Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Goregast - Desechos Humanos (2011)

Don't be misled by the Spanish used in their album and song titles. This is not Brujeria Mk. II, but a group of German bastards who play a strain of crushing old school death metal with thick and fibrous strains of grindcore threaded into a concrete matrix of bone snapping brutality. Desechos Humanos is their third album, and while it's not amazing enough to wrench your neck from its socket, it would be difficult to conceived not at least having a partial good time to its raucous charms. Bands like Nasum, Haemorrhage, Neuropathia, Dead Infection and General Surgery all come to mind as far as its construction, but despite the huge guitar tone, there's not much Swedish happening here.

Goregast do know how to mix it up, and you'll encounter songs of varying tempos and lengths that do not necessarily preclude their content. For example, "Necrophagic Pathologist" and "Puerco de Dinero" are both under two minutes in length, but they vary the riffing from faster paced blasts to grimy grooves and back again. The downside is that there are some clear winners to be found here, and then a bunch of other tracks that amount to barely amusing filler. "Honor the Dead" and "The Boozer", for instance, rage off and rip your face off with bruising if simple patterns, but others like "Corta la Coleta" and "Capa" feel too predictable to punish. For the most moshing per minute, you might jet straight to the back of the bus here for "Unslave Yourself", which is all sledgehammer mentality that fades out into the same, strange ambiance that begins the record.

What the band might lack in pure riffing quality, they do somewhat compensate for with the enormous production of the record. Bold, bright, and beautiful enough to take even the most minimally constructed rhythms to the next level of notice. Rico Unglaube's vocals are loud and moody whether they're in Spanish or not, and the grunts are often affixed by snarls in the fine tradition running back to early Carcass. But I must say, that overall, Desechos Humanos does fall into the trap of the familiar, 'fun in the moment' effort, which just doesn't remain on the conscience long after it stops dealing you uppercuts with amputated zombie limbs. I've got very little negative to say about it, but in the long run it's not something I'd listen to over Nasum, Coldworker, Napalm Death, or various other groups in the field, and I do wish there were more memorable guitar riffs to latch on to.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Mordbrand - Necropsychotic EP (2011)

As a newish death metal project hailing from Sweden, Mordbrand immediately brings to fruition the unshakable stereotype that haunts anyone emerging into such an inflated scene. However, while they certainly cull a few of the practiced characteristics of the genre, in particular a core of punk-driven d-beat death & roll, they manage to derail expectations through a superior songwriting ability. These guys have some roots playing 'fun' punk and thrash outfits (the musicians are from The Law), but joined with Swedish growling legend Per Boder of God Macabre, their material takes on a more dour and appreciably serious dimension. Variation and melodic sensibility ensure that the listener is getting into something more than the average barrage of Nihilist, Dismember and Entombed worship.

The face rocking begins immediately, as Mordbrand whip up a mystic, almost Arabesque into to "Eaters of the Void" that propels right into a riff that would have fans of Skitsystem, Trap Them, Rotten Sound and Entombed windmilling the shit out of their limbs. But quickly, before casting themselves fully to the predictable, they initiate dual melodies and a melancholic tinged bridge that deliver in spades, while Boder grumbles over the top of the bone pile like a mutant mortician. "Graveyard Revisited" opens with a huge groove before its own acceleration into melodic death-punk, and "The Fall of Flesh" rolls out a more clinical, melodic swagger. There is a not a song among these which fails to balance itself nicely, even the cutting and drying of the closer "Deliverance" upholds the standard of spring-loaded groove and versatility.

Necropsychotic even sound good, while eschewing the standard tone used on so many of these Swedish-style records for something with more purposeful rock clarity. Fans of Entombed's Wolverine Blues or Desultory's Swallow the Snake will be right at home here, though this is a more genuinely death-starved, sepulcher-crashing affair with old school death metal lyrics. It's never a bad thing that a band refreshes its influences without ripping them off, and this trio has done damn well to mix it up. These six tracks might not be the stuff of legend, but they're flexible and entertaining enough to anticipate what a full-length of similar quality might offer.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Cryptborn - In the Grasp of the Starving Dead EP (2011)

Old school death metal continues its dominance well into the 2nd decade of the 21st century, as scores of younger bands emerge to venerate both the Swedish and US scenes that dawned in the 90s. Cryptborn is yet another Finnish entrant into the field, and while you'd think they might aesthetically mirror the traits of local heroes like Demilich, Demigod and Convulse, they actually bear a lot in common with the primordial power behind Entombed's legendary debut Left Hand Path. Only one should take the overbearing breadth of that familiar guitar tone and imagine it cranked to overdrive, thick as body parts in a zombie-infested shopping mall during peak hours of business.

A lot of slow, potent grooves dominate the song-scape, with pretty standard d-beat drumming used to drive the burden of the guitars. Vocalist 'Christbutcher' has an expansive, ominous tone to him which brings to mind the peak years of Martin van Drunen, only more butchered and abrasively guttural. That said, it did take me a few tracks before finding something I liked here, as the intro "A Feast for the Grave" and the ensuing "Gift of Rotten Flesh" have an unfortunate dearth of memorable riffing. Once the juicy, pummeling grooves of the title track emerge, you are transported back to the crunching, effective simplicity of Clandestine, and the burgeoning rhythms of "A Nebulous Parting" and "Never Perfect When You Die" also deliver a neck banging bombardment of soil-shifting riffs that feel adequately carnal and comprehensible. The leads used on the album are basic and not compelling, but they do rekindle their intended nostalgia.

And that's really the name of the game here. Cryptborn bring nothing new to the formula, but their obvious reverence for the style they emulate is delivered with genuine abuse. That doesn't make In the Grasp of the Starving Dead an item one should go out of his way to acquire, but those devoted to the influences are unlikely to find themselves underwhelmed or disappointed by what transpires here. The EP is short (under a half-hour), brutal, tonally appropriate, and as dark as the cemetery scenery which inspired it. I dug about half the tracks, and the other half seemed competent but forgettable, gruesome graveyard shovel-ware. However, the release is expertly produced for the style, throwing the guitars right up front, and those who missed its original cassette incarnation will be able to grab the CD through Dark Descent this fall.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Heptameron - Grand Master of the Final Harvest (2006)

Another Hellenic cult wrought of the 21st century, Heptameron takes a distinctly grimy and thrash-influenced approach to the black metal genre. In fact, were it not for the spacious, reverb laden rasp of the guitarist/vocalist 'Kleanthis Necrofiend', it might not assimilate into that genre entirely, but parallels are neatly drawn to the brute 80s sounds of Possessed, Celtic Frost, Bathory, Kreator, Sodom and Slayer, with a sliver of a younger Samael. While I admit that I actually quite like the crude, stripped to basics sound of this recording, and the resonance inherent to the vocals, Grand Master of the Final Harvest does not quite deliver on all fronts. There is a predictability to the riffs and rhythms that never seems to capitalize on the thrill-seeking of its influences.

There is enough dynamic variation that it's never all that dull, but the quality of tracks is highly inconsistent. For example, the instrumental opener "Lord of Silence and Strength" is a shoddy collection of dirty thrash riffs that fail to provide decent transitions into one another, where the following "Vonpho Vovina" is a razing solid that gets the ears retro'd up for some sheer proto black metal blasphemy. "Necrofiend 9th (Vessel of Iniquity)" and "Legions of the 9th Angle" both focus in on slower or mid-paced crunch rhythms, but the riffs are hellishly bland to behold; yet, when the band thrusts ahead on pure adrenaline, like the raging title track, "Barbaric Assault of the Rebel Angels", or in the more noodly broth of "Altar of the Living Flame", they're at least moderately entertaining. They also keep most of the tracks appreciably brief, hovering around the 2-3 minute mark, with the few exceptions being 4-4 1/2 (in which you can tell they are already starting to strain their welcome).

A certain niche of the metal market exists out there to gobble this up, and I'm referring to the diehards of labels like Nuclear War Now! or Hell's Headbangers who devour anything redolent of those dawning abomination years, when the genres of extreme metal were first emerging in a cross-stream of puke, pus and vitriol. Heptameron certainly vie for that crude and cryptic authenticity: old t-shirts, bullet belts, spiked armbands, chains and Satan. If you're heavily into that scene and take no exception to material with inconsistent riffing and subpar songwriting, then Grand Master of the Final Harvest might be worth a try. For myself, I guess I'd rather just listen to Beyond the Gates, Welcome to Hell, The Return, or Worship Him, because the songs here just don't possess that same, unforgettable charisma.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Eschaton - Causa Fortior (2006)

On its surface, Causa Fortior is not an incredibly adept offering, just another in an endless stream of European underground black metal recordings which do little to further or expand the genre boundaries or surpass its influences. However, these Greeks are slightly better at 'gunning for glory' than a number of their peers. The riffs are solid if repetitive, creating this harried vortex of desperation, the tracks almost unanimous in their airy warrior struggle. Admittedly, many of them speed along the same axis of pacing, and a particular ennui begins to set in, especially in the unnecessarily lengthy pieces which leave the 8-minute mark in the dust, but Causa Fortior is not exactly a mind-numbing bore, nor is it swollen to the point of no return.

What I like most about Eschaton here is the fibrous, raw thrust of their sound. As primitive as most of underworld acolytes demand from this medium, the earnest clap-trap of the drum kit meshes wholly with the bristling current of the guitar tone, and the decrepit vocals are given a wide swath of space over which to growl and grimace. This is one highly kinetic album, always pushing forward and rarely looking back or allowing the listener a chance to breathe, but that's not to say it's built entire of vapid blasting. "Transfigured Vision" has a decent thrash breakdown deep in the bridge, and "Steel Glowing in Darkness" is noteworthy for the streaming contrast of distorted bass and primary melody, while moving at a more belligerent mid-pace than many of its neighbors.

As I mentioned earlier, though, there are a few tracks in desperate need of some liposuction, namely the opener "Avenger, Dark Sun" and "Strength at Abound". The central riffs coursing through these are simply not among the more engaging on the album, and I felt like tuning out at numerous junctures. Cut down to 4-5 minute slices, they'd be far more effective. Overall, these guys are just not that strong at composing their guitars, so they rely heavily on the stratospheric rush of passion and atmosphere implied in their velocity. The notation wouldn't be out of place for their various, upper tier Greek contemporaries, like if earlier Varathron was sped up, but really, this comes off as another derivative of the Scandinavian school of philosophy. That said, Causa Fortior is a respectable, if forgettable debut full-length, its few moments of inspirational momentum outnumbered by its surges of somnolent sameness. Not bad, but not exactly teeming with merit either.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]
(wide open the eyes)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cruentus - Asantusta Aatma (2005)

Cruentus might just be the first band I've ever reviewed from Nepal, so it's a little bittersweet that it must be done posthumously, the band having separated some time ago. Still, Asantusta Aatma is worthwhile enough that the band deserves a mention, despite the obvious setbacks involved with the release: the geographic obscurity, and the lack of true cover art due to an issue between the designer and original artist. As one who is fascinated by Asian culture in general, I'll admit that I was hoping for a bit of an ethnic, aesthetic spin to Cruentus' music, perhaps in the vein of Singapore's Rudra, but that is not quite what manifests here. Having said that, this is a versatile act which enjoys pushing and pulling the listener through a number of dynamic shifts, sort of a melodic black and death metal hybrid who aren't afraid to snarl their fucking lungs out over cleaner guitar passages.

I admire the band's conviction to not repeat themselves through the various tracks. It's clear they spent a good deal of time writing and practicing for this, rattling riffs off with precision while straddling the death, black and thrash metal genres. The drums are a bit loud in the mix, yet they're constantly rolling out the fills and solid beats to provide an excellent backbone through tracks like "Beneath the Bleeding Moon" or "The Shadows of Darkness". The vocals are largely wrought from the black rasping camp, but they'll also incorporate deep, guttural growls that manage not to distract from the more streamlined, melodic surges of the guitars. I can't say that I actually love the axe-tone here, it feels a bit subdued next to the drums and snarling, but that doesn't necessarily detract from the riffs, which are carefully composed like a bastard stepson of Mayhem and Morbid Angel. Bright, devastating, and dissonant in equal measures, and what's surprising is that you'll even hear a strong undercurrent of good old epic heavy metal in tunes like the closer "Unknown Warrior".

With an underground band, you don't always expect the highest standards of production, and Asantusta Aatma does suffer slightly in this department. It's essentially a demo level recording. I already mentioned the volume of the drums, but the guitars also often vary enough in tone that it feels as if it were mixed down in various modular chunks. The clean guitars flow like rivers of remorse, note-wise, but they feel a bit too stripped down. Some extra effects applied to the tone might have bred better results ("In the Circle of Fear", "Bless Me With Thy Pain"). But these few gripes aside, Cruentus certainly proved they had the competence to go a lot further. The performances are tightly executed, the vocals ghastly and the writing not entirely dependent on any one influence. In short, something bordering on unique might have developed from the project had it endured, and Asantusta Aatma, while not always the most memorable experience, proves yet again that extreme metal can thrive from even the most unexpected corners of the world. If you're interested in such South or Southeastern Asian bands as Impiety, Rudra and Surrender of Divinity, this might not be a hard sell.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Erebus Enthroned - Night's Black Angel (2011)

I'd read quite a few good things about this Australian black metal outfit's debut, and while the style on exhibit here is hardly 'news', I must say that for once, such early praise is far from empty. There's definitely a Norse or Swedish spin to the composition, somewhere between Mayhem and Emperor, delivered through full bodied riffing, dynamic variation and high production standards, comparable to many of the 1st tier genre staples. I would actually draw a parallel to their countrymen Nazxul, only without the symphonic streak coursing through their latest, Iconoclast. Sure, there are a lot of more unique artists in the spectrum with a more memorable admixture of ingredients, but Night's Black Angel is raging and competent enough to win some attention from genre adherents, even though several traits feel standard to the medium (like the vocals).

One of the most noteworthy characteristics of the album is the lack of dependency on sheer blasting material. They can accelerate at will, but instead they incorporate lots of mid-paced, harrowing grooves and spikes of fibrous tremolo picked riffs with tails of bright dissonance. Dense, efficiently thrashing mute-streams that jerk the listener about like a puppet in the grasp of the devil. There are also arching, glorious bridges in the riffs of "Enthroning the Harbinger of Death" "Zealotry in Death" and the title track. Threads of dark, droning ambiance are often used to roll out the black, thriving guitars, but there is one track here ("Temple of Dispersion") which is sheer instrumental ambient horror. Perhaps the best songs are those with the slicing, blustering rhythms like "Nil (Solve non Coagula)" and "Blackwinged", both of which recall the underrated Swedish crew Mörk Gryning in their latter stage of modern propulsion, or several of their peers (Marduk, Dark Funeral, etc.)

There is nothing truly subtle about this debut, by which I mean it's not the sort of record where you'll keep hearing spectral haunts and revelations through repeated listens. They dress to impress immediately. It's quite easily ingested upon the first encounter, and thus it's not incredibly compelling in the long term, despite the high level of precision and competence felt through all the musicians' performances. I will say that their lyrics are fucking ace, though, and certainly they help ramp up what might otherwise be mistaken for a merely average effort. An incredible amount of thought has been placed in each passage, with incendiary incantations to various occult subjects that are threaded through a dreadful, nihilistic discourse that meshes well with the actual composition of the music. Erebus Enthroned could certainly gestate further to write a darker, more memorable onslaught, but I can't deny that Night's Black Angel provides at least a strong foundation from which to launch further atrocities.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]
(a baptism in blood and ash)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Dodsferd - Desecrating the Spirit of Life (2006)

Somewhere out there, under the dark digital eaves of the internet, or obscured deep in the porch-lit groves of the rustic countryside, there seems to exist a brotherhood of diabolic fiends whose sole purpose is to out-maneuver and out-fuzz one another in the medium of black metal music. How cryptic, callous, and disaffected can the genre get? We've got bands, or individuals out there who make records so bleak and plebeian that De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, Under the Sign of the Black Mark and A Blaze in the Northern Sky sound like Quincy Jones productions by comparison! Remarkably, though, this setback does not necessarily equate to any automatic dismissal, because such cold and uncaring aesthetics are often crucial components to the artist's emotional, or lack of emotional, discharge.

Enter Dodsferd, and the debut Desecrating the Spirit of Life, a rigid example of when and how this technique doesn't seem to function as intended. Now, I'm not going to sugarcoat, a lot of this project's material is mediocre at best. As one of the more prolific Hellenic black metal acts in the past decade, you'd expect more of their throughput to stick, but that just isn't the case. But clearly there is a procession of tweaks and progressions through the Dodsferd catalog, but you can consider Desecrating the Spirit of Life the very twisted root of that body of work, lying dried and dying beneath the soil and in desperate need of some sustenance, whether through rainfall or the blood of some unfortunate to happen by. What's really to fuck up here? You've got your corpse painted poster boy kneeling between candles, inverted cross in the background and the expected black/white newsprint aesthetic, married to a grimy and fuzzy guitar tone, suicidal and misanthropic lyrics, and a sinister rasping specter.

In other words, all the ingredients for Darkthrone. The problem is, they are assembled into the most basal and pedestrian compositions you've likely heard, with alternating, empty melodic tremolo blasts and slow and drowsy sequences of chords affixed to dingy programmed beats, never once culling the interest of the listener in 53 fucking minutes! Seriously, just by accident you'd figure that 53 minutes of guitar would produce something memorable, somewhere, but from the baleful, brooding "Kruzifixion of Human Disgust", to the noisy feedback-inflected flurry of "Doomed in Eternal Solitude", to the high paced ennui of "Fuck Humanity and Celebrate the Destruction of the Masses" with its obvious and overdrawn chorus, there is never any sense of real darkness or disturbance within the songwriting. It's basically like a couple guys plugged in instruments, turned on a tape recorder and improvised the emulation of their favorite bands, with zero quality assurance.

Song titles, packaging, subject matter, all seemingly cut and paste from various other sources and gathered under a Norse moniker. Now, I'm not trying to initiate some hate on for Wrath and Dodsferd. I like a few of the later albums. Hell, if the songs here were in the least bit compelling, I could forgive all of the derision and derivation, or any other flaw present here. but Desecrating the Spirit of Life is an effortless shadow dweller of an album, mimicking aesthetics that have come and gone, come again and gone again, like a milk truck parked outside the home of your neighborhood's hottest mom. I remember reading somewhere about how this band was all about shucking trends and conventions. But there's nothing 'anti-trend' about this, it's the very definition of trend, desecrating the spirit of one of the most intriguing genres in the musical spectrum. Perhaps that's the point of the thing, but it doesn't make for engrossing music, and it's the worst of this band's full-length recordings.

Verdict: Fail [4.25/10]

Darkthule - In the Sight of Dawn EP (2006)

If I can admit to some superficiality, Darkthule is a band I always would have liked to see succeed. Just something about their dark, brooding atmospheres, cool cover art and memorable logo that I find so aesthetically pleasing as to silently cross my fingers and hope that each new release would at last deliver the goods. Sadly, this has yet to come to pass, and their demos, splits, and both full-lengths have been at best underwhelming. However, I wouldn't describe any of them as actively bad, a trait that can certainly be said for their 2006 EP In the Sight of Dawn, one of the most truly lazy pieces of crude, effortless black metal you're likely to hear. I doubt much importance was placed upon it by the band, since this is another of those limited edition 7" pieces with but a pair of tracks present; but another shot has been taken in the dark, missing its target by the widest berth of their career.

No, nothing other than a pair of lamentably generic and forgettable tracks beyond the six minute range, with monotonous and repetitive riffs you've heard countless times before, or at least their very damn near likenesses. The vocals feel garbled and petulant, more of a laconic conversational rasp than any passionate pronunciations, and the note streams follow that old Transilvanian Hunger vibe, only without the same hypnotic effect the Norwegians were going for. The drums are immensely tinny, hurried along beneath the dire melodic chord sequences, and not a single compelling guitar riff manifests anywhere. "In the Sight of Dawn..." is marginally less irritating than "The Greatness of Gods", if only because it has a slower tempo mixed into its incendiary, numbing blast work. The production of the EP is inferior even to the previous Revolution of Souls, which was honestly a pair of half-decent tracks. Perhaps the most raw and unassuming recording since the band's demos.

It's a pity, because I really want to like this stuff. The cover is once again appealing, and I like the ideal of these duo-tone, rustic images out of folklore and history. A sole wanderer gazing upon some natural edifice, some bubbling brook, waterfall, or wild beast. The isolated aesthetic may in fact be captured through the distant tone of the music here, but that doesn't make it any more interesting due to its strictly uninspiring level of composition. I'd be surprised if Darkthule couldn't knock out dozens of such tracks in a week, because there is just nothing to this droning waste of dead-horse beating. Surely they are capable of so much more, but will we ever get to hear it?

Verdict: Fail [4.75/10]

Deadly Carnage - Sentiero II: Ceneri (2011)

Italians Deadly Carnage have conceived a quandary for their sophomore Sentiero II: Ceneri, an album which strafes the margins between heavily structured, bombastic and melodic black metal and threads of a more graceful, atmospheric nature that reek of a Gothic doom spectrum. At times, the material seemed somewhat confused in its intent, but that's not to say that they lack some compositional ability, and the way they pursue such warlike, percussive rhythms is not something you often experience among the methodic, straight blasting practitioners who represent the lion's share of the medium. I will go on a limb and say that the album reminded me of Portugal's Moonspell: not the Gothic, friendlier mainstream Moonspell of the mid to late 90s, but the more crushing black roots from which they emerged (and have since returned).

This is primarily in the sense of melody they weave through the rather churning, grandiose fare like "Guilt of Discipline" or "Epitaph Part I", and also in the overbearing volume of the vocals, which are enormous and bloody, Marcello giving you the full breadth and agony of his throat. Another, more obvious parallel can be drawn to Bathory's Blood Fire Death. The Italians like to utilize a lot of crashing, enormous, dipping rhythms that jerk the listener in and out of an almost Viking swagger of belligerence (also heavily present in the opener, "Guilt of Discipline"). Shifting and intricate walls of streaming tremolo guitars and intense double bass ability help to escalate these influences into a more precise, modern context. But then, there is the atmospheric and 'epic' side of this effort, like the 9 minute "Parallels" which feels like Falkenbach, Bathory and Dornenreich in a bloodied sea battle, with brief spurts of calm and deviation. Or the closer, "Ceneri", which is a tranquil and eloquent, 9+ minute piece with clean vocals.

Despite the obvious arsenal at their disposal, though, I did not find the majority of the music here to stick on me. Deadly Carnage could never be accused of lacking variation, evocative lyrical imagery or musical proficiency, because Sentiero II: Ceneri exhibits all of these elements in spades. For some reason, though, the content rolls off me like a wave breaking and ending its journey from the deeper sea. The various acoustic and distorted guitars, tempo shifts and vocals are all well integrated, and feel like they're telling a clear story, but they don't really add up to something I want to revisit. I also found the cover image, band name and lyrical ingredient to contrast a bit widely. There is passion and pain here, a stirring of emotions, but 'deadly carnage' seems about as fit as 'rotting christ' to that Greek band's later works. But this is a minor gripe for an album upon which the drummer plays a solo with his hands ("Ceneri"). Ultimately, I might laud the Italians for their stylistic hybrid, and their unique, strangely uplifting prose, but I didn't come out of the album heavily impressed by the actual songs.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (touch the ground, it's wet)

An Autumn for Crippled Children - Everything (2011)

Last year's Lost was an intriguing if ultimately vapid debut album from another band exploring the arcs of atmospheric and post-rock flavor within the medium of depressive black metal. I was quite smitten with a number of the tracks, and the band's razor kissing, blissful sense for textured melody, but the album was about half attention worthy and half attention deficit. These Dutchmen fall under a similar curtain of emotional contrast to the Swedish groups Svarti Loghin and Lifelover, or perhaps the overrated French Alcest, but not so much that they could be confused for such peers. Everything, the band's sophomore, follows a different cover aesthetic than its predecessor, promising a whited out sky against which the wings of birds and the eaves of skeletal trees strain, much like the band on its course towards defining misery and light.

This time, the band have asserted a slightly more progressive approach to their writing which is far better at rounding out the various 4-5 minute track lengths. The clean, desolate guitar tones that teeter upon the precipice of warmth return, with the same curving and lovely bass lines, but the melodic insinuations feel superior from the start, and continue to excel throughout the 44 minutes of the experience. "Forever Never Falls" transforms from an airy, elegant substance to a rush of fuzzed, painful black rasping and streamed chords, and then to a proggy streak of synthesizers that erupt into another emotional, wrist cutting climax. It's not one of the best here, but it sets up a framework into which the trio thrives. "Formlessness" possesses a resonant elegance with its bridge melody; "Absence of Contrast" a delicious breakdown with bass and piano; and "Her Dress as a Poem, Her Death as the Night" an amazing sheen of melody below with a turbulent percussion ruptures the listener's sanctity.

It's quite amusing, bewitching and disturbing in equal measures, and unlike Lost, I never felt that the album quite fell off its wheels. That's not to say that there are not a few flaws holding it back from the forerunners of its niche. The vocals, in particular, while appreciably torturous, tend to drone along without much memorable structure, even if not for excess periods of time. The more spacious, droning passages are oft imbued with instant hipster freakouts that are more jarring than interesting, and I was drawn to ill memories of bands like Litury or Krallice (well below these Dutchmen in terms of quality). On the whole, though, I rather enjoyed this trip, for its fusion of unnerving dissonance and glistening, open-vein beauty. Perhaps it's not a massive stride forward in depth or value from their debut, but it's more consistently haunting.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Nocturnal Fear - Excessive Cruelty (2011)

Poseurs and come-latelies always seem to be fawn over the latest Bay Area doppelgangers who shit themselves down the thrash pipe, but in truth there are a number of bands who have been absorbed in the retro-death/thrash or black/thrash movement for a decade or more, receiving little to no fanfare despite their chronological edge to the spurting cysts of younglings to take on the genre. Michigan's Nocturnal Fear is one such 21st centurion, predating the 'cool' kids by several years, with a punishing array of brutal thrash and death influences not the least of which include Destruction, Kreator, Sodom, and other German heavy weights, with a fare share of Slayer's methodical, intricate evil.

Clinical and angered riffing erupts without warning, and you can immediately discern the dichotomy between these bastards and their trendy teenage competition. Clearly there has been effort cast into the fiery molds of "Absolution Annihilation", "Murder for Hire" or "Excessive Cruelty" itself. I never got the impression that Nocturnal Fear were just re-arranging the riffs they heard on Bonded by Blood or Pleasure to Kill, but actually trying to forge destruction at a higher level of artistry, even if they're not entirely absolved of derivation. These are warlike and incessant compositions, never relenting unless they have a damned opportunity to shuffle in a bit of ominous atmosphere, like the tolling out of the bells deep in "Frozen Stone", or the winding and tearing lead nestled into "Rolling Thunder". The vocals remind me quite a lot of Toxiene from Witchery, at least on the Swedish band's first two, great records, only 'Devastator' is more pronounced and bloodied in the nose of the mix.

Now, I'm not going to claim that Nocturnal Fear are the next big thing, or that they've deigned to set foot outside the box, but Excessive Cruelty feels like an honest stab at bringing the genre back where it belongs, to the tense riffing at its core. We're not dealing with writing on the level of the band's distinct, 80s influences, but an admirable enough, repeated beating to the face. I could compare them to Ohio's Soulless, since the two bands share the same focus for meaty riffing structures, but these guys are obviously a lot more adapted to the battleground theme. Of the several albums I've heard (this being the 5th), I found this to be the most appealing. The mix is clear and muscled without excess polish, the musicians determined and competent. This is an album that will bruise you, perhaps break a few minor bones, even if it isn't likely to resonate for more permanent damage.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Morbus Chron - Sleepers in the Rift (2011)

From the spiraling chaos of its beautiful cover art, to the bare bones and carnal quality of its production, Sleepers in the Rift is one ace goddamn death metal album. The Swedes are admittedly quite retro in their take on the genre, and so one immediately would draw the conclusion that they're yet another in the tireless charade of bands emulating Entombed, Dismember, Carnage, Grotesque, Grave, and their ilk, but they're also one of the few projects I've heard lately that truly overcome the tired stereotypes to produce something effectively grimy and entertaining. Think of them more along the lines of Bastard Priest, Tribulation or Repugnant in their attempt to strip the sound down and slather it in raw, nearly crust-worthy admonition that the niche is dead in its tracks.

For one thing, Sleepers in the Rift is brilliantly paced. There's enough core variation in the riff writing that you never feel inundated with the same thing twice, and the band is not afraid to expand upon the envelope of early 90s Euro death by means of some clinical thrashing or face rocking, morbid doom rhythms. Each of the songs here actually SOUNDS like its title, a fact I find fascinating. "Hymns to a Stiff" is a swaying, swerving tribute to a corpse, forged in loose architecture and appreciable dissonance. One can just feel the mortician's excitement as he or she probes and prods the recently deceased. The doomed, funereal pageantry inherent in a tune called "Lidless Coffin". The spacious, volatile contrivance of of a "Deformation of the Dark Matter", twisted guitar sequences crashing into a spectral void like streams of incoherent and congealed nightmare-stuff, the sustenance of Elder Gods. Or the sheer face rocking of "Ways of Torture", the most old school d-beat inflected trip on the entire album.

All components fuse together in an unholy merger of peak Autopsy (first two albums) and the Swedish pioneers of the late 80s through about 1992. The vocals are abrasive and agonizing, with a good deal of resonant character, almost a midway point between Chuck Schuldiner and L-G Petrov. The drums are organic, constantly crashing and driving the meaty but deliberately under polished guitar tone. The bass is not exactly a high point, granted, but when tracks like the raging "Dead Body Pile Necrophile" or grooving "Red Hook Horror" begin their passage to your cortex, you will quickly lose concern as the album's maw of terror sends you stomach-ward into its abyssal, digestive juices.

What's more, the rather lowborn, silly yet honest lyrical style serves as a strangely functional contrast to the cosmic, extradimensional eye candy and brow raising band name. And both tracks from last year's Creepy Creeping Creeps EP are included, so there's no longer a necessity for tracking that down. Sleepers in the Rift is simply marvelous, retro without ripping from its influences too directly; fresh and ferocious in its pursuit of strong riffing and gelid, mind warping atmospheres. It's 1990 all over again, and one of the more compelling takes on the popular Swedish death niche since Repugnant's Epitome of Darkness, or The Horror by Tribulation a few years ago.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (crepuscular charm)

Burial Hordes - War, Revenge and Total Annihilation (2006)

One of the more wretched and vile Greek black metal entities, the Burial Hordes were unearthed in the early 21st century to wreak havoc through a number of scathing demos that culled influence from the very roots of the black metal genre. Both first and second wave sounds are heard in their punishing meat sculptures, from Bathory and Celtic Frost to Mayhem, and at least here on their debut, they have this nasty take no prisoners mentality involving an incendiary and writhing addiction to blasted speed that they wisely alternate with breakdowns into moody, dissonant nightmares or surges of mid-paced, spine rocking chords that summon up memories of Hellhammer and Darkthrone.

War, Revenge and Total Annihilation is all too apt a title for their full-length debut, for while it might not be the most unique or enduring slab of black aggression on the block, it is without any doubt destructive. Ominous, dark tolling heralds the churning mass of "Bestial Bloodwar" which is just so caustic and loud that it peels any layers remaining, epidermal innocence from the skin of the listener. "Aeons of Hell" baits the audience with further lightning fervor before lurching into a twist of colon crushing chords. The architecture of hostile, minor melodies that introduce "Cosmic Genocide" drip like nihilistic vampire fangs over its bruising black acceleration, and "The Rapture of Hatred" builds itself brick by brick like a tower of blood-mortared stones. Of course, if you seek simply to have your face ripped off by songs that make Marduk and Mayhem sound like elevator muzak, then Burial Hordes also provides you with fare like "Unholy, Ultra-Violent Domination" and "Army of Heretics" which will reduce you to nuclear ash.

Filthy, indomitable, and borne of pure punishing abyss-winds, this is a debut destined to appeal to those that seek out black metal for no other reason than skull fractures and slipped vertebrae. In this way, they remind me of the more extreme Northern storms like 1349, but with a mildly less surgical and technical approach to the riff writing. The mix of the guitars is both rich and textured, even if the riffs themselves do not exactly stand outside of the hellish sum of the band's parts. Burial Hordes represent savage efficiency and truth to despotic ideals more so than any sense for subtlety or complexity, and as such, there is an undeterred authenticity to their sound, which trumps several of their Greek peers (Naer Mataron, etc) in pure hostility. Several of the members here have played in numerous other scene bands (Mortuus Caelum, Enshadowed, and Dead Congregation to name a few), and the experience shows.

That said, War, Revenge and Total Annihilation is not the most memorable concussion in its field. Decidedly less retro than its successor (Devotion to Unholy Creed), it's merely a competent and crashing execution of the form, with decent lyrics. Difficult to pick out or recall even a single guitar line from the entire album, but unquestionably unbridled in its fury.

Verdict: Win [7/10]
(embraced by the absolute)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Bannerwar - Centuries of Heathen Might (2006)

The shift from their memorable, crueler looking logo (To Honour Fatherland) to a mere stock font might have signified some sort of musical evolution in Greeks Bannerwar, but I'm sad to report that neither this new 'look' or the newly written material does anything to heavily further the band's position among a wealth of similar, stalking wolves in the immeasurable woodlands of European black metal. There are a few vicious, appreciable pieces here which are well enough written to enforce the band's trademark competence and execution, but despite its excellent title, Centuries of Heathen Might once again fails to truly distinguish itself beyond that expansive field of peers, even if it proves their most consistent effort to date.

The writing here is perhaps the most aggressive of their career, dropping the incessant melodic fabric of their debut To Honour Fatherland for a more ripping and straightforward sound in the vein of Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse. This is inherent in the band's faster fare like "Pagan Bane", "Warspirit" and "Symbols of Solar Might", which make firm use of various ingredients like timid keyboards, howling wolves and airy vocal reverb to manifest a belligerent grandeur. But there is another side to the band here reminiscent of Bathory's epic/Viking works like Twilight of the Gods, Hammerheart, and so forth, and that culminates in the clean guitar passages like the intro to "White Mountains" or the opening of "The Return of the Twelve Gods", or the deep and accented spoken vocals that are cast into the glorious gloom on several occasions here.

Still, when it comes to the actual riffing, there's naught but the typical driving chords and tremolo picking that had already been beaten to death. I mean, for the love of Odin or Zeus whatever deity these pagan/nationalistic bands pray to, could they not look into their own pasts and determine what precisely it was that spurned their love for metal? Fucking guitar riffs. That is the answer. That's why we all crawled out of our basements and dungeons to explore this genre, whether it was with Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Burzum or Enslaved. Like so many other haunts teeming in the underground, Bannerwar simply does not deliver on this aspect. They have technique. They explore tempos. They dial down and up the distortion where necessary. They are not shy on atmosphere. But they just cannot glue a sequence of notes to the listener's memory, and this continuously condemns them to the middle of the pack.

That aside, Centuries of Heathen Might is not really a 'weak' album, merely a solid experience for those seeking out the familiar eaves of the medium. The songs never extend too far beyond their welcome, even those that pass the 7 minute mark, and the lyrics continue to venerate the sacrifices and mysticism of their (now-pagan) forefathers, and the later corrupted symbol of the sunwheel. I certainly enjoyed this album a fraction more than the debut, if only because there is a more predatory strength to the proceedings here than that album's overly mechanical drums and over-saturated melodic sensibility. The cover of Graveland's "Ancient Blood" (off Creed of Iron) is a nice tribute, but tinnier sounding enough that it feels somewhat misplaced among the new originals.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (his chariot rides the winds)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Abyssgale - The Coming Plague EP (2006)

It's unfortunate that its members have not done more with the band, because Abyssgale has something somewhat unique to offer on the Greek landscape, a dense and fevered hybrid of textured Swedish style black metal (Watain comes to mind) and a few furious d-beat aesthetics. For an independent release, The Coming Plague sounds like the precursor to a promising stint: it's fusion stemming from a pair of popular sounds, with pretty high production values compared to the band's peers. I won't say that there's a lot of replay value, and the riffs do occasionally come off stagnant and familiar, with vicious vocals that are all too standard for the genre. But as a first offering, it at least curries some favorable potential. The question is, with the involvement of various personnel in Dodsferd, Nadiwrath and other underground sects, will anything more even come of this?

All four of the tracks on the EP hover around the 4 and a half minute mark, with opener "Signs of Decay" probably the strongest. Tight drumming and barreling, thick riffs alternate between muscled faster sequences and even a slower, bouncing breakdown redolent of modern Slayer. They build simple but effective enough riffs and stick to them, and sadly there are few if any surprises manifest in their depths, but the solid mix of the material marginally compensates. The next track, "Process into the Abyss" brings in the d-beat, rocking element, but it accelerates into some standard black blasting with forceful, dissonant melodies spat over the framework. The other tunes, "Infected Winds of Creation" and "Enthroning the Disease" have more atmospheric breakdowns, which offer some shelter from the pretty bland war-blast patterns that lead into them, but again, none of the riffs are quite infectious enough to endure in the listener's ear.

Ultimately, The Coming Plague is more a curiosity of style than substance, but the roots are firm enough that better riffing could conjure remarkable results. If you've heard drummer Maelstrom in another of his bands, the Dosdferd side project Nadiwrath, then you'll hear a few of the subtle punk and d-beat influences taken to bear further fruit. In fact, Nihilistic Stench is quite a better album than what pans out on this 18 minute excursion into violence, but with further development along the songwriting axis, Abyssgale might have had some legs to stand upon. A great band name, effectively grim cover art, and an approach not common among the Greeks, but with six years now passed on no further releases, the future of this project is anyone's guess.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Friday, August 26, 2011

Arkona - Слово (2011)

With the enormously bold and expensive-sounding 2009 album Goi, Rode, Goi!, Moscow's Arkona established themselves as one of the forerunners in symphonic extremity, combining classical, folk, and black metal influences into a sound that we hadn't quite heard before. Sure, we'd had orchestras in metal music aplenty, but not with the traditional Russian folk instrumentation and melodic inclinations, or Masha's incredibly distinct vocal presence. If that album had one flaw, it was that it set the bar so high that there was very little chance that Arkona could themselves top it. As a result, Слово (Slovo), their 6th full-length, does not feel so much a step forwards as sideways, but there is still a tremendous amount of appeal here for those who have enjoyed the multiple layers of their songwriting.

Слово seems slightly less 'intense' on the whole, but there are still a number of flighty, storming melodic black metal passages throughout that derail any plausible notion that the band are slowing down or milking their success into a more accessible, mainstream commodity. Tracks like " Больно Мне (It's painful for me)" and "Аркаим (Arkaim)" continue to surge along with polished black precision, while they also implement some punchier, thrashing punishment into the rhythmic subtext of "Никогда (Never)" that functions impressively alongside the sailing, potent cleaner vocals that this singer specializes in. Admittedly, there are a few pompous and mug swilling, LCD folk metal tracks like "Леший (Leshiy)" which did little for me, but when the band abandons the metal almost entirely for the pagan anthems "Заклятие (Incantation)" or "Во Моём Садочке... (In My Garden)", they transform into the Russian equivalent of the excellent Swedish Garmarna: all thudding percussion, beautiful vocal passages and glimmering, intense strings.

They've even coughed up another of their vocal-based pieces in "Там за Туманами (Behind the Mist)" which could easily earn them a widespread appeal well outside the genre, if Masha should choose to once again careen about a few local woodland glades or fields for some viral video. But for myself, the true centerpiece of the album is the title track, a gorgeous folk metal aspiration with lots of flutes, thundering percussion and glorious escalation. The vocals are incredibly well arranged throughout all of Слово, and the services of the Choir of Moscow State Conservatory and Chamber Orchestra of Kazan State Conservatory N.G. Zhiganova have been retained for much of the playtime, giving the album a rich, robust depth that obviously required a great deal of effort to complete. It also never hurts that Russian is, like, the most seductive language ever.

There are those that will immediately shun Arkona for the high standards here, no expense spared, as if they were primed for radio/pop exposure, but when managing such a large array of vocal styles and instruments, there's little choice but over the top. The individual elements of their sound are not highly complex, but when brought together it's nonetheless impressive. The band maintains its close ties to Russian folklore and history, so long time adherents to their sound should be content. There are probably about 10 minutes I would have clipped from this hour length experience, and it's not quite so mighty as its predecessor, but Слово is not short on the thrills and creativity that defined their back catalog, and once again Arkona prove they have the pride and guts to trample all over the field of fashionable female fronted fairy-tattoo drivel espoused by international 'sensations' like Nightwish or Epica.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Athos - The Awakening of Athos EP (2005)

The Awakening of Athos is a Greek rarity which was released in two separate incarnations: first as an EP in 2005 with six tracks, and later a full-length in 2007 with two additional tracks that the band had already recorded for a previous demo ("Nykta") and video ("The 300 Spartans"). For the sake of completion, I'm covering the whole shebang here, though I've placed it under the EP's header. Athos are another of those anomalous, one man projects without many ambitions to break the mold of the black metal genre, but the chops and competence to at least 'get it right', assuming its audience is not one to mind the lesser production standards.

Buzzing, tremolo picked patterns cast over a matrix of machine-like, emotionless blasting is the modus operandi here, with a vulture-like rasp breathing lyrics of Hellenic pride and spite for the Christian invaders who stomped out the pagan faiths of Europe in their incessant assimilation. For most of the metallic tracks, at least, Athos seems to move at a single pace of bleeding speed, and so "The Awakening of Athos", "A Tale of Christian Love", "Kerveros (Guardian of Hades)" and "In a Temple's Ruins" do develop into a numbing monotony, though several of these have cleaner breakdown passages which I assume are meant to curb the listener's tedium. I actually enjoyed the dark ambient intro "The Last Christian Ritual on Mount Athos" and the full-length album additions more than the original EP content.

"The 300 Spartans" is appreciably grimy and I enjoy the cheesy, epic bridge, and "Nykta" is unique in that it uses this basic programmed drum beat as if from some old keyboard, glazed in Cure-like Gothic keys and clean guitars with a snaking, distorted line that pairs itself with the grisly vocals. The latter is almost like a Gothic-pop-black hybrid, and while it's not likely to sate the fans of the bloodcurdling norm for this genre, it at least provides something fascinating beyond the confines of the expected. As a whole, The Awakening of Athos does not bring much novelty to the table, but its razor kissing melodies and tinny mix should might very well appeal to fans of albums like Ulver's Nattens Madrigal, though the Greek is nowhere near as noisy, understated or evocative.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (as the Aeolian winds proclaim)

Legion of Doom - God is Dead (2005)

Perhaps the most melodic and atmospheric of Legion of Doom's works, God is Dead expands upon the average but appreciable legacy of the prior albums with a better sense for variation and narrative embellishments. That's not to say that I necessarily like it more than Kingdom of Endless Darkness or For Those of the Blood, and in fact I feel it has less of an ultimate impact. But it's clearly a positive that the band would mildly reinvent themselves for such a release rather than persist as a 90s Scandinavian sound-alike. The classic artwork and Nietzschean overtones of the title seem like a swerve away from the mythological and fantastic Greek elements the band were lyrically incorporating, but this is not actually the case: God is Dead is just as concerned with the divine, occult and ritualistic as its precursors.

The Legion of Doom truly paces itself with this album, giving the majority of the tracks room to breathe. "Necromantion" is almost Cradle of Filth-like, with a ton of Gothic based keys, a cutesy rasp and deeper, conversational narrative being applied to the thrusts of moderate speed. "Bridge of Lunar Tears" returns to a raunchier, desperate melodic strain of writing with thick streams of melancholia in the notation; while "Lasselanta" hones further in on the guitars, for some memorable, mid-paced melodies that accelerate much like a lot of the Swedish 90s melodic death metal (At the Gates, Dissection, old In Flames or Dark Tranquillity). Ditto for "Sacrifice and War" and "Ancient Wisdom Within", the latter my favorite single track on the album. There are also a couple of pompous, ambient/organ pieces like "Message from the Gods" and "Illusions" that are very well managed, although they don't necessarily do wonders for the overall structure of the album.

God is Dead does feel a decade too late. Had this album dropped in 1995, it would have likely become a veritable cult favorite. The sound, the riffing, all seem highly redolent of black and melodic black/death releases of that period, and it carries a clear current of accessibility when compared to either of the previous records. Then again, they DID release two decent efforts during that period, and received little fanfare, as those fascinated by the emergent Hellenic scene were likely more interested in the unique sounds of Rotting Christ, Necromantia, etc. I will admit that the album plays it rather safe, and there's not a song among these which I'd rank alongside past pieces like "ARSIS...God of Brutal War", "The Black Queen", "For Those of the Blood" in terms of total quality. The cleaner production and generally slower tempos here are not unwelcome or unpleasant, but it doesn't scream cult classic either. One of those albums I could listen to and nod along with, then subsequently forget that I ever had experienced.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]
(I ignore them from my throne)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Macabre Omen - The Ancient Returns (2005)

One might assume that Macabre Omen is the least productive black metal project in all the Greek scene, but I'd like to think that its progenitors are simply those who like to choose their battles with great care, and this partially explains the consistent quality of their sole full length in 17 years: The Ancient Returns. The band started out with a pair of demos in the mid-90s, and then went on to participate on a fair number of split recordings with artists from other countries, but this is the one official long form recording the band have yet produced, and even then it's but 5 tracks and 38 minutes of content. Fortunate, then, that the writing is this good, because The Ancient Returns shines like a grim, glimmering crown among the viscera of so many underwhelming Hellenic acts of the 21st century.

Don't be fooled by Macabre Omen's scarce throughput, because the constituents here have a great deal of experience in other bands, a number of them big figures on the Italian scene. Claudio Alcara has played with Frostmoon Eclipse and Handful of Hate, while drummer Gionata Potenti has stamped his beats on albums by dozens of bands (Glorior Belli, Kult, 11 as In Adversaries, Ad Hominem, Hiems and Melencolia Estatica are a mere handful). The Greek member, Alexandros, who performs guitars, bass and vocals, has also played in The One, Australian supergroup Razor of Occam and the UK's black/death/thrashers Scythian. So it stands to reason that there is an enormous amount of talent involved on this recording, and that they enforce that with strong atmospheres and memorable compositions is but an extra smattering of blood on their blades. As the barbaric, manly figure shadowing the band's logo on the cover might imply, they manifest a certain level of epic 'barbarity' in their material, almost as if Nocternity and Immortal had birthed a Hyborian warchild.

The album is enormously well-paced, the band wisely choosing to eschew the standard blasting monotony for passages of spacious, open grandeur, like standing in some mass field of the dead, the ring of their clashing steel long having faded into the cries of blackbirds. "In Memory..." is pretty much all crisp melodies flown over the fallen standards of war, with a curious mix of deep, somnolent background narration and tortured rasping redolent of Burzum or Nocternity. The music itself creates an almost Manowar feeling integrated with slower-paced Immortal or even a touch of Rotting Christ's driving, melodic glamor. Another creeper is the 12 minute finale "Hellas - Ode A/Ode B", with incessant, brazen guitars over solid beats that intensity into molten double bass sequences. Macabre Omen can also blast away relentlessly when desired, as evidenced in "A Call from Gods to God" or "The Perfect Sound of North vs. South", but they never choose to forsake the variation that lies at the heart of a good song.

Speaking of good songs, "An Ode to Rhode" is perhaps my favorite here, with lovely acoustic guitars that morph into surges of majestic force, then back again, while the riffing landscape continues to deliver one memorial, memorable guitar line after the next. The lyrics are rather sparse on the album, and certainly such compositions could have benefited from more meat for the mind, but their simplicity is a stunning trait in its own right, and the massive, airy pain felt in Alexandros' tone does somewhat compensate. Production-wise, The Ancient Returns is both broad and searing, not polished off enough to turn away the rawheads, but also clean enough in its delivery that some obvious effort was placed in maintain the material's resonance. The drums offer an appreciable charging undertow, the bass ever present and distinguished, and the axes felling neck and limb, blade and shield as they pitch through spikes of tremolo bliss and rushes of chord-initiated atmosphere.

There are few flaws at all here, but if one could be noted, it's just that Macabre Omen never quite carves out a category of their to explore. All of the strengths in their writing fall under a mightier precedent, so I could never rate this at quite the level of its influences formative works of wonder. But in an era where many of the fresh Greek faces were simply mirroring their clear Scandinavian forebears, The Ancient Returns still brings a lot to the table, if only because of its seamless execution and brooding immersion. A tribute to the fallen warriors of many Hellenic confrontations that feels authentic and easy to take seriously. A damn good effort that falls only marginally short of greatness. How about another, gentlemen?

Verdict: Win [8/10] (no future, just a sound)

Order of the Ebon Hand - XV: The Devil (2005)

While their 1997 debut The Mystic Path to the Netherworld was about as mediocre as European black metal albums could get in that decade of expansion and exploration, subsequently dashing all my geek-driven fantasies of Magic the Gathering derived extremity, I'll have to admit that the Order of the Ebon Hand spent the next eight years honing in their chops. XV: The Devil is everything that album wished it might have been, and then some. In fact, this is an admittedly tremendous effort all around, precisely balancing both the tenets of wrath and variation into smoldering and thoughtful visions of sadism and fell majesty. It trumps the debut in every conceivable category, from the strong production values to the thrilling, ecstatic mirth of the consistent songwriting.

The album hits like a brick-truck of blasphemy, through the sheer walls of driving chords being wrought above Lethe's thundering beats. "For Marchiosas" and "To Alloces" might not be the riffiest black metal tracks you've heard, but the patterns evoked are potent and immersive, and the symphonic elements that hover at the edge of the mix are well integrated into the storming metallic force, building tremendous levels of adrenaline excitement. The leads are moody and eloquent, the vocals ripe with hostility (if tonally cliche to a number of Swedish and Norse acts), and the band is quite competent in breaking velocity for some slower fare that is just as dynamic. "Gateway to Silence" bridges from a creepy, haunted ambiance into double bass driven chaos; "Eibon" plods along with a firm punctuality, female vocals drifting as a psychotic background narrative; while "Spellbound" phases between cleaner guitars to swells of violence.

Hell, the finale, "(You Are) The Gleaming King" is perhaps the most epic on the album, with an abundance of swaggering melodies. Not a track goes by throughout that doesn't have at least something memorable to offer, even if the band don't win points for innovation or originality. XV: The Devil is merely a well written exercise in blackened ballast, with a rich and full bodied mix that brings it in line with some of the larger named symphonic black metal groups like Dimmu Borgir, Emperor and so forth. Surprisingly, the style itself is not a major deviation from their ill-fated debut, they just pull it all together into something enduring. Even the lyrics have come along, chocked with evocative imagery and a stimulating meter, while engaging the fantastical concepts the band's very name evokes (though they're sadly not dealing with the card game).

Order of the Ebon Hand is hardly an A-lister for the style, and unlikely to ever attain such a status, but there is no doubting the massive strides they've made here. If you're a fan of well plotted, harrowing versatility in the vein of the Norwegian acts I mentioned above, or perhaps the Australians Nazxul (specifically their sophomore Iconoclast), then this is worth tracking down.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (grant me the will of the arrogant)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Enormicon - Storm of Swords (2011)

It's hard not to see the words 'Storm of Swords' and not think upon the George R.R. Martin novel from A Song of Fire and Ice, so of course I thought the Texan band Enormicon's debut might revolve around the subject. Turns out not to be the case, but they do in fact seem to use mythic and historical concepts in the lyrics, not unlike the bands they bear much in common with. I was pretty heavily reminded of listening to Mastodon, at least in the level of variation they write with, but you'll hear all sorts of sludge, grunge and stoner influences here being shuffled into a manic, hardcore foundation with multiple, angst-ridden vocals. However, while the band feels as if their material might be prone to jamming in the live setting, the contents of this album are quite solidly structured.

Thick, flowing bass lines, chords and mutes are used to anchor the omnipresent grooves of "Slaghammer", slowly building towards climax, almost as if The Sword had written the Alice in Chains sophomore Dirt. Here you get the first taste of Clayton 'The Abomination' Davis' cutting, clear vocals, which are redolent to some of the higher pitched Clutch lines. The next few tunes are a bit heavier on the guitars, but they also introduce small flights of dissonant atmosphere, even a bass interlude in "Pray for Death". "Brotherhood of the Plague" is perhaps the strongest here, for the way the organic, earthen distortion crunches up against the vocal pattern, and a spacious bridge passage with hints at hypnotic psychedelia. Another subtle influence I'm hearing would be Voivod, at last in the mechanical manufacture of the chord patterns and the strong substrate of bass in tracks like the closer "Fury". But the lyrics and themes are wildly different.

I'll give Enormicon this: they manage to stand out as an amusing hybrid of their influences, and with some polish and stronger riff writing, they could have something going for themselves. I actually do like the vocals, I only wish they were configured into more memorable patterns. The constant pump and grooves creates a constant, steady weight and velocity, and I like that the band are prone to experimentation rather than droning ever on in the same stagnant patterns. The trio plays well together, and the mix is rather honest and under-produced to give a more rehearsal room feeling to the proceedings. I like their eye for art, and their ears for attempting something slightly outside the envelope of safety, but this particular 32 minute set of songs just didn't last for me in the end. If you're of the sort that enjoys a fusion of stoner and grunge aesthetics with post-hardcore pacing and occasional fits of gut-churning intensity, give it a spin.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Atra - Up-Turning the Curse EP (2011)

It might just be something in the air Down Under. Perhaps Atra has been bitten by the same insect that catalyzed the highly prolific discographies of other Australian necromancers Drowning the Light or Striborg. Either way, in just two years, Blackheart has released two full-lengths, a handful of demos, and now another EP which follows in the same distant, desolate footsteps of its elders. I'm not complaining, mind you, as I've enjoyed both of his albums (Death Coven in particular), but there's always the possibility that excess productivity can lead to redundancy, or worse, a quick burnout. At any rate, I'm thankful that hasn't happened yet, because Up-Turning the Curse conjures up the same overwhelming sense of oppression and callous atmospherics as its predecessors.

This Australian isn't so much about complexity as he is about straight, grim black metal riffing that is slathered in such resonant, decrepit vocals and airy, lurching production that hearkens back to the Norse masters Darkthrone in their early spin towards the genre (Ablaze in the Northern Sky and Under a Funeral Moon more than Transilvanian Hunger). The riffs are admittedly simple and derivative for the genre, but Blackheart's carnal, abusive rasp and the blood sucking enthusiasm he has for this style truly make the difference. "Wander the Absence" has thick layers of fuzzed out power laden in evil, winding melodies that evoke the cryptic doom of enclosed caverns and sepulchers. "Up-Turning the Curse" transforms from freakish, swelling ambiance that would have been right at home in some tense, cult horror scene, into a rifling, overwhelming surge of howled vocals, while the organs/keys continue to ring aloft.

In fact, the ambiance seems to be well integrated in general. The EP is book-ended by a suitable pair of nightmare scenarios ("Invocation of the Departed", "Possession") while a number of the songs encrypt more atmospheric resonance than anything off the sophomore In Reverence of Decay. My choice pick of this litter would be "Graveless Apparitions", a crushing burden of noisy, full-bodied dissonant guitars that rise to the level of the guy's prevalent, torn throat. It's pretty cool in general, and while it might not rise to the level of Death Coven's beautiful, wintry current, it's functionally suicidal and hope-consuming. Recommended if you don't mind a mildly noisier interface with the necrosis inherent to the medium.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Naer Mataron - Discipline Manifesto (2005)

So I'd been waiting three albums already for Naer Mataron, a band who cultivate some measure of respect in the Euro underground, to knock me on my sorry ass. Up from the Ashes was a solid start, but both of its successors offered little more than the tedious and frankly commonplace Norse-style scathing rhythms that have already been foisted to death upon the medium's legions of admirers. Not that the style is necessarily unwelcome, but bands in this niche really need to bring the strong riffing and distinctive level of composition at least to the level of their forebears, and it hadn't seemed that the Greeks were up to the task. With Discipline Manifesto, the underwhelming streak continues, but not without pounding a nails into the listener's wrists.

This is probably the most forceful and potent of the band's albums, if not a far cry beyond River at Dash Scalding or Skotos Aenaon in overall style. The blasting, predictable tremolo picking and hoarser than usual black rasping all return for another round, but I feel that the band paces the material better, especially in longer tracks like "Extreme Unction", with the Immortal-like riffing flow at its climax; or "Last Man Against Time", which has a lot of resonance through the buzzing layers of the guitar and cruel streams of dissonance. Another standout: "Blast Furnace", in which the swerving bridge bass meshes quite well with the churning melodic apex of its bridge. In general, the songwriting is stronger and mildly more varied than River at Dash Scalding, and sparse elements like cleaner vocals ("Land of Dreams") make it a fairy rounded experience.

Unfortunately, while functional for the form, there are still many moments of tedious blasting and riffs that entirely fail to stick, and so it's not about to raise Naer Mataron from the mire of samey sounding bands the world-wide. If you seek the sincere, slicing aggression of your Norse and Swedish backlogs (Marduk, Immortal, Satyricon, Burzum, Emperor), with no other deviation or distinction, then Discipline Manifesto is admittedly nothing to scoff at. But I always have this wrenching feeling in my gut that these Hellenic veterans have a lot more in them than what we're getting on the actual albums. A bit more focus on the craft of the riffing, a few more exciting transitions and tempos being explored, and these guys could easily break my neck and elevate themselves upon the world stage of sadism. Discipline Manifesto gets the job done, but with absolutely no room to spare.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thou Art Lord - Orgia Daemonicum (2005)

Orgia Daemonicum is a somewhat different beast than the previous Thou Art Lord albums, in not necessarily for a change in genre, then for the slightly more organic production aesthetics. They use this punchy, springy guitar tone here that gives the album more of a black/thrash aesthetic than the more blustering, symphonic theatrics of Eosforos or Apollyon. Strangely enough, this is also the album that reminds me of Sakis Tolis' other, more prominent band, Rotting Christ. If you took Rotting Christ and condensed them into a more thuggish, thrashing beast, it might turn out quite like what I'm hearing on this.

Not that the little eccentricities of this duo's past have entirely abandoned their modus operandi, but they all feel more subdued, like subtle guitars layered in for ambiance in straight, chugging black thrashers like "An Apparition of Vengeance". There are a number of the tracks that use a lot of the familiar Rotting Christ counter-melodies off the straight, hammering rhythm guitar, such as "Hecate Unveiled", "Necromantic", "The Gnostic Code". But the Greeks also branch out a bit, with a slower, ritual chuggernaut in "The Royal Invocation of Apophis" or some straight shots of eerie melodic death in the title track. At best, though, the band will break into this great, ripping thrash riff reminiscent of Slayer ("He, the Great Worm") and really bind together the wider dynamic range into a fit of sheer headbanging rage.

Almost as if to mirror their stylistic deviation here, they include a cover of Onslaught's "Power from Hell", off the album of the same name. Actually sounds quite good with Magus Wampyr's charismastic gutturals, and once more I have to point out that I love the guitar tone, not to mention the inflections of atmosphere they hurl under the riffs with some synthesizer/choirs. This all helps top off what I might consider the most 'fun' of Thou Art Lord's efforts, even if I enjoy the music from all its predecessors more. It's clear that the band did not wish to merely repeat itself, and so the change is welcome, but there's just not much food for thought here. Tense, coiled fists to the face without catchy enough notation to resonate for long.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (exploding, decompressed)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

ICS Vortex - Storm Seeker (2011)

So, it just happens that I'm a massive fan of Borknagar's 1998 LP The Archaic Course, which was quite divisive for its time, driving away a number of the fans who had likely hoped for a more vicious and streamlined evolution in the vein of their s/t debut. I mention this, because it just might be my favorite album ever to feature the soaring, avian howls of bassist/singer ICS Vortex. A beautiful mesh of streaming, oft jarring folkish melodies and progressively textured compositions, it's one of those rarities that grew considerably in my estimation throughout years of listening, despite an initial, lukewarm reaction. Since then, Simen Hestnæs has been through the Arcturus years, all of the later Dimmu Borgir drama, worked within a number of smaller projects, and for certain cemented his inclusion in the rogues' gallery of Norwegian musicians to watch.

I mentioned The Archaic Course, because this new solo effort, Storm Seeker is about the closest he has come to that sound. Hestnæs vocals are the central focus here, and he really strains the pipes, with one of his wildest and higher pitched performances. He's joined here by a number of well regarded musicians, including drummer Asgeir Mickelson (Spiral Architect, Scariot and more) and lead guitarist Cyrus (Susperia), and has since turned this into a full band. The riffs here range from slightly less involved barrages circa The Archaic Course ("The Blackmobile" or "Odin's Tree") to a lot of slower, measured fare. In truth, Storm Seeker casts its nets more in the progressive rock field than metal, and while it might not possess the same variable nature as his fellows in Arcturus, there seems to be a lot of exploration here, or 'feeling out' where he might take the project in the future.

So this is pretty damned diverse. You've got a pure synthesizer prog piece in "The Sub Mariner", for example, or a number of post-hardcore inflected emotional rock pieces like "Oil in Water" which make use of an undercurrent of gleaming dissonance, but in a friendlier context than some of his Borknagar stuff. You've got straight, heavy handed prog rockers like "Windward" or "When Shuffled Off" that reek of Rush and Yes influence, and a few super flowing pieces with only tinges of metallurgy, like "Flaskeskipper" and "Dogsmacked" (I take it the latter is a play on words that mocks a certain American band...but I cannot be sure). The vocals and guitars do feel a mite overprocessed, but not so much as the sample I heard months ago, and since Vortex does a lot of the writing and recording himself, it's not such a big deal.

He's got some catchy as hell chorus bits strewn about this debut, often redolent of Solefald, or Kristoffer Rygg's work in the band Headcontrolsystem, and yet at other times he seems to wail out of control. Overall, I liked the production and the style he was taking, the range, and the layering of organs, rock guitars and Mickelson's dynamic percussion. No two songs here totally feel the same. But then, at the same time, there's a margin of disjunction that falls somewhat short of breathtaking. Storm Seeker is an interesting listen, sure to prove to fans of The Archaic Course or Sideshow Symphonies that the guy has landed on his feet, but it's not the striking sort of album that I felt I needed to repeatedly experience.

Verdict: Win [7/10]