Thursday, August 1, 2019

Good Friendly Violent Summer Fun

Off on another pesky summer vacation. I shall return September 23rd for over a month of horror metal reviews leading up to Halloween! Thanks so much, as always, for reading!


Wednesday, July 31, 2019

October Tide - In Splendor Below (2019)

I don't know whose idea it was to come up with the new October Tide logo for this sixth record, but it was a good one, replacing the bland typeface they had before and instantly making a statement before I've even heard a single lick of the music. Strangely, I think the change also rubbed out on the compositions here. No, they are not a black metal band all of the sudden, as that logo might imply, but In Splendor Below is certainly a harder-jamming death doom record than its predecessor, the surprisingly good Winged Waltz, and I rather approve of the shift, because it offers up something a little less predictable than just steering along the exact course. Don't mistake me, there are plenty of passages here which fall directly in line with the material they've been dropping since 2010, but they clearly don't sound like they are anywhere near running out of ideas and overall progression.

There's a new rhythm section here, which might account for some of the differences, but I think this one actually takes a little more of an Opeth influence circa Blackwater Park or Still Life and imbues that with some riffs and rhythmic patterns that their countrymen simply wouldn't have thought up. So if you miss those records, I'd definitely give this one a listen. Another alternation here is how Alexander's vocals seem more fleshed out and emotional crushing. Rather than a static, competent guttural, he's sustaining longer growls that shift more in pitch, ebbing and flowing like a tortured shoreline under the tides. There's more of a rasp to some of his lines, and it's just far more risky and involved than what he was doing on the last one, and to me an improvement. As far as the quality of the melodies and harmonies, I'd say this one is in lockstep with its elder sibling, not being more memorable although at times it does cover a little darker terrain. The drums are also noticeably more busy, which naturally suits the shift in intensity, without losing any of the subtle skill that was on exhibition in their recent past.

In all, they just take a lot more chances, and the songs end up a lot more diverse than either Winged Waltz or Tunnel of No Light. Rhythms break and resolve, note patterns get more complex and can take a few listens to really absorb, and it's very far from predictable...I had no idea what was going to happen around any corner, and I loved the harder hitting direction taken on tunes like "Stars Starve Me". But don't get me wrong, the record as a whole flows just a smoothly as its predecessor. Like the last album, the lyrics are actually pretty well written and can be interesting to read along with as you listen. Sure, they've dowsed with the same tales of woe you're going to expect from this niche of doom metal, but that doesn't detract from how you'll actually feel like they were penned with some genuine emotional ballast rather than just configuring a bunch of words that fit the style. All told, In Splendor Below is another very good album, well worth the time if you're into these dramatic and melodic Swedish death doom bands, just as fine as Winged Waltz, and to some will undoubtedly prove superior due to the increased level of instrumental activity.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, July 29, 2019

October Tide - Winged Waltz (2016)

October Tide is a band which has never quite lived up to the catchy, melancholic immediacy of its debut Rain Without End. Not for lack of trying, as they've never released an album that I would consider 'bad' whatsoever. At worst, they've recorded some mildly disappointing, but still solid and professional iterations on their melodic death/doom sound, which just don't resonate quite like it did in the 90s. At the same time though, they've been developing that same sound, and since coming back together last decade have proven more productive than ever, even if it it hasn't thrust them into quite the same spotlight as peers like Katatonia, Swallow the Sun and Insomnium. This is a band that has long remained loyal to its heavily saturated atmosphere of sadness, and to that extent I'd say they've put together another reliable record which should satisfy fans of the last two.

Winged Waltz
is, as expected, a slight gradation on their style, well written and patient throughout, capable of creating emotional weight, although it's not as dense as some of the material they've put out in the past. The compositions here almost feel lighter than before, still espousing the melodies and harmonies that define their overcast atmosphere, but letting the heaviness shine through more from the listener's response than by dumping massive gutturals over your head and Brave Murder Day style walls of melodic chords. Fear not, there are still growls aplenty, in fact that's the default for the record, but the guitars thread along through more dynamic ideas, from darker muted picking sequences to rain-glazed, open sky melodies. It's important to note that they put some effort into their heavier rhythm guitar patterns, so they never feel generic, and allow the bass lines to crawl along on their own at some points, the guitars entirely vanishing or pausing just to let a simple, sad melody ring out over the low end grooves, as they do in the depths of "Reckless Abandon". The drums are likewise good, they might not require much energy or aggression, but there are little details in the fills which constantly keep them interesting in a style which doesn't generally demand much of them.

The cover art is a little dull, I'll admit, but all the more reason that I was pleasantly surprised as I listened through this, because I think it's superior to its predecessor Tunnel of No Light. If you've spent hours immersing yourselves into the depths of albums by mid-era Opeth, late 90s Katatonia, Novembers Doom, Daylight Dies, Draconian, Swallow the Sun, or In Mourning, then this is a record which will rekindle memories of wandering, sorrowful creativity, interspersed with a little bit of heavier prog-edged death metal groove. There were few moments among it's 50 or so where I felt like I wasn't being drawn directly into the gravitation of the band's collective depression, and there are lots of catchy riffs here that rang out to me long after the tears dried. Good lyrics, really great production if you're a fan of polish and clarity, I think this one's been somewhat overlooked and is arguably their second best recording to its day.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, July 26, 2019

Iron Angel - Hellbound (2018)

Hellish Crossfire was such a sizzler of a second tier speed/thrash album out of Germany, that all Iron Angel's future steps towards a milder sound were bound to end up in disappointment. To their credit, Winds of War was still a solid offering, just lacking the infernal glee of its predecessor, and in the 30 and change years since that was dropped, with only a handful of compilations and a bad demo in the interim, I admit that I did not ever seriously expect that I'd encounter new Iron Angel studio material again, nor was I even particularly interested. The debut has remained a staple in my rotation ever since, especially when I'm looking for a backup to the better known Teutonic thrashers. Well. I was dead fucking wrong, and to an extent I am happy to have been, because Hellbound, while not about to supplant the cult classic debut in any category, is a very competent attempt to get back to the basics and shove some metal straight up your nethers.

Yes, the way this one works is how it shoots for not only old school riffing structures and vicious, lived in, authentic German speed metal vocals courtesy of Mr. Dirk, but how the production on the album really matches those things and sends you back, without being too blatantly retro. The guitars sound very organic, without being overbearingly saturated, and even though they're mostly playing the sorts of riffs we've heard from this sub-genre for like 40 years, they're absolutely timeless in these players' hands, even more impressive because both of these dudes, Robert Altenbach and Mischi Meyer, are new to the band for this freaking album! The rhythm section here is definitely playing at a power metal level, with thundering kick drums and arguably more energy than back in '85, a firm presence to the bass even though it kind of seems subservient to the other instruments. The riffs here are almost all pretty pure heavy/power metal, but they don't sound overbright or overpolished, so it more resembles the Priest-laced power that was emerging in the 80s rather than the bubblegum stuff like Dragonforce, and within that realm they've got a diversified riff set that makes for a well rounded effort, from the killer "Judgement Day" to the warlike setup of "Carnivore Flashmob" (what a title!).

Dirk Schröder sounds pretty amazing, I mean he's a lot less rough around the edges than he was on the mighty "Metallian", but still has a nasty edge to his voice when he wants, and he's easily the highlight of the record. Some of the backing gang shouts hit, others miss, but overall the verses and chorus lines are very well put together, and when the bands gets to its most dirty and speed metal in cuts like "Blood and Leather" or "Ministry of Metal", it's pretty awesome. Honestly this one falls in between a Hellish Crossfire and a Screaming for Vengeance, or rather a cruder Painkiller. If that sounds like what you'd like to hear from an Iron Angel comeback then you're in for a treat. Not perfect by any means, but seasoned and fearless, certainly a step above their sophomore in '86, and enough to forgive the lackluster attempts at new material since that point. It also looks a little bland, the cover art choice was a safe one if you've seen their first two records, but who cares when I can crank this on the car stereo, lower the windows and feel like I'm 16 again, just got my license, my hand-me-down jalopy and can maybe, just maybe imagine that I'm cool enough that a girl might talk to me.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Sodom - Partisan EP (2018)

Although they were never my fave of the German Big Three thrash acts throughout the 80s, 90s or 00s, if you had me compare all those veterans' latest efforts, Sodom's Decision Day would narrowly edge out Kreator's Gods of Violence as my favorite. It was a dynamic, professional piece of thrash metal which played up to all of the band's strengths over their career without sounding in the slightest bit jaded or ready to hang up the axes. As a band known to dump a few EPs onto the market to keep themselves active on fan radars and perhaps get a test sampling of whatever new material they are working on, Partisan was perhaps inevitable after they had put out the Sacred Warpath primer on Decision Day back in 2014. So I assume that at least the title track here will appear on their next full-length releasing somewhere around the 2019-2020 period.

The EP features three songs, two of which are new to this release, and the last a live recording. The mix on this material sounds fantastic, with the vicious and bright guitars, sturdy bass tones, peppy and punishing drums, and most importantly, Tom sounding as nasty as ever, with a nice sustain and distance to the production of his vocals, even if the lines themselves aren't that exciting matched up with the rhythm guitars. Now, "Partisan" itself is a fairly average, mid-paced thrasher for the group, with riffing structures that sound familiar, as if they were patched together from other Sodom tunes, but the studio quality definitely lifts it up a notch, and it has a few nice lead guitar details in there and a general hellishness which maintains the momentum they achieved on their 2016 full-length. It's the sort of tune that would sound pretty much at home on Agent Orange minus the production difference.
"Conflagration" is the other n00b here, a slightly more punk-fueled cut which didn't really hook me until the more atmospheric vocals leading into the bridge, and then a nice neck-jerking pure 80s mosh riff breaks out and you kind of forgive the earlier blandness.

The live tune, "Tired & Red", actually sounds pretty fantastic, from the 2018 Rock Hard fest. I really love how the vocals sound, they're a little loud compared to the guitars, but very menacing with the effects, Tom sounds as seasoned as ever. It might not be enough to add a lot of value to this EP's existence, especially if "Partisan" and "Conflagration" end up on a more substantial album, but at least what is presented here is presented well, and that goes for the entire release. The songs don't hook me like "Sacred Warpath", "Blood Lions" and "Caligula", but certainly they show there is plenty of oomph left in the Germans' arsenal, and I've got no reason not to remain excited for what they come out with next, although the long-term value of this EP, sans the great black & white cover art from Roberto Toderico, is anyone's guess.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Monday, July 22, 2019

Sodom - Demonized (2017)

A reprint of Sodom's demos might seem rather useless since so much of their material was recast upon their legendary releases In the Sign of Evil and Obsessed by Cruelty, but I think this is the sort of fan service a lot of their audience will appreciate, especially the leather & spikes Satanic proto-black/death metal sorts who focus heavily on the Germans' formative years and ignore the political punk/thrash era entirely. Plus its availability on a number of formats include vinyl will be an appeal for those who thrive on having the wax versions of every cult recording in creation, and it's been treated with some simplistic cover art that will look flush on your shelves of old Venom, Bathory, Onslaught and so forth.

The material is reprinted faithfully, but there has been a little bit of mastering here to bring out the music's sinister fleshiness and perhaps make it more tolerable to ears weaned on their studio albums for the last 30+ years. I can't promise you that they are all that much more listenable, since the dirty guitars are a little buried beneath the tinny, driving beats, bass throbs, and messy as fuck vocals which remind me just as much of old demo-era Voivod as anything else. In fact, like those Canadians, you can really hear the punk roots in this material, which Sodom would of course revisit more directly in their 90s recordings. However, while I admit that even In the Sign of Evil and Obsessed by Cruelty aren't the greatest studio works out there, and I'm more of a Persecution Mania/Agent Orange guy, I have to say that the album versions are just so much more sinister sounding to my ears than what is represented on these demos. The vocals are so much more 'together' and vicious, while the guitars sound gut-wrenchingly evil despite their primitive tone and construction.

So this really does end up only in the sights of those purists and completists who want the most original recordings they can find of their favorite, veteran 80s bands, of which Tom Angelripper and company certainly qualify. I respect the decision to make this available in as close a 'real' form as the band was comfortable with, only adjusting a little of the mix for modern hardware, so that fans don't have to hear it on the usual bootlegs or just crappy .mp3s uploaded to the web, but I wouldn't even listen to this over the material on The Final Sign of Evil re-recordings they put out back in 2007. It's worth a few True Evil Points to have in your collection but I bet for most folks it just sits there while they listen to "Sodomy and Lust", "Nuclear Winter" and the 1986 version of "Proselytism Real" all over again. Still, this collection is EXACTLY what it set out to be, and you can pick from cassettes, vinyls or CD, whatever poison you prefer, so I'm not about to dump on it all that hard. If you woke up this morning and suddenly found yourself demanding that you own the Sodom demos, or the world would end, then they've got your back.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Friday, July 19, 2019

Rotting Christ - The Heretics (2019)

While it feels like forever since I've really been digging on a new Rotting Christ record, it hasn't actually been all that long. I had been slightly underwhelmed by the last two, Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού and Rituals, but neither of them was actually 'bad', they just didn't further the bands' expansive Hellenic sound the way I knew they'd be capable of, and they seemed like a downturn after the very good Aealo back in 2010. After listening through this latest effort, The Heretics, I found some commonality with a lot of their albums that I've enjoyed since pioneering that highly melodic, choppy style of Thy Mighty Contract and Triarchy of the Lost Lovers. The overall tone and production is more in line with the last few, and there are points at which it still feels like a choir-driven affair, but a lot of those catchy if predictable riffing patterns have returned, and I was into it for the most part.

Whereas earlier albums in the prime of this band focused very heavily on the guitars to create the action, offset by the Takis bark, this one features so many different vocals floating about its neo-classical narrative that sometimes the guitar melodies have to settle for the background. So a lot of the orchestrated influence is still present here, but they do their best to render it all down to that simple, heavy metal riffing which has long made bands of this scene more distinct from the blast oriented, chord-streaming black metal acts of Northern Europe. There aren't a lot of guitars that stand out quite as much as their later 90s fare, but they manage to make the tunes soar emotionally and really leave the impressions of these ancient religious clusterfucks that shaped faiths, nations and peoples. The album has a very thick, bombastic atmosphere thanks to the thundering beats and the simple depth of the rhythm guitars, plus the mournful timbre in most of the vocals. There are a number of riffing passages here which are just borderline doom, and each tune tends to take its time with just a few basic ideas and not become too cluttered...

Which helps when you're involving the choirs, the varied vocal styles, and other atmospheric embellishments, since the album feels more genuinely realistic, a solemn mantra of antiquity channeled through electric guitars, percussions and growls. Granted, this album sometimes has a lot more in common with Batushka or Therion than A Dead Poem or Sleep of the Angels, but if this is the direction Rotting Christ is determined to explore forevermore, then at least I can appreciate that they're pacing themselves to offer the listener some real gravitas, some sadness, some stakes to the topics they explore. The lyrics here are a mixture of quotations from authors and philosophers, and then very simple repeated lines of imagery that represent the Biblical subjects at hand, which is to say they aren't getting minimal simply out of laziness, but for aesthetics. And that is what The Heretics comes down to, orchestrated drama they've been exploring for the past decade, only this time it has a little heft to it. I was rarely mesmerized by the record's austerity, but it got a couple hooks into me early and kept me listening through a number of cycles.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Varathron - Patriarchs of Evil (2018)

It can't be any coincidence that, ever since Rotting Christ started to take a downward swerve in quality, their countrymen Varathron have really picked up their slack and gone on what must be the most consistent and memorable run of their career, first with the excellent Untrodden Corridors of Hades and following EP The Confessional of the Black Penitents. It's almost like they snuck into the Tolis brothers' minds one eve and devoured their dreams and aspirations, then converting it into their own creativity. I jest, but boy has this band translated this classic Greek black metal style into something truly splendid and fulfilling through the sorts of albums you want to listen to front to end repeatedly, picking out the details each time as they deliver nothing other than solid, worthwhile riffs.

Again, this is not super blasting black metal territory, they can pull that trick out of their collective hats if they need to, but this is more about the varied, slower riffing which draws a lot from thrash metal, but due to the exotic note and chord patterns, the raspy vocals, the choirs and synthesizers and the mighty drumming which feels like the advanced course to Celtic Frost or Therion's foundation. Considering the amount of musical satisfaction you get, they rein a lot of the tracks in around 5-6 minutes, with the exception of the finale, "Ouroboros Dweller (The Dweller of Barathrum)", that clocks in over 8. Within such a humble span they get a lot accomplished, each set of riffs feeling like it tells a complete, grandiose story, and it does, a saga of magic or mystery which transports your mind back several thousand years despite being conveyed to you with instruments that weren't used in this format until fairly late in the 20th century. While the great lyrics often delve into the 'evil' that the album title hints at, Varathron is musically pretty consonant and warm on this record, and I think it'd honestly make a great gateway for fans of epic heavy/doom metal looking to break into the black metal field but striving to avoid the cliches they might not like of lo-fi production and cold Nordic blasts (their loss!) It's just that universal of a sound, despite being part of such a tight regional style.

All the instruments sound clear and effective, and the band can seamlessly mix in acoustic passages to heavier riffs, while Stefan Necroabyssious' primitive grunts are far more effective than you'd think from his range, somehow managing to sound just as distinct and glorious as the brighter melodies of the instruments, only with that crude edge. I don't know that the riff level here is such that every pattern is insanely catchy by itself, but combined into the whole of Patriarchs of Evil, there are few notes here that I'd really want to change. It all serves the mystique of the band's occult explorations well enough that you can forgive an occasional dud, and I admit that this is one of those albums that has continued to grow on me since I first started listening. I'll rate this one even higher now than I would have one year ago, and I think it's very close to being on par with their last (and my favorite) full-length, missing only by a fraction which I'd attribute to just having a stronger connection to that mildly darker experience. But stylistically this is on point, and an essential Greek black metal disc for anyone into their past works or those of their better-known, ailing countrymen.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (storms and dead suns)

Monday, July 15, 2019

Varathron - The Confessional of the Black Penitents EP (2015)

As loved as Varathron's first two albums are in the Greek black metal canon, it was the band's decades-long transformation into the atmospheric, epic, dynamic juggernaut Untrodden Corridors of Hades which proved my favorite of their releases, and still quite loyal to the sound they helped develop on their national scene. So needless to say I was quite looking forward to the follow-up, and The Confessional of the Black Penitents EP isn't quite that in its scope, I was at least satisfied to hear that they were largely going to continue the sound from that underrated gem the year before. There isn't a ton of new material to pore over, even though it's 40 minutes of material, but the two 7+ minute new metal tracks are more than satisfactory and could have easily been tacked onto the end of the prior album and contributed even further to its greatness, with only minor tweaks in production.

Heavily varied, constantly interesting, majestic Hellenic black metal, with many know is performed out in a slower fashion than their Scandinavian counterparts, though Varathron can bust out a blast at any second they desire and maintain the same quality. It's all about the mystique, the representation of ancient Gods, temples, and the occult, cultivating nostalgia for fallen times while simultaneously resurrecting it forward to future generations. Grand melodies play out against thundering currents of drumming while a humble rasp leads it all like a tour guide through a violent midnight bacchanal. You can always tell that this crew is putting constant effort into how to piece together their tracks, and I can't imagine any diehard for the classic sounds of Rotting Christ and Varathron not falling for "Sinister Recollection" and "Utter Blackness" upon first listen, they are so well composed and such a dependable manifestation of that scene's cult sound. As for the titular intro piece, it's just some strumming strings with a few rasps above them that let you know the feast is about to begin, and I don't know that it stands on its own quite as much without what is to follow.

Now, if the EP were just this new material I'd rank it accordingly alongside the previous album, but the remaining tracks are from a live gig in Larisa, Greece...and they also sound pretty damn good. The mix is quite clean, permitting you access to the intricacies of the picking, the bass and drums and vocal slather without anything wresting dominance away from the rest. The material is also very level sounding even where it's drawn from such a big spread of their career. "Unholy Funeral", off His Majesty at the Swamp, sounds just as impressively potent as "Kabbalistic Invocation of Solomon" off the last record, and everything fits in so well to the performance, from the choirs and dark ambient back-scapes to the metallic core of the band. The result is that this whole damn EP is worth hearing and owning. You won't find the studio tunes or live cuts elsewhere, everything is quality checked and if you've been into any of their stuff ever (sans the lukewarm Crowsreign) then they've got you well covered.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Friday, July 12, 2019

Brutality - Antecedent Offerings EP (2018)

Antecedent Offerings is essentially a limited run, 500 copy 7" collectors' item in which 3/4ths of Brutality's 'classic' lineup revisiti a track each from their seminal offerings Screams of Anguish and When the Sky Turns Black and re-record them to see how they can be performed with over two decades' accrued experience and proficiency. Perhaps even a dash of contemporary studio 'wizardry', which has presumably also come some ways since the 90s (in either a positive or negative direction, depending who you might ask). As such, it's not like the band has fully committed to remaking a lot of their catalog, they just hand-picked two cuts which I'd assume are ones fans might want to hear in this context, and had at them.

Admittedly, I find both of these renditions a little dull, lacking the crushing potency of the original incarnations. The mix is quite consistent, the riffs performed well, perhaps even more 'balanced' across the speakers, but as soon as I go back to the brighter, album version of "Crushed", it just emotionally and sonically violates this new version, sounding like the genuine Florida death metal that put the band on the map in that 'second string' of bands beneath the legends like Morbid Angel or Death. The older version does feel a lot more youthful, maybe even disjointed in a few of the transition areas, and the remake is smoother in that area, I'll grant it, but the overall mix just has nowhere near the same level of energy for me. This is doubly the case for "Artistic Butchery" which also seems like a more lifeless version, and I get that it's 'death metal' haw haw haw but really there is no point to hearing the new over the original. The one thing that does remain very consistent between the two eras is the vocals, which sound almost identical on a good number of their lines.

So while this is only intended as a limited edition collectible and nothing to take so seriously, I have to say it doesn't do much for me whatsoever. The one positive is that it made me listen through those first two records again, which are slightly underappreciated gems from the 90s era, but I wouldn't go out of my way to hear either of these again. They don't suck in terms of production, but lack the personality in 2018 that their forebears had in 1993-1994. Skip it and listen to those albums, or even their last record Sea of Ignorance, which is much more exciting with its newer material.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]