardian guitarist Marcus Siepen to play on this disc, as well as a bunch of other illustrious guest stars like Tankard thrashaholic Andreas Gutjahr throwing down a lead, and a few more I'm not quite so familiar with. Ultimately, the goal here is to continue establishing the Sinbreed brand with a record that surpasses its predecessor, and I feel that within about half the album's play length it has already reached that point, by a fraction, though I'm not quite sure I'd equivocate them amongst the top tier acts of this particular country and scene.

Herbie Langhans continues to voice his slightly silky, slightly acidic timbre to a refined set of riffs that at points through Shadows presented me with the hypothetical union of what it might sound like had Andi Deris been chosen to front the first few HammerFall records in place of Joacim Cans. He does get a little more grit in there than Deris, especially when he's barking out in an edgier mid range, but lacks the truly sticky melodies so consistently delivered by the other. In other spots, the texture and layering of his delivery manifests a lot of Piet Sielck and Jens Carlsson comparisons, which is a given considering this band runs in pretty much the same circles as Iron Savior, Savage Circus and Persuader. Firm and driving rhythm guitar components dominate the songs, seasoning up a handful of rather bland chugging patterns with sleeker, melodic chord progressions in tunes like "Bleed", but even though they cater to a crowd very likely to also enjoy anything from U.D.O. to Stormwarrior, I still felt like there was a distinct lack of memorable individual riffs; for all the professionalism and variation on parade, the album is still conjured from a set of German power/heavy metal tropes that feel a little on the safe side, already delivered with far more bravado on those first two Iron Savior discs, far more balls on Primal Fear's better efforts.

But of course, if decades of power/speed charge licks worked on you then, cuts like "Far Too Long" are very likely to work on you today, and I'm not entirely immune to their charm. The album is mixed clean and bright, perhaps clean to the extent that it feels a little forced or processed in its struggle to deliver just the right amount of 'punch' to those rhythm guitars, but consider the peers these folks run with, I don't think that's going to prove much of an issue. Leads are uniformly well tended, with a few classical hints in construction, never outlasting their usefulness. The choruses are generally pretty standard for this German power anthem style, most built from fragments of better songs to come before, but there really wasn't a weak one among the bunch, even though they don't do much to rival the classics in the field. All told, Shadows is a little more exciting than their debut, and marginally superior, but they're just not the most interesting band in this scene. I liked the slightly thrashier, angrier touches, the few touches of choir-like vocals ("Broken Wings"), and the polished razor atmosphere of their approach, but the songs are just north of standard fare. Unless you're heavily invested in the sub-genre, there are far better albums to turn to for the same thrills.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (by a thousand tongues I swear)

https://www.facebook.com/Sinbreed