Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Shadow Order - Raise the Banners (2001)

Similar to Legion of Doom or Darkthule (the latter of which has shared several of the lineup in the past), The Shadow Order stands among the more nationalistic acts, politically and historically, to rise out of the Greek scene. But more importantly, their debut Raise the Banners exists as further evidence that the deeper the roll of years, the less that the newly manifest Hellenic bands of the late 90s or 21st century were bearing the musical distinction that their forebears imparted years earlier. For, though it's not at all a bad album, Raise the Banners sounds like it might have arrived from just about bedroom act anywhere in Europe, or beyond, with a decidedly Burzum aesthetic in the guitar tone and composition.

It's also an album which takes a few tracks to really develop, as the meandering, raw "Raise the Banners" itself and the faster but futile and predictable "When the Day Comes" are nowhere near the strongest compositions. In fact, they're hardly any impetus to keep listening. Like a lot of NS black releases, it's low on the production totem, with a rather regrettable drum machine that is consistently its biggest drawback. The guitars are fuzzy and tearing, though, and the vox have a harsh resonance to them which I enjoyed, and once the first 7-8 minutes of the debut have cleared, it becomes more effective with the bleeding, airy streams of "Strife for Revenge", the storming, chunky and overpowering "End of Journey" and even the epic, cheesy ambient synthesizer piece "Viktoria Divina" which somehow fails to wear out its welcome after almost 8 minutes of lo-fi droning!

The real gems are tucked into the latter segment of the album, "Blood and Honour" and "War Against All", which both feature some strident, cutting mid-paced riffing redolent of Det Som Engang Var or Transilvanian Hunger. These were originally found on their '98 promo, and if you've got the later CD release of this, there are also a pair of bonus tracks in "The Oath...", a martial ambient piece that erupts into filthy black metal, and another ambient piece, "Faith is Stronger than Fire", with some thundering percussion beneath. Both are solid additions to what is largely a tight and terrifying debut. The production is obviously pretty amateur, and the drum programming a sore thumb that would have been soothed with an actual live skin basher, but we all know that this is just not an option for many underground musicians. In the end, Raise the Banners takes a little too long to really make an impact, but I've heard a lot fucking worse, and there are some good guitar melodies strewn about its savagery.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Vorphalack - Lullabies of a Vampire (2001)

It long enough for Vorphalack to release their first (and to date, sole) full-length album Lullabies of a Vampire, but it was actually recorded during the formative years of the band's immeasurably obscure tenure, in 1995, and simply never saw the light of the day. Not that it matters much, really, because this was clearly not among the more ambitious black metal acts of Greece, and the general mediocrity of their EP releases Under the Sight of Dragon (1993) and In Memory... (1998) were not the sort to breed anticipation. Worst still, the content of this album is little more than a retread of the songs they releases as the In the Sight of Dragon and Black Sorrow for a Dead Brother demos, affixed to their half of the split release with the even stranger Zephyrous in 1995 (which the latter released in 1998 as A Caress of War and Wisdom).

S0, in effect, this is by no means some long awaited bastion of mesmeric and vampiric black metal that would catapult Vorphalack into the ranks of Hellenic contenders, but a wholly underwhelming effort that feels more like a compilation. Several of the band's members, like 'Lady Lilith' (aka Tristressa of Astarte and Minas of On Thorns I Lay) had long since moved on to greater things, rendering this a mere stroll down memory lane. And this is not a paved lane, mind you, but a collection of incredibly lo-fi recordings that alternate between Gothic and pagan flavored keyboard cheese, ambient segues and punchy, primitive black metal which is often more like melodic thrash or doom with rasped vocals. Tunes like "In Search of Glory" and "Lullabies of a Vampire" itself do have a carnal charisma to them, a middle ground between Dimmu Borgir and the King Diamond solo records, with some half-decent riffing involved, but the awful, dry production renders most of their potential power inert.

Also, since the Under the Sight of Dragon tracks are tacked on as a footnote, there is also this inconsistency in the mix that might throw some listeners off. Basically, think of them as nothing more than bonus tracks, because their denser and garbled mess is a lot chunkier than the rest of the material, which is at least level with itself. Otherwise, there is not much to really say or to speak in favor of Vorphalack. They were not good to begin with, and aside from its possible rustic, haunted castle charms, there is no need to recommend this as anything more a crude and unpolished manifestation of a malignant dream. The band seemed to have arrived at some sort of logo here, which they would re-use on their 2004 EP Daemonium Magister, but I actually quite liked the one they had for In Memory... and wish the music would have lived up to its unnerving aesthetic. But no, the music here is substandard to even that crop of tunes in '98.

Verdict: Fail [4.75/10]

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Nocternity - Crucify Him EP (2001)

As solemn sharks yet reflecting on the blood of their latest kill, Greek imprints ISO666 and Nocternity were quick to collaborate on another release in the Crucify Him EP. This shorter work was a repository for the band's earlier material that did not conform to the sea goddess concept of En Oria, lyrically or aesthetically. Indeed, the songs written here are equally as vile and reproachful as far as their malevolent architecture, but they possess a more airy and volatile nature as if they were necrotic winds howling through some forsaken abyss or pandemonium. The riffs themselves do not deviate from the style manifest through En Oria, still a window into the Norwegian scene of the early 90s (Burzum, Mayhem, old Satyricon), but they do seem better constructed and less lethargic than the debut was often prone to be.

The intro, "Stella Tenebrarum", is not as impressive as the synthesizer pieces found on that submerged precursor, but more of a distinctly minimal ambiance joined by tranquil, clean guitars and light vocals. This creates an immediate contrast when the harsh but melodic titular track is engaged, slower, roiling tragedies alternating with accelerate bursts of streaming anxiety. I will say, though, that I found the earlier riffs to be predictable. It is the bridge here, with its return to clean string plucking and subsequent explosion into a more memorable melodic sequence, that I found more compelling. "Lunar Innuendo" begins with another ambient passage, but succumbs to more explosive blasting, before ultimately fading out to acoustics. My favorite track, though, is definitely the closer "Perdo Corporem", in which the threads of atmosphere are affixed to the bleeding, high velocity guitars and gnarled, oppressive vocals, giving of a hostile glamour redolent of Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse, sans the symphonic side.

In all, Crucify Him does feel slightly more consistent than En Oria in execution, though the lyrical themes of blasphemy, fallen angels and repression are not as intriguing. The Greeks seem to be inching toward the finish line here, without crossing it. For one, many of the faster paced rhythms fail to manifest in compelling rhythmic configurations: the unflinching speed might cast a vicious dimension to the proceedings, but the riffs themselves are often feel interchangeable, and there is little to set this apart from a wealth of European recordings throughout the mid to late 90s. That said, it's not bad, and the hellish mood and atmosphere are appropriate to its subject matter.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (raised to preach, raised to lie)

Nocternity - En Oria (2001)

The fantasy fanatic in me has to admire any band formed by a man who takes his stage name from a George R.R. Martin novel, and that is precisely what 'Khal Drogo' of Nocternity had done, long before the HBO Game of Thrones was televised into the living rooms of every bandwagon ignoramus who never had the patience to read the marvelous novels. In return, I find myself with the patience to listen through every recording this Greek project has released, which do admittedly vary greatly in quality. En Oria was the premiere full length and statement from the act, and perhaps the least interesting, but not without a number of noted strengths that would lie the roots for the stronger works Onyx and A Fallen Unicorn.

Nocternity does not much resemble those Greek contemporaries who placed the nation on the black metal grid, but instead takes its queues from the Norse and Swedish composers, its grim and grisly aesthetic placing it somewhere between Burzum and Bathory. The atmosphere of this album is very damp and dark, with Drogo's thick and simple guitars streaming an ichor of sadness alongside the drawn out, deeper snarling of the vocals. Tempos vary from the glorious, simple patterns of open chords used to transmit fist-raising exhilaration to the listener , to the straight nihilistic blasting we expect of the genre, but all of it sounds appropriately oblique, as if the riffs themselves take succor from the very shadows. That said, they aren't all that great, and often the songs will shift around through various schematics of dull and predictable notation, as is the case for "To the Shrine", "Enter the Rift of Chaos", or "En Oria" itself, none of which produce a single guitar riff that concerns me whatsoever (though the atmospheric interlude in the title track is acceptable).

But then, several are stronger in composition, like "The Drowning", which sets each new stage into emptiness up lavishly, with a mire of atmospheric organs forming an extensive bridge. Or "Queen of the Damned", in which a desperate surge of layered melodies again builds into another swath of open, eerie space. The keyboard passages that bookend the CD ("Night Omen", "Aura") are also rich and swelling despite the minimalism of their construction. I'm a sucker for a good synthesizer and these were absorbing enough that I actually found myself disappointed there weren't more throughout the track list. The production is dim and evocative without losing its clarity and focus, but ultimately the quality of the writing varies too much to give this a glaring recommendation, or really any at all. Half of the content is alluring and engrossing, and the other half rather too forgettable. Nocternity had not yet conceived its 'stallion to mount the world' here, but as it turns out, this would be a band to hone ears upon, who would move on to greater achievements in the near future.

However, I would like to point out that the concept behind this debut, which seems to wholly focus around an undersea goddess ('Umberlee' is mentioned, an evil ocean deity from the D&D setting Forgotten Realms) and the despair of sailors and seamen throw about and sunk below the tides, is pretty fucking cool, as are the lyrics written to explore it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]
(and so my vessels sunk)

Friday, July 29, 2011

Necromantia - Covering Evil (12 Years Doing the Devil's Work) (2001)

Covering Evil is another of those myriad cases in which a potentially awesome fan package is left to suffocate in its own rot. The Greek legends might damn well have assembled a their various demos and promos under this banner, then combined them with the contents of Disc 1 to create something of actual value to their audience. But no, instead we get a handful of covers and one new song, while the 2nd disc in this offering is delegated to re-printing material from the band's first three full-lengths, Ancient Pride EP and the Black Arts Lead to Everlasting Sins split. I'd expect this sort of treatment for any popular metal band, really, but an underground obscurity such as this one? What's the fucking point? People who love Magus Wampyr Daoloth and Necromantia already have those damn albums.

At any rate, the new song "My World, Your Hell" is appreciably aggressive, akin to the ferocity the band were displaying on IV: Malice. There are some keyboard strikes in here for tension and effect, and some wildly voracious bass lines that fly almost entirely off the handle. It's exciting, to say the least. We already heard the band cover Manowar's "Each Dawn I Die" on the Ancient Pride EP, so we know their love for old school heavy metal is resolute. That's a good thing, then, because ALL FOUR of these covers follow the same train of thought. Omen's "Death Rider" (Battle Cry, 1984) is made thicker and more venomous with the 8-string bass, though the mix is admittedly choppy, while Iron Maiden's "Number of the Beast" is somewhat more natural, since the bass was so strong in the original. They manhandle another Manowar tune here, "Demon's Whip" (The Triumph of Steel, 1992) and I found the treatment far more sinister than the original, but the best of this lot is their rendition of Running Wild's "Mordor", (Branded and Exiled, 1985), which is fucking brutal and classy. A great selection, though apparently this and the Omen cover were both available on various versions of the IV: Malice album.

Alas, this is where the fun ends, for disc two is just nine tracks we've already heard, in a sort of reverse chronological order. "Those Who Never Sleep" and "Murder, Magic and Tears" are included from the latest album (IV: Malice); "Ancient Pride" and "For the Light of My Darkness" (Ancient Pride EP); "Black Mirror", "Pretender to the Throne" and "Scarlet Witching Dreams" (Scarlet Evil Witching Black); and "Les Litanies de Satan" and "Lord of the Abyss" (Crossing the Fiery Path). There's nothing necessarily wrong with the selection, and many of these are good songs, but they all fit better in their respective places than meshed together here, and anyone with half a brain wishing to trace the band's evolution could just do so by listening through the releases he/she already owns. Ultimately, if the covers and new original were released as an EP only, this might be pretty cool, but the latter, more substantial disc is a waste of time and money.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]

Mournblade - Mournblade (2001)

Not to be confused with the NWOBHM band of the same name, this Mournblade was the side project of two Order of the Ebon Hand, including drummer Lethe who is well known through the Greek scene, credited with performances in Septic Flesh, Thou Art Lord, Horrified, Chaostar and Naer Mataron, among others. The purpose of this self-titled album was to create a more vicious and orthodox black metal persona in parallel to Order of the Ebon Hand, whose debut The Mystic Path to the Netherworld was in all honesty one of the most mediocre offerings to come out of this particular scene.

You won't hear the keyboards and tempo variation present in that act, nor the wholly shoddy songwriting. This is basically cast in that straight blasting mold that several Norse and Swedish bands pioneered, like Marduk, Bathory, and Immortal, with a higher pitched rasp akin to Varg Vikernes of Burzum. Songs like "The Scythe and the Harvest" and "Ο Αιώνιος Πρόμαχος" operate on the premise of blast blast blast while the guitars shift through various razor-edged melodies to author a narrative of primitive pain, but there are also some deviations from the pattern. "Aries!" is mid-paced, rocking black metal with roots in Darkthrone and Hellhammer, while "On the Stone of Erech" is a black/thrasher with an eerie flute line conjured over its crashing waves of guitar (and a pretty damn good song). "300" is another solid, slower piece which pays tribute to the Spartans at Thermophylae well before Zach Snyder transformed Frank Miller's graphic novel to the medium of film, and there is one instrumental organ/choir piece which is confined to the outro, "Of Melkor and Ungolianthe", which is not bad at all.

I found Mournblade far more tasteful than the members' other band, a legitimate offering to the bands they grew up with, but that doesn't mean it's all that great. The riffs are genuinely vicious, and the production is raw and forceful without losing any of the musical luster, but there are definitely moments here in which I felt myself zoning out. Not because the duo performs the material poorly, but only because this sort of album had already come out scores of times from Northern Europe, and aside from a few of the Hellenic mythological lyrics, there is little to distinguish this particular recording from its betters. Still, if you're interested in the Greek bands which DIDN'T adopt the country's slower, majestic style of composition, then you can file this one right alongside Naer Mataron, Legion of Doom and Astarte as something to check out. The band is listed as still active, and several new members have joined, but as a decade has passed since the debut, and there have been no real developments, I'm not sure we'll be hearing a post-script to this one blast wonder.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Powerwolf - Blood of the Saints (2011)

Let's face it, folks, Powerwolf's absurdist nature and reliance on theatrical corpse paint is not about to win them over many new fans among those that take their flower metal seriously. Yet the band has thus far always come through with regards to their songwriting, with three entertaining albums already under their belts, one of which, Lupus Dei, was astoundingly memorable and fun. They've been releasing a new full-length every other year, maintaining a steady rate of production without spreading themselves too thin, so I'm a little sad to say that it appears the Romanian-German act has run full out of steam conceptually, and Blood of the Saints feels like a mere retread over the pack's previous proving grounds.

I was actually pretty stoked for this record when I heard the sample track floating around called "Sanctified by Dynamite" (what a title), but it turns out that's one of the better songs on this album, with a nice escalating verse sequence building into another of those mighty (and silly) chorus parts that ricochets around in your head. The riffing and leads are once again tight; they are solid throughout the entire album, in fact, but very few individually scream out for instant replays, and thus once more the burden is lain upon Attila Dorn, whose high register howling is redolent of a more potent, operatic Ozzy Osbourne, and performs his task with the same faculty as all the previous albums. But there are really no new tricks here. The same pipe organs are used to give same haunted castle impressions, the choruses are beginning to bleed together in the memory, and the lyrics all revolve around the same subjects: vampires, werewolves, the Church, Satan, funerals and so forth. I understand it's 'their thing', but how many 'blood' and 'wolf' anthems are the band going to write? "We Drink Your Blood", "All We Need is Blood", "Son of a Wolf", "Night of the Werewolves". You see what I'm getting at.

That's not to say that Blood of the Saints is bad, because it's not. It plays it completely safe, with the only deviation arriving in the muted rock intro riff to "Night of the Werewolves". The album sounds enormous, polished, and professional, much like any other they've released. Those who want only a mirror reproduction of Lupus Dei or Bible of the Beast will find the fourth opus much to their tastes, but I for one wouldn't mind if Powerwolf waxed a little more creativity into their writing, rather than just repeating themselves to diminishing returns. They already bought me with the tongue-in-cheek horror and blasphemy years ago. Now would be the time for some further development of character and theme. There are some genuinely entertaining songs to be found here, in particular the driving German power metal surges like "Phantom of the Funeral" and "Dead Boys Don't Cry", but ultimately it seems to course along the same old Möbius strip, looping back on itself ad infinitum. They've got the air raid siren front man. They've got the sacrilege. They've got the fangs. They've got the 'image' (love it or hate it). Now break the downward spiral and bite our heads off again. No more scraping by.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Septic Flesh - Forgotten Paths (The Early Days) (2000)

The decision to brand the Forgotten Paths (The Early Days) fan package with the same leering mutant and awkward, amateur logo that adorned Revolution DNA was perhaps not the best of ideas, for the material on this re-issue of the band's 1991 demo Forgotten Path is anything but relative to that disappointing modernization. This is a pre-Temple of the Lost Race Septic Flesh, lacking even the slight progressive and Gothic embellishments of the EP, but it's also damn good demo material which exhibits the strong foundation that they were building off as they veered into more melancholic territory. Crushing, simplistic death metal with strong songwriting, versatility and brutality in spades, not to mention the most bloodied vocal performance of Spiros Antoniou, redolent of Martin van Drunen in his heyday (1989-1992).

This is pure, groove-laden fare which owes an obvious nod to Celtic Frost, but will also titillate fans of earlier Asphyx (the van Drunen albums), Tiamat (up to Clouds), and Therion (the first two albums). Though they do incorporate a creepy, schizophrenic intro and outro, the pure atmospheric moments one identifies with Septic Flesh are constrained to the tolling doom bell that inaugurates "Curse of Death", or the tranquil segue which bisects "Unholy Ritual". The rest is a veritable riff-fest of morbid monstrosity, led by the superb atmospheric chugging of "Power of the Dark", and the almost punkish swagger of "Melting Brains". The solos here are fairly loose, but the rhythm guitars beneath them are usually worth the price of admission alone. The songs I already mentioned move at a steady, mid pace, but the band quickens the pace for the excellent "Curse of Death", a furious and refined marriage of old school muted bloodstreams and layered, melancholic chords. "Forgotten Path" itself is another worth mentioning, an epic bludgeoning through a number of tempos.

To help round out the celebration of the decade-old demo, the band has included a trio of live tracks recorded in 1991: "Power of the Dark", "Forgotten Path" and "Melting Brains". They do sound about as rough as one might expect, but in summation, not at all bad. The vocals have a tremulous resonance to them, and you can hear just about everything important, with the crisp and raw live distortion charming in of itself. The recording might not have been great, but the performance clearly was, so it's a worthy testimony that the band were potent and promising in not only the studio, but upon the stage. The only thing that's crappy here is the choice of cover and logo, though to be fair, the original demo was just a black/white illustration lifted from some classical source, and the original logo is a mess, lacking the character of that they chose for their first four albums (and would inevitable return to). Anyway, this is really good for a demo. The songs might not have the same intricacy as Temple of the Lost Race, but they still hold much appeal, especially as the old school, ominous sounds of the 90s are back in vogue.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Necromantia - IV: Malice (2000)

Of the four full-lengths Necromantia has released to date, it is the misleadingly titled IV: Malice (which is their 3rd album, so they must be counting the split with Varathron or one of their EPs in the tally) which is probably the closest to a sheer black metal sound. The band still makes full use of their two bassists, with the distorted 8-string dominant as the guitar substitute, though they're not opposed to a good old 6-stringer for the leads. Most prominently, though, this is a generally fast as fuck album which more closely reflects the typical black metal sounds of Europe, kind of like Barathrum in overdrive. There are still some tinges of atmosphere scattered throughout the pummeling majority, but not enough that it culls the charms of its predecessors Crossing the Fiery Path or Scarlet Evil Witching Black.

To the credit of Magus Wampyr Daoloth and Baron Blood, they try quite a lot more with the bass than they've done on the prior works. Everything from insane, noodling solos to quaint inclusions of familiar classical pieces ("Murder, Magic and Tears") and brooding, pseudo-"Rime of the Ancient Mariner" tributes ("Those Who Never Sleep"). There are also some interesting segues of plucking, muted bass that you don't hear so often in the genre, in particular the bridge of opener "The Blair Witch Cult". Yet these are all exceptions to the rule, and a sizable portion of the CD is spent blasting forward with repetitious patterns, that, aside from the novelty of the 8-string, don't seem entirely different from what numerous other bands were recording. When they do return to their nigh theatrical atmospherics, like the closer "Circle of Burned Doves" and its mourning organ flourishes and tranquil breakdown, it feels quite a lot more like the album I was looking forward to.

Necromantia were always one to take some risks, but here the risks don't necessarily pan out into incredibly memorable material. Half of the fun of the band was just how much they'd merge camp with eclectic evil, an aesthetic hard to pull off without losing the audience. They seem to have traded in some of that personality for aggression. The lyrics seem a lot less interesting (with one or two exceptions), and the accelerated riffing does little but prove that a traditional electric guitar is hardly necessary to achieve this repulsive tone. That said, IV: Malice is incredibly tight in terms of the performances, and the production is far more professional and consistent than any of their earlier albums. The basses sound incredible, often indistinguishable from a rhythm guitar, and tracks like the plodding "Invictus" and surging titular "Malice" are absorbing enough that you'd want to check this out if you were curious about their sound, but outside of the mix itself, there is just nothing on the first two records or Black Arts Lead to Everlasting Sins.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]
(man is but a debased whore)

Rotting Christ - Khronos (2000)

After the curiously 'chill' Sleep of the Angels, which wrought its emotional power from simpler, more accessible riffing patterns and the substitution of Gothic metal atmospherics for some of the straight and sad majesties of its predecessors, speculation was high as to whether Rotting Christ would move further into a more congenial, radio friendly space, or regress back into their carnal and defining origins. Well, Khronos does neither. It sort of sidesteps the band into another new terrain. The springy, full-bodied but lightly distorted guitars of Sleep of the Angels have been supplanted with a thinner tone, and where the keyboards there were bright and prominent, here they seem more subdued and breezy, lush and ambient, often mingling with other environmental effects at the very edge of the listener's attention.

The centerpiece of the album, sadly, is not a Rotting Christ original, but a cover of Current 93's "Lucifer Over London", which they've lent a restrained magnificence through the melodic idylls of the guitar, searing background chords and the synthesizer fauna. Sakis Tolis does get a little repetitive with his rasping, a characteristic limited not only to this song, but in total it's one of those covers you'll remember and turn to nearly as much as the original. Otherwise, I favor "Aeternatus", with its sensual, whispering vixen samples and acceleration from muted rock pace to an all out, old school Greek charge through the enemy defenses. "Law of the Serpent" is a poignant, seething instrumental track with more depth than it has any right to, and the chorus melody of "Fateless" is unflinchingly pretty, and the haunting background ambiance is brilliantly handled there. "Time Stands Still" and "If It Ends Tomorrow" are likewise excellent songs which draw a closer comparison to the Triarchy of the Lost Lovers era.

The production is quite rich, especially the synthesizers, but for some reason I felt it to be more processed and less distinct than Sleep of the Angels. The band moved from Xytras (on the past two albums) over to Abyss Studio in Sweden, so that might explain some of the difference, but in particular the guitars here just don't gleam nearly so much as the last album. A minor gripe, surely, and Rotting Christ easily distract away from it with the strength of the music itself, and ultimately Khronos is another jewel in what by this point was already a gem-studded scepter. One of the few bands that ever managed to mix its broader influences (Gothic, industrial, trad metal and classical) into its unique brand of black metal without somehow alienating its fanbase and causing an underground uproar. Granted, the Greeks were never quite at the visibility level of Emperor, Dimmu Borgir, Cradle of Filth or other raving successes, rather a more soft spoken alternative, and Khronos once again captured this career eloquence with its intelligent, thoughtful lyrics and diverse palette of dark and light sounds.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (in the light of a young moon)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Naer Mataron - Skotos Aenaon (2000)

In time, Naer Mataron has gained the reputation as one of the most fierce and ripping black metal artists within the Greek field, but they did not originate as such. Their debut Up from the Ashes was a decent first stab in the genre, but it was more or less derivative of what most of the audience had become acclimated to through the Scandinavian scene. Skotos Aenaon is an improvement as far as its production values, which are bold, brash and hostile, with a killer mix of bleeding guitar lines and Aithir's volatile rasping, but after a strong first couple of tracks, it devolves into a fairly predictable experience unlikely to sway anyone that has already soured on the repetitious riffing currency of barnstormers like Dark Funeral, Enthroned and Marduk.

"...And Bloodshed Must Be Done" is such a strong, sweeping orchestral inauguration that the expectations for the album run immediately high, a martial escalation that leads into the blasting vortex of "Diastric Fields of War", with a potent lead-in riff that will have fans of Emperor, Dark Funeral or Marduk howling exultation. Fast, cold and uncaring, it soon transforms into arching and descending riffs with brief, cleaner vocals strewn about, and a misting of keyboards through the bridge. But as soon as its successor, the rolling, Bathory-like "Iketis", the guitars start to seem incredibly familiar, as if the band simply is incapable of curving off into some unexpected pattern. That's not to say all of them are bad, and certainly "Astro-Thetis-Cosmos" and the wintry and warlike march of "In Honor of the Wolf" manifest enough cruelty to involve the listener, but this is not often through any characteristic of variation, but the strong mix of the album.

When its hellish smoke has cleared, despite its superior depth of sound, I actually liked the song structures marginally less than on the debut, which felt just a glint more original. Skotos Aenaon is not a monotonous album as far as all of its tempos, but quite often the band meanders into what seems like an incessant swath of blasting, and unlike, say, Vobiscum Satanas, which keeps this style entertainingly vicious despite its rather one-track mind. The pentagram cover, the spikes and the corpse, all of this had been done to death by the turn of the century, and sadly Naer Mataron is not offering a compelling enough spin to admonish.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]
(and black holes guide me to the Olympian Fathers)

Fiendish Nymph - Aenaon (2000)

Fiendish Nymph is perhaps best remembered not for its lascivious, alluring band moniker, but as the formative side project for the Greek pagan/folk troupe Daemonia Nymphe, which has been far more prolific through the new century thus far. Both had been established in the earlier 90s, and demos were released to a limited audience. The plan was likely to restrain the band's lighter, livelier and traditional elements to Daemonia, but then unleash their darker sides through this more obscure entity, though there is certainly some crossover here as far as instrumentation and general songwriting aesthetics. Another band to compare this sole full-length to would be early Kawir (To Cavirs), only I feel that Fiendish Nymph are better writers, and their lush folk and ambient segues are more fluid with the metallic components.

That said, we all know which of these two personas would persist, because Aenaon was the first and last album from Fiendish Nymph. It's also quite short, about 37 minutes including two mixes of "The Drowning of Syring", and all of the material here is essentially compiled from the band's demos in 1994-96, and their '98 single for The Sibyl of Elikona. Opener "Into the Abyss of Eternity" is a chaotic ambient track with horror sounds, strange gibberish, irritating groans and spacey madness; and "Katara" is a droning piece with keyboards, black screaming and a narrator who sounds indifferent to the schizophrenia surrounding him. Of the metal tracks, I definitely enjoyed the distant feel of "The Blazing Shades of Distant Moonlight" with its plodding pace, popping evil guitars and steady synthesizer against the grating, rasped vocals; and the more melodic, lushness of "The Drowning of Syring" with its rather brutal bridge dowsed in psychotic vocals and cutesy synths. I also got a real Celtic Frost or Therion vibe off "The Sybil of Elikona", another track worth hearing.

But I'd warn the curious party that the sound quality here is fairly lo-fi, and the various levels of the flutes, keyboards and vocals can often feel off balance, so if you're not compelled by cryptic and obscure demos of the pagan/black variety, this is probably not going to change that fact. Like Kawir's first album, Fiendish Nymph does a splendid job of transporting the listener to mythic glades and simpler times, and had they decided to develop this project further, who knows what the results could have been. Like Rotting Christ, Septic Flesh and Zemial, this is also a 'brother band'. Not that uncommon on the worldwide scale, maybe, but it's amazing how such a small scene produced so many bands anchored by a pair of siblings. Anyway, worth a listen if you're into Gothic, pagan, or folk black metal and don't mind crude production, but their other, surviving incarnation is far more exotic and memorable.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Astarte - Rise From Within (2000)

I'm not exactly sure why it's taken me so long to come around to the sounds of these Greek sirens, but their first few albums seemed so irrevocably bland when there were so many superior options blowing around Europe in the 90s. Like the debut, Doomed Dark Years, Rise Form Within is a rather well executed album. This is not simply a trio of extremely attractive women, here. It's not a gimmick. They actually perform their material with some degree of professionalism, and their production standards and musicianship could put a lot of their peers to shame. Where they seemed to fall short on these first few outings is just in crafting the memorable, even hymns that resonate long beyond the confines of the listening experience. At its best, Rise From Within only ever feels 'sufficient', never sadistic, sinister or salacious like a number of its obvious Scandinavian influences.

The first track, "Furious Animosity", is one of those instrumentals that probably could have used vocals. It's not atmospheric enough to strike out on its own, and the variation between the straight, charging chord streams and the slower breakdowns with the keys is simply not that compelling. Once they hit the "Rise From Within" tracks, though, they're right back where they left off on Doomed Dark Years. Mid-paced, soaring melodic black metal, with solid, pronounced bass lines, spacious breaks with march-like drums, and keyboards on and off where they felt they'd feel more majestic. Bands like Emperor and Dissection are strong reference points, though the band is not quite so manic and mighty as the first, nor as melodically strong as the second. There are a few decent tunes, like the graceful charge of "Naked Hands" or the Gothic piano inaugurated "Liquid Myth", but beyond producing a wall of sound that seems pleasing and inoffensive to listen to, there's just nothing worth remembering.

The vocals are full and hoarse, but they tend to grow monotonous throughout, as if it's a strain for her just to perform with this voice, never mind threat it with some diabolic emotion. The guitars often start out with a functional network of chords, but then they just go nowhere. The band is skilled at layering its bass and synths so that they possess their own voices against the six-stringers, but they just sort of bludgeon along and harmonize without any intricacy. All this aside, Rise From Within is not a bad album (they've never recorded one to my knowledge), it's just another middle of the pack European black metal disc which safely dwells within the shadows of its predecessors, without stimulating the listener. It seems strangely more subdued than the debut, laconic despite Psychoslaughter's solid drumming. I suppose I'm in the minority that actually prefers their mid-period work to anything else, but not by a large margin.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Terra Tenebrae - Subconscious (1999)

The fact that Terra Tenebrae attempted to immediately flatten the listener on his/her ass with their sole full-length Subconscious actually served to distinguish it from most of the Greek happenings of the 90s. Most of their peers were heavily steeped in keyboards, atmospherics and attempting to build a 'setting' for their songs, while Terra Tenebrae (i.e. 'Land of Darkness') were more concerned with beating on eardrums. That said, this is not entirely a vicious band, and they were capable of a broad dynamic range, merging together the aesthetics of black, thrash and melodic death metal into a sound entirely uncommon in Europe after the wave of At the Gates and Dissection, broke on all shores. There's plenty of accessible fare, including memorable guitar solos, buried within the vortex of hostility.

The members were not exactly newcomers by this point. Vocalist Gothmog had already been the front man on a few Thou Art Lord releases, and bassist Makis (Baron Blood of Necromantia) is also involved with this, and a few others from the Hellenic underground. But Subconscious was going for something admittedly less atmospheric and evil as the prime movers' other bands. I dare say it was more of a 'trendy' recording attempting to bridge the gap to the popular styles of its day, and so it has a sound nearly as Swedish as it is Greek. Tunes like "Count the Time", "The Killing Kind" and "A Dice for Two Souls" play it off straight with rapid, pummeling rhythms, while "Dying in the Mirror's Path" is essentially old school Florida-style death with a hint of thrash, and you can hear riffs in there that are reminiscent of Death and Obituary. The musicians are honestly pretty tight, though the mix is not. Gothmog's gnarled, bloody drawl is interesting, but does get monotonous the way he cants these lines over the music.

You can tell that a lot of work went into the guitars, though, and they soar and sink through a large spectrum of battle charges, acoustic segues, and fell glories. That said, they are not all that catchy unless you're a total die hard for Dissection, The Crown, Sacramentum, and other bands in the melodic Swede family. Very little of the plodding Greek maneuvers that dominate that style of black metal, though you can hear a few parallels to Thou Art Lord. Subconscious is far from an incompetent obscurity, but ultimately it has nothing enduring or unique to offer, so it's no surprise that it went largely unheard. Now, earlier I had mentioned that this was their only full-length. As Terra Tenebrae, this is the case, but the band would eventually change their name to Soulskinner, performing a more traditional death metal style, and release a few more albums in the 21st century, which are more solidly executed than this one.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Varathron - The Lament of Gods EP (1999)

Varathron would close their 90s run out with their most varied and atmospheric work yet, The Lament of Gods, though it would also be their last release for half a decade. At this point in history, it had become pretty clear that the band was not going to see the broader success of countrymen Rotting Christ (and to a lesser extent, Septic Flesh), but alongside the infallible Necromantia, they provided a strong second tier of Hellenic extremity for those with the time and curiosity. The four originals on the EP feature a solid range of roughly mixed guitars, Stefan Necroabyssiou's most brutal vocals (at times even reminding me of Martin van Drunen), and by far the most audacious use of keyboards on any of their recordings, placing both a cheesy charisma and psychedelic spin on the music which occasionally draws a comparison to Tangerine Dream or the Greek-born Vangelis.

"Fire Spell/Forbidden Lust" is an adequately epic opener, with steady, mid-paced riffs drawing back to their His Majesty at the Swamp period, conjoined with trippy, punctual synth lines that ride the verse. It picks up the pace accordingly through the bridge, with glinting keys and a faint but audible clean guitar line over the flowing bass, for a slight progressive rock vibe. "The World Through Ancient Eyes" threads sweeping ascending/descending pianos through sparse yet driving black doom guitar chords, with an effective breakdown in which the pianos move into the lower registers for a convincing, Gothic release. "Beyond the Grave" is also a hugely atmospheric piece, while "Warriors Nightmare" rolls along with a Rotting Christ, majestic gait before it morphs into a desperate charge itself. Lastly, the Greeks offer us their rendition of "Nuns Have No Fun" from Mercyful Fate, complete with Gregorian chanted intro and more of the shiny synthesizers that they used in "Forbidden Lust", which are admittedly corny but fall in line with the spirit of the Mercyful Fate EP original (1982).

It's obvious to note why some would take issue with The Lament of Gods, for the production is rather lo-fi and sounds as if were recorded in a retrofitted bathroom at best. This has not always been a problem personally in appreciating underground black metal works, but I can't help but think that a cleaner alternative with louder guitars would have more impact than what we're given. But you can still hear just about everything, and the loose and progressive spin the band has put on the compositions would have made for a fascinating future direction, though it's not quite what would manifest five years down the stretch in the divisive Crowsreign. Anyhow, if you weren't offended by the rugged engineering behind His Majesty at the Swamp, you could view this EP as its toking, acid-dropping little brother, hallucinating back into the ancient past. A consistent curiosity, if not exactly a Cyclopean effort.

Verdict: Win [7/10]
(through my lifeblood it courses)

Zephyrous - Towards... (1999)

I've encountered numerous curiosities in my examination of the Hellenic underground, but Zephyrous's first and sole full-length album Towards... has got to be the strangest fucking work among them, an album so explicitly un-metal that it makes the band's prior EP sound almost brutal by comparison. Don't be thrown by the logo. The only metallic elements here are a few snarled vocals and a small handful of combustible guitar riffs. The vast majority of what you'll discover here is drum machine fueled new age, pop, dorky proggish rock and some exotic tinges of world music. Normally, I wouldn't even have a problem this, but Towards... feels completely disjointed, scatterbrained and aimed in too many directions at once.

Where the band sticks to their pure Gothic pop fare, like "I.F.O.", they're actually not half bad, and in fact I felt like this tune meshed fairly well with the evasive rasping. But even here, the band segues into this silly synthesized flute sequence that sticks out like a sore thumb as the backdrop to anything but village music for some video game. And these quirks turn up just about everywhere on the album. "Confessions of the Inmost Ruby" breaks out into the middle of an organ solo, and then a funky psychedelic floe. "Shadow Path" is the least 'dark' tune on the entire album, like Pink Floyd done by dweebs on a Casio in the 80s, complete with saxophone solo. "My Cup of Life" is a pompous march with clean, dreary vocals. "Abraxas" attempts to create an ancient Greek mystique with the very New Age vocals, but it's simply too hilarious to take seriously, especially when he begins snarling 'DEATH' in the middle of the verse.

Zephyrous had always been uncanny, mind you, but the polished studio production of this full-length enables the listener to 'best' experience all of their stylistic schizophrenia firsthand, where the roughshod sound of the demo and EP tended to obscure just how off the wall their intentions really were. But try as I'd like to appreciate it, there's just not enough good music here of any style to really dig your nails into. Where bands like Arcturus and Mr. Bungle are keen on overwhelming their audience with brilliant, often hypnotic contrasts, Zephyrous really do just sound like a couple guys fucking around with a keyboard, trying to be as unique as possible. It almost seems as if it was a joke that went too far...but at least a few of the darker, closing tracks like "I.F.O." and "Eleusis Sacraments" are listenable.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Kawir - Epoptia (1999)

Epoptia is one of those efforts that opens with a roar, but inevitably gradates into a plateau of repetition and familiarity that steers it off course from its initial initiative. This is a far more professional and savage sound than its predecessor To Cavirs, lacking for much of the lethargic idylls and cheesy orchestration and female vocals that made the debut such a paradoxical delight. No, what you're getting here is fairly potent black metal hammering which you would have expected from any number of Scandinavian sources, only wreathed in the Greek mythology that Kawir have always remained true to, while many of their countrymen were off exploring the occult at large, or modernizing their sounds to the Gothic mainstream medium.

"Infinite Chaos" is that inaugural charge mentioned above, a straight blasting black track in the vein of Emperor, Marduk, Immortal and so forth, the spritz of Diavelgenus' vocals creating a more craven venom than the last album. I particularly enjoy the synthesizer strikes during the second riff, but the guitars beneath are rather predictable and lose their luster in short order. "Erebus" begins with a chugging, Greek gait but then accelerates into another programmed blast burst with bland guitars, only the bridge is quite a nice, atmospheric departure. The band uses further astronomical drifts throughout "Cosmic Verve", or the intro to the bloated nine minutes of "Korivantes", but not until "Zeus" (again, nine minutes) do they return to the simmering flutes and passionate glades of their debut. The bonus tracks "Keres" and "Empousa" exhibit a rawer production, hearkening back to their earlier recording, and I found myself rather enjoying their atmosphere, but then, that is not a trait lacking from any of this album.

In the end, it's the guitars that really hinder Epoptia from achieving greater substance. They feel like a mere menagerie of complacency culled from a dozen or so other bands, and they never distinguish themselves through the multiple charging rhythms. The crescendos in attention for this album almost always come in the form of the symphonic visitations, and painfully few individual riffs stand out whatsoever. Certainly Kawir is faster and more punishing than the previous album, and likewise more 'together', but the frivolous sum of its delicious and silly parts of To Cavirs were what warmed me up to it. Epoptia feels more like an assimilation into the broader, international perspective of European black metal, and while it invokes an authentic Greek astrological lyrical focus, looks and sounds good, the songs here are just not as anomalous as elsewhere in their career.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (we invoke the powers of planets)

Septic Flesh - Revolution DNA (1999)

By the close of the 90s, all three of the 'major' Greek metal acts had made large alterations in their chosen sounds. Nightfall had gone from their melancholic Gothic/black roots into a sort of accessible, fetish rock crunch, while Rotting Christ was writing the most arguably mainstream material of their career (though it was still quite good). Septic Flesh, too, would incur a larger transformation than any of their prior full-lengths with Revolution DNA, an effort that drops most of the sultry, stunning Goth/death and doom of previous works in favor of something more tangibly radio oriented, a hybrid of modern melodic death, dark rock and a minor transfusion of electronica. While the earlier albums had their roots firmly in the ancient past, Revolution DNA was the Septic Flesh of the 'future'. Only this future did not look so bright...

Let me be clear, though: this is not a complete 180-degree turnabout from what the band had been exploring with tracks like "The Eldest Cosmonaut" off A Fallen Temple. They've dropped out the female vocals in favor of a wider palette of male shades, about of half of which are the familiar Spiros Antoniou grunts and the other half...well, a blend of mid-ranged cleans and then some more nasally, agitated tones reminiscent of Jonathan Davis of Korn (used in "Science", "Radioactive", and several other tracks). You'll still hear a lot of the band's trumpeting, sailing guitar melodies ("DNA", "Revolution"), and once in awhile the lilting, doom sequences that made efforts like Mystic Places of Dawn and Ophidian Wheel so memorable ("Arctic Circle", "Age of New Messiahs"). Parallels to Paradise Lost exist here, and many of the songs have a similar ethos of potent power chords and melancholic melodies redolent of One Second, or the later (and far better) Symbol of Life.

But then there are the tracks of a more 'experimental' nature, but not really experimental. Gone are the operas of Ophidian Wheel and A Fallen Temple, which had been transplanted to their new side project Chaostar (not to be confused with the song "Chaostar" on this very album). The band flirts with campy electronica and robot voices in "Android", which is about 50% exactly what you might expect with that title, and then 50% atmospheric, open chords with black snarls and repeated lyrical motifs. "Telescope" is like a mix of Pink Floyd and The Kovenant. Rinse and repeat that for "Last Stop to Nowhere", but with more of an industrial undercurrent. Then there is "Dictatorship of the Mediocre", a lamentable groove metal track which is perhaps all too aptly titled, and the worst here or possibly on any Septic Flesh record. Not all of these deviants are necessarily bad songs, mind you, but neither are they sufficiently memorable. I certainly expect Septic Flesh to attempt such mutations, I just expected them to be better than this.

The production is bold, brazen and modern, like many of the other Gothic/metal bastardizations of the times (The Kovenant, Theatre of Tragedy, and so forth), with the melodies perhaps a bit too piercing over the rhythm section. I can't say I enjoy most of the vocals...Spiros sounds fine where he belches out his gutturals, but the cleans don't offer much in their crusade to sound all schizoid and disaffected. Most of all, though, I just found myself clinging to whatever songs were closest to the band's poignant past. I once enjoyed this more than I do today, but there is treacherously little staying power. A few fine moments here, like the opening moment of "Science" or the soaring, resonant bliss of "Little Music Box", sure. But as high strung and 'modern' as the band sounds throughout Revolution DNA, the album seems to have become increasingly less interesting across the years, where something like The Kovenant's Animatronic still sounds quirky and catchy (if incredibly cheesy) to date. Ultimately, this is the worst and the least of Septic Flesh's works, but rest assured that they wouldn't dwell on these shores of possibility for long.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (a beautiful vase without a flower)

Aurvandil - Yearning (2011)

Nothing can cure a summer heatwave quite like a purebred breath of Norse black metal hoarfrost, but in the case of Aurvandil, the rime tinted relief comes from the Upper Normandy region of France. For the past half decade, this has been an active artist with a number of demo recordings and split appearances which ultimately froze over to produce the Ferd EP in 2010, which I both reviewed and enjoyed. So, Yearning is the first actual full-length recording: a 56 minute foray into a wintry landscape devoid of the dregs of civilization, a methodic and meticulous celebration of disgust, and a solitary wanderer's trek to ascertain truth in the solitude of a wasteland; conceived over a span of years, and laid out right in the midst of the entrails of the summer of 2010.

Numerous of Aurvandil's countrymen carve out paths of innovation and progressive through the medium, with varied degrees of success, but this artist could be seen a natural antithesis to such values, predisposed instead to the Norwegian influence of second wave masters Burzum, Darkthrone, Immortal and Enslaved; back in their heydays before they, too, answered the summons of evolution and experimentation. This is not to say that Yearning feels 'generic', or lacks for variation. Aurvandil proves here that there is much journey yet to be had in the basic precepts of black metal. Loads of brooding and apocryphal acoustic sequences fleck the stark, gray and white scenery, not only in their own self-contained compositions like the prelude ("Yearning"), interlude ("Walking") and finale ("Reaching"), but also among the longer pieces, where surges of bleak velocity will oft succumb to calmer passages of reflection, or serve as brief bookends before and after the cold, distorted meats have manifest. Such techniques were also used on the Ferd EP, but I feel that they create a darker climate here.

As for the metal itself, Aurvandil is wise to never let the repetition run completely amok in the composition, a flaw found in many such recordings. Several of these tracks are excessive, with "I Summon Scorn", "Reign of Ice II" and "Gylfi's Journey" all clocking in over 9 minutes in length, and yet they feel a lot more vibrant and dynamic than several from Ferd. "I Summon Scorn" splices its tremulous, churning mid-paced velocity with broader, rock-like passages that draw the listener into ancient, frigid straits and fjords, while "Reign of Ice II" charges forth between segues of tranquil atmosphere and driven desperation. But some of my favorites come earlier on the track list, namely the potent swells of "End of an Age" with its resonant, airy bridge melodies and "A Guide to Northern Scapes", which features several shining, lush guitar lines that explode across its storming undercurrent of struggle and hostility.

also has a real sense of depth to it due to the distant, grimy vocals and various layers of guitar, not to mention the session drummer who helps place the full-length on a plateau beyond the glacial monotony occasionally gleaned upon Ferd. This is certainly a triumph for what the artists has set forth to achieve, dark as a winter evening, but clearly in awe of the natural, arctic panorama it celebrates, a swath of empty beauty upon which mankind's poisons are but a mere memory. However, I must say that in shorter bursts, the album is not entirely effective. You will want to clear an hour off your schedule to experience this (even more, if you're also interested in the cover of Burzum's "Jesu Død" smuggled in at the end). Give it enough time to roam its eagle haunted heights, snowy shores and heart of ice. Enough to witness your breath and spirit freeze into the forgotten footnotes of eternity.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Monday, July 25, 2011

Rotting Christ - The Mystical Meeting EP (1997)

The Mystical Meeting EP should not be confused with the 1995 compilation of the same name, and what's even more perplexing is that both were released through the tiny Uniforce Records imprint, and both picture discs. But where that was a re-issue of the Passage to Arcturo EP and Satanas Tedeum together for collectors of vinyl, this is a re-issue of the band's 1993 EP ΑΠΟΚΑΘΗΛΩΣΙΣ with the bonus Kreator covers that were found on the limited digipack of Rotting Christ's excellent 1996 effort Triarchy of the Lost lovers. Obviously, if you've got both of those, then this is extremely fucking useless unless you want a pretty vinyl to look at. Most picture discs, are in fact, useless. Tits on a bull. And this Mystical Meeting is a fairly chance proposition in itself, due to its inclement obscurity.

But if you somehow don't give a shit about actually listening to such a vanity, and have no other access to the recordings it contains, then why not? As I've already covered the two tracks from ΑΠΟΚΑΘΗΛΩΣΙΣ in my previous review, I'll just focus on the covers, all of which are culled from the German black/thrashers' formative works (1985-86). "Tormentor" (Endless Pain) is delivered with a decided polish, but Sakis Tolis is a man with a vocal palette nearly as bloodshot as Mille Petrozza, so he does a pretty damn good job with it. Ditto for "Flag of Hate" (from the EP of the same name), which features some even more hoarse vocals and maniacal laughter. This is included as the first half of a medley, the latter being "Pleasure to Kill" itself, which is also the best of the three (since the song, itself, is), pleasurably demented and violent as fuck. No, the Greeks have not given these some atmospheric treatment akin to the music they were producing for themselves at this period, outside of the occasional vocal reverb.

All three sound tremendous, by the way, on par with Triarchy and obviously more volatile. It's curious that they would choose such angry pieces, but they undoubtedly wanted to escape the confines of the glory whoring heavy/black metal originals they were writing, so it makes an ironic sort of sense. Rotting Christ does not really deviate much from the established strength and style of the original songs, though, so some might take this as a flaw. As these tracks are not necessarily better experienced here than they are on that digipack, the overall value is quite spotty outside the collectors' market. And most of them just want something cool to hang on their shelf or wall, stare at and boast about (like jewelry). Not saying there's a problem with that, but I'm a more practical music fan, and the product/format itself is far less important than what I'm experiencing in my ears as I bang my damned brains out.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Rotting Christ - ΑΠΟΚΑΘΗΛΩΣΙΣ EP (1993)

ΑΠΟΚΑΘΗΛΩΣΙΣ, or Apokathelosis, was another of those obscure and limited run 7" releases bridging the gap between the seminal Rotting Christ EP Passage to Arcturo and their first proper full-length Thy Might Contract. Like Dawn of the Iconoclast the year before, it consists of only two tracks totalling another 8 minutes, and at least one of the songs, "The Mystical Meeting" is available elsewhere (to be technical, both are available elsewhere). But I'm sure that most of us agree: it's best to hear such works in their original skins, their primitive glory (or lack thereof), and thus the charisma of ΑΠΟΚΑΘΗΛΩΣΙΣ is most thoroughly experienced by tracking down this rarity, borrowing, downloading, or whatever it takes to get your hands on it.

Compared to the tracks on Dawn of the Iconoclast, Apokathelosis seems a work of some refinement. The guitars still pummel along with a raw, muted fervor, but you can clearly hear that this is the Rotting Christ most will come to identify with from 1993-1997, Thy Mighty Contract through A Dead Poem. "Visions of the Dead Lovers" is threaded with an ethereal synthesizer line that creates an angelic against the fibrous, melodic momentum, while the bloodcurdling bark of Sakis Tolis is unmistakable. They also go for that mid-paced bridge that will prove a recurring motif through the first five full-length albums. "The Mystical Meeting" is slightly different, opening with a straight thrash chug that reminds me of S.O.D. or Sacred Reich aside from the rasped vocals. This is closer to the material of their Sataneus Tedeum demo from 1989, but once the opening sequence develops, the band throws in the keyboards, winding doom riffs and cleaner, narrative vocals that give it a comparable appeal to the work of Passage to Arcturo and Thy Mighty Contract.

These are cool songs, and they offer a ghastly glimpse of Greek distinction against the black metal spawning elsewhere in Europe, but again, it's mostly a vinyl collector's lovechild with very little substantial weight. Sitting in a crypt-like basement in 1993, spinning this on your phonograph while snorting some blow or sipping absinthe paints pretty much the perfect picture of deviance, so the nostalgic value is obvious, but it's not necessarily the first direction I'd point any newcomer to this band in.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (eternity so shiny)

Rotting Christ - Dawn of the Iconoclast EP (1992)

If you've heard Rotting Christ's 1989 demo Satanas Tedeum, in which the band were first beginning to explore the raw black metal roots that would lead them further into a unique epiphany throughout the 90s, then you'll will know what to expect from their 7" release Dawn of the Iconoclast. Primarily because "The Nereid of Esgalduin" was also present there, but also just the sound in general of both songs, which is incredibly crude and spring-loaded, black thrash stuff with some glints of atmospheric foreshadowing through the keyboard in "The Nereid". Of course, they were originally a death/grind outfit, but it doesn't quite reflect in the composition here, as they go for more of a straight, energetic thrash with diabolic vocal slathering.

"The Nereid of Esgalduin" is a minor classic itself, granted. Not because of the riffs, which are fairly average, because of the grimy atmosphere they create and the contrast in the bridge as the synth line manifests. Keyboards in extreme metal were not necessarily news (Nocturnus and a few other bands had already arrived at that conclusion), but here they take a largely forgettable piece and transcend it into nostalgia, though I also like the closing charge which reminds me of something Metallica would have written for Master of Puppets or Ride the Lightning. The B-side is "Vicious Joy and Black Delight", with a stronger, springy guitar and overall stronger riffs than "The Nereid", and a pretty majestic breakdown bridge with flowing, mid-paced guitars that are yet another precursor to the style they'd start developing on Thy Might Contract. The simple but descending melodies that arrive after the 3 minute mark are also pretty nice.

In conjunction, the primal mix and the songs create a carnal killing spree down memory lane, one of which ranks among the best metal tributes in history to a female, man-consuming mythic creation from the Greek past. If you're expecting anything more than a crass demo level mix, guess again, but it does nothing to hinder the charm of the composition, with a sufficiently dark and brooding malevolence throughout. Granted, it's over in 8 minutes, "The Nereid" is available elsewhere, and the scarcity of the 7" makes its physical format ripe only for collectors, but the songs alone are authentic and grim enough to please the aesthete of archaic extremity.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (engaged with evil)

Rotting Christ - Der PerkekteTraum EP (1999)

Half a year after Sleep of the Angels was released, Century Media and the band decided to release a fan-oriented EP to capitalize upon the success they were having. Since the band had not previously put out an 'official' live recording, it made sense that any such package should include some material from the tours the band had been enjoying, and why not from their amazing European package alongside Samael and Moonspell in 1996? A time when all three bands were exploding internationally while simultaneously expanding and experimenting with their sounds. A Gothic, atmospheric metal tour de force.

Alas, the five offerings here are all rather cruddy sounding, not so much that you can't make out what the band is doing, or Sakis Tolis' fierce and distinguished rasp, but the melodies seem rather dim in this setting and I have doubts that this was taken from a professional board mix. Sounds more like it could have come out of a hand held recorder. At any rate, despite the underwhelming quality, its enough to tell that the band were quite tight even at this point, a fact I can confirm from numerous sightings of their tours over the years. All of the selections are from Triarchy of the Lost Lovers, which might turn some off that might have preferred the old albums, but this was the album they were touring on, and it makes sense. "Shadows Follow" and "King of a Stellar War" probably sound the best, but "Diastric Alchemy", "The First Field of Battle" and "A Dynasty from the Ice" are all comparable.

Unfortunately, the rest of the EP is a waste, with the band reprinting "Der Perfekte Traum (The Perfect Dream)" and "Moonlight" (bonus track) from Sleep of the Angels. Where this release might have been blown out to include rare demos (there are at least 4 I could think of) or EPs (The Mystical Meeting, Dawn of the Iconoclast and ΑΠΟΚΑΘΗΛΩΣΙΣ would all have been worthy candidates), it just falters. The live recordings are not bold enough to be recommended, and the studio tracks are redundant and useless, so Der Perfekte Traum is weak at best, and not worth your time or money. Check, please.

Verdict: Fail [4.25/10] (exciting and yet so sad)

Rotting Christ - Sleep of the Angels (1999)

While Sleep of the Angels does take its queues from both Triarchy of the Lost Lovers and A Dead Poem, it's also the most accessible work in all this beloved band's history, if not all of Greek black metal. In fact, I have a hard time even defining this as 'black metal' with a straight face, because it's essentially atmospheric, melodic metal with the added furor of Sakis Tolis's rasp, which he fuses here with more whispers and cleans than any of their prior full-lengths. Clearly they were leading up to this point through all prior evolutions, but the soul train has arrived at last. That's not to say that I don't enjoy Sleep of the Angels, because for at least most of its duration, it's downright brilliant and memorable, but those who have characterized this as Rotting Christ 'lite' are certainly entitled to that opinion. The thing is, I'll take Rotting Christ 'lite' or even Rotting Christ 'disco' or 'calypso' over most music, because this is a band which rarely disappoints.

Never has their moniker been more of an aesthetic contrast to their songwriting than on this work, but in the end it's the songs that count, and Sleep of the Angels is not short on them. A glorious, repetitive sweeping keyboard line inaugurates the thundering, melodic mutes of "Cold Colours" while tinges of ambiance rise and fall in the landscape, and you'll note that the focus here is immediately placed on a fantastic guitar line that snares the listener while providing a fluid counterpoint to the thicker chords. There's almost a glorious, martial groove here enforced by the synthesizers leading up to the bridge, and it flows perfectly into the even more 'pretty' riffing of "After Dark I Feel", which might qualify as one of the gentlest songs in this band's discography...but phenomenal regardless. Like "Cold Colours", it uses dour, clean, whispered vocals to offset Sakis' snarling in the verse, playful and seductive with a malevolent reminder riding undercurrent, and the understated keyboards throughout this are placed perfectly.

And then comes "Victoriatus", my personal favorite on the album, with an unforgettable guitar melody and groove which burns itself into the mind just as quickly as anything off the preceding pair of albums, a solid rock chorus with whispered vocals that remind me of what Samael were writing at this time (Eternal). It should come as no surprise, since master orchestrator Xytras was the producer for this album (and its predecessor, A Dead Poem). After this, the album does take a slight dip in quality, with songs like the single "Der Perfekte Traum" and "The World Made End" following a similar ethos, just not as ear catching. "You My Flesh" is interesting, but some of the chords used in the bridge are essentially a refrain to "Victoriatus". "Delusions" has more of a swagger about it, while "Imaginary Zone" and the title track veer briefly back into the band's charging black metal roots, only glazed in the same synthesizer atmosphere as the slower pieces. Perhaps the best of the album's remainder are "Thine is the Kingdom" and the bonus "Moonlight", both epic and immersive with heavily resonant bridges and inherent Gothic groove.

Not just another nail in the crucifix, Sleep of the Angels once more reminds us of how Rotting Christ are in a class of their own, constantly mutating and exploring the parameters of their genre and even defying it, without actively insulting their audience or forgetting where they came from. The minimal, effective imagery of the lyrics conjures an emotional relationship with the listener, without abandoning the band's lust for magic, myth and the natural world. Xytras does an amazing job of drawing out power from the guitars, vocals and synthesizers while he maintains a rather natural vibe, without needless excess distortion or processing. It's not really a black metal album, sure, and as it was the first time I got to see the band on tour here in the States, it was interesting to see the crowd reaction (not that most of them had half a clue who these Greeks were) to this material when they sharing the bill with more aggressive bands like Shadows Fall and Sinister. Coincidentally, this is a great 'gateway' album to mold your girl or boyfriend, grandmother or any other 'square' into the darker climes of music. A baby step to oblivion. But it's also pretty grand for the rest of us.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]
(I live up to our culture)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Septic Flesh - A Fallen Temple (1998)

A Fallen Temple might not be the prize steed in the capacious stable of Septic Flesh, but it's nevertheless a fine followup to Ophidian Wheel, and maintained the band's quest for intellectual and musical refinement. Somber, eloquent eulogies clothed in the dim haze of brutality. Gothic genetics bound to a sinking hull of archaic atrocity. If there's one problem with the album, though, it's that there is a noticeable fragmentation between three substrata. Where Ophidian Wheel balanced itself between powerful, melodic death/doom pieces and a handful of eerie, operatic vignettes, A Fallen Temple furthers breaks itself into a neoclassical sequence, a handful of exhumations predating Mystic Places of Dawn, and a newer, mildly more trendy facade which runs congruent to the Gothic metal growing popular in Europe during the late 90s.

This last category is most evident through "The New Order - Brotherhood of the Fallen Knights" which is highly redolent of something Sweden's Therion would have written around the same time: catchy but simple, chugging guitar lines and overpowering, epic melodies laced with a mix of gruff and clean vocals. The strong gutturals are still present, and there's still a stark sense of 'heaviness' about it, but the male cleans are not really a strong point. "The Eldest Cosmonaut" was chosen as the lead-in single here, given its own video and EP release, and it makes a lot of sense, as the creepy, ghostlike impressions of female vocalist Natalie Rassoulis and the haunted gleam of the pianos and ascending, lilted guitar lines are quite distinct. Still, I got the feel that the male cleans were once again lackluster, not really standing out above the guitars, while Natalie seems to stand out too far, an issue I had with several of the tracks on Ophidian Wheel. Still, for these few faults, the songs are memorable enough, and joined with the similar, soaring "Marble Smiling Face" they hint at the band's plausible potential within a more mainstream market.

Twin mirrors blue
Cold lakes concealing fire
Red coral hair
A dazzling ruby dome

Then there are the "Underworld" segments, which are begun here and unfortunately finished on The Eldest Cosmonaut EP. A mistake, really, as I'd prefer to have them all gathered in the same place, even if that would have stretched the total album to about 70 minutes (it's about 55). "Act I" is a jarring, schizoid sequence that feels like what might occur if Diamanda Galas were to track a Castlevania sequel...and the madhouse male vocals and female screaming build towards an appreciable asylum with a reek of primeval theater about its gates. "End of the Circle - Act II" is more potent and swelling musically, with its rousing and hammering orchestration that reminds me of Les Miserables, ambitious to say the least from Christos Antoniou and his gangly band of ghouls. Both of these acts are entertaining in their own right, but extensive enough a deviation that they feel rather 'outside' the rest of A Fallen Temple. Basically, this was the birth of their side project Chaostar, which strove strictly in these idiosyncratic channels. The "Underworld" sequence (both here and on the EP) were even strung together as a sort of demo.

Then we arrive at that last remainder of the album, the re-recordings of classic Septic Flesh material from the wonderful Temple of the Lost Race EP (1991). They don't sound a hell of a lot different, nor are they far better produced, but the band have shifted about a few of the synth tones, made the leads more bluesy ("Setting of the Two Suns"), and frankly I like these versions just about as much as the originals. All four of those tracks are present here, with one of them being renamed from "Another Reality" to "The Crypt", tuned differently and in my opinion more ominous and memorable than its original incarnation. It's sad to think that this is actually the best segment of A Fallen Temple, and you've guessed by now that the title is in tribute to that formative work, but the value is naturally diminished if you've somehow already got the EP. At least the re-recordings are somewhat better 'fleshed out'.

Lastly, the Greeks have provided a more clashing version of "The Eldest Cosmonaut" closing out the album, a "Dark Version", with the female vocals abrasive to the point of being ungodly annoying, but that really doesn't deserve mention here as it is the one entirely unnecessary and shitty misstep of note. The vocal mix throughout the sum of the album is far from praiseworthy, but here it escalated into a crass annulment of my attention span. Otherwise, the Flesh have once more brought the goods, with a number of their signature melodies and fathomless dark poems that belong on a highlight reel with the tastier bits of Esoptron and Ophidian Wheel. One does get the impression that the Greeks were searching for some new investment of their time, which would in fact manifest in TWO investments (Chaostar and the far more trendy melodic death inherent in Revolution DNA), but there's enough of that rich, pungent death/doom soil here to live up to the titular imagery.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (let me heal your wounds with mine)