Sunday, December 1, 2019

Holidaygeddon


Taking my annual break for the Holidays! Will return in January for a new year of reviews, including the return of some full discographies for bands I surprisingly never got around to (or never finished). My year's end lists will be posted in the meantime. Thanks for reading as always!

- autothrall

Friday, November 29, 2019

Mock - Mock (2007)

Mock was essentially the predecessor to the longstanding Norse black metallers Kampfar, active through the early to mid 90s and releasing a demo (Cold Winter) and EP (Vinterlandet), both of which are collected for this compilation CD that Agonia Records dropped in 2007. I'm always interested in delving back into a band's backstory and seeing where its roots lies, especially one I enjoy, as I have through much of Kampfar's existence, so I was surprised to hear that the progression from this material flows quite naturally into where they were at when they the original Kampfar EP later on in 1996. That's not to say that there wasn't also a significant amount of progression in quality, because the Mock material is as simplistic as you might imagine from crude black metallers of olde.

It's also pretty poorly produced. Audible, but the levels are all borked to shit. Guitars are insanely minimalistic, but the loudest instrument, with an obvious Hellhammer influence that gleans through each series of brute chords blurted out. Once in awhile, they'll also hit a pretty evil groove, and that's a highlight of the material, but many of the riffs are just swollen sounding, primitive and boring. It's worse because the drums are quite cleanly produced, and lack the power to really contain that burly, raw guitar tone, and the rasped vocals often feel like weak whispers by comparison, while the bass just follows along to make that guitar even fatter sounding. The difference between something like this and Hellhammer is you can occasionally get a little Viking melody or something that shows these blokes were about to embark upon the Scandinavian path, and certain tunes like "Her af Vikingum, Black" are already boarding the longship, clear indicators of where Kampfar would get their own start, and the chord progressions are often 'warmer' in feel than evil or hostile. I'd also point out that on that particular track the bass is much more interesting, but that's ruined with a lame fade off that does the tune little service.

Once you move on to the EP's material, it's instantly more washed out and atmospheric, with some spoken word narrative and clean guitars set against the distant chords of the electric rhythms. This stuff is much more evenly produced and to be honest I rather enjoyed the three Vinterlandet songs, far more than the demo material. The vocals are more powerful, the use of the rhythms are certainly to be counted as another influence on how a lot of the Viking-themed black metal bands would travel, the keys are a decent, non-intrusive complement, and the whole deal just seems more potent, wintry and nasty. Unfortunately, these are balanced off with that humble, mediocre demo and aren't presented first on the collection, and the playtime is less, so it feels like you're getting a history lesson that doubles as an obstacle before anything you can truly enjoy. Obviously I think Kampfar is a major step ahead of Mock, but if you're a big fan of Norse, Blood Fire Death, Graveland or Enslaved's Frost then you might really dig the Vinterlandet material.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Labyrinth Entrance - Monumental Bitterness (2017)

Labyrinth Entrance is a solo project from a member of Poland's Stillborn, and for a one-man act it's got a high level of polish and production values that you don't simply associate with your stock bedroom or basement black metal act. Monumental Bitterness is split into six cantos, the first of which is a brief, ambient intro that seems to set up the band's namesake as it cedes into broad, patient, minimalist guitar elements and bass plucks that then assemble into the heaviness proper, which as it turns out, continues along a more slow to moderately paced course throughout most of its run time. I could dub this a Polish spin on the slower, glorious aesthetics that were prevalent in the original Greek BM scene, only with a darker mood about it that is split up only with brief strings of starlight.

A lot of the album could be characterized as blackened doom as it really clings to its moderate speeds, and this really allows each of the riffs to be fully felt in the listener's gut, but the riff set itself is quite broad, from eerie, winding dissonant riffs to more accessible chord patterns and captivating melodies that manage not to ever come off too sugary or positive. Vocals range from the expected harsh barks, to cleaner chants, even some effects-driven vocals that sound robotic in "Canto I", or murky subterranean echoes ("Canto III"). The riffs often devolve into patterns of frightening, droning ambiance ("Canto II"), which quite coolly set up the further metallic elements. Overall, the musician known here as Hunger does an impressive job of varying up his content so the 6-8 minute tracks have a lot of nuance to them and never become sprawling monuments to boredom. The project continues to live up to its brand as you can never be quite sure what will be lying around any of its corners, so you're best to keep 40 minutes of string handy as you explore its depths.

It's not all a crawl, as the closing piece hammers down some moderate blast beats, but even then you never get the sense that Monumental Bitterness is ever concerned with its velocity as it much as it is fleshing out every moment with appropriately bleak atmosphere. The focus here is ever on the guitars and vocals, the rhythm section has its moments, but is primarily a more mechanical bedrock to support the album's more creative ideas; the few exceptions are when the drum work gets more tribal and thunderous, providing for some of its better beats. Overall though I have few gripes, while there aren't a lot of truly memorable riff patterns or vocal lines, the material as a whole congeals into a moderately gripping experience, a subversion of slower to medium black metal much like Stillborn is a bit out in left field for the more intense death/black assault. Struggling a little to find comparable bands to this, but I think if you enjoyed the most recent pair of albums from Norway's Svartelder then you'd want to check it out, or the more modern Varathron stuff like Untrodden Corridors of Hades and Patriarchs of Evil.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

https://godzovwarproductions.bandcamp.com/album/monumental-bitterness

Monday, November 25, 2019

Kraków - Minus (2018)

Kraków is often branded as 'stoner metal', but they don't really have all that much in common with the sound typical of that niche. Sure, I'll assume their music sounds as good stoned as without, but in reality these Norwegians have evolved into a happy place in the midst of the sludge, doom and melancholic rock, but peaceful to the extent that they rarely ever bring 'metal' into the picture, at least on this record. Minus is a calming experience for the most part, which occasionally boils over into something more extreme, but retains a level of focus and passion even when it's at its most mellow. It's a blend of pure escapism and inward psychedelia that is likely to appeal to a large crossroads of metalheads who enjoy works of deceitful simplicity across a number of sub-genres.

The beats are very pensive, tribal, almost like a drum circle of hungover people outside their dorm when a serious mood snags them throughout the air. The guitar tones are usually set to clean, and offer these sparse, beautiful string passages that flow alongside the percussion as they eventually contort themselves into some form of climactic sludge-lite or rock part where the vocalist wails on like a guy afraid to walk straight during a DUI screen. Once in a while you'll get some jilty little dissonant spike of melody which borders on math rock, but without the frenzied rhythmic spasms thta usually accompany such a lick. Or maybe a loosely snarled vocal to show they can still hang with all their corpse-painted neighbors. In general, their music is like a tide, ebbing and flowing from the sea to the shore and back outwards, each heavier section a mere intensification of those waters. When they offer up the group vocals, it returns to those feelings of a communal musician brotherhood sitting on some dim evening beach, or in some trodden field, musing at the stars, and as much as I am painting this out to be some hippy bore-fest, it's actually very striking, very effective, and very good.

I think I'd recommend this to fans of groups like Iceland's Sólstafir (2009 on) and Kontinuum in a split second, in fact they're almost like a Norse counterpart to that very style, so if you like vegging out to that this is a no brainer. However, anyone from the sludge fan, to the Gothic rocker, to the indie rock crowd might find a lot to like here. Do you dig modern [b]Katatonia[/b]? Check them out. Any artists on the Indie Recordings label? While Kraków might not have a style to common on that roster, they've got the same artsy, intellectual vibe about them that Enslaved and all their peers do, and they've even covered Enslaved on a tribute album, not to mention sharing the same country of origin. Really impressive album here, it's perhaps not the easiest to describe, but will stay with you for hours after the fire dies down, after the shore is left abandoned and you've made your way back to the smell and rush of civilization.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

https://krakow.bandcamp.com/

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Ayas - Heaven and Earth (2019)

Armenia has had such a rough, tragic time of it throughout history that it makes for a potential hotbed for heavy metal of all varieties. Sadly, I don't hear a lot of material from this corner of the world, something I Hate Records has attempted to rectify with this highly elaborate reissue of what might be deemed a lost classic of the late 80s era, from a scene unfamiliar to so many. Ayas formed in the mid to late 80s, put out just one full-length and a demo, all of which has been collected here in a stunning, thorough retrospective which is wonderfully illustrated using a series of beautiful engravings made by Gustave Doré for Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and are strangely prescient towards the eeriness of this band's music, which with better production and distribution probably could have earned the status of a cult classic for that late 80s period.

I mentioned the production because it will probably prove a sore spot for those who don't know what they're getting into. The source material for the original album, Yerkink u yerkir, obviously didn't have a huge budget, and could hardly even be considered demo level even for many European bands of that era. The synthesizers are quite loud, overwhelming the atmosphere that they contribute so much to. The drums are really splashy on the high end, and weaker on the low end, not able to imbue the guitars with a lot of power. Speaking of which, the tone of those guitars seems a little heavily processed. You can make out most of the notes, which is good because these guys had a lot of killer riffs, and reliable if not exemplary leads. The bass hums pretty low in the mix, but it's audible as a shadow flitting along under the guitars. Vocals also lack some power, employing a very workmanlike ranting intonation that doesn't rely so much on melody or chorus hooks, but almost a more punk-like edge to it with some screaming thrown in. The 'Bonus Disc' here, featuring other takes on some of the album tunes, as well as other material, actually sounds superior, more like a passable rehearsal mix, although it's undeniably just as dated as the album disc.

I wanted to get that negativity out of the way, because if you acclimate yourself to what exactly this release is, a window into something so culturally obscure to us modern metal dweebs, Heaven and Earth has a really cool style and the potential to be so much more. It's more or less a mesh of hard rock and heavy metal, with some forays into doomier riffs, and a prog injection in how a lot of the synthesizers are implemented. There are definitely times that I think the music here would appeal to fans of anything from King Diamond/Mercyful Fate or Rainbow to Paul Chain and Black Hole, although some of the later demo material on the Bonus Disc almost forms a crude form of screaming, Priest-like power metal. It can be creepy, it can be inventive, or it can just start rocking out. There are certainly places in which the band is a little too rough around the edges, some of the vocals and some of the more frenzied guitar riffs, but I feel that if a large amount of money had been thrown at this group and they had been able to lay this all down with a great producer/engineer, Heaven and Earth would certainly have been an album more folks remembered, with the sort of imaginative atmosphere about it that would still hold up today.

Yes, the primitive nature of the recording could be a deal breaker for many who don't usually ply the waters of raw 80s recordings like demos or rehearsals, and it was an obstacle even for me, but as someone who had never actually heard the album before, I was pretty impressed by the vision that went into it, and that someone cares enough to release this and give a wider audience a chance to experience what was, what might have been...heck, what might STILL be, because the band has never seemed to fully dissolve, drifting in and out of existence over the decades. If this serves as a window to what they could pull off 32 years ago, who knows what the 21st century version could pull off?

Verdict: Win [7/10]

https://www.facebook.com/AYAS-243801668980474

Friday, November 22, 2019

Jurassic Jade - Wonderful Monument (2000)

Jurassic Jade has always been one of those fringe Japanese thrash bands that I'd place alongside a Doom, Gargoyle, or an Aion, so clearly trying to shed the conventional European or American influences, or at least morph them into something more distinct and avant-garde. Some of these bands did this better than others, and I can't say these guys were one of them. Probably best known for their 1989 full-length debut Gore, and for their front woman Hizumi, who has such an angry, barking delivery style that I find it almost impossible to determine her gender from the vocals. Not that I need to, but I feel kind of bad about that, because she's just got such a crazy, spastic attack on her voice, flying in and out of pitch and structure...even when she's calming down and singing something more clearly and have a hard time telling. Credit to her for that.

Wonderful Monument is obviously an album that arrived well past the 'death' of the thrash genre, or at least the 'temporary' death throughout the 90s, so you can hear how they latch onto all manner of disjointed, influences, making for one hell of an ADD-riddled, insane record that uses thrash only as its core blueprint. In fact, a lot of this album seems like a mutation of metal, punk, grind, mathcore and even stuff like funk somewhere in its DNA strands. All of this is unified by Hizumi's vocals, which range from a raving, pissed off hardcore/grindcore bark to some punkish vocals not unlike a Japanese Johnny Rotten. The riff-set is all over the place, with lots of bouncy rhythms that embed a layer of generic and uninteresting dissonance into the chord selections. Whereas a band like Doom was capable of coming up with interesting stylistic fusions into the riffs, I find that the guitars on this album are one of its weaknesses, alongside the vocals that don't ever stick with me despite how raving and novel they seem. They just never break out into some killer guitar hook that is so desperately needed, even when they're channeling bands I love like Prong and Voivod.

Now the bass playing on this album is actually fucking rad, a huge tone flopping all over the place with grooves that are more mentally stimulating than everything going on over them. When the band starts to space out with some atmospheric, jazzy, weird guitars over these lines, as in "This is Ma' Song", it finally starts to get interesting, to the point I wish it were all like that. The drums are good and flexible, usually playing some rock beat behind the weirdness but capable of picking up in intensity where needed, or laying in some jazzy groove or fill. On the other hand, some of the tunes create a departure entirely from their heavier sound, like "Itsuka (A Requiem for K)", which is more of an atmospheric ballad without percussion, and the whole thing just feels like a mess that can't play up to its strengths. Wonderful Monument is one of their more obscure albums that you'll never hear anyone really talk about, and there's a pretty good reason, it's just too scatterbrained and can't find its own way through the bouncing, pummeling oddity it has birthed. If you're checking them out for the first time, you're better off sticking to the more nasty, coherent thrash of Gore, which has more of a basis in bands like Slayer and then tacks on Hizumi's angry vox, and better riffs.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

http://www2.odn.ne.jp/jurassic-jade/

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Deivos - Casus Belli (2019)

Long one of the more dependable second tier acts on the Polish death metal circuit, Deivos have now been in existence for over 20 years with no end in sight. Now, when I refer to them as 'second tier', I refer only to popularity, because if I'm being honest these guys are every bit an equal to many of the better known, veteran bands from the States or elsewhere, and Casus Belli is nothing nearing a letdown if you've been following them since their more transitional works like 2010's Gospel of Maggots. Like a number of bands on their scene, Deivos exist in a happy medium between the more brutal and technical death metal acts and those who follow the songwriting aesthetics of the late 80s and early 90s, although they don't quite subscribe to the more creepy, old school tremolo picking vibes or Swedish guitar tones and d-beat rhythms so eminent in this domain.

Basically it's as if they were a parallel evolution to what the New York death metal crews like an Immolation or Suffocation were doing in the earlier 90s, but extremely well balanced in terms of composition and dynamics. Loads of bludgeoning palm muted rhythms fired off at a number of clips both moderate and hyperspeed, but the band is never afraid to slow down for a few dreary, doomed passages where the chords are given more space to breathe. The footwork on the drums is intense, a lot of double kick and blast beats effortlessly wrought to carry along the frenzied guitars, and the guy uses his full kit, lots of skilled fills and higher pitched percussion to match the thunder. They splatter quality little lead guitars all over the place that help maintain a level of variation, balance and atmosphere that might be lost if they were simply charging forward in their battering rhythms to fill out every second of space on the disc. While the rhythms aren't extremely technical, they're just busy enough and non-generic enough that they keep your attention while they are clobbering away, and then the band will shift into some morbid chords that ramp up the evil.

The vocals are pretty straightforward as they always have been, syncopated gutturals that match in very well with the drumming and chugging, but still pretty sincere and gruesome if you actually listen to them closely. What surprised me were a few groovy little riffs (as in "Victims") which reminded me of vintage efforts from their countrymen Decapitated, you know, from back when that band was really good and had something inspiring going. In every vortex of blasting and pummeling across this entire album there is usually one or two sections waiting in the depths that will ramp up the catchy and thus make all the aggression surrounding them more impressive on the whole. Casus Belli is certainly one of the stronger efforts they've put out alongside Gospel of Maggots and Demiurge of the Void, and further cements the band's legacy of consistency...outside of the giants like Vader and Behemoth, you'll only find a few on the Polish scene that could throw down with  Deivos on an album to album basis. So if you're into Lost Soul, Calm Hatchery, or Decapitated and have somehow missed out, make the correction!

Verdict: Win [8/10]

https://deivos.bandcamp.com/

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

In Shadows and Dust - Enlightened by Darkness (2018)

A one-man French act with four full-lengths under his belt, this latest, Enlightened by Darkness being the first released through Redefining Darkness here in the States. Like a lot of solo projects, the sheer magnitude and effort are difficult to deny, and I have to complement In Shadows and Dust on walking such an exact line between both the black and death metal genres. You hear a lot of groups identify with both, but here it's literally infused equally with both. Grinding, ugly rhythm guitars that can either brutalize with old school aggression or create some tremolo picked nightmares, a vocal style that kind of falls on the rasp side but can have a lot more of a flesh-ripping tear to it. Blasted drum patterns that live up to both extreme deathgrind and hyperblasted black metal.

To be honest, the album gave me kind of a headache, due to the density of the production. It also obscures a lot of the riff patterns to the point that I wasn't too excited as I couldn't pick out a hell of a lot of interesting chord progressions. On a tune like "Revenge", the project is clearly just aiming to pummel the fuck out of you...sure, there's a dim melody that erupts deeper into the track, but it's all about savaging and slaying, and doesn't care how it arrives at that grisly victory. While I can't deny that there is an angry personality to the record, and a tangible corpse rending atmosphere, I cannot say that it had much charisma that I would latch on to. The vocals are a little boring, the mix of the guitars is so grimy that there were just too few good parts for me to latch onto. The only stuff I was really feeling were those points I mentioned where there'd be a fraction of a melody spit out over the thundering turmoil beneath, and occasionally, as in "Dawn of a New Day", those types of moments would feature more prominently over a good chunk of a tune.

Of course, putting this all together deserves some accolades, because it's quite intense for just one guy, he's adept at getting the package assembled, if not so much with a production that could really deliver it home for me. The cover artwork is kind of fun, with a cool old undead king wielding his sword in a graveyard...and then what looks like a guitar pedal just...sitting on the side there. Looks like something suited to a proper, throwback death metal album, but this is only half that, since it really does blend in those mid to late 90s black metal influences so evenly. In the end, it just didn't stick with me for numerous reasons, but if you want something fast, dark, and meaty, maybe you're into old Swedish hybrids of the two styles, you might check it out to see if your mileage varies from my own.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

https://www.inshadowsanddust.com/

Monday, November 18, 2019

Hamferð - Ódn EP (2019)

The Faroe Islands fascinate me not only as a little nook of the world that I hadn't heard of growing up, but also as a place where a small but curious metal scene has sprouted, possessing a lot of variation within itself, but also some unique sounds when compared the world over. Of course I'm largely talking about Týr, whose Viking progressive metal is extremely distinct, but in this case I'll dredge up the atmospheric, oppressive Hamferð who really thrive in a niche between traditional Gothic/doom metal and something more otherworldly, perhaps like older Tiamat and Lake of Tears. I came a little late to this sextet's sophomore full-length, Támsins likam, but really enjoyed that when I got around to it, and this two track live EP, for all its format limitations, is phenomenal...

And there's an interesting story behind it. While the first, and newer title track was recorded live and filmed in Tórshavn, the second, "Deyðir varðar", a shorter version of a track of their full-length debut Evst from 2013, was recorded out of doors during a solar eclipse. Maybe a bit tacky, but when you watch the live videos of the performances (both available on the 'Tube'), you can see that this was done out of conviction and not just some soulless gimmick. Now the two cuts here are not cut from the same cloth; "Ódn" itself is by far my favorite of the two, and best fits the description I offered above, an 8 minute crawl of monolithic, measured pacing with gloomy power chords, and a mix of vocals between a potent guttural, wavering cleans mildly reminiscent of Candlemass, and then a style in between, a passionate, melodic howling which is more like a beefed up version of Primordial frontman Nemtheanga. Lean into this with some atmospheric organs that ride just at the edge of the chords' weight, and you've got a powerful statement that delivers more than a lot in its genre can muster in an actual studio.

The 'B-side' track is a calmer piece with cleaner acoustics and vocals, still quite great and folksy, but doesn't offer that same level of power if it still resonates emotionally. Again, the production is near pristine, you wouldn't know that these were live without a few minor details, and paired up with the stark, simplistic cover painting this is just one that will stick with you, or at least have you tracking down their older material which is very much worth it. While you'll find plenty of the band's DNA has been drawn from its primary genres, there just isn't an another band that sounds to me quite like this one, putting together these strands in this precise way, and they're another Faroe standout. As for the 12" as a product, I don't know if this band's style really jives with the format. Once you listen through "Ódn", you're going to want to hear a lot more than 8 minutes of that...and so it seems rather unfulfilling in that respect. So I'd bargain that unless you are collecting all the band's works, you could just check out the video versions of the tunes and invest your money in the full-lengths, past and future. If the second tune had been of the same weight as the first, then I'd ramp up the praise. Having said all that, this is still one of the finer, short live EPs I've come across in awhile, so if my rating seems a bit lowball, it's only because the 'product' doesn't match the musical vision. But the band is awesome.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

http://hamferd.com/

Friday, November 15, 2019

Godslave - In Hell (2013)

Despite over a decade of existence, five full-length albums and a number of appearances on splits and other recordings, I have not actually listened or really even heard of Godslave before I sat down with this third record, In Hell. There's an obvious reason for that, as the rest of this review will reveal, but I have to say up front that I wanted to get into this. A band clearly rooted in the 80s, with a whole slew of influences that encapsulate a whole lot of the B-list or below of bands making their rounds back then. There's nothing overtly 'goofy' or exceedingly retro about what they write, they take those same influences and thrust them into a 21st century studio production; they are topical, they aren't just some self-flagellating 'thrash' band that wants us all to know just how 'thrash' they are.

So here's the issue...if you took about 20 or more of those thrash bands from the 80s, largely US stuff like Whiplash, Sacred Reich, Testament, Exhorder, and Exodus, but also traces of groups like Artillery, Forbidden, Xentrix, Mortal Sin and Destruction, put them all in a blender, both vocally and musically, and then removed any modicum of memorable riffing and choruses, you would end up with an album like In Hell. This is appreciably competent stuff, from both the dynamic range of the rhythm and lead guitars, the flexibility of the vocals, and the clarity of production, but so little of it really registers to a thrasher that has been there all along. It occasionally lapses into some really baseline Exodus neck-jerking riffs, but often has a bit more complexity to it, and normally the amount of effort put into something like that draws my attention, but the numerous times I spun the material I just found it sticking even less on each successive listen. None of the vocal styles are bad, you get a smattering of Phil Rind, Zetro, Chuck Billy, Chris Astley and even some Schmier sneering, but despite the chameleon-like scope they don't exactly develop a personality on their own.

The Germans also know how to put a track together with a richly busy, slick bridge section, some leads that feel like time was spent on them, and some nice atmosphere to the intros and how they progress into their verses, but it seems like a puzzle in which not all of the pieces were slid fully to where they belong. Certain re-sequencing of note patterns could have turned this into an absolute smasher of a 21st century thrash disc that looks both backward and forward at the same time. I mean, granted, when you look at this it seems more like some melodeath or metalcore disc with the band's logo and title font, so I was kind of surprised that the guys were so well practiced in a whole range of older bands that informed their style, but the music overall really just can't hurdle past respectable tribute to a whole era into something worthwhile on its own. Clearly Godslave have their shit in order organizationally, but this set of tunes is just not so inspired beyond the format itself. Quite possible that their other works are superior, but I'm not sure who is paying attention.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

https://godslave.de/