Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Samael - Eternal (1999)

While Eternal is clearly a spiritual successor to Passage in terms of its spacey aesthetics, focused cover imagery and further progression towards electronics, it might also be viewed as one of the strangest evolutions in Swiss metal since the much maligned Cold Lake over a decade prior. It's unforgettable predecessor maintained a darker, frightening edge to it in spite of its fantastic riffing and general accessibility, but with this fifth full-length, Vorphalack, Xytras and company would go all happy on us. Pop some xstasy. In fact, it's generally better to think of this record as some sort of industrial universal space-dance music which just happens to retain a metal riffing and garbled, harsher vocal aesthetic than a proper metal recording (akin to The Kovenant's Animatronic without the corny Marilyn Manson band image), and absolute anathema for a chunk of the band's original audience who were stuck at Worship Him. 'No, fuck that man, this band lost it after the first rehearsal in 1987.' Ha!

But herein lies the catch. Despite Vorph's weird whispered and growled vocal lines through Eternal, which resemble pop and hip hop structures just as much as the gnarled, passionate black metal of his prior output...despite the increased importance of typified dance beats and synthesizer lines through which Xytras is attempting to bridge the classical and EBM fields....despite the fact that half the guitars on this album are merely low chugs or chords used to accent the beats...and despite the odd, raw production which would seem out of place for industrial/pop and was likely due to the band's novelty at blending these mediums, Eternal is a charming album. Yeah, it often feels like the band came up with the idea while enjoying a hot tub by starlight, in the Alps with some rich bankers' wives giggling over these artsy young studs they managed to wrangle, but there is this sentimental quality created through the contrast of choir synthesizers, reverberating electronic percussion, schmaltzy lounge organs/percussion (on a few tunes) and Vorph's 'Wait, we were recording that?', diabolic yet mouth-breathing presence that somehow transcends all the inherent flaws and musical faux-pas to produce something worthwhile...

Guitars. They're here, but divided into three camps. First: the aforementioned palm muting or syncopated chord phrases which are there to serve more or less in tandem with the other percussion (examples: the verses of "Ways" and "Us"), a technique you'd expect from a lot of industrial radio rock like Stabbing Westward or Rammstein. Second, and these are better, these floes of warmer and melodic chords, faster or slower, used to emotionally elevate many of the chorus vocals; they've got an alt rock feel to them, but definitely are one of the elements that were drafted forward from Passage. Lastly you've got a few living clever phrases like the creepy melody that comes into the verse in "Ailleurs" (or "The Cross"), and these are probably the most effective on the album, meaning I wish there were actually a few more. Missing are the brilliant, meticulous black/thrash progressions from the prior album, a blow that is felt by this listener, but in the end I can't rightly say that they would have worked with the overall feel and structure of the songwriting. Still, they hadn't voided the guitar as an instrument altogether, far from it, and the notes used here are at least more memorable than the two full-lengths to follow, even if their respective mixes put more emphasis on the riffs.

The synthesizers play an enormous role, largely through the choir pads which are used to give much of the album that cosmic, ethereal effect, like a seraph floating between planets with its glimmering sword out front. Probably a bit cliche, but Samael do them justice with simple but catchy patterns. In addition Xytras uses a lot of busier piano phrases which are amongst the most complex lines of notes on the album, and then they step even further outside with a mixture of 80s prog/New Age and cheesy techno-inspired sequences which occasionally sound like Tangerine Dream writing house music. It's all well and good for me, since I listen to a lot of that anyway, but others are just not going to be so welcoming of this stuff if their expectations were Blood Ceremony 2.0. They'll be even LESS welcoming of the weirder moments like in "Being" where the pianos get all saloon-bluesy with the goofy little electric guitar trills, or in "Radiant Star" where the organs make the intro feel like The Doors are about to stroll into a pastry shop on a Paris corner. I happen to love that song, the chorus is particularly timeless and emotional with Vorph's protracted growls, but it's pretty bizarre how they got from that point A to B and certainly was unique for 1999.

As for the beats, the more danceable nature of the writing definitely brings their artificial nature to the fore more so than Passage, an album that could have just as well been executed with a drummer, but lost no points for the slick programming. Usually they go big and industrial but there are a lot of subtleties here, electronic/pulse stuff hidden in both calmer moments and greater swells which does occasionally hover on glitch without the warping. Since they were at this time really into all the fire swinging cosmic carnival theatrics in their performances, there is definitely a bit of hippie drum circle aesthetic here, only it's represented electronically with some lighter percussion rather than the thundering of some tribal gathering. That said, when the band needs power, like the clashing accents to the chorus of "Together", they really come through, so despite the theoretical superiority this recording might have had with an actual human striking a kit, I don't have much of an issue that they chose to go this route again. Masmiseîm also sounds pretty electrified, with some bass lines that sound quite synthesized, but the simplistic grooves he metes out in tunes like "The Cross" are critical to contrast against that hovering nightscape of keyboard atmosphere.

Lastly, we come to the vocals, which are basically the whispers, semi-growls and rasps of the last album only seeming a little more laconic and poppy in their implementation. The guy's voice does have a hard time standing out against the more shining electronic aspects, and many could be forgiven for thinking the guy sounds absolutely goofy, but it's part of what gives the album it's sense of impossible charisma, since it runs contrary to most of what people love about a good pop or EBM band...a strong singer with an 80s penchant for choral melodies that engrave a tune into memory. Vorph's performance IS memorable, but incredibly flawed all the same, which was either a brilliant or stupid move depending on who you ask. A lot of the meters and ideas seem half-formed, but it is nice that he'll occasionally lay out a larger growl for balance. Lyrically, though, this further emphasis towards spiritual exploration and personal meanings, far removed from the evil occultism on their old material is a bit of a shock. The song titles are incredibly, efficiently Zen and the lyrics almost constantly attempt to uplift the listener with traces of Eastern mysticism and pacifistic enlightenment. It's almost as if they had a Darjeeling Limited moment somewhere between 1996-1998 when they were thinking how they'd follow up their masterpiece.

And that's about the best I can do, good readers. It's a unique album for sure, but one of those 'I'll allow you this one' deals for me, where I admired the band's transformation but wouldn't necessarily want to hear them try this again (which they sort of did, sadly). The first track "Year Zero" is pretty representative of the sound of the whole album, but it's actually the least interesting/memorable so I question its front placement when everything else is so much bloody catchier. That aside, I really liked the album. It's touching and heartfelt and all those sorts of things a Samael record probably shouldn't have ever been, but its combination of airy, raw production and its humanitarian, philosophical approach to industrial metal was one I really went for when the album released, and I still quite enjoyed it when listening to prepare for this review. Are the simplistic, repetition-focused lyrics meek? Sometimes, but just as often they're extravagant. Is it a disappointment after Passage? What wouldn't be? But if you're open to electronic influence, space raving on ski slopes, and listening to music that your girl/guyfriend might also dig on when you introduce it to them, then this might work for you. "Ailleurs", "Ways", "The Cross", "Infra Galaxia", "I", "Radiant Star"...all great songs... in fact only "Year Zero" is worth skipping.

There are no guilty pleasures.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (the move is fixed at the furthest point)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Watchtower - The Size of Matter [single] (2010)

I almost forgot this thing had come out, which is most likely a progposeur crime of monstrous proportions considering how much of a proponent I've been for Watchtower's sophomore Control and Resistance this last quarter-century. Yet as I was digging through some random files in some random, abandoned folder, there it was, staring at me straight in the face, taunting me to listen through it once more, and it's not an act I regret, because if nothing else, "The Size of Matter" has me salivating for the next 'proposed' chapter in the Towerverse, the long elusive new album Mathematics, which I'm not honestly sure is even a thing anymore, but when I go to their official website, I find nothing but four years of crickets...way to keep up on that, folks.

Anyway, the song itself was something to get temporarily excited over, for with the exception that it is bolstered by a meatier mix of guitars than ever Control or the debut was, and Alan Tecchio's shriek ability somewhat more restrained through either age or wear (or both), this links pretty directly to the material they were writing before the dawn of the 90s. Schizophrenic progressive thrash written with an astounding level of musicianship, and just as much attention paid to detail. The bass and guitars here are specifically both pretty nasty, pretending as if the last few decades hadn't existed and they were continuing forth with the previous direction, only feeling even more up front and in the face. Jarzombek's drums are still quite electronic in context, a good fit for the surgical, jazzy leads that punctuate the bridge in the tune, which are easily my favorite bit in the song, but obviously the guy is such a damn brilliant timekeeper that it wouldn't make much of a difference if they were mixed and recorded with a more acoustic aesthetic in mind. Some of the fills and tempo changes are fantastic.

Tecchio does branch out into his high range with a lower, conversational harmony at one point, but I do rather enjoy the mix of his performance, it definitely carves straight into the listener and drives home the lyrics. The one area where this does fall behind Control & Resistance is that, as proficient as the musicians remain, as technical the discourse of their instruments, I did not feel as if I was being catapulted into some alien-to-me tragedy or situation like I felt back in 1989. The riffs and vocals, while impressive and consistent, aren't necessarily as memorable or on the level as the older material, but I can't lie: if they could finally get that long-anticipated post-reunion full-length out, and it was at least this quality or better, I doubt you'd hear many complaints among their fanbase...least of all from myself. As Heathen, Paradox and several other melodic tech-thrashers have already proven, the Old Guard are perfectly willing to step up into the boots of the New Guard if nobody (apart from Vektor) wants the job. Hope more something comes of this, the tune is on point.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Monday, July 28, 2014

Midnight - No Mercy for Mayhem (2014)

Attitude. Sometimes that's all it takes to elevate a pretty standard set of 80s inflected punk and speed metal riffs above the ghetto of mediocrity, and Midnight has excelled with this characteristic now for years, only now unleashing its sophomore full-length No Mercy for Mayhem upon an audience stoked off the leather, spikes, whiskey, women and ritualism of its predecessor Satanic Royalty, which novelty aside: rocked. With this album it didn't provoke my attention span to quite that level of entertainment, and yet we have a damn solid disc, readily accessible and aggressive for those waxing nostalgic for the grime and grit of 30-year-old shock speed/thrash outfits, of whom Venom is only the most obvious, but not the only brick mortared into this Cleveland maniac's creative foundation.

Punchy. Loud. Ready to roll through the dingy dives and dens of human vice, rocking the Devil's gospel to the irredeemable and then stealing their brides' souls and bodies. No Mercy for Mayhem is hardly nuclear physics, but a simple slew of chord-driven concussions and saucy little NWOBHM Kill 'Em All tail-licks which together make for a potent and nightclub-pungent 36 minutes of fun. Have you heard a lot of these note progressions before? Probably, since they're just so simplistic that hundreds of bands have stumbled across something similar, yet the purpose of a Midnight isn't to reinvent what we loved so much about our antique metal, but rather remind us of why we had such a good time with that in the first place. Granted, apart from gruffer legends like Lemmy, Hetfield or Cronos, you wouldn't hear such a raving bark as Athenar's on a lot of 80s trended towards shriekers like those of Exciter and their ilk, but that's one of those little nuances which makes this band instantly stand out to me...they know their limitations and never try to break free of that blood slaked theater, merely to make it their bitch.

It's somewhat of a stretch to label them 'black metal', I realize, but that influence does shine through in some of the lyrical content, if not much else. 'Blackened speed punk' is a more accurate estimation of what Athenar spits out the a median between Venom and Turbonegro if it had been written by Mustaine, Ulrich or Hetfield when they were relevant. Blazing four or five chord patterns  that only rarely eschew their pulse-pounding momentum in order to set up yet another one, with a fatter tone than on Satanic Royalty which really makes you feel like you're in the front row standing before an amplifier. The rhythm guitars are humble enough to let the thudding bass guitars into
your headspace, a crucial tactic for what presumably is set up for a live three-piece, even though it's just the one guy performing all the instruments in the studio (at least on the new tracks). The drums sound pretty tight, never subjugated by the riff progressions and there's a bit of a trash can feel to them which lends even more authenticity to the back-alley charms of the record as a whole. Leads are efficient, wailing, straight to the point, with no arrogance involved, merely enthusiasm.

An album with such a genuine energy as this one is almost impossible for me to dislike, and such is the case with No Mercy with Mayhem. The caveat is that I thought Satanic Royalty had a few songs ("You Can't Stop Steel", etc) which were just more memorable individually, if not by a landslide. This is a consistent effort throughout all 10 of the harder tracks (excepting the intro), but there aren't really any I could say would stand out above the rest or rate even close to the company of Athenar's inspirations. In 30 years I don't know that we'll be humming the chorus to "Evil Like a Knife" or "Prowling Leather" like we still do for "Black Metal", "Iron Fist", "Long Live the Loud" and "Whiplash", but cult classic status or not, let's remain on the level...if this record came on during a car ride and you couldn't feel that urge building up in your neck to bang your skull in a frenzy, then you're either a One Direction fan, in which case: die, or you're already dead and in Hell, in which case: let me know about any real estate deals, because I'll be joining you there sooner than not.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Judas Priest - Redeemer of Souls (2014)

I'll start off with the verdict for once: it could have been worse.

That is not to say Redeemer of Souls ranks on any meter as the sort of career redemption the UK vets implied through their choice of titles, but had they produced what amounted to another overblown waste of time like Nostradamas, my faith in the metal gods would have become incredibly difficult to defend. No, this is essentially a sort of pseudo career retrospective wedged into a supposed swan song, of which the worst crime is that compared to any of Priest's classic run ('74-'90) it feels clunky, retread, uneven, and certainly lazy in enough places that you wish they would have spent a lot more time putting it together...even though it feels like they already spent aeons. But I have to be honest...this is a band I've listened to now for 35 years, and for 2/3rds of that time they have not had much wind in their sails beyond touring, keeping their brand out there, trying out another front man, failing, reuniting with Rob, pressing on, losing K.K. Downing...effort was put into this band on most fronts, but just not in the studio. There was almost no possibility this was going to be good, so I'm simply content that it doesn't suck.

As the cover hints, and many reviews I've seen would have us believe, this appears at first like a call back to the Painkiller years, which is only partially true. The album front loads an inconsequential '88-'90 rager in "Dragonaut" which features some of the most tepid riffing on the whole of the disc, and then follows that up with the title track, which is nothing more than a paraphrasing of "Hell Patrol" only nowhere near as timeless. But once you go in and break down the rest, there is quite a lot of representation here for both their groovier hard rock roots and more heavily conceptual 70s material. In fact I'd say that, from a distance, the album seems to be about 50% what they were doing with its predecessor, Painkiller-lite, albeit with less or no orchestration involved,  and then 50% waxing nostalgic for the era in which they were a dominant radio force in hard rock and heavy metal. At the same time, nods to the Halford solo records, which represented the man's best work since 1990, are also ubiquitous here. I felt like I was listening to Halford IV numerous times, what with the ProTools-ish punch of the rhythm guitars and the heavily moderated/souped up vocal harmonies that partially hide the wear in his voice...don't get me wrong, he still tears out some fucking lines here that remind us why he is perhaps the most important vocalist in his medium, but this is not "The Ripper" or "Victim of Changes"....

Rob is dealing with the inevitability of time, but most people would pass on both their testicles to science in order to sound like this beloved man at the age of 62. Elsewhere, the band sounds on/off in equal measure, phoning in a slew of saccharine rhythm guitar patterns which dive into basically the lion's share of NWOBHM which the band predated and subsequently outlasted, especially a couple licks that recalled vintage Maiden in addition to their own substantial canon. They can snare us a little more consistently with a bluesier hard rock groove more so than a recycled proto-power metal lick, and the leads are fluent and flashy enough to distract the ear from the relative mediocrity of what is typically happening before, beneath and after them, but whether it's due to the newcomer Richie Faulkner or the lack of Downing, I can't really say. If K.K. were performing these very same songs I don't think the results would fare much better. Elsewhere yet, Scott Travis shows up for a paycheck: the guy can play, but he's only ever as good as the music he's providing the skeleton for, and while you can 'notice' Ian Hill following along the root notes, well grounded as usual, he has just never had a presence with this band that could earn him a place among the ranks of essential bassists. I mean I know it's not how Judas Priest writes, but I'd just love it if for once in 44 years he could just let loose, let us know what he's been hiding all those decades...

Structurally, the album starts off with the aforementioned, skippable harder/faster tunes and then actually picks up in quality with "Halls of Valhalla" (decent power metal, superior to anything of Nostradamas) and the mid-paced, driving "Sword of Damocles", in which only a few of the vocal lines really feel exceedingly familiar, but it has a nice swagger, as does "Marched of the Damned", which functions largely because of Halford's vocals and a nice chorus riff. "Down in Flames" starts off pretty strong too with a nice melody cut into the intro lick, but that song is actually where this brief flurry of 'decent' material kind of drops off, and never recovers, with an unbroken sequence of the worst songs on the disc, like the cheesy Painkiller-era wannabes "Metalizer" and "Battle Cry", or the bluesy, generic "Crossfire". In short, there is about an EP here of material worth saving for a B-sides compilation, but it's really just not good enough for Priest. In a few weeks, who will care about any of this? They might suffer you a few of the tunes live, but you know you'll be pining for the 50 or so brilliant songs they wrote so long ago.

For a group so bloody consistent through the first third of its career, one would really hope they could reach somewhere deep within their imaginations and produce an epitaph worth remembering, but I fear that's too much of a Hollywood storyline to apply to reality. Redeemer of Souls is more or less this year's version of Black Sabbath's 13, symptomatic of a band which still recognizes what made it so special in the first place, but cannot achieve that level of songwriting because it has run short of riffs that feel even tangentially compelling when compared to the impressive legacy they stamped on heavy metal a lifetime ago. At the same time, it's not complete trash...a few of the ideas are not half-assed, if not exemplary either, and there are about 15-20 minutes of pleasant Priest to sift through.  It's better than the two Owens-era records, and certainly Nostradamas, but slightly less solid than Angel of Retribution. It's just not a high note to go out with...and considering Rob can still hit some high notes, I'll hold on some sliver of hope. That gibbering late 70s/80s fanatic child within me wants to hear a record he loves by this band again, and not by Halford or Primal Fear or any other band. Kick the new guy, get K.K. Downing back and do it right. We deserve as much, and more importantly, YOU DO.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10] (he's not cutting you slack)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Force of Darkness - Absolute Verb of Chaos and Darkness EP (2014)

Anyone who somehow missed this Chilean band's eponymous debut from 2006 really ought to go back and check that one out. It's a frenetic and rifftastic slab of blackened thrash metal which draws its lineage from obvious but immortal sources like Bathory, but what it might lack for in originality it more than makes up for with its personality and genuine sense of nastiness. The 2nd full-length Darkness Revelation (2010) I didn't have quite as strong a reaction to, but they've now returned with a pretty relentless EP, Absolute Verb of Chaos and Darkness, which was given a vinyl release through the great Iron Pegazus Records and a CD version on Hell's Headbangers, two labels that could not be more fitting to the petulant, infernal sound these guys wring out of their instruments and imaginations.

Granted, there are a lot of really straightforward, steady blast parts here with some pretty basic and predictable tremolo picked guitars that do little more than channel the many bands that have walked this fiery path before them, but it really does have its moments, like the third track "Creations from Obscurity" with its sinister rhythm guitars and those cute little bass lines in the opening moment that set up a really strong, vicious attack, or the warlike and blinding momentum of "Abraxas Revenge" with its surges of neckbreaking thrash. The hellish vocal rasp doesn't betray the native accent nor the barking, messy influences of Quorthon, Angelripper, Mille and T.G. Warrior, and the guitars sear with an honest saturation reminiscent of earlier Teutonic thrash, only a little brighter and stronger than you'd remember from Endless Pain or Sentence of Death. Drums are lethal and fast as fuck, not exactly interesting but then they don't need to be, and the bass deserves some credit for where it occasionally perks up with a wild fill or spasm that immediately distinguishes it from the guitar, though the mix heavily favors the latter.

Force of Darkness might occasionally lapse into a one-track, black thrashing hyper-mind, but they're not above some variation, like the lurching, belligerent closer "Oceans of Black Lava", which is heavily reliant on the thundering lower end of the drum kit and some fat walls of bass guitar; or the eerie chanting and laughing over the acoustic guitars in the intro. The result is a very well rounded 20 minutes of fun while you dance amidst the shadows and flames that form the trio's creative station. It's got as excellently riffy or memorable as that last Deathhammer, or the Antichrist debut, but it's certainly got more depth to it than your average Bathory/Nifelheim knockoff, and worth a listen the next time you whip out your spikes, chains, leather, denim and inverse crucifix. But I reiterate: if you have not heard the first album, and you dig this, go back and buy that one! You can thank me later, with a big old hellthrash embrace (but no tongue, and no spikes, please).

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bölzer - Soma EP (2014)

There must be quite some pressure on this Swiss duo, having raised many expectations with their previous 2013 Aura, which garnered loads of positive feedback (I am no exception) and even got them flown in for a Maryland Deathfest here in the States. With all that on their shoulders, you might expect them to buckle and break, the 'sophomore curse' take effect, not that it generally applies to the short form EP releases they seem compelled towards, but in lieu of something more substantial, it counts. Well, Soma is not as good as Aura. I'll say that up front, but with the caveat that I found the two tunes here a little uneven in their quality, with one matching the last batch of material and the other coming up slightly short.

Bölzer continues to mete out an atmospheric hybrid of black and death metal in equal proportions, the former coming through heavily in the vocals and a few of the faster riff progressions, which are often redolent of Immortal on the song "Steppes" to the point that tonally and structurally the pacing and plot of that particular cut wouldn't have seemed out of place on Sons of Northern Darkness. Now the death metal element is cut from the same cloth, some of the tremolo picked guitars definitely feel more like a morbid throwback the earlier era of that genre, and there are also numerous gutturals to support the KzR's standard rasp, but the distribution might marginally lean towards the black when you factor in the lack of much bottom end/bass to the recording (they perform as a two-piece), the lyrical themes and artwork. Either way, it's how they approach this union which makes it seem more unique and effective than most of their peers who engage in this same crossover space. The actual techniques have been stripped back to the genre's origins, but they don't approach songwriting with that same over-the-top blasting, furious war metal mentality I generally associate with black/death.

That said, I haven't really been able to get into "Steppes". I appreciate that the palm mute to tremolo Immortal-meets-Bolt Thrower riff phrases do give it that feel of a great bloodstarved host marching across that selfsame terrain, but it often too dry to stick to my ears, whereas the bulkier "Labyrinthine Graves" (almost 13 minutes long) brings in a lot more of the atmospherics and range that I loved on Aura. Pensive, thundering drums built off fills continue into a compelling, simple tremolo guitar line with an unusual depth, and they layer in a lot more of the grotesque layered growling/rasping vocals, including some good ol' Tom G. Warrior/Nocturno Culto grunts which function as a callback to that legendary countryman, and really elevate the song when accompanied by the lower chants around the 5:30 mark in the tune. Also the ambient finale to this second tune is stunning, cavernous but soothing tones resonating off the roof of some faint picking; it really tied the experience together and gave me a stronger emotional feedback than I would have expected to that point.

Stylistically, the two tunes are connected well enough, so the riffs from the first do flow naturally into the second. I simply felt as if something in the Bölzer formula was absent in the first that was then reinstated with "...Graves", and so my praise for this EP is heavier in the back, where Aura was really damn consistent throughout. This is good stuff, and I've listened to it a half dozen times, but mostly for those closing components. A larger issue with this group is that I feel like their style of writing might better lend itself to a full-length experience, 40 or 50 minutes in which the band can really thread their penchant for gradual development into some truly brilliant escapism. Here, once the goings really start to get good, it's over unless you loop back into one of the two tracks. Soma is ultimately a marginal disappointment if you go in listening for another revelation, but not the sort to give me pause as to their greater potential. Just an open/shut case of me not digging one track as much as the rest I've heard. Otherwise, it did transport me to that same nocturnal plain that they did last year.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fallujah - The Flesh Prevails (2014)

Serving as both an evolutionary leap forward for the San Franciscans, and a modern day analogue for Cynic's classic Focus, The Flesh Prevails is one of those records I sat down with expecting only a tepid reaction, but came away feeling this was the best solitary experience I've had in the technical death metal field thus far in 2014. That's not to imply that it is by any measure some straightforward, brutal exhibition of musical proficiency like a lot of Fallujah's West Coast peers, but a unique record which blends a lot of sublime New Age and jazz fusion styled guitar effects with the melodious precision and surgical incision of the aforementioned Cynic or Swedes Theory in Practice, taking it to an entirely different level. I'm also reminded a little of Lykathea Aflame's Elvenefris, not that the two discs sound much alike, but they both have that penchant for a combination of simplistic melodic, synthesized components with hostility...though where that Czech anomaly is founded more on a grind ethic, this has a more acrobatic guitar wizard feel to it, which when bound to the 80s-like ambient tones and tasteful use of ethereal female vocals, seems as ridiculous as it does refreshing.

First I must mention the drums here, which are astounding, not solely for Andrew Baird's obvious blasting ability and effortless technique, but for his willingness to flush out those fills and implement some tasty higher pitch percussion to balance off the business of the slick snare/kick patterns. It's one of those rare recordings of which I could honestly just shut off the rest of the tracks and enjoy the amount of effort and finesse put into the beats alone. But that's not to take away the rest of it, the swerving and colliding bass guitar mechanics which give it a lot of that Cynic feel, or the pinpoint rhythm guitars which shift between clinical death/thrashing patterns, hyper melodic death and the more pummeling intensity we equate with a lot of their Unique Leader peers. Certainly there is an undercurrent of post-Human Death here, much like a band such as Decrepit Birth exudes, but with that obvious added level of brutality which you would never have heard out of Chuck Schuldiner's 90s transformation. The leads are honestly one of the weaker elements to the recording, but that's saying a lot, since they're all well-constructed, technical spectacles of shred inspired by both the fusion gods of the three prior decades and the fret-lords like Steve Vai, Satriani etc who ran concurrent as a mainstream alternative to that musicians-only scene.

Where this disc really stood out for me is how it will just mete out this minimalistic sequence of melodic notes, much like Fredrik Thordendal of Meshuggah/Special Defects fame would do on records such as Destroy Erase Improve, and you get this unified disparity of throttling intensity and transcendent airiness. Intros to songs will often involve cleaner guitar passages that ramp up fluidly into the riffing barrages, and that great use of the female vocal, which in many situations would sound absolutely cheesy on an Enya level, but here just blends in with the magnitude and scope of what Fallujah are pursuing. Production is polished to a vorpal edge, but there's also a lot of depth due to the mix and multi-tracking which gives it a stereophonic, radiant, futuristic you are actually listening to this panning at you from a cloud-top throne, rather than through a headphone jack. The Californians were well on their way to such a sound with this album's 2011 predecessor The Harvest Wombs, but that was not so much about this sort of progressive balance as just getting the heavy correct, and while I did enjoy that to a degree this just exceeds it on so many levels...Fallujah have written something here that I'm going to spin repeatedly through this and several subsequent years at the very least, a dynamic whirlwind of calm and storm.

If I found any component of the disc to be lacking, it might be the guttural vocal performance of Alex Hoffman, which in any other band of its scene would seem perfectly adequate, but against the wealth of ideas presented through the instrumentation does come up somewhat bland. However, through the use of reverb, panning, and occasionally layering in of a Deicide-style snarl/growl combo, even he manages to embrace the shifting currents so crucial to upgrade The Flesh Prevails from a compelling technical exhibition to something with more emotional impact. The lyrics are personal and poetic, decent with the exception of the ambient/electropop lead-in piece "Alone With You", to which the words are obvious and groan inducing, but musically I didn't have much of an issue with the will appeal to people who enjoyed Yoko Kanno and Origa's collaborations on the Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex anime, for instance, which I really enjoy. But I found that those are really the only two areas in which the chinks in the armor of this record are revealed.

Ultimately, the clean vocals (female and a few faint male lines) and synthy melodies will prove an instant turnoff to that same niche audience which is likely going to (i.e. already does) hate the band for its production style, deathcore roots, and emphasis on flashy musicianship anyway, but even to those folks I want to exclaim 'we already had 35 records these last two weeks which sound like Autopsy...sweet, how about spending 42 minutes with something else for a change?' Fallujah's full-length sophomore is not perfect, but it does instill some faith in me that a band can put the pedal to the metal of proficiency and production standards while still writing something inspired and important. No, The Flesh Prevails is not for everyone. Nothing is. But it IS an exception, an exemption from the trending now, challenging and curiously accessible in one, and I have already listened the shit out of this record, with no plans to stop anytime soon.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (you're weaker now, but you're alive)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Diskord - Oscillations EP (2014)

Diskord's musical palette might not always prove as vivid and splashy as their choices in cover artwork, but they are certainly left of center when compared to the majority of the retro death metal currently trending everywhere, without lapsing into the excessive self-indulgence employed by a lot of the cutting edge tech death outfits. Their sophomore album Dystopics was an improvement over its predecessor Doomscapes in several departments, most notably the stickiness of individual, insane riffing sequences, and this new Oscillations EP out through Hellthrasher Productions tends to follow that pattern, with solid songwriting and a few clever surprises awaiting those that can wrap their heads around it.

Norway does not have an extensive history of death metal, perhaps, but they've always been a go to for unusual artists like Molested in the 90s, or Obliteration's last two full-lengths. But at the heart of Diskord's jilted and jarring aesthetics, I found a sound most comparable to 80s dystopian sci-fi thrash and speed metal bands like Canada's Voivod and DBC, only embedded into a more brutal disposition involving both traditional death metal and spurts of grindcore chords which keep the material moving forward and always on the edge of control. Curious, jazzy bass lines support a contrast of both crude and exotic patterns...the trio seems to know just when to shift between the exotic and mainline mode, and so the result here is something that might damn well appeal to fanatics of spazz-core or uncanny metalpunk just as much as those who want their death metal constructed from an unusual, musically proficient perspective. I mean, sure, I could tell you that this has a few traces of Gorguts' Obscura, Demilich's Nespithe or Carbonized's Screaming Machines, but they might necessarily be conscious decisions...

Of course, it's 2014, you can barely explore a fretboard or chord relationships without treading on some familiar ground, but at least a few bands like this are trying. More often than not, Diskord are succeeding, with enough variation and exciting riff structure that I must have spun this a half dozen times before even thinking about typing a key. Zany without going too far overboard that the listener cannot readily digest the material through his/her ears, I enjoyed a lot of the band's breakpoints and 'calmer moments' which would inevitably explode into a carnival of punishment. Hans Ersvik's vocal lines have a strangely nihilistic bark which at times reminds me of Satyr, but at others older David Vincent and maybe even a little of van Drunen's style on Pestilence's Mallevs Maleficarvm, sans that more grotesque and clinical tone. Considering his drumming talents, this is actually something I'd really like to see pulled off live, but that's not to take away from the other two members who are even more impressive due to the warped and colliding patterns they spawn.

I did feel that the EP was slightly backloaded with its better material, the closing trio of "Elystrous Oscillations", "Symbiotic Whims" and "A Downward Spire" some of my favorite tunes the group has released to date, but it's all equally impressive for anyone who enjoyed Dystopics. I also would point out how they imbue this all with a very natural production; unlike the more brickwalled tech death bands invested in studio modernity, these guys sound like it all sprung straight from a jam room and was put to tape and dusted off with some post-work. I think it's that feel which will allow for a lot of more traditional death metal types to become interested in their sound rather than intimidated or outright opposed to what they're creating. But as someone who enjoys both extremes in the genre, I found this a great balance of components that aren't entirely unique independent of one another, but once combines give the Norwegians some desperately needed personality among a field of more overt impersonators that no one will give a shit about next year.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Necros Christos - Nine Graves EP (2014)

My response to Germany's Necros Christos thus far is that they rank among the more ambitious of the old school death metal throwbacks in how they incorporate loads of instrumental, ethnic vignettes as a counterbalance to the metal elements, and also have quite the eye for packaging that is no doubt responsible for a lot of hype that surrounds them. Unfortunately, I just haven't found the band's music to really live up to repeated scrutiny, being that the riff selection left a lot to be desired. Both Triune Impurity Rites and Doom of the Occult were decent albums, don't get me wrong, but I rarely found myself breaking them out to re-listen after the several mandated review spins.

So I was a little surprised when I came across "Black Bone Crucifix", because it seems like the group had examined itself and decided to get a little more in depth and charismatic with the rhythm guitars, as they weave between both occult death metal nostalgia and crawling, funereal death/doom. The riffs in this thing are both laid back and genuinely evil, the lead placement invigorating, and though they don't play with a level of extremity or saturated, obese gutturals or cavernous rhythm guitar tone that a lot of folks probably expect of that Autopsy/Incantation niche, the drums keep delightfully busy enough to give the riffs a sprightliness that amazingly does not betray their diabolism. Fuzzy and direct tremolo picked riffs give way to the slower sequences where atmospherics like organs or bells are sparingly implemented, while the solo harmonies always stick way out like patterns of candles being lit around the circumference of an ancient summoning. Vocals have a straightforward bark with a modicum of reverb, but their nihilistic tendencies weave well into the gloomy environment created by the guitars and drums. It's not like it didn't work before, it just works better this time...

As for the acoustic guitars/percussion that represent a lot of the 'temple' interludes, some purists will scoff at their presence, but I find they really place Necros Christos into their chosen context: that of the brooding, black world antiquity as seen through the lens of an early 90s death metal band. As brief as most of these are, they still seem like they required a little bit of work that they'd be catchy enough to maintain the listener's curiosity, and frankly I've always thought this was one of their more standout characteristics. But it's the meat of the matter, the death metal component, which has on this EP improved steadily, if not dramatically. The style is not much different than Doom of the Occult, it's just that note placement on cuts like "Black Bone Crucifix", "Baptized by the Black Urine of the Deceased" and "Nine Graves" itself which keeps me coming back. Quite enjoyed this.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, July 21, 2014

Cardinal's Folly - Our Cult Continues! (2014)

This was actually my first brush with Cardinal's Folly of Finland, despite it not being their first record, so I was immediately drawn in by the opening track "Chant of Shadows", this creepy atmospheric piece which lives up to its title...occult samples, gloomy multi- tracked vocals, droned out guitar feedback and thudding bass that was used like a percussive bottom end for the remainder. Sadly, once the next tune "Morbid Glory" broke out, it became evident that the intro was going to be an exception and not the rule, but even then the Finns have a slightly unusual approach to the doom medium which made for a decent, often interesting listen. The cover art definitely fired up the imagination with its more colorful approach to the ritualist orgiastic baphomety we so often associate with the tenets of Satanism in cult horror film and literature, but the music itself doesn't consistently enough cling to that aesthetic.

Our Cult Continues! is all about its massive, fuzzy guitars and louder, plodding bass grooves which both tend to dominate the recording while the wistful, everyman vocals of M. Karnstein just sort of hang in there with an accented, weird tone to them (somewhere between Yearning, My Dying Bride and Reverend Bizarre). You'll experience the simplistic, 70s-borne chord patterns so familiar in many doom and stoner rock bands traced back to Sabbath, but they also will sprinkle in some more tremolo riffing, melodic higher-pitched progressions and other elements you wouldn't necessarily expect. Unfortunately, as you might have guessed from the opening few lines, this was an occasion on which I found that the more moody and atmospheric the band became, the better the music was. Their straight out riffing patterns leave something to be desired, adequate for the style but never really standing out like the classics which inspired them. But then, when you hit a toon like "Sighisoaran" with its more soaring, sorrowful vocals and mourning guitars, or the bass-driven charge of "The Lovers Crypt", it all becomes so much more effective, and these are genuinely great songs that I kept going back to...

The album's a fraction louder and muddier than some might find comfortable in their doom, but the band isn't performing with such harrowing despair as an Electric Wizard, so instead it gives off a more garage rock vibe only if jammed out by bands like Witchfinder General or Iron Man. The vocals were real spotty for me...I realize the guy is also contributing the bass, which is an extremely important factor on this record, but when he sings it's either appropriately melancholic and melodic or just sort of laconic and sloppy sounding. Each line is a roll of the dice, really. In the end, this was one of those cases where I thought about half the album was really good ("Chant of Shadows", "The Black Baroness", "Sighisoaran" and "The Lover's Crypt") and the other half not so much, so the two sides sort of balanced one another out. But I have no question there is some promise to this band, and with only a few tweaks they'd be representing the forefront of nostalgic Finnish doom alongside neighbors like Seremonia and Reverend Bizarre. Coincidentally if you like those groups, the current wave of retro psych/occult doom, or the rosters of Rise Above and Hellhound records, then it's likely worth the hour of time to check Our Cult Continues! out.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]