Thursday, March 26, 2015

Acid Witch - Midnight Movies EP (2015)

Midnight Movies is an interesting little 'aside' from the Midwest's morbid ganja doomsters Acid Witch, but I'm not quite sure that the 'interesting' is such a positive on this particular release. Not because I don't relish the idea of a death/doom band covering campy 80s horror movie rock tracks, but the way it is manifest here seems a little too much on the 'partying' side of the equation, fucking around where playing it much straighter would have ultimately proven the more humorous route. Hell, I was looking forward to their take on Fastway's "After Midnight", taken from the 1986 Trick or Treat soundtrack, which I happen to really enjoy (the band in general and that song), but rather than transform these tunes into something more fitting for the Acid Witch style, they play them really close to the belt, including the most minimalistic hard rock drum beats possible and guitars that feel too thin and burdened once Shagrat and Slasher Dave start emitting the growled and screamed vocals.

Granted, this is meant to be completely off the wall, and it's even being released on April 1st of all dates, but even then I just can't help thinking this was a missed opportunity to morph such straight shot rockers into some ugly, abusive, cellar shroom doom more like their Stoned album, which I found pretty damn solid. I guess if I was a younger fan and this was the first time I'd ever even heard of these songs and movies, it might feel a lot more clever, but the execution here just seems a little on the lazy side...the beats, the guitar riffs, nothing is conveyed with much more than the power of sheer sarcasm. On the one hand, we now know the band members can hit higher pitches circa a whole lot of cheesy, endearing schlock rock and half the early through mid-80s Metal Blade roster, but once you contrast that with the growling in the bounds of single tunes ("Soldiers of the Night" from Black Roses), it just feels too counterproductive to the cause. That and "After Midnight" are probably the better two songs here, since the others are fairly miserable in translation and weren't all that much fun in the first place...like the gang shouts coming in on "Partytime" over the guttural rasp.

I think the best outcome here is that people will track down the original material and enjoy it, which is more than likely what the members of Acid Witch intended all along; but beyond the fact the 12" has a pretty fun cover and will no doubt become a collector's item, I just can't recommend it. The production is alright, the instruments in the mix seem a little phoned in, and the delivery on some of the harsher vocal lines is pretty 'blah', and that's really one of the only areas in which they've tried to deviate from the originals. I don't mean to be terribly hard on it, since they're more or less just taking the piss, and I certainly share in their inspiration for those wonderful years and all the mystique that used to surround Halloween, metal music, etc when I was a pup in that decade. Hell, if you place nostalgia above all else, perhaps you'll take a lot more away from this than I did, but all it accomplished for me is wanting to hear more of Acid Witch in their native habitat. It's been about 5 years now, so I hope we won't be waiting too much longer for a new full-length of original material.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Acid-Witch/146053698843172

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Nunslaughter/Acid Witch - Spooky EP (2014)

The Spooky split assembles two of Hells Headbangers more distinct and entertaining acts into a union of what I would have assumed to be a contrast of the slower Acid Witch death/doom camp and the more blitzing death/thrash of Nunslaughter. Yet, to my shock, the choices on this EP really seem to complement one another, with the latter putting on the reins for some of their slower, chunkier, and Acid Witch revving up their engines for the closer on the B-side, which places them on an evil motorcycle pacing with the Catholic Church's favorite band. But beyond that, the material both of the band's is spewing forth here is among the best I've heard from them. Nunslaughter is on a tear, granted, their last record Angelic Dread kicking the cathedral doors down and shredding every habit in sight; but I just wasn't feeling the new Acid Witch EP covers EP much (more on that later), so it was a blast to hear that when it comes to their own material, they've certainly still got it.

The Acid Witch tracks are savage, organ-endowed paeans to darkness and damnation with a bit of that ol' tongue-in-cheek nature added in the lyrics and the stoner-Sabbath grooves that occasionally erupt in the rhythm guitars. "Evil" and "Fiends of Old" are mixed a little rough, giving them an airier garage quality, only if that garage was a co-op they were sharing with a serial killer wearing a clown mask and chainsaw in the 70s. The growls and organs in unison sound absolutely fucking amazing, and I hope a lot of this unhinged energy carries through to their next batch of original stuff. On the other hand, Nunslaughter has the tighter, cleaner production punch of the last album, so there is a little bit of disparity, the two bands don't blend so well in the mix alone. It's the style where it works, and "Spooky Tails" is just a slower, doom/thrash bit with a very simple hook and just blood-gorged vocals that reflect a lot of their Teutonic thrash and proto-death metal influences, with maybe even a little bit of a 90s Carcass thing in how the riff grooves. "A Sordid Past" is cast and carved from a similar vein, only with more gusto and triplet chugging.

It's only 12 minutes of music, but it's engaging and fun all the way throughout, nothing wearing its welcome thin and the cover art is just amazing, with that old horror vinyl cover finish and a colorful image that any creepy comic of the 60s or 70s would have been honored to bear. Except lyrics that focus heavily on Midwest death & thrash metal nostalgia, in particular "Fiends of Old" with a few shout outs to other bands. Nunslaughter have a lot of experience on splits, of course, but I believe this is a first for Acid Witch, and they pull out the tops. The songs might not always feature the catchiest riffs in existence, but both of the bands seem on top of their grisly games and constantly remind you what it is about them that you've ever found entertaining. If, in fact, you have. If NOT...well...you are one tough crowd, brothers and sister. Tough crowd.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Acid-Witch/146053698843172
http://shop-hellsheadbangers.com/nunslaughter-news.asp

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Harvest Gulgaltha - Necrosophic (2014)

Harvest Gulgaltha's 2012 cassette demo set an ungodly primitive tone for a project that was heavily focused on unearthing the roots of extremity, in particular the death metal genre, and applying them to the modern day with little more than ugly, harrowing conviction. Necrosophic is a compilation of three other, shorter recordings which remains 100% steadfast to that ideal, and if anything ups the riffing ante just slightly enough that it doesn't feel lazy or stubborn to the extent that it won't try out a new riff style here just to convey a marginal sense of variation. Not that it needs so much help there, since it fairly evenly distributes aesthetics across the death, doom and black metal genres, but the way this LP actually comes across is as a unified, consistent experience rather than a collection of disparate recordings, which so many of these sorts of demo collections ultimately fall prey to.

Necrosophic is an opaque wall of heaving, rotted flesh constructed from the most barebones tremolo riffing patterns and slower, sepulchral doom grooves conjoined with a hideous guttural vocal that retains a lot of torture and sustain as it echoes across the crushing primacy of the songwriting. There are occasionally blasting rhythms or dissonant, airier rhythm guitars representative of a slower style of black metal, and taken as a whole it recalls a lot of 80s genre godfathers ranging from Death and Celtic Frost to Cianide or Nihilist/Entombed, but rarely favoring any of those schools above the other, instead presenting itself as this bludgeoning blank slate to which almost any idea might be applied. The cuts never overstay their welcome, even when consisting of a handful of simplistic riffs they rarely transgress a 4-minute boundary, and there's enough compulsion and variety to those tunes that you feel appropriately absorbed; as with "Of Power in Suspension" which opens with ritualistic, softer drums and dark ambient textures for about half its length but then strikes you in the face with a shovel, knocking you into the nearest open grave and then smothering you with those roiling, dirty guitars until you're nothing more than asphyxiated worm-food.

Riffs are not terribly memorable on an individual basis, their efficacy is in just how uncomfortable and churning and bleak of an atmosphere they create, generally the most formidable when they are played at a crawl like in "Zenith of Formless Chaos" or the longest tune "Liberation of Corporeal Flesh". The guitars and vocals create such an ominous low end that the bass really doesn't come through often for me, but we're not talking Craig Pillard/Incantation style on the latter, more of a ruptured stomach lining growl with plenty of scrutable suffering. Drums seem a little lower mixed, but effectively murky, and the louder splashes of the cymbals are paired up perfectly with the more measured, Cyclopean grooves. I don't know that I can judge this material higher or lower than what I experienced on the demo. Necrosophic is slightly more fulfilling due to the number of tracks, but it presents that same level of darkness and density which complements the necromantic, simple image of the human skull on the cover. Filth purists, who fondly recount an era in which these genres were so often interwoven without a second thought will enjoy its honesty, in particular the death/doom crowd.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Moonspell - Extinct (2015)

Portugal's premiere metallic export seems to cycle through as many phases as their name would imply. The emphasis earlier this century was on returning to their harsher hitting, blacker roots, wrought in simpler, crushing riffs and vocals that took the primal essence of their first few albums into the meatpacking facility of contemporary production. Now, it seems as if they've wandered off that track yet again, changing with the tides, and are attempting to fully embrace the swooning Gothic metal that garnered them some international success and touring opportunities via Irreligious, Sin/Pecado and the more subtle, introspective Butterfly Effect. That's not such a bad thing in my eyes, since I enjoyed two of those discs quite a lot, and found Fernando Ribeiro's deep intonations an exotic Euro-alternative to Peter Steele's bass-baritone, far more versed in Anne Rice fiction and goofy vampiric sentimentality than his depressive American counterpart. You might think I mean that as some sort of insult, but I assure you, far from the case, it is one of the endearing qualities about Moonspell that insures I check out just about everything they release, and as with their prior double album Alpha Noir/Omega White, I'm generally not all that disappointed. They haven't been churning out masterworks this past decade, but the records are usually good enough that I'll keep them in rotation for a few months until a heap of better has come along...

So Extinct goes big with its flaring, accessible Gothic anthems that seem as much as ever like iron clad paeans to the sounds of bands like The Mission, Love Like Blood, Fields of the Nephilim and Sisters of Mercy and their ilk, no doubt inspirations upon these guys for many years running. To and extent, this rock fueled, post-Billy Idol momentum is reflective of the scene that exploded out of Finland 10-15 years ago by bands like H.I.M. and Charon, but rather than writing some of the most watered down, corny mascara-man-metal, there has always been a more philosophical bent, a poetic license taking with Moonspell's musings that places them somewhere closer to the source of those 'dark' feelings which made such an impact on the psyche of an entirely subcultural generation back in the 80s and earlier 90s. This isn't your femme fatale garden variety supernatural Romance shit, it's the World of fuckin' Darkness. Vampire the Fucking Masquerade, siphoned off into ballsy if obvious huge chord patterns that the Portuguese thankfully accent with tasteful melodic licks, total 80s Goth synthesizer lines which feel bright as streetlights as you're walking 13 city blocks to the closest trash dive bar that will play you Depeche Mode and David Bowie non-stop to the break of dawn. Not as gloomy, poignant and powerful perhaps as their stylistic neighbors Tiamat have become in their middle age. At least half a dozen times listening through this I caught nostalgia for rummaging through the bins for overpriced Cleopatra Records CDs back in my beloved early 20s.

The songs are not "Ruin & Misery" or "Opium"-level catchy, but they really strive for that on "Funeral Bloom" or "The Last of Us", some of my faves here. It's also not an all-out bust for those who want more metal with their Moonspell, because the title track is loaded with hooky floes of semi-black chords and more clinical, punchy licks alongside some of Fernando's more abusive and frankly hilarious demi-growls. The opener "Breathe (Until We Are No More)" also hits pretty hard, and the absurdly titled "Medusalem" has a little Middle Eastern vibe in the melodies it embeds into the chugging mid-paced leather and nail polish. As simple as a lot of the tracks feel, they're always just a layer or two beyond being dumbed down, and the superb production of the bass lines and drumming lends a credible punch to the gut to even those who find the sissy-isms of this style an alien tongue entirely. A handful of tunes like "The Future is Dark" obfuscate the metal elements completely, but still provide grooving, archaic, synth-syrup hooks that match pretty well with those deep vocals; and the album is backloaded with interesting departures like the mellower "Doomina" or the song in French, "La Baphomette", which at least worth a few genuine chuckles, which I'm sure is working just as intended. Love bites in general, but Moonspell does it on the neck.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

https://www.facebook.com/moonspellband

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Enslaved - In Times (2015)

As opposed to several of its 21st century forebears, In Times is not the sort of record which steps out to take a lot of risks, nor does it add a broad palette of new sound and style to the Enslaved canon. Instead this album feels like a smoothing over of the cobblestones with which they've paved their recent past; calm and stormy waters lapping over the creative shores, remaining at low tide lest they overtake the beachfront property. The long ships, once wedged as far and wide up the coast now own berths on the local docks, the harbor master gets a smile and a handshake instead of an axe in his skull, the women and innkeepers of the local villages don't feel quite so threatened, and there are few if any fiery funerals flowing back out to sea, most now proxied by lanterns and candles, bobbing on the esoteric prog vibes centric to the Norwegian's sound. Berserkers reformed, Ivar, Grutle, Arve, Cato and Herbrand can now just get down to what they do best: writing some tremendous fucking music.

If that description raises some red flags that the band has 'mellowed out', in any way, do forgive me, because that's not exactly what has taken place. More of a refinement. Cutting and piercing tremolo picked black metal passages still abound, particularly in the opening bursts of "Thurisaz Dreaming", but there is an unbroken chain of melody, overt and implied, coursing through the record's most feral ideas, and not an unwelcome one, fusing together motifs from both their earliest recordings like Frost and their more recent masterworks Below the Lights and Vertebrae, into a reflective, consistent air of melancholy that creates one of their most consistent experiences to date. The jazzier progressions of chords they began tooling with in that era are now seamlessly integrated into the biting winds, now distributed fairly evenly across both the faster and slower moments, nothing more than the natural lexicon from which they twist out each phrase and passage. Structurally, where numerous tempos and aesthetics are still present in the writing, In Times doesn't possess quite that titanic level of tectonic variation that records like Axioma Ethica Odini and RIITIIR thrived off. Individual pieces on those discs still serve as solitary epics in my listening habits, which is no mean feat in of itself, but from bow to stern, I felt that this was more fully coherent.

Grutle Kjellson's harsh intonations and Herbrand Larsen's cleans continue to present a dichotomy within the material that, as the band becomes even better versed and fluid in production standards, seems to become an even sorer thumb for some listeners. I think the reason is that the latter's singing voice has grown so much over the last decade that the rasps, by comparison, seem a little too crude, monotonous and jarring in comparison. Not a point of contention for me, since I'm just so accustomed to how this works, but when the guy sings in 2015, its the perfect marriage of humility and contemplation, melody carried through honesty, a pair of vocalists well aware of their limitations and working their best within the bounds. The mid-ranged, soothing and airy harmonies placed throughout this record, as in the bridge of "Thurisaz Dreaming" or the depths of "One Thousand Years of Rain" are so effective that counterbalancing them with the harsher tones does often come off a bit like trolling a good thing, but won't come as any surprise to those who have been following them for the last 20 years. Enslaved is just not a band I expect to fully depart from what made it in the first place, no matter how deep they dig into unfamiliar musical terrain.

Of course, as far as they've come, in both the vocals and the smooth, interesting bass lines that always lend appropriate mood and gravity to the more complex guitars, it is those rhythm guitars themselves which prove the most captivating component. Lush floes of chords collide with some nastier, progressive blackened thrash licks, but at the same time interspersed with these immediate, evil sounding melodies that Ivar and Arve will unexpectedly break out, as in the later half of the "Nauthir Bleeding" bridge, which instantly refresh the attention span when one catches him or herself off dreaming to the chord patterns they generally affix to Cato's blasting and double bass patterns. There is just not a song here which lacks some hypnotic ascendancy beyond its surface value, whether that's the sparser, swaying punctuation of bass line to the punctuated guitars in the vocal harmonies of "In Times" itself, or the Darkthrone-like black tremolo picked groove in "Building With Fire", at which point you can just mentally picture Nocturno Culto's voice barking out, before the coitus interruptus of shining keys and cleaner guitars. The lyrics are triumphant, poetic and uplifting without swimming too far into the shallower waters.
There must be some sort of statute Enslaved has broken, having produced so much quality music by this time. But for the sake of my ears, I hope they continue to dodge the law of averages and career nadirs, and to just be themselves. They've a sound I can instantly distinguish from the hordes of other neo-black metal veterans still breathing, even though it overlaps with a lot of their Nordic neighbors who have simultaneously continued to mutate and renew from their own points of origin. The ideas and musical ability really speaks for itself, this is not a band thriving off some controversial legacy or outspoken contemporary press-whoring, but a group of consummate musicians who did everything THE RIGHT WAY. In Times might not prove to be their crowning achievement, it might not bring as much nuance to the table as a few of their other recordings, but it certainly holds office at court, and even a half dozen listens in, the more I experience this record, the more I am absorbed. The older I get, the rarer that has become, so color me proud to be aging alongside this amazing, intrinsic band.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (there is no end)

http://www.enslaved.no/

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Trinacria - Travel Now Journey Infinitely (2008)

Whether you view Travel Now Journey Infinitely as an entirely new prospect with a (now uncertain) future, or just a repository for the more unhinged ideas of its Enslaved members, Trinacria is one of those curious one-offs that I frankly don't hear enough of coming from one of my favorite metal scenes. Part of that is because a lot of its longstanding forerunners (Ulver, Arcturus, Dodhseimsgard, even Burzum) are themselves extremely bizarre and show no signs of wearing down; unapologetic in smudging their roots with all manner of bewildering, risky ideas. But there's not really another act of the litter, to my knowledge, that sounds quite like this strange collaboration between Ivar, Grutle, Ice Dale and a number of other Norwegian musicians hailing from lesser known acts. Travel Now Journey Infinitely might lack for the superior songwriting of its progenitors, but this is certainly an album, given enough space for the listener's immersion, which I've found myself occasionally returning to through the years, if for little more than just to see if I can fill in any more pieces in the puzzle of its very existence.

The album is usually described as 'black metal', and to an extent you'll have that in the raspier vocal presence and the fuzzier riffs redolent of post-imprisonment Burzum and others who use dissonant, earthen tones to flay bare the roots of that subgenre. But there's also a heavy whiff of the rugged blackened thrash which fed itself into that medium to begin with, coupled with loads of feedback, noises both acoustic and electronic, and a more tribal, steady style of drumming which is felt most in the more repetitive, pensive cuts like opener "Turn-Away" where the guy is pounding away a steady rock beat and loads of drum-circle like toms beneath a droning, minimalistic guitar line and all manner of creepy whispers and glitchy noises which persist even through some of the deepest of Grutle's torn barks that I've encountered. Granted, this is one of the loosest 'structured' tunes when it comes to the variety of riffing...others like "The Silence" and "Make No Mistake" are more bloodthirsty beatings, but I'd almost say that the six cuts of the record are pretty evenly divided between the more familiar, to reel in the metal crowd which followed Enslaved up to that point, and the experimental, which is usually manifest in longer, more mellow and atmospheric compositions.

Examples of the latter include "Breach", another droning, tense piece smothered in thundering and tribal percussion, prog-punk or dissonant DC-hardcore style guitars that work exceedingly well with Grutle's growls and all the echoed, manic whispers and scummy electronic whirrs that permeate the record's strange sort of postmodern darkness. Or "Endless Roads" with its cleaner, muted guitars and distant noises which inevitably transform into these lush guitar passages over which the vocals are almost like a hypnotic spoken word style. Though there is a female vocalist here, her voice itself is really saved up for the titular finale, a more grandiose epic in which she hovers around Grutle like some angelic, ethereal shadow; for the rest of the record she is contributing other scratchy screeches, noises, keys and effects. But that one song is just so mesmerizing, as it shifts between paradigms of soothing seriousness and batshit spasms redolent of earlier portions of the album. Possibly the one tune here that might have been 'worthy' of an actual Enslaved record in the past decade, had they chosen to include it there.

Trinacria is indeed pretty compelling, not so much as the main band, yet enough that I kind of hoped they wouldn't give this project up entirely. As far as I can tell its fate is currently a coin toss, but I just find the music intriguing and unpredictable enough that I would love to follow its course straight into the unknown, and could easily see them reigning alongside avant-garde Norse champs like Virus and Ulver. The production is excellent; every little detatched sound rich enough without drowning the guitars or drums. Grutle is in fine form, in fact I'd make an unpopular argument that his harsh vocals here are the equal or better of any particular Enslaved album, even though the riffs and the song construction itself seems more free-form and lacks the same balance of style and impact you will find in the more proggy records these guys are up to. I've just developed such a level of admiration and trust for these musicians that I feel like they cannot fail me, in any capacity; I will likely never tire of what they vomit out my speakers, and this is further evidence.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (nourished through new blood)

https://www.facebook.com/trinacriamusic

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Blacksoul Seraphim - Hymns for the Vanquished (2015)

At the risk of sacrificing some consistency, Blacksoul Seraphim's sophomore Hymns for the Vanquished expands upon the latent versatility that it's predecessor hinted at several times, thus having evolved the duo's overall aesthetic to one that is more adventurous and even less predictable than it was before. A strong Gothic/doom metal backbone perseveres, providing many of the stronger tunes throughout the hour of material, so those who explored and enjoyed the debut won't necessarily be too put out; but the band also sends further black metal feelers along a path towards the members' other band, Sorrowseed; to the extent that style seems to occasionally take command of the proceedings, albeit imbued with pianos and other graceful melodic components that keep it well beyond the bounds of the the necro black metal medium.

An apt comparison might be that it hybridizes the more melancholic, classically inspired doom of bands like Isole, Yearning and Draconian with the 90s Gothic/black of groups like Siebenburgen or Hecate Enthroned, only with the caveat that some of the rhythm guitar chords during the faster sequences have a flowing, shining texture to them which reminds me of a lot of Norse stuff circa the mid-90s (The Olden Domain, etc). These are constructed to convey a sense of warmth rather than dissonant strings of icy, evil tremolo picking, as in the first cut "Exalted Genocide" which is probably the most abrupt and blatant example of this departure, to the point that one might even be wondering if this were still the same band beyond Joshua Carrig's clean, crooning vocals. However, once the spacious, sweeping grandeur of slow-goers like "The Sightless Hero" and "Barren Martyr" arrive, we start to experience a closer semblance to Alms & Avarice, with a slightly more studied, contemporary focus on solitary guitar melodies that are tasteful, never abused to the point that they seem forced or tacky.

In fact, the structure of the individual tracks and the album as a whole does seem mildly more varied and progressive than the debut. Vocally, the contrast between Carrig's sustained intonations and drummer Rick Lowell's fulsome rasp works where it appears, though there remains an emphasis on the former style, which is only natural since it feels more attuned to the somber attitude expressed by the riffing. Occasionally the volume seemed a fraction high on the vocals, not enough to obscure the riff textures, but enough that they lost a little weight beneath. The drums are bloody impressive, for where a lot of European bands in this style exhibit a minimalist approach to the languid beats they feel the laconic rhythms require, Hymns for the Vanquished is anything but lazy. Lowell embellishes even the barest of riffing passages with forceful fills ("The Vessel", "Infernal Harrowing", etc) and takes nothing on his kit for granted, which really lends to that sense of measured risk the band seems to embark on with the recording. Bass lines are solid, felt beneath, but this is still an area in which Blacksoul could stretch itself for a better, busier balance against the pianos and rhythm guitars. The acoustic guitars, pianos and viola are tasteful, whether used as accompaniment to the harsher elements of their sound or striking off on their own in the sweltering climb of instrumental "Eleemoosynary".

Did I like the disc quite as much as its predecessor? That's a very good question, and at its most invested and engrossing, I would say this slightly edges out Alms & Avarice. But I also felt like this had a more piecemeal vibe to it where individual songs were slightly more disparate in relation to one another, unified only by the final production sessions. The first album just felt like this giant, stone slab of Gothic/doom metal, whereas the few flirtations here beyond that space marginally detract (but not distract) from that stolid sense of purpose. Ultimately, while they are very close in quality, this one fell just a hair's breadth short. Yet the lyrics are still very well written, Milton-esque, often amazing. The production is for the most part clear and potent, and there are plenty of moments of both savagery and grace to have kept me coming back. Simply put, there are few if any other bands in this area (hell, this country) writing anything quite like this, so if you pine for those very 90s or early 00s where bands thrived on the margins between these particular stylistic constraints, Hymns for the Vanquished is worth checking out.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (our liberty became our torment)

http://www.mortemcadaver.com/blacksoulseraphim.shtml

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Darkthrone - Black Death and Beyond (2014)

My initial reaction upon seeing another of these Darkthrone compilations was not a positive one. Beyond Preparing for War and the Frostland Tapes, they seem to have become an increasingly useless proposition to free the band's audience from some of their hard earned scratch, culminating with the inane and worthless Introducing Darkthrone, which as we all know sits gathering dust at the local record shop alongside Introducing Ricky Martin and the much sought after Introducing The Monkees. However, despite the level of bile rising in my throat every time one of my favorite bands is either served some rehashed anthology dreck, I am forced to swallow a glass of water with Black Death and Beyond because there are actually some touches of personal involvement with this LP set that might just make it worthwhile, at least for a collector, not necessarily for anyone who is first coming into their music; those individuals should immediately proceed to experiencing their full-length albums regardless of the media upon which they are printed.

No, there is nothing new musically on the recording, which still reduces its overall value enormously and bars it from becoming a mandatory acquisition, but how they've exactly ORGANIZED the tunes here is at least interesting. The 'Black', 'Death' and 'Beyond' in the title actually correspond to how they've arranged the chronological material, with one vinyl devoted to the earlier death metal years, another to the middle phase, exclusively raw black metal, and the 'Beyond' represents their later deviations towards punk, speed metal and ultimately heavy metal. It's a neat gimmick with which to parse out the band's stylistic mutations, and give the listener a little more uninterrupted immersion as if he/she were listening to a Darkthrone album of a particular niche. Past that, you can also tell by the song selection that Fenriz was actually more involved in the selection, since this is not just some 'best of...' arrangement with the band's 'better known' material, but a mix of the more popular ragers and the obscure. As invested as I am in the majority of their discography, which features very few tunes that I do NOT adore, it's still quite affirming to find that the creators themselves hold tracks like "The Wind They Called the Dungeon Shaker", "Graveyard Slut" and "The Ones You Left Behind" in such regard. That's not to say it's an 'ultimate collection', because that would require the band just releasing a 16-LP box set which I would possibly sell a few organs on the black market to acquire. But there's a bit more qualification here than just 'throw a bunch of random songs together'.

Even better than that, the set comes with an excellent, lavish book loaded with photos, biographical info, interviews of the band and others, and this is something that should sell like hotcakes even if separated from the boxed set (no idea if it will be). I can't attest to the book alone covering the value of the entire purchase, but this is something deserved and that I'm sure a lot of us were waiting for. Fenriz and Culto are nothing if not constantly entertaining personalities, and there are even some words with the old bassist Dag Nilsen in there. Yet another component which keeps this release hovering over the edge of the fire, though I fear with only about 3000 copies in circulation, not enough of the audience will be able to get their hands on it (maybe a separate physical release or a .pdf floating around could fix that). Of course that assumes more than 3000 people actually desire to read such a thing, but if not then the state of the world is far sadder than we thought. In the end, an additional disc with a bunch of unreleased or exclusive material would have padded out the deal and made this far more mandatory, but the addition of the book, and the minimum of effort arranging the musical content protect this from the typical artillery shelling such compilations deserve. Is it still a Peaceville profiteering sham? To an extent, and $70-80 US is steep for a bunch of music you likely already own, but the track selection flows well through the discs, and there is at least a qualifying 'cool factor' to compensate. But buy it for the book, or not at all.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

http://www.peaceville.com/darkthrone/theundergroundresistance/

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Trial - Vessel (2015)

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Trial - The Primordial Temple (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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