Tuesday, January 12, 2021
Even as far back as this 'debut', the band was writing rhythm guitars that sounded like nothing else out there...not because they were a massive stylistic departure from the parameters established by genre staples like Judas Priest or Accept, but they were just really imaginative and epic, while retaining an almost workmanlike, steel-mill execution due to the rough yet clear mix of the vocals and instruments. This was a sound which could hang with the heavier edge of the NWOBHM, or some of the emergent thrash and speed metal from both their native Germany and North America. A dark atmosphere is imprinted as soon as you lay eyes upon the blue-tinted cover ninja, and maintained through the structure and savagery of the lyrics and riffing. Since this was the same lineup as on Prayers of Steel, certainly there is some carry-over of those elements from before, but Reign of Fear is just a step beyond, an album I've admired since my first spin as a young teenager, but only come to appreciate even more in the wake of their even more impressive output yet to arrive.
The focal point is the vocal point: Wagner's hoarse, wavering, accented intonation was a treasure at the time. From a lot of his more recent material, it'd be hard to imagine he once had a range like this, but for years the Rage catalog was replete with Halford like screaming that was a great contrast for that blue collar anger in his mid toned barking, and he could use it to great purpose in the song choruses, although this particular album isn't quite where he would flaunt that the most. Cuts like "Hand of Glory" or the opener "Scared to Death" are fine examples of him going off the hinges while still keeping it catchy and slightly under control. That he's also a great bass player is of no small consequence, the faster tracks on this album keep him busy, or the power thumping of a mid-paced fist-raiser like "Raw Energy", where he once again is using those screams to maximum potency.
There's a lot of dynamic range in the track list here, from the outright blazers to the aforementioned arena stompers, to the ambitious if flawed track "The Scaffold" which is 9 minutes long, with acoustics leading up to a slower, melancholic 'epic metal' track that you might almost expect out of a band like Manowar. "Machinery" is pretty much an all out speed/thrash attack, with some infectious fucking riffs. The guitars have just the right level of rusted steel strength, whether splayed out with open chords or exploring the more agile patterns; the leads shift between moody and sporadic, but all sound just awesome seated within their respective riff-sets. The legendary Jörg Michael's drums are powerful, splashy, benefiting highly from the reverb-washed mix. The band was also trying to level itself up with the inclusion of some synthesizers, as in the opening march to "Scared to Death", or the timpani and other percussion visited in that swollen bonus track I mentioned above.
The lyrics can oftentimes come off a bit weird or cheesy, like the sleazy sex anthem "Chaste Flesh", but who am I kidding, the dorky 13 year old virgin me absolutely fucking loved all of this, as it helped his balls drop...and for the most part, it...still does?! Reign of Fear is an album that has aged so well for me...or maybe it's more appropriate to say it hasn't aged at all. While not my favorite in their catalogue, there is just no possibility of me putting together any Rage playlist without including half of the gems on here..."Echoes of Evil", "Suicide"...of the nine core album tracks, there are none that I dislike. "The Scaffold" has its ups and downs but it certainly serves as another testament to their ambition, to try things and see what sticks. Thankfully, so much of it did stick, and it's never been flushed out of these earholes.
Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10] (you wish it was morning)
Saturday, January 9, 2021
I've already covered the 2020 album From the Mire by Michigan's bong soaked Bog Wizard, a rather adventurous hybrid of acid washed stoner doom metal and fantasy gaming nostalgia. They've returned here on a fitting split EP with Colorado's Dust Lord, another newish act which has also independently released its debut last year. Sonically, the two bands are a fine pair, although there are some slight deviations in their thematic and atmospheric approaches which distinguish them. Ugly, huge doom metal tones, taking the Sabbath roots and drenching them in sustained distortion and vocals that occasionally make Ozzy sound like a harmless puppy. That's not to say we're dealing with songwriting on a master level like those British originators, but I think folks who are really into this saturated, evil stoner crush have two hopefuls here that, with a little tweaking, could become contenders to the thrones occupied by acts like Electric Wizard and Bongripper.
Dust Lord has the bolder production of the two, with voluminous guitars that groove along your nerves with note progressions that might not be original, but do their job. I'd say aesthetically this is the drier of the bands, going more for an in the in-the-face, traditional fare. Take a group like Fu Manchu and dial down the party and up the crunch levels. Interestingly, the first half of their first track, "Not Men, Not Women, Not Beasts" is a slow, loping desert-camouflaged sasquatch that then picks up with a slightly more uptempo stoner/metal with some harmonies, that introduces us to the pissed off vocals...I found this a bit more entertaining than what led into it, so perhaps that first half went on a bit long, and this is a crime also committed by "Career Opportunities", a lower drudge that also improves once the vocals and higher guitars arrive...just check out that fuzzy, mid-90s Cathedral-like break around the 6-minute mark when he starts spitting out the venom, that's what I kind of wanted the whole time.
Bog Wizard fares a bit better with me, I just love their gradual atmospheric builds, created by clean guitars and feedback before the molasses-thick marsh guitars start to ooze along into the track. I think the vocals on this sound even better than the full-length album, eerie post-Osbourne lines dispersed with some growlier vocals. The little drum fills are quite nice, giving the muck-tinged, steady rhythm guitar a little more of a 'march' feel. The stuff is still heavily rooted in fantasy, with tracks called "Paladin of Death" and "Gelatinous Cube"...now, obviously, there's a BIT of a bias with me on that last one. The G. Cube is my favorite D&D monster...I own the limited edition Funko Pop!...it's presence in Pixar's Onward is one of the many reasons that was one of my top movie picks of 2020. I'm not even a big fan of gelatin or Jell-O or Bill Cosby or anything, but I just love that corridor-cleaning atrocity and its slow, measured, flesh-absorbing menace. This tune is super interesting...from the chuggy rhythms that set it up, to that break in the middle with the ominous clean guitars that almost sound like drawn out, melancholic surf rock, the tinny little cadenced beats, and then the fucking FUZZ ERUPTION. This is actually music that a Gelatinous Cube could get down with, and I have to respect it for that...
All in all, Four Tales of the Strange is a decent if slightly lopsided effort. Dust Lord has the goods, but hammers them over your head after too long of a setup, whereas Bog Wizard is more interestingly composed in its hypnotic, subterranean aesthetic, meandering but only in a good way. My wife and sons don't like me doing drugs, but I can settle for this, doping up vicariously through the doom.
Verdict: Win [7/10]
Thursday, January 7, 2021
I suppose a lot of folks might refer to this as 'cyber death metal', and thematically or sonically that isn't far off, but it's far less focused on industrial or electronic components as a group like Fear Factory. There are some synthesizers and other programming bits involved, but at its core this is neck jerking, frenetic death metal which is possessed of both style and groove, and science fictional concepts which feel as if the music actually represents them pretty well. Groups like Cynic, Obscura, Decapitated, Gorod, and Gorguts came to mind, or perhaps Pestilence if you were to mix up their Spheres album with the more modern groove aggression of a Doctrine or Obsideo. Busy guitars that involve lots of dissonant tones blended into the palm muting ferocity, and often erupt into spurious and fitting leads. Just enough futuristic effects are added to keep you in mind of its futuristic leanings, but there's a time and a place for them and for much of the duration they're just committed to a more consistent, bludgeoning effect. While the bass sounds good and is fitting to the mix, and the gutturals, if a little monotonous, also complement the style well, this is really all about those guitars and Paradis' drums, which are both awesome.
Rhythmically, the five heavier tracks here differentiate themselves rhythmically while still flowing well on the whole, but I was also really digging the instrumental "Through the Infinite", which brings out more of the guitar synthesizer and cultivates a more epic feel than its neighbors, obviously implied with the title. While this one might not have suffered at all from having vocals layered on it, their absence does come with a degree more creativity that was appreciated. On the whole, though, if you're into the school of modern/tech death but don't have any use for excessively wankery, perhaps enjoying that sense of fleeting futurism a lot of groups like Neuraxis used in the 90s and 00s, then Reverse Engineering is worth a listen. It's not always catchy, but it's pretty damn solid, and kept under control to provide an effective impact without any need for flashy frivolities and masturbatory over-indulgence. Inhumanity Vortex knows its business, and with a bit more experimentation and variety, perhaps a little more experience with melody against the harder hitting tunes, this has all the potential of a standout act.
Verdict: Win [7.5/10]
Tuesday, January 5, 2021
A Handful of Bullets is another example of a German thrash act putting out an exclusive CD strictly through the publication of a European magazine, throwing together a few odds and ends for fans and readers. It also happens to be a pretty cool one, because Sodom and Rock Hard have seen to it that the material here is not something you're going to exactly find elsewhere in the same form. In addition to a couple tracks, there are remixes and a remaster here which not only do justice to the original or 'main' mixes, but in my opinion even surpass them. This is especially true of "Sodom & Gomorrah" and "Indoctrination", which just seem to have a more even balance of evil, crisp guitars and the diabolic vocal snarling that Tom achieved in one of his nastiest performances of the whole discography. They're not exactly a far cry from what you'll find over on Genesis XIX, but I responded even more favorably to these than the versions chosen for the broader release of the full-length.
There's a cover of Venom's "Leave Me in Hell" which is quite nice, playing pretty close to the belt in terms of the guitars and drums, but once again Angelripper's vocals tip the scales, they sound really awesome with that sort of distanced or reverbed effect on them, it just makes the whole tune evolve from its dirty roots into something somehow more menacing and potent. What fans will REALLY be pining for here is the non-album track "Along the Path to Hades", a peppy thrasher with a bit of a feel of their records like Agent Orange or Persecution Mania, and I'm honestly a little surprised they held this one off the full-length, it's quite damn good. Rounding the EP off is another remixed tune from Genesis XIX, "The Harpooneer", and no surprise...also sounds good. I imagine the mix to these tunes isn't going to be for everyone, it's definitely just a few knobs twisted, but in its own way it feels just as 80s as the album and I just had a blast listening through it all.
The value here is limited a bit by its rarity and the fact that 60% of the material can be found on the release the fans are much more likely to track down, but I have to give some credit that they put together an entertaining and ear-pleasing 22 minutes of content that will certainly be a boon for those who subscribe the magazine and undoubtedly already dig the legendary group. I'd actually place this above most of their other EPs in quality even when those including more unique, unreleased cuts.
Verdict: Win [7/10]
Sunday, January 3, 2021
Sodom has, for many years, flirted with its own origins, whether that's in re-recording or re-releasing early tracks or injecting some nostalgia into its more modern, slicker productions. However, I think it's their latest offering Genesis XIX which is the most legitimate attempt at making a record that might have existed between their rough earlier material like In the Sign of Evil and Obsessed by Cruelty and then their first attempts at real thrashing structure like Persecution Mania. Granted that there is a bit of production and musical evolution present on this album that does seem slightly like something a veteran thrash act might release in the year 2020, but had this been mixed a little rawer than what Siggi Bemm and Toni Merkel ultimately came up with, it would feel like it totally belonged to that 1986-87 period.
I wouldn't deign to dub the tracks 'simple', but they are all quite straightforward and cutthroat, going for that feeling of the archaic Teutonic anthem, of which they once contributed many. If you dug staples like "Sodomy and Lust", "Agent Orange" or "Nuclear Winter", this is really the effect that so many of the cuts are going for. The riffs are never more complex than needed, but still hustled and sinister and sometimes exhibiting the speed of those early Sodom or Kreator discs like Persecution Mania or Pleasure to Kill. The leads are whipping ribbons of evil and atonal noodling that meld perfectly over the frenetic rhythm guitar riffs, and the drum and bass are just an incessant, belligerent, focused force. That said, the real star of this show is Tom Angelripper's throat, sounding just as nasty and torn as it ever did in the 80s, in fact I'll go out on a limb and say this might even be better. Perfectly placed phrasing, just enough reverb or effects in the mix to create that psychotic payback that the best thrash requires by mandate, and the guy brings more threat than much more energetic vocalists half his age in this genre.
There's nothing here by way of a surprise, and I think it might be held back slightly by a number of riff patterns that are kind of common within the Sodom canon, but ONLY if you're the sort of fan who wants them to build upon their considerable legacy, to somehow evolve. If you've been long awaiting a proper return to the roots, and were always content with those first 3-4 discs before the slightly more death metal and punk phases they explored, then this is a bullet-belted, spiked, radiation-masked Godsend. I can completely sympathize with the praise being lavished upon it, even if I might not prop it up on quite that high of a pedestal myself. It's clearly the best emulation of their formative, breakout years, and one of the best albums they've released since the 80s, but then again I had no problem with the slighty beefier, more dynamic, modern sounds of Decision Day from 2016. The intentions aren't all that disparate, but Genesis XIX just goes for the nastier, earlier strategy while its predecessor was a little bit more of matured, brute force. Good album, decent lyrics (in spite of "Glock 'n 'roll"), awesome cover artwork from the legendary Joe Petagno.
Verdict: Win [8/10]
Friday, January 1, 2021
The drums are set fast and turbulent since a great deal of the riffing is of the hyper tremolo bursted variety, and they maintain a somewhat organic feel, with the kicks and snares almost inhabiting these different planes in how they're textured along with the walls of guitars. Along with the more aggressive rhythm guitar chord patterns, there is almost this constant second dimension through the higher pitched pickings, flurries or leads which often sent me spinning off in two directions. They do have some ambient passages, or slower, sparser sequences where they let feedback or simpler, high note structures ring out and bring on some welcome balance against the unhinged speed, and I also liked that the bass became a bit thicker, thudding and more prominent. They'll also experiment a bit more with whispered vocals as opposed to Clement Flandrois' very pissed off, genuine snarls of rage; and yet the hideousness inherent to that inflection is a nice contrast against the streaming melodies and dissonant upper atmosphere to the effort.
Combine this all with a sweet digipack featuring some cool translucent pages, classy lyrical script and some architectural artwork, and this band has just transformed into something fairly top notch that a lot more followers of their style are hopefully paying attention to. Fin de règne is a practiced, poignant sophomore which kept me guessing. Enigmatic, artistic and tortured without becoming too chaotic for its own good, engaging the listener through each twist and turn, distinctly French with the raving, pissed off vocals and holding its own against the veteran bands from its own scene, Hyrgal's lightning has struck twice already and this is not an outfit to be passed on or ignored if you enjoy memorable black metal with enough depth and ideas of its own, but can still rock your face off when it bares the bloodied Mayhem, Hellhammer and Darkthrone fangs as in the intro to "Glyphe de sang" which had me punching my desk until the speakers clipped. Great shit.
Verdict: Win [8.5/10]
Thursday, December 24, 2020
If you're looking for the full list of my top 100 metal albums for 2020, check over here at my Rate Your Music Page. There's also a backup list of another 100 albums that didn't quite make that cut, as well as my favorite EPs. Below is the tighter, more hierarchical list of top picks. This year, partly due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, I set out to challenge myself to sample as many demos and albums from around the world that I could find, and thus there were thousands that I checked out, even if just for a couple minutes. So my choices this year come from a more massive sample size than usual...one that I can honestly say I will never attempt again! Despite the chaos of 2020, it was a solid year across multiple sub-genres, anything from atmospheric black metal to traditional throwback heavy metal.
01. Havukruunu (Fi) - Uinuos syömein sota (95)
Thursday, December 3, 2020
Sunday, November 29, 2020
When I heard the first few singles for this latest Enslaved album, "Homebound" and "Jettegryta", I was suitably impressed, and thought immediately that drummer Iver Sandøy was a cool addition to the roster, bringing them yet another avenue for the soaring clean vocals they like to measure off against Grutle's snarling, or the other cleans contributed by both Vinje and Kjellson. But it wasn't until I watched them perform the new album in its entirety on one of their COVID-19 quarantine live-streams, that the hooks really started to sink into me; that I started to feel that hypnotic draw which their signature blend of progressive elements and Viking black metal has long manifest since the turn of the century when their style truly began to expand. This is truly one of the best of the business, an outfit which can seamlessly integrate disparate ideas, never truly compromise, and continue to garner the respect of both their audience and metal media.
That's not to say that Utgard is some crowning milestone of their career, because at its heart it's not one of their more interesting in terms of its quantities of nuance or creativity. To be clear, there are things here that you might not have exactly heard before, like some of the approach to proggy jamming, a few of the vocal configurations with these three throats, or some of the more exotic lead guitar passages, but you're still hearing a lot of the familiar aesthetics that defined their last 7-8 albums, like the spacious Pink Floyd sections, or the wintry black metal surges dominant on discs like Isa and Ruun. Utgard is very smoothly mixed and mastered, and surprisingly, while it doesn't lack for the complexity or inaccessibility of its compositional structure, it's somewhat more accessible on its surface level than other recent efforts like In Times or E. I don't think it's far-fetched to say that Utgard is playing it safe to some degree, but even an Enslaved sticking to its last decades' worth of sounds has a massive sandbox of riffs and combinations to play around, and tracks like the rollicking prog metal bite of "Sequence", with the ambiance of the other instruments layered over the verses; or the synthy Hawkwind-esque space rock of "Urjotun" are welcome and refreshing additions to the Norwegians' canon.
Performances across the album are spotless, and as usual its a technical feast of rhythmic variety, all manner of psychedelic rock integrations, but still fully aware of the band's own roots...and you can hear plenty of faster Frost-like executions as well as a number of thundering riffs that hearken straight back to the Viking black metal source of Bathory's Blood, Fire, Death. Certainly I heard individual riffs on this one which almost played out like a catalogue of references to their other albums..."Flight of Thought and Memory" might have belonged on Vertebrae, while "Homebound" channels a little RIITIIR or Axioma Ethica Odini. It might not be as stunning or revelatory as the first time you heard them delving into these styles, but the fact remains that eight of the nine tracks on this are extremely well crafted, the one exception being the 2-minute interlude 'title track" which is merely warped, windy psychedelic ambient noise with some throbbing bass, electronics and sexy spoken word. The lyrics are great, the cover art has a proggy sort of symmetry to it plus Hugin and Munin, and I've probably already given this a good half dozen listens during the month of October when I'm usually putting all my listening priority on horror metal stuff...what does that tell you?
Enslaved still rules. I'm not surprised, you're not surprised, and Utgard isn't surprising, but in hands as capable as these that becomes the diametric opposite of a flaw.
Verdict: Win [8.75/10]
Thursday, November 26, 2020
Sad is an unsung, relatively long-standing act in the Greek black metal community which might be dubbed as 'dependable', truly committed to the most fundamental aesthetics of their genre but never really manifesting anything truly impressive or unique, nor anything that really drags the bottom of the well. Albums like Devouring the Divine and A Curse in Disguise are textbook cases of the medium, with nasty rasped vocals and nihilistic energy that is derived from the European forebears and iconoclasts like Mayhem and Darkthrone. They don't have a terribly Hellenic feel or sound to them, although I'd say a few melodic parallels might be drawn towards the more sinister Rotting Christ or Varathron material.
Misty Breath of Ancient Forests is the duo's sixth proper full-length installment, and while it might be considered more of the same, I'd say this was easily the band's best produced record to date, and also cultivates a consistent melodic might to it that should sate purists. I was immediately taken in by the muted, murky artwork and just how well the musical content lives up to that. You're clearly thrust into the role of some corpse-painted barbarian scouring the ancient boreal landscapes of sound, wrestling with other predators to the unending glorious melodies that spew out of Ungod's strings. The vocals are standard for the genre, but definitely get crazy and suicidal enough sounding to compete with the incessant momentum of the music, and you might get a grunt to back up all the snarling. There can be a bit of a monotonous nature to the song structures...they cycle through a good number of riffs, and few that disappoint, but often the blast parts can grow a little weary, where if they had just thrown in an added break or simpler, slower transition a lot of this could come across far more sick and effective, especially when you're juggling 6-9 minute tracks.
Just listen to when they curb the speed a bit in "White Death" and you get those really great sounding melodies to the surging chords, or the saddening guitar strings that ring out over the roiling bass drums of "Hades Gazing". These aren't a huge deviation from the main thrust, but they hint that Sad could benefit from even more versatility in tempo and riff selection. But that's the only major gripe I can say about Misty Breath of Ancient Forests, because it sure as hell is well-assembled, and if you're a fan of classics like Transilvanian Forest which could also be pointed at for its too-persistent pacing, despite it being a masterpiece, then I don't think this one will bother you. A bit overlong, especially without some more breaks, segues, or varied tempos, but with ease this is one of Sad's better outings.
Verdict: Win [7.25/10]