Thursday, January 22, 2015

Breathless - Return to Pangea (2015)

Notice anything different? Return to Pangea is an album which is far more likely to be taken seriously, void of any overt 'thrash-this' 'thrash-that' nonsense and potentially even teasing us with a genuinely interesting concept. Now, I doubt the sophomore album by Breathless could possibly be something as enthralling as a tale about Earth's landmasses being crushed together once more, but I'm very willing to be proven wrong, and for at least part of this album they're rattling their sabers about just such a apocalyptic scenario. More importantly, Return to Pangea is an improvement over its predecessor in nearly every discernible category, with a richer and more focused selection of riffs that channel some of that potent Teutonic influence circa Destruction into some genuine, melodic thrash which at times feels a lot like modern Artillery, albeit less wildly proficient and possessing distinctly different vocals.

The power of the guitars alone is enough to thrust this past the debut in terms of quality, where they had seemed a little too punchy and processed on Thrashumancy, they're really cleaned up here and there is a better mix of the rhythms and occasional lead flights. The structure of the riffs carries a slightly less surgical feel to it, and more of a bright, 'feel good' style with lots of bluesy little tails and fills in between the Stützer Brothers-like finesse. There is no shortage of variation here, the songs are each stuffed with a good number of progressions, and while they're not always so memorable, they at least rock consistently and the choices feel pretty sound. This is not going to live up to the technical European thrash masterpieces of the later 80s, not by any stretch, but the amount of effort these Spaniards have put into this is at least vastly superior to most of their pizza thrash peers who are more or less cloning the crossover and denim & leather thrash of years past without the level of charm and songwriting needed to pull it, I'd put this more in a class with modern bands like After All and Vektor who really took the spirit of the old school and plugged it into contemporary recording standards which don't sound entirely too derivative to even bother about.

Props to the level of production they added to Eduardo Moreno's vocals, taking that blunt and ugly charisma he exhibited on the debut and then throwing in reverbs and echos here or there which highly his higher pitched screams, reminiscent of Schmier...maybe Schmier's deformed cousin who'd clout you over the head, stuff you in the trash can out back of the high school cafeteria and then go and spend your lunch money on dope. Something like this never happened to me, I promise. The drums and bass sound more flavorful and peppy because they've got something to actually celebrate here, a few riffing progressions that are worth a damn surrounded by others that are at least on the winning side of average. The leads aren't exactly substantial, but they're far better than they were on the first album and actually imbue a little fire and emotion into the tracks. It's not perfect, and there is plenty of room to grow yet, but Return to Pangea is basically exactly how you want to re-assess your band's trajectory and come out the better for it. The cover art may seem a little too death metal and chaotic for the music itself (reminded me of Danes Invocator), but really if you're into bands like Headhunter, Destruction, and Artillery in their 21st century forms, or Greek acts like Suicidal Angels and Angelus Apatrida, then this is worth your time.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Breathless - Thrashumancy (2011)

Another record that seeks to enamor itself to a particular audience before a single note is heard, Thrashumancy instantly claims our attention with its vivid artwork and inane portmanteau title...but perhaps not so inane if your past decade consisted of the lauding over pizza thrash, or 're-thrash' acts who fit their vintage hi-tops, tear their jeans and have moms who can sew a whole lotta patches. Because, let's face it, it isn't a real battle jacket if your mom doesn't help you sew it. Well, fortunate for us, Breathless play 'real' thrash metal, of the garden variety, of course, without much ambition behind it or nuance or that pesky concept of songs that the listener is going to remember afterwards, which to me is rather missing the point...we didn't love thrash metal in the 80s because of it's 'look' or it's 'style' alone, we listened to it because of the bloody songs that stick on the brain 30 years later...not just a lifestyle or a style of clothes we wore to party with a few beers.

To be fair, I'm sure Breathless 'means something' with a lot of the messages besides their songs, and I'm not ready to write it off as just some senseless party thrash entirely. But it just doesn't help that they all feel as if they were drawn from a lottery of their influences. On the musical side of things, they've write in a mold that straddles the border between mid-paced, West Coast American headbanging variety ala Exodus, Forbidden, and Vio-Lence, and the much closer to home German scene, in particular Destruction, whose clinical picking progressions from both the 80s and later Antichrist era seem to provide a major influence to more than half the cuts here, and generally the better individual riffs, because a lot of the slower neck-break parts seem really forgettable and they just don't possess that innate meanness of something off Pleasures of the Flesh or Reign in Blood or Eternal Nightmare, something timeless and violent and raw. Riff construction definitely falls in a space between the more serious, regimental thrash of the longhairs and then the crossover crowd of the 80s, I heard little nods to bands like Crumbsuckers in their prime but these Spaniards go more for the palm mutes than the open chord barrage of most bands in that early NY wave.

The vocals have character, burly and messy and prone to lean into outrageous snarls and sound pretty goofy somewhere between Ron Royce (Coroner), Schmier (Destruction) and Roger Martinez of Vengeance Rising, but I never felt like they were used to full effect, getting more hectic on the verses than the choruses, where they really might have been refined into a sticking point. Bass lines are good and thick, a good fit for the rhythm guitars, which I thought had a punchy but regrettable tone that might have worked better with a lot more edge to them. The drumming is fine but doesn't really catch my ear, especially without high quality riffs that keep me focused. A lot of the album is spent by the veteran thrasher playing 'guess where I've heard that before', and there overt nods, whether conscious or unconscious to anything from Xentrix to The Antichrist to Coroner's No More Color. Lead guitars seem few and far between, rather noncommittal where dissonant frenzies might have been better suited to the more surgical guitar phrases that represent the best on the disc, but even that I could forgive if the songs were good...

And that's simply not the case here. 'Shockingly average' would be a better descriptor. The album is by no means as lamentable as its title had me dreading, and I didn't feel like I had just had a couple of slices of extra cheese and pepperonis smeared across my cheeks, but it's another pretty picture among a sea of them that have been released over the last 5-10 years by bands trying to tap into that nostalgia. The Spaniards don't draw directly from any one source on the whole (just in certain parts), but that would not be a bad thing either if they were so damn good at it that they could properly resurrect nostalgia or even contend with their very inspirations. As it stands, just another walk in the nuclear theme park, potentially impressive to supplicants who were just getting into the music in the 21st century and have exposed themselves only a small amount of the niche, but for experienced thrashers this just isn't going to plug anywhere into the collection that isn't already occupied by some release that is light years ahead of this, and was so even decades back...

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ingested - The Architect of Extinction (2015)

Right from the opening chugs of "The Divine Right of Kings", it becomes very clear that Ingested are in no danger of abandoning that meaty, precision slam pacing which made a treat of their 2009 debut Surpassing the Boundaries of Human Suffering. A few new tricks were learned along the way, in particular the frenetic breaks into blasting brutal 90s death metal terrain, which are implemented here effortlessly with a mechanistic forcefulness. But this album truly serves as the 'growth' which I might have expected six years ago, and ended up getting The Surreption instead; which, to be fair, also had some obvious stylistic similarities to this, but seemed a slight bit convoluted with the gang shouts and a consistent lack of the compelling riff progressions which had put the debut on my radar.

Well, The Architect of Extinction has plenty of them, whether the band is firing ahead into a burst of tremolo picked artillery or laying out the slower, but slightly more complex grooves than one would have found on the debut album. There's quite a lot happening on this record which we've all heard before, especially the palm mutes that dwell on the bottom 5-6 frets of the guitar, but what makes the material stand out to me is just that clean, punchy production of the rhythm tracks, and the fact that they do end up, despite themselves, stumbling onto a few interesting patterns which don't seem to strictly rely on rehashing the blueprints of the past, even when they do. I'm not often forgiving of bands that use the mosh/slam subcultural motivation in a lot of their writing, but this UK quintet just has some strange ability to make it feel fresh to me once more. By 2015 standards there is nothing even hinging on innovation or nuance, but had this dropped in like 1994-1996 people would have gone absolutely ballistic and they'd belong to some unspoken hall of brutal fame alongside obvious idols like Suffocation, Cannibal Corpse and Cryptopsy.

By no means am I intimating that The Architect of Extinction is going to sit well with the detractor of the modern brutal or tech or deathcore aesthetics. The chugged pit rhythms and tremolo pickings are so robotic that it feels like the humans playing them plugged into some shared thought stream, and the riffs rarely border on the 'classics' of the late 80s and 90s which inspired the generations of bands who kept it all alive. There is nothing 'old school' here by comparison to lot of the death metal that is trending, but clearly the band has done some of its homework in taking the care to balance out their material with just the right degree of variation. Tunes like "Endless Despondency" and "I, Despoiler" even weave in a little of the atmospheric, slower miasma which bands like Pestilence and Morbid Angel mastered in their heydays. The gutturals hover just about the toilet-bowl level, but feel efficaciously brutal and entertaining, especially when they hit a little sustain or reverb.

It is greatness? Nah, not quite yet, but I'd listen to this any day over most of the output from bands like Job for a Cowboy or Whitechapel who have left a larger footprint within the medium. I do feel like the leads could be explored more, they thrive where they do exist and aren't just frivilous fret runs, rather used to add a little more contrast and balance. That said, there's enough concussive conviction to The Architect that brutal death fans who don't shun a couple haircuts and a clean studio mix might get something out of it, and many who enjoyed Surpassing the Boundaries of Human Suffering should find this the proper evolution from that point, hinted at through the 2013 EP, but fully formed and hungry here.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ingested - Revered by No One, Feared by All EP (2013)

Ingested could have just as easily taken what they did with The Surreption and made the sound even further 'core-based, possibly to a broader level of success since I know there's a fairly prominent scene in the UK for that stuff, and yet...the Revered by No One, Feared by All EP seems like a reverse directional back towards the persistent brutality of their debut album, and probably even a little further. Sure, there are some pretty banal slam/groove sequences on this recording, but the proficiency and excitement levels on the purely death metal frenzies littered throughout these four cuts are infectious, and it really feels like the proper successor to the 2009 album and like The Surreption was a mildly deviant distraction.

This is meaty, chugging insanity which seamlessly shifts between its grooves, heavily laden with big double bass jackhammer force; and these instant flights of blasted death metal with more clinically constructed tremolo note patterns which are, if still not quite unique, at least a lot more effective than similar progressions on the sophomore disc. Though the production on the rhythm guitar still has that clean, crunchy, visceral effect, this album somehow seems darker and deeper and there were places in which the churning brought back memories of a lot of treasured, influential death metal of the late 80s and early 90s (Pestilence and Suffocation both represented, among others). The vocals are still the standard array of snarls and growls, but they feel far more bloodthirsty and they make you want to flip your shit and introduce all those people mocking you behind your back to your butcher knife. Or something psychotic in that ballpark, at least, which is really how I want an album upon which a large heap of naked impaled corpses to sound...I don't know about you, but I'm...just...sayin'.

All four songs are pretty evenly balanced when it comes to punishment, with the first "Titanomachy" likely my favorite, but it all holds up, and at around 15 minutes there's not much possibility to get bored. Some will likely brand this as deathcore due to the structure of the breakdowns, the vocal variation and general image of the band, but I think once we've started to go too far down that road we'll have to retroactively brand a lot of the shit that came out in the 90s and 00s since the dynamics and riff composition is almost exactly the same. In the end, even if it's not perfect, I thought this was really a solid bounce back from the slumping Surreption and the guys should be proud that they managed to lay on the suffering to a degree many fans of Surpassing would find admirable.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ingested - The Surreption (2011)

Manchester, England's Ingested released a rare anomaly back in 2009, a slammier death metal album that I actually derived a little enjoyment from, due to its rock solid production and crude but effective songwriting mechanics that carved out some memorable guitar grooves and a street-like brutality which definitely left me with an impression with the death metal medium much like what a lot of old NYHC did back in the 80s. Not to say that it was any sort of mandatory acquisition or necessarily flirting with greatness, but I had a fun time listening through it until inevitably buried with a lot of other sorts of death metal that I liked more. When the lineup's sophomore The Surreption was issued, I think I listened to it once and passed; but as a prelude to critique their latest 2015 album I've decided to go back and tackle the material once more, to see what I might have been missing...

As it turns out, not so much. One area in which this differed from the debut was that the 'hardcore' elements, the cleaner gang shout vocals used in tunes like "Crowning the Abomination", took on a more prominent role, but never to the music's benefit. The Surreption has more of an asphalt street mentality that its predecessor, and that manifests not only through this element but the structure of several breakdowns and also the sort of strange division in the song titles and lyrics, which seem pretty evenly distributed between brutal death tropes ("Manifesting Obscenity", "Crowning the Abomination") and stuff which seems more straight up hardcore... ("Decline", "The Consequence", "Kingmaker", etc). Whether or not this was a conscious decision or the band just didn't deign to concern itself with how its aesthetics were discerned at large, it's definitely a little strange and I did feel like this record felt more like a mild identity crisis than countrymen like Dyscarnate who might cultivate a cleaner appearance than the standard cemetery hesher, but are for the most part playing exclusively within the Floridian death metal wheelhouse of inspiration.

There are still a number of moments framed within this album that give me exactly the same sort of fist-balling, pummeling thrill as I found on Surpassing the Boundaries of Human Suffering, and yet as a whole this album felt largely inconsistent, with any decent tune separated from its qualitative peers. A lot of the faster, tremolo picked riffing patterns are lifted directly from your usual sources like a Cannibal Corpse or Suffocation, and even when they get something going they often throw in those gang shouts which completely took me out of the carnage. Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to that sort of vocal approach in a lot of classic hardcore, even some thrash metal songs, possibly even outside the normal sphere of where it belongs, but I just didn't feel like in these particular tracks, the tactic was really adding as much of an eclectic departure as Ingested might have hoped. A few other distractions like the predictable squealing breaks ("The Digusting Revelation") often felt like they were just sort of incorporating the death metal playbook rather than improving on it or writing their own combinations. And many of the rhythm guitars just feel like the first thing someone lacking inspiration would mete out when first lifting an instrument...

Production is still crystal clear here, with an appreciable processed crunch to the guitars and a lot of volume to the vocals. Some of the drums sound fairly mechanized due to the mix, especially the tom tones, but this is par for the course when we're talking about most modern death metal so I don't think that would detract from younger listeners or fresher ears who aren't overburdened with nostalgia for 'the way it used to be' to the point that they'd challenge the decent level of skill and energy here in the performance. All told, though, The Surreption never hits that almost hypnotic, battering stride that the debut did on 4-5 of the tracks of its run time. I won't argue that there is more variation to this, but that variation does not translate into quality and the few bits where they adhere to what made the prior disc a solid, forceful experience are mundane by comparison. Lyrics are also pretty obvious and bland in most cases, fiery but vague and cliche.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10] (my time is almost near)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Defaced - Forging the Sanctuary (2015)

With an acquisition by Rising Nemesis Records out of Germany, Switzerland's Defaced have managed to carve out a stronger showing from themselves through their sophomore Forging the Sanctuary. Stylistically, it would be a stretch to call this a departure from the very average stockpile of inspiration its predecessor On the Frontline was supplied from, but they've fleshed out their individual riffing components enough that I had a better time in listening, and they overall come across as being a little more bloodthirsty, brutal, vicious, and capable of leaving an impact wherever they launch their artillery shells. We're not talking top flight death metal here which is likely to gather a lot of momentum in the heavily saturated scene in Europe where retro-death seems to reign supreme, but it's an improvement, and that's the first step towards anything...

Still a lot of standard blasting mechanics here, with an interchange between growls and higher scraping rasps circa the legends of Carcass, albeit with nowhere near as much carnal character (not even as much as Deicide, who would spit them out in conjunction to create their signature sound). One new thing I noticed was that in a tune like "Sower of Discord" or "Antithesis", they've incorporated a slight black metal approach with some of the dissonance chords they affix to the blasting segments, and these even extend further into some of the airier, atmospheric sequences (as in the same track). Note for note, I felt that there was just a lot more variety to what the band from the weirder pauses in the action that they include in "Rapture Through Bondage" and "Forging the Sanctuary" itself. The leads are far better designed than On the Frontline, to the point that some of them are even compelling, and the other melodic touches offer a little balance to the robust butchery they tend towards.

The death/thrash breakdowns are more explosive and exciting, and though the production of the guitars isn't much different than the first album, it just feels more incendiary and razor-sharp, capable of bleeding more from the listener's attention span. I also have to give props for the Dan Seagrave cover artwork, a good choice and a striking image that is one of the better he has created in years, with that elongated papal figure on its throne of gold and wretchedness. Granted, like so many death metal albums, the image is evocative and exotic and then the music is far less inventive or capable of manifesting aural escapism with the audience, but then Defaced doesn't really have the convenience of doing 'a new thing' like a lot of the bands were doing in the late 80s or 90s. As it stands, though, Forging the Sanctuary is superior to its predecessor in categories, and marks a young band making its far is anyone's guess, but if they can continue to extricate more interesting melodies or atmospheric breaks from the banal punishment of their roots, they'll be on to something.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Defaced - On the Frontline (2012)

The Swiss death metal scene arguably peaked with its most antiquated acts, some of whom were not exclusively death metal and have sowed their influence far and wide across numerous genres. But gone are the days of Hellhammer, Messiah, Coroner, and Celtic Frost, and since that time there seems to be a slight preference for black metal in the reason. Sure, a handful of brutal death metal bands have been signed up from the region, but few exhibit the sort of cultural distinction that most other European countries provide, and judging by what I hear on this first album by Defaced, that pattern is in no jeopardy of disruption.

To be fair, these guys (not to be confused with The Defaced of Sweden who performed a more groove/thrash metal style) draw upon some older influences than most arpeggio freaks and tech wankers eschew for their Suffocation/Necrophagist-born songwriting chops. I was hearing quite a lot of British death/grind influence, particularly the battering force of Napalm Death and the sort of everyman growling and presence of 90s Benediction, with some of the brickwork no-frills applied punishment of Danish veterans Panzerchrist or Dutchmen Houwitser. Very precise blast work balanced off against slower, Morbid Angel-chugging miasma with double bass. Cookie monster gutturals delivered against the snarling contrast of death and grind pioneers. A rich, churning guitar tone which doesn't ascribe to the Swedening and gives the album a production value well beyond your average unsigned act.

They vary up their pretty standard tremolo-picked phrases/blast progressions with a couple of leaden grooves circa Sepultura's style (without going anywhere near nu-land), but often lay into a pure grinding headache, or some slower death/thrash patterns that feel like meatier Slayer chugs. Not averse to leads, they often rely on bluesier basics gone wild than anything more caustic, atmospheric and unnerving which a lot of their influences thrived on. And this all sort of contributed to a mere lukewarm reaction I had to the tunes here. Once in a while you've got a tune like "Departure to Hell" where they focus on a few peppier death/thrash riffs which lean more towards the melodic death structures of mid-era At the Gates, or some truly punctual palm-muted breaks of a Fear Factory caliber, but as you can sort of tell reading through this, the band just never develops a distinct style of their own, molded strictly upon the trodden grounds of their forebears without making it feeling fresh, vibrant or even really nostalgic.

There are other bands like Coldworker that have done a better job of integrating all these old school pummeling death and grind inspirations into better riff fixtures, where On the Frontline simply seems substandard in its construction. By no means is it a bad album, and the members apply themselves to their instruments with concussive integrity, but there are few if any guitar riffs which stand out among the legions here and even the song titles feel a little blase and unoriginal. I mean..."Pleasure to Kill"? I'm not saying old bands have some inviolable right to the use of these words, but do a little homework at least. You probably don't want to name tunes after verified classics, especially when they don't even have a shadow of a prayer of living up to them.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Autothrall's Top Metal Albums of 2014...aaaand other best of lists you don't really care about either.

The Top 20 Metal and Vaguely Metal-Related Albums of 2014

01. Hail Spirit Noir (Gr) - Oi Magoi (95) 
02. Sólstafir (Is) - Ótta (95)
03. Thantifaxath (US) - Sacred White Noise (93)
04. John Gallow (US) - Violet Dreams (93)
05. Thy Darkened Shade (Gr) - Liber Lvcifer I: Khem Sedjet (92)
06. Funereal Presence (US) - The Archer Takes Aim (90)
07. Fallujah (US) - The Flesh Prevails (90)
08. Emptiness (Be) - Nothing but the Whole (90)
09. Occultation (US) - Silence in the Ancestral House (90)
10. Behemoth (Pl) - The Satanist (90)
11. The Dagger (Se) - The Dagger (90)
12. Calm Hatchery (Pl) - Fading Reliefs (90)
13. Opeth (Se) - Pale Communion (90)
14. Spectral Lore (Gr) - III (90)
15. Morbus Chron (Se) - Sweven (88)
16. Varathron (Gr) - Untrodden Corridors of Hades (87)
17. Ripper (Cl) - Raising the Corpse (87)
18. Horrendous (US) - Ecdysis (87)
19. Howls of Ebb (US) - Vigils of the 3rd Eye (85)
20. Halberd (Inter) - Remnants of Crumbling Empires (85)

You can find a much larger, 100-item RYM list here.

Yet another year in which I didn't come across anything I rated a perfect 10. I think the last time was Enslaved in it's been awhile. Regardless, in a year where thousands of metal records are released, there is bound to be a creme de la creme, and this batch topped my coffee. The Greek scenes absolutely crushed it this year, with a fantastic record by veterans Varathron, yet upstaged by relative newcomers like Spectral Lore, Thy Darkened Shade and Hail Spirit Noir, who took the lead for me early in the year and never exactly lost it, though my feelings on Ótta are roughly equivalent. Oi Magoi is just something else. And yes, I know that and Opeth's latest might have about 3-4 actual metal riffs between them, but since they're 'ex-metal' bands and still beholden to that crowd, I threw them on the list anyway. Otherwise, a very diverse year...creative retro-death acts like Horrendous and Morbus Chron proved their debuts were no flukes, Behemoth released a triumphant album that I really feel is their strongest to date, and there were a lot of interesting black, doom and heavy metal hybrids. As I spend more and more time with my infant son, I have increasingly less time to write reviews, but my listening list for this year topped 440 new albums & EPs anyway. These were the ones that hung in there with me the most.

The Top 10 Not-Metal Albums You Could Catch Me Brooding or Dancing To If You Were in the Right Place. Don't Tell Anyone.

01. Raison D'etre (Se) - Mise en Abyme

02. Aphex Twin (UK) - Syro
03. White Lung (US) - Deep Fantasy
04. Perturbator (Fr) - Dangerous Days
05. Killer Mike & El-P (US) - Run the Jewels 2
06. In Slaughter Natives (Se) - Cannula Coma Legio
07. Todd Terje (No) - It's Album Time
08. Liars (US) - Mess
09. Phantomgram (US) - Voices
10. Julian Casablancas + The Voidz (US) - Tyranny

A lot of electronic and ambient music, plus some post-punk, not a surprise since this is where my tastes generally run when I'm not headbanging and hailing Satan. As much as I dug the new Aphex Twin, it was Raison d'Etre's latest I found myself completely lost in on multiple occasions.

The Top 10 Movies That Didn't Suck This Year. There Were Others That Also Didn't Suck, but These Sucked...Less?!

01. The Grand Budapest Hotel
02. Birdman
03. The Raid 2: Berandal
04. The Salvation
05. Calvary
06. Nightcrawler
07. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
08. Big Hero 6
09. Guardians of the Galaxy
10. The Zero Theorem

I made a concerted effort in the last two months to check out just about every possible movie I might have enjoyed throughout the rest of the year, and I think I came damn close. One I still haven't seen is The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, so if I end up enjoying that as much as the first two divisive films in the trilogy, I'll update my list. Honorable mentions to Edge of Tomorrow, Stretch and The LEGO Movie, which were unexpectedly fun. I might have initially omitted Nightcrawler and The Zero Theorem, but I watched both a second time and so they've really crept up on me...

The Top 10 PC, Video and Handheld Console Games I Played. And Played.

01. Shovel Knight (PC/3DS/Wii U/PSN)
02. Wasteland 2 (PC)
03. Civilization: Beyond Earth (PC)
04. Transistor (PC/PS4)
05. Costume Quest 2 (PC/PS3/PS4/360/XBox One/Wii U/iOS)
06. World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor (PC)
07. LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham (Everything)
08. The Banner Saga (PC/PS4/iOS)
09. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft (PC/iOD/Android)
10. South Park: The Stick of Truth (PC/PS3/360)

Less time than usual devoted to video games, thanks to a blossoming interest in designer board and card games which has led to a fairly large collection. But I still got around to most that I was interested in, and having acquired a new PC, phone and tablet I was able to check out a lot I had missed the last several years.

The Top 10 TableTop Board, Card Games and RPGs

Sort of a new category here...I mean I've played many tabletop RPGs over my life, and a healthy heaping of classics and collectible card games, but late 2013 through 2014 has marked an increased obsession with designer board games to the extent that it's currently my #1 hobby. Most of the stuff I tried out was older, since I had about a decade of classics to catch up on (including many Euros, which is why I haven't tried many of the new ones). There are likely a dozen or so really interesting 2014 titles I haven't tried yet, so the list is subject to change, but these are my early favorites.

01. Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (RPG)
02. Kingsport Festival (board)
03. Star Wars: Age of Rebellion (RPG)
04. Doomtown: Reloaded (card)
05. The Strange (RPG)
06. Samurai Spirit (board)
07. Abyss (board)
08. Warhammer 40K: Conquest (card)
09. Xia: Legends of a Drift System (board)
10. Shinobi Clans (card)
The Top Novels and Comics...or Not

I'm afraid I've got to leave this mostly blank, friends, since there were only a handful of 2014 fantasy and science fiction novels I actually enjoyed, and I spent most of my time reading older series like The Horus Heresy or a lot of pulp sword & sorcery short fiction & comics. Brandon Sanderson's Words of Radiance was a nice addition to his Stormlight Archives series, Joe Abercrombie's stab at 'young adult' fantasy Half a King was nearly as engrossing as his earlier stuff. Also I really liked the latest Burton & Swinburne steampunk novel The Return of the Discontinued Man by Mark Hodder. If I manage to read a bunch more and formulate some sort of list in the coming year I'll update this.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Til Det Bergens Skygenne - Vandringen II (Lynnelandskap) (2014)

Far from the rustic scenery of its predecessor, Vandringen I: Skoglandskap, released in 2012, the latest Til Det Bergens Skygenne cassette released through Voldsom promises little but nihilisim: a gray, impenetrable haze staring at the listener who happens upon the cover image. So I was entirely taken aback when I started listening through this, because while it's far from a bright bout of sunshine, it's not nearly so bleak and dark as I had guessed. The material is certainly a departure from the Til Det Bergens Skygenne tapes before it, which were a naturalistic infusion of woodland ambient and dungeon synth in the vein of cult recordings from Mortiis, etc. Here Lord Vravenorn has offered us a less structured, more psychedelically intimate fusion of ambient minimalism, lo-fi beats and synthesizer lines which hearken more to his old synth influences...for instance you might hear some Tangerine Dream, but he's not exactly implementing the same pads, with a fraction of the rigid mechanical structure of Kraftwerk.

Previous recordings, while simplistic, were very consistent and felt a little more prepared than the material on this, which really feels as if he set up a few aesthetic parameters and began to unwind, layering in the varied synth textures to create something a little more alien. This was not unlike the parallel development of another of his projects, Yearner, although I feel like The Second Howl was a much more frightening and unusual effort, while this is honestly pretty smooth in parts. The three tracks create an overarching ebb and flow of psychedelia pointing straight at the 70s, a decade in which the keyboard was being developed with so many new tones; with the caveat that some of the grimier indulgent tones, beats and ambient swells were not in fashion during that time, and these tunes (like "Part III") definitely have a tendency to simmer into a climactic point. Fuse that sort of nostalgic miasma with colorful, spacey imagery kind of like you'd find as the backdrop to various antiquated science fiction shows and you'll find the appropriate headspace from which you can properly appreciate the hallucinatory terrain Vranevorn is digging through.

For much of the playtime, I felt as if I was floating weightless through some strange Limbo where the weird tones and melodies created a sense of serenity that was occasionally being marred by the more obnoxious little sounds that occasionally present themselves. The synth lines often feel playful or communicating with one another. The stark, sparse interruptions feel like astral garbage scows sifting through the puffy, purple emptiness for emotional salvage. But this is my own hyperbolic reaction to the may feel as if you're watching a patch of multi-hued mushrooms bloom, or in some forgotten underground space where you're watching fluorescent slow motion waterfalls. It does occasionally have its moments of gloomier atmosphere, generally when the keys are more minimal and deeper tones ring off into the emotional void, but in general I found this to be really consistent, trippy material which is not at all an unwelcome shift from the canon predating it.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Rotting Christ - 25 Years: The Path of Evil Existence (2014)

I don't have nearly as many expectations for a pack-in anthology disc as I do for a label-wrought compilation...the former is usually added as a gimmick, and at least you might be getting a half decent rag along with it...the latter is often nothing more than some I's being dotted on a bottom line. Metal Hammer of Greece is arguably one of the more 'legit' versions of that particular rag family still in print, and so it makes a lot of sense that they'd collaborate with countrymen Rotting Christ, the most successful dark metal band of Hellas, to put this forth, but let's call a spade a spade: this is reprinted material spanning the band's career, no matter how you try to dress it up and act like it's something unique, or 'exclusive', or 'chosen by the band itself'. It's not like you're going out and paying $18-20 for a pretty new booklet with a bunch of recycled cuts you've already heard, but it's still not nearly as important as going through this fantastic band's catalog and experiencing these songs in their original environments, along a lot of other great songs...many GREATER...Sakis and company obviously might not have the best taste in their own music, I'm putting that out there.

Do the songs 'represent' each of the group's many stages of evolution appropriately? I would say yes to that, and they're laid out here in a reverse chronological order, with one cut each taken from all the full lengths, beginning with "In Yumen Xibalba" off the disappointing Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού and then touring back through their better material up to track #11, "The Sign of Evil Existence" off of Thy Mighty Contract. But it doesn't end there, for the next few tracks ("The Forest of N'Gai", "Feast of the Grand Whore", "Vision of the Dead Lovers" etc) are taken from the band's earlier EPs, they are not exactly hiding those primitive origins and why should they? They close the selection off with another cut from Genesis ("Astral Embodiment") and then a live version of "Athanati Este", which is possibly the only thing the diehard fan hasn't heard (outside the studio), but that's exactly it...and like so many of these collections, I felt myself scratching my beard at the level of missed opportunity. Why not replace most of this with rare or live material, and offer someone an imperative to purchase the magazine? Clearly the only people this is going to possibly sway are complete newcomers who have no history with the Greeks, and even then I'm not sure they selected the best tracks for that job.

As for someone like myself, who has been following the group forever and enjoys the overwhelming majority of their full-length recordings, I can't think of a better use for this than smelting. Maybe I could eke out a brief few seconds of kindling from the cover art, though to be fair it's far superior to their last album which is one of the most shockingly amateur examples of 'minimalism' I've seen from a professional band that should know a lot better. If somehow, you are a Greek metal fan buying Greek Metal Hammer and you've missed out on Rotting Christ, then congratulations on this amazing find. I hope it gives you 70 minutes of enjoyment only before you head out and buy some of the band's actual albums, but as a 'product' this has all the substance of the aether. Inhaled it, exhaled it, got on with my miserable life. If I wore makeup I might use this as a mirror, but as it stands this won't even function as a rewritable CD. Hope there are some good articles in there... Perhaps there aren't a flock of ravenous label shills laughing behind the scenes, their fangs glistening as they drink the vitae from your wallets, but it's unfortunately just as much smoke blown out the proverbial ass. I'd rather marathon Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού while being served as kibble to Cerberus' spawn than take another look at this.

Verdict: Epic Fail [0/10]