Thursday, March 31, 2011

Nomad - Transmigration of Consciousness (2011)

Nomad are perhaps one of the more intellectual and conceptual of the Polish death metal stalwarts, but they've oddly enough received very little attention as of yet. You could very easily compare their sound to Lost Soul, Vader, Behemoth and others within their direct sphere, but not so much that they overlay any one of those bands' particular aesthetics entirely. With luck, their 5th album, Transmigration of Consciousness will build upon their audience, because while I cannot promise that it's completely brilliant, it does capture a fair deal of atmosphere through its mix of ambient and guitar intros and crushing, grooving death hymns.

Similar to Pestilence's Testimony of the Ancients, or Blind Guardian's Nightfall in Middle-Earth, this album alternates its intros, interludes and outros with the full-length tracks. This is not always a welcome practice, and gods know I've seen myriad complaints about the tactic when employed on other works. Well, those complaints would be justified here, since their lack of titles really offers no individual distinction. Some of these are actually quite fetching, like the steady muted clean guitars that inaugurate "Flames of Tomorrow", or the spacey guitar ambiance that heralds "Dazzling Black", and I feel like perhaps they should have just been incorporated straight into the songs. Alas, at the very least Nomad have given the listener the option to skip them and head straight for the meat of the matter...

That meat would be the nine 'actual' songs of the album, which are almost without exception splayed out in a series of deep grooves that fall somewhere between Gojira, Alchemist and Lost Soul in practice. These Poles are far more fond of atmospherics than technicality, so the core of each track like "Dazzling Black" and "Pearl Evil" exists in a simple and bludgeoning space, lorded over by ambient sounds and effects, and the grunting force of vocalist 'Bleyzabel Balberith' (it gets better, as other members have adopted the stage names of 'Hydrant Hydrousus', 'Nameless Immenus' and more lazily 'Domin Dominus'.) The result is an experience both potent and tribal, the lack of truly distinct riffs somewhat compensated through the sheer gravity of what you're hearing, and plenty of deep thrashing segments to which you can break out into a private pseudo-mosh.

There are some deviations of the formula, like the rasped vocals of "Raised Irony", or the more uplifting grooves of "Four Percent of Hate", but the crushing effect of the Transmigration is a constant broken only by the segues. This is certainly the most ambitious and interesting that I've heard from Nomad yet, though I feel like the general quality of the songs on their 2004 effort Demonic Verses (Blessed Are Those Who Kill Jesus) was a little higher. That said, if you're into the structured proficiency of Polish acts Decapitated, Hate, Behemoth and so forth, and don't mind hearing that style pounded into riffing primacy and then lavished with a resilient and darker atmosphere, you might want to experience this mildly unique ritual for yourself.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Ash Borer - Ash Borer (2011)

Ash Borer is another of those West Coast acts who have stirred some buzz in the underground through their use of raw, uncompromising aesthetics, not necessarily adopting the same 'Cascadian' vibe you'd hear emanating from the upper Northwest of the US, but certain to appeal to that same crowd who seek a heavy amount of atmosphere against the backdrop of traditional black metal in the vein of Darkthrone, Burzum and so forth. The band has only been around for a few years now, and the Ash Borer tape is their debut full length, consisting of but three tracks, two of which are exorbitant in their length. I'll give the band credit, they manage to pull off a 12 and 19 minute track without either becoming entirely monotonous or boring, but aside from the fibrous, ringing Sonic Youth-like component that they often layer into the primal drudging, I wasn't so impressed.

There are clearly positives here. I love the band's name, it's one of those memorable, primal affairs like a Bone Awl. I like the huge swaths of percussive emptiness, feedback resonating into inner spaces while traces of deep distortion trail the memory (i.e. the end of "In the Mist of Life, We Are In Death"). However, I don't really care for the actual black metal segments, which drive along with vapid familiarity and rarely if ever involve any sort of surprise or escalation outside of the few chord shifts and snarling, resounding vocals. The blasting here, while used to create a mesmeric effect only, becomes duly monotonous. A good example of this is in the massive finale "My Curse Was Raised in the Darkness Against a Doomsday Silence", where the ambient intro, interlude and outro provide not only a stark contrast to about 10 or more minutes of ferocious, uninspired blast work, but feel superior to everything except the nice guitar sequence at around 7:30 in the song. Interestingly enough, I found the shorter, middle track "Rest, You Are the Lightning" to be the most rambling, despite the half decent miasma of bridge drums and guitars.

Fans of bands like Krallice, Altar of Plagues and Castevet will undoubtedly chew this up, though Ash Borer offers a much more raw, unwholesome ravaging. The songs are structured, but I have the impression these blokes could turn on their amplifiers and 'wing it' for many hours of bleak, distorted scripture. There is little complexity involved, just a viral, looping repetition that takes its time to cycle through each chapter. The guitars are good and loud here, placed at the fore of the tinny percussive storm and spacious yowling, but I feel like the note selection could certainly be more interesting than it is, and in particular I'd like to hear them indulge more in the post-punk fabric that they hint at, rather than the blander black metal riffs that seem to only anchor the outfit's potential to drift into a more appropriate oblivion. But this is not bad for what it is.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Evildead - The Underworld (1991)

Annihilation of Civilization was hardly a breakout suffusion over the thrash-starved masses of the late 80s, but it gleaned enough press and attention that the band had earned a rightful mention along the same West Coast surge that vaulted Exodus and Forbidden fairly high into the underground consciousness. For their sophomore, still through Steamhammer, Evildead would evoke a more practiced, surgical and technical veneer to their compositions that was adjoined to higher production values and cleaner tones. Imagine Forbidden's Twisted Into Form with a less impressive, less melodic vocalist at the fore. Unfortunately, though there are some diamonds in the rough here, taking the form of a few individual riffs I found superior to the debut, the album seems to grow progressively less exciting the deeper you go...

Shit begins with a creepy intro, "Comshell 5" that blends some feedback, ambiance and horrific vocal samples into a promising smoothie, then betrayed by the all too standard, mid paced gait of "Global Warming". As you can tell from this title, Evildead were fully in check with the big ticket issues of the late 80s/early 90s, so it's no surprise that they take on the environment, crime, the situation in and surrounding Iraq ("Welcome to Kuwait"), and even a pre-emptive jab at bastards like yours truly ("Critic/Cynic"). But as for the song itself, its easily forgotten beyond the decent lead. "Branded" brings about the thicker bass tone of the album; this and "Welcome to Kuwait" compensate for the rather mundane riffs with some tight fills and increased energy levels, which escalate even further through "Critic/Cynic" and "The 'Hood", utilizing a similar momentum to Vio-Lence on their superior sophomore Oppressing the Masses. There's a cover of the Scorpions' "He's a Woman/She's a Man", which is simply not as confident or fun as the Texan Helstar rendition, and then a trio of solid but ineffective thrashers which don't deviate from the first half of the album.

Of course, some points are given to Evildead for staying pretty true to their motives. We would not be hearing a lame groove-metal mutation out of this act like a Skinlab or Machine Head (fueled by members of Defiance and Vio-Lence, respectively) and the band instead decided to hang up the towel when it was clear there was no future (recently reforming). The Underworld is not lacking for effort, and certainly not mechanical execution; think of it as a tighter, polished interpretation of their debut. But what it does lack is inspiration. The songs here simply don't gel that well at all. None of them scream out for a replay. The debut itself was not exactly a stunner, but it at least had a voracious and driving quality about it that made it pleasing to experience, whereas this successor seems to drown in its own architecture, never offending but also never distending the reach of Evildead to the genre's diminishing audience of the day.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Evildead - Annihilation of Civilization (1989)

California thrash was already very near capacity by the time the Evildead rolled out their debut album, several of its pioneers having achieved enormous international success. Whereas overseas, bands like Coroner, Kreator and Mekong Delta were expanding the very notion of what the genre could accomplish, the West Coast artists, which, aside from a few New York area standouts would represent almost our entire thrash vanguard, and they seemed to dwell on little more than amplify the aggression level of their primed predecessors. Such is the case for Annihilation of Civilization, a lethal and competent enough effort that suffers simply from having already been handled better by artists like Exodus, Testament, Vio-Lence and Forbidden.

Don't get me wrong, this is not at all a bad release, and in fact it remains my favorite from Juan Garcia's 2nd most prominent project (after Agent Steel, of course). Authentic, savage guitar work is driven to the point of collision through a number of dynamics, greatly expanding upon the teasers from the prior Rise Above EP. They tend to mix up the speed sequences with mid paced, writhing riffs ala "Living Good", "Future Shock" or "Parricide", but this album works best when its meting out high amounts of testicular fuel via "Unauthorized Exploitation" or "Gone Shooting", each of which would have sounded right at home on Eternal Nightmare with Sean Killian singing. Often, they'll just blow the mold entirely and batter the listener with sheer, blustered force as in "Bend Over, Here It Comes Again (aka B.O.H.I.C.A.)" and opener "The Awakening".

Combined, the contents present a fully functional third string thrash band that can easily sate the cravings of those who pine for the artists I name dropped above, but rarely if ever do the individual riffs stand out as monoliths of memorable writing. I also must admit that I'm not the biggest fan of Flores' vocals here. He's enforced by shouting backups and has often sauces them with a respectable sneer, but otherwise it's your stock shouting reminiscent of crossover bands like D.R.I. or early Suicidal Tendencies. I've always appreciated a bit more character to my thrash front men, and this guy simply was not an Araya, Baloff or Hetfield. That said, despite the thin and crisp production of the guitars, and the lack of any particular 'cult classics' that I'd want to experience repeatedly through the decades, this is not a half bad headbanging if you're one to invest in the Bay Area's spectrum of 80s hostility.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]
(we're only destroying ourselves)

Evildead - Live...from the Depths of the Underworld (1992)

I'm not going to take a guess at why a band like Evildead would rate a live album after only two studio full-lengths, neither of which was all that impressive. Alas, the Californians were not the first case of such puzzlement and not the last. To their credit, though, they really make the best of it here with a solid mix of dense, thrashing guitars and bitter Phil Flores barking. This was all recorded in '92, the same year it was released as part of their Steamhammer deal, and it's never a bad thing to experience a performance of this style, a meaty fist plunged into the corpulent jowls of changing times. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that The Underworld material recorded in this set is superior sounding on stage than the studio.

There are nine tracks in total, eight of which we've heard from the studio full-lengths, one more ("Darkness") which was new to us. Surprisingly, the band have decided not to incorporate their Black Flag or Scorpions covers into the selection here. You figure they'd be live staples, popular with a less demanding audience. But no, these are all originals here, and they sound properly punishing. They include the intros to both albums, "Comshell 5" opening the proceedings, and then in an interesting twist, the "F.C.I." intro being used to herald "Welcome to Kuwait" from the sophomore, rather than it's normal slot preceding "The Awakening" on the debut. Otherwise, Live...from the Depths of the Underworld is culled fairly evenly from both Annihilation of Civilization and The Underworld. We've got "Gone Shooting", "Parracide" and the title track from the former, and "Global Warning", "The 'Hood" and also the title track of the latter.

My preference is definitely for "Annihilation of Civilization" and "Gone Shooting", which crush with the density of the later 80s Exodus stuff, but even tracks I did not care for so much from the second album are punctual and heart pounding here. The unreleased track, "Darkness" is comparable to The Underworld in style, straight hammering mid paced West Coast thrash, but aside from the cool chorus (a tribute to the film franchise that inspired the band's moniker) it's not all that great. I wouldn't call this a mandatory purchase unless you're incredibly enamored of the band's studio manifestations. It's not nearly on the level of Destruction's Live Without Sense, a crime of taste to live without, but it's certainly not a cock up by any means, and gives the appropriate impression that Evildead were no slouches on the stage.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Evildead - Rise Above EP (1988)

In the US in the 80s, it was a fairly common practice for a metal act to release a short-form EP as a teaser, but a little unusual to revolve that around a cover track. This is exactly what the Los Angeles riot police Evildead did with Rise Above. Granted, this was a product of guitarist Juan Garcia, who had formed this straight thrashing squad in lieu of Agent Steel's separation after Unstoppable Force, hardly a newcomer to the field. You won't feel the same sense of hyper and howling anxiety here that you felt with John Cyriis in the wings, as Evildead pursue a more street savvy, darkened style akin to a Rigor Mortis, Testament or Gammacide, but they still rip out some quick licks and furious Bay Area -style violence.

The issue here is really that the two original songs are vastly superior to the band's cover of Black Flag's "Rise Above". I'm not incredibly opposed to the selection, as it makes a lot of sense for a California thrash band to cover a legendary hardcore band from the same shore, but despite the Anthrax-like punch and steady gang shouts, you can file it under the fun but forgettable pile along with "Got the Time" or "Antisocial". The plucky clean guitars and excess lead thrown into the bridge do little for the song. Far better are the stylistic samplers of what the band will deliver on their following Annihilation of Civilization album. "Sloe-Death" is the better of the two, with brutal, tearing guitar work and the melodic, descending mutes around 1:30; Phil Flores shouting along like a hybrid of Tom Araya and Excel's Dan Clements. His vocals have a bit more bite on "Run Again", and I liked the opening rhythms and leads, but not so much the crossover velocity burst in the vein of D.R.I., Cryptic Slaughter, and Excel (though they toss another great lead and melody in there).

There's also an entire, if brief track devoted to a Suicidal Tendencies riff cover (from "Institutionalized"), which is utterly worthless. All told, the Rise Above EP has very little value, unless you can acquire it as bonus tracks on the reissue of Annihilation of Civilization. However, the original tracks show quite a lot of promise that the band would manage to fine tune into that full-length debut. In particular, Juan Garcia and Albert Gonzalez do a great job of composing some searing, vicious guitar work, though the chorus sequences are not quite up to par with a lot of the Californian speed and thrash that was incredibly hot at the time (Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Testament, etc.).

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]
(we are tired of your abuse)

Hrizg - Anthems to Decrepitude (2011)

Hrizg might on the surface seem like another voice in the infinite choir of misanthropy that is the black metal spectrum, but by no means should the man (or band) be casually written off. Hailing from Spain, he handles all compositional and instrumental elements of this album, no easy task in of itself, but more importantly he manages to bridge the gap of atmospheric aesthetics and cult fervor. Anthems to Decrepitude is not a nexus of novel ideas, featuring the same black blazing guitar dynamics we've heard a thousand times over since the earlier years of the 2nd wave in Norway. But given such a spacious and tangible effusion of darkness here, they are once more endowed with the dark and pleasurable elation of spite and obscurity.

Hrizg tends towards a darker, ominous vocal tone that conveys both the dingy dust of primordial death as well as the more inherent, carnal rasp of this genre, and along with the sodden grace of the synthesized backing choirs ("Opposite to Light") or the ambient sequences (the intro to "The Infernal Scripture", the numbing ritual synthesizer swells of finale "Broken Shield" or the acoustic/rain duet of "Invierno") they create a convocation of beckoning shadows. The guitars are in general predictable, but there are some points at which they take you by surprise, such the forceful, dire melodic agony of "Necrosanctum" for one, or the stern, doom-like strains of "Angercraft", or the gleaming arc of depression "In Solitude". In addition, a fluid sense of dynamic variation permeates the experience, meaning that you'll never hear quite the same song twice, a relief among a cloudy haze of similar artists. A few of the tracks feature have some less interesting guitars embedded within them ("Into the Caves of Earth", "I Hate" for example), but even these shift towards vile hypnosis after a few cycles.

These Anthems to Decrepitude do require a few complete listens to sink themselves into the listener's conscience, not that they lack accessible components, but it might be easy to ignore their overall, ebbing flow of bitterness. Like most of the better atmospheric black metal acts, Hrizg is not openly confrontational. It haunts you from the corners, from the depths of the unseen, from an ancient corridor that most fear to tread alone. The solitude of the artist who wrote and performed this is conveyed fully through the leeching effect it has on the witness, and while it's perhaps not the most inspired example of its class, it at least demands repeated listens, especially when one can set the proper mood and atmosphere to indulge it.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Obscura - Omnivium (2011)

Having produced one of 2009's more enticing progressive/tech death albums in Cosmogenesis, Obscura proved they were a band to pay close attention to; perhaps a supplement to the niche left void at the passing of Death, the mutation of Cynic, or the rebirth of the Dutch Pestilence to more brutal fundamentals. For surely, the Germans' cosmic and philosophical leanings are an extension of Schuldiner's Human vision, or Spheres, or Focus (they've even got Jeroen Paul Thesseling playing bass). However, they had created a sophomore album so impressive and compact that it might not have held up to direct recycling for its follow-up, and thus Omnivium introduces a few outside elements that were not so obvious on the predecessor.

The most noticeable of these are likely found in the opener "Septuagint", which is essentially a melodic death piece with an opening sequence of clean guitars that recall such usage of artists like In Flames or Metallica. Once the slightly tech melodic death surge arrives, I was reminded heavily of Canada's Quo Vadis, a band I've never really been impressed with. You'll still hear the twisting, interstitial structures of Cosmogenesis riffing, but I found this track to grow sour on me pretty quickly. I had heard it before the album's release, thought it interesting, but ultimately it's not so enduring. "Ocean Gateways" is another swerve into variation, with a straight burst of double bass rolling, thick Thesseling bass manipulation and jangling guitars that create a cystic wall of spacial spears. Once again, it's a curious piece, but after a handful of listens it just fell out of favor. Both "Euclidean Elements" and "Vortex Omnivium" are more in line with the material from Cosmogenesis, but I found neither to be wholly engrossing, as the band tend to incorporate too much into the creative lifestream without much individual distinction.

However, the other half of the album is quite the opposite in quality. "Prismal Dawn" creates a mesmeric effect, almost psychedelic (ala Cynic), with the clean vocals and glorious, scientific precision, almost as if one of those episodes of The Universe on History channel were adapted to a tangible, musical flesh. "A Transcendental Serenade" returns to clean guitars, but they are swollen in volume swells and erupt into well placed, crushing mutes and a scintillating tapestry of bass and guitar melody. I also found the majestic "Celestial Spheres" and the woeful, ponderous "Velocity" to hold their own thrills, and the closer "Aevum" serves as a qualitative bridge between the stronger and weaker material. There's also a bonus track on the deluxe edition of the CD, Cacophony's "Concerto", originally found on their Speed Metal Symphony LP. An interesting choice, and surely the Germans are up to the task of adapting Friedman and Becker into a slightly more brutal context, but apart from the novelty, it doesn't add a lot.

I was really torn with this album. It's got the same, superlative modern production aesthetics that will either absorb the prog-seeker or send the modern tech-death hater screaming away in fits of agony. To some extent, this is necessary, as the band are hurtling ideas faster than some listeners might be able to comprehend them, and at least you can get a clear grasp on them. I found the cleaner vocals to be rather nice here, but the gutturals level with Cosmogenesis. Yet as a whole, the content seems fairly inconsistent. Its predecessor might not have promised the same level of adventure and variation as Omnivium, but it overall more impressive than this. I can certainly picture myself returning to "Prismal Dawn", "A Transcendental Serenade" and perhaps a few of the others on a regular basis, but the first half of the album offers only a brief flirtation with curiosity, and no further compulsion. Overwhelming proficiency and potential yield mixed results here.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Artillery - My Blood (2011)

All trains must come to a stop. Or at least, we've yet to discover an infinite, self-perpetuating combustion system to keep them on the tracks forever. Thus is also the case for Artillery, but their sixth full-length My Blood is thankfully not a complete halt, just a cautious deceleration. Not in actual speed, mind you, but quality. The reasons are numerous, but the most telling is this is the first album which seems not to add anything new, or rather, not anything new and welcome. From Fear of Tomorrow to Terror Squad there was a positive evolution, from Terror Squad to By Inheritance there was a massive leap into genius. When they reformed in the 90s, B.A.C.K. was a fresh and modern mutation. In the 21st century, they silenced the opposition with a fine performance from new vocalist Søren Nico Adamsen.

There is simply nothing all that compelling to be drawn from My Blood, an in listening through I've felt like I had just taken a trip to the Red Cross to donate my plasma, only to be turned away because the banks were full for my type. Most of the trademarks of When Death Comes are intact: generic album title, fantastic production, bright and melodic thrash interspersed with a few clean guitar sequences, but the songs simply cannot match up. You will hear quite a few, thinly veiled self-referential hints in the compositions that hearken back to By Inheritance ("Death is an Illusion" in particular, or the very Eastern intro to "Mi Sangre/The Blood Song") or the groovy havoc of B.A.C.K. (as in the preview tracks "Monster" and "Warrior Blood"), but they don't offer anything intriguing to the formula. My Blood is not void of variation, as the band rove through ardent thrashers, rock-spliced ballads ("Ain't Giving In") and cheesy crowd pleaser anthems ("Thrasher"...ugh!), but none of these fields are conquered here, unless production and musical proficiency are your only measures of success...

To that effect, Artillery are still quite on fire. Morten and Michael Stützer still blaze know how to blaze trails with busy riffing and excellent lead technique, but I can't think of more than a half dozen riffs on the entire album that brought me back to that salivating state I was zoned into as recently as When Death Comes. Adamsen's siren-like nasal potential is once again realized, and to be fair he's practically the only memorable element on several of the tracks ("Dark Days" and "End of Eternity" are examples), his power metal roots shining straight through. Though I've been disappointed with his performance of the band's classics in the live format, he doesn't make a hack job out of the energetic remakes of "Show Your Hate" and "Eternal War" from Fear of Tomorrow (included as bonus tracks in the digipak). The rhythmic duo of Thorslund and Nielsen is tight as ever, and the mix is so spotless you can see your reflection in more than just the back of the CD.

In summation, the album's polished, substantial deluge of content is simply not on par with what I've come to expect from the Danes. It's good enough to separate itself from the thoughtless, derivative droning of so many throwback thrashers, but it's not above a moment or two of brain death itself. Clean as a whistle, just as piercing, and sometimes as irritating. Not a letdown as far as the constituents' individual skills are concerned, and not a necessarily bad or even mediocre album, but a dearth of truly memorable writing from men who generally carve out a far larger slice from the pie of passion.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Havok - Time is Up (2011)

Havok is not the sort of band that epitomizes any revolution or renovation of classic 80s thrash ideals, but they celebrate the genre without the fashionable pomp and circumstance, and I'm sure I'm not the only person who finds this a relief. The Coloradans are also very well versed in two of the fundamental tenets that have been present in most impressive thrash metal works of the past 30 years: 1) the riffs must, by all means, propel the listener into a hair whipping frenzy (in my case, skull whipping, as the pleasures of copious scalp protein fled my person many years ago), and 2) the vocals need to sound fucking pissed! Yes, Time is Up understands such concepts with punishing youthful clarity, and they're a huge reason why this sophomore album not only trumps the debut, but most of the other American retro thrash along with it.

Two icons. Two words that get the spine shivering and the blood stirred. One is Exodus. The other is Destruction. Havok fall directly between these two poles, invoking the viral speed and street warfare of the former in their legendary 80s works Bonded by Blood and Pleasures of the Flesh; while also channeling the strong structure and clinical evisceration of the latter. Vocally, David Sanchez straddles the line between Paul Baloff and Schmier, with a dash of Atrophy's Brian Zimmerman for good measure, and an angry, punctual percussion is thus created atop the onslaught of quality riffing and heart stopping rhythm section. The band is not opposed to some variation, as long as the central thrust remains intact: a good example of this being "D.O.A.", which streamlines some fresh, melodic/death metal guitars into the intro, and then becomes so propulsive during the bridge that it hinges on old school death. They also season in a few pure, unadulterated crossover/punk riffs (like the chorus to the opener "Prepare for Attack"), gang shouts in full effect.

But the larger fraction of the material is just true, barnstormer thrash that will tear you the fuck out of your seat: "Fatal Intervention", "No Amnesty", "Covering Fire", "Out of My Way" and the slower "Killing Tendencies" all hit the spot, but nothing is necessarily filler. Each is adorned with at least 1-2 guitar riffs that remind us of everything we love in this genre: the excitement, the surprises, the brash prophesies of our material and social flaws, the authenticity. Sure, Havok might be seen to be as derivative as the next lot, but they're not exactly assailing the laws of gravity or atomic physics here. They are creating a blood rush to the head, honoring the sounds pioneered by their forebears, and having fun in the process, just like you will be, when you go out and buy this record. They have outdone themselves, making short work of the 2009 debut Burn. It's not perfect, but along with Bonded By Blood's latest Exiled to Earth, this is easily one of the brighter flames to ignite under US thrash in years.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Benighted - Asylum Cave (2011)

I haven't been exposed to much of the Benighted backlog, with the exception of the past two albums Identisick (2006) and Icon (2007). I found neither to be all that impressive. Nonetheless, the band's technical execution, raw ability and incessant extremity seem to have won them a lot of high praise, and certainly their sound is not all that common among the French hordes. I'd most compare their output to Napalm Death's recent streak, incorporating elements of grindcore and death metal, but this mayhem factory is not above incorporating downright hardcore riffs, slam death, melodic guitar solos and other nuances into the killing spree for an invigorating, diverse effect that helps the attention span from teetering into unconsciousness among the monotonous blasting.

In other words, Benighted whips up a carnival of controlled chaos here that couldn't be tighter if it wore a chastity belt. I can't claim that all of the individual riffs the band conjures up are that interesting, but there's enough of them that several are bound to stick. Take something like "Let the Blood Spill Between My Broken Teeth", with its rampant, cavorting rhythms, brutal bite and bark vocals, melodic breakdown and walls of chords, all powered by a whirling human furnace of energy in drummer Kevin Foley. The further into the core of the Asylum Cave, the more crass and punishing, yet intriguing the content becomes, like the maddening grinder "Prey", the curious samples and storming mosh breakdowns of "Fritzl", the driving pig squeal saturated death of "Unborn Infected Children", or the hurricane bottoming of "A Quiet Day" with its timely spurts of melody. When you consider that the French are essentially battering you stupid for 45 minutes, you come out of the experience surprisingly lighter, as if they've clipped a great weight from your shoulders: nothing that happens to you today will be this brutal, so try and relax...

There are not many areas in which I found the material here lacking. Perhaps the vocals are a little too obvious and typical of the style, unable to evoke much distinct character, just the latest in a long strain of Carcass and Napalm Death worshipers. But there's no question that they function within the milieu, punctuated with enough percussion that they won't distract you. And perhaps a good percentage of the guitar riffs feel rather bland on close scrutiny, but they do compensate with some scorchers. The production of the album is intense, fully exposing you to the sore and twisted, swelling joints of its composer. There are a couple of guest vocalists, too, including members of Devourment, Aborted and the bizarre act Pin-Up Went Down. I'm not going to say that I loved this record as if it were my newborn child, but the compositions are beyond competent, and I've had more fun here than their other full-lengths I've experienced.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Amon Amarth - Surtur Rising (2011)

My personal relationship to the work of these Viking death inheritors has fluctuated through the years, reaching peaks of affection with The Avenger and With Oden On Our Side, but sinking into domestic squabbles with the far less impressive Fate of Norns. Three years back, though, another climax arrived in Twilight of the Thunder God, which was probably their best, most accessible album. The songs were almost unanimously memorable, the production immense, and despite the Norse Cliff Notes lyrical incentives, there was clearly an immense passion for the subject matter. If anything, this is expanded upon with Surtur Rising, the 8th Amon Amarth album, almost a twin brother to its predecessor.

Yes, they can hardly be accused of poetic license to rival the Eddas themselves, but it's obvious that Johan Hegg and his band of Swedish sea reavers feel a strong connection to the source material which they have invested here, in tales of the great fire giant and the Gods on high. The lyrics are a little better. It's safe to say that many of the band's ever broadening fan base would have been satisfied with a near carbon copy of Twilight of the Thunder God, and to a large extent, such an effort is made manifest in this. The studio standards are enormously high, without succumbing to the sterility that often plagues other large budget, melodic death entities. The riffs are simple but effective as they were on the last two albums, the Swedes never biting off more than they feel they ought to chew. The guitars ring loudly and often, the rhythmic battery of Fredrik Andersson a perfect, churning millstone of tempo, and the plunking of Ted Lundström adequate if not engrossing. You'll hear no lightening of the load in the vocal department, as Hegg continues to bluster out his gut busting grunts.

That said, there are a number of tunes marring the surface here that did little to draw in my attentions. "War of the Gods" is emotional but predictable, and the crushing but pensive sequel to 2006's "Hermod's Ride to Hell', titled "Töck's Taunt - Loke's Treachery Part II" is a standard mid-paced Amon Amarth swagger with little compelling hiding out in its depths, not even the calm and clean segue. "Destroyer of the Universe" picks up the momentum, with a surge not unlike the Twilight of the Thunder God title track. Honestly, though, it's not until "Slaves of Fear" that I started to bang my hammer and become absorbed to the simple, melodic thrashing and its transmutation into the arching, forceful bridge. "Live Without Regrets" has one of those catchy, folk epic notation patterns in its first riff, and a decent if predictable Viking breakdown; but then "The Last Stand of Frej" arrives, synthesizers gleaming with the grace of lost heroes behind the hammering double bass, and perhaps the climax of the entire album. Honorable mentions should also be imparted to the atmospheric closers "A Beast I Am" and "Doom Over Dead Man", which are also quite phenomenal.

Are they as good as "Guardians of Asgard", "Twilight of the Thunder God", "Tattered Banners and Bloody Flags", or "The Hero" from the last album? Nah, but then they're really nothing to scoff at either, and should easily survive a good number of spins. There are also a number of cover tunes here on the various versions. "Balls to the Wall" (Accept) and "War Machine" (KISS) are functional, but the most surprising is the iTunes bonus, a fucking System of a Down cover! Not something one would expect from these Swedes, and yet somehow they transform "Aerials" into a product their own, with all the atmosphere of the rest of the album. If you weren't aware of the original (which I'm happy to say I wasn't), you might not even realize the band had drawn it from an external source.

Ultimately, if you've loathed everything this band has released since whatever sufficiently secure and obscure stopping point (say, Sorrow Throughout the Nine Worlds), then you are unlikely to feel much differently about Surtur Rising. But if you loved the last effort, then you'll probably want to peel another twenty spot from your wallet to acquire a horn or mug. Gods know, you'll want to be swinging it to most of the songs here, even if it does land somewhat short of the last two shores.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, March 28, 2011

Ending Quest - Vlad Tepes [DEMO] (2011)

Ending Quest originated as a group of friends fucking around with the HM-2 guitar tone and attempting some impressions of their favorite cult Swedish death metal acts. This inevitably led to some creativity, and the band started composing originals. Last year, they released a demo titled Led to the Slaughter, which was decent, and now they've followed it up with Vlad Tepes, a more substantial experience (10 minutes longer), but ultimately about not a far cry from the quality of its predecessor. Predictable but efficient d-beat beats are used to back vicious riffs born of the early 90s, and no one could argue that they do a passable job of summoning up nostalgia for their obvious inspirations: Entombed, Dismember, Grave, and perhaps a little Gorement (from whom they derived the band name).

"End This Mortal World" opens with dire melodies ala Left Hand Path, but the transitional stops and starts didn't do a hell of a lot for me, even if the riffs were fully functional. "Vlad Tepes" uses a charge-like motif before it swerves towards a vampire-like, stalking pace, but this is also not a favorite of mine on the demo. "Butcherknife Encounter" turns up the frenzy, but I didn't exactly love the riffs. I found the last two originals "Coffin Worm" and "Dark Immersion" to be the best of the originals; the former with some simple but effective, crawling and crushing rhythms; the latter a more grinding beast with a dash of old Repulsion and Napalm Death in the verses and a nice, gloomy melodic breakdown bridge. On the prior demo, the band offered a rendition of "Wolverine Blues", which seems an obvious choice considering their style. Here, they tackle "Scream Bloody Gore" (Death) and "Born for Burning" (Bathory), both of which are morphed into their own image and not played too close to the hilt.

In the end, I actually wasn't as content with the material here as the first demo ("Led to the Slaughter" and "A Fiery Fate" come to mind); but it's close; and certainly these youngsters remain competent, authentic and enthusiastic about the style. The real issue, as it is with so many of these sorts of bands, is whether they can make a strong enough impression in the existing envelope of the genre that the audience listens beyond the mere familiarity and once again experiences ye old rapture of classic Swedish death. Whereas veteran derivatives like Repugnant, Bastard Priest, Tormented and Tribulation excel at nearly matching stride with their influences, Ending Quest just sort of make due, well versed, with decent lyrics, but not incredibly catchy songs.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Wizard - ...Of Wariwulfs And Bluotvarwes (2011)

It's pretty rare that a power metal band in today's climate can tackle the supernatural antiquity of werewolves, witches, and blood sucking things of the night appropriately. Powerwolf seems to do a good job in this terrain, but perhaps its their excess use of organs and tongue in cheek lyrics that win out. Other stabs, like Iced Earth's Horror Show, were average at best, and now Germans Wizard have decided to deviate from their usual Norse Myth 101 ramblings to capture the subject, basing their lyrics on a historical horror trilogy of novels by the author André Wiesler called Die Chroniken des Hagen von Stein. This is a curious choice, as the books are only a few years old, and most fantasy metal bands focus on surefire classics, but hey, why the hell not? After all, werewolves, witches and such are quite the trend in all media these days.

...Of Wariwulfs And Bluotvarwes is certainly the most colorful title the band have chosen for an album to date, leaving behind such minimal, lacking fare as Odin, Thor and Battle of Metal. While I'm not inherently opposed to a power metal band veering towards darker subjects (Grave Digger is one obvious example, but there are others), I am not sure that the bright polish of Wizard's songwriting is always best affixed to the gloom of the source material. That said, this album rocks far more often than it doesn't, channeling the band's massive Manowar influence into a landscape of melodic European power anthems that are like to please fans of bands like Primal Fear, U.D.O., early Edguy and the aforementioned Grave Digger. Little to no nuance is involved here, and many of the riffs will seem derived and familiar to anyone that has followed the genre in the past 15-20 years. "Hagr" feels as if it were straight from the book of Judas Priest-isms sharpened by Primal Fear. The title track is essentially late 80s or 90s Manowar, both the opening guitar riffs and Sven D'Anna's vocal performance. Quite a few of the songs also have that grimy Kris Boltendahl pitch to them (like "Taste of Fear", "Blotvarwes" and parts of "Heart Eater").

It's not an impressively dark record by any means, but it's efficient, and I can't think of a single song that withdrew me from the headbanging hypnosis of the simple rhythms and attempts at memorable chorus parts in "Hagr", "Sign of the Cross" and even "Fair Maiden Mine", with its slightly lusher prog/power overtones. The production is pristine and glossy, they've had about 15 years or more to work through this, so it's as clear and professional as most you've heard of late in the higher tier of the Euro throng. D'Anna might lack the silky tones of an Andi Deris or the screaming range of a Henning Basse, but he works well enough with the pipes he was given, and the band never devolves into glorified self-indulgence. Granted, some might not take to the particular theme Wizard are exploring here, but its not at all a bad thing to hear them branch out beyond their Viking lore obsessions. ...Of Wariwulfs And Bluotvarwes isn't about to spin heads out of their sockets, but it's solid and entertaining for the craft, and unlikely to face charges of heresy.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Volcano - Mythology (2011)

It's been a good decade since Volcano has erupted on us with a new full-length, but they've kept busy in the interim with some live DVD releases and a pair of EPs. If you've never heard the band before, then you were missing out on another of Japan's untold secrets, a hybrid of power, speed and thrash metal which musters comparison to countrymen Anthem and Loudness, only with a far ballsier tone and huge, pissed off vocals that feature a strain of forced melody not unlike Flemming Rönsdorf (ex-Artillery). The band's first two albums Violent and Davi were evidence of an authentic riffing titan, and probably deserved a lot more recognition than they received. Mythology is cast in much the same mold, and though I didn't enjoy this quite so much as its predecessors, there's still a strong case to be made for the band.

One aspect I didn't enjoy here is the sparse use of melodeath vocals. A few of the tracks like "Dead Men Tell No Tales" certainly tread that territory musically, but I feel that Nov's vocal presence is so strong in of itself that such a tactic feels unnecessary. They are, however, an exception to the rule, and for most of the playtime he's cruising along with his standard style. The band does incorporate a fair amount of variation into their composition. Personally, I favor the rampant melodic power/thrash of "The Head", "Warrior's Play", "Goddess", "Strange the Strong" and especially the escalating "Shine in the Dark", which opens up with clean guitars and explodes into an amazing sequence of riffs not unlike something you'd hear from Concerto Moon. But they do deviate, as with the groove-oriented "Claim" and its series of generic, groove metal rhythms before the one decent guitar line at about :50. I also don't exactly love "Hell in the Paradise", but it has its moments.

Otherwise, Mythology is a modestly crushing good time with a thick low-end centric production and a lot of great, neo-classical guitar lead breaks with attitude that may very well thrill fans of Double Dealer, Sly, Saber Tiger, Sex Machineguns, Galneryus, and so forth. The material is more complex than their past albums, and this in part might be due to the new rhythm section of Akira and Shun (Youthquake) that joined the band in 2010. I felt that this was a more hectic experience than what I was expecting, but that didn't lead to an increased impression, and I don't feel like I'll get much distance out of this. It's fun for a few listens, with a handful of riffs to die for, but is unlikely to expand the trajectory of the band, especially after a decade of such scant output.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, March 25, 2011

Dark Angel - Time Does Not Heal (1991)

Much like their cover model had transformed from a frightened girl to some hunted street walker in pink, Dark Angel spent the two years between their Leave Scars and Time Does Not Heal in the throes of maturation. Whether or not this is welcome would really depend on who you asked, but seeing as the Californian brutes had already released the raw, forceful cult classic (Darkness Descends) and the sloppily produced, yet punishing viper's nest of unforgettable ideas (Leave Scars), it would have been destitute to merely repeat either experience. Time Does Not Heal goes the distance, expanding on the lyrical elements of its predecessor while sporting the most professional refinement of any album in their career.

I, for one, am thankful for the modifications. I won't claim that this record is ultimately superior to Leave Scars, but it's nice to finally be able to hear each of the band's talented instrumentalists in equal measure, from the muted fervor of Eric Meyer and (Jim Durkin's replacement) Brett Eriksen, to the intense control of Gene Hoglan, to the bass, thick and pluggy here but favorable to its presence on the prior outing. Another metamorphosis has transpired in the vocal region, as Ron Rinehart has decided to splay his meter out in a broader path of almost operatic chagrin. He still hacks and barks when necessary, but in general he gives more breath to the lines, creating an unnerving sense of melody above the rather blunt brutality of the guitars. Semi-technical, rich in hostility and not unlike Heathen's Victims of Deception with its mildly processed edge of modernity.

There are some incredibly well composed pieces here, beginning with the title track and its opening salvo of acoustic guitars that attract the frenzied swagger of the electrics in a clash that better resembles the Leave Scars material. "Pain's Invention, Madness" is hands down one of the best pieces in Dark Angel's career, a bombastic juggernaut of atmospheric chords that glide over the muted substrate, simple and catchy chorus riff, and an impressive, schizoid climax with repressed Rinehart screaming at around 7:00. Note that the general length of the tracks has not changed from the previous output, all of these are between 6-9 minutes in length and offer some substantial variation throughout. "Act of Contrition" is not a personal favorite, there are some wonderful guitars but here I felt Rob's voice stretched a little too awkwardly, but the savage "New Priesthood" and "Psychosexuality" more than compensate, and the entire closing third of Time Does Not Heal is magnificent, in particular the roiling slugfest of "Sensory Deprivation" and "A Subtle Induction", the latter making use of some thick, percussive bass elements in the odd intro.

This might not be the fastest of Dark Angel's offerings, as the band seems to hang closer to the mid pace and substitute weighty low end rhythms for a mesh of exhilaration and acceleration, but it's no less proficient and technical. Even though bands like Deathrow, Artillery, Coroner and Mekong Delta had released bewildering musical epics by 1991, this was still impressively structured composition for its day, far more ambitious than the lions share of miserable tough guy groove metal elements that were beginning to inoculate the West Coast thrash scene (well, those bands who hadn't turned to funk or grunge). Time Does Not Heal is yet another of those marginally late wonders to the Golden Age of the genre. It constantly feels as if it's hanging on the precipice, above a beckoning chasm of oblivion, along with the other natural successors to the heavily structured thrash of Master of Puppets, Reign in Blood, Terrible Certainty, Eternal Nightmare, Taking Over and so forth. It's an appreciable, intelligent and intricate swansong, although it wasn't aware of that at its time of conception; and the third Dark Angel disc in a row worth its weight in headbanging release.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]
(the only truth in life is pain)

Dark Angel - Decade of Chaos (1992)

Those of you who are familiar with the Relativity acquisition of the Combat Records roster will likely groan at the remembrance of 1992, in which the foster label decided to make a massive cash grab with a number of worthless compilation albums. You might recall Death's Fate (spoor), Forbidden's Point of No Return (dung) and Exodus' Lessions in Violence (excrement) as prominent examples, but the California menace Dark Angel was not exempt from this practice, and thus we are left besmirched and disgruntled by a Decade of Chaos, an album headed directly to the bargain bins, the recycling plants, and the collections of unsuspecting do gooders who thought they were doing the thrashers a favor, but would have been better off buying them a pack of smokes or a beer.

One wonders how a band like Dark Angel, great but hardly popular in the mainstream, really even warrants a 'best of' album. This is not fucking pop music, where soulless record industry czars constantly refurbish studio recordings to turn a buck or two and fill out or pad recording contracts with famous radio friendlies. But Decade of Chaos proves that the cash grab was on multiple levels, and that even our beloved thrash bands were fair game when the snake oil salesmen arriveth on our doorstep. The ten tracks here are all lifted from the band's Combat Records releases. "Darkness Descends", "Merciless Death", "The Burning of Sodom" and "Death is Certain (Life is Not)" are snatched from Darkness Descends (1986); "Never to Rise Again", "The Promise of Agony" and "Leave Scars" from Leave Scars (1989); and "Act of Contrition" and "Pain's Invention, Madness" borrowed from Time Does Not Heal (1991), to which the paint had not yet dried, coming out only a year prior...

This is rounded off with "We Have Arrived", not the studio version, but the live offering from the Live Scars EP (Combat didn't own the rights to the debut album, evidently), then packaged and printed with gaudy, awful cover tones of red background and light blue logo. What a fucking eyesore that is! As far as track selection, this really isn't all that bad, they're all good choices, but it doesn't change the fact that Decade of Chaos is completely, 100% void of merit. Landfill. Not suitable to set your beer upon. Even a cheap beer. Any amount of money spent on this ripoff is simply better exhausted elsewhere. A handshake and hug from a prostitute. A half dozen packs of gum. Fuck, instead of paying Relativity for this fodder, just write out a check to Jim Durkin, Ron Rinehart or any of the band members. Or send cash. I'm sure they'd appreciate it more than knowing you bought this travesty.

Verdict: Epic Fail [0/10]

Dark Angel - Live Scars EP (1990)

Though Dark Angel had already been around for some years and released what many consider their most important album (Darkness Descends), many of their fans were probably first exposed to their sound through the Ultimate Revenge 2 live compilation VHS/album, which they shared with up and comers Death and Forbidden, the lesser known Faith or Fear, and the NWOBHM legends Raven. Thus, this initial interaction was of the stage, to which the thrashers return for the Live Scars EP. The cassette of this release was a bit of a ripoff, with only 5 songs in check, whereas the CD had 8 in total, more of a full-length live album. This was not the only such live EP, as Combat also foisted Forbidden's Raw Evil upon us, but Live Scars is far more substantial in either format.

Well, if you'd seen Ultimate Revenge 2, then you already knew the band rocked as hard on stage as in the studio, and at the very least, Live Scars reflects that viral energy, that blazing fortitude that the Californians manifest through their incessant storms of speed. For such a short release, you get a fair mix of material from their first three full-lengths. We Have Arrived is represented only by the title track, but as it was the weakest of the lot, the decision is welcome. To be fair, though, with Ron Rinehart screaming and the band playing the track as fast as their limbs might carry it, it gets a nice face lift here. Otherwise, the selection is pretty spot on. They rip out "The Promise of Agony", "Leave Scars", "Never to Rise Again" and "The Death of Innocence" from their most recent album Leave Scars, and "The Burning of Sodom" and "Death is Certain (Life is Not)" from Darkness Descends. Lastly, they've included a cover of Fear's "I Don't Care About You" (from The Record in 1982). Structurally, this is a huge contrast to the originals, but its delivered with attitude and its fun enough.

Live Scars is hardly one of those mandatory acquisitions like Iron Maiden's Live After Death or Destruction's Live Without Sense, and I've never found myself desiring it over the studio albums at any point in time. The mix is decent, though somewhat repressed. You can hear most of the guitars, vocals, and drums; with some semblance of bass beneath. There's a decent amount of crowd reaction, which makes sense as the EP was recorded in Reseda CA, not far from the band's home base; but they're pretty soft in the recording, even when howling the backing vocals. If you're the sort that maintains a massive stiffy for all things Dark Angel, then you shouldn't be adverse to giving this a go (CD version only). But even then, it's not the sort of live recording to leave a lasting impression, and your money is best spent elsewhere.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Dark Angel - Leave Scars (1989)

Though Darkness Descends was the audio incendiary equivalent of a wing of fighter jets attacking a hot dog stand (aka you, the listener), creating ripples throughout an underground starved for increasing extremity in metal music; the band experienced a period of unrest and a nearly 3-year gap before they could channel its followup. Bass player Rob Yahn and cult screamer Don Doty would exit the lineup, to be replaced respectively by Eric Gonzalez and tattooed man-beast Ron Rinehart, one of the last guys you'd probably want to meet in a dark alley or anywhere else you'd exchange interpersonal violence. Dark Angel had 'arrived' in its most enduring configuration, signed with Combat Records and given further exposure through their live performance on the Ultimate Revenge 2 compilation.

Rinehart is probably the most obvious difference between this album and Darkness Descends, with a more down to earth, shouted tone rifling through the myriad, verbose lyrics that Gene Hoglan drafted up for this album. Seriously, they scroll onward and onward, and not through mere repetition, but plausible, nightmarish revelations of the psycho and sadistic concepts being strewn over the instrumental violation. Let's just say Dark Angel had crafted one thorough epic of mental and musical distortion. The riffing is not unfamiliar to the previous album, but more complex still, almost as if you took other Californian thrashers Vio-Lence and ramped up the volatility levels of their 1988 classic Eternal Nightmare (especially "The Death of Innocence"). Yet, where that album provokes a fresh, bright brawl that leers at you from a street corner or a pile of junked automobiles, Leave Scars is more dark and personal, a Nightmare on Elm Street of technical thrash sans the shitty plot and acting. The stuff of broken homes and bedrooms. Drug addled depressions. Paranoid schizophrenia.

I've often complained about the production on this album, and its my least favorite aspect. Sure, it's workmanlike, fairly balanced and audible, but not entirely adequate for the level of riffs being wrought. As atmosphere, it functions like an overture to dementia, and you'll be so stunned by the constant hustle of the guitars and Gene Hoglan's storming, almost unparalleled battering that you are unlikely to notice so much. The album opens with a three hit onslaught, "The Death of Innocence" a symphony of fists beating an asylum wall before the grimy assailant that is "Never to Rise Again". Rinehart shines here, his vocals creating a manic percussion that perfectly flows astride the sore joints of the guitarists' digits. But as great a momentum as these tracks create, it is the stunning floor work of "No One Answers" and its incredibly evil opening riff that inform us that true greatness has occurred. The ensuing breakdown is one of the finest in all of metal history, with Slayer-like descending melodies that provide more than just a mosh pit, but a one way ticket to personal hell.

"Cauterization" is rather lengthy for an instrumental, and it might damned well have been given lyrics, but then the word count of Leave Scars would have likely surpassed the King James bible. However, the chugging, multi-tiered complex is convincing enough to level you straight in the face, before the unexpected deviation into a cover of Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song". Now, it arguably doesn't mesh well with its environment of psycho-sadistic emotional bombardments, but outside of a video with Viking cat stills set to the original, it's one of the most entertaining renditions I've heard, Rinehart proving he could scream just like Doty if he so chose. "Older Than Time Itself" is another favorite, its intro bearing a stark similarity to "For Whom the Bell Tolls", but the comparison ending there as dire melodies erupt and another intense, early breakdown sequence. "The Promise of Agony" is another classic, the bass pedal so condensed and percussive that it feels like there are 3-4 separate drum kits performing simultaneously in the studio; and neither do the freakish "Worms" 'narrated instrumental, nor the monstrous title track disappoint in the slightest.

Darkness Descends probably frightened a lot of people, and Leave Scars honored the tradition. It honestly would not get a lot more 'extreme' than this album in 80s thrash, without delving into the harrowing and inevitable mutations that were death and black. The combination of poignant, intelligent and violent imagery conjured through the lyrics is a tight fit with the labyrinthine, constant riffing. Despite its scale, there is no real excess here. Like Slayer, when this band wrote a breakdown, you could feel it, and while these aren't necessarily as potent as "Angel of Death" or "Raining Blood", they're both mighty and appropriate to offset the dominant, faster paced surge. The one hurdle I cannot get past is the production, it is simply not good enough for the writing, nor as resonant as Darkness Descends or the cleaner swansong Time Does Not Heal. But the songs themselves, barring the cover, are pregnant with hostility, riven with ideas and in the end I prefer it even to its highly lauded predecessor: it's marginally more interesting, with more consistently memorable riffs and psychological, multi perspective lyrics.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]
(I've absolved my self-control)

Dark Angel - We Have Arrived (1984)

In lieu of the concussive, speed limit battering material Dark Angel would concoct for their later albums, We Have Arrived seems but a humble statement. An average speed/thrash metal album for its time, with obvious parallels to California locals Metallica, Slayer and Abattoir, but also to Canadian acts like Anvil and Razor, the latter in their purely speed metal incarnation up to Evil Invaders. Fast based, raw power guitars with wrenching and shrieking vocals circa Show No Mercy era-Slayer, only Don Doty was not quite as charismatic or memorable. The placement of his screams here can feel forced and awkward, and I'd much prefer his lower, snarling register on this debut.

Despite its age, We Have Arrived actually still sounds fairly brazen today, with that authentic, natural tone so redolent of the mid 80s which bands simply don't use today under the banners of modern studio engineering. "Merciless Death" is without a doubt the most punishing track here, so aggressive that the band would re-use it on the followup Darkness Descends, where it better suits the environment, but otherwise fans who know only their more popular efforts might be a little shocked by the more subdued compositions. Not that they necessarily lack for aggression. "We Have Arrived" and "Welcome to the Slaughter House" both writhe along with a promise of agony (haw haw), but the riff patterns are simply not all that memorable. "No Tomorrow" fares better, with a big of grooving swagger to the notation which recalls early Slayer; "Falling from the Sky" the most solid, dirty speed metal licks and gang shouts, and nice air raid siren intro; both "Hell On Its Knees" and "Vendetta" open with clean guitar passages before exploding to some of the finer guitars on the album.

Ultimately, though it feels fresh and potent, the debut just lacks for the memorable velocity and technically demanding riffs that dominate Darkness Descends and Leave Scars. Dark Angel have never exactly penned the most glorious of chorus elements into their tracks, but here they are at their least interesting. As I've mentioned, the screams can occasionally feel out of place, as if they were simply adding them because they thought it was 'cool'. They are managed far more fluidly on the sophomore album, which has already destroyed We Have Arrived in its entirety by the time you get to the bridge of "The Burning of Sodom". If you're not too demanding, and simply long for the sincerity of filthy speed/thrash smack dab in the central 80s, then this album does not leave a painful impression, but there were far more poignant efforts out there (Ride the Lighting, Executioner's Song, Strength of Steel, Show No Mercy) and this doesn't exhibit a songwriting finesse on a comparable level.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]
(the final damnation ahead)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ribspreader - The Van Murders (2011)

Rogga Johansson is not a man known for the tricks up his sleeves. He does death metal. Swedish, old school death metal, to be specific, and with very few exceptions (The 11th Hour, Those Who Bring the Torture and a few more), all of his projects offer only faint steps and deviations on the formula, often as skin deep in variation as those he's collaborating with at the moment. He wears this brutal badge with honor. Many of his works could be seen or heard as approaching the same goal from multiple vectors. He's tried his hands at conceptual work like The Grotesquery or Bloodgut. Carnal, Razorback style fun like Revolting. Primitive acts of pungency like Foreboding or the excellent Putrevore. Then, of course, there is a trio of 'main' bands, those that offer the higher production standards which can run headlong into the other titans of Swedish retro death like Bloodbath or Evocation.

Along with Demiurge and Paganizer, I would consider Ribspreader to occupy that central niche. You already know what it sounds like. Grave, Entombed, Dismember, Unleashed, and the others that shaped generations, with a healthy level of Florida brutality. The guitar tones are as massive as you might expect, and they swerve between choppy, death/thrashing rhythms and dense grooves. Perhaps more so than the previous three albums, The Van Murders really takes its slower strokes to heart, tons of double bass accenting the tank-like force. There are definite parallels here to Bolt Thrower, as in "The Cleaner and Mr. Filth", "Sick Minds Think Alike" and "Slaughterhouse on Wheels", which churn with eternal, warlike force until the more enthusiastic lead breaks, which are well written and almost without exception heighten the experience to something more than the brute minimum.

It's loud, mixed well by Patrick Bruss here in the States. It's also fun, but so weren't the older albums, and a large percentage of what Rogga has recorded. But does Ribspreader do much here to distinguish itself from the pack? I'd argue no. The Van Murders is about the same level of quality as Opus Ribcage or Paganizer's 2009 album Scandinavian Warmachine. Good enough that the diehards of this style will appreciate it for what it is, but Johansson's had a lot of better material out in the past few years (try the Revolting sophomore The Terror Threshold or the past few Demiurg discs). Rogga knows exactly what he's doing here. If there were any living soul who could write the handbook on how to approach authentic, old school Swedish diabolism, it would be him. The audience for The Van Murders is already well in place, and its entertaining for a few spins, but I don't see this as any sort of breakthrough.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Cultes des Ghoules - Häxan (2008)

Häxan has been floating around for a few years already, but it has managed to spur enough interest in the underground that its seen some reissues, first on gate fold LP and cassette, and now once more in the CD format through Hell's Headbangers. It's thus far the sole full-length effort from the obscure Cultes des Ghoules, a crude and primitive Polish black metal entity who perform a style so bared to the bones that you could beat someone with this record as if you were a neanderthal. That's not to say it's all that impressive of an effort, but certainly its an effective one, with an approach not unlike the first two Barathrum albums, thick with strobing bass lines and fleshed out with raw, carnal guitars and hacking vocals.

The writing is incredibly simplistic, so much so that I found it to be the major flaw with the recording. Its obviously intentional, but the guitars are so familiar and effortless that it doesn't seem any expense was spared in actual preparation. The drums surge through periods of black, crawling doom ("Stregoica Dance") and tireless, roughshod blasting "(The Covenant and the Sacrifice)", and the bass tone is consistently feels like the driving force. Vocalist 'Mark of the Devil' adds quite a lot with his dire, disorderly presence, standing out so far from the supporting rhythm that you have to strain sometimes to hear that he's still on time. However, he's kind of cool sounding, and the band include a lot of samples, ominous chanting and ritual drum breaks to give the listener the impression that he/she is witnessing something no moral individual should set eyes or ear upon (I refer you to the endless tortured screaming at the end of the 16 minute finale, "The Impure Wedding").

Häxan is undoubtedly evil, curious and atmospheric, I only wish that they'd taken these core values and affixed them to guitar riffs worth a damn. Once in a while, such lewd and lazy note patterns will actually work out in the favor of an album, but this is sadly not one of those cases. They add very little except noise, and saunter about the more powerful bass. Outside of the samples and chants, there is nothing to take you by surprise. Considering how much Cultes des Ghoules sound like a decrepit, decaying old castle being animated into musical form, I was hoping something might leap out at me from around the corner. That I might find something in the attic. Or the basement. The everyman guitar lines detract from that possibility, especially when you've got a few songs over 10 minutes in length. The lyrics are cool, and the morbid atmosphere of the record is almost enough to offset this flaw. I'd certainly love to hear more in the style, but in the end I can't really see myself listening to this unless I want to creep someone out. I'll give it that.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (unravished by the Christ's light)

Deströyer 666 - To the Devil His Due (2010)

To the Devil His Due was released last year as a limited LP, but seeing as it kicks a fair amount of ass, Hell's Headbangers has decided to bring out a proper CD format. This is effectively a compilation of four 7" EPs that Australian road tyrants Deströyer 666 have issued through the years, gathered in one location for those of us who were either negligent or simply unable to attain the originals. Call me lazy, but I'm a sucker for this sort of product; normally it means that I don't have to blow a wad of cash tracking down music in a format I rarely use. What's better, all of this material is exclusive to the EPs, so you won't find redundancies with the four full-lengths or the original debut EP Violence in the Prince of This World, which is not included. It's not the most complete package out there, and I wouldn't have minded having the Terror Abraxas tracks here, but almost all of these songs are good, so it plays out like a straight full-length, with the obvious differences in production over time.

First are "Satanic Speed Metal" and "The Siren's Call", from the Satanic Speed Metal 7" (1998). The former is straight ripping black/thrash with some audience participation, K.K. Warslut tearing the admittedly cheesy lyrics out over the night; the latter a bit more destructive and serious. It's impressive that they had such a loud and potent mix despite the rawness of the material, but the collection reaches its peak with the 2000 King of Kings/Lord of the Wild material, which is far more atmospheric, melodic, and dense, with KK performing some of his more repressed, death grunts. I also love the haughty backing shouts on "King of Kings" and the loud resonance of the solo. But "Lord of the Wild" is simply one of my favorite Deströyer 666 tunes, bristling with a savage, incessant majesty as the fuzzed leads howl over the crashing chords in the bridge. Also gotta love the swelling ambient outro.

After this comes the ...Of Wolves, Women & War EP from 2002. Yes, the one with the broad getting it doggystyle, and here is yet another of my faves from the band, "Ghost Dance" with its airy, wild melodies Warsluts soul defying venom. "Taste the Poison" is more of a straight blaster, but it too has a pretty great bridge. But "Levens Bloed" returns to the threatening valor of "Ghost Dance", with some crashing background percussion and raw black/death riffing. Lastly, they've included the two tracks from their See You In Hell EP (2010), which are far more polished sounding than the rest. "Through the Broken Pentagram" is solid slaughter with yet another example of a great thrash breakdown, and "See You in Hell", while my least favorite on the album, is swaggering and manly with a lot of backup barks.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is pretty damn cool. A noble ambition. I've not seen the band live in some time, but I'd love it if they'd incorporate some of these in their regular set lists. That it plays out like some 'lost album' that you've never quite heard is just an added bonus. Of the 35 minutes here, 25-30 are mandatory for the Deströyer 666 fan base, and if you're one of the majority who were unable to acquire the limited 7"s from which it draws its content, then it is well worth a purchase.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Coroner - Coroner (1995)

Coroner is the final 'official' release by the band of the same name, a studio compilation. Though it reeks of contract filler, and Coroner had already disbanded, the trio had the decency to actually head into the studio, pull in some session musicians when the schedules and ideas weren't in sync, and lay out some new and unreleased material. Thus, the fans who were obvious dismayed by the breakup (and I was one of them) wouldn't feel poached of their hard earned money. I would have much rather had an entire disc of new content, even if it was rehashed b-side material, but at the very least they didn't just phone in some remastered or 100% reprinted tracks and walk out on us.

That said, of the three threads running their course through this collection, two of them are almost entirely disposable. First we have the reprinted element: one track taken from each of the band's five studio albums, a miniature 'Greatest Hits'. The choices here are obvious, but not necessarily disagreeable: "Reborn Through Hate" (R.I.P.), "Masked Jackal" (Punishment for Decadence)", "Last Entertainment (T.V. Bizarre)" (No More Color), "Serpent Moves (Grin)", and "Divine Step (Conspectu Mortis)" (Mental Vortex). They've also included "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", the Beatles cover from Mental Vortex. Why they would choose to run with this and not "Semtex Revolution" or "Pale Sister" is baffling, but it leads to the second largely dispensable segment of this disc: The covers.

In addition to the Beatles tune, they include their ragga inflected rendition of "Purple Haze" which was included on the CD for Punishment for Decadence, and a version of D.A.F's "Der Mussolini" which is honestly quite fun, the only piece in this paragraph that contributes to the price of admission. Not that the selections are bad, mind you, but what Coroner fan did not already own them all on their original discs? Essentially, I've just rattled off 8/16ths, which is one half of this compilation, and outside of "Der Mussolini" and the warped cover image it's thus far entirely void of value...and I haven't gotten yet to the techno remix of "Grin [No Religion Remix]", which while not entirely absent of ideas, is about as effective as that Fear Factory remix album was. Bad electro mixes of songs that don't need or want them.

Now we get to the good bits, the unreleased studio material, some of which might have ended up on an album post-Grin had the band not exited stage left. In particular I'd point out the two halves of "Golden Cashmere Sleeper" as being particular strong points of the album. Sure, they maintain the Grin level of simplicity: the former half consisting of repeated, doom-like riffs and scintillating, alarm-like guitar radiance, the second sounding much like something you'd find off one of Joe Satriani's late 80s instrumental albums, especially the clean guitar tone Vetterli has adopted (though Joe would have thrown some bitching solos over the din, these are subdued and sparse). "Gliding Above While Being Below" is another worthwhile slice of tranquility, not unlike "Part 2", and sounding like something Rush might have come up during a smoke break in 1988.

There are a few brief intros and interludes: the marching, eerie ambiance of "Benway's World" and the even more abstract "Snow Crystal". The other unheard songs are "Shifter", which feels very much like a "Divine Step (Conspectu Mortis)" or outtake from Mental Vortex, but not all bad; and "The Favorite Game", which is fairly flush with the Grin material. Simple chugging rhythms, nice atmosphere, melodies, and a few of those whammy bar Voivod effects (all too briefly). I don't love the vocals here, but it's one of the better listens on the disc, and helps justify its existence.

If you're coming into this band with no experience behind you, trust me when I tell you to skip straight past this and acquire No More Color, Punishment for Decadence and then R.I.P. in that order. That is the meat of Coroner's career, the works that in the long run will have become the most hallowed and transcendent. But Mental Vortex and Grin would also be a better investment. The Coroner comp is a last resort, for those who are desperately in love with the band and were clinging on to any hope left us that the band would not dissolve after all. Yeah, it does have a sampling of the studio albums, but what good would it do, for example, to only have access to "Last Entertainment" and not the rest of No More Color? I'd rather off myself. As for the newer studio material, it's not bad, but I couldn't consider it a fair representation of their career, as it's more experimental, packing far more 'whimsy' than the full-lengths, and soon forgotten. While it's admirable that the Swiss were opposed to bilking their listeners with a pure Greatest Hits release, this honestly could have been better (for example, it might have included more from the self-issued unknown tracks tape they were handing out).

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]