Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Mist - The Hangman Tree (1991)

Sepultura has always been the band that put Brazil on the metal map, and rightly so: they produced some of the best thrash metal of their time before their descent into suck. But they were far from alone. Bands like Sarcofago, Chakal, Holocausto, and Dorsal Atlantica thrive in the cult corners of the thrash connoisseur's memory, and if he's got half a clue, then so does the Mist. This is one of the most underrated bands of its time, having written the great debut Phantasmagoria. However, I have always held this sophomore album as my favorite: a polished gem of aggressive technical thrash metal with more quality mosh than you can muster in a single listen.

These Brazilians were notable for the rather dark, horror-inspired fairy tale style of their imagery and music. Most thrash/speed metal bands of this type were singing about nuclear war and religion, but The Mist specializes in fare like "My Life is an Eternal Dark Room", "Peter Pan Against the World" and "God of Black and White Images". There is also a lot of progression and mild experimentation in their work. Never afraid to use elements like synthesizers or acoustics if it fit the mood. The Hangman Tree is a beautiful album, ranging from the flowing and catchy speed of "The Hell Where Angels Live" to the brooding and slower paced "My Pain". I know it sounds pretty emo, but it's not, it's an intense and nearly flawless album of introspective, gloomy thrash metal.

Production on the album is dense and effective, and the songs fit together into a cohesive and memorable mold. The vocals are emotional and tortured but still throaty enough to please fans of Sodom or Motorhead. Riffs are melodic when needed and technical when they want to be. This was one of the best Brazilian thrash metal albums, and one of the best of the 'late period' in Golden Age thrash (1990-93) when grunge had all but taken over. It may have re-awakened in full force now, but albums like this are still difficult to come by and even harder to surpass.

If this album went under your radar in those days, or you'd like a glimpse into what the rest of the Brazilian cult thrash scene outside Sepultura was like, track this down. If it helps, they featured former Sepultura guitar player Jairo Guedz.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]
(I´m the scarecrow, no coward lion on my way)

Razor - Executioner's Song (1985)

Many fans consider Razor's other 1985 album, Evil Invaders to be their true cult masterpiece. Others consider their more punchy, frenetic, and violent later work like Violent Restitution to be their best. While I fall in the latter category, there is no question in my mind that Executioner's Song is not only their most overlooked album, but one of the greatest Canadian heavy metal albums ever conceived.

At its roots its a dirty NWOBHM-inspired record like something you'd have heard from their countrymen Exciter, but more aggressive and certainly contains hints toward their later direction. All the songs are excellent and inspirational. Stace Sheepdog's vocals are gritty and awesome, and Dave Carlo is one of the best riff writers ever. "Take This Torch" is a speed metal anthem of energetic, distinct chords and a great chorus (love that bass):

Bright lights, now you can see where you are
Far, out in the universe
Now, you, try to escape from this spot
Hot, ready or not
Take this torch

I don't quite get it either and I don't care, my previous band Extinction Agenda used to cover this song at our rehearsals and my only regret is that we never performed it live. Amazing track, and not the only one on the record. "Fast and Loud" is your typical metal party song but this was no Mötley Crüe, it was far more aggressive and you could totally envision yourself doing a circle mosh and impaling some fool in the head with a spiked gauntlet. "City of Damnation" is simply one of the most amazing and filthy raw speed metal tracks ever written on Earth. If you don't like that chorus part then you don't fucking like real metal. "Escape the Fire" also thrills with its catchy melodic muted riff erupting into the speed and chords and glory. And there are so many more, the molten rocking riffs of "Distant Thunder". The blazing "Hot Metal". The sun-hot "Time Bomb".

If you can't already tell this album burns to the touch. I can feel the sweat on my skin just thinking about it. It makes me want to get a leather mask and a whip, some 80s metal chicks with big hair and then make them dance for me in a cage while I wear a cock ring and suspend my testicles over a candle for the sensation. This is the world I live in.

Maybe I have said too much...

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10]
(chains, spikes, volume!)

Atrophy - Socialized Hate (1988)

Another casualty of the mass exposure of thrash and speed metal in the late 80s, Arizona's Atrophy released two albums of very solid quality, Socialized Hate being the first. Moored in Brian Zimmerman's dirty and crunchy vocals, they performed a rather technical and blazing form of thrash music, pissed off at the problems of the then-world: drugs, warfare, TV evangelism, and of!

The album begins with a tranquil yet haunting ambient sequence before the tense neck jerking riffs of "Chemical Dependency" erupt. The second track "Killing Machine" is a classic, with some great guitar work to open, and then a fast and furious verse riff and a great chorus breakdown:

Born to kill
There's no retreat
Live to fight
A Killing machine!

Okay, so this isn't rocket science, but it's all in the delivery. And with this album, things just keep getting better, with the excellent thrashing "Matter of Attitude", the mad triplets of "Preacher, Preacher" with their almost Helstar technicality, the epic "Product of the Past", and the pit frenzy of "Urban Decay". But the song you all really wanna know about is their beverage tribute "Beer Bong", with its Tankard-like lyrics and list of brand names. Can you name the nine brews mentioned in "Beer Bong"? Without cheating and looking them up? I didn't think so. Well here they are: Heidelberg, Dutch Treat, Black Label, Meister Brau, Blatz, Grain Belt, Old Milwaukee, Pearl and Shaeffer.

Oh, my friends, the things I teach you. The pleasures I share. Anyway, so Socialized Hate is a pretty great thrash album which has only grown in my estimation throughout the years. Bouncy bass, crazy guitars, and grimy vocals highlight a collection of fun songs. I think the songwriting improved a bit with their second and final album Violent by Nature, but this was a more than worthy debut.

Verdict: Win [8/10]
(something more than animal, yet something less than man)

Onslaught - Power from Hell (1985)

Years before they hired Steve Grimmett and sought a more technical and accessible direction to their thrash, Onslaught were one of the more abrasive and filthy speed metal acts from England. Wild and messy burning leads, driving punkish rhythms (they were originally a punk/hardcore band) , and the dirty and aggressive vocals of Paul Mahoney defined the ripping sound of this debut album. Aside from Venom, this was probably the rawest thrash outfit to make a splash beyond the Isles, albeit a small splash. They were also another of those bands which could be considered proto-black metal, due to their vile faux-Satanic aesthetic and unrelenting sound.

Power From Hell is a cult classic for a reason: 12 tracks of sacrilegious speed which display a clear demonic presence (or maybe it was just the drugs). The band blasts out of the starting gates with the amazing "Damnation/Onslaught", fueled by riffs not unlike the early from Destruction, Sodom, or even Tankard's Zombie Attack (though the latter came later). Fun and simple riffing, but delivered at quite an extreme pace for its day. Other noteworthy tracks include the mid-paced "Lord of Evil", the almost prophetic anthem "Death Metal", the bone crushing "Steel Meets Steel", and the searing "Witch Hunt". There aren't a lot of dynamics to this record, and frankly they weren't needed, this album had simply come to sex up your woman and sacrifice her on the devil's altar.

The production is rather dense and dark, with driving, crashing drums, a thick layer of menacing guitars, and a good bass presence (even if it just follows the guitars for the most part). This is probably best delivered via vinyl, like many old albums, but it still sounds great digitally. Many bands today are still aiming for this simplified and effective sound. Onslaught are certainly near legendary as one of the earliest sheer thrash/speed metal bands to embrace this occult style post-Venom, and an essential for purists. The band is still around today with their 2nd vocalist Sy Keeler.

Verdict: Win [8/10]
(leading death's disciples)

Powermad - The Madness Begins EP (1988)

I clearly remember ordering this EP through a magazine advertisement as a teen, and I was more than happy with the material. This was of course before they released their cult classic album Absolute Power and made a cameo in the Nicholas Cage film Wild at Heart.

This was Midwest US thrash/speed metal with a very urban, New York feel to it. I'd compare their music to Anthrax and perhaps a little Overkill, but they also have some similarities to bands like Laaz Rockit. There are four tracks on the EP, beginning with "Terminator". The verse/chorus is pretty average, but there is a great breakdown in the song that starts with a guitar effect then a catchy mosh sequence. "Hunter Seeker" is up next, a decent track with some semi-complex riffing and catchy verse vocals lines, though the chorus is pretty bland. Third is the cover of the Ramones' "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment", given a decent thrashing rendition. The final song on the EP is "Blind Leading the Blind" is an exercise in crazy speed metal charisma, with a few technical thrash chops and dual speed melodies near the climax.

The mix here is pretty typical of its days, the vocals strike right through the music yet you can hear the crisp guitars blazing and just barely the distorted bass bouncing below. Joel Dubay's vocals were the typical high pitched speed metal style of the 80s but he could put a mean sneer on them when needed. The material is just a lead-up to Absolute Power, which has better songs than what you'll find here, but if you're a thrash metal collector and purist you will enjoy these songs, including the cover song. Speaking of covers, the comic book art was a nice touch.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Living Death - Protected from Reality (1987)

German thrash is best known for its acclaimed triumvirate of Destruction, Kreator and Sodom, but just below the surface you will find a very solid roster of bands who didn't quite make it as far: Tankard, Deathrow, Vendetta, Mekong Delta, Protector, and then there is of course Living Death. With a wilder style employing the shrieking vocals of Thorsten Bergman, they ravaged the scene with their early albums Vengeance of Hell and Metal Revolution. However, the filthy speed metal of their third album Protected from Reality has always stood out to me as their best work.

There are no frills on this album. Bergman's vocals are plastered all over the twisting, chugging, bulldozer thrash riffs, as much in the class of NWOBHM-on-crack vein as they possessed a Teutonic thrash edge. The album begins with the pulverizing "Horrible Infanticide (Part One)", and the field is immediately leveled by the sound of Metallica meets Destruction beneath an air raid siren. "Manila Terror" follows this assault with another, though this is not my favorite song here. "Natures Death" starts with a good mid-paced thrash riff under a wailing, noisy lead, then begins a crunchy bit akin to Anthrax. The verse vocals are sick, I like the riffing with the atmosphere of the squealing guitar harmony. "Wood of Necrophiliac" begins with a very brooding 80s acoustic guitar, lots of reverb, interwoven with some slower paced chugging, vocal choirs and instrumental creepiness. A very interesting track. "Vengeance (Horrible Infanticide Part Two)" is a scorching thrasher with very Cirith Ungol-like vocals over the bands gritty street level thug thrashing. "Intruder" is a speed metal mosh slugfest with some sick breakdowns, Bergman's vocals are excellent here, cutting right into you. He sounds like a girl, but not...maybe a harpy...a thrashing harpy! "The Galley" is big juicy metal sauteed in a slower, driving pace and has some sloppy but sick lead work. "War of Independence" begins with some nice thrashing along to Bergman's psycho lyrics, before the drums pick up into a speed metal mayhem. The album ends with the goofy "Eisbein (Mit Sauerkraut)", your Tankard type speed metal anthem about ham hock and condiments...yeah, we'll not touch this.

The album is aggressive and raw; if you like this old school stuff you'll become totally infected by the explosive energies and bang your head into dust. At points it feels a little uncouth and sloppier than other German thrash, but when you're having this much fun, who cares. Though they have numerous albums of a similar quality, I've always enjoyed one of if not the best, alongside Metal Revolution...the band did mature as they went on and their later albums are a little more thoughtful, but the raw and pummeling feel of this is where it's really at.

This band has reformed so we may be hearing some new material from them soon, the first in almost 20 years...

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, January 30, 2009

Midas Touch - Presage of Disaster (1989)

Before its hostile takeover of international death metal in the 90s, and then becoming what is arguably the capital of metal music worldwide, Sweden was relatively quiet on the scene. There was quite a healthy amount of melodic hard rock and early power metal, but as far as thrash...not so much. This is part of what makes Presage of Disaster such a gem, another in a long line of good to masterful Noise Records releases.

Midas Touch is best described as a band who followed the style of technical German thrash (Mekong Delta, Deathrow, Destruction, Vendetta, etc) but with a dash of Metallica thrown in for good measure. After a fitting into, "Forcibly Incarcerated" arrives with a loopy synthesizer and an acoustic passage, and then let the thrash begin! A mosh pit begins to stir below the choppy lead scales. "Sinking Censorship" targets the rather obvious Parental Music Resources Center and its tyrannical crusade to cock block the 1st amendment (and what 80s thrash album would be complete without such a loving tribute?) "When the Boot Comes Down" is a slower track, Patrick Wiren's accent during the cleaner vocal sections is quite funny, but the song is decent. "True Believers Inc." covers yet another typical thrash subject of the 80s: the TV evangelist. Some of the best material on the album comes later on the album. "Aceldama - Terminal Breath" is perhaps the best known track, with its trilly intro riff and start/stop verse, and the chorus breakdown.

Losing your mind, you see things in a new way!
Losing your grip, your reason is tearing away!

The album closer "Subhumanity (A New Cycle)" is another of the best, with some great leads and a nice trudging verse riff. Other good songs include "Accessory Before the Fact", "Sepulchral Epitaph" and the acoustic instrumental "Lost Paradise".

This has a pretty solid mix for an older thrash record, the guitars may seem a little thin but this works well in conjunction with Wiren's nasally mid-range vocals, giving the album that anesthetic tech thrash feel akin to Mekong Delta or later Deathrow. There are a lot of good riffs and the bass really goes to work under them. The lyrics aren't perfect but for the time they were intelligent enough; bands had some serious subject matter in those days. Today you are lucky if a thrash band even sounds pissed off at all. Presage of Disaster may not be on my short list for top thrash metal albums in history, but it was a well-constructed bruiser of an album for its day, and still sounds almost relevant to my ears now. Unfortunately, the 2nd album So Shall You Reap was never finished, so this was pretty much a one-shot career. But you can track down a few tunes from that hypothetical sophomore effort on their MySpace page, and they sound good.

Verdict: Win [8/10]
(certified: lunatic!)

Forced Entry - Uncertain Future (1989)

There was a time when Forced Entry was one of the biggest hopefuls in the US thrash/speed metal undercurrent explosion of the late 80s. Their penchant for blunt, percussive rhythms combined with progressive lead work, adventurous titles and lyrics, and crunchy production combined for a pair of highly regarded albums. Of the two, I have always preferred the debut Uncertain Future.

Eight tracks here, each memorable and inventive. "Bludgeon" opens with a chop fest, like a very brief thrash alternative to "YYZ". This transforms into a bluesy acoustic sequence with an amazing guitar solo. We are only getting started, folks. The verse lumbers forth with Tony Benjamins brute voice over a groovy thrash beating. "Kaleidoscope of Pain" is the perfect soundtrack for crunching up cars in the junkyard, and has a nice breakdown. "A Look Through Glass" once again begins with a mechanical thrash riff and then an acoustic/thrash build up akin to what you'd hear on the early Testament albums. "Anaconda" begins with an environment of tribal drumming and deep, plodding bass, and evolves into perhaps the most fitting thrash tribute to a snake ever written. "Octoclops" grooves with abandon, and once again has a great memorable lead break near its intro. "Unrest They Find" might be the catchiest song on the album, starting with a nice acoustic passage and then an unforgettable slower paced riff, before it busts out into THAT RIFF. You know, the best riff on the album type, the defining guitar part. The song sounds like Prong, Testament and Megadeth jamming off. "Morgulon" is a decent, faster song, and the album's closer "Foreign Policy" is a solid hammering.

The mix of the album really captures the gut wrenching, fist to the face guitar riffs this band was aiming for, and the acoustic/solo passages are very clear. In fact, Uncertain Future sounds pretty good today, despite its age, if you can get past the fact the guitars aren't all layered sounding like what you'd hear today.

Their 2nd album had a similar style but much stranger, with more progressive elements and unfortunately some rather stupid songs. Not the case here. Unfortunately, the band fizzled out during the great thrash metal purge of the early to mid 90s, unable to secure a new record deal after their work with Combat/Relativity. The future is uncertain as to whether they'll follow so many other bands having midlife crises and re-unite for a new album, tour or festivals, fuck knows they must have been given many offers.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (fifty breaths, one hundred)

Sol - I Am Infinity (2008)

Sol's debut Let There Be a Massacre was a beast of a debut album, a crushing voyage of downtrodden despair and grief which could quickly overwhelm your senses and turn your blue skies ever grayer. I could go so far as to say that album was brilliant in its pain quotient. It would be a tough act to follow for any new artist, but Brahe returns to try with his sophomore effort I Am Infinity.

This time, the concept has shifted from the worms of humanity into a cosmic exploration, spanning the creation and ultimatum of the universe. In addition, Sol has several more guest musicians working on the project. I must say this now: you have to listen closely to this album, most of the great riffs are buried in the really weak production, and it can be very easy to become bored. But at its heart, there are some great, minimal doom riffs which do justice to the legacy of the debut.

The album is sandwiched in a pair of ambient electro pieces called "Cosmos Reshaping" and the more chanted "Cosmos Reborn". These do a decent job of setting up the bleak tone of the album's theme, the endless void of space and time and the futility of trying to explore it. The meat of the album lies in the four length tracks between. "And I Rose" begins with a very Sabbath funeral pace, but soon becomes glorious as the added guitar melody tones in behind the first. There are some excellent, somber black/doom passages to this track, and it was my favorite on the album. "Abyss of Light" is similar, threading off a very basic pattern of doom chords and growls, then layering them in soft classic doom harmonies. The song picks up near the end with some driving mid-paced, atmospheric black metal. "From Ashes to Infinity" starts with a fairly evil riff, becoming crushing funeral doom near its center, and there is a nice folksy breakdown with some accordion. The last of the metal tracks is "The New Void" with a glorious pattern of chords, picking up into a little groovy death/doom.

The music is all quite solid, or better, it's just that the mix didn't work for me this time out. It's primal and raw but the tones of the guitars and volume levels just don't do the riffs as much justice. Had the drums come across more loudly and crashing, and the guitars possessed a denser fabric, this album could have truly decimated me. As it stands, I had to strain a little to really feel the sorrow of the riffs. Let There Be a Massacre was no big budget recording, mind you, but it seemed a little better in overall sound.

I Am Infinity should appeal to most fans of the debut, but it's not quite as good. This is very old school sounding death/doom with a blackened edge, and some simple and good quality riffing. The concept is one that fits the sound of the band well. Any flaws here are largely mix-based, and it's still quite fucking depressing. Give it a chance.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

28 Weeks Later (2007)

There's no real way around it - I have a huge zombie fetish. I love everything about them: the classic moaning, the shambling gait, the blood and decay. Hell, I like modern zombies, too, with their fancy running and (almost) plausible reasons for existing. Logically, I was excited to see 28 Weeks Later, as I expected more of the delicious world shown in its predecessor, and, above all, some fun zombie time. Although Danny Boyle had stepped down from the director's chair, there was never any worry in my mind that things would go awry, as I had been fairly entertained by newcomer Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's previous movie, Intacto.

I don't think any other movie has ever pissed me off this much.

It starts off excellently, with a frantic and dramatic countryside scene (that may have been made by Boyle early on before he escaped to Sunshine, but I can't find definitive proof of this), yet this is the only part of the movie that I can even remotely recommend. Ok, the helicopter part (yes, that one) is mindlessly entertaining, but that's it. That's it. When the plot doesn't involve people trying their absolute hardest to be as stupid as possible, it actively destroys all sense of immersion through blatant inconsistencies. You'd think that, after having seen the entirety of Great Britain succumb to a rapidly-spreading, highly dangerous virus, a certain level, at the very least a minimum, of effort would be put into running the repopulation safely. The soldiers in the movie never actually seem to be anywhere, or do anything, unless it involves ham-fisted emotional scenes about not doing what soldiers do or sacrificing themselves for the main characters, even though they haven't been given any reason to. Similarly, almost every plot point is a convenient excuse for even more craaazy shit to happen - it's just a huge mess of inconsistencies and cheap scenarios carelessly thrown together to create a shallow sense of character and movement.

On top of that, 28 Weeks Later has none of the atmosphere that the first had. Gone is the surreal loneliness, the isolated intimacy of traveling through a desolate London and its gorgeous countrysides. In its place, we get the tried and true rule of Hollywood sequels - make it dumber, but up the scale, bodycount, and explosions - with hordes of people and infected being slaughtered, military bombings, car scenes, the whole shebang. It's mindless, grade AAA blockbuster material rolling around in the remains of a well-loved film.

Now, I'm willing to cut some slack - this is a horror movie, after all. I'm even willing to judge this movie irregardless of its relationship to 28 Days Later. At the very base of things, I go to see a horror movie to be disturbed, unsettled, and entertained by a bit of gore. Invert the food chain, bring in the primal fear of being eaten, and I can overlook your stalking ninja zombies, copy/pasted jump scenes, eye-poking, cardboard characters...whatever, I would still get a laugh out of it. 28 Weeks Later doesn't even get that concession, as each and every action scene is shot with the most abysmal shaky-cam work that I've ever seen. You want to see some rage-driven mauling? That's too bad, since you'll be too busy vomiting to make out what they're actually filming. I think it should be obvious that viewers want to see what they're watching, not to mention that I should never have to look away from a movie because it's giving me a headache. I feel a slight inclination to at least be happy that they tried something atypical in such a high-profile movie, but I can't shake the suspicion that it was done this way because they were lazy.

I believe that, if the camerawork had been more typical, this movie might have been able to score higher, possibly even into the Indifference level. However, when it all comes together, I cannot excuse an absolute tripe camera, idiotic plot, paper-thin drama, and the discarding of everything that worked about 28 Days Later.

Verdict: Epic Fail [1/10]

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Outlander (2009)

Spoilers ahead, folks.

Outlander is yet another of those genre films to come out well under the Hollywood radar in recent years, despite performances from James Caviezel and John Hurt. In this case, it's probably a good thing, as the film fails to live up to anything aside from its crude existence as a composite of other, far better films. Essentially, take Beowulf and The 13th Warrior, soap them up in some Predator and Enemy Mine, and then dry them off with a Lord of the Rings towel. Voila, you have Outlander.

It's a sad thing, too, because a movie with this very same plot could have turned out well if hadn't been content with its mediocrity. Kainen is a man from a distant world spanning civilization who has crashed on Earth, in Norway, 8th century. He conveniently is discovered by the handsome Wulfric (played by Jack Huston), and brought to the largest local settlement, presided over by Rothgar (John Hurt). Of course, Rothgar's beautiful daughter Freya (Sophia Myles), 10x more beautiful than any of the other Viking women around her, has eyes for the Outlander immediately! They slowly fall in love throughout the film. Oh for the love of Christ.

But all is not well...because...get this, SOMETHING ELSE FOLLOWED KAINEN HERE! Alien, Predator, Enemy know the score. One of the last remnants of a race Kainen's people wiped out to colonize a new homeworld. The tragedy here is that his people didn't realize the creatures (the Moorwen) were vengeful and somewhat intelligent. So, one has followed Kainen to this planet, and it begins destroying everything in sight, displaying varying levels of intelligence throughout the film. For most of the run time, it uses stealth to snare its foes, easily picking them off. But for some inane reason, there is the inevitable 'showdown' scene, where the creature suddenly decided it will face the village head on (the 'trap' sequence). is the Moorwen! Now, this picture might not show it, but the creature actually looks pretty cool, this is one of the highlights of the film. It's similar to a large displacer beast (D&D fans rejoice), complete with pseudopods that it can whip around to snare and decapitate the unwary. It also uses luminescence to enthrall and trap its foes. Kind of cool, honestly. Of course, this Moorwen isn't alone. There is the inevitable BABY MOORWEN OF DEATH! Graarrrr! What the fuck. Yes, for real.

The cinematography is decent, much like other films of this sort to come out in recent years (action epics like Apocalypto, BC, and Pathfinder). The score is average, and there are no memorable themes here. It's not a complete disgrace to Norse culture but it cheapens it to cliches, and you lose a lot of that raw thrill. Had the film been shot in Old Norse (it's only spoken a few times, as they take the 'translator' implant sci-fi cliche) it would have greatly improved the mood. The performances are all pretty dull, Caviezel and Hurt try their best, as does Ron Perlman in his role as the hammer-slinging chieftain/antagonist Gunnar, but they have so little to work with. The action is average at best, there is some gore involved but not a lot in the way of creative death. Decapitations, guys getting their chests ripped out, basically the same shit you've seen in any movie like this. There is a pretty tragic and touching flashback in which Kainen's people are purging the Moorwens from their world in a massive firestorm. You can really feel sorry for these creatures. It's the best scene in the movie.

The film was directed by the little-known Howard McCain, who also wrote it. Unfortunately, he's also writing a new Conan feature. He's going to have to do a lot better than this, or you can consider that childhood fondness raped into the dirt.

The bottom line is the movie was an uninteresting pastiche of other plots and better movies that had come out before. It's just as mediocre as the recent Pathfinder, another film that failed to give us thrilling Viking action, or the dull animated Beowulf feature. You're better off watching The 13th Warrior any day of the week. Actually, how about manning the fuck up and tracking down a copy of 1958's The Vikings, starring Kirk Douglas.

You can thank me later.

Verdict: Fail (4/10)

Shadows of Paragon - Fear of Being Forever Lost EP (2009)

This is a promotional EP of epic black/death metal from a newer Swedish band, who are using it as a sort of teaser for their upcoming full-length album. The band has wisely decided to offer this EP completely free, you can find the details at the band's site.

There are four tracks here, delivered in a straightforward hybrid style with a mixture of snarling and growling vocals, typical of other Swedish melodic death or black metal. The band makes use of piano in opener "Silentium", a fairly mid-paced track with epic melodies and a lot of slower blast beats to keep the pace ever forward. "Fear of Being Forever Lost" is a little blacker, not unlike Sacramentum or Dark Funeral. "In the Midst of Morbidity" has a little more of the death metal influence in the vocals and a few of the breakbeats, but for the most part it is charging over a hyper blast beat. The album closes with the piano/ambient piece "Ad Infinitum".

The production is solid, and it was mixed at Studio Fredman in Sweden, where many popular acts developed their sound. The band is tight, this is true Swedish melodic black metal and all the instruments fall into place. The biggest downside to this EP: a lot of the riffs just aren't catchy enough. Solid enough to make the songs work, but there were no 'oh damn' parts where I felt I had to re-listen. I can probably recommend to fans of the late 90s Swedish sound, bands like Sacramentum, Lord Belial, Dissection, etc. This is only an EP, it's quite possible the rest of the material on the upcoming full-length is a lot better, we shall wait and hear.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Gontyna Kry - Arystokracja Ducha (2008)

Gontyna Kry is one of the most enduring of the NSBM bands, having formed some 15 years past. Arystokracja Ducha is only the 3rd full-length, and the band currently consists of only one man, Bard, who performs all the instruments. This is an impressive feat, because the music here is tastefully complex and well-structured, a hybrid of black and progressive death metal with some pagan folk influence, sweeping orchestral atmospheres, and excellent solo work.

"Czas Wendów" is a flowing acoustic intro with synth atmosphere, it's quite nice like the lapping of waves on a northern shore, and then some spoken folk before the album bursts into the glorious black speed of "Lucicowa dusza", a labyrinth of gothic pagan riffing, atmospheric layers coagulating about its fiendish, melodic black heart. "Mistyczny zywiol wojny" is a mid-paced track with some insane double bass (drum machine I'm assuming?) under its lavish tapestry of wisdom and mystique. The rest of the album is of a similar quality, with some other nice instrumental pieces such as "Biel i czerwieñ". If you can imagine a Polish version of Therion but with more technical guitar work and less choirs, you might be in the right frame of mind, though there are enough differences.

The album sounds quite nice, especially the guitar tone and the tasteful layers of synth. The vocals have a desperate black curdling to them, and the acoustics on the album are excellent throughout. Many bands of this ilk are still caught in the super raw rehearsal style of production, but Gontyna Kry has a professional and vibrant approach to its sound. If you are into well-honed pagan/NSBM and don't mind some influence of death or gothic metal, then Arystokracja Ducha is an album certainly worth your time, and the best I've heard yet from this veteran act.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

The Law - Distorted Anthems from the Suburbs (2008)

This is a Swedish thrash band highly influenced by the 80s American scene, from the Bay Area style of Exodus and Forbidden to the NYC greats like Anthrax and S.O.D. The vocals are kind of wild and have that Germanic edge of bands like Deathrow, Vendetta, and Paradox. Peter from Vomitory is one of the guitar players, and the riffs are fairly exciting in many of the songs.

The intro "Lawman & the Law" is an instrumental thrash setup bit, similar to what you'd hear on classic albums from Sacred Reich, Razor or S.O.D. Unfortunately, the next track is painful. "Anthem" is basically one of those cheesy biographical tracks which list off influences and talks about the band itself, I generally tend to hate this type of thing. We KNOW you are a thrash band, we KNOW you have those influences, we are listening to your album right now..."We found the truth in our guitars"?! Give me a break.

Musically, the album gets better after this, once the band moves on to actual thrash song subjects and just becomes much more energetic and fun. "Nothing to Say" is a bristling Bay Area thrasher with some great vocal thrills. "Can U Not Talk" might make my eyes water with its title, but it's another thrasher that makes me want to rage with its flowing speed. "Dude of Darkness" (again, ugh...) is yet another fun and crisp sounding thrasher. "Suburban Satan" is a pretty cool Anthrax-styled anthem. To close out the album, they cover Overkill's "Elimination", and it's a pretty good fit considering this band's influences, though the vocals come off a little goofy (some would argue that Blitz' original vocals were goofy, and to those people I would offer a hardy fuck off!)

The album sounds great, nice and bright tones, the vocals are pretty excellent when the lyrics don't completely suck, and the gang shouts also work well. It sounds like the band is having a blast with this style, and if you also want an old school thrashing neck injury, then you may want to listen to this. Some of the lyrics and song titles are extremely stupid to the point of being painful, so I hope next time out they'll take it a little more seriously (that the band is into retro thrash is already implied in the sound, we don't need anything else to beat us over the head with the fact).

Verdict: Win [7/10]
(just barely)

Mournful Congregation - The June Frost (2009)

In the months leading up to this release, I quickly grew to have strong doubts about its quality due to small samples uploaded by the band. Essentially showing off tired doom riffs isolated from the cohesive entirety of the full songs, these early tastes gave the appearance that Mournful Congregation had succumbed to the uninspired tropes of the genre that they had skirted for so long. Thankfully, this isn't the case at all with The June Frost.

Interestingly enough, Mournful Congregation somehow decided to pick the absolute worst parts of the album as their teaser material. Perhaps their songs do not work as excerpts, but they really could have chosen better. As it turns out, The June Frost is a pretty damn good downer of a time. "White Cold Wrath Burnt Frozen Blood" and "Suicide Choir" make up the despondent meat of the album, fulfilling the requisite epic song length quota through their purposeful wandering through dusty passages and sleepy alcoves. The unique Mournful Congregation style is most definitely still going strong - the spacious, warm sound; the notes drawn to quavering exhaustion; the whispered reverence of the vocals - a formula that should be instantly familiar to those who heard The Monad of Creation. The June Frost introduces a new element in the heightened focus on guitar leads that wend their way plaintively throughout the songs, which proves to be an excellent choice in every instance. This is best illustrated by the title track, a guitar-only instrumental ballad juxtaposing a four-minute-long electric solo with acoustic picking to create a beautiful reprieve in the middle of the album. On that note, The June Frost is interesting in that it shows off an excellent selection of short, atmospheric tracks that serve to break up the typical density of funeral doom albums. The aforementioned title track is also joined by "Solemn Strikes the Funeral Chime," a bold intro resplendent in ominous organwork and the toll of its namesake, "The Februar Winds," a slightly industrial slice of dark ambiance, and "The Wreath," a compact eulogy that sends the album out with all due gravity. All four of these are tasty on their own, but as a whole really help instill a sense of variety into the album and feel nothing like filler.

On a less positive note, The June Frost isn't all doom and giggles. "Descent of the Flames" is a hit-or-miss song whose base riff gets a bit more mileage than it deserves, although it works well when the other elements in the song pick up. Similarly, "A Slow March to the Burial" rides out a rather tedious tune, reminding me of far more mundane bands due to a distinct lack of embellishment or progression. While the former piece had a fair amount of material that I enjoyed, both tracks stand out as definite low-points on the album. This certainly isn't something to be lightly shrugged off, as these two constitute a quarter of the material on hand, but the album isn't excessively diminished by them.

Serene, peaceful, and spiritual, Mournful Congregation create a sound that, more than the large majority of bands currently playing this style, captures the feel of early funeral doom. This genre walks a fine line, striving to uphold the most sluggish of paces while still managing to keep the listener's attention; yet, when it succeeds, it captures the lethargic calm of depression in a way that no other music does, and Mournful Congregation understand this. Will The June Frost titillate those who are averse to the slow and low? I highly doubt it, but it certainly reaffirms what I have always liked about the band, and stands as a strong new step in their career.

Verdict: Win [4/5]

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wardruna - Gap Var Ginnunga (2009)

Wardruna has been in the corner of my eye for quite a long time now. Kvitrafn (of Gorgoroth and Sigfader infamy) started recording as early as 2003. Bits and pieces of his work trickled out over the next few years, but we finally have the first complete work of the Runaljod trilogy, Gap Var Ginnunga.

The album is magical, both in the literal and figurative sense. As each album in the Runaljod series will do, Gap Var Ginnunga takes eight runes from the Elder Futhark and sets them to music. Wardruna use traditional and hand made instruments, and reportedly recorded in outdoor locations relevant to each of the runes. The end result is a haunting and authentic journey through Norse paganism and a unique ambient experience.

Kvitrafn is not alone in his efforts. Gaahl joins in the vocal duty, along with Lindy Fay Hella, giving Wardruna a terrifying and beautiful method for engaging listeners more than most "ambient" projects are capable of. The vocal arrangements are some of the best elements of Gap Var Ginnunga, though they never overshadow the other parts of the whole. Percussion is effective if minimal, and the melodies delivered by flute, mouth harp, and the occasional fiddle are stretched over the songs to excellent effect.

Gap Var Ginnunga carries a varied pace over it's eight runes to great effect. Often a release of this nature can lose me in it's more minimalist moments, but that has not been the case even once with this album. The slower moments of Gap Var Ginnunga bridge the rest together well, keeping a simple and yet interesting balance between tempos and tones. Gap Var Ginnunga is an album that can serve as periphery stimulation or primary listening - and accomplish the rare in filling either role equally well.

Wardruna have a great success in this album. Fans of ambient music, pagan neo-folk, and other traditional styles will all find something to like here. I was very excited to listen to Gap Var Ginnunga for the first time, after years of waiting. Upon hearing it, I am even more excited for the rest of the Runaljod trilogy. I can only hope it doesn't take another six years to reach us.

Verdict: Epic Win [10/10]

The Wrestler (2008)

*Warning: minor spoilers ahead.*

Oh, the magic of cinema, to make one cry, to make one shudder, to make one stand and applaud. How often can a film capture all of these emotions at once? Not very often, especially in the rather dry environs of 2008's theater fare. Sure, we had one of the best films in years (The Dark Knight, perhaps the reason everything else seemed so bland by comparison), and a few half-decent comedies or genre films, but what else to write home about?

Until I saw The Wrestler, I couldn't answer that question. Now I can, because the monumental, career-defining performance of Mickey Rourke alone is worth shelling out the money for more than one viewing. I had not realized this was a Darren Aronofsky picture, and I was thoroughly impressed. Not only is it a clear departure from his previous films, but it's also his very best work to date.

The film centers around a wrestler, Randy "The Ram" Robinson (stage name) who is past his prime and demoted to the amateur circuit. The matches are grueling and realistic, and quite endearing, because they offer a glimpse into the world of these wrestlers, a brotherhood of showmen and sportsmen who may just deserve more credit than they get in this country. Have a bias against wrestling because it's fake? Deplorable? Go and watch this movie. You will never look at them the same way. Trust me.

The film follows a very slice-of-life formula. After suffering a near fatal heart attack post - grueling exhibitionist match, the future of the Ram's career is in question, and we follow his daily life as he works a deli, attempts to re-connect with his estranged daughter, and pursues a relationship with a stripper-mom (portrayed quite well by Marisa Tomei) he has patronized for some time. This is all handled exceptionally well, with loving realism. There are hilarious scenes which will forever etch themselves into your memory. After finally getting enough cash to regain access to his rented trailer, 'Ram' plays Nintendo with a young neighborhood boy, who grows quickly bored and tells the wrestler about Call of Duty 4. At a small American Legion post, Ram and other washed out wrestlers sign autographs for the few worthy fans to remember them. Ram and his stripper interest ruminate to the 80s hair metal of Ratt in a bar. The 90s sucked, and it's all Kurt Cobain's fault! Brilliant. Scenes like this are laden in believable emotional gravitas, and Rourke will hypnotise you with his devotion to this character. I may not have broken up myself, but my girlfriend was crying for at least two of the scenes.

Did I mention Accept's "Balls to the Wall" can be heard in this film? Yeah. Udo, motherfuckers.

The rest of the cast and characters are fantastic. Instead of the beefed up, angry morons you'd expect due to our cultural stereotypes, the wrestlers of the film have quite a positive relationship with one another. It helps that Ram, though flawed, is one of the friendliest characters you've ever seen. We get to see them working out details of their match as they plan to entertain their audience. We get to see the dark side of muscular stimulants and the like, the film doesn't try to hide anything. Most important is the message of the film: do what you know, and be who you are, even if it has a good chance to kill you.

Rourke, Aronofsky, and the rest of the cast and crew deserve accolades for such a loving portrayal of an individual in Middle America. The film is epic in its simplicity, and I highly recommend it to anyone with a goddamned soul, because I don't even have one, and I loved it.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10]

Ephel Duath - Through My Dog's Eyes (2009)

While Ephel Duath have ever been an interesting and original band, I have never been much of a fan of their jazzier, mathematical progressions over the past few albums. For me, the more avant-garde black metal leaning of the first full-length Phormula remains the band's best material.

Through My Dog's Eyes is an interesting listen. As usual, you can't be quite sure what to expect; the album combines such wide ranging influences as blues, jazz, math metal, sludge and indie rock into a far-reaching but functional morass of poetic angst. The album starts with the bluesy slide of "Gift", complete with country guitar jangle, angry and aggressive hardcore vocals, and progressive explorations. Unfortunately, it's just not very good. "Promenade" and "Breed" are somewhat better, with some really strange riffs and a kind of driving alien atmosphere that often evoked the feel of a Voivod, yet taken to a new extreme of oddity. The sludge-driven experimental doom of "Spider Shaped Leaves" (great song title) is also pretty captivating, but the rest of the album gave me little to remember, even after a subsequent playthrough.

The album has a unique mix just as it has a fusion of expressive styles. The guitars are not too distorted, but bring just the right brunt of punky sludge to keep the album within the borders of a dark and playful tone. Guillermo's vocals are angry yet slip right into the confusion as a unifying force. If you are a fan of the past few albums, this one goes even further out into territory all its own. You may find quite a lot to engage you. I was certainly engaged by the stylistic choices, just not enough by the actual riffing. If you're new to the band, but favor the extreme avant-garde fringe metal ripples of bands like Ulver, Maudlin of the Well/Kayo Dot, recent Dillinger Escape Plan, etc, then give it at least a listen.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Wolves In The Throne Room - Malevolent Grain EP (2009)

'Tis that sacred time again for us to be blessed with another release by ultra-reclusive, ultra-meaningful Pacific Northwest enviro-black metallers, Wolves In The Throne Room. Now, what awaits with this release? The continued affirmation that our modern society is at odds with Mother Earth? That our Spaceship Earth is experiencing critical system failure due to our carelessness and total disregard for the environment? If you answered yes, take another soothing sip of organic peppermint tea and pat yourself on the back.

Malevolent Grain is another attempt by this foursome (they added a guitar player to their lineup, presumably because he has a van that runs on loathing for capitalism) to tell us about the errors of our ways. The EP itself sounds very organic, yet polished which is a positive I can attribute to the release. For what the band is trying to achieve, they do know how to set the right atmospherics for it. Now, on to the negatives. The two songs that comprise the EP, “A Looming Resonance” and “Hate Crystal”, both clock in at over 10 minutes each. This should be no surprise since both of the songs sound like they were put together with parts of previous WITTR releases. There is nothing new here. It is the same material with different song titles. “A Looming Resonance” does, however, come with somewhat interesting female vocals, courtesy of Jamie Myers from Hammers of Misfortune fame, that were misleading at first since they appear quite early in the first track and made one think that perhaps the band had decided to add something a bit more dynamic to their songs again. It should be noted that Myers also featured on the first WITTR full-length release Diadem of 12 Stars.

I cannot claim to actually know what the band is aiming for these days with their releases besides from reiterating their mantra that our demise is inevitable should we continue with the direction modern society is headed in. Do they offer anything new? Not really. Is it interesting, engaging material? No. Is it great to listen to in the background? I would be tempted to say yes. As stated previously, the production on the EP is phenomenal and everything sounds crisp and clear, without losing that fuzzy, organic vibe that a band like WITTR could not do without. Yet, the material itself is bland and boring. The band is touring more these days so maybe they are a band that needs to be experienced in the flesh in order to 'get them'. Try it with some organic mushroom tea that you sip from a cup made out of birch bark. Maybe it will all make sense then, but really, who cares?

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cannibal Corpse - Evisceration Plague (2009)

With a career now more than 20 years deep, Florida's most enduring and consistent death metal band returns with its 11th full-length album, losing none of its energy and not once deviating from its traditional blend of technical riffing, bass savvy and violent resonance.

How you feel about this album will largely depend on which 'camp' you are in: if you favor the Chris Barnes era of Cannibal Corpse, it's possible you will once again whine about how it's not this or that. If, like myself, you feel the more recent stretch of George Corpsegrinder-fronted albums (dating back to Gallery of Suicide; Vile was mediocre) marks not only the band's career high but also one of the most consistently excellent periods in any death metal body of work, then you will once again be delivered unto gore soaked euphoria by the Evisceration Plague. It's a little better than its predecessor K.I.L.L., in terms of quality.

"Priest of Sodom" opens the album with a many-fisted beating, a blasphemous curb stomping with punchy riffs and those evil octave chords these Florida bands like this use so well (Morbid Angel is another). "Scalding Hail" is short but sweet, and by sweet I mean it will kick your fucking head in, but in less than two minutes. "To Decompose" is one of my favorite tracks on the album, that opening riff just immediately takes me back to what I goddamn loved about an album like Bloodthirst, technical yet still extremely catchy and, in the interest of all the best death metal, DISGUSTING. "A Cauldron of Hate" can be felt wrenching straight to your gut, about to empty your stomach of its contents and then jerk the stomach itself right through your abdomen. "Beheading and Burning" makes use of evil chords under flighty grinding death metal riffs for a truly terrifying and paranoid atmosphere. Incredible. "Evidence in the Furnace" is a bloodwash of off-point open speed and chugging arson. "Carnivorous Swarm" paints its insectile antagonists through a creepy, quick rhythmic patterns. The title track is plodding and groovy, and you just won't believe some of the incredibly evil solos they put over the rhythm as the track just rocks out. If this one doesn't have your fist beating you are probably not a death metal fan. "Shatter Their Bones" will 'eat your fucking guts and your brains'. "Carrion Sculpted Entity", aside from having the best title, has Alex Webster written all over it. Absurd. "Unnatural" is another of my favorites for the new album, the riffs are just amazing from the busy blasting shuffle of the verse to the claustrophobic order of its bridge. "Skewered from Ear to Eye" closes off the album just as consistently as anything that has come before.

As usual, the musicians are on top of their game. Guitars are sick, bass is unbelievable and the drumming is rock solid through each shift of rhythm and intensity. Corpsegrinder's vocals are perfect in this setting, not so gurgly and brutal that they distract you from the wealth of busy brutality going on beneath them, and rhythmic enough in their own right that they can be quite catchy. The mix sounds fantastic.

Florida death metal is...unhh...alive! Listen no further than this album for the proof. If you think Cannibal Corpse is some washed up band, think again, because they are continuing to create their best work, among the best in death metal today. No excess wanking. No failure to deliver a beating. No losing track of the fact that good death metal must convey fear and horror through its music rather than artificial measures of 'technical' excess.

Why are you still reading this? Money well spent, so do it already.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Weltenschwaerzer - Abkehr (2008)

I'm often impressed by the lengths to which a single man can compose a devastating black metal release, and Abkehr is one such case. German Werner Mortensen performs all the instruments across three lengthy tracks, clocking just over a half hour of music.

The style is turbulent, violent yet very well balanced. When composing longer songs of this genre, one has to make sure to avoid endless repetitious that would bore the listener, by crafting a wealth of riffs that can combine seamlessly. Mortensen does this well. "Das Lied der Freien Menschen" opens the album with its 11+ minutes of bleak blasting menace, weaving patterns of grinding black metal below the snarling and vile-tastic vocals. The song interrupts the blasting bits with some doomier, slower black metal. "Herdentier" once again emerges from the starting gates with a lengthy exposition of slaughterhouse, grinding chords, truly holocaustic. But the track creates some vivid and harmonic moments with its slower sequences and hypnotic chord progressions (I was reminded of Endstille's style during a part of this song). "In Ketten" is the shortest of the three tracks and begins the slowest, with a pattern of glorious chords under a swelling beat. This may be the crowning moment of the album, for the textures in this track are truly rich and thought-evoking, far less brutal than the others.

I was quite pleased with this EP, the quality is consistent and it sounds fantastic for a low budget recording. The bass and drums thunder below the chords, but the guitars and vocals are the real scene stealers with their endless barrage of vitriol. Much talent and promise has gone into this recording and I do hope to hear some more!

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Deadly Spawn - From Beyond the Dark (2008)

What a delight...first I get a new album from Intestine Baalism, and then this...the debut from a band performing brutal old school death metal with charming, adventurous leads and dense, murky, creepy atmosphere. Japan is delivering the goods. Not so surprising, guitarist Jiro Ito was once a member of Intestine Baalism.

But on to the record. From Beyond the Dark provides 8 tracks of low and bludgeoning brutality with an affection for early 90s death metal songwriting. It works all too well. "Lunatic" is a choppy and punching track to open the album, with some excellent alien shredding. "Pray" begins with a great riff which would not have sounded out of place on the classic Harmony Corruption from Napalm Death. "Looking Down on the Past" begins with playful bass below the percussion, then erupting into a riff that will rock your face off. "Screaming to Break Out of This Darkness" grinds. "Omnipotence is Impotence" was one of my favorites on the album with its dual chugging tech death/thrash intro. "Over Fear" is another energetic, winding tune with some great guitar solos.

Like Intestine Baalism, this band is excellent at capturing several old school death styles and merging them into something that becomes their own. The dense and depressive production of the album ups the ante, this is far from your big budget tech death, and as a result it sounds far more evil and genuine. I didn't feel all the songs were tip top quality or entirely consistent, but the majority deliver down tuned death metal bliss. This is a great debut and I hope we will be hearing more like this in the future.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Left 4 Dead (PC, 2008)

Even though I consider myself primarily a PC gamer, I have often visited Valve titles out of a sense of obligation more than genuine excitement. The science-laden world of Half Life never really did much for me beyond it's storytelling style and clever design. I primarily spent my time with modifications to Valve's games like Counterstrike, Team Fortress Classic, or more recently Team Fortress 2. Left 4 Dead, then, is the first Valve game that had me positively squirming in my seat with anticipation from the moment I heard about it. Zombies? Co-operative focus? Zombies?! Ravenholm was my favorite section of Half Life 2, and I knew that Valve could do the undead right. (Ew.)

The gameplay of Left 4 Dead is divided into two modes, Campaign and Versus. Campaign pits you and three friends (or bots, you pathetic loser) against the hordes, while Versus puts you and up to 7 friends on teams of four, with one team playing the Survivors and the other playing the Infected, taking turns moving through the levels. Versus can't be played with bots, so if you want to play a zombie and gnosh some brains you'll have to get online and play with other people.

On that note, the singleplayer functions in Left 4 Dead aren't even worth discussing. If you're playing this game with bots, you're absolutely doing it wrong. Get at least three friends and a microphone, and before you know it you'll be yelling obscenities at the Infected and screaming for your buddies to remove the cranium of the Hunter on top of you.

It's in those types of moments that Left 4 Dead really distinguishes itself from the rest of the multiplayer world. There isn't a game on the market that can top L4D in terms of co-operative experience. Whether you're playing the Infected and trying to run the survivors into the ground or you're a Survivor just trying to make it to that next safe room, you simply won't succeed or have as much fun without your teammates.

L4D not only does a great job of pulling you into your role as a teammate, it boasts the strongest characterization I've seen in a multiplayer shooter yet. Louis, Bill, Zoey, and the almighty Francis are a lot more than just a randomly assigned skin. They have personality to spare, as do the boss Infected, which is pretty impressive considering they just gibber and scream now and then. (Metal trivia: Mike Patton did the voices for the regular Infected) In all my time spent with Left 4 Dead, I have found myself speaking “in character” on more than one occasion, which stands as an excellent testament to how deeply involved you can get in the characters. I find myself groaning when I have to go and pick up Louis, but rushing to Zoey's aide whenever she's in trouble. Bill, I figure, can take care of himself.

Developers of the world, take note. Good characters are important, even in multiplayer games. L4D really raises the bar here, and I would be shocked if we didn't see more attempts at creating more three-dimensional characters for multiplayer games in the future.

Multiplayer games are intense affairs, with moments of uneasy calm peaking into crescendos of chaos. The Infected will come at you like a swarm possessed, and then return to their ambling state as you move on, lulling you into a false sense of secutity before building to another vigorous, horriffic assault. L4D distinguishes itself here, as well; the other first person shooters of the world tend to be a mix of short, intense battles and the occasional drawn-out ordeal. L4D builds it's intensity in truly sublime fashion, allowing the players to control the pace to a certain extent, but more importantly making the pace a focus of the game. In Versus, you'll find that the team that controls the pace tends to win the game. In Campaign, these moments occur organically as the hordes and boss Infected throw themselves at your bullets.

I would be remiss not to mention the matchmaking interface, as it leads to my only real complaints about the game. There is no standard Source server browsing here, unless you use a console command and connect to a game in progress. Most times, you will start in a lobby with some friends, and the lobby will find a game (and subsequently a server) for you. This kind of system should be familiar with anyone who has a console that they play games online with. Much like on a console, you may find yourself wishing for more features in the matchmaking almost right away. You will end up on servers in foreign countries, servers with terrible connections, and servers that really have no business existing in the first place. Once you're in the game, you'll have to run a vote to return to the lobby if the server is less than great, and start the process over again. Valve, in their infinite wisdom, also decided not to let you see your ping while in game, instead displaying your connection with a color-coded series of bars. Valve, I'm a grown man. Let me choose my own server, and let me see my ping. Color code it if you must, but this is a PC game. I demand the ability to connect to a server of my own choosing.

As soon as you find a decent server, these complaints will retreat to the furthest corners of your mind. You will only be concerned with surviving an onslaught of the walking dead, or picking off the few who dare to resist your undead fury. L4D is immediate and visceral in ways that only the best multiplayer shooters can compete with. Apart from the matchmaking, it brings only good things to the genre, and to gaming in general.

Left 4 Dead could be a perfect 10/10. In fact, depending on the level of support it receives from Valve in the next few months, I may have to revisit the score. As it is, though, the server finding woes are worth a deduction of at least a point. It's hard to find fault with much else, though, and this is as Epic of a Win as you can get without channeling the divine.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (Zombies Killed God)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Graveyard Dirt - Shadows of Old Ghosts EP (2007)

Shadows of old ghosts indeed - Graveyard Dirt are an Irish band that formed back in 92 and called it quits after one demo in 96. Yet, more than a decade later, they're at it again with a fantastic ep well worth any doom fan's time.

Graveyard Dirt play a very classic British style of death/doom, strongly reminiscent of the Peaceville Three in its spacious sound, yet still original and quite compelling. There is a strong feel of the romantic, pagan pride that many of the Irish bands seem to have moving through the humming guitar leads, to speak nothing of the lovely accented spoken sections that pepper the songs with Celtic glory. The vocals otherwise stick to a gruff, shouted style full of character, although it can get a tad strained when he tries to get more melodic without giving up the guttural aspect. Of course, as is necessary for doom, Shadows of Old Ghosts has a rock-solid, heavy churn to the guitars to give a ponderous weight to each song. The lyrics move with an anguished, quasi-religious theme running throughout that harks to the ongoing Christian troubles of Ireland, but they're first and foremost full of despair, and it works well.

The surprising part? Much of the material on this album was actually written around the time of their original demo, although it wasn't recorded until recently. If this had been released back then, Shadows of Old Ghosts would easily have become a classic, or at the very least, a huge cult favourite. It will be interesting to see how completely new material will sound, what with the large amount of time that has passed, and we'll have to wait and see if they can produce enough material to create a compelling full-length effort, but I'm confident that these blokes won't drop the ball if they continue on.

Verdict: Epic Win [5/5]

Colosseum - II: Numquam (2009)

Finnish and on Firedoom - you know you're in for a treat. Provided that you can enjoy the slow and low, of course. Juhani Palomäki's (perhaps more familiar as the frontman of Yearning) other project, Colosseum, is back with a follow-up to the promising, albeit unfocused, debut album Delirium.

The style here is very Finnish, and instantly brings to mind Shape of Despair through the prevalence of synths and the overall pleasant, shimmery sound that evokes sorrow much moreso than overbearing doom. Soaring, virtuosic guitar leads and keyboard melodies provide a thoughtful focus that pulls the listener through the song, well aware of the plodding funeral material that lies below yet never held back by it. Thankfully, Colosseum don't lose themselves in the keys and manage to keep up a solid, satisfying core. Numquam is a very consistent album built around a strong formula that deviates very little from song to song, so the entertainment to be found here should be easily understood - if you like one song, you'll like the rest, and vice versa. The only break in the album is "Outro," a trippy little piece that shows a more experimental side of the band, one that I think should be expounded upon more in subsequent releases despite the throw-away nature of the track. On the thematic end of things, Colosseum go for a familiar, despair-laced esotericism, delivered in the poetic choppiness of one whose first language isn't English:
Moments languish in their absence while silence moans
Paralyzed in dormancy, lifeless slumber drowning in emptiness
Senses still flicker awaiting the hopeless awakening to a vague travesty of being
Carrying human body in a long dead soul
I found this to be a rather enjoyable listen and a good start to 2009 in terms of funeral doom. In fact, the only aspect that I feel is really holding Numquam back is the fairly flat production. Although it's heavy and ripe with expansive reverb, the album is just too dry for its own good, lacking that crushing weight that really drives this style home. If they can keep it up and flesh out the sound a bit, I wouldn't be surprised to see Colosseum become quite big in the funeral doom world.

Verdict: Win [4/5]

Summon - Fallen (2005)

This is a classic example of an album that should be a common household name amongst metalheads, yet rarely seems to come up. On Fallen, Michigan's Summon offered a level of intensity rarely seen in a US band, before or since, and frankly, I find it bewildering that they don't get more praise heaped on their heads.

Summon play a furious blend pulled from the devil's triangle of black, thrash, and death metal. After a quick, foreboding intro, Fallen makes good on the promise of the cover art - "Blood Red Skies" is a storm of bottomless hate, an army of crimson-tipped riffs charging relentlessly past the ephemeral light of the weak. "Mindrot" continues with a predatorial scream of triumph, an open-armed exultation at the conquering of morality and the concomitant plummet of life into depravity and madness. Each piece on the album upholds this violent pace, yet the album avoids monotony through very distinct songs that know when to lay off the speed to keep things from blurring together.

spins a simple picture that is more than familiar to the general metalhead, but the single-minded passion that it's delivered in paints it far more vividly than most bands ever could. Xaphan howls in basilisk tongues, blistering and full of venomous hate, yet without sacrificing clarity and legibility. The riffs are harsh and ready to draw blood, but not above taking a moment to bludgeon you alongside Moore's superb drumming. These blokes have a lot of talent, and it really shines through on this album. Every now and then there's a clunky riff, but Summon never sit around long enough for it to become a real issue.

Sadly, the band disintegrated from the power of their own hate, purportedly ending in a fistfight between members at a show, and this was to be their last effort. Sad? Certainly, but there are far, far worse ways to go out than ending on such a high note. Fallen stands as the highpoint of their albums, an opus that still stands out in a music scene devoted to the extremities of expression. Thankfully, this wasn't the complete end for those involved - Xaphan has recently resurfaced with the punk/thrash project Wastelander, while the other guitarist and drummer also showed up last year in the debut of metalcore/thrash band Dissonant.

Verdict: Epic Win [5/5]

Friday, January 23, 2009

Decrepit Spectre - Coal Black Hearses EP (2008)

If the debut EP of Decrepit Spectre should seem surprisingly professional and refined, it's no revelation, as the band's roster all hail from some pretty fanciful projects, including Seth, Asmodée, and Code. The sound they manage to evoke here is reminiscent of modern Emperor or Ihsahn: vicious and technical modern black metal with a mix of snarling (often death metal) vocals and gothic choirs.

There are three tracks here and all of them stand out. "Graverider" strides forth boldly with those male choirs which recall a lot of Norse acts (Virus, older Borknagar, etc). These are tastefully executed over dark and despotic guitar riffs and grooving drums interspersed with pummeling double bass. I like the use of the random guitar noises over the verse riff. "Stranded Angels" begins with an interesting black thrashing riff accented in evil dissonant chords. A progressive sound, before lapsing back into the familiar clean choir-like vocals. The title track closes the EP, a great song with a layered and complex intro riff, and a few parts that reminded me of Therion's broodier gothic metal.

The EP is mixed very well, easily at the level of most albums from the big black modern metal names. The lyrics are mystical and introspective fare, very evocative:

Black light spills out
And drapes this maudlin gloom
Ascending from vapor cabins
The drowned and mangled angelforms . . . gently loom

This is obviously an experienced group of guys who will find some success in this new project. If you like your black metal with a high production value and dynamic songwriting, unafraid to infuse a darker, gothic leaning, then you should enjoy this. I'm sure we'll be hearing a full length before long. This project is too good to scrap. Also, great band name.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (suckling it burns in the bible-black waste)