Monday, February 28, 2011

Srodek - Förfall (2011)

Jon Bäcklund is a Swedish musician who performs with a number of other outfits, namely Eldrit and as an additional guitarist in Svarti Loghin. His solo entity, Srodek bears a similar expansiveness to that latter act, but where their sophomore Drifting Through the Void missed the mark completely for my ears, Förfall is a breathtaking balance of tortured black rasped vocals and catchy, uplifting rhythms molted out of fuzzy chords and thinner, clean guitars laden in golden reverb. The formula is repetitious and incredibly simple, yet the fine choice in notation alone is what propels this from being another lamentable exercise in spacious boredom to something well worth the time of anyone who fancies a hybrid of dreamy shoegazer rock and dire melancholy.

Apart from the sorrow-borne strings and feedback of the album's intro and outro, there are five tracks, most of which follow a similar path into wondrous, bright and wintry obscurity. All hover around 5-7 minutes in length, and what they lack for in variation or deviation from their central composition, they make up for in effect. There have been a number of attempts at 'warmth' or spring and summer seasonal aesthetics in black metal, some failing outright (Woods of Ypres) and some succeeding with room to spare (Mortualia's second album gave me this impression), yet Förfall functions in either climb. You could just as well appreciate this while confined within the walls of some snowy, abandoned cabin (i.e. the cover image) or watching leaves drift by on a late summer stream. Tracks like "Bleak", "Ödestad", and "Vågtjärns Svarta Vatten" are transient, eloquent, desperate and scathing simultaneously, and even the more bluesy dirge of "Rotboskogens Djup" carves out an emotional iconography in the listener.

Were an album like Förfall to linger on into oblivion, it would very quickly lose its luster, but 'Nekrofucker' Bäcklund keeps the experience under tight reins (about 37 minutes) that are perfectly tuned to an autumn walk beneath a suicide skyline, each hymn an eerily positive ode to despair with drifting bass lines and earthen guitar tones. I found the album to serve as a delightful medium between the rustic rantings of LIK and the eccentricities of earlier, Pulver-era Lifelover with more steadied vocals, and it's easily recommended to any who enjoy the minimalist contours of the nature inspired, post-Burzum methodology, even if there is deceptively so little to it.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Moonsorrow - Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassa (2011)

Moonsorrow is one of those folk/black metal acts who seem as if they could literally gut a reindeer on microphone and reap enormous and excessive amounts of praise for the deed, but I certainly have been snared twixt the jaws of their sound in the past. This is not a band of complexity, and it never has been, but one of aural, crushing magnitude, focsed on swaggering, plodding compositions that very often cross the dangerous threshold of 10 or more minutes of your time, and often, as in the case of 2007's V: Hävitetty, far longer than even that. The burden of keeping a listener's interesting in such conditions is a heavy one, but the Finns have succeeded before. With their 6th full-length, Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassa ('As Shadows We Walk in the Land of the Dead') I'm not sure the formula holds up all that well.

You know the drill by now: heavy streams of chords and rasped vocals glazed in choirs and epic synthesizer lines, occasionally transitioned into brief flights of folksier fancy, all stretched over a canvas so broad that you could probably scrawl out the Kalevala and the Poetic Edda across it in a reasonably sized font. But despite its constant power and desperation, I really did not find myself drawn into this effort until the second half, namely the 16 minute "Huuto ('The Scream')", with its gorgeous escalation of glimmering emotional resonance, and the closer "Kuolleiden Maa ('To the Land of the Dead')" which is simply intent on being the loudest crashing available on the album. The track list is actually pretty bizarre, with the band choosing to switch between 11+ minute tracks and then brief interludes that all fall around 60-90 seconds, none of which seem to do anything but brood with a few crisp, subdued samples. These are not particularly terrible, mind you, but they would have been better worked into the songs directly, because they're just too damn short to be effective of their own accord, and I doubt anyone wants to hear them in a play list, breaking up the action of glacial maneuvers that comprise the bulk of the album.

That said, I was not drawn into either "Tähdetön (Starless)" or "Muinaiset ('The Ancient Ones')" after a few spins. I recognize their bombast and measurements of aggression, but in the 23-24 minutes of their existence, I'm not sure I heard even one moment which stood as tall as the latter visions, and ultimately only "Huuto" was something I found myself anticipating. Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassa is mixed and layered as passionately as anything in the band's past, and it fits the mold of the sweeping, loud and steadily paced epic that the band's core fans might be seeking, indifferent to any finer layer of compulsion or composition, but this battle seems to take far too long parlaying and too little time in the actual melee, its proud warriors spending too long staring at you across an overcast landscape than razing you. The result is the least interesting Moonsorrow to date.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Jag Panzer - The Scourge of the Light (2011)

A lot of listeners weren't too keen on the previous Jag Panzer album, Casting the Stones, since it took a more modern, crunchy turn from what they were likely used to. I didn't mind it, but let's face facts: the Colorado power metal legends had already evolved so far from their roots on the mighty Ample Destruction that such minor changes were to be expected. As long as they don't write and release Dissident Alliance II, I can sleep at night, and the Panzer's own seven year hibernation has finally ended with The Scourge of the Light, a tighter and controlled effort that brings them back to the sounds of the 1997-2001 era, in which the band had transformed into a glinting, melodic and professional entity with hints at progressive metal.

In essence, it's a step back, but also a step forward. There is a general lack of the explosive passion of the band's brighter years; The Fourth Judgement could run this into the ground on sheer energy alone. A lot of this is due to the production, which is so incredibly clean that had the engineer scratched his jock itch during a lead sequence, you'd probably hear as if it were in the cubicle next to you. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because it brings out the very intricate melodies being woven through cuts like "The Setting of the Sun" and "Overlord", and gives the Tyrant a clean slate over which to flaunt his veteran pipes, which are admittedly solid throughout the entire play list. Christian Lasegue, who had appeared on the band's Chain of Command album (released 17 years after its recording) returns to replace Chris Broderick (now in Megadeth), and he and Mark Briody are a dynamic and fluent team, leads bristling off in either direction and rhythms complex enough to hold the curiosity even when the heart roams elsewhere.

"Condemned to Fight" is a fairly strong opener, giving the guitars a chance to flex and Harry a chance at a half-decent chorus, but the slower "Setting of the Sun" has a more interesting riff structure in the verses, and "Bringing the End" continues this trend, with the addition of a pretty ballsy, swaggering guitar line here that returns in the chorus. I didn't love "Call to Arms", though it was fun to hear the band go all Maiden, and while immediately accessible, "Cycles" and "Overlord" didn't leave a lasting impression, nor the more old school sounding "Let It Out". But the next piece "Union" is one of the more interesting on the album, refined melodies threading through another of their brighter mid-paced numbers, and once "Burn" picks up from its piano intro, it too soars. Closer "The Book of Kells" is the most ambitious track, 8 minutes of slowly rising, epic thunder, and it also stands as one of the better composed.

All said and done, The Scourge of the Light is another good album in a long stretch that has suffered only a few (considerable) hurdles, and I can't think that fans of Thane to the Throne or Mechanized Warfare are going to scoff at it. There are certainly a few tracks that some might deem filler, and I found a lack of fire in about half the album, but then I'm an old hanger on to the displaced illusion that we might someday hear something as decadent as another Ample Destruction from these guys. I've never been a huge fan of the guitar tone used in their 1997-2001, since I've always felt it was thin and processed, and I don't exactly love it here; but performance-wise this band is the very definition of professional, and they tend to wring out some depth from their riffs due to their skill level, and this 9th album is far from run of the mill power metal.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Destruction - Day of Reckoning (2011)

That well over 30 years into their existence, Destruction shows no obvious sign of aging or slowing down, is a testament to the band's authenticity and drive. They've taken their lumps, they've returned from the backlash of an entire decade, and they are still writing tunes that pound most thrash initiates into hamburger. Yet, despite the general quality of everything the band has released since Schmier and Mike reunited at the turn of the century, I have the sense that they peaked with The Antichrist and have simply been rewriting that album ever since. Whereas their 80s records marked a clear streak of evolution, through the roughness of Sentence of Death to the precision of Mad Butcher and fractured brilliance of Release from Agony; their past four efforts all inhabit the same plane.

As a result, Metal Discharge, Inventor of Evil and D.E.V.O.L.U.T.I.O.N. all lacked the distinction that the Germans destroyed us with in now legendary tracks like "Nailed to the Cross" and "Thrash 'Til Death", and Day of Reckoning is really just more of the same. Of course, this could be seen as a positive from certain standpoints. The mix of the instruments is once more ground into a meaty paste of perfection, with Sifringer's guitars and Schmier's snarling retorts sharing the spotlight of the butcher block evenly, and a rhythm section that can manhandle anyone else in the business. The lyrics and titles all carry that same sense of anger and velocity we could so appreciate from The Antichrist: "Hate is My Fuel", "Armageddonizer", and "Church of Disgust" just a few of the delicious morsels of maladjustment. But though they've laid out all the expected bricks for another rowdy crowd pummeling, the ultimate structure is one that can only weather the most common of storms, and not the blazing ravages of time.

It's a Destruction album without Thomas Rosenmerkel, and that equates to their being at least some noteworthy content, even if it's not about to challenge an "Eternal Band" or "Curse the Gods" for the career highlight reel. "Armageddonizer" is low-down and angry, especially the vocals through the minor twists and grooves. "Day of Reckoning" itself opens with some tasty Sifringer excess, blinding melodies trailing off into the sinister radioactive waste-scape. "Sorcerer of Black Magic" stands as perhaps the most interesting writing on the album, with great vocal effects and a cautiously built into segment that continues to rise like a warhead, thick riffing and latest drummer Vaaver's kicks like hammers of judgment pounding in the skull of the listener. "The Demon is God" and "Sheep of the Regime" both have their share of gladiatorial riffing and vexed insights, and at the risk of charges of metal heresy, I enjoy the cover of Dio's "Stand Up and Shout" just as much if not more than the Holy Diver original...especially the brief lead.

In the end, here is another case where they've done just about everything right, except breach the memory with their songwriting. Any individual track here would integrate fluidly with their material of the past decade at live shows, and yet I'm not sure many of the tracks would last long in a classic Destruction set list. It's a stronger album than the latest from Teutonic fellows Tankard or Sodom, and it'll sound great blasting out of headsets, car stereos or home rigs alike, but I didn't really find myself mouthing any of its riffs or vocals even after a number of listens. Day of Reckoning is good. The trio still sounds as enthusiastic and menacing as they did at any point in the last decade, and I'd take this any day over 90% of the new thrash being released by new acts, but I'll just have to keep my horns crossed for something more compelling to come.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Decrepitaph - Profane Doctrines Unburied (2011)

Some people work 40 hours or more each week. Some people just spend 40 hours each week watching their investments on an iPad while they sip martinis by the pool on their private yacht. But some, rarer specimens spend about 80 hours per week laying out drum tracks for brutal, old school death metal albums. Alright, maybe just one individual: Elektrokutioner, who returns to Decrepitaph with multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Sinworm to produce yet another tour of the morgues and sepulchers of puerile antiquity. Profane Doctrines Unburied is the third full-length from this project, and it picks up directly where the Conjuring Chaos EP and previous efforts left off, in the sullen murk and decay of a genre that still writhes like a pile of corpse-worms just beneath the surface soil of the present.

Intricacy is not the mindset here, but thudding riffs and percussion that compete for guttural space with Sinworm's entirely blunt invocations of rotting flesh and morbid ritual. Like the past albums, you'll hear traces from a wealth of archaic influences like late 80s Obituary, Deicide, Pestilence, Autopsy, Incantation and so forth, spliced with some resonant, creepy doom melodies in "Desecrate Sacred Flesh" or "A Suffocating Evil". Like Condemned Cathedral or Beyond the Cursed Tombs, this seems to be a rather well rounded effort without the strength of distinct, individual tracks, so its best left to those times in which you commit 50 minutes to festering, overbearing gloom and bludgeoning evil, without even the illusion of hope. Personally I found the deeper I traveled into the content here, the more hypnotic the experience would become, as if my corpulent form was being used as the focus of some foul summoning act. It seems to climax around "Mortified Spirits" and "Domain of the Occult", but it's also 'fun' getting there, and I like the instrumental "Ghost of the Gallows" quite a lot.

Whether your craving old school death or death/doom (like Hooded Menace or one of Elektrokutioner's other bands, Father Befouled) without the usual Swedish sound off, Profane Doctrines Unburied should do the trick. It moves with all the spunk of a shambling corpse just reanimated in a peat bog: slow, but just as pestilent and deadly if it can clasp its groaning jaws upon your appendages. The entire album reeks of obscurity and disease, and it's just as tight as either of its predecessors. No fucking around, no fucking off, simply sincere and accursed old grandfatherly gore that can sooth the horror obsessed misanthrope dwelling inside each sick one of you. Fuck the future. Let the past swallow you anew.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (bodies aching for consumption)

Zombiefication - Midnight Stench (2010)

Despite the lack of constituents breaking out in popularity beyond the country's borders, Mexican metal has always been a very busy scene, with dozens of bands exploring nearly every sub-genre you could dream of. Black, Gothic, death, thrash, traditional heavy metal, it's all been done south of the US border, but Zombiefication might be a first for me: a Mexican band with a tone straight out of the early 90s Swedish death metal scene. Big, chugging guitars laden in that all too familiar tone, and resonant but dim vocals reminiscent of L-G Petrov at his most caustic. Midnight Stench is the band's debut, and it features a lot of dense thrash-like rhythms and a pervasive, dark mood that places it alongside other 'old is new' acts like Brutally Deceased, Maim and Tormented.

I'm not going to claim I enjoyed this album as much as any of those I just listed, but if I can give some credit here it will be for the varied tempos. Many of the retro Swedish ghouls utilize a lot of repeated, paraphrased riffing patterns from Left Hand Path, but Mr. Jacko and Mr. Hitch, the two central zombies here, engage in a lot of slower, churning material that is adequate for pit fighting, like the bridge/latter half of "Anthem to the Deathmarch" or the atmospheric, doomed and haunted walls of "Sleepless Mutter" which is easily one of the most engrossing pieces here. I also enjoy a few of the riffs in "Last Resting Place", "Hitchcock Screaming in Phobia" and perhaps even the mindless wailing and storming of "The Early Years", which is as close as the album gets to sheer Entombed worship.

But then, there are also a few duds here which break up the pace and immersion in the album: "Cryptic Broadcast", "Jacko's Funeral Pyre", "Broken Gravestone" and "Necroambulatory" don't have much going for them outside of their authentic, soiled guitar tones. The vocals retain their bloodied bludgeon pitch throughout the whole playlist, but they're all too rarely configured into a memorable pattern (save "Sleepless Mutter"), and the rhythm section just sits its duff on the backburner, ample and aggressive enough to carry the guitars, but never distinguishing itself independently for a more full-bodied assault. Midnight Stench is not a bad record, if you enjoy the proto-death of Sweden in all its forms, and it's interesting to see the influence such a style has held outside of Europe or the States, but I think these Mexicans need a few better riffs to catapult them further into the rank and file of nostalgia addicts that devour this brand of death.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Heathendom - The Symbolist (2011)

I don't often hold out hope for finding anything new or interesting within the realms of traditional or power metal, but Greek outfit Heathendom presents a sound argument against such obstinacy, with a fusion of old and new aesthetics that takes the listener by complete surprise. Describing their precise sound is complicated, but I'd place it at a nexus between Nevermore, Helstar, Eldritch, Omen and Fates Warning, modernized machinery that is well aware of its roots and explores them with the enthusiasm of dynamic riffs and no fear of deviation from classic tropes where it suits the songwriting. Vocalist Dimitris Koutsouvelis is quite the find, his numerous tones creating a schizoid interface that ranges from dark asylum whisperings to Halford or Warrel Dane-like shrieking.

He's backed by some serious riffing potential, and The Symbolist more often than not creates a vortex of traditional power chords and busier thrash riffing into its philosophical ramblings, not to mention the swelling and theatrical orchestration often used as a gateway into tracks like "Black Euphoria" or "The Symbolist" itself. No two tracks here sound quite the same, and that's to the album's credit, though I did find that some were more hooky than others. "Sanctified" is a highlight, a crawling power morsel evoking traces of Morgana Lefay and Tad Morose, where "The Concept of Reason" truly experiments with its lurching structure, Koutsouvelis shrieking off its heights like a forum of gargoyles debating the nature of mankind. "An Angel, a Demon, and a Dying God" also deserves mention for the excellent bass and leads, and the choir-like crowing vocals that cast the listener into a desperate struggle in which his/her soul seems to lie in the balance.

That said, there are a few tracks which do drag behind the others in terms of their overall impact. "Die Insane" and "Prescience of the End" feature more of the band's slow, methodical plotting dynamics, but they left almost no impression, and also I felt like the initial volley of "Endistancement by the Null Position" was not entirely memorable. Heathendom always seems to hover at the edge of genius, but The Symbolist never seems to take the decisive plunge into its waiting arms. In addition, though their mix of thrash and power here perhaps precludes a strict necessity for climactic chorus parts, they do seem to be lacking through most of the material here. But these traits are easier to forgive when confronted by such an invigorating band, and even if The Symbolist is not their magnum opus, you can be assured that such potential lurks just beneath its skin, so don't be surprised if these Greeks evolve and explode rapidly in the right direction.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Canopy - Menhir (2010)

Canopy proved through their 2009 effort Will and Perception that they were one of the most adventurous and promising melodic death metal acts that you hadn't heard of. But while that was a recycling of earlier material with a few new hooks traced onto its carapace, their third full-length Menhir is an entirely new, exotic beast of darker proportions. Unlike most of the acts to pollute this neglected genre, Canopy are quite heavy, relying on guttural instincts and vox above the tacky metalcore sham that has poisoned so many of the style's mainstream advocates. This is an album of horrors and delights, met at the middle of its purposeful, almost progressive constructions and a frontman who sounds like a cobwebbed tomb opening.

You will not hear too many of the standard Dark Tranquillity and At the Gates picking sequences present in these seven tracks, but explorations of rhythm and dynamics that reek of unexploited ingenuity. If anything, they bear more resemblance to Finns like Insomnium in how they fashion their more accessible material (the chugging/melodic exchange of "A Storm Within a Storm"), but elsewhere they completely dazzle, even the longer compositions ("Menhir" itself) never overstaying their welcome due to the variation of the guitars, thick sludge of the bass, and the balanced drumming. I personally found "The Entire City" to be the catchiest piece, with its swaying segues of glinting, clean guitars and bass, and the bristling spikes of its rabid escalation into majesty, but there are compelling elements in every single cut, like the wiry melodies of "Inward Burst" or the glorious and curious stretch of the closer "Zenith".

Like its predecessor, Menhir proves that this genre can still be executed with some integrity. I can't say I enjoyed it all that much more than Will and Perception, it seems level in quality, with this being the more adventurous effort and that being slightly more catchy. The aesthetics of the recording are solid when you consider that there's no major label backing, and the band never insults your intelligence in their writing. There may yet be an act of heightened euphoria from this band that splays them across the radars of the modern melodeath inebriate, but this will certainly do if you find yourself in rapture of the sounds of Insomnium, Bel'akor, Elenium, Opeth, Omnium Gatherum or Back to Times of Splendor by the Germans Disillusion.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Idol and the Whip - Heavy Sleeper (2011)

Though I've not heard Idol and the Whip's debut Revelator from 2007, I've been exposed to their former band Supercontinent's Vaalbara, a crafty piece of atmospheric sludge managing to eschew many of the boring tropes of the genre. Idol and the Whip itself features three members of Supercontinent, and it's a decidedly more 'fun' project, sort of a mix of heavy stoner groove roasted in metallic elements; a midpoint between Foo Fighters and High on Fire, if you will. Massive guitar hooks, aggressive vocals and a surprising level of melodic awareness are the primary characteristics of Heavy Sleeper, and it succeeds in rocking the face off far more often than it doesn't. Far more.

Most of the tracks are kept short and to the point, and very near all of them are catchy as hell, beginning with the instrumental "Future Eyes", a surge of big, swerving chords and traditional dual melodies that pump the listener's expectations before the ballsy, fluid rush of "Wasteland Battle Hymn" which is like desert rock cranked to 11, so thick it almost trips over itself. Others that I completely lost myself to include "Grasscutter" and "Broken Crown" for their monstrous grooves and amazing vocal layering over the guitars; the angry and choppy "Ley Lines", the peppy melodies and basslines of "Nocturne", and the forceful sludge of "Watery Grave". The closer "Calling Down the Dark" is also a pretty sweet joint, like a more rock & roll alternative to Neurosis. Probably the only cut here that slightly missed the mark was the lengthy "Augur", in which the riffs were simply too boring, similar aesthetics being channeled more fluently through "Artery" or "Heavy Sleeper" itself.

The mix of the album is quite good, with thick and juicy guitars that make all the difference, tribal rock drumming and Chris Plumb's lyrical delivery which is reminiscent of bands as wide as Tad, High on Fire, Clutch and Neurosis. I had a lot of fun listening through this, probably more fun than Supercontinent, which is now apparently defunct. It's truly a surprise that this band hasn't been snapped up yet, they've got an accessible element to their music that would cross over to a variety of scenes, from the stoner sect to the sludge mavens to the more mainstream rock crowd. Heavy Sleeper already sounds as professional as something like this is going to get, so labels should certainly take note, as they might have the next sensation at their very fingertips. An entertaining sophomore and easily recommended to fans of anything I've name dropped in this review, or The Sword. What's even more amazing, the album is available for free from the band's site, with an option to donate a buck for higher quality. Jump on it.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Heretoir - Heretoir (2011)

The last release from the French duo Heretoir that I heard was the 2009 EP .Existenz., a dreamy and drifting piece of darkness that wandered the twilight of perdition, but didn't exactly leave the most lasting of impressions. For their s/t full-length debut, they've found an apt home in Northern Silence Productions, and I am satisfied that the band has managed to maintain their root genre (black metal) while incorporating about the same level of shoegazing, post rock aesthetics that characterized the earlier tracks. Heretoir is tortured, hugely atmospheric and depressing with just the faintest trace of hope hidden somewhere in the subtext, and while it's not the most perfect escape imaginable, it's 50 minutes of more than adequate melancholy.

It begins with one of its brief instrumentals, "The Escape - Part I", a beautiful flight of spacious, fulfilling ambiance, thrumming distant bass lines and piano strikes, before the power of "Fatigue" sweeps forward through a simple yet effective, crashing melody. Surprisingly, it's not long before they escalate into a blast beat, and the vocals cycle through the tortured screams reminiscent of Burzum and Weakling to a more soothing balance of cleans. A track like this could go south very quickly if it was swathed in excess repetitious, but the Frenchmen do a superb job at shifting the rhythms back and forth so the listener doesn't develop an edge of ennui, just a spike of sorrow piercing the faintly beating heart. "Retreat to Hibernate" continues to diversify the content, its beautiful clean guitar intro creating 3 minutes of oblique paradise before the electric chords come crashing forward to separate the soul and flesh.

"0" is another quality intro, with swelling guitar feedback and a pair of vocal samples entwined, somehow connecting the drifting apparition of the music back to humanity, and then there is a straight blast into "Weltschmerz", shimmering with disdain and collapse. "Graue Bauten" is sure to get any fan of Lifelover and Alcest in a daze, its thick mournful melody bisected with clean passages, and the same could be said for the 7 minutes of "To Follow the Sun", which is easily the gem on the latter half of this record. The namesake "Heretoir" is another striking piece, about 6 minutes of smooth howling and bled out bliss that pauses for a 'hidden' track of ringing guitars and more of Eklatanz' wandering vocals.

Obviously this is not a band stacked with riffs, their intricacy lies completely in the flow of the minimal presentation and oozing, lush darkness captured by the slight shifts in chords and the varied vocal tones. As such, there can be a moment or so where the attention span does drift away from what's being played out in these moon-bathed gardens of gray, but Heretoir's content is mixed enough in tempo and climate that it maintains an almost consistent hypnosis. It's not as empty and directionless to me as their countrymen Alcest, or the latest from Sweden's Svarti Loghin. There is a tangible if understated structure here that relies far more on core talent than fashionable boredom. Heretoir could be better, but this is an effective album that's already traveled several strides ahead of their prior output.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Aurvandil - Ferd EP (2010)

Though I often stumble over the complexities of swollen vocabulary and glib tongue, I am at heart a simpleton. When I see a mountain crest shrouded in ice and snow adorning the cover of a black metal recording, then I expect the music to freeze my spirit to a fault. I say this with bearing to Aurvandil's Ferd EP, because this is a musician that knows and revels in cold. You might not hear it at first, because this is the cold of antiquity, basked in a glorious sunlight rather than a shadowed, leeching abyss, but the compositions here beat like the blue and white wintry heart of a frost titan, storming and significant and immortal.

The concept of this French artist is simple, and one we've all seen and heard before: a single musician, with a guitar and synthesizer, left only to the constraints of his own imagination. It's an equation I never seem to tire of, and perhaps one of the most honest and base expressions in music. The guitars are straight black metal that can trace its roots to the early annals of ravenous Norse veterans like Enslaved, Burzum, and Transilvanian Hunger era Darkthrone, but the subtle glints of melodies and synthesizers placed easily through the driving, straight razor rhythms feel like blankets of inevitable, virgin snow that alight upon your scalp from the torn, gray sky. "Over the Seven Mountains" and "Still He Walks" are the two tracks in particular that I enjoyed, easily filling out their 9 and 10 minute respective lengths with blazing egress as they stir the sleets of the past, each endowed with harrying blast beat segments and shifts into a slower, driven majesty.

The "Peregrination" bookends to this EP are also interesting, the first a lengthy folk guitar diatribe that gradually mesmerizes the listener before exploding, the latter cutting more swiftly to the glacial crash of its gleaming, desperate electric melodies. The central track, "Through Hordanes Land", was probably my least favorite of the five, though comparable in tone. I enjoyed the string intro and a handful of the riffs, but some of the repetition lost me as I was treading its depths. Otherwise, I have very few complaints about what I'm hearing. The beat programming might throw a few listeners off, but I've become incredibly acclimated to its sheer, hostile shadowing. Aurvandil promises nothing more or less than an icy excursion into myth, and if you've an inkling for early 90s authenticity in your black metal, Ferd is as vaunted and frigid as you are like to find in the underground, or anywhere for that matter.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Northern Oak - Monuments (2010)

Calling a metal album 'relaxing', regardless of its sub-genre, might be taken by some as a bit of a rip, but in the case of Northern Oak's sophomore Monuments, the term is only too accurate in describing its chill and beautiful atmosphere, drawn directly from the band's native English environment and fashioned into a heady concept album which creates a sort of window to a window, each track a dying Victorian scholar's rumination on some folklore or his own storied past. This at once casts the album into a unique and breathtaking glow, as the band's compositions speak volumes in both desperation and happiness, arriving in myriad structures that conjure both rustic regret and the triumph of melancholy.

There are of course exceptions to the album's soothing nature, in particular the opener "Sun God's Wrath", a storm of sullen bombast which introduces us to the meticulous riffing, fluid bass lines, haunting flutes and ample synthesizers, all anchored in the rasped vocals and solid hand and footwork of the percussionist. Northern Oak throws a lot at you: a hybrid of black, folk and progressive metal, but the varied instrumentation is so seamlessly integrated that you would never know the things to be distinct from one another. It's interesting that it opens with such a heavier track, because for much of Monuments' 54 minute play-length, we're treated to elegies of slow, lush sadness and majesty that stand at a nexus of Falkenbach, Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd. "Gawain" with its steady escalations, impressive guitars and strangely addictive flutes; "Into the Forest" an narrative with an accompaniment of flutes, synths and acoustics; "Arbor Low" with its ale-spun guitar melodies and brief outbreaks of speed; "The Scarlet Woman" with its deeper, death grunts and morbid constitution.

Strangely, then, that I found the album even more compelling when it grew even more abstract, in particular "Nivis Canto" with its solemn pacing, spectral vocal percussion, and gorgeous bass lines that eventually explode into a mountain-scaling paradigm of pagan inoculation. "Death in the Marshes" is like pure Tull with a trace of On Thorns I Lay's guitar tone; and "Cerridwen's Round" a medieval bliss whereupon the flute ducks and weaves through the synthesizers and cautiously plucked strings, a more than perfect backdrop for any archaic tavern fantasy. Credit should also be given that the lyrics do the music justice, poetic and historic discourse threaded through the bite of the vocals. Monuments simply throws so much at its listener that I'm amazed how much actually sticks, how little slides off the skin...

Almost miraculous is that Northern Oak has composed this without any of the stout silliness that pervades so much of the folk metal realm. You could easily close your eyes and picture yourself binging on acid through an obscure glade, sunlight optional, but there no brownies and elves waltzing through the eves here, nor a snickering redcap in sight. It's a sad and serious album, even the flute playing. The mix is fairly organic, and I can see that some might be put out by that fact, but nevertheless you can hear everything quite clearly and the lesser fidelity does wonders to transport the listener into this swath of lost history and magical soil. I won't cite that the album is perfect, as I found a few tracks less revelatory than others ("Silvan Lullaby" in particular is not the cream of this crop), but it should be damned interesting to hear what they have in store for the future, and the band is just as worthy as A Forest of Stars or The Meads of Asphodel in micromanaging such versatile components into a sense of bewitchment.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (may I leave my mark and shape)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Uncanny - MCMXCI - MCMXCIV (2011)

Uncanny was a pretty tremendous Swedish death metal act in their day, but their star was apparently not meant to rise, and thus they sunk into obscurity after breaking up in the 90s, their members scattered to winds as wide as Centinex, Katatonia and October Tide (Fredrik Norrman is an alumni). For many years, their sole full-length Splenium for Nykotophobia has been out of print and nigh impossible to find through normal channels, but this situation has now been rectified by The Crypt and Dark Descent Records, who have issued it both as a triple LP and double CD set that include all of the band's material. Since the time is right for this genre, with scores or more of new bands recycling this old Swedish sound, it's a perfect opportunity for newer fans to finally get their hands on all the band's material.

Disc 1 is Splenium for Nyktophobia in full, and it still sounds quite good. Pure, muscular death metal with the beefy tones of an Entombed or Dismember, circa Clandestine or Indecent & Obscene. Tracks like "Brain Access" manage both curving, crushing grooves and cutting leads very well amidst the primal thrust of the verses, and grating guttural vocals. Other favorites include "Screaming in Phobia", "Indication Vitalis" and "Towards the Endless Throne", not to mention the great synthesizer outro/title track. Considering the production standards then, it is rather a surprise that Uncanny did not see more success than they did, and yet there was likely only room for so many Swedish death acts at the top, so this one was sunk below the level of a Grave or Unleashed in impact. But, like Gorement and others, the material is well worth a visit and purchase for any fan of the era and tone.

Disc 2 is another treat, reprinting the band's Transportation to the Uncanny (1991) and Nyktalgia (1992) demos. A few of the tracks are redundant to the full-length, but much of the stuff has likely never been heard outside of this release, so it's impressive that the demos were of such an accessible quality. Granted, they're not at the same standards as the album, but I doubt anyone would be expecting such, so here is the chance to assimilate and appreciate neanderthal thugs like "Profligacy of Power", "Why My Intestines?" and perhaps my favorite titled "The Porno Flute". All in their raw, brutal color draining glory.

Those who read a lot of my critiques will realize I'm often very hard on worthless compilations of a band's previously released material, but MCMXCI-MCMXCIV is exactly the sort of package that the doctor (and fans) ordered. Complete and infallible, it even includes tracks from the band's 1993 split with Ancient Rites, including one ("Determination to Win") unavailable on the other recordings. What you're getting here is not just a CD or LP set, but an entire career that you can lavish as much as you please. Uncanny might not have been the most unique entity, and their album Splenium for Nyktophobia is not the measure of a Left Hand Path, but it was well worth hearing in its original incarnation, and if you're savvy to that early Swedish sound, well worth owning in this format.

Verdict: Win [8/10]
(creature controlled by force far away)

Doomsword - The Eternal Battle (2011)

Italians Doomsword have never been one to disappoint their audience, and you can tell this by the amount of time they spend carefully concocting each new album, at least over the course of the 21st century. Four years between Let Battle Commence and My Name Will Live On, and another four years to produce The Eternal Battle, which turns out to be not only another fine offering, but the very best the band has yet manifest on this Earth. More than this, the band offer us something so rare, a brand of traditional and epic heavy/doom that brings out the best of Manilla Road, Brocas Hell, Cirith Ungol, old Omen and Manowar. Read through those names again. Yeah, shove that up your Sonata Arctica-choked flower pipe and smoke it long and hard.

The Eternal Battle is enormously well conceived, and as usual the band visits their lyrics upon historical and mythological concepts, as well as classic fantasy literature like the works of Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock's Elric saga. Morose, elegant and crushing, Doomsword are masters of their craft, shifting tempos and vocal arrangements with ease, weaving the lyrics and rhythms into a narrative that paints a black, dour ancestral Earth where men were made Men by their deeds and blades. Deathmaster has a phenomenal voice, somewhere between Eric Adams, Mark Shelton and J.D. Kimball, and he's one of the few out there doing this, and the rhythm section delivers a pummeling, classic foundation without hesitation. But special dues should be given here to Alessio Berlaffa, whose playing runs the range from thick, resonant chords to the intricate leads and muted picking discourse more prevalent in modern, anthemic European power metal.

That's a lot of weapons, and all of them are sharp or blunt as necessary to fit each composition, beginning with the mindblowing "Varusschlacht", which sings of sunken glory through the whispered, dark narrative and the 'whoa oh oh' that marches gallantly into the verse. "Eternal Battle" eschews some of the shadowy atmosphere for the glint of glorious melodies, but it's just as dire and potent, and "Wrath of the Gods" is just balls out fucking heavy metal plugged with soothing, powerful vocals carried over the lamentations of the verse guitars. There is not a track here that will fail to eclipse your soul if given the breath and patience, but I slightly fancy the weighted blades of "Soldier of Fortune" and "The Fulminant" for the heft of the riffing and the massive atmosphere conjured through the interplay of drums and vocals, not to mention those leads in the latter and how they gracefully transition to the river-like bridge.

The Eternal Battle is glazed in a rich but earthen production much like their prior efforts, and it's the perfect needle through which to thread such beloved and forgotten tales. It's nothing pretty, nothing fancy and nothing exorbitantly digitized to drain the listener's connection to the songs of olde, and thus it suits the Italians like a chain mail coif. I'd feel pretty confident in advising you to go out and buy everything this band has ever recorded, but let's be honest, they'll most appeal to a certain subset of metal fans who worship the pre-thrash Manilla Road, or like myself, spin Battle Cry, Warning of Danger, Battle Hymns and Sign of the Hammer repeatedly and wonder where all the magic got off to. There is certainly a doom component, but more for fans of Gods Tower, Northwinds or Pagan Altar than the Swedish crush or the post-Sabbath sludge craze. Doomsword deliver, and this 5th full-length is a proud scar to wear, a bloodied nose from a steel gauntlet you will not soon forget.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Before the Dawn - Deathstar Rising (2011)

Before the Dawn has always been a fairly diverse entity, strafing the genres of melodic death, doom and Gothic metal, but it's also this diversity which can lean towards some irritation with their writing. For all intensive purposes, Deathstar Rising, their sixth full-length, is such an exercise in frustration. There are moments on this album that are simply breathtaking, but then there are others in which it becomes such a generic and futile course in mediocrity that I found it difficult to believe I was listening to the same band. These generally occur in some of the cleaner chorus sequences or the vapid, chugged breakdowns that one would expect out of a second rate metalcore act. Thankfully, the beautiful moments do outnumber the atrocities, but not enough to save it from the cutout bin.

When this album works, it works with the evocative flair of fellow Finnish melodic death metal acts like Insomnium, Noumena and Kalmah. For example, the acoustic passage "The First Snow" leads into an eruption of solemn, swaying majesty in "Winter Within", a track in which even the clean, soaring Lars Eric Si stand to the memory. "Unbroken", "Remembrance" and "Wraith" are all swathed in resonant emotions that recount Insomnium's latest album, while "Judgment" has a very catchy melodic context in the swaggering chords that drive its rock-like visage. But these are balanced off by the less interesting fare like "Butterfly Effect" which is nothing but a half-decent chorus wrapped up in mediocre melodeath riffing, or "Deathstar" which is bisected by a fairly cheesy breakdown segment. Even some of the better tracks suffer from such misfires. As for the ballad "Sanctuary", it's probably the closest to their more purely Gothic metal material, but not so effective.

The production is of course top notch, this is being put out through Nuclear Blast, and thus you can hear everything clearly, almost too clearly. The album I keep coming back to when I listen to this is Across the Dark, except not remotely as good as that, but if you find yourself obsessed with that sound, or really any of the post-Sentenced, mid 90s or later Amorphis sound then you might develop a fonder reaction to Deathstar Rising than I did. Clean and brutal vocals mixed with glimmering, friendly melodies that are once in a while memorable. It's not a bad album in the end, but maybe some further consideration in the writing and track list could have rendered it a marvel instead of a few great ideas mired by filler. I definitely favor a few of their older records to this.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Mercenary - Metamorphosis (2011)

When you look at the course of Mercenary's career up to this point, it was inevitable that they were veering towards the creation of the consummate pop melodeath record, and with Metamorphosis, their 6th full-length, I feel that the moment has finally arrived. They have cemented their position as the Danish Killswitch Engage, with a roster of songs that I might have mistaken for Justin Bieber or Fallout Boy had the guitars not been so heavy, or René Pedersen's voice been far more powerful. Yes, this is an album that marries the Swedish influenced melodic death/thrash guitars with crystal clear vocals, rasped Tomas Lindberg outbreaks, hardcore death grunts, flighty synthesizers and the most modern, polished production values one could wish for (or fear) in the entire metal world.

Have you run away yet? If not, you're probably resolute that this is another Mercenary record. It's not a whole lot different than its predecessor Architect of Lies, an album I enjoyed, but it takes the pop readiness to a level I'm not totally comfortable with. It's just cleaner. Spiffier. A metrosexual metal album, through and through. It has cover art that looks like a bad tattoo, and a new logo which at the very least is superior to that generic font they'd been using for years. But it's not entirely void of value and intensity if you enjoyed its predecessor, in particular the song "On the Edge of Sanity" which features some sleek, thundering guitar riffs beneath the swirl of the keyboards, and a pretty sweet breakdown, if you're not opposed to having them in your melodic death pop. A few other tracks have their moments: "Velvet Lies" is Romantic and morose, "In Bloodred Shades" pounds along with drippy diligence, and "In a River of Madness" comes the closest to the Swedish/At the Gates-influences at the root of this group.

I've certainly appreciated a few albums of this type before, namely Architect of Lies and the last album from another Danish band, Raunchy (Wasteland Discoteque) which was comparable, but in the end I wasn't feeling Metamorphosis all that much. The material here is precise, the riffs reasonably plotted, and René has a pretty impressive voice that could have served him in a non-metal career, but I feel that the band's commercial flourishes have just taken them into a space I don't care to follow, where chugging breakdowns, pianos and bubblegum reign hand in hand. For what it is, it's pretty well done, and but apart from 2-3 of the more raging songs I don't see myself ever having the inspiration to listen through it anymore. But if you're a steadfast follower of the more pop-inclined efforts from Dark Tranquillity, In Flames and Soilwork, like Stabbing the Drama, you might find something to it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Assassin - Breaking the Silence (2011)

Hard to believe that it's been 25 years since this German thrash act released their cult classic debut The Upcoming Terror, a good if not great first outing that was cast in the mold of bands like Sodom and Destruction, with a slight tendency towards traditional metal. Since that time, though, the band have been relatively quiet. Their 2nd effort Interstellar Experience was less appealing, and the band went silent for almost two decades before releasing their incredibly weak comeback, The Club. Whereas peers like the German Big Three had all re-established themselves as renewed forces in the 21st century, this band merely flopped on its side like a fish out of water. It is thus with great pleasure and relief that Breaking the Silence is incredibly energetic and refreshing, the best they've written since 1986.

The sounds are not exactly the same as that Golden decade, but surprisingly they've kept their core trio of songwriters together, joined by a younger rhythm section. Robert Gonnella is just as focused and angry as he was in his youth, and in my opinion this is his best showing to date. The riffing of Scholli and Micha is blazing lightning, furious and not afraid to take a few risks, like the impressive tremolo wa-wa that heralds the title track and opener. It's probably the single most impressive song here: flurried, tight and progressive, especially the speed riffing in the verse. But the band does not let up there, thrashing you through urban obliteration pieces like "Raise in the Dark" and "Turf War", each a splatter of efficient velocity broken by staggering, accessible but not lamentable grooves. For slower material, there's the pounding, atmospheric "Destroy the State", but everything else is more of a swift kick to the ass, a mesh of Sodom, Destruction, Exodus and Holy Terror styled riffing and crisp precision.

Perhaps the only real blunder is the closer, the punk-driven "I Like Cola", but Assassin are no strangers to fucking around ("Junk Food" from Interstellar Experience would have words with you. Also, I don't care so much for the songs the band have included from The Club, namely "No Fear" and "Real Friends". They're not awful, but not invested in the same quality as the newer material. Breaking the Silence was also recorded with Harris Johns, so if you, like me, are a fan of his older works in the 80s, including a good number of classics, then you'll probably be happy that he's still able to manage the mixing board for a proper thrasher. It's got the same, dry but snappy feeling as many of his older productions. Now, granted, this album is no Enemy of God, Sodom or The Antichrist, but it's a well executed return to form, and there are at least two great songs in "Breaking the Silence" and "Destroy the State". Legendary fare this might not be. But I, for one, am very happy to have bands like Assassin and Wicca back in proper working order.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Volturyon - Coordinated Mutilation (2011)

If you enjoy the George Corpsegrinder era of Cannibal Corpse, or the great Dutch band Severe Torture, than I can wholeheartedly recommend the sophomore outing of Sweden's Volturyon with open praise, because it scratches the same itch you'd expect from such artists. Varied tempos, dense semi-technical riffing and brutal vocals that shift from the expectant grunted bluster to a snarled decay. Coordinated Mutilation is a sliver more dedicated and more brighter toned than its predecessor Blood Cure, and the title is only too fitting, because this is one group of men who tightly execute their various instruments with mirth and glee, so much that it's impossible not to get caught up in the enthusiastic butchery on display.

No time is spent fucking off, as "Bloodsoaked Solution" immediately embarks on a hustling slew of rhythms that recall Gallery of Suicide/Bloodthirst-era Cannibal Corpse. In other words, it's pretty awesome, if derivative. "Savage Gluttony" answers with a perkier, choppy structure that continues to barrel forward with thrashing, twisting force. From this point on, the level of excitement on the album curbs a little, but only because the band experiment at different tempos, like the swerving trudge/groove of "Euphoria Through Execution" and the title track, both of which are still quite well built. Deeper yet, there is the even deeper groove of "Sadistic Molestation" and the mighty closer "Intense Convulsions" which much rank among my faves on this album, both intensely fashioned with precision chugging, squealing riffs that fondly rekindle a lust for old school, technical death metal.

The mix and mastering of Coordinated Mutilation is clean enough to sate the modern death metal fanatic, at the risk of alienating those that hate the style, but it's level and professional, with the drums really popping out at you and the guitars incredibly balanced. Unlike most of their Swedish peers, you'll hear almost no influence from the godfathers (by now grandfathers) of that scene, just very Americanized brutality with a hint of the Dutch greats (Pestilence, Sinister and so forth). No, this is more in the vein of peers like Spawn of Possession, Visceral Bleeding or Deranged, if not as technical as the former two or blunt as the latter. The content here isn't exactly 'ace', that is not wholly memorable, but it's easily enough recommended if you enjoy US bands like Suffocation or Cannibal Corpse, or perhaps even the new wave of Californian death metal that garners similar interests to the next level of extremity.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Turisas - Stand Up and Fight (2011)

To put it bluntly, Finland's Turisas has no place in the collection of anyone unwilling to appreciate 'epic cheese' in their metal. Devout, nerdy and glorious simultaneously, few bands are so able to make a listener crack a smile as he/she reminisces of his/her last battle in some fantastic or historical war simulator. Even the image of the band is ridiculous, going at great lengths to appear more viably battle scarred and hardened than the next. But you know what? I've come to enjoy their sound, if only because of that rare place it takes me, to realms of nearly Romanticized majesty and manliness that simply do not exist in the current spectrum of humanity. So if you've ever found yourself smitten with the sounds of Equilibrium, Thyrfing, Bal-Sagoth and Manowar, then the Finns are a natural curiosity. If not, then stay well clear of this album.

Battle Metal and The Varangian Way were both great fun in their time, but I feel like Stand Up and Fight is better at meshing together the more authentic symphonic elements with their simplified power/folk metal discourse. "The March of the Varangian Guard" is an impressive opener, with manly choirs and orchestration that escalates into theatrical glory, the perfect melodrama to accompany some bad big screen epic. But "Take the Day!" takes it to a whole other level, like something you might hear in a Rocky film, or Starblazers. The bass, horns and strings swell up to an instant climax, the head nodding in rhythm to the straight rock guitars before 'Warlord' begins his deep, Gothic intonation. "Hunting Pirates" and "Venetoi!" Prasinoi!" stir the content into other directions, the former a raucous maritime roast and the latter an enthusiast splice of opera and charging war metal. But my favorites come later, in the dreamy hearth-stoking sweeps of "End of an Empire" and the calm, narrative closing of "The Bosphorus Freezes Over."

If you snag the limited edition, you get a bonus disc with some worthwhile acoustic renditions and a pair of covers. Jethro Tull's "Broadsword" is a natural in the hands of Turisas, and had it not already been written decades ago, would probably feel like one of the band's own original compositions. In other words, they do a great job with it, and I enjoy it almost as much as the content of the core album. Black Sabbath's "Supernaut" is also given an acceptable treatment, obviously asserting the band's 'epic' qualities over the original version, and once again tasking the listener with an acceptance of the Finns' tongue in cheek bombast. And that really sums it up for Stand Up and Fight, a finely wrought piece of fun that will offer no shelter to those who deign to take it too seriously. It's sleeker and more polished than either of the band's prior full-lengths, and yet I cannot say that I enjoyed it at that level, but if I need a surefire fix of swaggering, ale swigging battle orchestration to soothe my dorked up mind, then Turisas has yet again provided a reliable vessel upon which to sail, and miraculously managed not to insult anyone's intelligence. Lighten up and fight.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (I have never stepped from this road)

Repuked - Pervertopia (2011)

Pervertopia would not the first time we've heard a fusion of death metal, d-beat grind and punk ethics; bands like Disfear, Death Breath and Trap Them all hang in the balance, but for the young Repuked, the aim is to affix the splatter of primal, nasty primate punk to the visceral momentum of early 90s Swedish death, a task to which they succeed admirably, like some crass embodiment of Repulsion, Entombed and Autopsy in a cockfight. This is the band's first album after a pair of demos, and it incorporates a lot of thick, streaming guitars with jangling noise, breakdowns and a slew of guttural vocals that assault you like a street gang of drunken undead sailors and whores with their jaws and tongues shorn off.

Of course, this is ridden with the juvenile aesthetics one might expect from such a 'fun' band, like the hurling intros to "Mental Vomit" or "I Wanna Puke On You", but these are very easily forgiven when the material is so solidly executed, like a bowel cleansing factory with guitars. The riffs are often incredibly simple ("I Wanna Puke On You", "Fucking Something Dead"), but they are still effective enough to get a circle pit active. However, there are some deviations from this pattern in "Orgasmic Death Deliverer", which opens with some busier, morbid guitar patterns over the booming chords, or closer "Toxic Constipation", an epic 8+ minute doom/death/sludge piece which is engrossing due to the incessant guitar noise being cast above its rhythms. I'm also privy to the primal rocking of "Morgue of Whores", a creepy intro shifting into giant chords that eventually pick up speed.

Ultimately, the area in which Pervertopia lacks is simply in memorable songwriting. If you were carting a busload of gore-obsessed grind freaks to a cannibal barbecue, or a vomit fetish rally, then this would make for great listening en route, inciting the gastric and reproductive juices of an audience churning for satiation. The bludgeoning, grotesque atmosphere created here is somewhat unique, for instance, you won't hear this on most General Surgery recordings. But outside of the tone and the variation in tempos, and the frothing guffaw of the entertaining vox, there are precious few moments of invention and titillating guitar work. It's not a dry heave, because these tracts are choked with wet, clammy bile, but the stomach muscles are too soon to relax, the toilet odors too fleeting to cling to your senses for very long. But for 45 minutes of disgusting aural architecture, you could do far worse...

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Evangelist - Oracle of Infinite Despair EP (2011)

Though the prolific output of Benighted in Sodom has been a task to keep up with of late, there is one common thread running through much of Matron Thorn's work: the atmosphere. Each release has manifest with some transient, often grating pallor that adds much to the experience. This quality is also carried into the man's other projects, like the spacey black metal of Andacht. Now, collaborating with vocalist Ascaris, Thorn has tested the waters of the death metal genre, to much the same effect. Oracles of Infinite Despair is simply a teaser, three tracks paving the grave soils of a wider ambition, but considering the current climate of death metal, in which new artists marry the nostalgia of the old guard with enhanced, atmospheric mechanics, I feel Evangelist might be his most potent evocation yet.

I've brought up the term 'cavernous' a number of times in my exploits, and certainly the term is accurate to describe the sounds of newcomers Vasaeleth, Denial or Innumerable Forms. But in the context of Evangelist, it is taken to extremes, and beautifully so; a haunting sheen of ambiance is omnipresent on this recording, affixed to the brutal drudging of the down-tuned guitars and guttural, spacious vocals. It works wonders on the psyche, dragging the listener into a loathsome configuration, evasive of all hope and light, a crypt of tangible, ominous vapors that slowly sap at the sanity of the living. "Funeral Monolith" opens with a wash of synthesizers that morphs directly into the crushing weight of the interior guitars, so dense that one gets the impression that Incantation, Disembowelment and Godflesh are jamming together while Raison d'Etre DJs obscure ambiance above the fray. "Blood & Darkness" seems somehow more mechanical, more freakish, like a carnival of blind subterranean refugees that worship a factory above, and this track incorporates a more directly old school, muted riffing sequence.

Lastly comes "Pendulum", another holistic drudge whose atmosphere seems closer to that of a choir of lost angels drifting among the peat bogs of antiquity. Beautiful and carnal in conjunction, but perhaps a sliver more repetitious than the others, it does beg the question: without the samples and ambient noise placed at the mast of this release, would it be as interesting? I cannot honestly say, for the riffs themselves seem more of a caged monstrosity feasting upon some ghastly carnage, lurching and snorting its derision at its captors. They're more an act of tumult and percussion than a series of notes made to be distinguishable unto itself. But the beauty is that they're not alone. The two polar forces here combine for true, disturbing gravity, and Oracles of Infinite Despair is the sort of atmospheric death metal that I simply don't seem to grow tired of. It will be interesting to hear if a further, long form release can capture the same nightmare-stuff with more variation, but this is an excellent initiation ritual, a haggard hazing of horror.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Maim - Deceased to Exist (2011)

Those who had a chance to hear Maim's 2009 debut From the Tomb to the Womb will likely have been impressed by the band's simple but effective trapping of the classic Swedish death metal tone and atmosphere, like a fly in amber. Granted, there are hundreds of bands barking up the same tree, all in libation to the gods of the late 80s and early 90s, but there is something to this unit's simplicity that distinguishes them alongside other hopefuls like Bastard Priest or Tormented. Deceased to Exist, the sophomore, once again issued through the promising Soulseller Records, sees the band continue this journey, by asserting not only their core, local sound, but a slew of other influences that mold it into a crushing experience.

Most importantly, they can write, and nowhere is this more obvious than the opener to the album, "Gravedigger Sacrifice", which shifts from a forward, thrusting velocity to damp breaks of writhing, thrashing pestilence, above which Rikard's howling grunts serve as a clarion to the grotesque, a call to the rising of the dead. "Morbid Desecration" is what happens when you take the slower pace of classic Death (circa Leprosy) and collide it into a sweeping, monolithic groove circa Hellhammer. "Crematory" is pure atmospheric death/doom, crushing and beautiful as its lamenting melodies cascade subtly over the sparse, bludgeoning chords. Makes me wonder how good this band might be if they went strictly in that direction, yet the variety here is a strength unto itself. Later strong points on the album include the d-beat grinding of "Nuclear Funeral", "Screams of the Mutilated", and "Resurrected from Hell", which more directly mirror their influence from the usual suspects: Entombed, Dismember, Grave, and so forth.

But any critique of this album would be meaningless without pointing out the amazing mix. The sound here is immense, one of those rare albums that can sound old and new at the same time. The compositions are implicitly simple, so great effort has been placed in making them sound as effective and bludgeoning as possible. Yet there is a morbid grace at work, enabling the album to balance its few, black-pitched moments of tranquility (i.e. "Crematory"), which is worthy of a fine doom offering. On the whole, I enjoyed Deceased to Exist more than its predecessor, which plied a slightly narrower path. If there is any such thing as possible 'maturation' in retrospective Swedish death metal, Maim have undergone the process here. I can't promise that all the sounds you're hearing are remotely unique, but for what it is, the material is well written enough to sink its hooks into you and drag you back to familiar sepulchers yet again.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Repent - Escape from Reality (2000)

Something was happening at the turn of the century in Germany, some slacking off of the frustration of a decade of sodden heresy, meticulous bullshit being spattered all about the hallowed name of thrash metal. The big bands like Sodom, Kreator and Destruction were returning to form, and it was suddenly no longer taboo for a new band to come along and just thrash the fuck out, regardless of the outcome. Repent did not exactly jump the wagon, they had formed early in the 90s, but it wasn't until the old Y2K that they could commit a full-length studio effort to the world. Escape from Reality is not much to look at, granted, actually it's downright fucking hideous, but if I can say one thing for it: it's a damned thrash album, 100%.

Some influence can certainly be traced to the guitar work of Destruction's Mike Sifringer, but Repent actually sound surprisingly American due to the vocals of Serkan Sanli. He's got a very broad, blunt edge to his tone that reminds one of crossover/thrash bands like D.R.I., Acrophet and especially the Venice Beach outfit Excel. That's not to say they're bad, but certainly not what I'd expect of the German scene, though they do sound seamless with the band's thick riffing. And since the guitars are so prominent here, with a loud, crunching tone, it is in their construction where Escape from Reality lives or dies. Numerous tracks here, including "Endless War", "Locked in Myself" and "Escape from Reality" itself are enormously promising, especially the faster segments and leads, and I like the whacked melodies that initiate "Killer", but in the end, Repent simply do not write content that can be distinguished from the previous decades of US or German thrash. The riffing throughput, while consistent throughout the entire album, is just not memorable enough to sink hooks into you.

Of course, if you're just looking for something to bang your head or mosh to, I can imagine that the material here went over quite well in front of crowds. It's never overtly technical, and there are is a large arsenal of pure moshing rhythms: they've even got a track called "Moshpit" which celebrates their inebriated need to feed on the limbs and suffering of other human beings. I could feel the wretched strings of pre-adolescence tugging at me, and the images of dark, smoke-filled rooms in which I and strangers would collide, but since this is far from my primary impetus in listening to metal music, I never developed much of a connection to any of this. It's a reliable headbanger of an album with big tones and neanderthal skateboarder vocals and not much else to get excited over. Their later effort, Disciple of Decline, is superior.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Desperadoz - The Dawn of Dying (2000)

Thrash metal and the Wild West. Two birds of a feather. In fact, I'm honestly surprised they hadn't collided earlier than this. At least not to the extent found in the output of Desperados (later exchanging the final 's' for a 'z') the project of one Alex Kraft. Some might know the guitarist from Tom Angelripper's solo band when he wasn't busy with Sodom. Why, Tom himself has sharpened his spurs for this debut, saddled his horse and strapped his pistols for this debut, The Dawn of Dying, and you'll find his very distinct vocals all over this high-falootin', six-shootin' concept album., which somehow, despite its absurdity, manages to not insult either the audience or its source material...

Thrash metal and the Wild West. They could have been joined better, but for what it's worth, I will take this. The album plays out like a classic Western, opening with crickets in an open prairie, then an ascending instrumental with guitars, pianos and distant percussion, before the swagger of the cowboys begins with "Gomorrah of the Plains". This is your basic mix of thrash and traditional heavy metal, lots of simple mutes but glazed over in atmosphere and melody appropriate to the fictional, historical realm the band's thoughts are dwelling in. Nothing really to write home about, but there are better songs which better utilize the bells and whistles and general atmosphere, like "Dodge City", "The Dawn of Dying", "Devil's Horse" and "Gone With the Wind", the last of which is like a Southern cousin to "The Saw is the Law". Several of the tracks go further into the traditional country/blues of the setting, with pumping, fun bass lines in "Jumpin' Down the Running Train" or the rock anthem "My Gun and Me", but it all fits in surprisingly well together.

I would point out that the actual thrash core of this band itself is not very interesting. I couldn't count a single riff here that would raise my hackles in a positive frenzy were it not for the dressings of the thematic, theatrical instrumentation. Without these dynamics, The Dawn of Dying would be a tremendous bore, even with Tom Angelripper on for the ride. But when it all comes together, it's hard not to smile at the band's intentions. Obviously, by nature this sort of project seems silly, but the Germans don't fuck around with it. The lyrics are pretty damned crazy, in fact. Which begs the question: why is it that it took a group of Europeans to come up with this? We should have had dozens of cowboy thrash bands already...and no, Agony Column and Pantera don't count. First they beat us with some of the greatest films of all time (directed by an Italian), and then the damn Germans beat us to quality Wild West thrash. It kind of stings inside, but The Dawn of Dying helps me bear the annoyance like a full swig of whiskey.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (wild instinct to stay alive)

Kreator - 1985-1992: Past Life Trauma (2000)

Though Kreator hadn't been an in-house band with Noise Records for several years, they nonetheless found the inspiration to release yet another compilation CD to pad their quickly emptying pockets. It's a fucking shame, truly, both that something like this exists, and that Noise Records doesn't exist, because that was by far the best individual metal label of the 80s, putting out entire swaths of classic material by some of my favorite bands. Alas, it turns out their business practices were not on par with their ear or talent. To be honest, I was quite hopeful when I first saw this, because it has a great cover art and the fact that it was 1985-1992 gave me hope that it would consist largely of demos, outtakes and rare tracks.

But these are few and far between on Past Life Trauma, and 14/18 tracks are a mere recycling of material from the band's first six albums. There are obvious choices made, like "When the Sun Burns Red", "Pleasure to Kill", "Extreme Aggressions", "Terrible Certainty", "Tormentor" and so forth, and they're fairly evenly distributed, but let's get serious: anyone who matters will already have purchased these in their original incarnations, whether that be by cassette, LP or CD, and it's entirely redundant to recommend this to any newcomer. Just head straight for the oldies, kids, there is NOTHING to see here. The 'rare' tracks included are nothing more than some live material from Renewal, which sounds mediocre, a demo of the track "Trauma" which was on the Renewal demo, but obviously deemed too purely thrash for that album, and "After the Attack", a B-side from the Behind the Mirror single off the Terrible Certainty album. This last addition is perhaps the one thing anyone would be interested in, but despite some decent, feral riffing and a mean breakdown, it's easy to tell why this wasn't deemed good enough for the album.

Translation: Do not waste a dime on this.

Past Life Trauma comes hard on the heels of two other compilations, both of which are likewise weak, but offer marginally more of value than this one. Considering that Noise already hammered us with Scenarios of Violence a few years prior, and the 90s sampler Voices of Transgression one year prior, this feels infinitely more like someone applying a rod & reel to your wallet and less about appreciating one of the greatest German bands out there. Noise might have done right by us, perhaps by issuing a cool box set of the old albums, with enhanced artwork, rare/live tracks and demos added to each, and other perks. That would have grabbed the interest of both new and old fans alike. But instead, this is yet another waste of space, with 1-2 rare tracks that might briefly pique the hardcore devotees interest for a matter of minutes before they are consigned to the potty of perdition.

Verdict: Epic Fail [2/10]