Friday, April 30, 2010

Raise Hell - Wicked is My Game (2002)

Wicked is My Game is the third album from the Swedish hell raisers, and for the most part, continues in the style the band established with the excellent Not Dead Yet two years prior. Once more, the band decided to visit Studio Fredman (and In Flames vocalist Anders Fridén) for production, but the difference here is that the mix seems a little less crunchy, and a mite more reserved than its predecessor. The band have an even greater love of melody, and they've come to let the songs breathe a little more in the mix, maybe a bit of pure rock and roll energy too, but this is still a decent, venomous thrash metal album led by Jonas Nilsson's black, rasping, charismatic tones and the power of 'the riff'.

If the intro to "Hellborn" sounds familiar, that's probably because it's a metallic rendition of John Carpenter's Halloween, and here it becomes evident that the band have gone here for more of a 'crisp' than a 'crunch' in the guitars. Still, once the tracks hits 1:30 or so, the music morphs into the Raise Hell original, and sounds quite a lot like fellow Swedish black/thrashers Witchery, with the exception of Nilsson's more pronounced vocal style. The riffs are solid but average, however I did enjoy the little melodic snack around 4:00. "Night-Watcher" is more aggressive, with some fairly virulent thrash riffs and sick vocals (in particular where Nilsson continues to repeat the song title in the chorus), and it's a lot closer to the material on Not Dead Yet. Next is "The Haunted House", which really has nothing interesting on offer, before the title tracks brings us back on track with a pretty rocking chorus with its bluesy melody, if nothing remarkable in the sheer riffing department.

The latter portion of the album brings mixed results. "In My Cell" is hardly inspirational, but pulls off another cute melody in the post-chorus/breakdown before a forgettable bridge rhythm. Far more interesting would be "An Other Side", which transforms from a brief psychedelic of clean guitars to weighty, desperate thrashing groove, with a nice roadster level of speed and killer dual melody bridging the two brief leads. "Deathrace" is fun enough, once again evoking the band's classic horror/exploitation film influence into the lyrics. In fact, the whole album has this haunted theme park thrash meets Alice in Wonderland aesthetic to it, as foreshadowed by the cover pic. "Devil May Care" opens with a similar sound to the previous album's "Babes", before a slow churning rhythm with a lot of groove. Honestly, sounds like an outtake from Not Dead Yet. The final track, "The Destiny Deceiver" is nothing particularly memorable, but probably the best song on the later half of the album, with a rolling momentum, a creepy chorus, and a few strikes of the cowbell for good measure.

Wicked is My Game seems like a natural followup to Not Dead Yet, but it does lack all of that albums overbearing power, as well as the novelty of the band's shift from their earlier, melodic black metal element. This is certainly something you would enjoy as a die hard fan of the first two Witchery albums, but I felt it lacked a little of the bone crunching power of many songs like "Dance With the Devil", "Babes" and the like. It's cool that the band is into horror films and stories, but the lyrics here leave much to be desired. Nilsson's performance is perhaps the strong point of this album, but even that takes a back seat to how wild he was on the last album. Sadly, he decided to focus on his guitar playing for the band's 4th effort, so Wicked is My Game is the last we might hear of him as the Raise Hell frontman. I can't say I love this record. I felt my expectations deflate as I listened through it the first time, and through the years I've had very little reason to re-visit it, but it's successful enough to enjoy for a few spins.

Highlights: Night Watcher, An Other Side, The Destiny Deceiver

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (there is nothing more to accomplish)

Raise Hell - Not Dead Yet (2000)

Sweden has had quite a notable history for being the hotbed of bands that successfully marry the snarling black metal vocal aesthetic with raw, roots thrash which captures the best of both the European and US markets of the 80s. Witchery is probably the most obvious flag waver in this movement, if only for their killer debut Restless & Dead, but a great many other bands have contributed: Bewitched, Swordmaster, Maze of Torment, are but a few. In 2000, having decided to ditch the endless blasting and 'infernal vs. divine' war motif of their debut Holy Target, Raise Hell would proudly join these ranks, with one of the very best albums offered in the entire movement (to date). Not Dead Yet is a chunky beast of massive, simple thrash riffing that is woven through with numerous, creepy guitar melodies that completely kick ass.

What's more, the album is decidedly hilarious, with smutty, evil lyrics that had one of my hands grasping at a crucifix for protection, the other grasping for a handkerchief to clean up the beer I just vomited out of my nostrils. Yes, my friends, this album is FUN. Extremely entertaining! Like having a deck of nude nun playing cards. Because, unlike the hordes of lamer wannabe thrash bands springing up more commonly than leaves of grass in the 21st century, Raise Hell actually plays it straight! Despite the cheesy, 80s rock & roll lyrics, the cover that belonged on a Lizzy Borden album in 1985, there is something adequately menacing about Not Dead Yet. It's extremely hostile, regard of the lyrical output, and if you cannot bang your head to this then you should be exiting the hall with DUE HASTE. Take a little of Mille Petrozza's torn open sneer, huge riffs that would make Cronos or Quorthon proud, add some black metal background aesthetic and mesmerizing, creepy little melodies, and crank it up louder than hell!

Like most of the better thrash albums, Not Dead Yet does not tarry with your hard earned time. It goes for the kill immediately (like Witchery did with "The Reaper"), putting its best foot so far forward up your ass that you'll be choking to death before you hit the chorus. "Dance With the Devil" features an unforgettable, massive momentum to its mid-paced, frothing thrash, with perfectly pedestrian alpha male lyrics that both inspire and terrify!

I know what I want to do and I don't care what they say
I do what I want 'cause I'm the hunter and you are the prey
Come with me, come with us be a rebel
"Come with me and dance with the devil"
I'm the goddamned devil..this job pleases me
Be a goddamned devil...this job will please you to

No beating around the bush, just come out and say it already! All this would be enough for a good laugh and ensuing hiccups, but Raise Hell had to go and write the rest of a kickass song too. The breakdown at 1:30 is monstrous, but there's an even huger one after 2:00, and the solo is both morbid and lethal. "Babes" continues the trend, a lusty love letter to the ladies of the night, delivered in a bombastic, marching bottom end with fragments of shining melody and Jonas Nilsson's most endearing and memorable vocals, especially when his 'that's what I like, that's what I like' shriek shatters in the middle of the chorus. "Back Attack" is strike three, you're out, with its pulsing, heavy bass-line and the charging onslaught of barbaric, apocalyptic thrashing. Rather than visit this pace yet again, the band wisely moves into "Devilyn", set to some clean guitars and an eerie melody that soon bristle with a hellish, bright but slowed slaughter of the band's black metal backlog, with Nilsson using a slightly more harmonic vocal tone.

"Not Dead Yet" picks up the pace considerably, a faster paced thrashing which fully entertains due to the disgusting vocals and the almost 'cheering section' bridge riff/lyrics. "No Pulse" does suffer from a few, generic rhythms, but hearing them played in such a crushing tone certainly increases their value considerably, and "User of Poison" is another fiendish plague of fist pounding, dense thrash with amazing vocals. Rounding out the effort is the strange little interlude "He is Coming", sort of a chant over some swank, martial guitars, marching drums and heavily effected axe fuckery. And lastly, "Soulcollector" is a violent, reckless and swift kick to the groin like Sentenced of Death-era Destruction meets old Kreator or Bulldozer, with some gentle segues of sparkling, clean guitars that creep back into the moshing force. It's pretty long, but never boring, and the desperate, echoing vocals near the finale are a decent surprise if you can make it through.

It's a forceful and unrefined effort which succeeds not only for its innocent debauchery and the witch-like charming of both riffs and melody, but also the very straight, loud, dirty mix it was given at Studio Fredmen. Yes, Not Dead Yet is a crude affair even held up against its predecessor Holy Target, and thought it might not have been the most conscious decisions, it was the right one in the end. This is pretty much what I want to hear when I pick up a more primal thrash effort: good hooks you just can't shake, unforgettable vocals, and even silly lyrics that can stick in the head. Technical, Raise Hell is not. Polished? Who the hell cares. Not Dead Yet is pure, head banging testosterone guaranteed to rock you and your friends into a drunken coma.

Highlights: everything with a pulse.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (I like it when you light my fire)

Raise Hell - Holy Target (1998)

Raise Hell's 1998 debut album Holy Target may not seem all that extraordinary for its day, being heavily influenced by the sounds of Dissection's Storm of the Lights Bane and other melodic Swedish black metal acts like Lord Belial or Sacramentum. However, it does serve as an exception to the band's discography, as they would rather quickly shift their focus towards a fun black/thrash hybrid as soon as the sophomore effort Not Dead Yet. You could, however, trace this transformation back to the debut, because in betwixt the straight up blasting Dark Funeral frenzy and bleeding, unsubtle devotion to melodies, you'll definitely hear a speed/thrash embryo kicking at the sides of its blackened womb.

Holy Target is no exception to quality, though, and Raise Hell have long surprised me as one of those bands with every shred of potential which somehow breakthrough success has overlooked. As early as this album, the Swedes were writing fairly strong material, with a more accessible edge to it than countrymen like Dissection or Dark Funeral, and with a three-record deal through Nuclear Blast records, expectations were high. Perhaps the 'fun factor' I have always felt with this band has somehow hindered them, as they feel like a meter of 'blasphemy lite'. The lyrics feel like a representation of faux-Satanism at its worst, crafted solely to identify the band's music within a larger underground movement that could provide a built-in listenership. This air of blasphemy lends itself to a number of tracks here, like "Raise the Devil", "Superior Powers", "Legions of creeps" and "Beautiful as Fire", but the band also delves in violent death/thrash fare like serial killers and so forth. Personally, I find the Satanic elements to this record hammy, and I greatly prefer the more sexual and silly direction they take with the following album, but at least the lyrics are something once can get into.

As for the music, it's a fairly bewildering storm of serpentine storm beats and streaming chords of fell glory, more immediately catchy than Storm of the Light's Bane or Vobiscum Sathanas if lacking some of their eventual depth. "Raise the Devil" and "Holy Target" are good examples of their more ferocious, warlike melody and incessant burning of energy. The former has some outbreaks of viral Kreator-like thrash (the early bridge around :20) and the latter has a bit of a Bathory influence in its depths (Blood Fire Death era), but otherwise they both explode like abyssal artillery, lobbing fire at the wheeling circles of angels above. There are better songs, though, including "Beautiful as Fire" with riffs reminiscent of a less muddled Sabbat (UK), or the beautiful thrashing violence that sets up "Black Visions", frenetic leads streaming across the harsher barrage beneath. "The Red Ripper" breaks out into a total killer mid-paced thrashing, and both "Mattered Out" and "Superior Powers" are pure punishment glazed in severe riffing ability and Jonas Nilsson's despotic throat.

The album was mixed at Abyss Studios in Sweden by Tommy Tägtgren, and it holds up very well, the blood soaked battlefield of a timeless, metaphysical slaughter. The bass might feel somewhat subdued, but this is largely due to the razor sharp attack of the guitars and the incredible storm of Dennis Ekdahl's drumming (he's also played in Sins of Omission, Mystic Prophecy and Siebenbürgen). As for the compositions themselves, few if any truly stand out to memory, though the album is a pleasure to listen to when you seek a dependable black attack with some melody, and higher production values than many in the scene have mustered. The big label visibility and rather trendy style of this album might have made it a 'holy target' in the eyes of many an underground purist fan who would picket anything that even bordered on financial plausibility or general accessibility beyond the cult black metal crowd, but it's still a fresh blast of carnage you can enjoy alongside the other would-be giants in Dawn, Sacramentum, Mörk Gryning, The Crown and so forth.

Highlights: Beautiful as Fire, The Red Ripper, Black Visions, Holy Target

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (we grind their empty skulls)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Pink Cream 69 - One Size Fits All (1991)

I'm not going to pull any punches here. Pink Cream 69 has got to be the dumbest fucking band name I've ever heard, and if not THE worst, it at least deserves some lifetime metal 'razzie' for its shameful stupidity. Is it a 'cleverly' veiled sex reference? Are the members of Pink Cream 69 sex addicts stuck on dreams of the late 80s flesh and glam rodeos of Warrant and Poison? It would be one thing if this were just some shitty, throwaway glam band like Tuff or Atreyu, but the real tragedy is that Pink Cream 69 are a rather good melodic metal band with only a few forays into the lighter realms of arena/radio rock. In fact, they've maintained a pretty steady quality throughout their 23 years of existence, with only a few dips into mediocrity, due largely to some foolish imperative to 'change' themselves with the shifting tides of 90s.

All told, their best albums are the first three, and this is largely owed to the presence of Andi Deris' vocals. It's true, most people would never have even heard mention of the name Pink Cream 69 had Deris not joined Helloween for Master of the Rings, and he has enjoyed a long and successful sting with that band ever since (for 16 years now), producing a legacy of albums that range from good to outstanding. Honestly, though I loved the primal, nasal whine of a Kai Hansen or the Dickinson/Tate hybrid that was Michael Kiske, it's hard these days not to think of this man as the 'real' voice of Helloween. He's certainly done enough time! At any rate, the things I love about him with his that more popular German outfit are the precise same things I loved about him here: silken, seductive vocals, and a huge range that can impress whether its set to mid-octave cruise control or the measured decay of his upper limits.

One Size Fits All is the band's second album and rock solid; and Andy Deris is not the sole reason. The songs here are well composed, with a flare for both the hard rock drama of the vast, 80s radio market overseas, and the dirty and crunch of roots NWOBHM and European legends like Judas Priest, Accept, Deep Purple, Def Leppard, and more. Of course, it helps that this singer has the rare ability to turn almost any glass of water into wine, and Andy's vocals truly soar across the steady rolling "Talk To the Moon" (imagine Deris had replaced Don Dokken instead of Michael Kiske), or the tasteful speed metal licks of "Hell's Gone Crazy" which is not unlike an earlier Gamma Ray tune: playful, passionate and fully cognizant of a host of 70s and 80s hard rock influences. "Walkin' Out to Heaven" and "Signs of Danger" also paid the bills here, both catchy and expressive, with good leads.

One down side to One Size Fits All could have been the ballads. One or two are always expected, and inevitable having taken even a cursory glance at the cover picture or understanding what style of music Pink Cream 69 were into. But here you got three, with the addition of some clean parts in a few of the other tracks. Fortunately, there are are few singers more capable of pulling these off as an Andi Deris, and they're just as memorable as much of the harder material. "Ballerina" and "Where the Eagle Learns to Fly" are the better of these, but the more uplifting power ballad "We Taught the Children" rocks for much of its length, and is thus not far behind.

Though it's far from perfect, I really can't think of a single song here which fell on its face, and ultimately it's a shame this band did not get more attention than it did. Gee, I wonder why that could be? They don't play a style quite so anthemic as Helloween (or their impersonators Chroming Rose), but fans of Andi Deris in his newer institution will very likely enjoy this, or the self-titled debut, or the 1993 album Games People Play. Fear not. It's not glam, and it's not shite. Instead, Pink Cream 69 were a somewhat thoughtful heavy metal band of the melodic variety, a band of fools who grew up on more theatrical rock influences and mainstream hard rock trappings, and for some reason, could not name their band to save themselves.

Highlights: Talk to the Moon, Hell's Gone Crazy, Where the Eagle Learns to Fly, Signs of Danger

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]
(tell me where the hell to go)

Crowley - Whisper of the Evil (1986)

I have an admittedly deep seated fascination with a great deal of Japanese culture and entertainment. Though my fluency with the language is limited to a few intensive courses I took as a minor at university (and now growing dimmer as cobwebs have begun their interior design of my brain), I still find myself inexorably drawn to their music. Whether that's the harsh violence of Merzbow, the sugary, delightful reconstruction of 80s new wave and dance of the J-pop scene, sexually ambivalent visual kei bands, the scores of both classic and modern videogames by Japanese composers, or the staggering array of metal the nation has produced, it makes very little difference to me. There is generally something so disarming and memorable about what they contribute to record. Of course, as with anything, there are exceptions to be found...

Crowley was not a very well known band, coming up in an 80s scene that produced such prolific and talented beasts as Loudness, Anthem, Tilt, Blizard, Earthshaker, and EZO among others. Compared to most of these, they produced very little in their career: a split release, an EP, a demo and this sole full-length offering. And even Whisper of the Evil itself is rather quaint, just six songs at under 30 minutes of music. The style is pretty stock heavy metal for its day, drawing on the NWOBHM influence of bands like Judas Priest and Def Leppard and applying the characteristic, heavily accented Japanese frontman. Crowley likely fancied themselves a somewhat darker entrant into this vast field, with their necromantic cover art, leather and spikes, but what crops up on this album is actually a pretty subdued approximation of the first few Loudness records. In particular, I was reminded of Devil Soldier or Anthem's self-titled 1985 debut.

Unfortunately, Crowley, despite having such a cool band name, were simply void of much of the attitude and resonant writing that made those other acts such a success. This is very simplistic street metal with incredibly minimal, derivative riffs that do little else than service the linear transmission of the song structure. Though I don't mind Takashi Iwai's vocals, they lack the presence and bite of an Eito Sakamoto or Minoru Niihara. The writing is somewhat weak, with only a few dominant riffs, and even these were not up to date with the times. It's surprising, because the opener "Stalker" has such an intense recklessness to it that mirrors the prototype speed and power of other countries of its day. But though it's perhaps the best single track on this offering, very much akin to older Anthem, it's just not enough to save the other, dreary contents.

Iwai uses his vocals to good effect in "Bad Stone", creating a tranquil, dark and bluesy atmosphere for the wee hours of the city night, but the riffs are simply not there. "Night Angel" has some promise, due to the sleek but subtle flow of its main riff (similar to old Savatage), but once again, the vocals build to a climax and the guitars are merely average. "Pretender" also reminds me of a mix of Judas Priest and Savatage, with a half-decent, sporadic lead, and a little bridge before 2:00 where Iwai adds a little torment to his vocals. Once more, not enough force in the guitars. "Woman in a Black Cape" is a power ballad, but at over 8 minutes it does little but lull the listener to sleep. "Floating Man" is the closest the band gets to speed metal, with a steady momentum, and some roiling riffs, but it's another example of how the singer showed up with his A-game (listen to him at 1:30, that shit is craaaazy) and the other musicians seemed to phone in their writing.

Yet, for all its strange imbalance of subdued, hollow rhythm and a passionate, over the top front man, Whisper of the Evil is hardly a 'bad' album. It just wasn't enough to stick its spiked, leather collared neck up above the stirs of the metal beast, rumbling deeply in the belly of Japan. Were I to compile a mix of obscure bands of this era and nation, it's possible I might throw a "Stalker" or "Night Angel" in out of some sense of completion, but this is a band lacking the chops to compete with even mid-level acts like a Tilt or Blizard. It's like showing up for a katana fight with a butter knife.

Highlights: Stalker, Night Angel

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Revolting - The Terror Threshold (2010)

It must be hard being Revolting Rogga Johansson, the man of a hundred faces, each a death metal band (at the least the majority of them). Where does he draw the line between each of his projects? How does he keep all of their material straight in his head? Would he just tour as himself, picking and choosing from the vast arsenal of material produced through Ribspreader, Paganizer, Carve, Demiurg, Putrevore, The Grotesquery, Foreboding, etc.? How does the man partition his brain so that the various outlets don't run on with one another?

As long as he's putting out work like Revolting, which I'd consider one of his better bands overall, the answer to all of the above is: who cares. The Terror Threshold is the second full-length from this project, following up on last year's Dreadful Pleasures, and Rogga has seen fit to expand this release through the inclusion of a previously unavailable EP known as the Bonesaw Leftovers. That's 8 more tunes stacked on to the 9 here, for a total of 17 tracks and over 52 minutes of glorious, tongue in cheek old school Swedish death metal. Like many Razorback artists, Rogga takes much of his lyrical influence for this project from old sci-fi and horror films, and pairs it up with a grinding death motif which pays tribute to the forefathers of that scene: Entombed, Dismember, Grave, etc.

There is nothing terribly original happening throughout The Terror Threshold. It's certainly not the type of album that will appeal to the innovation seeker or the hallowed hipster. Regardless, it's ghoulish, harmless fun with the same consistency and quality of the debut effort (which was great), and has a little more depth than you might think. Good examples are "The Grip of Death", which infuses more than the normal dose of morbid melody into the grinding d-beat rhythms that so many of these retro bands simply cannot see beyond. Or the rather unusual, discordant streams of chords that wind through the intro to "Grotesque Beyond Belief". Or the killer, atmospheric melodies that cut through "Harvest the Humans", which remind me of earlier Unanimated or The Crown.

If you just want your spine carved in, well, Revolting can do that too: "Bloodthirsty Bitches", "Horror Hooker", "Destructive Organism", and the riotous "Head in the Fridge" have you covered. Some of the grimier numbers that close out the Bonesaw Leftovers EP are also quote good, especially the title track. "Grizzly Aftermath" is hilarious. Yeah. That's right. A death metal song about being mauled by a bear. The best thing about this, of course, is that you probably haven't heard that material before, so you can treat this all as one gigantic sophomore love letter to days when things were far simpler than this season's wank-off marathon of angst-ridden teenage barbarian 'virtuosos' attempting to one up each other while they dream wetly and often of Kristen Stuart and Amanda Seifert.

It's a great value, and few of the 17 tracks leave anything but a fond impression, but I do feel like the previous album was slightly stronger on the whole. But The Terror Threshold is the perfect fit for Razorback Records, and those of you who go postal over bands like Blood Freak, Ghoul, Frightmare, Crypticus, Vacant Coffin, or nearly anything else on that roster will have a field day with this one.

Highlights: Sure, especially Grizzly Aftermath. Because it's a bear. Killing a dude.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Alpha Drone - Alpha Drone (2006)

"We live and we die, day in and day out...and we dream!"

Such is the passage that concludes the liner notes for the self-titled debut of John Gill's Alpha Drone, a margin walking musical entity so far departed from the ball & chain of convention that it defies reality itself, assuming an alien configuration safely outside the confines of simple classification. At its core, you may very well identify with some fraction of the whole. There is a black metal influence here, or something that once called itself black metal, now a mere reflection in a dissonant stream of harsh, distorted vocals and the subdued, bitter flow of guitar chords that creep across a recessive, programmed drumming which exists solely to measure the momentum of the listener's descent into madness (or ascent into nirvana, your choice.)

But that description alone would be selling the music sort, for in addition to its raw, metallic components there is an overarching, ambient sadness throughout the near 40 minutes of this album. Not the gentle gleanings of an emergent Brian Eno, mind you, but the foreboding of the free form noise, ritual and martial genres, convergent upon this one, single cipher of expression. Having delved into the works of many such artists in my time, I can tell you that Alpha Drone does not quite sound like any one other. To forge a direct chain of recognition is nigh impossible. But try and dream of an electric-age Beherit jamming to Lustmord, or an Abruptum chilling by the pool, Raison d'Etre in It's headset. Or perhaps an extra terrestrial interpretation of old Summoning with a spark of the late Muslimgauze's more twisted emissions. This is an electric array of names I'm dropping, and yet Alpha Drone conforms to none of this.

But it's just as far out.

The inspiration for the project's name comes from an old science fiction tale the creator once drafted up in some earlier flight of imagination. Imagination is a positive thing. I'm a space cadet myself, engaged at any one time in a myriad of science fiction, fantasy or speculative media that challenge my perceptions and fuel my simultaneous addictions to nihilism, nostalgia and boldly asserting myself where no cosmonaut has gone before. So the concepts behind the compositions of Alpha Drone intrigue me, especially after a perusal of the album's archaic visual aesthetics and the extensive food for thought provided in the liner notes. There are no lyrics printed in the CD, but I've read that they follow the liner notes pretty closely. Ancient civilizations, elements, cycles of existence, the illusions of modern science, the farce of religion, all of these are considerations behind the music. The album is akin to having an existential archive of history, philosophy and every thoughtful (if theoretical) History Channel pseudo-documentary about religion, extra terrestrials, conspiracies and the coming Armageddon slowly hammered into your left temple simultaneously with an iron piton. When was the last time you enjoyed such a feeling?

The experience of Alpha Drone is delivered through five separate acts, each of which takes subtle liberties from another, deftly avoiding the chagrin of monotony that might develop if Gill were to simply follow one idea beyond its welcome. Other artists might decide to forcibly bludgeon the listener with the same cycle endlessly, mistaking an inflated flair for minimalist drama as effective expression. Most of these have failed. Gill doesn't even attempt such folly, because his universe is just too damned vast to dwell for too long on one caustic spark. Truth be told, there is some sense of numbing repetition here, in particular with the 15 minute epic "Shambala Serrano", but hardly impossible to digest, since you'll be reeling from the uncanny procession of deep, throat chants, distorted background chords, harsh vocals hinging on the edge of pure distortion, and most impressively, a keyboard sequence worthy of any truly ghastly 70-80s horror film. And even here, the tempo shifts from a crawl to a more punishing, slowly blasted segment over which an additional synth alights like a star signal from afar.

The rest of the tracks are not so extensive, but equally riveting. "Theozoology" is the opener, a swelling opus of trembling noise that slowly introduces a distant, martial percussion battery, a vibrant yet thin flourish of frightening organs, clean if subtle guitars, and ungodly distortions that sound like Galactus is slowly taking a chunk out of your world. The vocals arrive after 3:00, like a late warning, and then a deep chant carries the track out. "To Take Earth Back from Man" is a terrible joy despite its extremely wish-wash, background feel, a melodic black/ambient metal charge erupting beyond a martial chant segment set to the samples of storm. "Akashaganga" is as desolate as anything Malefic or Wrest have penned, a subdued, submissive stretch of horror so void of warmth and hope that it would perhaps best serve as a soundtrack to Lord Byron's classic, end of times poem "Darkness". The album has been so punishing to this point that the shimmering rays that open "The Sophonaut" come as a total surprise, for somewhere within the guitars is a distant wisp of hope. But it fades out all too soon, into voice samples and throbbing, electric atmosphere that sounds like an Elder God dropping bong hits dangerously close to a Tesla machine.

I don't know John Gill personally, and I'm not familiar with his other projects (of which there are a good number). It took me some time to fully digest what I was listening to on this album. Weeks. Into months. But all of the most interesting works do. Alpha Drone is not an act that will reward you with any semblance of bold melody or conventional metal structure. It's instead a fabric of finely woven, alien torment, threaded through the grasping talons of the Fates into every awaiting orifice. There is no hiding from this end. You can complain about the album's roughshod production (it was created over a number of years), and you could attempt to write it off as mere noise, reveling in its own liberating obscurity. But then you wouldn't learn anything. Alpha Drone feeds your head. And it bleeds your head. I haven't heard anything quite like it before, and I'm not sure I ever will. I'd like to think even Alpha Drone itself would move forward from this, as there is nothing to improve upon. Only more to explore. And isn't that last word the key?

Highlights: Earth is still here. For now. It was not eaten during this recording.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Znöwhite - All Hail to Thee EP (1984)

All Hail to Thee is one of those releases which dwells in that gray area between the LP and EP, and there are undoubtedly those that consider this the first Znöwhite full-length, but in light of its short length (under 17 minutes) and 7 songs, I'm going to consider it an EP for the purpose of this review. Either way, it's the first 'official' release from perhaps the most underrated band ever to hail from Chicago, and a scorcher. Mind you, this is not the crunchy, brutal apocalyptic thrash of their brilliant album Act of God, but a filthier street-level entity with some of the best female vocals of US metal in the 80s (Nicole Lee). The band was a 3-piece here, with Ian Tafoya playing both bass and guitar, and Sparks on the drums.

Several of the tracks here are pretty short, below 2 minutes in length. One gets the impression the band likened themselves to some sort of crossover punk-thrash band, but in truth these are some of the better pieces here. "Sledgehammer" is gutter level thrust thrash with a memorable chorus vocal, wild if simple lead, and then gone in a flash. Like good, hot sex. "Saturday Night" is like a Midwest, female fronted Motörhead, with Lee's air raid vocals elevating it just beyond and one of the other band members gettin' wicked in their with a brief monologue. "Do or Die" is the the shorted, but sweetest as far as frenetic speed/power thrash with a raunchy bite to the riffs and piercing vocal melody.

As for the rest, I'm a little mixed. "Somethin' for Nothin'" has a killer tone, and a decent little breakdown with a descending, muddy thrash riff, but I don't exactly enjoy how Lee's vocals function over the crest of the guitar. "Bringin' the Hammer Down" is actually pretty nice, with a raw, roiling tone and some of the better 'fixin' for a fight' vocals, including some melodic backing from the band. The solo here is pretty cool, as are the little NWOBHM melodies that soar through the violent thrashing. "Never Felt Like This" is probably the closest Znöwhite has ever come to a ballad, really just a slow, straightforward metal tune, but once again, the vocals just aren't that intriguing and the riffs very boring. "Rock City Destination" is another swarthy, blues-rooted bar metal anthem like "Saturday Night", and it's a good closer for the EP.

Nothing this band recorded prior to Act of God would truly prepare me for the crushing wasteland that would ensue, but both the All Hail to Thee and Kick 'Em While Their Down EPs have charms of their own. The kind of charms that resonate from late nights of broken glass, rattling trash can lids, dumpster diving and graffiti from the waste of an inner city. You could consider this a 'Chicago before the bomb' scenario, whereas Act of God represents that period 'after the bomb'. A perfect little Cold War chronology. If it is obscure, raw American speed and thrash that you seek, you could do worse than to check out this band's back catalog.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]
(this town is shattered)

Powerwolf - Return in Bloodred (2005)

In retrospect, my initial reaction to Powerwolf's unique mixture of cult horror aesthetic and booming heavy metal siren seemed rather foolish, for I've come to greatly appreciate their sound through the past 5 years, in particular that of their sophomore outing Lupus Dei. But my first time listening through Return in Bloodred, I wasn't sure what to think. Did these guys not get the message that a bad gothic getup was hardly the ticket to success at the crossroads of classic heavy and power metal? Fuck, it didn't work out for Crimson Glory, and these German-Transilvanians were nearly as ridiculous looking as Sweden's Lost Horizon.

Of course, as often happens when one makes rash judgments about anything, I was wrong in giving even a cursory thought to the band's image, because their music is really something else. Lively and welcome, the band's arsenal of catchy, gothic power metal creates an immediate distinction from the fleet of Judas Priest, Rhapsody and Helloween clones that were assailing the continent. No, you won't hear a sped-up, X-treme Gamma Ray here (i.e. Dragonforce), or a soulless interpretation of Stratovarius, but an entirely different beast that balances Deep Purple, 80s Sabbath, and Alice Cooper with the cult sounds of NWOBHM bands like Demon or Witchfynde. Interestingly, vocalist Attila Dorn was not in all out firing mode here on the debut, Return in Bloodred. Whereas Lupus Dei offered a glance at what Ozzy might be doing in the 21st century if not for sucking and being slowly put out to pasture, Dorn's performance here is far more restrained, with an emphasis on his middle range. He still screams, but not quite at the level of 'mad gypsy siren' found on the sophomore.

In fact, I feel so spoiled by Lupus Dei (which is a vast improvement over this album) that much of Return in Bloodred feels subdued, which chorus parts not nearly as striking as those the band will later concoct. But there is some solid heavy metal here, complete with organs and big, simple rock rhythms set against an old European landscape of cobwebbed castles, howling wolves and a blood red moon. Tracks like "The Evil Made Me Do It" and "Lucifer in Starlight" crawl along with a massive, doomed influence, Dorn giving some his most powerful performances on the album. You get the feeling this material could be played as a horror rock opera, much like a King Diamond or Alice Cooper, and the band has the uncanny to craft an almost 'Gothic Wild West' motif when they stray away from the verse and chorus.

"Montecore" is one of the more powerful tracks on the album, beginning with Dorn's soothing heights along the sample of a babe, before a huge, Arabesque rhythm cedes to the steady triplets of the verse. "Son of the Morning Star" is a pompous, elevating martial power ballad in which Dorn offers some endearing, if completely cornball narrative (and a brief duet with a female singer in the opening). Not all the songs are perfect. For example, "We Came to Take Your Souls" is a raging, basal rocker with utterly cheesy lyrics about fighting for metal and the like. Not that memorable. "Black Mass Hysteria" is a slower, predictable piece with some nice little leads cutting through the vocals, but not much by way of quality riffs. On the other hand, "Kiss of the Cobra King" is amazing, with excellent vocals and a truly singalong chorus (best representative of the Lupus Dei material). "Mr. Sinister" is also a fairly kick ass opener, with cool, controlled licks and a chorus highly reminiscent of Ozzy at the prime of his solo career (at least in popularity, the early 90s efforts).

In all, this is an enjoyable effort, with a few tracks lagging behind the rest of the band's career. The mix is wholesome, and you truly get a shiver as if you're listening to the entire album in a cathedral with high vaulted ceilings, while the full moon and all its terrors lurk just outside the sanctity of the pulpit and crucifix. Is it cheesy? Sure it is, but the good kind, and I'm sure the band had the clear intention of writing in a style you laugh at while banging your heads and fists to. Perhaps the biggest problem with Return in Bloodred is that it the band would go on to destroy it with the follow-up. But a few of the songs here walk toe to toe (or paw to paw) with anything on Lupus Dei, and I'd say this was just as good as their 3rd album Bible of the Beast.

Highlights: Mr. Sinister, Kiss of the Cobra King, Demons & Diamonds, Lucifer in Starlight

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Royal Arch Blaspheme - The Royal Arch Blaspheme (2010)

Neill Jameson has been a card carrying member of the US extreme metal underground for as long (no, longer) as I've been writing about it. In fact, I believe I once interviewed him for an old black/white print 'zine I once worked on at university in the 90s. But you probably know him best by his other names: Imperial. Lord Imperial. Or N. Imperial. His first breakthrough act was Krieg (formerly Imperial), through which he has now accrued an extensive discography, including cult US faves like Destruction Ritual and The Black House. But you may also know him through other acts he's been involved with: Hidden, Judas Iscariot (live), Weltmacht, Nachtmystium, March into the Sea, or the USBM collaboration Twilight.

Some of these projects have produced some excellent material, some still do, and some I could live without and lose not a single wink of sleep, but The Royal Arch Blaspheme is perhaps the best output I've heard from this man in years. And here's the catch: he's only the vocalist. The musical backdrop is all performed by John Gelso, a name associated through the years with Profanatica and some even more obscure acts (Contravisti, Toten, and others). This is a marriage forged in hell, another of those rare acts that successfully strips away much of the needless excess from the past 20 years of extreme metal, to deliver a disconcerting, wicked experience that hammers itself past the manifold layers of skin and bone, to the soft, innocent flesh of the brain beneath.

Though the aesthetic here is clearly that of primitive black metal, one could just as easily make a death metal argument for this record. Gelso's guitars produce some of the most despotic, repugnant old school rhythms I've heard in recent memory, enriched through the morbid, crushing influence of the masters (Incantation, old Death, Autopsy, etc.) But these are not enough, and in a track like "Isaiah 14:12" you'll experience what is exceptional about this project: the atmosphere often crafted through a swelling, melodic guitar harmony in the background. Across this visceral turmoil, Imperial's vocals retch, a caustic belch of bloodcurdling snarls that enchant like the transfixed stare of the executioner behind his hood. A wide range of emotional export is hardly necessary for this album, so Jameson is the perfect pilot for this abyssal aircraft.

If The Royal Arch Blaspheme were only some weekend hangout with little to no organization, it would still be entertaining. But Gelso and Jameson have something the garage or basement black metal duo cannot emulate: the craft of song. It seems each fibrous, infernal hymn here is laden with just enough charisma and dynamic balance to maintain the listener's attention. Tracks like "Alchemist", "Dead Eucharist" and "Jahbulon" writhe with a volatile passion almost unrivaled among the lazarus hordes of old school pundits, fueled only by hell and spite and the mockery of holy foolishness. Imperial's voice is like the dirt of a grave stirring, writhing with worms and the charnel, half-empty smile of an ascending skull. Need something slower? "Kingdom of Perversions" will KILL you, as it glistens with the fresh blood of angels, their cries heard through the shrill samples that bridge the sluggish verses. Need something faster? Try on the "Seven Devils of Ejaculation".

You can't really go wrong with this record if you enjoy anything else on the entire Hell's Headbanger roster. Beyond that, you can't really go wrong with this record if you enjoy anything in the storied past of black or death metal: Bathory, Hellhammer and Mayhem in addition to the death metal bands I gave an earlier gesture. The Royal Arch Blaspheme is a celebration of this groundwork, within a dense new fold that bludgeons the ears through churning rhythms and resplendent vocal hostility. Very much worth your time to check out, whether you're a salty old dog branded many times over by the devil's lash, or a ripe young imp seeking evil.

Highlights: Come one, come all to the slaughter.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Doodsdrek - Doodsdrek (2010)

You may be aware on some level of the Belgian band Lugubrum, one of black metal's most interesting unsung acts, who have maintained a rather long and productive career within their odd little niche of earthen, rural black metal. Some of their albums have been more successful than others, granted, but there is little denying the strange can of worms they've opened, a portal to myriad possibilities within an ever stagnating arch-genre, without abandoning its raw and rustic foundations. Doodsdrek is the new project of both Barditus and Svein from that band, and it's nearly the concordant opposite of the goals set out in that band.

This is pretty straight forward, creepy and primitive black metal which does little to innovate or thematically push the boundary. Often it shares Lugubrum's propensity for playing slow, simple tempos ("De Mars der Overtolligen" or the bridge of "De Dode"), but more often it moves at a steady blast ("De Bezetene", "De Verderver") while the harrowing, unconditioned vocals vomit treacherous poetry across the scathing streams of minimal axe composition. The intro and outro to the album are fairly quirky, something I might expect out of their main band: "Verval" is like a doomed 8-bit piece, while "Knoockenriedel" is a morose acoustic instrumental with a wood-like percussion rattling along. Perhaps the best song on the album is "De Vertoornde (i.e. The Torn)", an eerie piece with morbid, skeletal guitars that range from haunted melodies to a steady, bloodthirsty Hellhammer gait.

And that's what it all comes down to, simple old school black metal from the same poisoned well that spawned Burzum, Mayhem, or Darkthrone's unholy trinity of albums. With the exception of the intro, there is little here that is oddly unique, and I do kind of miss that in the sound here, always expecting the music to shift into Lugubrum's world of organic decay. Sadly, while the atmosphere of the album is darkly adequate to the succinct, rotting breaths the band draws forth of its inspirations, the riffs here are simply too inconsequential to provide much duration, and the album ends up another easily forgotten slab of misanthropy that will entertain for under 30 minutes, and keep its tendrils far out of reach of your memory. A fleeting apparition by night. A droplet of ichor in an unending, opaque stream.

Highlights: De Vertoornde, De Aardvreters, Veryal

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Quo Vadis - Live in Montreal (2007)

Regardless of my mediocre response to much of this band's studio work, I think it's painfully obvious that Quo Vadis are a band who take their time with each release until the product is flush with both their standards and expectations. This is surprisingly uncommon in the metal genre, where 'hot' bands are won to pump out albums with haste and as much consistency as they can muster, to hopefully ride out some sudden wave of success. There is no better example of this than their 2007 double-album Live in Montreal, which offers the fan nearly 90 minutes of professionally recorded music from all three of their studio albums (ignoring no period of their growth).

This was quite the production. The performance is from 2005 at The Medley, and the band pulled out all the stops to make it as memorable and thorough as possible. Not only do they employ several guest musicians to round out their set, including Oscar Souto of Anonymus, Alex Auburn of Cryptopsy, and Dominique Lapointe of Aetheretic and Augury performing the whole set on bass. They also use a 20+ person choir on a few of the tracks. In addition, when perusing the photos in the booklet they used some interesting visual performance art to complement the musical aspect, with women posing in statuesque positions, etc. Perhaps it might come off a little tacky, but the band obviously wanted more for the audience than just a plug in and play session, and judging by the almost studio quality of the live mix, they wanted the 'product' of Live in Montreal itself to stand the test of time for any involved in a later listening.

As mentioned, the band perform a large amount of their material here. Keep in mind, they've got only 3 a 90 minute set will comprise a large amount of their studio output. As this was 2005, and Defiant Imagination was the current 'hotness', it is here in its entirety: "Silence Calls the Storm", "In Contempt", "Break the Cycle", "Tunnel Effect", "To the Bitter End", "Fate's Descent", and "Dead Man's Diary". Even the interludes "In Articulo Mortis" and "Ego Intuo Et Servo Te" are here, complete with choir to open the 2nd disc. The Day Into Night track list includes "Absolution", "On the Shores of Ithaka", "Mute Requiem", and the band dips farther back into Forever... with "Carpae Deum", "Legions of the Betrayed", "Inner Capsule" and "Pantheon of Tears". They also perform "Vital Signs", which was on their original demo and later re-recorded for the Passage in Time compilation. I'd imagine it's pretty much the 'dream set' for a Quo Vadis fan.

The songs sound just as crystal clear as their studio counterparts, and while I'm still not a fan of Stéphane Paré's vocals, he's solid over all the material, bantering to the crowd in his native French-Canadian and keeping them psyched for each foray into the band's history. Dominique Lapointe is all over the place, showing that he's no mere 'fill in' for a Steve DiGiorgio or Remy Beauchamp, but every bit, if not more capable in technical ability. Yanic Bercier is ever the devoted hammer, and Bart's guitars are perhaps the most impressive, tightly strung alongside William Seghers (of Neuraxis), who is also joining the band for this monumental live. It's not hard to choose favorites from the set, as they perfectly mirror the favorites I had from the studio albums: "On the Shores of Ithaka", "Vital Signs", "In Articulo Mortis", and "Break the Cycle".

I'm not a Quo Vadis fan, and thus not the target market for this release, but it's pretty much the 'love letter' you'd want from a band to its audience, and as far as live offerings, it is probably well worth the music if you enjoy their albums Defiant Imagination and Day Into Night. Of course, the sound is so polished that you almost feel as if you are listening to one of the studio works, so you may feel a little bit of overlap. Still, the band pulls off the material remarkably well live, with fewer glitches than most bands I've seen through the decades (and that is a considerable number). The band excels in this setting, and to be honest, from the sidelines, I found this more enjoyable than any of their full-length albums.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Quo Vadis - Defiant Imagination (2004)

Defiant Imagination is the third album of the Canadian Quo Vadis, and arrived with some very high expectations, as their sophomore effort had created a stir among the modern metal sect. A Canadian melodic death metal band worth its salt? Impossible! The story of this album is quite interesting, as the drums were recorded first and then the guitars and harmonies re-written to run consistently above them. You can kind of hear it, too. The drums are intense and heavy, with many thundering double bass rolls and a nigh constant barrage of aggression. Unfortunately, the rhythm guitars here are for the most using the stock Swedish sensibility for melodic predictability, with some later Death-like progressive flourishes mixed in, and the only times the album really grows more interesting is where the band diverts away from this meandering miasma of dulled down inspiration.

Although I would disagree with the popular notion that Defiant Imagination is the band's best album (listening back, I'd have to argue that their peak was Day Into Night), there is one draw to the album that you did not hear on the predecessor: Steve DiGiorgio. In the years leading up to this effort, several of the band's core members had departed, including original bassist Remy Beauchamp (who was a talent in his own right), so Bart and Yanic hired on DiGiorgio for the recordings. Now, I've never been extremely impressed with DiGiorgio's talent as a songwriter, but as a bass-merc on a progressive/melodic death metal album, he excels, and his adventurous, fluid performance is perhaps the one thing here that keeps the ship from sinking below average. The new vocalist Stéphane Paré is decent, but not much to get excited over. He reminds me of Mikael Stanne (in fact, this entire album reminds me of a more technical, extreme alternative to Dark Tranquillity), albeit less powerful, with a stock, monotonous grunt that lacks much in the way of emotion, even when backed up by the occasional gang shout. I think I honestly preferred the more Carcass-like tones of his predecessor, but this has never been a band to excel in the vocal department.

If Defiant Imagination had been released today, it would probably be considered another in a long list of forgettable melodeath records with generic (if busier than usual) mosh breakdowns. But at the time of its inception it was still slightly more progressive than average, and I should note that, aside from a few of the lyrics, there is nothing quite so pedestrian about the effort that went into this. Writing around drums is an interesting prospect, and the bass is a marvel, but I find it pretty telling that the two tracks to stand out here were the operatic interludes "In Articulo Mortis" and "Ego Intuo et Servo te", which demonstrate that the band has not fully shaken the classical influence and gothic experimentation of their debut Forever... from their systems, but at the same time, the male and female vocal performances are very good in these two, short pieces. As for the rest, they dance along like sprites celebrating in a Swedish glen, invisible or uninteresting to my mere mortal perceptions, the baubles of bass being the one distraction to perk my ears and tilt my head.

"Silence Calls the Storm" and "In Contempt" explode past in a cloud of boring guitar riffs, with little but the bass and concrete drumming to enthrall. It's not until "Break the Cycle" that the band tries something more interesting, a slower, dynamic track with great bass cycles and a subtle touch of prog and funk that captivates at least for a few brief seconds. Sadly, the lyrics here are dragged down by a pastiche of cliches and forgettable 'inner struggle' lines like 'Open your eyes, open your mind', 'life goes on', and 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions'. Well meaning, positive and inspirational, but very distracting when they're being barked at you in an accented growl. The kind of lyrics you'd essentially expect from most other North American metalcore/melodeath bands more passionate about the product and placement than any lasting imagery they could summon. "Tunnel Effect" is much like the first two tracks on the album, almost impossible to remember even seconds after its conclusion. Of the rest, "To the Bitter End" and "Dead Man's Diary" at least offer some melancholy and precision melody, though nothing that would warrant an immediate re-listen.

There are certain components of Defiant Imagination which destroy the utter sum of its emotional resonance, so some credit should be given for its unusual manifestation and the slow process by which it was assembled. The bass and drums are prim and polished, perhaps too much for my own tastes, but there is no denying that this rhythm section put in an enormous effort. Where the album becomes lackluster is in the dressings. The guitars, while proficient and often diving into the technical precision of the prior album, are simply not that invigorating. The vocal performance, while not 'weak', is sodden and average, the type you could have phoned in by any more established growler on a binge. The two opera segues are well done, but they account for only 2 minutes of the 40 here. The rest of the tracks become more interesting the further they venture away from the rather humdrum, melodic death core. This simply doesn't occur with enough frequency, and even when it does, the results are only mildly curious.

Highlights: Break the Cycle, In Articulo Mortis, Dead Man's Diary

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10] (some are caught in the moment)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Gammacide - Victims of Science (1989)

Hailing from the arid wasteland of Texas, Gammacide would be in the ideal setting to craft a masterful thrash metal on the affects of nuclear war and the inevitable fallout that would ensue. Recorded in what could be considered the apex of the US thrash movement, the late 1980s, Victims of Science, their first and only album, crafts an amazing mix of blazing guitar riffs that come at you with a precise, stomping crunchiness, epitomizes all that is good and just about what the true thrash sound was during that eventful decade. One has to remember that many of the thrash records that are considered to be classics, the standards by which the young whippersnappers of the new trash revival scene are judged, were born out of an age of patriotic hyperbole and the very real threat of nuclear war. That sentiment and feeling can truly be felt when you listen to the songs on this album which offer insightful, intelligent lyrics on a range of societal ills that even hold water in our current time and age, and in some cases, even more so than ever before.

The songs are short, but fierce. The distortion of the guitars, along with the lightning-quick drumming make for a great experience. However, the band does not fall into the trap of forsaking technical flourishes for the sake of being over the top, pure thrash. Vocals on the album have a tinge of the hardcore influence to them, reminiscent of some of the bands of that ilk coming into their own right around the time (think Insecticide) and painting a brilliant example of how closely hardcore and thrash really are when it comes to not only lyrical and emotional content, but even musical styling. When the hardcore influence comes across right, it is a treat to listen to.

A few of my gripes with this album would lean towards the lack of any memorable bass lines besides the simplistic one that seems thrown in on a whim in 'Gutter Rats', and the somewhat tinny, non-aggressive sound of the drums that comes across in a few of the tracks, especially in 'Walking Plague'.

All in all, for one of the near benchmark, ideal thrash albums from the late 1980s, Victims of Science is worth the time and investment of a listening session. Maybe a few dozen listening sessions.

Observe, and tell me what you see
Turn your back, blind to reality
Society condemns its own fate
Wake up before it's too fuckin' late

Observe, and tell me what you see
Turn your back, blind to reality
Society condemns its own fate

Wake up before it's too fuckin' late

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Arbitrater - Darkened Reality (1993)

If Arbitrater could be accused of anything, it was that they arrived a little late to the scene of the crime. Their 1991 debut Balance of Power was a solid effort of forceful, driving thrash metal, but it brought little if anything to the table with regards to its writing or aggression. By 1993, the victims of thrash metal had all been tagged and counted, removed by the EMTs to the various local morgues for further processing, and even the chalk outlines have been washed away by the acid rains and blowing winds. But Arbitrater represent the stubborn patrol car that shows up anyways, bearing donuts and coffee that they are now forced to consume for themselves.

But let's be frank: coffee and donuts both taste pretty fucking awesome, so why not enjoy them all for ourselves? And that is what Abritrater have offered with their sophomore Darkened Reality: a bare bones, honest thrash metal album that succeeds despite the fact that very few were left to even hear it. This is not an incredible fast band, most of their tracks move along at a mid pace, occasionally aiming for a faster or slower tempo, but they let the weight of the writing fall on the rather glossy mix and the fact that many of their riffs are violent enough that the seasoned thrasher is going to start slamming his head on his desk anyways. They sound like a crude alternative to their countrymen Xentrix, with a big influence from the meatier, mid paced US thrash acts like Sacred Reich or S.O.D., with vocals not unlike later 80s Hallows Eve (this is Tony 'Rat' Martin, who would later go on to front legendary hardcore band Discharge).

This is yet another case of what you see is what you get, and there is nothing to Darkened Reality but honest, stripped down thrash metal with only the slightest hints at technicality (which further mirror Xentrix). Actually, it's pretty similar to Shattered Existence, with those cool, throbbing meathook rhythms that hook you but give you plenty of time to consider the situation. Nothing here even borders on ambition, but that does not prevent tracks like "Nightmare Vision" or "Deadline" from starting up a circle mosh. There are also a few thrash anthems here to which you can shake your fists in the air while reciting the lyrics, like the opener "Judge and Jury" which sounds like it might have fit in with Hallows Eve's 1988 album Monument. "No Second Chance" and "Suicide Commercially" (oh the irony) also have a number of decent riffs, the former starting with a wall of stacked bricks before smashing through it and returning to their street level. It would be interesting to see this band reunite and do a 'pure British street thrash tour' with fellow obscurity Decimator, but we all know the kids wouldn't buy into it, so obsessed are they with doing airlifts off the frenetic retro-speed ramp of a band like Gama Bomb.

Darkened Reality stands the test of time because it sounds good, and it sounds authentic. There are no tracks here which forced me to cringe or shake my head in disgust, and the riffing grows a little deeper once you explore their interior cavities. It's not going to suddenly thrust itself upon your all-time favorites list in the thrash genre, but you can definitely kick back, bang your head and enjoy yourself. And shouldn't Arbitrater deserve at least that much? Better late than never.

Highlights: Darkened Reality, No Second Chance, Judge and Jury, Suicide Commercially

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Quo Vadis - Passage in Time (2001)

Just one year after Day Into Night, Quo Vadis were riding pretty high on buzz through the underground, due not only to the polish and relative accessibility of the album, but also to their technical merits. A trait not all that common in melodic death of the time, but highly popular among an emerging metal culture that was seeking almost anything of distinction to separate itself from the tired cliches of the past, and the relative drought of creativity that the 90s had ushered in after hard rock and metal took a nose dive from the arena to the curb. The time was right to strike, and thus Passage in Time comes as quite a handy little fan package, to tide the fans over until their third full-length, Defiant Imagination, which was still several years and line-up changes from happening.

This is no mere cash grab, but an offering in good faith of some new material, a few live tracks and the re-issue of the band's 1995 s/t demo, which ironically I happen to find among the best of their material, regardless of its production. So it helps that the very first track on this is a re-recording of "Vital Signs" from the demo, with the band's modern tone and crunch. This is a fairly stock thrash/death track with perhaps a bit of technicality, though the riffs are not nearly so complex as what we've heard on the full-lengths. They continue to use a mix of Carcass-like grunts and snarls, but there is an honest, vibrant energy to enforce the track's title. "As One" is a track very much in line with the material from Day Into Night: scorching melodic guitars, dynamic awareness and the band's signature lack of mundane repetitions. There is also a re-arrangement of the track "Hunter-Killer", also from the sophomore effort, but to me it does not seem worse for wear.

The live tracks included here are "Dysgenics" and "Mute Requiem", both also taken from Day Into Night, so it was apparent the band had far more confidence in this material than the debut Forever.... They sound decent on stage here, in fact "Mute Requiem" is clean enough that is nearly mirrors its studio incarnation. But the real rabbit in the hat here is the inclusion of the Quo Vadis demo, barring "Sans Abris", which was included with Forever... (and is rather weak due to the closing vocals, I might add). "Vital Signs", "Element of the Ensemble" and "Sons of Greed" all represent a cruder approach to the band's hybrid of thrash and death metal, and one I happen to actually dig. From very early on, this was a band experimenting with tempos and progression in their music, and though there are few individual riffs among this triad that stand out in my memory, I enjoyed the more brutal, hostile presence that is conjured not through the rough production alone, but the band's straightforward savagery (as in the middle of "Sons of Greed"). "Sadness", on the other hand, is a brief, throway acoustic outro which pauses for a hidden live violin segment.

If you're a Quo Vadis fan, than you'd undoubtedly desire this compilation for both the newer material and the chance to own the remainder of the original demo. I probably stand alone in believing that the band might have had more potential if they had persisted in the more punishing sound of the demo, but I found it refreshing regardless, at least for those three songs. Really there is only one new track, "At One", and it's consistent with Day Into Night, but maybe not enough to throw your money at if you've already got a demo. In addition, this is one of those enhanced multimedia discs which includes the video for "Dysgenics", which is a simple black and white shot of the band performing the song. It's not very exciting, but then, few videos are. In the end, other bands have done far more wrong by their fans than this.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]
(conceptualize the pain)

Quo Vadis - Day Into Night (2000)

It's obvious that the Canadian Quo Vadis put the intervening years (1996-2k) between their debut Forever... and this sophomore effort Day Into Night to good use. While it's not perfect, and I still have a difficult time remembering the specific tracks and riffs when I'm not actually listening to them, the increased production standard is a boon to the listener, allowing he or she to digest the band's manifold intensity as it was intended, with a clear and crisp mix that truly brings the guitars out to the fore. The band had ditched the more experimental frills for this album, i.e. you won't hear as much spoken word with violins, or further flirtations with female vocals.

This is also a more aggressive record, but much of its excess energies are transferred by the mix. The band still uses a few different harsh vocal tones, but they seem better streamlined, and they are perhaps the primary reason this album reminds me of the last two Carcass full-lengths, due to the balance of the vox with the highly melodic guitars that are rooted in thrash and classic heavy metal. Perhaps it is best compared to a mix of Heartwork/ Swansong-era Carcass with Arch Enemy's Stigmata or Burning Bridges, but it doesn't sound quite like any one thing, so the air of authenticity is remained, especially when you consider just how shitty the majority of American melodeath bands were (whether from the States or Canada), having already begun the infusion of metalcore breakdowns with melodic Swedish guitar riffing and the mix of awful clean and overbearing harsh vocals.

No, Quo Vadis were never quite so lame as these bands, and Day Into Night is a solid album into which obvious effort and creativity were placed. It still suffers from a lot of the 'straight through both ears' syndrome, but at the very least there are some songs which offer a few melodic, passionate surprises in their depths which manage a means of emotional escalation, as opposed to the debut which was a writhing bore. Much of the material alternates between mid-paced rhythms and technical, melodic thrashing outbreaks.

"Dysgenics" is a steady rocker with a few chugged breakdowns and a rock & roll spin to it which reminds me quite a lot of something like "Keep On Rotting in the Free World" by Carcass. "Let It Burn" and "Hunter-Killer" are fairly complex compositions which throw a number of tempo changes your way, and the latter once again reminds me of later Carcass due to the vocal interaction with the melodic, forward thrust of the guitars, though the musical tone is far lighter. Probably the one song I truly enjoyed on this album, "On the Shores of Ithaka", has a few surprises in store, starting off with bone crunching melancholy and later assuming a breakneck speed in which the guitars evoke a fallen majesty through their sorrow-laden speed and complexity. I also prefer this deeper vocal tone. The closer "Cadences of Absolution" is also a pretty interesting track, with the better vocals and some very interesting rolling rhythmic outbreaks through which the guitars thread and thrust.

In fact, most of the songs do at least have 1-2 riffs which tickle the ear upon first listening, but not so much that you'd want to keep listening over and over. The album sounds as if a good chunk of money was thrown into its production (supposedly it was, courtesy of Hypnotic), and perhaps a little more refinement and writing was in order to merit the expenditure. As it stands, Day Into Night still feels like a melodic death metal band trying to substitute flights of frenetic technical frenzy for better songs that you stick in your brain long after the fact. It just wouldn't cut it, since you could turn your ears to Sweden and pick up the frequencies of their blustering melodic death metal scene, frequencies which offered both emotional and visceral impact (Soilwork, In Flames, etc). In some ways, though, the band's musical fluency makes a lot of sense, since they were coming up in a scene that included bands like Cryptopsy whose major selling point (that would spread like wildfire through the metalcore-thick ranks of US death metal fans) was the extremity of the guitar work. Quo Vadis made for a nice melodic counter to such hysteria.

There's no mistaking the superiority of this album to its predecessor Forever.... There, in 1996, was a band not worth a second listen, but here you'll discover an obvious thirst for perfection, a hunger for better songwriting and crisp, busy guitar riffs that would probably have the six string nerd digging for tablature if he wound up taking to them. Good drums and bass remain here, and it's one of the finer turn of the century Canadian metal albums as far as its high level of studio polish. It's a damn shame that so much of this sinks into the port lobe only to eject itself through the starboard side a mere few moments later.

Highlights: On the Shores of Ithaka, Cadences of Absolution

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]
(words flow from the wounds)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Poison Asp - Beyond the Walls of Sleep EP (1990)

The cover of this obscure German thrash band's EP might have all the staying power of a Skor toffee bar wrapper, but I assure you its contents will stick to your tonsils far longer than any chocolate or condensed sugar. And if you live and breathe by the presence of German thrash and speed as I do, then you'll find it twice as sweet. Poison Asp were a band formed in 1984 which fell pretty far below the radar during the Teutonic thrash explosion of the 80s fronted by Kreator, Sodom and Destruction, but it's not for a lack of trying. Aside from a few compilation tracks on German Metal Fighters II and a demo in 1987, this Beyond the Walls of Sleep was their sole release of note, and while it offers up only around 20 minutes of material, its enough to convince me that this would have been an act capable of far more, given the attention.

The sound here is not novel, in fact the band sounds like a mixture of Destruction, Tankard, Vendetta and possibly Exumer, due to the thickly accented vocalist who sounds like the love child of Schmier, Daxx and Micky. The mix is rather raw, as the band could hardly afford much more, but you can hear all the instruments well enough. The pounding bass, the hiss and crash of the drum kit, and those impenetrably excellent German 'trash guitar tones that were prevalent on some of Tankard's amazing early works like The Morning After. In fact, if you were to stretch out and sun-dry some of Tankard's mile a minute drunken speed metal from that particular offering, the result would be within the same ballpark as Poison Asp. It's rugged and muddily atmospheric, which is coincidentally the EXACT sound I am listening for when I scour the forgotten annals of back-country Euro'thrash.

This is not an amazingly riffy band, but they tend to play from a mid to faster pace, screaming along with such wild abandon that I simply never felt the desire to stop and smell the roses. The guitar work is certainly satisfactory, with the spastic, wild leads that accompanied all of the better acts on the 'messy' side of thrash metal. We're not talking Metallica or Megadeth here, but Slayer's early work, or Exciter. My favorite of the five tracks on the EP is probably the last, "Traitor", which races buy like a dragster on fire, with gang shouts and echoes to the lead vocalist and ripping guitar rhythms. The rest seem slightly more subtle, like the doomed riff that opens "I Am the Grass", a labyrinth of melodic, dire thrashing riff-work that slowly gathers fuel for a violent outbreak well within its borders. "Euthanasia" is suitably spasmodic and turbulent, like a male-fronted equivalent to early Holy Moses. The intro to the EP is also pretty cool, an organ/string piece that transforms into the two-fisted rampage of "Hellfire at the Airbase".

The appeal of Poison Asp if of course limited to fans of the bands I've already listed in this review, or any raw European speed/thrash metal of the Golden Decade. Hearing this album after The Morning After, Brain Damage, Mad Butcher or Eternal Devastation does somewhat dampen the effect, but if, like myself, you're ever searching for more bands to fill this void of sound (as its surviving, original practitioners have all moved on to mutated pastures), then this band makes for an interesting footnote. Sadly, it's the last we'd hear from them, with the exception of guitarist/vocalist Tosse Basler (how do they get such great names?) who would serve some time in other obscure German acts Evolution and Scapegoat.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]
(you're not alone in your pain)

Quo Vadis - Forever (1996)

By the mid 90s, I was quite burnt out on metal music, having seen the entire genre climax between 1986-1990, and then suddenly, as through some cosmic event, a massive collapse of ideas in the face of the public's shift in interest towards grunge, industrial, 'alternative', hip hop, gothic and indie rock. I'm generalizing of course, and there were still a great number of strides being made in the newly birthed genres of death and (2nd wave) black metal, but apart from a rare gem from an established act, the more traditional sub-genres had dwindled into stardust. How did we go from albums like Master of Puppets, By Inheritance, No More Color and Coma of Souls to a heap of mundane drivel which couldn't even compete with the roots of thrash or speed metal?

It's like there were some giant, contagious lapse in ambition within the minds of even the genre's most seasoned creators, many of whom decided to jump off a bridge with fatal and unnecessary directional shifts in their careers. Though shortened attention spans and the most extreme forms of metal were beginning to take a stand against the more popular music of the period, it wasn't until the dawn of melodic death metal where the energy and momentum of the late 80s would resurface. Most of this developed overseas (later Carcass, At the Gates, In Flames, Arch Enemy, Dark Tranquillity, and so forth), and would usher in the giant wave of miserable clone-core that has yet to subside today. Here in the States, it was pretty much all death metal, or hardcore, or you were in the margins. But to the north, several Canadian bands were rising to the challenge, creating complex hybrids of thrash and death metal with an emphasis on both technical skill and versatility. Among these were Obliveon, Martyr, Neuraxis, and Quo Vadis.

Now, I'll be blunt. I've never really cared for Quo Vadis. Several within my circle of friends had begun to listen to them as early as their debut Forever (apparently one of them happened upon an import CD and the rest was history), and I've never quite understood the hype. To me, they were just another example of what I didn't enjoy about many new 90s artists: dull songs that attempt to impress through a technical edge alone, with very little writing ability. Surely the riffs on this (and subsequent albums) are not nearly as memorable as anything At the Gates did with Slaughter of the Soul, or Carcass did with Heartwork. But recently, as I've been going through so many of my favorite bands' discographies, I figured I'd borrow the discs and give this band another chance. Maybe I'll change my mind, eh?

Well, not with this album at least. Forever is the band's first full-length foray, and known for having a vastly inferior production to followups Day Into Night or Defiant Imagination. We're not talking a shit box recording here, the mix is quite clear (essential as the band are highly melodic and dynamic), but you can tell it's little more than a glorified demo level. As for the band's overall sound, this was ever one of their strongest points. They sound sort of like a mix of the later Death albums (Individual Thought Patterns, Symbolic, etc) mixed with melodic Euro death metal and progressive thrash. The solos are set to shred, the riffs are somewhat complex ("Legions of the Betrayed", "Pantheon of Tears", etc), and the arrangements unconventional. You won't find many standard verse-chorus-verse patterns in their writing, and the band likes to shift through a series of dynamics that keep the listener guessing.

These guys can play. Remy Beauchamp is a fiend on the bass, not to be shown up by the vitriolic axework of Bart Frydychowicz and Arie Itman, nor the seasoned foundation being meted out by Yanic Bercier. And while I wouldn't call them the most indulgent band of wankers this side of the Atlantic, they are certainly going to key you in to their individual. The band also incorporates a little experimentation through spoken word ("Mystery", "Nocturnal Reflections"), and they're fond of breaking for clean guitars, samples and so forth. Unfortunately, this experimentation also evokes some pretty boring breakdowns that feel alien to the band's more rapid paced thrashing, and a slew of vocals that today we'd probably attribute to an American metalcore band. Barks and grunts and screams and whatever it takes to force some emotion and momentum into the fairly forgettable music. One example of this is "Inner Capsule (Elements of the Ensemble Part II)", which opens with a hardcore yell alongside the grunting and sounds pretty terrible, with some scrawny death metal break rhythms that simply cannot save the clamor.

And that's really the biggest issue with Forever..., or Quo Vadis in general. Despite the obvious wealth of proficiency possessed by the band's roster, they simply cannot write a memorable riff here to save themselves. The songs are constantly evolving landscapes, and yet there is never some breathtaking surprise around any corner. You simply know there will be changes, and they will likely involve some wild guitars, furious bass playing and the inevitable eruption of leads. The over-arching note patterns are just not strong enough, and it's not saying much when the instrumental track ("The Day the Universe Changed") is the best on the album. The band also include a demo track from the previous year called "Sans Abris", a gentle, flowing piece with clean guitars and samples of howling winds that is suddenly destroyed by a shrill, inept female vocal near the track's conclusion, which sounds silly alongside the death bark.

I was far from impressed with this album back in the 90s, and it's even less interesting in today's climate. The songs are just as forgettable, and the band seems as if they're trying to pack in too many ideas, without letting any of them fully grasp the listener. The lyrics range from decent to mediocre, thoroughly existential garbage. Though malformed, the music is hardly a clutter, and I will at least laud the band for attempting something different. They sounded unique at the time, and they still seem so, but that's not always a selling point with me. Forever... might have the weakest production of their catalog, but it is the songwriting which really comes up short.

Highlights: Honestly, I cannot think of one. But if it's any consolation, their later albums are better than this.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]
(etched in anguish)