Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bellicist - The Eternal Recurrence (2011)

When a band comes on as technically strong as this one, I admit to feeling some apprehension that I'm in for a soulless train wreck of technical wankery and sterile pop studio polish that won't turn out so memorable. Somehow, Missouri's Bellicest manage to avoid this stylistic sand trap by blending the old in with the new. You'll still be hearing harried arpeggio sweeps and ass-loads of technicality, yet they are just as content bursting into an old school New York brutal chug-fest or some churning Florida evil, while mixing up the vocals between guttural norms and rancid snarls. The Eternal Recurrence is a pretty staggering effort for a debut, and I doubt these guys would remain unsigned for long, but it's worth checking out even if you're normally averse to such proficient punishment.

I can't say I entirely loved the production of the record, but it very much gets the job done. You can hear every little spike of lead guitar, and yet the rhythm tracks are deep, dark and intensely pummeling, machine-like in their execution. The drummer, bassist and guitar player are all quite insane, and about the only time they ever dip in quality is when they enter a brick-house slam segment like in the middle of "Insignificant". And yet, even when something like this occurs, they follow it up with the this case, a wild little bass solo and a rupture of melodic death metal played at a far higher speed. But there are other tracks here which are completely surgical bursts of intensity that brake for absolutely no one ("Philistines" or the more spastic "For Your War"). They're quite tight at incorporating all these fast-break technical thrash parts played at such speeds that bands like Cynic and Atheist come to mind, or perhaps the Swedish Theory in Practice, but there's that added substrate of brutality here for those who like their neolithic fist fighting death metal.

Surprisingly, there's a lot of diversity in the songwriting, and they'll attempt some longer pieces in here, like "The Iscariot Path" which is almost 9 minutes, or "To Serve the Pigs" which is over 11. The latter is a grooving bludgeon at a slower pace, while the latter alternates between airier, noisy passages and churning Morbid Angel solutions, and neither of them manages to bore me despite their swollen enormity. And it's this reason that The Eternal Recurrence functions: not only for the obvious skill of the musicians, but for the fact that they throw so much at you and somehow keep it interesting enough to remain attentive. That's not easy for an album which sounds like the ungodly spawn of an orgy between Skinless, Morbid Angel, Necrophagist, Arsis and Behemoth, but that's what these guys do. Even lyrically, the band is more concerned with sociopolitical affairs than they are with gore and zombies, which might not be unique, but it's an interesting match for the style they play. The Eternal Recurrence not perfect, and I don't really love all the vocals or individual riffs, but taken as a whole it's formidable enough that people ought to start taking notice.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Satyricon - Dark Medieval Times (1994)

While it's musical value is formidable in of itself, one of the things that has truly always drawn me to the Satyricon debut Dark Medieval Times is the laughable, yet enduring black and white cover art. Before the gates of some foreboding, gray keep, a single ghastly rider rears up his black steed while his cape flutters in some winter breeze. He raises his double-headed axe as if to invite the listener to dinn... er, battle across a bridge of ice, and a field of withered trees. This looks like something a nuanced and competent 13 year old Dungeons & Dragons geek would draft for his 8th grade art class, but fuck it, I WAS that person at some point. I'm sure many of us were. Hell, I still AM that person to a degree. So despite its silliness, I have to think this is one of the most iconic of the Norse covers along with those early Burzum records, or In the Nightside Eclipse.

But what's more, it represents the isolation and majesty that black metal once, and still in some cases, hints at. A group of young, inspired deviants separating themselves from the conformity of their hollow civilization, escaping into fantasy and history, just like the lonely black wizard in his tower, the witch at her cauldron, the dragon in its mountain lair. Satyricon wanted to be feared, just like many acts in this wave, but what is not in question is their musical ability to back up the thematic content. Dark Medieval Times is not so grim, raw and punishing as Darkthrone and Burzum Not so folksy as old Ulver. Not so well orchestrated as In the Nightside Eclipse, nor so infamous as Mayhem. There is not much of a gimmick going on here, so the young Frost and Satyr had to bring the music, and they accomplished nothing less with what is for many their most beloved memory of the duo's career. I can't say that this is a personal favorite of the Norwegian 'second wave', but after only Nemesis Divina, it remains the best of Satyricon.

It's obvious from the beginning that they were going for something immense, epic and larger than life. "Walk the Path of Sorrow" is over eight minutes, complete with a strange symphonic intro that has some looped, martial synthesizers, ghostly choir and crashing percussion, before the drums thunder forth at a mid-paced gait, and the spires of distortion crash along under the steady clime of the keyboards. Before long, they transition into a calm acoustic part, and then back into the fray where Satyr applies his rabid, biting rasp. I can't say that the transitions here are all that smooth, but nonetheless the song continues to inspire as it cycles through a great many phases, like the ambient resilience of the bridge before the 4 minute mark, or the crash of timpani deeper into its depths. Ultimately, this is a strong start to an album, despite the rather brash tactics at segueing into each segment that often feel like jilted, irate icebergs elbowing one another for the same ocean space, while they wait for some unsuspecting cruise ship.

Other songs here feel more focused and manageable, like "Skyggedens", which is only half the length, and still manages to tear through five or six sequences, including acoustics. Or the lush and windy interlude "Min Hyllest til Vinterland", which is not more than a sparse, resonant accumulation of acoustics that slog along like a slow-moving autumn stream. Or "Taakeslottet" with its grimy, tremolo melodies and thundering percussion beneath the verse; one of the most melodic and memorable pieces on the album. Other standouts include the titular "Dark Medieval Times", the other 8 minute whale on the album, with a lot of strong, rushing chord streams, and an extended closing sequence with clean guitars and flutes that lives up to the song's name. Also, I rather enjoy "The Dark Castle in the Deep Forest", one of the most haunting and cheesy of the tracks but nonetheless engrossing, which the band would later title "Night of Divine Power".

The production is not their most elegant, after all this was put out through their own, small upstart label and didn't have the backing of a Century Media like Nemesis Divina. All the guitars, drums and vocals are clear, as are the keyboards, but I found the bass to have only a minimal, uninteresting presence throughout the compositions, and the whole mass is decidedly raw and unpolished. That said, that is actually half the charm of an album like this, and it wouldn't work with a poppy, modern gloss to it. The lyrics were not originally included, but what one can gather from them is that sense of sadness and isolation that I mentioned above, a grasp at the natural world of olde and it's most unfriendly environments, through which the band's despotic spirits wander. In other words: it reads much as it looks.

Dark Medieval Times had its problems. The bands' transitional ability was rusty and still in its incubation stage, and the riffs perhaps not as punishing nor distinct as on some of their later records. I like this mildly more than its close successor, The Shadowthrone, even though they had certainly made a few proficient strides on that material; but this doesn't have a tune like "Mother North" on it that makes me want to rush into some fevered battle and hurl my life away in the charge. It's dynamic, esoteric and makes a bold attempt at creating a rustic, glorious experience through the use of keys and clean strings, but doesn't entirely excel at any one thing. That aside, though, this is well worth the money, because it's a straight shot of imagination that seems almost innocent in comparison to a lot of what you'll hear today, and despite their noted weaknesses, many of the songs still endure.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (they will all learn)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Satyricon - Ten Horns - Ten Diadems (2002)

I don't care how you want to spin it. I don't care if there are several remastered songs. I don't care if there's a fat, pretty booklet with lots of grim pictures words from the Artist himself. Ten Horns - Ten Diadems is yet another example of crass and wholly unnecessary commercialism from an artist who you'd think might shun the very idea of the thing. By 2002, Satyricon had certainly carved out a name for itself and placed itself upon a pedestal. The world of black metal neophytes was theirs to win or lose, and their progressively more rock-oriented outings would either alienate the traditional genre fans of their first three records or win them droves of new admirers thanks to increasing visibility and video play.

So I have to wonder, why bother with this? This wasn't released through some major, faceless corporate entity, but Moonfog Productions itself! Granted, they did a better job on the package than you'd expect from a garbage Roadrunner or Relativity comp, and they bothered to include one previously unreleased song. But seriously...10 horns. 10 diadems. 10 songs? Why not make this a fucking double-disc. Or hell, why not just re-issue the first two albums Dark Medieval Times and The Shadowthrone, entirely remastered, in one package with all of the added visual splendors, notes and bonus tracks. THAT might be something to throw down a 20 spot on, but this is just a meek sampling of things that the Satyricon fan already owns. The remastered cuts are "Taakeslottet" (Dark Medieval Times), "Dominions of Satyricon" (The Shadowthrone) and "Night of Divine Power" (Megiddo EP, a remake of "Dark Castle in the Deep Forest") and while brighter than their original incarnations, they lose a bit of their grisly, original edge.

It feels that they were remastered simply to bring them up to the standards of the newer material that was included here. Speaking of which, we are given "Forhekset" and"Mother North" from Nemesis Divina (1996), "Hvite Krists Død" from The Shadowthrone (1994, strangely not remastered), and then two tracks from their most recent full-length at the time, Rebel Extravaganza (1999): "Filthgrinder" and "Supersonic Journey". Closing this out, they've included one song off the new full-length Volcano that would also release in 2002: "Repined Bastard Nation". Admittedly, there are some great songs in this bunch, but I already owned them all, and it's hard not to feel a little ripped off. What's worse, the unreleased track "Serpent's Rise" is little more than some spoken narrative (male and female) over a dissonance, early atmospheric riff and then some baseless, boring chugging riff. Not hard to see why this would not rate inclusion on one of the full-lengths...

In short, this sucks. Tremendously. Who the fuck is it for? Is it meant to ween the tween initiate onto the teats of Satyr and Frost? Couldn't they just buy Nemesis Divina and work it all out for themselves?

Verdict: Epic Fail [1.5/10]

Whitechapel - Recorrupted EP (2011)

There is certainly no love lost between myself and anything this Tennessee deathcore act has released to date, and with their new stopover EP, Recorrupted, I'm afraid the abject loathing must continue. This is not something meant to be so seriously, as it largely features remixes and a cover song, but regardless I found it to be weaksauce to the nth degree. A disheveled and disjointed teaser for whatever the band is planning next in the full-length realm, straight from the vaults of Metal Blade, who always seem to ply their fingers along the genuine, trendy pulse of extreme music.

In fairness, there are some elements to the sole new original track that, "Section 8" that I was not completely turned off by. After the obligatory ambient/electro lead-in we get a huge, guttural growl that heralds a multi-layered mesh of pumping djent grooves, dissonant industrial metal dressing and droning air raid picking melody. But within the span of a minute, we've already relapsed into some boring drudge of muted groove chugs which bounce along like faux dreadlocks at a Korn gig, pants so baggy that even when they jump da fuc up they're still dragging on the discarded butts, rolling papers and abandoned gig flyers. There is a particular, mechanical resonance that Whitechapel graft to this song that I thought showed some promise, and a nice dual lead melody that slices through its midsection like a plastic surgeon curbing a midriff, but in general I found that there were no memorable riffs throughout, it just sort of bludgeons along into its own grooving oblivion.

Hey, at least it's better than everything else on this EP... The cover of Pantera's "Strength Beyond Strength" manages to make the tracks inherent, ball-fisted mosh break into something dull and methodical. The 'Big Chocolate remix' of "Breeding Violence" seems as hackneyed as a lot of those old Fear Factory techno mixes. Lots of distorted, yawning Skrillex-like aesthetics and some noodling guitar melodies applied for texture. The Ben Weiman remix of "This is Exile" is mildly less annoying, as it takes a more mathematical application, but it feels like something Justin Broadrick would have left on the cutting room floor rather than add to some Godflesh compilation. And lastly, the Tennessee boys show their sensitive side, with an acoustic rendition of "End of Flesh" (these are all from their most recent album A New Era of Corruption). This is instrumental, and not bad as background noise, but neither is it remotely compelling.

Recorrupted is really just a bunch of odds and ends being used to tide over the deathcore fan, and many such releases (in all genres) aren't fit to scrape your boots with. I admit that I would not mind hearing Whitechapel drift further into the mechanistic industrial grooving space with their own writing on the next album, but I think it's time they ditched some of their more dull chugging breakdown sequences and attempted to vary up the vocals a bit, since they too seem like a pastiche of the trite and generic that no one will care about in a decade. Maybe a year. At any rate, I've no inbred opposition to deathcore and its variants if done well. Job for a Cowboy and even Carnifex have surprised me in the past, but I've yet to be impressed by this crew, though I can hear some latent potential slumbering inside them like a kraken on its murky leash.

Verdict: Fail [2.75/10]

Monday, November 28, 2011

Venom - Fallen Angels (2011)

I could really go either way on most of Venom's output since the 'revival phase' that started with their 1997 comeback Cast in Stone. A few of the newer records, like Metal Black and Resurrection were not half-bad, but I'll be damned if I can remember anything from the last effort Hell. Unfortunately, Fallen Angels ends up in that same trough of unmemorable writing and is unlikely to capture the same attention or mete out the same inspiration that their filth-ridden masterpieces Welcome to Hell (1981) and Black Metal (1982) once enjoyed; two of the most influential 'extreme' metal records to date in the entire medium, and two personal favorites. I remained an addict to Venom's shifting landscape even through the oft maligned 80s records with Tony Dolan, but in 2011, I'm afraid the writing has become quite flat.

To a degree, Venom is still attempting to sound like the trio most know and love (or hate) when reflecting back on their halcyon days, even if this is not at all that same trio. Cronos is still using his grimy, hoarse vocal tones and the riffs remain total throwbacks to a mixture of primal speed/thrash and NWOBHM. The 'bulldozer' bass tone on the album is quite large, similar to a Motörhead level, but it never really weaves in anything interesting, merely coasts along as some copious substrate to support the bland guitar riffing. The newer members Rage and Dante do their jobs, but that's not saying much, since the note progressions are all pretty thoughtless or obvious and it doesn't seem like a lot of effort was placed in them. Songs like "Nemesis" and "Pedal to the Metal" barrel along with a youthful hostility, and to be sure, Venom was all about the crass simplicity and blasphemy of its compositions, and yet none of these really stick to the ears. In fact, without the presence of Cronos' sinister frontmanship, Fallen Angels would feel like any random bar band jamming out some old school metal songs...

And that is just not good enough for this old timer. To be fair, Venom does much to mix up the pacing of the record, so it's not some monotonous slog through the same territory. They unleash a slower, groovier style in "Hammerhead", which sounds like meaty mosh-thrash but has not a single interesting riff. An acceptable acoustic interlude in "Lest We Forget". They go for lengthier atmosphere in the titular "Fallen Angels", and yet once the metal thunder arrives, the guitars are just as vapid and forgettable as anywhere else, despite this being one of the few points where the bass surges along craftily in a vat of distortion. A couple of the later pieces like "Sin", "Death by the Name" or "Beggarman" border on having some spry, fun patterns of punishment, but even here they feel only marginally more exciting than on the rest of the record.

The album has a loud, pumping production, and Cronos does his best to create those diabolical lyrical embellishments he is so renowned for, but Fallen Angels is ultimately not going to force a sweat on any host of seraphs, much less clip their wings. If you're simply in the mood for hearing this veteran's drawl over commonplace, dime a dozen riffs, then I'd hardly call the album a disaster, but it not once offers any reason to choose it over anything the band unleashed from about 1981-1992, nor even a few of their other post-comeback records. In fact, this might just be the least interesting and/or amusing Venom record to date.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mayhem - Mediolanum Capta Est (1999)

Mediolanum Capta Est is basically Live in Leipzig and Beyond, in that it was performed with much of the same material as the band's cult live. By this point, Mayhem still didn't have a large body of work from which to draw upon, and thus the content here is still primarily Deathcrush and De Mysteriis dom Sathanas, with a bunch of the Wolf's Lair Abyss songs added. The primary difference here is in the lineup changes: Maniac is handling the vocals in this Milan, Italy performance and Blasphemer has settled into his guitar role. So whether this is 'The True Mayhem' or 'The False Mayhem' is really up to each individual to decide, since I'm sure to some it seems the very pinnacle of blasphemy to even pay pittance to the Norwegians' continued existence.

Comparatively, though, I've got to hand it to Mediolanum Capta Est: it might not have that same, raw and authentic edge of Live in Leipzig or the bootleg The Dawn of the Black Hearts, but I think the sound here is a little better balanced in preservation. And then, of course, there is Maniac, who I simply find to be a more engaging front man, what with his cruel snarling diatribes and what I'd consider a more inspiring stage banter between songs, as obvious as it all might play out (perhaps less so to an Italian audience). I appreciate Dead's theatrical contributions to the whole genre, mind you, but it's Maniac and Attila that really broke me into this band through Deathcrush and DMDS, and their inflections that I prefer on the songs. That said, though, there are still a few issues with this record that hold it back from being one of the better lives in my collection: the guitars, while clear, still seem fairly repressed behind Hellhammer's pulverizing punishment and the ghastly vocals. And the bass under even that...

Thus, it's a little difficult to be blown over here, even if the track selection seems well rounded and the set flows well enough along. Wolf's Lair Abyss tracks like "Fall of Seraphs", "Ancient Skin", "I Am Thy Labyrinth" and "Symbols of Bloodswords" mesh rather well with the older, cruder material, not necessarily creating the sore contrast one might expect. But anyone not feeling that latest studio outing need fear nothing, since they break out "Deathcrush", "Chainsaw Gutsfuck", "Necrolust", "Pure Fucking Armageddon" and even the "Silvester Anfang" intro that was composed by Conrad Schnitzer. If anything, DMDS gets hamstrung here, with only two proxies in "Freezing Moon" and "From the Dark Past", but by this time I can imagine they were a little sick of performing that lot, and wished to favor the Maniac-fronted material. They also perform their compilation track "Carnage", which was also on Live in Leipzig, and they get Attila to join them on "From the Dark Past", which is frankly my favorite point of the set.

Honestly, though I would recommend this over the more beloved Live in Leipzig, I cannot claim that it's in any way essential since the production doesn't really hit me with the same impact that I expect. The guitars are competent but a little washed out on most of the songs, and there's nothing all that exciting outside of maybe Hellhammer's bludgeoning consistency. Even Maniac does not sound at his most snide and raunchy here. In the end, as I would always recommend, just go pay the money to see the band if you're able. They tour often enough throughout the civilized world, but if you're not in the vicinity, then something like Mediolanum Capta Est is at least a passable replacement for the experience, if nothing special.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Raate - Menetyksen Tie (2011)

Finland's Raate wrote a really great debut album in 2007 called Sielu, Linna which, like so many outstanding newer acts of the last decade, was unfortunately swept under the rug in the wake of the far less interesting, trendy names that seem to dominate awareness in the more atmospheric or post-black realm. Not that Raate are some gang of dreamy shoegazers, but certainly the way they phrase their music is through the medium of simple, distorted textures against more elegant, melodic keyboard landscapes. Menetkysen Tie seeks to further and broaden the band's aural reach, and to that extent it more than succeeds with a primitive yet refined palette of catchy if predictable, cold riffing and folksy, harmonized clean vocals.

This is a sobering, somnolent album, and yet strangely uplifting thanks to the band's knack for minimail, efficient orchestration. The guitar passages are inspired by the more melodic, mid to late pagan/black metal efforts as they cavort through lush, sullen backdrops. The drums are kept very basic, organic and far from intrusive, letting the weight of the riffs and the more airy tones of the synthesizers rest upon their architecture as if it were a cradle. The guitars might remind one of a mashup between Borknagar, Summoning and the more melodic Burzum, and the voices are somewhat similar to those cleans used by Varg on his latest effort, Fallen. Not all of the songs here are created equally. Some paint broader, more predictable vistas in which the chords never take any unsuspected turn ("Sameaa Vettä"), while others like the doomed, dreary "Tulen Laulu" or the dirty, speed/black metal infusions of "Taival" are more memorable.

In all, Menetyksen Tie is incredibly well balanced, both in its pacing and production. The album has a wealth of clarity despite the lo-fi integration of the instruments, and the more ambient passages that permeate the four part instrumental "Ajan Temppeli" on the latter half provide a tasteful and eloquent counterpoint to the metallic components. I wouldn't say I was drawn into this record so much as its predecessor, and yet it's 45 minutes that are a pleasure to listen through repeatedly, evoking the sadness and mystery of empty places that were once beautiful, whether those be external structures cobbled from the tired hands of the builder, or the internal snuffed-out candle core of the architect himself. Alluring, if not amazing.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, November 25, 2011

Hammer Fight - Hammer Fight EP (2011)

Not to be confused with the indie computer game of the same title, this Hammer Fight is instead a band of New Jersey devils running a sizable risk in their mash-up of styles. At the heart of this EP, you can clearly recognize a massive influence from punk, hardcore, rock and in particular the more bruising side of the NWOBHM spectrum made manifest by the might Motörhead. The vocals aren't quite so smokey as Lemmy, and the riffs are a bit more punch than blues, but it's hard not to envision something like "Down the Line" as other than a ticked off hybrid of newer, thrash driven Motörhead and Sick of It All, with perhaps a touch of Fear, and there ain't nothing wrong with that in my book.

Several of the songs definitely function on a more directly rock & roll axis, like "Disas-tour" and its wavy, bruising guitar boogie; or "If You Want Blood (You Got It)", which sounds like AC/DC if they went NYHC, complete with dense background shouts. Then there are others which are more distinctly infused with thrash, hardcore and punk reminiscent of Sheer Terror, Sick of It All, Slapshot, and so forth. Meaty guitar mutes dominate "Down the Line" or "Stuck in the Chamber", while the latter shows the band flexing its traditional metal lead chops. There are even a handful of more inspiring, melodic riffs that feel like a crude mesh of rock & melodic death metal, like "Tears of Unfathomable Sadness", which might just be the most emotional and effective among these seven songs. Hammer Fight keeps it short and sweet: they are well aware that their audience doesn't want more than a 3-4 minute rush of adrenaline.

As a result, even if I wasn't blown over by the material here, I have to admit that they do a good job of not wearing out their welcome. I mentioned earlier that this was a bit of a 'risky' sound they were reaching for, but that wasn't meant as a discouraging remark. Look at a band like Norway's Kvelertak, whose popularity has swollen performing a mix of rock & roll, spry punk energy and black metal vocals. Hammer Fight isn't quite the same sound, but they have a similar skill at fusing genres as if they had always been crops in the same garden. The production is punchy and honest, the riffs usually fun despite a death or nuance and invention, and it seems ready-made for moshing without any need for tons of stupid breakdowns. Not the sort of music you'd want to take to prom, perhaps, but more then sufficient to score your next wrestling meet.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Vore - Gravehammer (2011)

Vore is a name I'll probably always remember thanks to a single, dedicated fan. It was somewhere in 1998-2000, at the Milwaukee Metalfest, where I saw the Arkansas band perform in one of the multitude of afternoon opening slots, and I recall one of their friends or followers shouting VORE for about 30-60 minutes afterward, well after they'd broken down their gear. At any rate, they've also got a few decent, mid-paced death metal slogs to their name, like the Dead Kings Eye EP in 1997 and the Lord of Storms full-length in 2001 which had a style somewhere between Bolt Thrower and Florida titans Deicide or Cannibal Corpse. Gravehammer, their third album, takes up the baton right where those recordings left off, so you're looking at another old school yet refreshingly non-trendy hammering: only this time they brought the cover art to really match the sound.

Nothing extraordinary about what these guys write, it's a lot of simple pummeling chug/grooves circa Realm of Chaos or War Master, with a more polished, dry production similar to the latter of the two. The vocals are largely a deep guttural, with some slathering of snarls that creates an overall atmosphere not unlike Glen Benton. Not a lot of memorable or interesting riffs through the album, perhaps, but then, a lot of 'war metal' sounding bands like this one have traditionally been more concerned with flattering you under their fists than reinventing the wheel. Vore at least accomplish this beating with fervor, as crude as their compositional ambition might seem. They occasionally delve into some slightly more complex patterns, like the winding mutes that permeate "The Unseen Hand's" chugging, or some of the later tracks which feel more spacious and atmospheric, but in general it's a bunch of chugging, minimalist riffs that feel like a tribal tribute to the movement of tanks across fields of human bones.

In the end, I wouldn't say that I found Gravehammer to be a 'great' release, but then neither is it a weak one. Fans of mid-90s production and simpler US sounds of bands like Cianide or Jungle Rot might draw some enjoyment out of this, or those that fancy the bone crushing overseas oldies of Benediction, Asphyx and the aforementioned Bolt Thrower. This isn't exactly a bastion of variation, nor is there much technicality to the music, but even when the band is writing a track of about eight minutes ("Doomwhore", "The Claw is the Law") they manage to imbue enough of an atmosphere that you'll grimly flex your neck along to its muted meat. It's cool to see that they've continued to trudge along for 17 years in lieu of a major breakthrough, and while this is unlikely to earn them a shift in that status, it's at least built from a consistent and brute backbone.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mayhem - Live in Leipzig (1993)

As one of the earliest instances of a proper black metal live recording, it's only natural that Live in Leipzig has developed somewhat of a cult respect among the genre's audience. It's raw, punishing and honest, and it captures one of the most infamous bands of its type during what some consider their halcyon days, between the disgusting and excellent Deathcrush EP and the forthcoming full-length debut De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. That is correct, Mayhem had a live disc out before even one proper album. But what's probably even more appealing to many is that this is one of the more satisfactory efforts to involve the band's early vocalist Dead, who among other things was a crucial component in bringing over the whole 'corpse paint' look to the newly coined black metal genre, before killing himself in '91.

I'll come right out and say that I've never been as much of a fan of Dead's voice as I have been of the sniveling Maniac or creepy Attila Csihar. It suits the music, especially this earlier material, but it's naught more than a grainy bark which often feels phoned in. It's quite 'everyman', in that I can't imagine an audience member being pulled out at random and not being able to match it. But that said, this is likely the appeal of the guy to so many fans of the band's vintage recordings. The other negative factor to Live in Leipzig is simply that the production is pretty cruddy. Yeah, it's totally authentic and sounds like a band pressing [RECORD] on the tape deck in their garage and basement. I understand the spirit behind it, and in no way is it the worst I've heard of its type, but throughout this whole album I felt like the riffs were taking a backseat to the drums and the vocals are often intolerably loud.

This can come across awkward when he's doing some lame inter-song stage banter and then the drums and guitars erupt, but there isn't really a lot happening in between tracks. Perhaps the most blood pumping intro is to "Pure Fucking Armageddon", which closes out the album. He at least seems to incite some reaction here. Another thing is that the guitar tone is pretty 'meh'. It definitely favors the slower material from the Deathcrush era to the later songs, where the faster flow of notes seems to be washed out by the drums, but it also rather sucks during the chug sequence of "Necrolust". However, this was November 1990 in a country not their own, so you sort of have to take what you can get. I can imagine that actually being there, with the severed pig heads, dirt and rotted chunks being hurled around would have proven more fulfilling.

As for track selection, you've got basically got the whole of the relevant, original material from the prior EP: "Deathcrush", "Necrolust", "Chainsaw Gutsfuck" and "Pure Fucking Armageddon" are all accounted for, in addition to the songs "Buried by Time and Dust", "Funeral Fog", "Pagan Fears", and "Freezing Moon" which would be included with the coming full-length. There's also a rare compilation track "Carnage" used in the set, and some versions also contain the studio version (and also a studio for "Freezing Moon" with Dead on vocals, if I'm not mistaken). At any rate, I've never come away from this album impressed. Like the band, and of course the track list was drawn from what must be their best material, but it sounds rather bland and I'm not that into the vocals. Live in Leipzig is loud, raucous and very 'real', but it's not one of the more compelling live records I've experienced.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Klabautamann - The Old Chamber (2011)

The inevitable fallout from having written a masterpiece is that the clinging vessels of anticipation are bound to be disappointed with whatever the artist records next, and this pretty much sums up my opinion of Klabautaumann's latest. Merkur was such a beautiful and lush dichotomy of ideals, so precisely balanced upon the precipice of harrowing loneliness, metered aggression and tranquil escape that I am still listening to it on a regular basis. Surely these Germans' ears number among the finest in all Europe at coercing elements of folk, progressive rock and black metal into the same space, and that work easily furthered the already-magnificent execution of their 2005 sophomore Der Ort.

The Old Chamber, by comparison, is a mix of epiphany and heel-dragging. A few of the songs are incredibly well written extensions of the sound they were getting at with the previous album, and others are just plodding and almost hinging upon ennui. This is sadly the case for the first track on the album, "Mary's Abbey" which cruises along with a predictable swerve of chords while Tim Steffens' gravelly rasp and a stream of sad, simple melodies attempt to build a broader atmosphere. Once you transition into the far brighter, more hopeful sheen of "Bog Spawn", the album seems to immediately pick itself up off the floor and swim the same channels as Merkur, with a lovely yet dire folk break and some excellent, uplifting riffs wedged into the bridge. The ensuing "Dead Marshes" is a bit heavier, with some more mystical black/thrash melodies that are better fit to the headbanging of the audience, and "The Crown of the Wild" introduces some added dissonance with tremolo riffing and dense chords of abandon, though it's a little jilted.

Deeper in we go, and the results come out mixed. "Gloom" has a decent atmosphere as it shifts between swaggering, slower rhythms and desperate chugging, but leaves no real impression. "The Old Chamber" is an instrumental, classic/acoustic guitar piece which might have proven more effective if it flowed into a song more inspiring than "Death's Canvas", which is a 50/50 mix of quality and uninspired riffing. But then the album takes a turn for the better in the transient, dark plodding of "The Maze" and the rocking, mug pounding fervor of "Black Rain", which might just be my favorite individual track. The finale, "The Dying Night" is also quite good, with some blissful strains of spooky melody abroad its slower, marching pace.

Strangely enough, this is no stylistic departure from Merkur. The notes simply don't often arrange themselves into such emotionally engraving pastures as the harried, melodic black metal of "When I Long for Life" or the airy, eloquent "Stygian". They're using a lot of similar, almost jazzy chord techniques here, but in general the music is not so busy or dynamically bristling. A few of the tunes just lull themselves into submission, and the clean vocals used are never so sobering and effective as, say, "Der Wald ist Ein Meer". In the end, The Old Chamber does feel more or less like a series of outtakes not good enough to make that cut. This is still a pretty good album, and I wouldn't kick it out of bed for eating crackers. If you enjoyed Der Ort or Merkur than you might be content with more of the same, but it's just not the magnum opus that I and Klabautamann fans might have hoped for.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Vektor - Outer Isolation (2011)

Having conquered the modern US thrash scene within the span of a single album, Vektor have built tremendous expectations for its follow-up that they have more or less met with Outer Isolation. I'm not going to come out and say that this is a better album than Black Future, because there are a few tracks in which my attention seems to disappear more readily than others. But it's damned well rounded, tightly sprung, flawlessly executed progressive death/thrash which holds the riff on high about everything else. Edge and elegance are wrought from the band's science fiction extrapolations, and once again they have successfully meshed the vision of Voivod, the stern and vicious vocal energy of the Teuton gods Destruction, and the hyperactive pulse of Florida's death/thrash pioneers Atheist and Hellwitch into a pulse pounding fusion.

It doesn't start out on its best footing, but the creative ledge is wide enough that "Cosmic Cortex" never comes close to plummeting over the side. Eerie, clean guitars are matched with sprinkles of ambient feedback as they erupt into a shifting haze of Voivod-like dissonance and pure force via classic Destruction, with some thrifty melodic tremolo bursts. This is a better thrash song than most other bands will release this year, and yet it's nowhere near a highlight of the album. I was actually surprised at just how much I loved the new renditions of their earlier tracks from the Demolition demo. "Tetrastructural Minds" sounds 100% improved, with rabid spasms of bass, alien cleans, and inspiring, melodic spikes that show the Arizonian's mastery of complex, compositional considerations. The once latent beauty of "Venus Project" is also brought to the fore here, with its amazing, plucky intro evoking the perfect inauguration to the slicing rhythms inherent to the verse, and those wild descending dual-melodies in the bridges. "Fast Paced Society" is also dragged out of the dust, though I didn't like the song quite as much as its peers.

Highlights of the newer crafted material include "Dying World" with its bass-driven, almost space surf-worthy intro, extraterrestrial melodies interspersed with angry, mid-paced thrash chugging and vocals that feel like Schmier if he'd been placed in solitary confinement for a few months. I love the way the riffs shift at the 2 minute mark, so groovy and almost industrial in their precision. "Dark Creations, Dead Creators" also achieves much in its briefer, 3:25 run, from a moody intro to a number of biting riffs as it gradually accelerates. It would also be remiss not to mention just how good the closing title track is. Granted, it's not as 'epic' or stretched out as the 10+ minute opener "Cosmic Cortex", but "Outer Isolation" really develops that feeling of being lost in some unfathomable void, first with the slow accumulation of its saturated, almost folksy electrics, and then a twisting vortex of riffing that recalls all of the progressive German thrash masters like Paradox, Deathrow and Vendetta. Fucking marvelous.

Vektor might have lost its element of surprise here, after spinning the world around with their proper debut Black Future, and I don't really think Outer Isolation progresses that album's formula in any heavily noticeable way. This is more a stride in production, since I felt that the guitars were thicker and even more punchy than before, and the vocals even more effective if they're mildly less dramatic. To an extent, this album 'plays it safe' with the prior's formula, but only as safe as manic space-thrash could ever be. That said, Vektor once again deserves the accolades it reaps due to the fact that they take this music so seriously. That they do such a knock out job in both writing and production, and that they don't treat thrash with the same abusive, derivative lack of grasp that so many of their peers do. Sure, you can trace this band's roots to a number of others, but how they merge them is indisputably unique.

Thrash and death metal have always been enormous inspirations for me personally, and I make no jest that the former is probably my favorite of metal's sub-genres. So it's a distinct honor to have a band like Vektor taking the music forward without taking the piss, and Outer Isolation, even if it's not perfect, is another formidable exhibition of intelligent craftsmanship and unbridled energy which will sate expectations and attention spans time and time again.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (beginnings of a mind adrift)

Mayhem - Life Eternal EP (2009)

Are you willing to exchange currency for slight variations of things you have already owned? Are you stuck forever in the early to mid 90s? Do you have a Mayhem hardon the size of a shadowy cathedral? These are all questions to mull over when considering a purchase of Life Eternal, which is a tape of rough mixes from the De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas sessions, originally made by Attila Csihar. If this were any lesser band, of course, something like Life Eternal would be almost guaranteed to be ignored, but Mayhem have the advantage of an almost Beatles-esque rabid following who collect bootleg recordings, rare and vintage clips and just about anything else they can get their hands on. Such is the reward for notoriety. Necrobutcher, Hellhammer and Euronymous could have recorded themselves chatting over beers at a noisy disco, or taking a piss on a camping trip while shooting the breeze, and people would pay for it.

So, at least with Life Eternal, there is some music to experience. Five cuts from the full-length album the band were about to unleash, with some altered vocals that didn't all make the final cut of the record. Side by side, there's not much of a difference in the actual music. You'll hear a click track here, where on DMDS it disappears. The guitars sound slightly more subdued than on the full-length, where they are more potent and bright. But the biggest deviation is likely in Attila Csihar's performance. The style is pretty similar, but his enunciation on several of the lines is changed. You might hear some more of his cleaner, low-end droning style than on the 'official' version of a track, and because the guitars are not as prominent here, he does stand out slightly more. There is also a brief drum intro to "Funeral Fog" which the band clipped off during the full length mixing and mastering, but it's all of about a second and really adds nothing...I can see why it was castrated.

All told, this is not something I really cared for. I enjoy Attila a great deal, but I'm not sure I'm willing to exchange his dialed up presence for the less resilient guitars, and even so, I never found the varied vocals to be all that more compelling than DMDS. It makes a lot of sense to me why these are not the versions on the final album, and thus it seems like no more than a means to rake in a few bucks with a limited edition release. Granted, with its DVD box packaging and other baubles, Life Eternal is a sure collectors' item, and a cool little 'peep' from Csihar's personal label Saturnus, which hasn't seemed. But for its musical value, it's a pretty vapid affair best suited to those that like to pore over the details, and in no way supercedes the quality of the tracks' inevitable evolution.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Mayhem - Wolf's Lair Abyss EP (1997)

Wolf's Lair Abyss was the first 'major' piece of new studio material to be released by Mayhem after the murder of Euronymous by fellow artisan of extremity Varg Vikernes, and thus it's no surprise that it is welcome with only a bittersweet reception. There exists a faction of the black metal underground which likely rues the continued output of this franchise, just as there would be with any act whose celebrity core had its candle snuffed out. Imagine INXS without Michael Hutchence. Or The Doors without Jim Morrison. Oh, wait, they both actually did that. So is it really a surprise that Mayhem would plow forward, and was it the right decision? The only one, in my estimation, who could answer that, would be Euronymous himself.

But regardless of where emotions run on this matter, Wolf's Lair Abyss exists. The band has never ceased the churning of its creative gears, as few and far between as their studio outings might have seemed for a while. This EP happened, and so did the three ensuing full-lengths that have arrived between the late 90s and today. So it's got to be judged on its merits alone, rather than on some subversive vengeance for the fallen who may or may not be aggrieved as to its actual contents and presentation. Some of the other core personalities remain in the rhythm section. Bassist Necrobutcher returned for this, and Hellhammer stayed in his drum seat. Mayhem introduced the young Rune Eriksen to the fold, who would remain through the release of Ordo Ad Chao in 2007. From a technical view, I'd say he does a decent job here, perhaps a more intensified version of the very style Euronymous was producing. His acquisition feels seamless.

Perhaps the bigger surprise here was that the band reconnected with Maniac, who had provided some sick ass vocals on the band's legendary Deathcrush EP. He sounds as wretched as ever, even though I did not necessarily find the harried, blasting pace of these tracks as good a match to his suffocating rasp as the slower, earlier material. On some tunes, though, like the "Fall of Seraphs", both his gnarled and cleaner tones prevail. And did I mention the blasting? Because one of the most prominent characteristics of Wolf's Lair Abyss is just how much Hellhammer beats the everliving fuck out of his drum set. Seriously, his snare, bass and cymbals all tried to appeal to the local Union for their mistreatment, but there was sadly no clause for inanimate objects. That they're dialed up in the mix is one thing, but the sheer punishment this guy is meting out on "I Am Thy Labyrinth" and "Fall of Seraphs" is admittedly intimidating.

Unfortunately, as fresh and violent as this music is, which feels like a steady flow of bitter effluvia after a stubborn stretch of creative constipation, it's not all that memorable. The bass is loud and atrocious, the vocals injected with the heroin heights of Maniac's personality, and it's appreciably 'extreme' enough to outpace even it's full-length predecessor. But aside from its belligerent, beatdown sheen, I did not exact much from its content. The noise/ambient intro "The Vortex Void of Inhumanity" with its horns and vocal samples was an interesting experiment, but not really conducive to the ensuing eruption of "I Am Thy Labyrinth". Almost all the riffs here seem rather predictable and uninspired, merely projected along the same course as the drumming.

There are some thrashing breaks in the material ("Fall of Seraphs"), and a few psychedelic, haunting streams of notation ("Symbols of Bloodswords"), but all in all, I've always felt like I was listening to an eerie vocal trip, a drumming tour de force, and not much else aside from guitars which feel functional at best. So, as explosive a proclamation as Wolf's Lair Abyss might seem upon initial contact, it's simply not enduring as their earlier works, nor as experimentally curious as their later full-length efforts like Grand Declaration of War. A rush of night, surely, but not one I could ever remember after the inevitable morning crash.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]
(the order of the cosmic immoral)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Satyricon - My Skin is Cold EP (2008)

Satyricon does not have a great track record for EP releases. I'll grant them The Forest is My Throne demo re-issue on the split with Enslaved, but the later short players like Megiddo and Intermezzo II were seriously short on value: random assortments of live cuts, album re-mixes and cover songs which never amounted to anything. In truth, My Skin is Cold seems more like an advance single for the band's 2008 album The Age of Nero, which I enjoyed for its great mesh of rock-inspired, evil swerving riffage and huge tone, but many seemed to loathe for its admitted simplicity. However, they decided to expand this out with some bonus features, including two live cuts with added orchestra, and a pair of re-mastered tracks.

First, while they might be placed last on the EP, the live renditions of "Repined Bastard Nation" (Volcano) and "Mother North" (Nemesis Divina)" are the best of this bunch. Not because they really sound all that great from a stage recording standpoint, but just for the added layer of atmosphere that the horns create. It's not that they've been woven into the songs to create an extra level of complexity, but they sound so damned brass and percussive, especially in "Mother North" that it makes me wish Satyricon would record an entire album with them. As for the re-mastered tracks "Live Through Me" and "Existential Fear-Questions", they were culled from the LP edition of Volcano, and so do provide some value for anyone who doesn't own that. "Live Through Me" is creepy and atmospheric, with dire guitar progressions and a mixture of grimy and narrated vocals that work well within its lurching menace. "Existential..." is more complex in the guitars, but I found the grooves pretty weak, even with the warped Tom G Warrior impression of the vocals.

That leaves only the title track, which is delivered in a dryer version than the EP (seems that the synth strikes in the verse are missing, and I rather liked them). A good song, with a nice groove to it that well compensates for the simplicity of its structure, though the chorus loses a little of the bombast. Unfortunately, the My Skin is Cold EP gets cold-cocked by the double disc limited edition of The Age of Nero, which includes almost all of the material in the same form it appears here. If you don't have that, then this might be worth hearing once or twice for the re-masters and the two live orchestral tracks, and it's mildly more fulfilling than their prior EP Intermezzo II. But if you DO own that...then this is basically worthless. Ugh.

Verdict: Fail [4.25/10]

Satyricon - Intermezzo II EP (1998)

I'll be the first to admit: I have no idea what Satyr is doing on the cover of this Rebel Extravaganza teaser EP. Is he practicing for the role of a morlock in some H.G. Wells film adaptation? Is he getting into position for a subterranean football match? Was he caught unprepared after a smack binge? Or is he doing an edgier, tattooed Max Schreck impersonation? At any rate, no amount of leering from the shadows is bound to save Intermezzo II, which is more or less an experimental selection of tracks meant to whet the appetite for the stylistic turn that would be their fourth full-length. There are a few nifty ideas strewn about the 20 minutes of this release, but it's not the sort of thing that would hold any interest outside their fanbase, and not so much even to their diehard devotees.

The first track here is "A Moment of Clarity", which also appeared in the eight position on the ensuing full-length. It's not a bad track, though Rebel Extravaganza is my least favorite of their albums overall. Slow to mid-paced riffing with a very organic drum tone; they mesh a bit of the Norse dissonance in with rock-fueled guitars that foreshadow their later, full on black 'n' roll era circa Volcano. The song has some evil, arching rhythms to it, but overall I've never been all that into it, though the random, sparse synth strikes are a curiosity. Following that, they burst into a blasted rendition of "INRI", by Brazilian cult legends Sarcófago, which they even brag to be at 251 BPM. Not sure that the speed of the song makes it any more effective and evil, but certainly it's an acceptable translation for the hyperblast black metal advocate. A different mix of the title track to Nemesis Divina is incorporated, but frankly it's unnecessary and unimpressive...

That leads me to the final cut, and the most interesting found on Intermezzo II: "Blessed from Below" which was recorded with Snorre W. Ruch of Thorns. Basically it's a subversive electro industrial piece dowsed in Satyr's vocal filth and a few guitars. The early, ominous bass grooves are naturally quite enticing and memorable, but after about 3 minutes it transforms into this subtle, ambient landscape which is far more subtle. It's good enough, though, that I wish the entire EP involved such collaborations, because "A Moment of Clarity" and the "Nemesis Divina ("Clean Vision Mix") are utterly useless, both better experienced in their respective full length environments. So, a snazzy electro obscurity with a guy who needs no introduction to that sphere of influence, and a half-decent cover song. Not really anything to covet here, and those seeking its contents might be better served by the 2006 Nuclear Blast re-issue of Rebel Extravaganza, which includes the whole shebang.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Satyricon - Megiddo EP (1997)

Megiddo was released presumably to bridge the gap between their successful Nemesis Divina record and whatever would come next. Like most of Satyricon's shorter form works, it's a grab bag of random odds and ends that feel scattered and inconsistent, and also serves as a graveyard where their more 'out of the box' ideas go to lay their bones in the audio dirt for all eternity. The problem of course is that there's just not much to it, 20 minutes of material which in no way would have been good enough to include on one of their full-lengths, and doesn't fulfill the role of anything more than some sidereal curiosity. A freak show for the unwanted.

Like the later Intermezzo II EP, the star here is an industrial EBM piece, here a remake of "The Dawn of a New Age" by the once popular Norwegian electro group Apoptygma Berzerk. I liked a few of this band's albums, and what they've offered here is a near total deconstruction of the original, bringing in all manner of wild, unhinged beats and noises while mixing in some of Satyr's rasping. I wouldn't call it 'catchy', necessarily, and I don't really like the break into the clean guitars where it arrives, at least not until they layer in the electronic bass pulses; but at least it's something worth hearing once. The rest of the EP consists of a live version of "Forhekset" (from Nemesis Divina) which is adequate it a bit grimy and dry; a sort of go-go, industrial drummed cover of Motörhead's "Orgasmatron", in which the bland vocals do sort of drag down the more unique energy and ideas of the backdrop, like the doomy keyboards they added to the bridge.

And lastly, they've re-recorded one of their earlier tracks, "Dark Castle in the Deep Forest" as "Night of Divine Power". I suppose it sounds more polished in this incarnation, with a nice glint of the synthesizer shining through the arching, desperate melodic riffs, but I did not have so much of a problem with the original that I needed this redux. Really, that's the problem with this EP, just like so many odds and ends of its type. You've got a band hitting their stride of underground success, about to take it up to the next level, and the hype alone creates this thriving impulse for bands and labels to release all manner of ugly ducklings to scrape up a few additional bucks. I did think the electro piece had its promise, and there were a handful of decent ideas in the cover of "Orgasmatron", but these could just have easily been delegated to bonus tracks elsewhere and Megiddo would never have needed to exist independently. Entirely skippable.

Verdict: Fail [3.75/10]

Friday, November 18, 2011

Skjaersild - Damned Roots DEMO (2007)

The biggest issue with Skjaersild's eponymous 2005 demo was the lack of really anything happening. No vocals on either of its tracks, and not even drums on the first. With Damned Roots, the Spaniard seeks to address this by including a lot more to the architecture of his compositions, and while I still think this material still feels a bit too dry without vocals, and the individual riffs often loop themselves more than I am comfortable with hearing, I feel that this is a solid improvement over its predecessor. Not something I'd really ever seek out or make a recommendation for, but clearly a sign of some growth for the musician involved.

This time out, there are three tracks. All are still instrumental, but I don't think vocals would add anything for the latter pair. "Is Not a Voice Anyone" is a piano piece with some backing synthesizers, performed at a sad classical pacing and meant to stir only the emotions of longing and regret in the listener. It's relatively predictable, but could surely serve as background music for some dramatic scene in a TV movie, and the notes do not move in patterns that offend the ear. The slight, jazzy touch of a few of the chords later in the track is also nice, but ultimately it seems little more than average, incidental stuff. "Go Away" uses the same instrumentation, but it's a more immediate, bombastic and brief (:55 seconds) march that seems like it might be a good score for Bela Lugosi coming down his spiral stairs to confront vampire hunters.

The rest of this demo consists of "Looking at the Emptiness", which is Ravn's most dynamic piece to its day, opening with some swells of guitar tone before a crushing black chord sequence seems to herald in some ominous doom. And then, strangely the song shifts into synthesizer territory. And then, an acoustic bridge...followed by the long needed, slow drum beat and a spiraling if predictable guitar melody. I admit that I got more out of this than any of the other songs I've heard on these demos, but still there are some problems with the rather bland transitions and the absolute lack of vocals, which plagued the original demo. At almost 10 minutes, "Looking at the Emptiness" might have functioned more effectively with more to tie its parts together. The production on the instruments is decent, but still quite amateur.

Of course, if someone dislikes ambient music or simplistic, rustic piano pieces then there is just not a lot to appreciate here. The metal aspect of its throughput is incredibly scarce. This is more intended for fans into the Burzum ambient records or perhaps the 'dungeon synth' scene that is sprouting up around a bunch of largely unrelated act that have similar dark, minimal sounds, but even there it's not so exemplary. Better than the s/t, but not by a wide margin.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Skjaersild - Skjaersild DEMO (2005)

Skjaersild sounds Norwegian, and in fact the word itself (meaning 'purgatory') belongs to that nationality, but the musician behind the project, one Ravn, is actually from Spain. Yet the name itself is not the only thing about this incredibly minimal recording which breeds reminiscence for those hallowed, Northern climes, it's instrumental, raw black metal with roots in the old styles of Burzum and Ulver before both shifted into their more experimental territories. This self-titled, 2005 demo consists of but two pieces, connected largely due to the primal, haunting guitar tone. While I can appreciate such simple, atmospheric efforts in terms of their artistic intent and credibility, I feel that at times, the demo might actually suffer solely due to its dearth of content and the omission of vocals.

There's very little to work with in the first track, "Blinded to See the Most Inhuman Pain". It's nothing but a guitar droning on in a slightly melodic pattern that gradually builds itself into a dreary, desolate duo with marginally increased complexity in the riff. Nearly four minutes of this seems suitable as the backdrop to a cabin in winter, or a stroll through the woods, in other words passable background music, but with so little happening, the imagination is forced to fill in the rest of the spaces. With this song, those spaces prove too numerous. Its companion piece, the "Rotten Nature", is far more robust, with a pessimistic acoustic melody at the intro that builds into chords and the accompaniment of a drum machine. At around 11 minutes, I was dreading that its opening note progression would proceed for just too long, but thankfully Ravn mixes it up with further acoustic passages and a wailing, somber if simplistic lead.

Going to say it now: even though the riffs are not that inspiring or interesting, "Rotten Nature" would greatly benefit from the application of lyrics. A tortured rasp echoed off into the track's bleak aesthetics would do wonders for such a sterile and sobering slog, and I don't think there is really enough here otherwise. And that, in summation, is the problem I have with the entirety of this first demo, it takes the minimalist philosophy just too far, to the point where it sounds like something almost any budding black metal musician might create with a bare minimum of work and effort. There's nothing glaringly bad about the riffs that ARE here, they simply need a lot more to inspire an audience. I'm not sure how vocals would work with the beat-less opening track, but they most definitely would have aided the other, which represents about 2/3rds of the run time. In the end, Skjaersild sounds more like a demo reel for another demo, than something one would present to listeners.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]

Burn Your World - Burn Your World EP (2011)

Burn Your World is an emerging band on the Salt Lake City scene, playing a fairly unique combination of metal and hardcore which draws in influences from all over the spectrum: punk, thrash, death, grind and black metal can all clearly be heard below the coarse 'core bark of the vocals. There is a pretty predictable flux between the band's faster, go for the throat emotional outbursts and the breakdowns, and this is perhaps its most distinctly hardcore (or metalcore) characteristic; but what I really dug about these guys is how they implement the melodic or dissonant textures that occur naturally in blackened or melodic death straight into the verse rhythms, as if it could never occur otherwise.

They keep their tracks relatively short and to the point within the 2-4 minute range, which is more than acceptable for the genre, and they also exhibit a strong sense of control here, not as wild or off the hinge as something like my region's local heroes Converge, Backstabbers Inc. or Trap Them. Just a few riffs in each tune, and the transitions are almost always spotted a mile away, but this is not a style I approach for its complexity. I love the almost Bad Religion melodic fixture in the verse of "Vanished", and wish they'd have used more of this throughout the EP, but in their defense they're throwing down a lot of variation. "Suffering" sounds like a melodic death/thrash track throughout most of its playtime, and "It Was Arson" is more like a dour street core interspersed with moderate little blast sections and grooving breakdowns. A lot of older school punk and hardcore circa Minor Threat also looms in "Misanthropy", though the vocals are obviously far angrier.

If there were a few places Burn Your World could improve, it might be in the construction of the breakdowns and a few of the faster rhythms. For instance, even though "Vanished" begs for a mosh segment to follow up the faster verse, the chugging simplicity here is underwhelming. Same goes for some of the grittier thrash-core "It Was Arson" or the sluggish, choppy cuts in the middle of "Hollow Ground" (though in that last one, they at least apply a bit of melody to the chugging). None of them feel all that intense, and while this is likely to differ in the live setting, the spaces they appear on this recording feel often lacking or empty. That said, the production is pretty clean for a self-promoted release, and the mixture of styles could be unstoppable with just a bit more musical gestation between the constituents. This isn't the most consistent record, I'll admit, but the band's certainly authentic, and those who would welcome a more brutally fronted, metallic incarnation of, say, Avail might find something to enjoy here.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Isolation - Closing a Circle (2011)

When your band's name is Isolation, there will exist a certain predilection towards the sounds you are putting out there, so I went into Closing a Circle with every stereotypical expectation of either a cold, callous black metal sound stripped to its basics or a crushing and oblivious doom. These were the genres being thrown around, and yet I am wholly surprised that these Germans perform in neither of the genres, at least not on this full-length debut (they've had a number of demos and other releases in the past which might be difference). I would say that Isolation have a certain 'post-' feel to them, that is to say that those genres might have been at their core, but the web they weave here only so rarely includes those genres.

No, this is more like depressive, somber rock with a lot of shining clean guitar tones driven over a thick sub-level of grooving, big bass and thick, percussive drumming. The vocals are the one real hangup I had with the recording, sort of a dreary, low to mid-tone crooning with the obvious German accent; and sometimes they come up pretty short. However, in general they do the trick enough to match the cadence of the music, which is wrought through dreamy, streaming chord patterns in numbers like the title track. Here is an example of where some of the metal influence really comes through, since the drumming is nearly non-stop double bass pummeling. However, the rest is academic, really, a sort of psychedelic, escalating swirl of rock not unlike some of the stuff Tiamat wrote for A Deeper Kind of Slumber. "Fan the Flames" is another of the heavier songs on the album, with some choppy, melodic doom riffing and a rare instance of harsh vocals.

In truth, what Isolation have come up with here feels fresh and original considering their origins, and most of the songwriting is consistent. The packaging to the album is minimal, blue and evocative; and the lyrics empty, emotional and image driven. The sparse spoken word bits work seamlessly into the whole. I actually like it most when they start jamming along, the bass swiveling under the most spy-like, mysterious chords of the guitar, like the short instrumental "There Will Be No Answer" or the most likely material to cause introspection, such as the eerie, pretty bridge to "The Wasteland". To their credit, they capture these poles well, and the bright, bold sound of the production does the music a great service. At times, the band might not live up the implied aesthetics of their moniker, and some of the vocals seem a bit sloppy, but Closing a Circle is nothing if not intriguing. I liked it, and fans of bands like Island/Klabautamann, late 90s Tiamat and maybe Norwegians Virus should check it out.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Walk Through Fire - Furthest from Heaven (2011)

Furthest from Heaven is the sophomore outing of Walk Through Fire, a Swedish band that engage themselves in the minimal, melodic sludge and doom that put countrymen Cult of Luna on a similar path to American monsters Neurosis and Isis. I would actually consider the former of those, Neurosis to be the primary influence upon this record, because you'll hear the same jangling, dissonant tones threaded through the slow crush of the chords, and the similar, angst ridden but not quite black metal rasp of the vocalist. Sadly, as I find with so many newer bands of this sort, I just couldn't find myself all that interested in what the band had to play. I can only take so much of what seems like aimless meandering that seeks to exhibit 'heaviness' in the form of the most primal strumming of instruments.

Part of the problem is obviously the length of the compositions. In songs that range from 11 to 13 minutes, I expect quite a lot to happen, but in this case, it simply doesn't. Some bands are able to drone on endlessly with the same, simple rhythms and than escalate into something that proves worth the wait, whereas Walk Through Fire keep subtly shifting their note progressions over the whole of a track, but never evoke anything interesting. From a structural point of view, the riffs at least keep themselves occupied drifting about the band's gloomy, depressive vapors, and never quite settling upon the muddy ground, but this loses some importance when so few of them are the type I'll remember a short time after the album ends. "Furthest from Heaven" and "Through Me They Blood" sound like twin canoes slowly sinking into a mire of monotony and regret, and by the time the listener is excused from the sad sight, 23 minutes have passed...

Things become mildly more engaging on the latter half of the album, first with the ambient swell tones of "The Dying Sun" and then the harrowing melodic dirge "The Dead Sun". Note that the style of the latter is not all that different from the earlier pieces, but the stream of riffs is so much more full-bodied, poignant and powerful as it wells up all of the listener's tears and does a far better job of draining his/her emotions. It's also nice that the track had the 4 minute plateau of the ambient piece to set it up conceptually, and by the time it arrives it feels as if the cloudy sky has at last given way to a torrential downpour. That's not to say that "The Dead Sun" is by any means a really good or great track, but throughout the whole of Furthest from Heaven, it felt as if the band were working up towards something, and at least it finally arrived.

Otherwise, well, what to say? I've heard painfully few of these sorts of bands in the past half decade that I find compelling, and would much rather break out my copies of Times of Grace or Through Silver in Blood. Walk Through Fire proves no exception. It's not terrible. There's obviously some rhythmic skill here, and the production is pretty top notch for this niche, but the writing is too consistently flat, where it could really use some rise and fall.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Black Salvation - Lunia... EP (2011)

Although they've chosen to label it as an EP, Lunia... is actually an hour's worth of material recorded live in a rehearsal room by a trio of German doom mavens whose intent is to both crush their listeners' spirits and evoke all manner of demons while their brains are fogged with probably every narcotic known to thinking Man. But I'll level with you, without that subdued, live atmosphere to this, and it's churning sincerity, I doubt it would have created the same effect of ball-tripping blackness and nostalgia that it so ardently achieves, and the slower, repetitious sequences might have seemed more sterile and ultimately boring in a polished studio format.

There are four tracks, and all are painstakingly long, starting at 11 minutes and culminating with the massive closer, "Ghosts of Dying Time" and nearly 22 minutes! Normally this would get my red flags aflutter, but as I mentioned, the sheer rawness of the recording actually gives it some character that somehow survives the nigh on endless bludgeoning. As to their sound, I might compare them to an Electric Wizard or Bongripper, only Black Salvation is a lot less caustic and painful of an experience. Whether that's a good thing or not will depend on what you are looking for in a doom record, but these Germans definitely dwell between the margin of the (old) Black Sabbath, Sleeps and Pentagrams of the world, and the more droning and surreal slog of the bowels of funeral doom.

Tunes like "Inhale Lucifer" and the distorted bass driven "Doomed Utopia" are quite a drag as they gradually build towards their climaxes, but at least such peaks do finally arrive, in twitchy little psychedelic Sabbath melodies or eruptions of simplistic leads ("Doomed Utopia") that take the music to a whole other plane. Perhaps the only one of the four here that actually started to lose my attention here was the colossal fatty at the end, and yet even there the psychedelic little clean tones and crushing darkness of the vocal reverb still won me over. But in my opinion, the best thing they've got on this EP is the titular instrumental, which shifts between whales of feedback to low, passive bass thuds and all manner of guitar fuckery. It's 13 minutes of what sounds like free-form, beautiful improv that reminds me of many rainy nights cooped up in a $300/month rat-trap jamspace with nothing to do, and friends that had some modicum of ability on their instruments.

Lunia... is not perfect, but pretty fluid for a live recording and welcome, sobering introduction to a doom troop that we'll hopefully hear more of in the future, whether they stay this course or permit themselves the technological buffers of a pure studio recording.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Deus Otiosus - Murderer (2010)

Murderer might only be the first full-length output from Denmark's Deus Otiosus (Withdrawn God), but the band's members have a fair amount of collective experience in other acts like Cerekloth, Hideous Invasion, and the speed/thrashers Victimizer. If you've heard some of those groups, then you'll know that these gentlemen prefer an old school approach to composition, and Murderer is no exception. This is primitive, riff-based death metal with a slight influence from thrash and hardcore, but the guitars and gutturals have an immense amount of punch to them, and they thankfully avoid the trendy, cavernous crawl-core or the outright Swede worship for something more along the lines of Bolt Thrower, Asphyx, or Unleashed with a few traces of their own countrymen Exmortem and Panzerchrist.

I love my riffs, and fortunately so does this band, because each song throttles the listener with at least a few memorable hooks in between some of the simpler, brickhouse punk explosions that provide the framework for excitement. I do feel that the album is front-loaded with most of its better material. For example, "I Have Seen Him Slay" is a swell starting point that showcases everything this band is about: concrete drumming, efficient leads, and copious guitar tone that pummels the note progressions over the top. "Thousand Arms of the Dead" opens with a gut wrenching, war-thrashing riff, and both its closing moments and the entire following track "Wall of Violence" are exhibitions of double bass driven violence. "Ye Pigs of Little Faith" is also a standout on the album, surging between thick thrash chops and moody, plunking bass sequences as it attempts to draw some atmosphere into what is otherwise a level, straightforward sound.

Later on, though, I found some of the material to waver in quality, if not consistency. "Whore Limbs" is a taut death tune with a good breakdown in the bridge, but I didn't get much out of the track "No Life" outside of the bridge/lead. Nor did I really get into the slower bombastic gait of "Ash World", mighty as it might sound. The title track, with rounds out the album, is decent if forgettable, with some pretty uninteresting riffage in the verse and bridge. Of course, writing in such a straightforward style is pretty difficult, since by this day and age so many of the riffs will always feel as if they've been done before, but Deus Otiosus go some lengths to compensate with the loud, rousing production of the record. In all, this is tight execution of 90s death metal serial killer fundamentals with a brawny energy about it that shows some promise. Not entirely original, perhaps, but they lay on the muscle in their tone and dodge a few of the cliches that are currently in overabundance.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]