Sunday, June 17, 2018
The main selling point here is that Skull was as a vehicle for ex-Kiss guitarist Bob Kulick, who had played uncredited on a number of tracks on a number of their albums, and also alongside acts like Meat Loaf, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed and Michael fucking Bolton to name a few. The other bigger name in this lineup was drummer Bobby Rock of Alcatrazz, Nitro and Lita Ford fame. Had this very same album drummed a few years prior, maybe 1987-1988, I can see it having had the potential for some limited rotation on channels like MTV or you local hard rock broadcaster. It's not as sickly sweet at sucky bands like the US Warrant, Poison or Slaughter, but the band has a lot of flair, hits hard enough for their genre that even metal purists might find something to like, and singer Dennis St. James had an expressive enough presence somewhere in the midst of David Coverdale, Ian Gillan, David Lee Roth and Don Dokken. Lots of rock & roll oohs and aahs that you'd expect from someone likely willing to grab his crotch and ricochet his hips around as much as it takes to put on a memorable show. That the lyrics here are so lame, trivial and cliche-ridden is rather moot, this was not a niche within rock music with a ton of thought or depth behind it, but rather a feel good sedative for the every man who just wanted to rock out with his lady or buds. I mean there's literally a lyrical line 'so we'll meet a few girls, drink a few beers' to which the backup vocals respond 'who's buyin'?'
Pedestrian party rock for bars and strip joints looking for something else when they'd spun all their Mötley Crüe and Britney Fox albums until the grooves wore down. I admit I wanted to tear this record apart when I was first listening through it, such insipid tripe as it is, but as I grow older myself I've gained a sort of strange, masochistic fondness for some cheesy metal which I would have thrown my devil horns at as a teenage and then hissed at is if I was some vampire struck by a bulb of garlic from a Stryper fan's slingshot. No Bones About It is entirely harmless and formulaic, with a slight divide between the more groovy, bluesy boogie metal cuts like "Little Black Book" and "Eyes of a Stranger", power ballad lameness like "This Side of Paradise", and then a series of mildly more serious, moody, engine burners like "Breaking the Chains" and "Loser's Game". And if the titles of some of these tracks look identical to other song or album titles that were popular at the time, just move right along. As redundant as the album really was for its day, I do admit to nodding my head along to some of the riffs and vocal lines, appreciating the strong guitar tone, and the lead work of a guy who was only passed over for Ace Frehley (and, eventually, ironically, his own little brother). The drums are pounding and effective, really the band had the 'whole package' that was just cut off by being beaten to the punch many times, and lacking a promotional push and touring itinerary that would have taken them to the next level.
Is this sole Skull album a curiosity for anyone outside a diminished audience of omni-rockers who like their hard rock as much as their heavier metal? Not really, so I'd advise checking out a band like Fifth Angel or Banshee who were exponentially superior at straddling that divide, but if you've a penchant for cheesy rarities and failed dreams, or a passion for big arena cock rock, then this Skull might be in session. Bob Kulick once lent Jimi Hendrix a guitar string, so the least you can do is lend this justifiable obscurity an ear for a few minutes.
Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]
Saturday, June 16, 2018
You could see Vengeance as capturing that old, hellish energy circa Obsessed by Cruelty or Endless Pain, maybe even a little Rrröööaaarrr; that unrepentant rawness, and then building something slightly more structured out of it. This is delivered through loads of faster-paced, vicious riffs which don't exactly come off creative at any stage, but at the same time aren't mindless...there is a clear effort and fury being placed into their execution. The solos in particular are ridiculously well placed, energetic, and flinging themselves around in the true frantic fashion that thrash solos once excelled in...not to the point that they are memorable, but always a good way to round out or cap off a track and give you just that added level of intensity and abandon. The drumming is lightning quick and muscular, with a strong slap to the snare that keeps this engine chugging along even if you get a little underwhelmed with some of the riffs themselves. A number of these show some degree of sophistication and lead to a few notes you wouldn't expect, especially in a cut like "Hour of Reprisal" which I thought was bloody great. They don't stick entirely to the faster stuff, there are a few slower, Celtic Frost-like chug stretches which bring a little more balance to the overall album.
Vocals are rapacious barks highly redolent of two thirds of the German Big Three in their youth, with perhaps a few, gnarly nods to later throwback bands like Raise Hell. The whole sound is washed out in a slightly sibilant, unkempt mix, which sadly didn't do a lot for me. I understand entirely that sort of retro sincerity they were targeting, but I feel like the music itself would have been delivered more lethally in a richer recording, slightly cleaner and punchier for the rhythm guitars. When you look at the actual collective resumee of these guys...Merciless, Thorium, Nominon, Interment, In Aeternum, Hypnosia...that's quite a lot of background, so I'm sure they could have managed a better production, only chose to do it this way intentionally to capture that underground appeal. But it just didn't light enough of a fire under the album for me, and so the experience was a little dry, the riffs and songwriting just wasn't at the level of scene peers like Antichrist or Entrench who excel within this very same niche. Still, Vengeance is a debut which exhibits plenty of capability on the part of the musicians involved...a little more polish, a mildly different sonic envelope, and a few central riffs that stick to the ears better, and Dreadful Fate could be a formidable thrash act indeed.
Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]
Sunday, June 10, 2018
I'd liken this to At the Gates, Darkane or Soilwork if it were infested with the sorts of chords and octave patterns that thrashers like Testament and Vicious Rumors used a lot on their later 80s and early 90s material. It's quite a cool match with the Lindberg-like snarls and punishing riffs that kick off cuts like "The Beast Within", one of the best songs here which perfectly executes what they are going for. They still implement the cleaner vocals to contrast against the savage rasping, but even there you get a slightly more affected, post-modern vibe. Truth to be told, I thought the aggressive vocals on this were actually much better than the debut...they seem better welded to these slightly less complex riffing patterns, to the point that you can make out more of their tortured imperfections and that enables them with a lot more staying power. The album also goes for bigger, simpler, rocking rhythms that are checks in the bank for an audience interested in banging heads and bodies against one another. The drums are thundering, especially on the low end, and the album possesses an almost tireless energy about it which reminded me a lot of 'go for the throat' entries to this subgenre like Soilwork's Steelbath Suicide, Darkane's Rusted Angel or Sins of Omission's Flesh On Your Bones.
Considering when this album actually dropped, and that level of intensity they pull off, I was really surprised that this one didn't take in a much larger audience, but I think like a lot of the second or third tier Black Mark releases it lacked any amount of perceivable promotion. There are also a few issues I had with the production...for all the sleeker, bruising aesthetics it was intended for, some of the guitars seem a little too boxy and uneven, and the mix levels have actually given me more than one headache throughout the years. Not a deal breaker when you're searching for something to scratch this specific itch, or spent the six years before this blaring Slaughter of the Soul to all your DM-curious nu metal and metalcore friends, but I felt that A Tale of Black..., albeit more controlled, was the easier of the two albums to ingest. That said, if it were a fist fight, Crossworld would beat its elder sibling to a pasty red pulp; it's far more wild and testosterone driven, and even if the riffs are a little more pedestrian it just puts more punch behind them. So I like both albums, the debut just a fraction more, but if you're a fan of others I've listened in this review then it's worth tracking down.
Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (the ugly trifles of our existence)
Saturday, June 9, 2018
Dark Tranquillity's first three albums would be the natural comparison, with The Tale of Black... coming off darker, possessing more intense bursts of riffing. The melodies are usually ingrained more into or alongside the chord structures themselves here, whereas on The Gallery they were a more overt, standout feature drawing more directly upon the lineage of groups like Iron Maiden. The leads on this record are pretty good, always moody and adventurous, without ever knowing quite where their bridge is about to come to an end; and the rhythm guitars are riffing off everywhere. Like a lot of similar bands at the time, it was like a mix of thrash and 80s power metal transported into the 'death' metal end of the spectrum through the density, guitar tone and vocals. These had a raucous rasp about them, far more carnal and Lindberg (or Laiho) than hoarse and Stanne. Occasionally, they seem to layer up and bounce off one another to the point that they're a little too raspy and hideous, which can be an amusing contrast once they surge into some part of the record where it feels more like a progressive rock guitar instrumental. Interestingly enough, these are balanced off against sections of cleaner, accented vocals that actually imbue the album with some of its more fantastic narrative feel...
In fact, these vocals are much better than the harsh style, as you can hear in a song like "The Dance" where they are more prominently on display and really bind it all together. Had The Tale of Black... actually used this style exclusively, it might even be a superior effort overall. That's not to say that the rasping sucks, far from it, but they do feel a little too 'Beauty & the Beast' contrasted with the more studied, serious and memorable cleans. The drumming is also pretty good here, double bass rolls and fills everywhere that ramp up the aggression level at least a few degrees, and helping give the tunes that air of power and desperation which made records like Slaughter of the Soul legendary. I won't say the production here is absolutely top shelf, since it seems somewhat washed out in spots, but it was a damn sight better than a lot of other bands choking along on the exhaust of this style, and all in all I was pretty happy with the debut. Not as memorable or exciting as a number of their peers, but a firm recommendation for those seeking out more in the vein of The Fifth Season, Terminal Spirit Disease, Thunderbeast, The Mind's I or The Gallery.
Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (so many legends waiting to be born)
Tuesday, June 5, 2018
After listening to the actual music, those low expectations are unfortunately never exceeded. I will admit that the production Arcane achieve here was a little more solid than I suspected. This was basically an early 90s-style death/thrash band, ala Sepultura, trapped in the latter part of a decade in which the genre's evolving brutality and innovation had taken center stage. Wouldn't be much of a problem, if this group wasn't so bloody boring at that style. There's a little atmosphere generated in some of the bridge and lead sections, and the guitar tone is adequate and appreciable, but the structure of the chord progressions and chugging selections are exceedingly familiar, in some sections (like the end of "Open Minds") where it feels like the most banal, dawn-of-S.O.D. level mosh action was a goal to keep any perceived gig audiences moving along, rubbing muscles and bone with another to neglect the fact that what they were dancing off to was so mundane and typical. The drumming is tight without ever becoming too extreme, the bass lines are fluid and flabby enough to thrive at times when you can catch them below the guitars. The vocals have a sort of soulless gruff Cavalera feel to them, though in tracks like "The Hatred in My Confused Mind" they'll throw on some distortion and effects to create something a little more interesting.
Whenever the band picks up the pace to engage the more flightly, thrashing styled riffs, the music is instantly given a small burst of life that leads me to believe they would have been far better off just recording an entire record in that style. There's enough of a clinical sense of melody to give that aesthetic a good balance, but another issue with the record is that it just doesn't stay put long enough in some niche of sound to develop it. For instance, "Welfarestate; Slavestate" moves on to a grooving chord-driven style which seems like a mix of early Green-era Sepultura with Suicidal Tendencies, while "Threatening Me" sounds like pure thrash with the dingier, dirtier vocals and a crossover vibe. For an album that feels like it should have best been marketed for its Sepultura-meets-Creepmime style, it feels inconsistent and noncommittal. Not exactly incompetent, or awful, but the dumbed down rhythm guitar riffing and the lack of really interesting surprises around any corner just make it too easy to overlook in a scene that spawned acts like Sinister, Asphyx, Creepmine, or the godly Pestilence. It seemed dated even for 20 years ago, but not in any memorable or cool 'retro' fashion.
Verdict: Indifference [5/10]
Sunday, June 3, 2018
The biggest factor working against this album is its lack of consistency, as it sort of warps all over a landscape of ideas, without any overarching cohesion, no method to its madness. To that extent it feels like a group of random recordings pasted together to form a full-length, and that can hurt the experience of listening to it. However, when I look at it as a collection of individual tracks and not so much as a structured, aesthetic exercise, the little hooks begin to sink in. On the surface, it's a raw as fuck bedroom black metal recording, with buzzing, droning or distorted guitars, wretched rasping vocals, and a slight penchant for dipping into a few more traditional BM riffs in spots. But as the track list gets deeper in, there's a transformation towards more of a pure, sparse ambient style that is occasionally littered with guitar or vocal effects. This is where the album really started to earn its keep for me, since I found pieces like the 12 minute "Death of a Sorcerer King" trance-inducing and eerie, like a rustic Lustmord tracking an indie horror film out in some woodland. The experimental edge of this doesn't always work, like in "Dimension of Mirrors" where some similar ritualistic ambient music and weird, distant spoken words are crapped on by a distorted, low guitar or bass tone that does them absolutely no service except to sound like its trolling the rest of the song.
Perhaps most interesting are the cuts that dwell between these two polarities of ambient noise and black metal, like "Unicursal Hex" or "Inside the Marble Polyandrium", which are truly unique, capturing the pure rawness of rehearsal-level demo black metal but playing out in such clamorous, often grooving, deconstructed forms that I couldn't tear my ears off of them. Weird, swaying guitars that occasionally bite off some disjointed Eastern melodies, as bass lines swerve through unapologetic patterns that seem entirely sporadic since they never land on a single damn note you want or expect. Meanwhile the vocals are being splayed out in tormented, husky groans, or cleaning wails to create a cacophony of unrest. The percussion is very unkempt, crashing snares and almost random thuds which make the whole thing lurch along with a drunken pacing. I'm sure there must be some improvisational components to Dead Reptile Shrine here, or rather an illusion of such, because to write this way intentionally would be sadism of a high order, but that's not to say that I wasn't fascinated by trying to figure out what in blazes was happening.
Don't get me wrong, it's disharmonious, dissonant, atonal, often painful and directionless, to the point that I can't imagine more than a small handful of listeners would be able to tolerate it for more than a short period. Not every track is equally grating, but just the fact that some of the more sensible pieces are wedged up against such counter-rational nightmares can manifest a degree of frustration. I can't say Dead Reptile Shrine is quite 'there' yet, because often what they do is just so far afield of the consonants or familiars of the metal genre, and this album doesn't have an answer to pulling it all together. So it's not a recommendation from me, but there is a compelling pulse beating somewhere within the black heart of this serpent, its just too irregular at this time to promote long term survival.
Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]
Friday, June 1, 2018
I've received an increasing amount of direct review requests lately. I'm assuming these are from folks who have not seen my notices on Metal-Archives or RYM, so I will reiterate here: I do not have the time to field such requests, and am unlikely to anytime in the near future. It's nothing personal on any level. I wish you the best, but between parenthood, work, other hobbies, and covering the new and old albums I select from my collection, or from the promo mailings of the labels I've worked with for years, I just don't have the time anymore. So if your messages don't get a response, or end up straight to the spam folders, this is why.
Friday, May 25, 2018
But Queen of Time offers even more than that, with lush passages of orchestration, grand pianos, church organs, dual-sex vocal choirs, saxophone, whistles, and male strippers. Perhaps these are not all entirely novel ideas for Amorphis, certainly not among the symphonic, folk or Gothic metal throngs at large; but there are clearly moments littered throughout this album when I feel like I've entered some slightly new territory, whether it's just the sound design and production values or the fact that they're testing out some new hooks here, or drugs there, or arrangements everywhere. In truth, this is possibly the most accessible of the band's albums...a truth that could likely turn out some longtime subscribers and turn in a broader audience, but that's not to say the Finns have stepped far outside of their normal comfort zone. No, most of the embellishments here, whether you'd equate them with some other big Euro symphonic Goth metal brand or not, are actually delivered with taste and elegance, molding themselves fluidly into the band's contrasts between emotional chorus swells and the divide between stomping and ethereal verse rhythms and lyrics. So the end result is really only to ADD to that formula they've been refining for the last 20+ years, and it's appreciated.
Every single song on this album is great, from the powered-up Tuonela flexing of "The Bee", through the funereal, chugging, growling drama of "Pyres on the Coast", and on into the bonus tracks, which as usual for Amorphis are just about as good as all the content on the album proper, to the point that they really seem like they're just fucking with us by even calling them 'bonus tracks'. It's hard to even choose favorites...."Golden Edge" and "Heart of the Giant" might get a slight edge, especially when Santeri and Esa trade off those synth and axe leads in the latter. Or that intro to "We Accursed", when it briefly feels like the Kalevala meets the Wild West. The lyrics rule. Tomi Joutsen is at the top of his game throughout, capable of delivering a sincere enough guttural or rasp that you can take it seriously alongside the much airier, brighter music, or those unanimously captivating cleaner lines...these guys have their 'Beauty & the Beast' down so pat that it's almost unthinkable to imagine that there are so many bands out their who make it all sound so goofy. The drums sound fantastic, even at their calmest they thunder off across the album's horizon with determination, and along with so many of the moody if traditional chord progressions, there is just never a moment on Queen of Time in which I feel that I haven't been carried off somewhere. And not dropped, thankfully. Because that would hurt.
Now, it might not attain perfection. It might not resonate with me over the next few decades like a Tales from the Thousand Lakes or an Elegy has. I might not incorporate its singles into my own pole-dancing routine (weekends in the city). But judging by the fact I've already spun this thing ten times this past week, when I've got so many life priorities in the way, or other records to check out, I have no problem hailing this as my favorite Amorphis release since that highly formative, evolutionary era. Color me absorbed.
Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10] (when moments became eternity)
Tuesday, May 22, 2018
While Under the Red Cloud suffers very sparsely from a couple of the same issues, namely a scant handful of blander chugging patterns or a few melodies that at this point felt fully aimless and rehashed, it was easily a more interesting, varied, glorious effort which reversed any delusion of shark jumping. Rhythmically and emotionally this was a more dynamic, memorable effort which balanced off the escapist folk and prog tinged melodic death metal developed through their mid-90s escalation. Even when they're going for those steadier grooves to support the synthesizer melodies, as in the intro to "Bad Blood", it's all constructed with a more textured determination, more ear candy happening on all levels of instrumentation, and a very shift between the grows and Tomi's cleans, which are as distinct and catchy as they've ever been throughout his tenure with the band, spewing a damn fine set of lyrics. Santeri Kallio's keyboards are by far the centerpiece of this entire effort, shining everywhere with pads both atmospheric and retro, but the lead guitars definitely do their vivid best to manifest those amazing melodies from the brilliant Elegy era (my favorite).
In fact, every instrument shines throughout this, from the clean and simple but compelling bass lines to the shimmery acoustics, there is just enough going on that it feels like one of their best attempts at managing all these atmospheres under one awning of atavist lyrics. Moments of relative calm are contrasted against some of the heavier, intense, percussive builds, and the leads feel carefully and tastefully implemented against the roiling keys and vocals. Some of the individual tracks here are among the best they've released in the 21st century, like "Dark Path" and "Tree of Ages", and the two bonuses "Come the Spring" and "Winter's Sleep" were well worthy of inclusion, the former giving me flashbacks to the Tuonela/Am Universum era. In fact, Amorphis doesn't really leave any of its fanbase out in the cold with the exception of those who wrote them off after Karelian Isthmus, or possibly Tales from the Thousand Lakes...you won't find any drudging death metal here with only a faint hint of melody, but rather the inverse...a brick wall of melodies with none of the old riffing to be found anywhere...only Tomi's impassioned growls vaguely, call back to that era, and in the context they are used here, probably not even those. This has long become the norm for the Finns, and it could be a lot worse, because this is glorious stuff with only a few moments which fail to live up to those surrounding them.
Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (and I bared them my heart of hearts)
Thursday, May 17, 2018
It does not hurt that Excalibur opens with an epic synth piece in that cinematic, cheesy but reverent Tangerine Dream fashion which immediately tempers expectations towards full-on escapism. You are suddenly in a land where 'some moistened bint lobs a scimitar at you', ready to clash against foul witchery and steel-clad traitors. Now, I won't promise you that the metal content of the album lives up to this intro, but it definitely doesn't disappoint all that much in terms of power and volume. I will note that the rhythm section here is so dramatically improved over Burning Ambition...the bass lines are pumping and actually important to many of the tunes, especially when "Burnt in Ice" erupts from the synthesizer intro. The drums sound far more forceful, potent, and provide a bedrock of electric energy over which the rhythm guitars can charge alone. Granted, while the riffs themselves are more mighty than those of the debut...thicker and delivered with authority, they are still rather generic even by the standards of their day, and not often catchy or interesting unto themselves. But as a part of the 'whole package' deal of Excalibur, they are for sure functional and will get your head banging. The vocals also sound better because they are mixed at a better level against the guitars, where you can make out their pitch and strength but not some of their flaws.
Still getting a higher pitched Klaus Meine impression, but also they reminded me a lot of the Dave King performance on the Trick of Treat soundtrack by Fastway, which is a good thing because I rather enjoy much of that album. He also pulls off some really shrill screams in parts that give you the impression he could achieve a Halford-ish range if he put some work in...although his voice is not quite that unique or impressive in general. What's even better is that the songs here are fluid and consistent, mostly paced at the same fist-bumping and stadium bench-stomping speed, and dowsed in that same washed-out atmosphere which I thought was one of the strong points of the debut. But this is just such a mightier representation of Headstone that one should simply ignore Burning Ambition and head straight for this if you're able to find one of the reissues and have an interest in this scene and period of trad metal. Even the ballad here, "Well of Love", with its slightly medieval feel, is a boost over its counterpart on the debut. It's not without a few flaws and a lot of predictable riffs, and doesn't quite place with German's top tier metal acts of its day, but if you're into the archaeological quest for atmospheric obscurities that can transport you back to that nostalgia beating at the strings of your heart, or you're younger and pine for that feel you get from the 80s records and films, this one is a satisfactory swan song for an act that nobody ever seems to have been listening to.
Verdict: Win [7.75/10]