Saturday, February 28, 2009

Finsterforst - ...zum Tode Hin (2009)

On occasion the rabid folk metal fan just wants something to kick his feet back to and drink a frothing mug of beer, lager, mead, or whatever the particular poison might be. Finsterforst provides the right soundtrack for such an activity, for the light hearted pomp of its simplistic, almost power metal feel is catchy and well produced.

Now, this is not a joke band; far from it. The snarling vocals are those of a true Viking black/pagan metal band, and even the use of accordion is well placed amidst the flowing power chords and the tasteful acoustics. The album is well over an hour but with only 5 tracks...these range from the 10 minute mark to the epic album closer "Untergang" at about 21 minutes. On the plus side, it's a journey you might like to take aurally while you're reading a fantasy yarn or playing your favorite MMO or videogame. On the downside, the songs can often grow tiring. While solid in their delivery they don't offer quite enough memorable material to justify their length. You may just wish to take in "Urquell" or "Das Grosse Erwachen" on their own, because they both offer the full range of Finsterforst's capabilities. However, if you are a fan of epic bands like Turisas, Thyrfing or Equilibrium, this band should easily appeal to you.

...zum Tode Hin sounds quite positively sparkling, from its dainty and delicious acoustic segments to the keyboards and accordion. The bass is folksy and playful and when the band turns up the rage they deliver atmosphere aplenty, taking you back to the days of European heritage and battle. You know, when we white folk had actual cultures and didn't sit on our duff all day watching rap videos and sports. I haven't heard the band's debut to compare but this would be welcome in the collections of many folkish/pagan metal fans who value simpler melodic writing and the whole 'epic' vibe. This band knows glory.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Esgharioth - Asylum of the Wretched (2009)

Symphonic black metal is always torn between formulaic and dull gothic indulgence and those few bands who can truly evoke an atmosphere and not just a bunch of synthesizers overpowering weak guitar lines. Russians Esgharioth fall somewhere between the two camps, their use of keyboards is not subtle whatsoever, yet they also create some of the best moments on this debut.

"The Raven" begins with a dense wall of turbulent synthesizer, before the chugging dark metal riffs enter beneath excellent, omnipresent keyboards which summon a lot of depth above the chaos of its thrashing and grinding guitars. The vocals are a hybrid of black snarls with some lower register growling. This song is both powerful and haunting. "Blood on the Snow" is anchored a little more in its guitars, with the synths taking a backseat, and while this isn't a bad track itself, it lacks some of that unique power of the first. Fortunately this atmosphere returns for "Cathedral of Lost Souls". "Bloodline" begins with some striking gothic pianos and then some interesting riffs. "Through the Pain" has several atmospheric sections where the metal dives out and it sounds like you are about to enter Castlevania 66.6: The Bloodkommand of the Drakulastic Order. I mean really evocative haunted house style sequences which do not disappoint! "Dievarication" has some nice black/death riffs below its sweeping synth chords, and it's another winner. The album closes with a sad and scintillating instrumental, another dark pleasure.

For a first album this sounds quite nice. Often the synths drown the guitars, but never fully, and in fact it's this emphasis which makes the band stand out. They're not the most technical of symphonic black metal bands, but they make good use of their skills. The cover for this album is pretty spot on. Think of decrepit asylums and estates in a moon-bathed, haunted landscape while you listen to the album, and let it carry you away to those desperate spaces far from the sun. A good debut and a band to watch!

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Samael - Above (2009)

Samael have been on a tear in the past few years, but to be honest they've been producing the type of albums that only the dedicated fanbase would be able to appreciate. Fused with elements of pop, electro and even a kind of rappy vibe, Vorph's vocals were just growing stranger and stranger. Their last album Solar Soul was quite good, but not at the level of the romantic Eternal or the monumental Passage (which remains one of my favorite metal releases of all time).

It is with some surprise that Samael have dialed back the years on their latest album, for a heavier approach reminiscent of both their black metal roots and their first few forays into synthesized gothic mayhem. It's an interesting maneuver that may put them back on the radar of dispossessed fans who abandoned the band in the early 90s, but should still appeal to those into the Romantic modernisms of the band's cosmic unity consciousness.

Above opens with the shattering "Under One Flag", a brutal number with some traces of glorious melody hinted at its fringes. "Virtual War" continues this style of Passage on Prozac. Vorph's vocals are truly back to the roots, loud in the mix, black as night but lacking a lot of the goofy but endearing phrasing they've had on the past 3-4 full lengths. "Polygames" begins even heavier than the first two tracks, but it does give itself some room to breathe with its epic, sweeping chords and synths. "Earth Country" and "Illumination" are likewise very heavy tracks for this band, but they possess a little more of the melody and anthem qualities of the previous album. The album seems to save its catchiest surprises for its latter half. "In There" is a majestic track with some galloping rhythms and desperate guitar charging. "God's Snake" is a total Passage style song, and just about as good. "On the Top of It All" is another of the best tracks on the album, with a trippy intro that soon transforms into a grinding death metal bit, and then again into some bluesier bruising leads.

If Above has a weakness, it's that the band seems to have gotten too heavy all at once. The album does not lack for consistent energetic brutality, but it's simply not as catchy as what we are accustomed to. Granted, this might be a good thing to a great many people...obviously the band wanted to deliver their fastest and heaviest offering in a good, long time. Samael is probably unlike to come up with another Passage, but Above makes a concerted effort: it simply lacks that classic album's penchant for timeless and memorable tracks. However, if you've been avoiding the band because of their poppy side for the past few albums, it may be time to re-subscribe.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Titan A.E. (2000)

If you're wondering why more original science fiction properties aren't given the green light in this day and age, it's because of tripe like Titan A.E. and other turn of the century flops which have all but killed the general public's interest in the medium. More specifically, this film is an insult to good taste and certainly an insult to the incredible job it's CGI animators did on creating breathtaking space sequences.

The plot is pretty standard apocalyptic science fiction fare. An alien species known as the Drej have for some reason decided that humanity must be eradicated. So they descend upon Earth to blow it all to Hell. The humans have of course predicted this would happen and so many escape in a mass exodus on generational ships, including a mysterious vessel known as the Titan. Deus ex machina time! Protagonist Cale (who is voiced decently enough by Matt Damon) is given a genetically coded compass/key which can activate the Titan, which is in fact a genesis device capable of creating a new planet Earth guessed it...minutes? Maybe an hour? The genesis ship reaches its location and then runs out of gas, so it's up to Cale to come along and re-ignite it all somehow, to reinstate the human species. Along the way he meets a traitorous human captain (voiced by Bill Pullman) and his alien crew, and happens to fall in love with the only other human his age he meets in the galaxy. The audience won't care, they must all be dumb, right? Wrong.

First off, we are NEVER given any explanation as to why the Drej hate humanity. Maybe they feel threatened. Who the fuck knows. Now...considering that the Drej are a SPECIES MADE OUT OF PURE ENERGY, why the hell would they be concerned with humans or the material races at all? This makes no sense. Secondly, if humans are capable at this point (in the 31st century) of creating a planet IN MINUTES, why are they not capable of technologies that can defend their planet? Thirdly, we are introduced to many other species in the film, all of which have technology of their own, so why do the Drej just leave them all be? How are they not a threat? This has to have one of the most idiotic, phoned in premises of any film I have ever seen. Did you seriously even think about this for 10 minutes before pitching it? And how did it pass edit? Was there no one with a grain of sense in their head working on this production who brought any of these relevant and painfully obvious observations to the director? I have a tendency to lower my expectations with films, since I know there will always be miraculous Hollywood style escapes and predictable plot twists, but the logic of this film is staggeringly stupid.

What makes this even more the tragedy is that this is a film whose universe has some great ideas and is beautifully illustrated. The main characters have a very motion based, expressive animation which you'd expect from director Don Bluth's video games (Dragon's Lair, Space Ace) and Ralph Bakshi-style animated films, but what really shines is the detailed computer animation of the ships and environments. There are some beautiful interstellar locales in this film, like the void of colliding, monolithic ice masses which mask the location of the Titan (there is a far-fetched chase scene through the area). Or the ship racing along a gaseous nebula as it tows mysterious 'wake angels' entities, which is essentially like swimming with the dolphins. I also really enjoyed the vulture-like alien species' homeworld with its natural exploding gaseous bulblike plants. This is all quite psychedelic and wondrous and deserved a lot better treatment than the shitty plot upon which it is wasted.

In addition to Damon and Pullman, you'll hear many familiar voices here: John Leguizamo, Ron Perlman, Nathan Lane, Drew Barrymore and Janeane Garofalo are all here, even Tone Loc in a short role as the alien Tek (HAHAHAAHAHA). The voice acting and Grame Revell original score are passable, but the selection of modern rock tracks is another truly frustrating element of the film. At certain 'pivotal' scenes involving the main characters, awful pop rock tracks from mediocre artists suddenly appear as if they are going to somehow afford the film some hipness or perhaps help teen viewers relate. This placement is almost as bad as the script writing.

This film is best avoided unless you have access to some of the space scenes which are quite beautiful. Had the obvious talent of its production team and animation studio been used on a half-decent science fiction script, we could have had a cult classic on our hands. As it stands, Titan A.E. is a hideous disappointment which could please only the least demanding, incompetent media suck puppets on Earth. Kill it. Kill it with fire.

Verdict: Fail [3/10]
(points for art direction and CGI sequences only)

Watain - Sworn to the Dark (2007)

Back in 1999, Watain released an EP called The Essence of Black Purity. When I decided to review their latest full-length, Sworn to the Dark, the title of that EP stuck out in my head as a perfect descriptor of this album. Sworn to the Dark is essential black metal, as pure and authentic as it gets.

"Legions of the Black Light" opens the gates to the temple of Watain, a warm and terrifying introduction to everything that follows. It's a fury of soul crushing riffs, frantic speed picking and masterful occult lyrics laid to rest with breakdowns born in the pits of hell. The themes here will carry for the whole album; frantic, almost thrash-inspired pacing broken by sudden drops into the depths of blackened depravity.

I could go on at length about every song on this album. "Satan's Hunger" is a harrowed tale of horrific discovery. The title track is one of the most frightfully intense black metal songs I've ever heard. With lyrics like:

"The all-defying pendulum of radiant conviction,
so determined in it's pace,
pounding now through flesh and bone
like a hammer through a child."

Sworn to the Dark walks a razor's edge between deliberately minimal leads and utterly overwhelming percussive riffs that will shove Satan's fist so far up your ass you won't have a choice but to bang your head. "The Serpent's Chalice" embodies this perfectly with an opening that could be a demonic army's war march. E. spits his blasphemy with due reverence and a strong poetic meter rarely seen in black metal.

"Wings of Satan, orb my heart!
It burns with love for you.
And it is ready now, to receive thee.
Claws of darkness, tear my soul!
For I have chosen the night
and branded its seal into my flesh.
Lead me to the catacombs
where light of neither sun nor moon
disturbs the dark in vaults,
possessed by molten evil manifest.
There I shall kiss the goat and piss on god.
Sundering the molecules that bind
this world together with me."

The album closes with "Stellarvore", a slower paced pledge to the nether. Haunting choruses reverberate as Watain calls to a long dormant god to awaken. "Stellarvore" quickly becomes exactly the sort of black fury that the rest of the album channels, and it closes out the album well. Brevity forces me to only pick the stand-out tracks to discuss here, but Sworn to the Dark is insanity from beginning to end, make no mistake.

There is never a shred of doubt as to the fullness of Watain's devotion to occult Satanism or the methods that they have chosen to give it form. If the music lagged behind the message for even a moment on Sworn to the Dark, it would bring some imbalance to the album, but instead they seem perfectly matched. To find a band so fearlessly championing this kind of evil without a trace of irony is rare. For that band to be musically as charged as their message is even more so. Sworn to the Dark is a masterpiece of modern black metal, and should not be missed by anyone.

Verdict: Epic Win [10/10]

Friday, February 27, 2009

Therion - Theli (1996)

The one thing I’ve always loved about Therion is that they keep surprising me at almost every turn with the direction they take with their music. Theli was made soon after Lepaca Kliffoth, and showcased the band moving towards a more operatic style.

Theli achieves the interesting blend of operatic, symphonic and who knows what else that Therion is perhaps best known for. Whereas Lepaca Kliffoth was a transitional phase, Theli represents the style that Therion has morphed to, and will keep for several albums and years to follow (and since we’re talking about Therion, this means that while they remain recognizable, they sure as hell keep introducing variation into their work).

So, how about the music itself? Well, Theli is composed more or less in the form of a single work. Beginning with a prelude, stopping in the middle with an interlude and ending in a finale, the album functions as if it was the soundtrack to some fantastic opera, telling tales of strange and eldritch events. All the songs are tied to each other in some way, so as not to stand out too much. The songs retain their unique sound, and when played back to back become a grand compilation of feelings ready to carry you away to the sea of obscure magic and myth.

Identifying stand-out songs in the album is a little difficult to me, as so many of them are so very, very good. If I had to give one, which stands above all others, it would be “To Mega Therion” with its generous use of operatic female vocals and extremely dynamic structure. Like many of the songs on the album, use of peculiar melodies and Therion’s heavier roots form a glorious symbiosis in “To Mega Therion”, which is pure fuel for imagination. Other peculiarities worth mentioning include “In The Desert of Set” with its blend of nigh-middle-eastern melody, and “The Siren Of The Woods” which slows the album to a tranquil, beautiful end, before throwing one final thrill with “Grand Finale/Postludium”.

Theli is definitely worth checking out if you have a taste for strange music, and good music in general. Therion’s songs are extremely evocative, and their new direction was first showcased in Theli, making this album an interesting starting point for those who might be more averse to Lepaca Kliffoth and Therion’s earlier albums.

Verdict: Epic Win (9/10)

Pain of Salvation - Remedy Lane (2002)

Daniel Gildenlow is a giant blow hard. You don't really have to look further than BE where he had fans call his phone, pretending it was God's answering machine, so they could leave him a message. Unfortunately for the musical world he did manage to produce at least two albums that could be considered masterpieces and a couple of other good, not great, works. Remedy Lane is the one of those two albums. Its an example of everything I like about progressive music, compelling and new rhythms driven by expert musicianship and emotion, rather than a showy solos and stuff.

The album starts with the typical prog intro track then moves into "Ending Theme," which has a nice heavy riff and catchy chorus, but suffers from some rhythmic spoken word part in the middle that comes off as a bit silly. "Fandango" follows and where the real meat of the album picks up. I don't have the musical vocabulary to describe the various prog stuff that goes on here and in other songs, but suffice to say there are quite a few varying rhythms in the music here that are percussive and hitting yet restrained. Like the previous song, this one has a somewhat silly vocal section that comes off a bit like rapping. The idea apparently is supposed to represent to halves of a person, or two people in a relationship, but really it could have been done better, but that's Gildenlow for you.

He is, no doubt, a talented singer with a unique voice. As a lyricist he can be hit and miss. Sometimes he tries to hard, sometimes he produces the next track on the album "A Trace of Blood." In this song he laments the miscarriage of his child to a driving piano melody and flighty lead guitar that devolves into a more appropriate heavy riff.

The highlight of the album for most listeners is probably "Chain Sling." It opens with a slight guitar riff that builds a bit before Gildenlow comes in with his voice at possibly its highest pitch. Here he plays with the idea of dueling voices again, but it comes off much better than the rap in Fandango. This is the song where the whole idea behind his band comes to fruition and is exemplified in a chorus that sums up the emotional core of the album.

There are a handful of slower softer tracks on the album that are quality, but maybe not as complex as the heavier tracks. "Rope Ends" and "Waking Every God" are probably the other two stand out tracks to those mentioned. Have faith though! It is not all praise for Gildenlow, because for some reason two-thirds of the way through the album he decides to assault your ears with a terrible synth piece that revolves around some of the musical themes from prior songs. Who the fuck knows why its in there, maybe he couldn't get anyone to call his answering machine at the time.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Waning - Population Control (2008)

To dub Waning simply black metal would not be doing the band justice. They possess a very warm fabric within their tone which is strikingly different than many other bands in the field, yet for all intensive purposes...the vocals and style of blasting, driving riffs fits well into that category. They also have an almost sludgy side to them, doom-driven yet unerringly melodic. Formed from the ashes of a band called Slaughtercult, they've certainly taken a step forward. Population Control is sure to stand out to anyone looking for some progression to the black metal style, similar to how bands like Enslaved have adapted.

The conversational yet noisy intro recedes into the solemn chords of "Shades of Grey", which repeat for a short period to encapsulate the listener into this universe of modern black impulse. Vocalist Robert Johansson has a deep, throaty take on the expected snarling, and he needs to if he is going to match the walls of guitar and machine-like drummer. "Left to Hate" resonates with a shining pattern of chords and some disgusting vocals as it transforms a sunny day into a grey and thundering mass of sludge. "Swarm" is an unforgiving onslaught of double bass and melodic yet hopeless sounding chords. "Crowning Apathy" moves at a slower pace with some subtle mystery to its catchy driving rhythms. "Further Down the Strain" is fast and intense, and the title track begins with an interesting sample of a Christian lady encouraging the flock. The final track "Hollow" starts with some mellow acoustics and then builds into a pretty engaging rhythm of sludging beneath Johansson's verbal vitriol.

This album has just the perfect mix to accent the band's guitar heavy tone and the extremely tight drumming. I'd like to see the band become a little more creative in some of its song titles but this is just because I'm an anal retentive prick. For what is offered, Waning do a fine job with the debut, and I'd easily recommend it to anyone who wants a modern, urban, nihilistic flavor to their black metal with an emphasis on mood over extremity.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Irrbloss - Bloodline (2009)

This is the full-length debut of Sweden's Irrbloss, a folk/black metal hybrid who are riding off a pair of decent demos in the past few years. Bloodline is a solid offering with a professional sound and some well-written tracks, sure to please fans of the pagan black style.

"Norse Horde" opens with a glorious, churning riff interspersed in blast beats. The chords used mirror the title well, and there is an excellent riff at around the 2:48 mark which will have you pounding your mead horn. "Keep on Walking" builds upon its opening chords as it weaves a melodic tapestry of Viking-like metal that should do any fan of Moonsorrow proud. "As We Lived" has a great lead-in riff with an air of mystique, and gets even better during the fetching verses. "Gaze Upon Me" is largely a slower piece with some truly majestic melodies amidst its faster bursts. Other excellent tracks are "Heresy" with its brief acoustic opening; the rocking "Midwinters Eve", and the dense title track which ends the debut.

Bloodline sounds fantastic, like the work of a far more experienced band. All instruments are balanced below the vocals of Irrbloss (yep, oddly he uses the same stage name as the band, which is Swedish for 'will-o-wisp'), which are well delivered snarls. The album has enough texture and depth to it that fans of other pagan black bands of quality would probably find it worthwhile. So if you're a sucker for Moonsorrow, Enslaved and the like, give them a listen.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Anata - The Conductor's Departure (2006)

Technical death metal, as a genre, ranks barely ahead of breakdown-riddled mallcore for me. I suppose I just don't understand the appeal of listening to a solid wall of musical masturbation; the genre only seems to exist for people who lrned2shred but never bothered attempting to write interesting music. Thank god Anata are here to combat my sweeping generalizations (har har). The Conductor's Departure is an absolutely phenomenal album, easily one of the best things to come out of Sweden in the past few years (which is saying something).

The opener, "Downward Spiral Into Madness" is a great indication of what's to come: complex, memorable, epic, beautiful? It is, quite simply, five and a half minutes of death metal perfection that sets a ridiculously high bar for the rest of the songs to meet. Riff after riff attempts to dislodge your sanity, building up to a majestic lead that stays around just long enough to lull you into a false sense of security before throwing you back into the chaos. A hectic solo later and the majestic lead returns, leaving you with the feeling that your mind has just been violated in the best possible way.

While nothing else quite matches the brilliance of the opener, it would be unfair to say the quality drops in any significant way. Every track (and hell, almost every riff) is memorable, from the sudden prog-esque guitar break break midway through "Better Grieved Than Fooled" and the great buildup and follows to the whiplash-inducing opening riffs of "The Great Juggler." Even the brief interlude, "Children's Laughter," is expertly crafted and, even with the pleasant, almost haunting acoustic guitar, doesn't feel out of place at all.

Each member of the band is extremely talented with their respective instruments; drummer Conny Pettersson lays down plenty of blisteringly fast blast beats and insane fills, while the guitar duo of Fredrik Schälin and Andreas Allenmark weave intricate melodies and shred fast enough to make you wonder if they're even human. Bass also plays a major role, with Henrik Drake's magnificent basslines sitting as high in the production as the guitars, which is a very welcome surprise given the genre.

Fredrik handles vocal duties too, but stands out a little less on that front. Not to say the vocals are bad, mind you, just unremarkable. His voice complements the music well, though there's not really much variety; there's some raspy grunts, and in very few instances, some slightly higher-pitched raspy grunts. Lyrics are also worth mentioning, covering subjects ranging from love and depression to religion, which is generally more interesting than discussing how many ways you can stuff a baby into a meat grinder.

The Conductor's Departure is Anata's masterpiece. Every song is fantastic, every solo, tempo shift, and interlude perfectly placed. It's an absolute essential for any fan of heavy or technical music. I'm running out of adjectives for "really fucking good," so I'll just leave it at that.

Verdict: Epic Win [10/10] (my god owes me an apology)

Falconer - Among Beggars and Thieves (2008)

I had never been much of a Mithotyn or Falconer fan before, so you can imagine my surprise when the latest album not only made my year's end list for 2008, but actually had me listening back through their earlier catalog. Among Beggars and Thieves is probably the best amalgamation of folk and power metal I've ever heard. I didn't think it could every be done properly but I am glad to have been proven wrong. An amazing performance by returning vocalist Mathias Blad is matched note for note by an excellent display of musicianship and songcraft.

"Field of Sorrow" opens to the distant call of synthesized winds and pipes, soon to be buried in the blazing power rhythms and rock tight drumming. Blad's voice enters, blunt and manly but possessed of just the right amount of melodic edge to ensnare you. The track picks up into a charging power metal anthem which should please fans of the European style, yet it's all Falconer. "Man of the Hour" assaults with another bewitching power metal rhythm, busy guitars flowing all over the vocal line, and a great chorus in which the metal occasionally cuts out for some glistening flutes and folks. "A Beggar Hero" in an exercise in earnest acoustics and a lovely exchange between Blad and a female guest. "Vargaskall" begins with choral chanting and then some of the sickest guitars on the album, with a very Mithotyn feel to them (continuity!). Blad sings this one in the native tongue to nice effect. "Carnival of Disgust" is a slower metal track with some amazing chorus lines, guitars here once again delivered with technical precision and extreme catchiness. "Mountain Men" has one of the best speed/folk metal guitar riffs I've ever heard, winding and complex before it parts way to the symphonic verse. Again Blad's skill must be taken into account as he weaves through quick flurries of folk, flawlessly meshing these once disparate musical forms into a perfect whole. "Viddernas Man" is another folk rock track with Swedish vocals. Beautiful. "Pale Light of Silver Moon" again delivers the technical speed metal fury, with some great leadwork. The remainder of the album is equally glorious, with "Boiling Led" leading the way and the epic "Dreams and Pyres" to round it all out.

The mix of the album is superb, considering just how much is actually going on it really delivers the backbone. The great Andy LaRocque (King Diamond) did wonders recording this. Female vocals are used only sparsely and never in an offensive or cheesy way to deride the music. Stefan Weinerhall and Jimmy Hedlund deliver their riffing with a fury, and the rhythm section of Magnus Linhardt and Karsten Larsson keep up easily. I can't think of a single gripe except that one or two of the tracks are ever so slightly weaker than the rest. Even the lyrics are good.

Lower decks were flooded,
Chaos and agony.
The morning air was filled with an aria of cries.
Crewmen jumped the rail now
Choosing ice before the fire.

Any questions? This kicks serious ass, so much so that I feel very wrong in having ignored the band in its former years. I have yet to track down the bonus tracks for the Japanese/Digibook release, if so I'll update this review. This is exactly what I want to hear out of a power/folk metal album, and it's a fucking travesty that this has come and gone already with very little fanfare.

So I'm bringing it. Heralds, sound the trumpets. Buy this album immediately, you apathetic parasites. My will is your command!

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (nail down the traitor)

Tiamat - Clouds (1992)

The first few albums from this Swedish act were decent slabs of death and doom, but Clouds is the true turning point in their career; where it became clear they were destined for so much more. It may not have the psychedelic, crushing weight of its successor Wildhoney nor the abstract brilliance of A Deeper Kind of Slumber, but in its day, Clouds was a pretty monumental effort.

As soon as "In a Dream" opens with its somber acoustic guitars and ambient synthesizers, you know you are in for a trip. The crushing guitars of its verse perfectly elevate Edlund's vocals to their brutal best, and the melodies and organs create the beautiful evocation of true mystique. "Clouds" is almost mid paced with some creepy melodies and a nice shuffle groove to switch riffs. "Smell of Incense" is even better, a Celtic Frost vibe propelling it into its catchy and simple vocal pattern, but the true joy is the great death metal riff contained within. The smell of incense takes me high! "A Caress of Stars" is glorious doom, the melody of the guitar evokes perfect sorrow, and the song is a pretty nice precursor for the next album Wildhoney. Hedlun's whisper of on my head, in my heart and my blood is supple and sensual. "The Sleeping Beauty" is another similar track, with a very doomy riff lapsing into a calm verse driven by keyboards and sparse guitars. Love the masculine gang chorus. "Forever Burning Flames" is one of my personal favorites here; grooving rhythms give way to another of those final, killer death metal riffs of Tiamat's career, and Edlund's vocals sound sick.

Bodies are courses where maggots are turning
Souls are flames that are forever burning

I for one would love to have Edlund start a pure death metal band at some point. "The Scapegoat" offers another wonderful surprise in its mellow acoustics and climactic symphonic chorus. Then I turn to you and say...I worship Lucifer! "Undressed" takes us out with more the band's gothic landscapes and a bizarre but beautiful ending.

This was pretty classic material, it possessed a lot more ambition than Sumerian Cry or The Astral Sleep and I was quite taken with it. I still am. I've always been a Tiamat fan, even in their more openly gothic phase way ahead of this, but it's the trio of Clouds, Wildhoney and A Deeper Kind of Slumber that the band will always be legendary for. Easily recommended to fans of gothic death/doom or unique and quality metal in general. And if you're named for a draconic Babylonian sea goddess, you've got quite the legend to live up to.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]
(liars don't listen)

Dismember - Massive Killing Capacity (1995)

1995 was a pretty big year for Swedish death metal. At the Gates released their classic Slaughter of the Soul which would change the landscape of metal worldwide, and the melodic death scene was starting to make a large buzz around Dark Tranquillity's The Gallery. But for one of Sweden's original death metal demolition teams, Dismember, it was just business as usual, as they issued their third full-length. This is never a band I've been entirely in love with, as I don't find many of their albums to be consistent: a few good tracks, then the rest I can pass on. And while I still enjoy Life is an Everflowing Stream (their debut) most, Massive Killing Capacity is one of their better overall efforts.

"I Saw Them Die" starts off slowly with a pummeling, groovy pace, some somber melodies play alongside the chords and the track should please any fan of the Dismember/Entombed style. The title track has some nice death metal tones and a chugging verse. "On Frozen Fields" is one of the best here, with a melodic riff that eclipses into a doomy set of chords beneath the vocals. Other strong points are the pluggy and thrashy "Wardead", the dark and groovy "Justifiable Homicide" and of course the catchy "Casket Garden" which spawned its own EP.

The entire work roils in that typical Swedish tone, but Dismember have delivered a pretty clean production. Unfortunately, this derives the music of some of its sloppiness and heaviness, which in the case of these sorts of bands, is almost always preferred. Massive Killing Capacity is a tight album, and fans of Entombed's Wolverine Blues or Clandestine would enjoy it as a backup, though this band has never gone very far down the death'n'roll path of their peers (you can hear a smidgen of that style on this album but nowhere else in their career).

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]
(the blaming days are over)

Proud - Fire Breaks the Dawn (1984)

Another of those countless 80s metal acts to emerge, release a good album and then suddenly dry up and disappear, Fire Breaks the Dawn is nonetheless proof that Swedish metal had a pulse long before the advent of the country's death and black metal scenes at the turn of the decade. They possessed the typical power/speed metal style of the day, equal parts Maiden, Priest and Sabbath, with a less ambitious vocal presence (but by no means weak).

The strength of this album lies in its guitars which are always fetching melodic grace and catapulting the songs above average. "Star Fighter" is your average mid-paced metal anthem on its surface, but the classical tapping before the chorus and the beautiful brief lead bursts are what drive the track. "Echoes from the Past" moves at a bluesy, shuffling trot, and once again during the chorus a new guitar melody breaks forth and transforms the song. "United World" starts at awesome with some slower guitars almost like a nation hymn, then a dirty 'eavy metal riff with some descending, moody octave chords. The dual leads later in the song are excellent. "No Losers" has a mean but catchy groove to it, and again some wonderful guitar melodies with a neo-classical feel. The deep male choral vocals are also a nice touch. The title track begins with some powerful acoustics, but this is no power ballad, as the majority of the track is verse chorus verse chorus metal. "Dark Lady Forest" is one of the faster tracks here, and one of the best; its searing melodies part into pure 80s speed metal, and the vocalist Anders Magnell shines as his voice elevates. The riffs are great, the opening melody is almost a precursor to Running Wild's more melodic mid-career period. "Crucified" once again delivers on the band's classical influences for a gorgeous intro melody, another of the best tracks, and perhaps the most enduring. The album closes with another of its strongest "Star of the Masquerade", again dripping with gorgeous melodic leadwork.

In all, the album holds up well. It had a pretty good mix for its day, with all instruments in check and a nice bass mooring its highly melodic texture. Magnell wasn't the greatest vocalist but he gave it his best; his performance is worthy of the music. It's unfortunate the band's career was so brief, but at least they left a few of us with a positive memory. The album was re-issued on Old Metal records last year, so you may still be able to track it down if interested. Collectors and purists of the melodic 80s style when metal was pretty much just metal should find enjoyment with this.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

(the band hasn't existed in about 25 years...and sadly there is no website available)

Bestial Mockery - Christcrushing Hammerchainsaw (2002)

As if its title alone weren't enough to warrant inclusion into any discriminating heathen's music collection, Bestial Mockery's full-length debut also delivered a serial killing 10 tracks of primal blackened hyper-thrash metal in the vein of Venom and Bathory. But be warned: this is not the type of album you go into expecting melodies or chorus hooks. It's not the 'riffy' style of thrash. It's anchored in simplistic black metal rhythms and blast beats which occasionally lapse into crunchier thrash metal breakdowns. The hilarity and savagery of this band are the saving graces.

"Bestial Warfare" begins with a snaking, relentless battery typical of the Swedish proto black metal, slowing only for a doomy segment below its wild solo. "Suicide Blasphemy" has a bit more of a thrash breakdown amidst its nonstop torment. "Bestial Satanic Sacrifice" is one of the best tracks on the album, with a punky thrashing verse riff and some throatier vocals. Other searing songs include the Marduk-like "Warfuck", "Morbid Invertation", the grooving thrash of "Chainsaw Inkarnated" and the death metallic rhythms of the title track.

The album is mixed simply as one really needs for this style. Drums are tinny, guitars are dense but laid back in the mix, bass audible, and Master Motorsåg's snarl is as pure as they kum. Christcrushing Hammerchainsaw is not the band's best album, despite having the best name. I prefer Gospel of the Insane and Slaying the Life, but the difference in quality is marginal. Bestial Mockery are no longer with us, but their albums are well worth tracking down if you like extreme hybrids of black & thrash metal (think Bewitched but far more aggressive) or unforgiving early black metal.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Grand Theft Auto 4: The Lost and Damned (2009, Xbox 360)

With a roaring introduction to a gang of all-American biker badasses, Rockstar's The Lost and Damned episode serves as an enticing return to Liberty City and all the virtues and vices therein. The Lost and Damned adds a few glittery bits to the GTAFormula (I'm so clever), but nothing here changes the overall mission structure or basic gameplay.

Let me just say this: I fucking love biker gangs. I love Hunter S. Thompson. I love Sons of Anarchy. My family has a history of outlaw bikers that goes back to some of the first days of Harley Davidson. I could not enjoy The Lost and Damned, no matter how hard I tried.

The Lost are an outlaw MC based out of Liberty City with an entirely forgettable cast of "characters". I put that in quotes because the characterization here is so lacking compared to the base game. One of them has a wife, that much I can tell you. Your character, Johnny Klebitz, has a junkie ex girlfriend that he just can't seem to shake. TLAD really shoots itself in the foot with characters pretty early on; the most interesting character, Billy Grey, (President of The Lost MC) falls out of the story just when things are getting rolling. Billy was a total prick, but well-written and well-acted, to the point where he was overshadowing everyone else in the same scenes. I was sad to see him go and even more sad that he doesn't really return much.

"Missed opportunities" seems to be the theme of TLAD. From the character problems I already mentioned to the under-utilized new mechanics introduced, the whole thing reeks of what could have been. Johnny can ride in formation with other bikers, refilling his health, armor, and repairing his bike. It's too bad that the other members of the Lost are such miserable fuckwits! As it stands, their erratic riding behavior and inability to turn corners lead to formations only working on long straight stretches of uninterrupted road. The formation mechanic, much like Billy Grey, also disappears early on in the game, never to return.

I hated the cycle of re-buying health and armor after every mission in GTA4, and formations seemed like a promising way to get out of that. Soon enough, though, I was calling up my body armor dealer every few minutes and eating as many hot dogs as I could. Why, oh why, couldn't I keep up the formation riding? It was pretty fun for the few moments that it lasted.

Despite being firmly planted in the boots of Johnny Klebitz, for all intents and purposes, The Lost and Damned could have been a Nikko Bellic adventure. You perform exactly the same kinds of missions for the same contacts; hell, you even end up doing a few of the same missions from the base game in a different perspective.

Not only will you be re-treading some ground with TLAD, you'll be losing some of the features that make GTA4 fun. I never encountered another outfit for Johnny, despite reading in a few previews that it would be possible to change his look. Lots of the interiors are gone from your map, though you can still frequent a Cluckin' Bell if you manage to find one that's open. You can still do side missions and hang out with your friends, but there's no real reason to anymore.

Though the overall picture is pretty grim, there are some things to like about The Lost and Damned. The new racing mode is gloriously reminiscent of the almighty Road Rash, with every racer armed with a baseball bat. Johnny K rarely travels alone, and you can call for backup from your brothers while out on "club business". The AI is surprisingly competent in a firefight, and it definitely takes some of the sting out of the still-terrible action mechanics.

Changes in the motorcycle physics have also lessened my disappointment in TLAD. No longer do you have to meticulously avoid contact with any other object in Liberty City when on a bike; your chopper has a real feeling of weight now and is far more useful as a vehicle. You'll still get shot at far too easily riding it around, but once you ride the new bikes, you'll feel like a chump climbing into a cage again.

If you're really, really hankering for more GTA4, The Lost and Damned may be right up your alley. It feels very tacked on to the original experience, and if you just can't get enough, you'll be satisfied.

The Lost and Damned is about $20 in MS funbucks. Not a bad price for the 10 or so hours of content, but not a good one either. If you simply must have more Grand Theft Auto, I'd at least recommend waiting until it's on sale. TLAD is very much more of the same, and it falls apart over the course of the game just like it's predecessor did. It's just that much harder to forgive the same flaws twice.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Silencer - Death - Pierce Me (2001)

Aside from their exceedingly rare 1998 demo, the infamous Silencer's only release is one of those albums that separates the boys from the men. Any tasteful fan of suicidal black metal will appreciate the depressive atmosphere conjured by the quality guitarwork and surprisingly clear bass, the standard driving blastbeats, and the- oh, shit, the vocals. Have mercy!

Death - Pierce Me boasts a unique vocalist in Nattramn: this genuinely disturbed individual displays his range across the album's six tracks with occasional grunts and growls, but it's his anguished, piercing shriek that sets him apart. He does not care how cool you think he is, he does not care about... well, anything but expressing his own personal apocalypse as he hurtles towards the bitter end. He will make or break your enjoyment of this suicide soundtrack.

Silencer does not let you get comfortable, whether it's sharp turns into piano interludes in the first and final tracks or "The Slow Kill In The Cold" and its absolutely frozen synths that lay you in an ice bath for your wrists to stain red.

I Am What You Deserve
Death Do Me Submerge

Take a rope, take a razor, take a gun. They're just different roads to your destination.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Arch Enemy - Black Earth (1996)

It is a crime that fame and praise have come to Arch Enemy only with their most recent efforts, Doomsday Machine and Rise Of The Tyrant. Sure, while there may be some very nice solos and generally good songwriting, their first three releases outclass their last four in every department. Starting things off we have 1996's Black Earth, a dark, heavy, fast debut that set the stage for one of the better melodic death metal bands to come out of Sweden in the 90s.

Black Earth begins with the poundingly fast "Bury Me An Angel", one of the best cuts on the album characterized by what made Arch Enemy and the Amott brothers well-known: catchy riffs and great melodies with fantastic solos sprinkled throughout. This trend of quality continues with the next few tracks, "Dark Insanity" and "Eureka", the latter being my personal favorite on here, having some of the best riffs the band ever recorded. Following that we have "Idolatress", with a catchy-as-hell chorus. "Cosmic Retribution" is another fine song, this one with a rare acoustic lead with a distinct Latin flavor. The last two songs are also great, packed with Johan's snarling vocals and Daniel Erlandsson's blasting drums, leading to the rather abrupt ending. The first of the bonus tracks available is "Losing Faith", which has a nice headbanging feel to it and fits well on the album. Finally there are two Iron Maiden covers, "The Ides Of March" and "Aces High", both of which I am not very fond but aren't without their charm.

Unfortunately no album is without its flaws and AE's are present here. The riffing in some spots is so simple and repetitive that it can be hard to distinguish one song from the next until the inevitable stuck-in-your-head-for-days chorus or face shredding solo. The lyrics can be a bit painful as well, but only for a few lines at a time, never for an entire song. The biggest disappointment here are the two brief instrumentals, "Demoniality" and "Time Capsule". Both are short and rather uninspired sounding and I end up skipping them when I listen to this album. AE's talent for these tracks would only be heard on their follow up to BE, Stigmata. One final flaw that I find here is the length of the disc, only 32 or so minutes.

Black Earth is not the best album that came out of the Swedish melodeath explosion, nor is it the best effort from Arch Enemy but it is still a solid album full of great songwriting and awesome solos that deserves praise and recognition amongst their growing discography.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (god turned his back on man in divine resignation)

Dragonland - Astronomy (2006)

Four albums deep and this fantastic Swedish act proved yet again that they are criminally underrated amidst the prog/power metal circle. Astronomy is a glorious effort which manages to transform even its more annoying elements (I'm speaking of the guest fairy metal vocals and chug rhythms) into strengths. Jonas Heidgert sounds excellent here, his voice a clarion which should appeal to fans of other Swedish power metal acts like Nocturnal Rites or Dream Evil. On the whole, this album feels a little less ambitious than its predecessor Starfall, but the qualities remain intact.

"Supernova" is an excellent choice to lead off the album. It begins with a perhaps too-obvious sample under some ambience, then a symphonic synthesizer sequence is accompanied by some chugs and a pick-up riff which leads into the female vocal part, which I admit with some guilt, is quite beautiful. The verse has an excellent little guitar fill which breaks up its basic chugging structure, and this really makes the track. "Cassiopeia" once again uses the female guest vocals to good use, here she sounds a little like Anneke (ex-The Gathering). The verse to the track reminds me a little of Evergrey, and the chorus features Heidgert and Elise doing a dual melody. "Contact" picks up the pace considerably with some great riffing, and I enjoy how the verse begins with just Jonas, the drums and some ambience. The chorus features some anthemic European metal closer to their first few albums, and a great little shred. The title track is another hard rocker with some great melodic voice work. "Antimatter" actually sound slike a melodeath track at first, and Jimmie Strimmell of Nightrage contributes a few backing snarls. "The Book of Shadows Part IV: The Scrolls of Geometria Divina" is a nice break and totally different from what you've heard so far. It's a symphonic instrumental with some nice vocal samples and a tribal buildup. Really cool, and would probably do well in a video game. Other notable tracks are the anthemic "Beethoven's Nightmare", "Direction: Perfection" with its catchy verse synthesizer, and the three part symphonic/prog metal epic instrumental closing the album, called "The Old House on the Hill". My only complaint with this is it may have benefited from more use of the vocals to tie the album together, but as it stands it is still quite enjoyable.

The mix is excellent as with so many of these power metal albums. The synths and guest vocals are used to great effect and the band is endowed with talent in all departments. That being said, I wound up liking this a little less than Starfall. Either way, fans of power metal with prog leanings owe it to themselves to track this band down.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (bring me one last choice)

Bloodbath - Resurrection Through Carnage (2002)

There are recipes for success and then there are recipes for success. Combine the talents of Jonas Renkse (Katatonia, October Tide), Blakkheim (Katatonia, Diabolical Masquerade), Mikael Akerfeldt (Opeth), and Dan Swanö (Edge of Sanity and a few hundred other bands) into a loving tribute to their death metal roots, then profit. The Breeding Death EP from 2000 was a nice teaser, but fortunately the band saw fit to record all new material for this full-length debut, which for a while, remained my favorite of this project's albums, though pretty recently I've come to the conclusion that its successors have indeed surpassed it.

Bloodbath were not out to win any awards for innovation, but to strip away the complexity of their current projects and have a good time writing what comes natural, old school Swedish death with the crunch on overdrive. That the songs are this polished is a testament to the compositional and production skills of its membership, but I wouldn't necessarily consider this a classic for the genre (and I think other retro Swedish death bands, like several of Rogga's projects, are superior).

The album begins with a nice fade in to "Ways to the Grave", a crushy blow to the skull with a nice creepy riff after the midpoint. "So You Die" begins with a tearing lead over a thick rhythm, then splitting off into some groovier segments. "Mass Strangulation" has a great, wailing atmosphere during its breakdown which is one of the more kickass moments on the album. "Death Delirium" is a fine track, highly reminiscent of old Entombed. I'll be honest, almost the entire album sounds like a sequel to Clandestine. But that's not a bad thing. Other standout tracks here include "The Soulcollector", the riffy "Bathe in Blood" and the brutal "Like Fire". It's good to hear Nystrom performing in a different style than his usual gothic/doom leanings, and Akerfeldt sounds absolutely intense in his vocals here, easily the rival of any of his Opeth growls.

Resurrection Through Carnage succeeds at its goal, and it's always great to hear a group of veterans put something like this together. The effort is sincere and should not only appease fans of the early Swedish bands, but perhaps even drag some fans of the members' newer works into the style. The day some Opeth scenester kids come up to me at the mall and tell me they've been listening to Dismember or Paganizer will be the day I can die happy.

Verdict: Win [8/10]
(poisonous, vile obedience)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Shining - V - Halmstad (2007)

While the entirety of vocal work found on V - Halmstad is Swedish, it is not necessary to understand the lyrics to be transported to a self-destructive space of mind. The album begins with a spoken word introduction, a recitation of "Antigonish" by Hughes Mearns in English before Shining envelops you in shadows. Evil dual guitars swirl in the opening track "Yttligare Ett Steg Närmare Total Jävla Utfrysning" before giving way to an eerie acoustic melody accompanied by the sound of rain. Drums and a cold bassline re-emerge, followed by singer Niklas Kvarforth, sounding nearly soothing. The track's opening maelstrom shows again, briefly, and then once again after another more calm, and yet wholly sinister interlude.

The second track again begins with dual guitars, an acoustic paired with an electric meandering in the background, together weaving a sorrowful sound not unlike something from Agalloch. Shining charms you with these beautiful and haunting musical spells before grabbing you with some considerably evil, unique black metal. There are a number of these relatively peaceful bits interspersed throughout the music, but the backbone of Shining is a driving, grim assault that sucks you in and allows you a glance at perdition. During the fourth song "Besvikelsens Dystra Monotoni," another acoustic melody appears, accompanied only by drums, and Kvarforth demonstrates truly tortured vocals, showing incredible range as he shifts from convincing wails of pure anguish to sounding briefly like Tom Waits possessed.

Shining as a band display plenty of malice and uncomfortable, creepy tunes, and yet remain playful enough to work a cowbell into their album. It is this experimental aspect of the band, and of course their obvious diverse musical talent, along with some impressive vocals, that keep me coming back to V - Halmstad, and other albums by the Swedish masters of suicide.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (deny tomorrow)

Dark Tranquillity - Fiction (2007)

This is one of those few albums that manage to sneak up on you, draw you in, and get stuck in your car's CD player for months on end. The first track, "Nothing To No One", starts innocently enough but about half a minute into it the track changes direction and from that point on your stuck. Not until the last note of "The Mundane and the Magic" do you even consider lowering your volume to pick up the kids from school, driving by a funeral at a church, or even passing a cop at three in the morning.

Dark Tranquillity have always released very, very good albums but not until Fiction have they hit their mark. Their past two efforts, Character (2005) and Damage Done (2002), added more of their original death metal roots to their music but each album never had much punch to it. There were definitely some good tracks on them but also a good amount of filler songs. Fiction (2007) fixes this. Whether it be "The Lesser Faith", "Blind Heart", or "Icipher" with their explosive choruses, or even "Nothing To No One", "Empty Me", or "Focus Shift" with it's heavy punch, this album doesn't stop. Where this album really shines though are it's four more oddball songs. "Inside The Particle Storm" is one of those tracks where the title explains the exact feeling of it. With a couple simple guitar chords that seeminglessly blend right into an huge sound and amplified into your ears, it does the trick. "Misery Crown" and "The Mundane And The Magic" highlight Mikael Stanne's clean vocals, the former even being complimented by with Threate Of Tragedy's female vocalist, Nell Sigland.

Now, "Terminus (Where Death Is Most Alive)"? That track has everything a melodic death metal fan will want from a band. Honestly, if someone made top 15 list of melodeath songs, and this wasn't on there I'd be pissed. An awe inspiring keyboard intro, to some heavy guitar chords, to an explosive chorus... ugh, just go listen to it already.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (if I could merge the mundane and the magic)

Darkane - Layers of Lies (2005)

It took a few albums for Darkane to trump their excellent debut Rusted Angel, but trump it they did. Both Insanity and Expanded Senses maintained the band's use of technical precision, high velocity Swedish death/thrash, but they lacked a little of that debut's depth and biting, charismatic edge. Layers of Lies recaptures that quality and complexity, and in fact surpasses it. I was initially thrilled by the album, but it wasn't until recently that I started spinning it again and became even further enamored of its charms.

Layers of Lies, as the title might imply, is a bewildering and challenging arrangement of piston fueled Swedish thrashing the likes of which only Darkane can conjure. The composition skills of Klas Ideberg and his bandmates are stunning, and I haven't been able to appreciate thrash at this level since the late 80s; bands like Artillery or Deathrow jump to mind (in terms of their riffing skills, they sound nothing like Darkane). This isn't a wanking type of technicality though, it's a skill at creating innovative note selections and an almost constant business to the guitars. I admit, not all of the tracks here stand out right away. It's the type of album that will grow upon a listener as the boundaries of its gray matter expand to the devastation. Add to this the best vocal performance (and sad swan song) of Andreas Sydow to date and you've got a total crusher. The lyrics to the tracks are excellent explorations of violence and the social construct; the human organism and its true purpose and limitations within the confines of nature and civilization.

It begins much like Rusted Angel, with an orchestral intro. This one is known as the "Amnesia of the Wildoerian Apocalypse", named for the band's amazing drummer/composer. The end of the intro begins a slow thrashing haul, and then "Secondary Effects" explodes onto your ears with more passion than most other bands can summon throughout their entire careers. The verse riffs are absolutely fucking intense, and Sydow BEATS the lyrics into you harder than Tomas Lindberg or Anders Fridén could even dream of doing (no offense to that pair of vocalists). The bridge riff is unbelievable, and the chorus epic, as Sydow coughs up:

Orgasmic smell of blood, a new born beast
I have become, I have arrived to join this feast
Born a beast

Once this fantastic track ends, there is no rest for the wicked. "Organic Canvas" bewitches you with its winding chops, barbaric drumming and catchy barking. "Fading Dimensions" begins with a few doomy tones but it isn't long until you are once again pummeled with Darkane's brand of depth charge thrash metal broken up by catchy vocal hooks. The title track is immaculate; beautiful acoustic and lead tapestries part into a bludgeoning and intense mid-paced thrash hook which is so industrial in its feel that you can close your eyes and instantly summon a vision of a long forgotten, rusted but still operative factory churning out waste. The chorus here is also particularly fetching. "Godforsaken Universe" picks right back up into the faster pace, and "Vision of Degradation" works its slower voodoo upon you, picking up for some intense grooves that will probably make you at least ball up your fists, even if there is noone standing nearby to hit with them. "Contaminated" is just par for the course, but begins with a sort of bluesy entry into its sheer awesome. "Maelstrom Crisis" is a glorious instrumental piece which evokes some classical/acoustic sounds amidst its inventive thrash. "Decadent Messiah" starts with bass and then injects a little mathematical groove before it really picks up. Another killer chorus shouts:

Kneel down
Bow before his feet
The master of deceit
Bloodstained, raging liar
Rule with death and fire
Decadent Messiah

The album offers no relief on the ending track "Creation Insane". You won't want any relief, because this is just that fucking good. Trust me, if you don't pick it up the first listen through, continue to do so. You will worship this. Hell...even if you DO pick it up the first listen through, listen to it again! The mix of the album is crushing, one of the best I've ever heard from a Swedish metal album. Every subtle note and bold crushing rhythm is balanced to perfect effect. Sydow's vocals truly stand out and it's a goddamned shame he left after this album. The following album Demonic Art is simply not this good, nor is Jens Broman (a decent vocalist in his own right). Even the cover art here is pristine.

As a musician myself, this is the type of album that turns me vomit green with envy, because I know I will likely never in my life create something of this depth and complexity. It's a flawless album and the fact it's been overlooked by many aside from the usual crowd of Darkane fans or those deep into the Swedish death/thrash scene is once again a crime against humanity. What more could I possibly offer that wouldn't simply be stealing away your attention or time in tracking down this album for yourself?

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Verdict: Epic Win [10.5/10] (no one survives a visit in my hell)

Witchery - Restless & Dead (1998)

When Witchery first arrived on the scene, formed from the 'ashes' of Seance and Satanic Slaughter, I was truly blown away, for their debut Restless & Dead marks one of the very best of the retro thrash metal efforts. It is exciting, entirely memorable and delivers a finely honed blackened edge to its thrash/speed/heavy metal influences, in particular the German sect of cult thrash gods such as Sodom and Destruction. It's a phenomenal album which has rarely been equaled or surpassed, not even by its own follow-ups which have gotten progressively weaker in each iteration. It's also a lot better than any of the works from its members' previous bands (as well as Patrik Jensen's other riff vehicle The Haunted).

But let's stick with Restless & Dead, shall we? "The Reaper" doesn't simply burst out of the starting gates, it pulls down the entire stadium as it fires up. This is quite possibly one of the best first tracks on any metal album, ever. It thrusts along with a furious thrashing pace, Toxine's vocals dripping their pure venom across some pretty kickass lyrics. Yeah, you might think snarls of 'the reaper reaper reaper comin' to get ya!' are pretty hack, but in the context of this song they are maddeningly awesome. The riffs are some of Jensen's best written, in particular the great bridge before the final chorus of the song. Sparse and filthy leads also adorn this gem. Challenge to all 'retro' thrash/speed metal bands: let's hear you write a song like this!

"The Reaper" would be enough to satisfy any non-poseur in the universe, but fortunately Witchery saw fit to hook us up with the rest of the album too. The band's namesake "Witchery" has a killer, caustic groove hook which alternates into brutal classic speed metal verse and an intense volley of chords for its brief choral bridge. "Midnight at the Graveyard" begins with nice samples of rain and a tolling bell as it fuels up its incredible thrashing might. "The Hangman" is a slower tune with some excellent Mercyful Fate influence (a band bassist Sharlee D'Angelo has also played in). "Awaiting the Exorcist" is an glorious, driving track with some killer vocals and burning leads. Insanely riffy. So you've already got an incredibly worthwhile album and you're only halfway through. The rest is pure thrash poetry. "House of Raining Blood" is a slower, moodier track with a creepy old school horror theme. "Born in the Night" lets the cut of its bladed axes begin before picking up with a beat, this one has a thrash/power metal crossover feel which is highly effective. "Into Purgatory" is yet another mandatory riff slugfest, and the final, title track is nearly as intense as "The Reaper". Did I mention I loved the lyrics on this record, as simple as they were?

Let me take you to the promised land
I will lead you there by the hand
Feel the cold that pours out from my soul
(where) I will take you - you will need no more
Place your trust and only faith in me
I'll step in and I will set you free
I'm the hated I'm the so called mean
But I don't judge - you are indifferent to me
Sleep a lifetime - Die an eternity
Deathrider in the sky
Place your trust and only faith in me
I'll step in and I will set you free
I`m the hated I`m the so called mean
But I don't judge - you are indifferent to me

You just don't hear an album this well-crafted every day. It retains its level of excitement even now, with a bold production. I've often felt Toxine's snarls were a little too low in the mix of some songs, in particular on the followup Dead, Hot and Ready. This is not the case here, as they are perfect. The riffs conjured up here by Jensen & Co. are molten fucking hot, the band truly had a grasp on what made their influences so strong and channel it forth into an album that is effective and fun. It is a shame they've never been able to rival what transpired on this disc. Dead, Hot and Ready is still pretty good but nowhere near as catchy in my opinion.

Thrash until death! And do it to this album.

Verdict: Epic Win [10/10]
(an incantation of the dark)

Blodsrit - The Well of Light Has Finally Dried (2006)

One of the striking things about Blodsrit, and in particular this album, is that they eschew the warmer tones typical of the bigger Swedish black metal bands in lieu of a frost-tainted Norse style. They lack for none of the melodies of their countrymen, however, and The Well of Light Has Finally Dried is a majestic and nihilistic credit to its title. Cold and dreary, charging riffs accent their creepier, slower passages, think of sitting in the middle of a northern European woodland on a winter afternoon. Consider some of the members performed in death metal bands prior to this, it's an effectively grim offering, their fourth full-length.

"Illumnious Tu" spaces in with subtle guitar feedback ambience, polymorphing into a very cold but beautiful riff of evocative atmospheres. Naahz' extremely grim snarls create a dense wall of despair, and the song gives plenty of space to its mid-paced blasting charge riffs. "Into Nothingness" opens with a cold and flowing stream of speed plucking lavished in horrifically gorgeous chords. "Vid Grimnas Stränder" is one of my favorite tracks here, begins with a steady and subtle bass groove before the towering chords crash across, like waves of blackened blood over a marble bleak shore. "En Enslig Klagan" is a beautiful interlude with some hymnal and conversational samples beneath a steady clock ticking, fulfilling folk acoustics and some other sparse effects. This is offset by "Jord", one of the faster tracks here, but interspersing its blasting blasphemy with some interesting pauses between beats, and a Bathory-like mid paced verse. "Dödsraseri - den segervissa modern" is a somber and twisting. depressive track which closes the album slowly.

The Well of Light Has Finally Dried! It's a pretty brief album, clocking in at just under a half hour in length, but do black metal albums need to be much longer? Not to be effective. And this is effective. Grim and oft simplistic, it's tonal structures should be pleasing (or displeasing) to the fans of suicidal black metal. But the album also betrays a depth few of your average bedroom black metal acts can fathom, a sadness and glory and an awareness of the margins of the modern world. Many consider their previous effort Helveteshymner to be their strongest work. This album is slightly shorter, but I would consider it equally potent. Nice cover art, too, which of course immediately recalled Massive Attack's Mezzanine.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Trepalium - XIII (2009)

Alright, let's look at that cover art. It's terrible. Absolutely, irredeemably terrible. What kind of a band would choose something like that? Strangely, a goddamn great one. Although it's my first exposure to them, XIII is Trepalium's third album, a killer medley of technical malevolence and a fresh new argument for the richness of France's current metal scene.

Trepalium play a unique take on tech death that contains as much stoner grooviness as it does brutality. Winding riffs playfully, ominously shift their way around odd tempo changes; the guitars peer from angles of uncertain reality, beckoning violently. Thankfully, Trepalium eschew the spastic seizure approach, choosing instead to create well-balanced, flowing songs full of prog, jazz, death metal, metalcore, and grind elements. Gojira is an obvious reference point, although the style isn't that easily compared. "Addicted to Oblivion" looks into an alternate dimension where Clutch became a death metal band - Keke's filtered roaring and the buzzed, off-kilter riffing bring the smell of spacegrass instantly to mind. Melodeath is taken on an inebriated tumble down a flight of stairs with "World Plague", even pausing for a metalcore breakdown that not only isn't terrible, but actually fits naturally into the song. As a one-time occasion, "Glowing Cloud" dampens the tech elements down while it struts out some Morbid Angel brutality, much like a French version of Aeon. Trepalium cover a bewildering span of styles, made all the more sweet by their impressive ability to knit them together seamlessly. The musicianship here is extremely tight and organic feeling - there is never a dull or (unplanned) awkward moment on XIII.

A shining gem for any tech death stalwarts, XIII should prove equally entertaining for fans of more progressive metalcore acts like Between the Buried and Me. Hopefully this album garners Trepalium the attention that they deserve, because it's too damn good to be passed up.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (half point lost for cover art)