Monday, May 18, 2015

Six Feet Under - Crypt of the Devil (2015)

For Chris Barnes and Steve Swanson to 'arm' themselves with a trio of Cannabis Corpse members on this 11th (original) studio album turns out not only to have been an interesting ploy, but one that more or less pays off, giving the long mediocre act a fresher sound that complements the veteran vocalist's gruff delivery with some more elaborate and intricate musicianship. That's not to imply that Crypt of the Devil is somehow flirting with technical or brutal death metal territory, but the riffs themselves here have a  more insistent, consistent, compelling quality to them which offered me a lot more mileage and unpredictability than the lion's share of garbage mock tough guy Obituary grooves that populate the 6FU canon. In fact, in a different world, where the band's career had ignited with the shockingly memorable Undead, my raining favorite of their catalog and the only one I own, and then suffered a few growing pains with the less impressive Unborn, and at last ended up here, I don't think this band would have ever had such a frustrating, divisive response from the casuals and haters.

Crypt of the Devil is not exactly the second coming of The Bleeding, and I've already hinted that it does not surpass the catchy Undead, but it's interesting how it partially mirrors recent Cannibal Corpse fare like Torture in its construction. The riffing progressions here are corpulent, adventurous in a semi-clinical death metal fashion, often akin to records like Bloodthirst which rank among Barnes' alma mater at their prime. Though some of the punch to the patterns does exude a Cannabis feel, the guitars are more muscular in the Six Feet Under fashion, the bass lines oozing like a leaky whiskey still into the swamp water, and a few bridges accelerate into some tense patterns where a few more melodic, trilling hooks offer aural callbacks to Barnes' most famous appearances. Some of the harmonic guitars splayed out over meatier rhythm tracks in lead hooks feel similar to what Carcass did on their reunion record, and even though there's a general sameness between a number of the cuts, you can often expect the unexpected, with a great lead sequence or riff break coming out of nowhere which is suddenly more adept and memorable than the rest of the disc. The drumming and bass often ceded to the density of the riffs, and Barnes growls a little too monotonous for what is happening around them, but that was occasionally the case on Undead and it did not dull my reaction to the songwriting whatsoever.

Coupled with the classic death metal cover artwork, Crypt of the Devil is really just what these guys have been capable of delivering to us all along, when they weren't too busy being lazy with lopsided, meat head groove death. It feels like both a self-tribute to those final years of Barnes' run with his old band, and a more involved and musical direction for the band to progress towards in the future, even if these particular player were only along for the studio album itself. It's not going to be a popular opinion to take the guy seriously after so many years of keyboard crusader mockery through the metal underground, but it very clearly sounds like that more legitimate Six Feet Under, akin to what we heard three years ago that turned at least my reality upside down. This is unquestionably the death metal that these men was always meant for, almost entirely eschewing the dumbed down formulae that filled out so many of those first 15 Metal Blade years, and while Crypt of the Devil is hardly the stuff of legend or even the stuff you'll be humming along to in your head six months from now, I am enjoying an age in which I'll see this band's logo somewhere and not take the easy reaction to write it off. Just Death Metal 101, straight from one of the campus alumni and assisted by a number of ace grad students who want to make him sound as good as possible.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, May 11, 2015

Throes - Dissasociation (2015)

It's instantly obvious, even without hearing the music itself, that England's Throes are going for a different angle within the black and death metal spectrum, starting with a simplistic cover image redolent of hardcore records from about 10-20 years ago, and then following through with a lyrical concept that deals more heavily in substance addiction and personal trauma than the occult, winter, or ancient civilizations. I'd hesitate to dub them 'urban black metal', but clearly Disassociation is a record aesthetically cast in the vein of December Wolves' streetwise black/thrashing epic Completely Dehumanized, or several of the works by their own countrymen Anaal Nathrakh, who have a more brick-in-the-face sound than this, but also dabble in a mix of the extreme metal medium with flourishes of electronics, ambient and industrial nihilism. You won't find such a massive level of diversity on this particular record, but even within the tighter constraints this duo has manifest I heard anything from Godflesh to Ulcerate to some of the most ceaselessly intense and blasted black metal the Scandinavian territories have ever produced.

Legions of razor-edged tremolo pickings fluctuate against higher-pitched, dissonant atmospherics to produce an unsettling but persistently forceful experience, while the drumming is more or less an engine of madness firing up every nauseating narcotic fit of the rhythm guitar. Bass lines are crud coated, sparse grime like what you'd find on the hull of some filthy cargo liner left in a polluted port too long, and then the resulting mass of writhing, blasting. It's not punishing to the point of monotony or irritation, because the duo knows precisely when to let an atmospheric passage take over the proceedings, where simpler guitars will simmer off a more minimal beat and the caustic growls are spent with a little more tortured sustain. A lot of rhythm guitars in tunes like "Narcoanalysis" are used as an additional layer of percussion, creating this whirlwind of syringes and despair that escalates into thicker, monster double kick batteries that leave you so bruised that any release from their racket becomes a relief...and this will come in the form of creepy, cleaner guitars, samples and other embellishments which serve the discomfiture of the theme they're exploring. Sometimes this takes on an almost surreal abstract, dissonant fusion quality which feels like you're being rushed through an Emergency Room through various flows of time...faster...slower...

Sanity waxing and waning, life mistakes flashing before your eyes in a heartbeat. And to boot, the disc is fairly short, not overstaying its welcome. Neither does it tax the listener to the point where he or she becomes too exhausted to ever want to ride the coaster again. Throes stays in character for the full five cuts and 34 minutes, but there is just enough unpredictability to each individual piece that you won't ever quite work out exactly where it's going until the storm is already knocking on your door and by then it's usually too late to find shelter. There are certainly some riff progressions which are stronger than others, the latter usually being those that are used as chugs and 'emphasis' for a more strenuous, muscular production, but even if this is one area that lacks a little nuance, the guitars are not all mindless and meandering, but rather focused and functional, flossing your brain with callous barbwire at their most active, lulling you into a cruel insecurity when not. As extreme as it gets, the album is not about showing off, but about contrasting the experiences of flailing anxiety, vertigo, nightmare and self-annihilation with sedation. Only a coma can cure it, just hope you'll wake up from this one.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, May 8, 2015

Morbid Angel - Juvenilia (2015)

One has to wonder: is the title of this retro live album released for Record Store Day 2015 simply a nod to the fact that its date of recording (November 1989) being a moment in Morbid Angel's formative, 'juvenile' (aka important) history, or is there something potentially backhanded going on as some sort of meta reference to the overwhelmingly negative response to the band's last full length album where they suddenly thought they were Nine Inch Nails and Ice T? Obviously it's the former, right? At any rate, at least they got the wretched 'J' out of the way in their alphabetic catalog titling, and this is a limited release 12" record which some people will feel really lucky to have picked up, and the rest will just have to borrow it from one of said lucky individuals or listen to a rip online. Like its cover artwork and title imply, this is all material from a single gig, in Nottingham, in the late 80s, which means it involves Altars of Madness and little else...fine for me, since that happens to remain my favorite Morbid Angel disc.

In fact, it's pretty much that entire album, only performed in the live setting and not a particularly good recording, so I'm willing to bet the album ends up as a collectors' trophy, perhaps hanging on a bedroom or basement wall for cred, and not listened through very much. That's not because the band does a poor job of it, in fact the music hits here just like the wall of force it provided in its studio incarnation, only being a relatively primitive gig recording I feel like the bass and rhythm guitar levels kind of blend into this monotonous murk slightly upstaged by the clap of the snares and cymbals and the roiling bark of David Vincent. You can make out the gist of the notes on parade, and sure they sound just as fresh and evil structurally as they should have in '89, especially during the percussion breaks in tunes like "Immortal Rites" where the tremolo picked guitars break out on their own. As a whole, the recording is rather clean, the pacing of the set non-stop and furious, but it all just feels rather dry due to the restraints of the equipment used to capture it, and there is just no situation in which I'd ever want to listen to this over Altars of Madness itself, where you get all that depth and vivid, extradimensional carnage. I mean, Earache and the band know this, thus the limited number of copies...more confidence would mean more in circulation, in more formats.

So it's visceral, and the band were ablaze at the dawn (and arguably summit) of their career, but the reels here just don't do the songs as much justice as you'd hope. Which is, let's be honest, not going to bother a lot of underground death metal fans who seek out demos and rarities and thrive off the very primacy that the older recordings espouse. It's still a thrill to hear "Chapel of Ghouls" and "Lord of All Fevers and Plagues", and if you're a huge Trey fan, he starts sporadically showboating for a few moments after "Chapel...", which is frankly irritating and unnecessary in any context, at any time.  I guess my one takeaway here is that it just reminds me again of how great Altars was, and I hope the band sit there with this on a stereo, laugh at the shoddy recording quality (not the worst I've heard, but not very good), and then suddenly get swept up in reminiscence of when they were on top of the freaking world. After which, I sincerely hope they channel the nostalgia into their next studio recording, because I feel like they've been firing blanks since good old Y2K and I'm all about redemption. This is certainly a band capable of reining in the chaos of their roller coaster existence, and I want to believe they shall once again. But no matter what happens, we'll always have Altars of Madness, and at the very least this live recording reminds us (or reveals to us) how incendiary they were in front of a crowd. The band on this vinyl was a great one, regardless of any auditory deficiency.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Skyforger - Senprūsija (2015)

While a large percentage of the pagan/folk metal crowd seems to have reduced itself to a band of lively, gallivanting minstrels who have watched Lord of the Rings and Braveheart to the point they can recite them line for line, there are particular bands among the lot which have long stood head and shoulders above their stylistic peers. Latvia's Skyforger is one such name, a group that has always taken itself and its devotion to craft quite seriously, and perhaps more importantly, offered us an historical view of a particular culture and region of the world that many of us Westerners might not be so well versed in. Granted, not all of us are necessarily going to understand the lyrics until we have translations available, but I personally don't enjoy the aural ingestion of these records nearly as much as when they are offered in the native tongue, and judging by the relative popularity of records in Norse and/or Finnish, I do not feel the language barrier is much of an obstruction at all to anyone seeking sincerity.

Though several of their earlier albums were cut more directly from a black metal cloth, the band had taken a turn for the slightly more accessible with their prior record Kurbads, which was among their best material to date, and sixth album Senprūsija ('Old Prussia') is a loyal followup to that with grimmer artwork and a lot more aural callbacks to older discs like Kauja pie saules (1998) and the Latvian Riflemen (2000), meshing together lattices of inspired, memorable Scandinavian-style black metal riffing with some overt heavy metal and blackened thrash influences. It's not that they constantly innovate the chord progressions, but they take great care to ensure that almost every guitar pattern on the record sticks to the ears, and there is this constant variation in the rhythms which is a mix of lethal intensity and more celebratory pomp we generally equate with the folk metal medium. The guitar tone is rich but cutting, anchored by just the perfect level of buzz on the bass and constantly punctuated with tasteful leads that honor a hard rock tradition without ever becoming exceedingly flashy or frivolous. Curious harmonies and an excellent balance of the drum kit round out the production to what is possibly their best ever, and I found there is nearly no means by which I could predict what exactly was about around most corners in the songwriting, though they never break their character.

Character. That's so important here, and rather than some bunch of misplaced teen angst troubadours diddling their fiddles in the Renaissance Faire restrooms, Skyforger wins on personality over just the novelty of mixing heavy guitars in with traditionally inspired ballads and chords. Peter's vocals continue to serve as a Latvian analog to the great Martin Walkyier (Sabbat, Skyclad), gruff and growled and appropriately ugly alongside the deeper, clean backups; this approach happens to function fluently with the language, and the lack of anything remotely silly going on in the background enforces its efficacy. At the same time, I don't want to make this seem like its overly misanthropic or spiteful sounding music. Aggressive and well balanced, but there's a hearth-like quality, a warmth and pride that resonates through the structure of the songs, and the rawness of the bass and bleeding of some of the tremolo picked guitar lines never completely jump ship on that underground black metal aesthetic which permeated the first few records. This is a good band. The near hour of material they've assembled is extremely consistent, with many of my favorite tracks ("Melnas buras", "Nekas nav aizmirsts") coming even in the latter half when most albums' fire has already died down, just ceaseless successful recipes of traditional heavy/speed, black and thrash licks dowsed in the cauldron of history. Take the ladle and drink.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

At the Gates/Voivod - Split 7" (2015)

At the Gates and Voivod are not really two bands I'd associate with one another whatsoever beyond the fact that they are both successful, both longstanding (more so in the case of the latter, who never took the near decade hiatus), and both able to tour much of the waking world and inspire much fan obsession. Speaking of which, when it comes to the Canadian half of this equation, I am guilty as fucking charged. At the Gates is a band I enjoyed through much of the 90s, but not to the rabid level that a lot of local New England metalcore aspirants and devotees ended up making entire careers out of thanks to a single groove and an exclamation of "Go!". Their reunion record, At War With Reality, was one I found to deserve neither the heavy accolades it got amongst some of the slavish press, nor the incessant negativity it inspired among those who seem to hate just about any band that ever made a name for itself among that terrifying crowd of Others beyond their Inner Circles. Like clockwork, people, I can't even make this shit up. At any rate, that disc just sounded to me like a band who wanted to play it relatively close to the hip, while exploring a fraction of the polish and maturity that might have transpired had they gone major label after Slaughter of the Soul; and to that extent, it was fine, I listened to it a few times and shelved it right next to Surgical Steel.

Their contribution to this split is unfortunately not exclusive. "Language of the Dead" is available on the bonus disc to At War With Reality, and it serves as a fairly loyal representation of their classic melodic Swedeath sound, hints of Dark Tranquility's morose melodic sensibility embodied in some pure Slaughter of the Soul pickings, the harmonies strong enough in listening but not very resonant once the smoke clears. Lindberg's vocals still have some bite to them, but they seem a little more phoned in, too 'level', lacking the uncouth emotional punch he once possessed in the band's heyday and thus occasionally smothered in the guitars. Though this is a solid tune, I can see why it was not part of the final selection for the full-length. The drums sound fine, the acoustic segue seems almost inevitable and doesn't really add much to the song except to reinforce the contrast such parts always created on their older recordings. The main issue for me is that it is ENTIRELY OUTCLASSED by its companion here...

I can assume "We Are Connected" will not remain a staple of this 7" either, likely to be released as a part of Voivod's forthcoming new full-length, but it is a fucking fantastic, upbeat track, with intricate Piggy-esque licks proving once again that Daniel Mongrain was the 'right guy for this job', adjoined to pumping bass-lines. Seriously, I was shocked to shit when I realized this wasn't actually Blacky playing the bass, but the Canadians' latest acquisition, countryman Dominique 'Rocky' Laroche, who is as much a mirror for his predecessor as Mongrain. This guy was hiding in a blues band? Welcome, my friend, come and drink the nano-water and stay a part of this well-oiled machinery forever, or at least until Blacky's next nostalgia trip. Say what you will about the album's title being a callback to the robotic voice in "Killing Technology", but this tune truly captures the essence of classics like Dimension Hatross and Nothingface in the contemporary flesh of Target Earth, and if it's a true indicator for the coming material then I am beyond stoked...fell in love with it the first time I heard it, and the courtship is still thriving.

Now, as for the 'value' of this Century Media split on the whole...I can't really say. Once "We Are Connected" appears on a proper full-length, then this is almost entirely worthless spare the cool black & white artwork, which was done for both bands in the Voivod style. In fact, I almost wish At the Gates had written a new tune for this with a slightly more dissonant, outlandish Voivod influence, now that would have been something to make this special, especially if the Canadians had an exclusive original too. "Language of the Dead" just seems like a lazy choice, probably a label choice, and it just has nothing in common with apart from, you know, it being metal on the same label. So ultimately, I'm feeling really neutral on this, apart from the artwork, and can't really recommend that anyone do anything more than sample the songs online and acquire the respective full-length albums at your convenience if you enjoyed what you hear. But Side B > Side A, all night, and all day.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Monday, April 20, 2015

Gruesome - Savage Land (2015)

Imitation is the sincerest form of...splattery? For going on decades now, one wouldn't accuse Gruesome of being Matt Harvey's first rodeo for wearing his influences on his sleeve. Exhumed is very often (and justly) compared to the formative, important years of England's Carcass as they emerged from their vegan grinding roots to the hybrid of melodic thrash, death and heavy metal that they originally left us off, and later reformed on. Dekapitator sounds like a literal who's who of the Big Three German thrash influences. So, not a surprise that Savage Land was touted openly as a paean to the first couple of Death albums, in particular Leprosy, which just happens to be the favorite of yours truly. In fact, this debut album goes so far as to bring Ed Repka's artwork into the fold, in what I can only assume is a measure to further the effort's authenticity towards its source material. Had Chuck and Combat requested a cannibal savage theme in place of a grisly leper, this might have damn well been an iconic image we clung to for 25 years, and there are small cues in the band logo, the title font, and more prominently in the fact that this was openly dedicated to the late Schuldiner himself.

I don't have much of a personal issue with such hero worship, provided that it is manufactured with the transparency that Harvey and his partners in gore have created this. Savage Land is, of course, quite incapable of scoring accolades based on its nuance or originality. The furthest away it roams is to embellish itself with a few licks more directly redolent of late 80s Pestilence and Obituary than Death itself, but for the majority of the 35-36 minute playtime, it's more or less an emulation of the fabled Floridian's sophomore album, with a few liberties taken in the vocals and drums, as well as the obvious difference in production values that the gulf of a quarter century will provide. Now, if you were to ask me, I would tell you that my adoration of Leprosy itself is such that I would not rightly mind a few aesthetic doppelgangers, provided that they could infuse the inspiration with a few hints of their own personality, or at least write riffing progressions that captured my imagination in much the same way Chuck was, back when he was crafting those evil, menacing rhythm guitars and sinister vocals, not yet concerned with the 'brainier', less interesting polish of his later 90s output which I found to be hit or miss, often processed and pandered to near impotence. It's a pretty huge leap, after all, from 'this is the sound of corpses-rising-from-the-crypt awesome' to 'my nerdy Dream Theater friends in Music Theory 101 really appreciate this in between whiffs of their own bodily emissions'.

Naturally, then, I appreciate that Matt Harvey, Gus Rios, Robin Mazen and Daniel Gonzalez are on the same page with me. A formidable lineup, all of whom have flirted with American death metal in its numerous strains and forms, attempting the Herculean task of slobbing the knob of one of the very greatest death metal albums in human history. But sometimes, when faced with a sword swinging assassin, you find yourself unequipped with a pistol, and that the target is well out of range or your bullwhip, and Savage Land ends up a pseudo-sequel of divisive proportions; an admittedly fleshy production which doesn't seem to exhibit anything deeper than the skin of its precursor. No, this is not as shitty as Curse of the Crystal Skull, not by a long shot. On the surface, the tremolo picked riffs represent the clever crudeness of the original, and they're nothing quite lazy about them, but the way the notes are splayed out into patterns here is simply not evocative of anything more than the mere structural characteristics they are supposed to represent. It's not incompetent, nor is it really 'weak', but apart from a few of the lead patterns in cuts like "Trapped in Hell", I too rarely experienced any measure of genuine excitement seems like a series of motions, a checklist of traits, like an Elvis impersonator who has the dress down, and the voice, but not the moves, or the ability to make his crowd get up and shake, rattle or roll.

I could see an argument for the more organic, responsive, flexible drums here to be labeled an improvement over Bill Andrews' performance on Leprosy, but I'd also point out that they are both products of their times. Which is fine, they work well by contemporary context and standards. But then, not all proponents for extremity in 1988 were Hoglan or Lombardo. I, for one, appreciated the straightforward approach to the beats back then, since I was just so absorbed with the true star of the show: Chuck's rhythm guitars and pestilent, boiling growls. The latter are handled well enough, but somewhat inconsequentially for the year 2015. Harvey does a deeper, more guttural  rendition of his forebear, but the most it ever does is 'justice' to the original, with no further aspiration. We won't be chomping over the bit about Matt's growls in conversations, simply missing how we felt the first time we heard Scream Bloody Gore. The bass lines are fairly low-key and nondescript, which is pretty much a reflection of the old 80s Death, but I feel as if some good grooves and unique lines here would have actually helped embolden the experience, made it more compelling on the whole.

I've already mentioned that the guitars here were pretty close in build to the originals, just not as catchy. There are a few more clinical patterns in tunes like "Demonized" that do successfully resurrect the nostalgia they're after, but these are few and far between, and the majority of the meatier riffs are just straight into one ear and out the other, like human flesh entering and exiting the intestinal tracts of the brutes on the album cover. Sadly, no Wendigo mythology here, nothing is really absorbed into me, I do not gain the record's abilities. Its powers. I can't recount a single riff after 10-15 minutes of listening to the disc, whereas the album's inspiration still reigns in my conscience as it did when I was 14 years old, drooling over the Leprosy cassette my little sister picked up for me at the mall. 'Ew! Gross!' She said, not risking exposure to the thing without its shrink wrap. That's a long time ago, folks, and a lot to live up to, and perhaps it was absurd of me to think it ever could, but I at least maintained a little hope that there would be handful of tunes that lasted me a few months. Apart from some of the bridge/lead sequences, though, the album seems like somewhat of a letdown, if not a total dud. Where Exhumed really captures that hellish, slaughterhouse exhibition of its grinding influences, and earns a life of its own, the Gruesome debut just seems like a secondhand museum lecture. Not a bad one, mind you, but not one I'm likely to pay to experience again.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Awe/Vacantfield/End - Moerae (2015)

After decades of split recording exposures, I'd be lying if I said that the medium hadn't grown a little stagnant for me, largely because the lion's share of these things simply possess no semblance of studio consistency or creative coherence. In so many cases, it's just product pushing with buddies or complete strangers, in a limited format. But of course, when even a fraction of the imagination is applied to this process, you can come up with gold, with two or more artists functioning on the same page, producing a recording that has an intrinsic value beyond just a flag-waving collaboration for some label, scene, genre. As for the three Greek acts responsible for the Moerae LP, they have gone well beyond such a 'fraction', and put together something visionary and thematic which is far more than the mere sum of its parts...

Three tunes, each over 16 minutes in length, and each devoted to one of the Three Fates of Greek mythology (or moirai, or Moerae). You could say that it was in the blood, because what the bands have produced is not just some simple gimmicky idea which falters in its execution, but a lethal dose of progressive gonzo annihilation which takes great liberties from the standard black metal troops to incorporate anything from thrash riffing to pure ambiance (especially in "Atropos") to just about anything they fucking want to include. You're still getting plenty of air-time for the more technical black metal attack, which is the primary impetus of several of the bands, but the fact is they have not padded out such swollen tracks with loads of redundant nonsense. Each "Clotho", "Lachesis" and "Atropos" serve as smorgasbords of the unexpected, without devolving into sheer, matchless chaos. Production is competent all around, and while the mixes of the three tracks do vary incrementally, the common length of the playgrounds they inhabit and stylistic variation are so consistent that it does feel like the bands were at least communicating telepathically throughout the process.

I've reviewed all of the full-length records by End to date, but "Atropos" is by far the most interesting thing they've ever created and I do hope it marks a glimpse into what they might create in the future. Vacantfield has a notably more progressive/thrash component to its composition, but they never fail to entice me with all the jarring effects, decrepit vocals and subtle touches like the keys. As for Awe, well this is a band involving members of at least one other superb Hellas black metal band, which I am not presently at liberty to say, but tonally their contribution "Clotho" is the best at forcing the black metal motif with a lot of dissonance and some really evil breakdown riffs which are among the most fucking tremendous across the entire experience. Instruments on the whole are mixed to an infectious level of clarity which does not entirely eschew the rawness of the parent genre, but allows the listener to more easily ingest the psychotic musical spasms. Not all the riffs are gold, and there are some moments through each of the cuts which end up less engaging than their surroundings, but
all told, it's a really cool recording. Probably the most intriguing split since Dis Pater's Converge, Rivers of Hell from 2013, in which the Australian musician explore a similar mythic concept through three of his own projects. Track this down, whether you're a fan of the more eccentric Greek black metal wizards or just compelling extreme music in general. Fucking great.

Verdict: Win [8.5] (how fool a god can be)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Salvation - Winter Wrath [demo] (2014)

Were I to deify the 'good old boys' of the black metal medium, then Salvation's Winter Wrath demo would likely be the sort of libation paid to them on the various solstices and equinoxes. The DNA of a recording like this is quite plainly linked back to those important,  formative works of a Darkthrone, Hellhammer, Bathory or even a Deathcrush-era Mayhem and there is little of anything across the span of six tracks that proves otherwise. But this Australian one man act pays tribute through more than mere chord choices or 'sounds', but in the very aesthetic choices of its DIY, no-fucks-given mentality which is reflective of about 15 years worth of deep underground demos and records from bands that shun any sense of studio wizardry, refined craftsmanship, or progressive tendencies in an unending quest to capture the primacy of its inspirations like a fly in amber...only Salvation goes so far as to render a lot of its savage spiritual precursors 'polished' by comparison to the raunch and ruin found on this CD-R.

This is essentially a rehearsal-level demo recording comprised of six tracks, half of which are intros and interludes and the other full-on bursts of full-on spite which shift between melodic/melancholic chord patterns ("Winter Wrath" itself) redolent of the Scandinavian second wave, and a nastier set of  Hellhammer/Bathory barrages ("Strife") which date back to an even more primordial origin in the 80s. The music is unfailingly simple and merciless, and that's rather the point. Stylistic parameters here are indeed pretty narrow, but that's not to say that Noctarth, the sole musician responsible lacks the wherewithal to incorporate a little variation, to make the song structures more entertaining than they might otherwise prove if he beat on the instruments for redundant 7-9 minute epics. On some fundamental level, while we've heard these chord progressions many times in the past, and the rasped nihilism of the vocals is nothing new, and the style lacks any semblance of nuance, there's still a soft spot there for the lightless, raw fury these recordings espouse, and Winter Wrath, for any of its faults, does function solely on that level. It looks like it sounds, there are no gimmicks and its author, who is not visiting his first rodeo here, has absolutely no delusion about what it represents.

That said, there are a few components to this which felt a little lacking. For one, of the three shorter instrumental pieces on the demo, I felt like only the first was a proper set-up and companion to the majority of the music. The doomed, drifting harmonies of "Forgotten Fields" and wall of saddened feedback and noises which make up the "Outro" are not unpleasant listens, but I didn't feel like they really contributed to the feel of the CD-R overall. The other issue here is the drumming, which is as raucous and cluttered as you'd expect on a lot of these styles of tapes and demos. There were points where I felt like the timing was a little messy, but really it's just that disparate production of the snares, crashing cymbals and bass drums during the more intense batteries which gave me the impression I was rolling down a rocky hill while trapped in a crate. Fortunately the beats don't really drown out the simple, clobbering bombast of the riffs or vocals, but they were certainly distractions on a few of the tunes when I had the volume cranked. Last, while I have no aversion to really basic riffs like the black-punk used to fuel the namesake "Salvation" track, these were just a little too mundane to really carry that track.

But bear in mind: this is a very limited release, not intended for mass consumption or to be writ large across the black metal universe, and while I can fault it for its ground-level approach to songwriting and production, what it doesn't lack is sincerity. It's not as solitude-stricken or atmospheric as some of its once-prolific Australian kin like Striborg or Drowning in the Light. But no concessions are made, no filtering of purpose; this is the product of the dingy, murky basement from which it was spawned, and for a lot of embedded underworld souls, that is really quite enough. Winter Wrath is not going to win Noctarth a medal, and it's preemptively drowned out by so very many of its peers, but there's something satisfying to me that no matter how far the genre's elder statesmen have evolved their musical goals, there are guys out there putting together stuff like this.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Devathorn - Vritra (2015)

It has long been the case that the Greek black metal scene seems to be divided into two disparate camps: those that were always and continuing to bring something new to the table, and those that are more content to fashion their compositional style after the more prevalent, popular European black metal scenes in countries like Norway, Sweden and Finland. Devathorn proved torchbearers for that latter camp on their 2007 debut Diadema, and with Vritra the pendulum does not seem to have swung far in the other direction, though I would say with certainty I had a better time listening to this than I did its predecessor. In an age when veterans like Zemial and Varathron are producing some of their very best material, and more unique bands like Hail Spirit Noir, Thy Darkened Shade and Katavasia are making the rounds with albums that resonate long past the initial spins, Vritra is not one likely to stick out, but at the very least it conjures up a more tangible sense of evil and purpose than the debut.

Their aim is to more or less blend together an elixir of their Northern forebears from both the crispy, blackened thrash and pure second wave black metal cauldrons, so it's no surprise here that when hearing this, one would reflect upon anything from Bathory and Marduk to Darkthrone, Mayhem, and Gorgoroth; loads of blasting endowed with minor, dissonant chords or glints of malignant, atmospheric higher pitched guitars that provide the nightscape. This is a band which hearkens back to that guitar-driven almost exclusively, without embedding synthesizers into the metal compositions directly. There are ambient, ritualistic ports of the album which are largely instrumental sections, and also some acoustics in the intro to "Cathedral of Set" which help set up its Egyptian thematics, or the close of "Verba Inermis", but by and large these guys go with a sinister, distorted saturation delivered through a solid array of chord patterns and tempo shifts which offer me just enough variation that I perk up and pay attention...individual note processions might be fairly traditional, but how they pack each of the tunes together is where it gets a little less easy to predict, and the ambient pieces seem to be strategically set in the proper places to give the listener a little space to breathe in his/her cave.

Another album where the low end seems more of a subtext than an important plot point, and it does cause the album to lack a little in dimension. The vocals are wild though, from the expected rasps to arcane gang shouts, wavering mid-range wails, Nocturno Culto-like growls and other weirdness to showcase that Devathorn are at least interested in imbuing a little bit of personality into the performance than bog standard black metal bands will. On some level the guitar patterns can get a little technical, almost to a spastic level like Thy Darkened Shade, but the production and atmosphere are far more lo-fi and raw. The drums did not sound great, too tinny and crashy and not enough low-end power to feel them pounding in my ribcage, and the recording in its entirety feels really dry, where I think a little more voluminous depth and shadow would have transformed the same set of songs into something more memorable. Overall, though, I thought it captured the essence of the old Scandinavian underground quite faithfully, it's not likely to become a classic for this or any other era, but it was a more venomous, sulfuric, commanding experience than the first disc, and the lyrics were a fine precursor to some human sacrifice.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Legion of Doom - The Tyrant with the Seven Heads EP (2015)

Had you asked me 15 or more years ago, I might have told you that Greece's Legion of Doom was a competent proponent of traditional European black metal that, while secondary to their more sonically unique, better known countrymen, were capable of holding their own. Sadly, while the ensuing decade produced one album of worth (The Horned Made Flesh in 2008), it was simply not a benchmark of evolution within the band's sound or songwriting to the degree that it would make many waves in a scene whose flagships had already set sail or were still in the process of treading sea. Their surrounded efforts, including 2012's The Summoning of Shadows were perhaps the most mundane in their substantial 25 year history, but the Legion presses on with a new, limited run 7" featuring two tracks.

Though they've undergone more savage transitions in the past, The Tyrant with the Seven Heads is a fairly seasoned array of melodic black metal, with heavy emphasis placed on the melancholic majesty of its tremolo picked guitar lines and the ungodly rasp of bassist/vocalist Daimon. Rhythmically the focus is on blast beat patterns interspersed with fills, pretty standard sounding fare that many would find indistinguishable from countless other bands throughout the 90s and beyond. That's not to say they execute this style poorly, because the instrumental mix here is quite nice, the guitars are very often level and harmonized and they thankfully don't rely on endless repetition of the same riffs, but at the same time there are very few guitar progressions throughout the choices here that will resonate for long since they are primarily just alterations upon others the veteran black metal listener has heard hundreds if not thousands of times before. Bass lines are buried between the rhythm guitars though it wasn't a loss I really felt much listening through.

While they do at least one breakdown of note in the B-side title cut, and a few guitar-only passages, there is just so little of note when it comes to variations in tempo or ideas, so the two tunes really feel like one-trick ponies and that's only going to appeal to a portion of the genre's loyalists who fell in love with that style through albums like De Mysteriis dom Sathanas or Transilvanian Hunger and found themselves unable to disengage in any further exploration. This is by no means a categorically  bad recording, and in fact I'd say the songs are the equal or better of most on their last full-length, but it doesn't hold out much hope that these long time under-groundskeepers will knock a record out of the park any time soon. Sure, there is an argument to be made for the fact that they stick to their guns, but the attention span of much of the black metal audience has become bulletproof in the ensuing decades, pursuing either grisly, archaic retro sounds, total headcleaning blasting blitzkriegs, or nuanced folk, prog, speed and heavy metal influences. Legion of Doom will forever have my respect, but without better and/or more interesting songs, that won't translate into a share of my ever- diminished listening time. This EP is a serviceable intro to their style, but interested parties would be better off tracking down For Those of the Blood or The Horned Made Flesh.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]