Monday, December 31, 2012

Anal Blasphemy - Perversions of Satan (2012)

Anal Blasphemy is one of numerous projects involving the prolific Molestor Kadotus, who has been one of the most active proponents of the Finland underground, not only through his own label (Hammer of Hate) but also having worked with a number of acts like Baptism, Calvarium, and Valoton, and a handful of acts abroad like Drowning the Light. He is joined here, on this third opus of disgust, by a few of the other label artists, namely Kryth from Pure Evil on drums and vocals, and Possessed Demoness of Anguished, who also provided her wretched rasping for the entirety of "Lust for Satan". I'm sure the sound of this band will surprise no one: pure, primitive, tainted black metal to spit in the eye of all that is hallowed and beautiful, before penetrating the skull behind it.

I'm also sure that, if you've seen any of the band's perverse and often seductive album covers in the past (check out the Filth Union in Desecration or Pure Blasphemy splits and try not to stiffen), or read the song titles here, that you'll realize this is black metal of the lewd and Anti-Christian persuasion, sort of a more barbaric and unwashed spin on the whole Impaled Nazarene/Marduk Fuck Me Jesus thing, an ugly and unapologetic eroticism not fit for mainstream consumption. However, what totally threw me for a loop is just how well this record balances its blackened grime and punishing primacy with a strange sense of atmosphere delivered in the random samples and screams, and a few of the lighter, subtly melodic guitar progressions (as in "Perverse Madonna, Filthy Magdalene"). Anal Blasphemy is crude at its core, with a raucous guitar tone that resembles a dark, reeking, offal and vomit-soaked alley behind a strip club, sort of like Beherit, Archgoat or Hellhammer sauteed in goat semen and smut. The lyrics and themes revolve around sodomy, succubi and Satanic sexuality, par for the course, but despite itself, Perversions of Satan actually ends up seeming more well-rounded and interesting than one might otherwise suspect...

The performances here are all around great, if simple. Kryth keeps his drums raw and airy, hovering in the din below the crunch of the guitar to create that distancing sensation I enjoy in a lot of underground black metal. Kadotus has a firm, hoarse and muddied rasp which moors the music in a forceful anchor, while Demoness creates a great contrast in her track with her distinct, post-Burzum screaming, and even mixes is some orgasmic clean notes to mix that up. There are also some pure death metal vox on tunes like "Black Cum Absolution". The bass doesn't offer much by way of compelling lines, it's more or less saddled by the filthy guitar tone; but the samples add a lot of strangeness to the record, even if I can't understand them personally. All told, though Perversions of Satan isn't the most sinister and explosive album you're like to hear from the Finnish dark side, it was a nice balance of warmth and discomfiture, like gestating in some infernal womb until the time of your violation and searing in hell-sauce has arrived. Nothing truly novel, and tunes like "Vomit the World" might have their share of familiar riff patterns, but they're unclean, deplorable, uncompromising, and entertaining for the purist.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Soulless - In Death's Grip (2012)

There comes a certain frustration as a music critic when you run across such a gem as Ohio's Soulless and realize that they've gone on rather criminally unsung through their career. Here we've got a fantastic death thrash act which excels at songwriting, an all too rare commodity in the States, sitting out there in the Midwest, at a time when both genres are booming in a resurgence. I must admit some befuddlement at why their carnal opus Forever Defiant (2007) wasn't the biggest thing in a long time, or at least far more deserving of a first class seat on the hype train than the vast majority of metalcore-based acts who adopted this fusion of genres upon first hearing Slaughter of the Soul, Reign in Blood and your choice of an In Flames or Dark Tranquillity classic in the 90s.

Five years pass, and one might have assumed Soulless stuck the proverbial fork in their dreams, until they started to tease new material in 2012, which inevitably led to their fourth full-length In Death's Grip. Upon first listen, I was surprised at how little had changed in their sound, but that's really the only possible gaff I could hurl at this disc, because otherwise, it's a deliriously energetic, entertaining 11 rounds of abuse (past the intro) that remind me exactly what I loved about its constituent influences in the first place. The obvious comparison point here would be Carcass in the 1992-1994 era, when they were evolving their grind roots into a more dynamic display of thrash-based, palm-mute heavy riff structures; but where a band like Cali's Exhumed mutated that inspiration into a more gorified, hostile excess, Soulless dial it back to incorporate some obvious 80s North American thrash influences (Slayer, Razor, etc), and then temper that hybrid with some Swedish elements like the harmonic tremolo riffs so beloved in At the Gates. The result creates a blustering, biting, forward motion that never ceases in its attempt to engage the listener's neck muscles and nervous system.

Though I've definitely no aversion to a more atmospheric-based extremity, metal for me growing up was always about the architecture of guitar riffs first and foremost. Whether it was "Immigrant Song", "The Ripper", "Symptom of the Universe" or "Maze of Torment", the momentum of the axes provided the central vehicle for my amusement. This is a formula Soulless also prescribe to, and thus it's no shock that Wayne Richards and Jim Corrick take point with a plethora of pummeling, driving rhythms that focus heavily on mid-paced hair whipping tempos, but occasionally break into slower grooves. Melodies are interspersed both through the leads and the muscular rhythm licks. The tone is appropriately meaty; perhaps not so overwhelming as the first time I heard Heartwork, but it definitely captures the imagination when they break out into the clinical muted riff progressions redolent of late 80s Destruction and Pestilence. The leads are a mixed bag here, with some ("Bleed You Dry", "Sinner Without a Soul") striking more memorable scenes than others, but all told there's no death of craftsmanship or intent.

Not to belittle the rest of the band's contributions, here, which are all beyond competent. Jim Lippuci's wretched snarl distinguishes itself from a Jeff Walker or Tomas Lindberg by splicing an added sheen of impish curdling and bleeding fragility; and like a Carcass or Deicide, the rasps are often complemented with a guttural undercurrent to punch through your ear drums as he rifles through tales of murder and civilization's decline. Dave Johnson's bass is great, veering off just often enough from the guitar rhythms to enforce their structure but establish its own personality, not too heavily drowned in distortion as is often the case with such bands, thick and fluid where it stands alone (intro to "In Darkness Consumed"). Chris Dora's battery is also delivered at a fulfilling volume. The kicks aren't too deep, but rather they snap along to the chugging of the guitars, and while this is not a band that often accelerates to a blinding speed or a blast, he keeps the hammering enthusiastic, flexible, and bright to rival the lavish mischief of the band's surgical melodic sensibilities.

As I hinted earlier, complaints here are quite minimal. The hidden radio broadcast clip outro of the guys dicking around doesn't really add much to the proceedings, but it's not as if it will interrupt the flow of the disc unless you've got it on repeat. There's also the fact that the composition level here doesn't move forward or even sideways in a meaningful way from Forever Defiant. It's steadfastly loyal to that sound, and by extension there are a dozen or so riffs which will seem slightly redundant to earlier material. Don't get me wrong: there are at least 9-10 songs here that range from good to killer ("Serpent Reaper" being a good example of the latter), but all in all there were a few from the prior album which I found marginally more memorable. On the other hand, the production here seems more well-rounded and resonant than Forever Defiant, which was a fraction cleaner and more sterile. The cover of Destructor's "Take Command" is a nice addition, helping celebrate another local legend while making the song their own in translation.

Ultimately, though, any and all quips are eclipsed in the face of another great effort from a band which deserves much more than the obscurity they've experienced. This is basically a billiards match between
Heartwork and Slaughter of the Soul, with Violent Restitution tending bar, Malleus Maleficarum off in the corner smoking and Slaughtercult trying to flirt up all their girlfriends before Reign in Blood jabs him in the testicles with a pool cue. What's not to like?

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (the mighty guide the blind)

Pure Evil - As Blood Turns Black, Mankind Shall Drown in Despair (2012)

While this isn't my first encounter with the black works of Finnish multi instrumentalist Kryth, it's my first with his Pure Evil project, a band in which he performs all instruments and vocals. I covered the full-length 2009 debut of Korgonthurus, Marras, upon which he handled the drums and guitars, but that was more of a collaboration and focused on more gratuitously swollen compositions. This, the 3rd Pure Evil album,  As Blood Turns Black, Mankind Shall Drown in Despair, also features some weighty track lengths, but we're talking in the range of 9-11 minutes, and they're broken up by shorter pieces to provide more of a variety to the experience; a crucial distraction, because a lot of the music here is molded from somewhat stock riffing aesthetics of the post Beherit, Darkthrone variety that we've been inundated with countless times.

Let's not take lightly this guy's talents: he drums, he writes and records the bass and guitars, and he then slathers the experience in a hoarse admixture of rasped and growled vocals. The flow of the music here is very often a mid to slow-paced stream of dense, melodic chords which reminded me often of other local heavyweights like Horna, Behexen or the more anthemic tracks of Satanic Warmaster; though Pure Evil carries a more serious, somber attitude within its notation. Occasionally, as in the opening riffs of "Blood Turns Black", Kryth bursts into this barrel-rolling, primal intensity circa Hellhammer or Darkthrone, and then he clobbers you with a mid-blast beat before transitioning into slower, atmospheric moments (this was also my favorite tune of this batch). I also can hear the clear death metal influences here, because his vox will often favor a sheer guttural inflection, and some of the tremolo riffs in places like "Seas of Blood" definitely have more of a pure old school death strain. Some credit must also be given that Kryth doesn't endlessly just recycle the same riffs, there are plenty enough transitions that the longer cuts don't stumble over themselves.

What I found less interesting was just the construction of the riffs, which are merely pretty average in the wake of so many other like-minded acts. This is no frills, traditional blackened metal which doesn't rely on ambiance or synthesizers to provide much atmosphere, but a lot of the licks were ultimately predictable in how they manifest, and despite the project's handle of 'pure evil', I ended up thinking the brighter rushes of melodic progressions were more mournful than sinister. That said, the production here is effectively noisy, thick and punishing. You can make out all instruments including the flooded bass lines, with the vocals strident and tortured atop the fuming, cold-blasts of guitar. Fans of Scandinavian classics like De Mysteriis dom Sathanas and Transilvanian Hunger might find something to like about the disc, not to mention the Finnish acts Sargeist, Horna, Behexen, Vitsaus, and Kryth's other projects. There's certainly a sense of purism here I can appreciate, but in the end this one didn't leave much of an impact crater on my soul.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Friday, December 28, 2012

Flotsam & Jetsam - Ugly Noise (2012)

Sometimes it's a bit tricky to discern the trajectory a band has chosen, and with Flotsam & Jetsam those 'sometimes' equate to mires of stylistically outmoded experimentation which was frankly never cool to begin with. The big selling points to Ugly Noise were that the band was self-releasing it, a DIY/Kickstarter sort of operation where no label would muddy the waters between the artist and its fanbase; and that this featured the full Cuatro-era lineup, with 4 out of 5 original members from the classic 80s records alongside bassist Jason Ward (who has remained a member since '91). Now, if you ask me, I haven't a fucking clue why Flotsam & Jetsam would return to that easy accessibility period of watered down thrash/power saturated with banal radio hooks and weak riffing that often brought it out of the metal spectrum entirely. The 90s produced nothing but mediocrity from this outfit, despite their major label presence and any delusions to the contrary. They've never capitalized on No Place for Disgrace or written anything that approached that same benchmark of quality, but at least their 2010 effort Cold showed some signs of life; some pretty intense songwriting that simply wasn't consistent enough.

As soon as I saw the dilapidated piano on the cover, and read the self-deprecatory album title, I knew that this was going to be yet another mid-life crisis ordeal where the band is trying to maturate their material with a more friendly appeal to the masses, sort of a retread of where they were at on Cuatro. You get little traces of generic palm-muted thrash rhythms here or there, but nothing bordering on complexity or originality which they once possessed in spades. Half the time this is sterilized hard rock fare with a few misleading traces of progressive rock influences not unlike those awful Megadeth, Savatage and Queensryche records of the mid-90s, and when the band finally picks up the hammer it becomes a mixture of cheesy electronics and bad groove/bounce metal rhythms as on "Cross the Sky", "Run and Hide", etc. From the perspective of pure verse/chorus sculpting, they're not poorly written, but the punchy polish of the production and the lack of compelling guitars (apart from a few gleaming, atmospheric leads) really moor this album down into a box of tissues. About the only person here who is delivering consistently is Erik A.K., whose voice still carries a fraction of its distinct silk, fire and grit, but even he can't really save the songwriting process, especially not with pathetic lyrics of individualism and rebellion which wouldn't have even seemed deep to a castigated teen in 1988...oh wait, that was me.

Granted, Flotsam & Jetsam have never been poets laureate, but once they charge into a chorus like on "To Be Free" I found myself keeling over in laughter, and not the fun kind. The sad kind. Just take a brief tour of the song titles. "Rage"? "I Believe"? "To Be Free?" "Machine Gun"? "Carry On"? All have been implemented countless times by any number of artists, and despite being a mere aesthetic detail, this lack of creativity still contributes to Ugly Noise's underwhelming nature. I do not at all mind the little bits of experimentation, like the dark, deep pianos used in the opening title track, or the Queen-like choral syncopation striking out through "Rage", in fact I encourage such risks, but overall Flotsam & Jetsam really don't contribute to the thrash, speed or power metal traditions that birthed them, nor can they rival their own formative works. Tunes like "Rabbit's Foot" are simply too safe and disposable to take seriously, and a few catchy vocal lines just can't coalesce the experience into something worth the time. Generally, veteran bands like this will try to trace their steps and return to the eager, hungry sounds of their upward swinging youths, so it's a little strange that the Arizonans are interested in bringing back that sterile and uninteresting sound from the height of their MCA years. At one time this all might have helped push some units, but Ugly Noise is ultimately offensive to both its predecessor and the band's roots...

Not total shit, perhaps, but bad enough that I'd rather listen to My God. This just wasn't my thing, and while I can't ever expect No Place for Disgrace II to manifest, it'd be great if Flotsam & Jetsam could get back to kicking our asses again (which they very nearly did in 2010). I know they're capable. The question is: do they?

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Queiron - Sodomiticvm Per Conclave (2012)

While they've never released an expressly 'bad' album, I've not really been easy on São Paulo's Queiron in the past, strictly because I've just felt that there was a lot of latent ability here which wasn't manifesting into the band's songwriting. The results were a slew of more or less average fast, brutal death metal records which followed closely in the footsteps of their precursors Morbid Angel, Deicide, Krisiun, and maybe the 'death' years of Behemoth. This time out, though, the Brazilians firmly plant a rainforest up my posterior, because the riffs and songs here are very much pronounced, memorable, without abandoning the savagery of its predecessors. From its seductive cover image to the variation of its compositions, Sodomiticvm Per Conclave is a step above its sinister elder siblings and will, in a just world, widen the band's exposure through the underground circuit.

They set this up with an evil, almost martial march of ambiance that transforms into an instrumental called "Ordo Iconoclastic Rebellis", threaded with guitar harmonies. Here you really get the first sense for this more potent, pummeling production. The drums are set just right for the battering ram blasts and fills, though the kick drum does occasionally feel boxy (not a huge problem). The guitars have this robust, crunching richness to the slower, palm muted patterns, and yet they still hold up for the harried assault of chords used to adorn the blasted passages. However, the band has really refined its sense for melody, and the note progressions in tunes like "Perversion in Khaoz" or "Slavghter Ministry" implement a lot of tried and true, classic heavy metal and rock lead techniques into what otherwise prove a less palatable blueprint of brutality. Clinical harmonies are picked through some of the chugging patterns, and the songs on this album distinguish themselves from one another far more than on The Shepherd of Tophet or Impious Domination. Even Marcelo's vocals, which come across like a mixture of classic Sinister and the dual guttural-rasp technique of Deicide, seem more poignant and punishing.

I also really loved the exotic (if overbearing) sense of atmosphere they create through ritual pieces such as the intros or the brief "Templvm Perversvm". Like a lot of death and black metal acts, these guys really use the Latin thing to the point of near-cheesiness. U's become v's, f's become v's. They love that letter: v. But once you blend this all into the extremist undercurrent and the bevy of solid, entertaining riffs that support the album as a whole, it all transforms into something very much fulfilling to the sinister being in each of us. Okay, so Queiron aren't reinventing the wheel, and a myriad of death metal groups like Septic Flesh and Nile have already given us great blends of atmosphere and aggression, but I'll still take this over the garden variety vapidity one finds in the architecture of many also-ran bands and albums. Sodomiticvm Per Conclave is perhaps not a 'great' album, but it kept me interested through almost the entire 50 minutes, and certainly provides a case for one of the more improved acts I've heard this year.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Convulse - Inner Evil EP (2013)

Convulse is another case of an early death metal act which has, in the wake of a long-term absence, developed an enormous following due to the fact that their debut, World Without End hits all the right notes with the latest generations of fans seeking out the crushing, atmospheric, authenticity that used to run rabid in the genre during the earlier half of the 90s. One could certainly not argue that the widespread proliferation of the internet has bolstered the Finns' audience, and the cult tatters of legend status began to circulate around their name. Fast forward 18 years after their more divisive sophomore Reflections (which saw a marginal shift in sound) and we've got the inevitable reunion material, and already I've seen a number of early listeners citing disappointment...

Yes, you guessed it: these new tracks are not EXACTLY World Without End 2.0, but really, what would any sane individual expect? Convulse was a group which had already moved on from that precise aesthetic before embarking on their nearly two-decade hiatus. To their credit, and to the relief of many who will hear this with fresh ears, I think the Finns have done a pretty damn good job of updating their old sound. The fundamental songwriting here is not at all unlike that of those formative years, and the major differences come in terms of production, which feels cleaner and perhaps a fraction less ominous than the debut. Otherwise, the guitars still have a lot of that sodden groove to them, sullen lapses into death/doom sequences, and ruddy streams of mutes which still churn, even without that muddy and swamp-like tone of olde. Coupled with evil, archaic death metal melodies (like those late in "Inner Evil" itself) or the brute, brunt gutturals of Rami Jämsä, the EP absolutely recycles its ancient inspirations, both musically and lyrically. Hell, "God is Delusion" is more or less a spiritual successor to the title track or "Godless Truth" from World Without End, and it remains pretty clear: you won't be meeting with these dudes at Bible Studies on the next Sabbath.

I did feel that there was a small gulf here between the quality of two tracks. "Inner Evil" is the more direct and pummeling of the pair, but I felt the more atmospheric fulfillment of "God Is Delusion" was superior, from the great acoustic intro to the somber, mourning melodies which permeate its slower hooks. The latter simply sticks with me longer. Once in awhile the band will pull off a riff or two which just doesn't seem all that interesting, and overall there is not a whole lot of creativity here, which I would think might actually satisfy a certain portion of the purist audience who want their death delivered with no frills, dressings, or progression. But ultimately, I thought these two tunes were above average, keeping me interested at least past a few spins. The bass is fluid and fragrant with the din of rot-blossoming corpses, the drums keep a great pace with some really organic fills and primitive blasts for the faster sequences, the guitars rich and chunky. The vocals are a bit monotonous but to be truthful I felt this way also of their debut. Fitting to the tunes, but a bit more character and less predictability would enhance the experience.

I feel like I had a reaction to this EP comparable to how I felt about the latest Incantation full-length, if not nearly so positive or pronounced: it's the same band, only tidier and more matured through the seasons, but they're still playing the music true to themselves. If Convulse can create a proper album with at least this level of songwriting, I don't see how that could be a bad thing, and supporters of that old Finnish axis of evil which also includes Demigod and Demilich should not be too turned off. Decent stuff.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, December 21, 2012

Denouncement Pyre - Almighty Arcanum (2013)

If 2010's World Cremation was the right hook pummeling you to the arena mat, then Almighty Arcanum must be the pinning maneuver, because it more or less takes everything I enjoyed about that album and fleshes it out into a more appreciable set of songs that had me straining my neck in bestial, barbaric deference. Like the last album, the worst I can ever say for Denouncement Pyre is they lack a real sense for creativity or innovation, but when you're having as much fun as you will listening through these tracks, then that shouldn't prove a hindrance in eagerly recommending this to the followers of groups like Deströyer 666, Marduk, (90s) Enthroned, (late 80s) Bathory, Angelcorpse, Bestial Warlust, and other purveyors of comparable, cacophonous, blitzkrieg bombast.

This is a fast record, but not to a fault. Blasting sequences are measured out against slower, warlike segues where the drums are just as intense, like artillery treads about to crush a few hillocks of human bones. As with the prior album, the band accrues more black metal brownie points than death (for a hybrid), but you can feel the presence of the latter medium through the more robust, growled vocals. What separates the Australians from a number of similar, savagery-borne outfits who try to thrive on simple formulas of blasts and tremolo patterns is that Denouncement Pyre fuse a little more atmosphere into even the most standard numbers like "An Extention of the Void" and the eerie keening behind the meaty bridge riff; or the slower, ominous riffing of "The Deceiver". That said, they truly shine when they barrel forward through pieces such as the titular "Almighty Arcanum" or the superb, driving "Circle of Serpents". If you're not throwing your horns at the abyss within about :30 of the early riffs in these, then you're probably late for Communion, clearly in the wrong place. Almighty Arcanum is not filled to the bloody gills with excellent, memorable rhythms, leads, or transitions, but it's entirely well put together, a noteworthy opus of infernal craftsmanship.

Much of this can be attributed to the emboldened, incendiary production, which transforms what might otherwise be the most banal of riffing sequences into a poignant discharge of bright, intimidating anger. The drums and vocals sound great, but the guitars have an exemplary mix whether they're surging along in some black/thrash configuration, twisting into a vile tremolo picking, or a more solemn, crushing abrasion. Bass is not too much of a standout in terms of adding depth and dimension, but you can still hear it plugging along somewhere, and it doesn't detracted from the dominant guitar seated above it. The vocals of Decaylust (aka 'D) aren't exactly novel, but they're abusive enough, and I like the wavering fountain of vomited blood he invokes on the sustained notes. All told, Almighty Arcanum is an impressive, smash-up job, even if the pale quartet on the cover seem like they've turned their ouroboros into some hellish trampoline. Plenty of seething bursts of Satanic celerity here to counteract the occult mortar-shell certainty of the mid-paced fare, and if you ignored them the last time they put out an album (a good one, I might add), it'll be a little harder in 2013, since Denouncement Pyre will piss demon-spunk all over you.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Deceptor - Chains of Delusion EP (2013)

The short version of what makes Deceptor's Chains of Delusion EP so damn compelling: it takes just about everything you know about the genres of traditional thrash, speed and power metal, traces them by the roots to their source in the ground, hacks 'em up into a juicer, and then proceeds to regurgitate them into one of the most delicious blends you've tasted in a good long time. Shaken or stirred. Room temperature or add ice cubes. Morning, noon, night. England's latest (deserved) sensation earns its master's degree in mixology while tearing out some of the best, science fictional metal tracks I've heard in ages, fronted by a wonderfully rabid, schizoid vocalist who exponentially increases the character of an already unhinged slew of memorable riffage.

The longer version: This rules. Track down a copy or I don't like you anymore.

The beauty of Deceptor's sophomore EP is that it throws out all the rules, and then proceeds to play by them anyway. There's an organic, vibrant feel to the production of these tunes that feels so much more laid back and sincere than most of the oversaturated, brickwalled studio sounds I equate with the mesh of genres they play around in, but the hooks and technicality on parade are superb. Reminds me quite a lot of when I first heard Slough Feg (when they were The Lord Weird Slough Feg); this band isn't nearly so folkish in composition, but the love for classical and slightly complex, nuanced riffing is in the ball park. The drums are tactile, the bass just as dextrous and involved as the rhythm and lead guitars. Apart from the two robotic-voiced interludes, which I could give or take, Chains of Delusion consists of four dynamic and distinct pieces, loaded with tasteful licks which betray a love of all things 80s. There's the sort of harried, classically-inflected picking redolent of acts like Megadeth or Helstar, but the band isn't afraid to erupt into a more focused groove. What's more, the guitar tone isn't excessively driven or distorted, so you get this rich, natural, springy sound in the chords that holds up through the more frenetic note progressions.

Even more diverse, though, are the vocals, which run the range from a Bruce Dickinson or Harry Conklin power metal inflection to all manner of wretched thrash barks aka King Fowley (Deceased), salacious psycho screams that reminded me of the super obscure US act Terrahsphere, and even a few guttural growls. Literally, they'll shift gears from measure to measure. There's just no end to what they'll pile into a cut, and yet rather than coming across as disjointed or scatterbrained, they all somehow manage to fit beautifully into the puzzle; yes, even the weird crooning sequences that appear in some of the verses. As a result, Chains of Delusion becomes a consummate piece of entertainment more than a tired adherence to the blueprints which often bring the boring to the band's constituent parent mediums. No, it's not a pure, biting thrash effort like you'd expect from Exodus or Warbringer, written purely for the mosh-inclined, but it plays with a lot of that genre and twists in some NWOBHM styled guitars, classic US power metal, and ultimately, whatever the trio desires. Listening through this was like experiencing dozens of obscure tapes and vinyls I had from 80s band simultaneously...

I guess the only gripe one could have here is that the music is so good I wanted more than just 18-19 minutes of it, so dazzlingly interesting that you feel as if you're being cut short. But that's largely due to the fact that, upon hearing Deceptor, you'll realize they're mad geniuses with countless ideas boxed up in their minds that you simply can't wait to exploit. Hopefully the clock of sanity won't tick too long before we get to do just that with a full-length; in the meantime, they've got a back log of demos and one prior EP to dive into, or I could just listen to Chains of Delusion for the 40th time. Manic, musical excellence that should delight connoisseurs of both antique and contemporary metallurgy.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Sulphur Aeon - Swallowed by the Ocean's Tide (2013)

H.P. Lovecraft and his morbid mythos are hardly a novel theme running in metal these days, and in fact a multitude of songs and entire concept albums have paid tribute through either direct translations of he and his followers' tales, or creative interpretations, across just about all the sub genres, from heavy and doom to black and death metal. So the gorgeous cover artwork and title to Sulphur Aeon's debut Swallowed by the Ocean's Tide are quite overt in their inspiration, as are the solemn chants through the intro piece "Cthulhu Rites", but I really have to hand it to these Germans: this is by far one of the best albums to date to represent the beloved horror author, because it does it so distinctly and differently from almost anyone else...

Sulphur Aeon is at its squamous, withering core a guitar and drum-heavy death metal trio, but the approach they take to the medium is frankly refreshing in the muddy wake of so many chasm-defiling Incantation clones, Swede-a-likes, and so forth. You could consider this old school, fast-paced death with loads of broiling tremolo harmonies and blast beats, threaded with chugging grooves and streaming, fluid picking progressions that hint of melodeath, but pointing out precise influences become more complicated. I sort of thought of it as a hybrid of ominous Morbid Angel growls and grooves with (Devin Townsend's) Ocean Machine in terms of that overwhelming sense of texture to the production which really encapsulates this forsaken, maritime menace. But even this doesn't exactly describe the structure of the guitars, which occasionally reminded me of the thick textures in modern Hypocrisy riffing. Depth charge kick drums, roiling, rich guitar tones and a voluminous, deep bass to the production create a suspense in the listener that he or she is being pressurized on all sides by the brine, Deep Ones pulling at his/her legs as they pull their victim to the ruins on the ocean floor. All the while, waves of ambiance cascade across the background of the riffs like fleeting pods of whales.

Many concept albums of this nature (in extreme metal, at least) have gone for a creepier, abstract vibe, which does play strongly to the atmosphere of the Mythos, but these Germans clout you and squeeze you with a suffocating majesty that works just as well. Think of this more as the 'reckoning' once the Old One has awakened, and not the chain of mysterious psychological events leading up to it. The cultists won, and now a fucking tsunami of tentacles lashes out infectiously through the sheer force of the presentation and balanced, muscular riff set that dominates at least the first half of the record. In fact, the first five full tunes here are utterly perfect. From the melodic swerves of "Incantation" to the black-metal inflected chords of the title track, I was completely floored and flooded by what was happening. It's only a little deeper in the track list, with tunes like "Those Who Dwell in Stellar Void" or "Beneath.Below.Beyond.Above" that it ever starts to feel redundant, that the well of ideas here has dried up ever so slightly. Even then, however, the band is still mightily consistent in sound, and the closing march "Zombi" with its sheen of glimmering wave-like melodies is a nice reprieve from the near 40 minutes of 'the bends' one might suffer from the heavier material's ballistic decompression.

Other than this marginal dive in quality as it progresses, Swallowed by the Ocean's Tide is unquestionable phenomenal. The production might prove too dense and saturated for some who like a lo-fi, stripped sound to their death metal instrumentation, but if you're open to the added weight of studio layering, this proves a wonderful proof of concept that really fits its artwork and theme. The vocals of 'M' Martin Hellion are not exactly novel for the field, a gruff guttural not unlike you'd expect from Nile or Tucker-era Morbid Angel, but I can't think of anything else that would have been able to hold it's own against the glorious oppression of the guitars. Ultimately, this just has everything I desire in a 21st century death metal outing. It draws upon a wealth of both old school and newer inspirations, it really doesn't sound 100% like anything else I've been listening to, and Sulphur Aeon exhibit a seasoned grasp of songwriting aesthetics: concise, heavily loaded with riffs that stick, and never boring. It might front load some of its otherworldly, amphibious thrills, but its truly a work of resonant, heart-stopping ferocity from the fathoms. Highly recommended, and not just to fish people.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Paradox - Tales of the Weird (2012)

Though some listeners have expressed reservations at the overwhelming, heavily saturated and dystopian brand of power/thrash that Paradox have evolved into, I admit to being fully in thrall with both Electrify and Riot Squad. The future is staring us in the face, after all, and I found both the production and theme of those albums to create a sonic counterpart to my idealized fantasies of such a tomorrow, borne out of the 80s and an early love of cyberpunk and speculative fiction which I have yet to grow out of. Pummeling metallic approximations of Blade Runner, Syndicate, Neuromancer, and Robocop!? Sign me up! Granted, the proximity of their release might have led to some aesthetic overlap in content, but keep in mind that Electrify was already arriving after an 8-year gap. This time around, the Germans have taken a little more time than with Riot Squad to craft a follow-up, and though as a whole I'm enjoying it (only) a fraction less, I will say without question that Tales of the Weird is a more accessibly produced and audibly balanced effort.

Paradox has long excelled at forging atmospheric intros with acoustics that lead the charge, at least since the excellent Heresy (1989), and so does this technique open the 9-minute title track for this sixth album, which is more or less a microcosm of the entire disc. Pugilistic triplets and muscular mutes anchor the material with the same thrashing tension they've adopted since the debut, structurally mirroring classic Californian classics like Master of Puppets or The Legacy more so than countrymen Destruction or Kreator. The vocals of Charly Steinhauer, however, really reign in the European comparisons to various thrash and speed metal outfits like Midas Touch, Deathrow, Scanner, Risk, and of course Vendetta, whose own Daxx was involved with the lyrics on this very album. Charly's inflection is melodic, accented, yet still dangerous enough to deliver the harder riffs here convincingly, and the minor flaws and imperfections, flats and sharps actually enhance the experience, a common trait I've found in German thrash especially (great examples would be Schmier or Mille Petrozza, two far more vicious frontmen). What helps set Paradox apart and beyond the bullet belted,  denim vested, garden variety pizza thrash act, though, is the momentous majesty of the dual harmonies, leads, and melodic spikes that are sure to engorge their appeal to modern power metal addicts.

Tales of the Weird feels ambitious as a whole, even if you break down individual components of the sound and find what are often pretty standard note progressions, or riffs that really don't stand out so much on their own. There is such a seasoned framework to the songwriting that even the most direct and violent thrashers like "Escalation", "Slashdead" and "Brutalized" are festooned with melodies, hooks, and flawlessly executed leads that, if not always so memorable, capitalize upon the classical shredding influences that dominated the 80s in both hard rock and harder metal spheres. These are contributed by one of the newest members in the fold, Christian Münzner, and just to put his level of proficiency into perspective: he also plays in tech death metal wizards Obscura and Spawn of Possession...making the transition to this style with ease. The other new member is drummer Daniel Buld, and his performance is a polished powerhouse worthy of any modern thrash outing, with plenty of double bass and dextrous fills to really fill out the low end. Olly keller reprises his role on the bass, and as with the last two albums he rambles along faithfully to the riffs, but ninjas enough fills and grooves into his lines to give the tunes even more depth.

No song passes without some exciting verse or bridge riff, but in particular I found "Day of Judgement", "The Downward Spiral" and "Escalation" the most sticky in terms of their transitions and compelling notation. The addition of Rainbow's "A Light in the Black" is a wise one; not as hard hitting as the originals which precede it, but nonetheless it survives its transformation thanks to the meat on the guitar and clinical but impressive performance of Steinhauer, who sounds pretty clear. Tales of the Weird is not the sort of album which will find a home with fans of the dirtier death/thrash, crossover or black/thrash sounds who loathe progression and unfettered melody coursing through their faves, but it brings back that forward thinking sense of evolution which dominated the late 80s efforts of bands like Artillery, Coroner, Deathrow, Mekong Delta and Paradox itself, which was sadly interrupted when thrash (and certain other strains of metal) fell by the wayside for groove, grunge, and 90s 'alternative'. For this reason alone I might laud it, but the Germans honor the onus to actually write some damn good tunes in the process, and there's no reason you shouldn't dig this if you're fond of Heresy, Collision Course, Electrify or Riot Squad.

Perhaps the title's a bit of a throw-off, since this is hardly an unusual or experimental offering. But I'm sure it was more of a send-up to cult science fiction media. Otherwise: great music, beautiful Claudio Bergamin cover art, and warlike, relevant lyrics consistent with the aggression of the prior effort. Sure, I expect nothing less from Paradox, and I'm sure others have comparable expectations, but its always comforting to know that Charly Steinhauer and crew have our backs just the same.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (a merciless confession)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mental Home - Угра (2012)

I have to say, of all the reunions and comeback records I've heard this year, Mental Home's Угра ('Ugra') was perhaps the least expected. Not because the Russians ever called it quits permanently, but because I neglected to notice the single/teaser they dropped last year, and after the diminishing results of their last album Upon the Shores of Inner Seas (their third on and last on the End Records, and first and last to get US distribution through Century Media), I did not think I'd be hearing the band again in a studio capacity. Yet here it stands, the 4th full-length, with most of the members returning from the 90s (save for the bassist, who is replaced here by 'Serpent' from several other Russians acts), after a 12 year hiatus...

This is a self-released album, and it bears the distinction of being their first entirely in Russian (with a German concept, if the cover didn't tip you off). Not only that, but the melodies and riffing structures really seem to conjure idealistic images of their homeland, from its vast history to its architecture; something I've always enjoyed in their music. Right away, the band has returned to the symphonic/melodic doom stylings of Vale and Black Art, their strongest statements, and abandoned a fraction of that fruitless progression from Upon the Shores...which I found to be quite a disappointment from its predecessors. The guitars are bulky, accessible and heavily based in simplistic melodic riffing, and they've not lot any of that huge polish circa Black Art. 'Maiden' Smirnov continues to orchestrate the group beyond the normal parameters of their rock instrumentation, and he often leads off tunes like "В среднем течении.. (In the Middle of a Stream)" or "Берёза, яблоня, рябина (Birch, Apple, Rowan)" with both eloquent and (somewhat) cheesy synthesizer pads that are not likely to win over those who loathe keys in black or doom metal. All told, though, these are pretty catchy tracks that offer up similar motifs to Black Art with perhaps a few breaths of progression that hint of a band not simply interested in retreading old steps.

One difference is that Sergey's vocals here feel a lot grittier and harder hitting than the prior albums, even if the style and tonality are largely the same. Combined with the native lyrics, this might be one element which could turn off fans of the earlier work, though once you settle into its rougher contours it continues to fit the music quite well. Drums, bass, piano and clean guitars are all top notch quality, and Угра is varied and well-paced across 46 minutes. So seasoned and consistent in quality, in fact, that it really does not feel like much time has lapsed since their 2000 effort. Mental Home has always been, and continues to be one of the more distinct bands in this field, implementing a layer of ethnic immersion into their notation which you're too rarely going to find elsewhere. I was also impressed that they capped off the disc with a Lake of Tears cover ("Raven Land"), sped up a little and sung in Russian. Not because it was as cool as the original, but just that they had the good taste to try such a thing and make it their own. Ultimately, Угра isn't quite so infectious as their 1996-1999 works, but nevertheless this is a good listen and a welcome return to what so compelled me towards their music in the first place, with a sound all to themselves that should sate fans of Gothic/doom metal who don't shy away from the language barrier.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Prophecy of Doom - Total Mind War (2012)

Definitely among the more obscure bands in the British underground in that crucial late 80s/early 90s death metal wellspring, Prophecy of Doom are ripe for the sort of treatment this Total Mind War collection offer us. Prior to this, my only exposure to the band had been their full length debut, Acknowledge the Confusion Master ('90), a pummeling abomination which might have found its way into the mitts of many a Napalm Death, Carcass, Bolt Thrower or Godflesh fan if only their nets had been cast a little wider. Crude in execution, to be sure, but in these times of mining the underground forgotten, I could see a lot of younger fans falling for its authentic fusion of leaden, busy grooves and over the top, gruff scowls and blunted barks.

Total Mind War is not a new recording, but rather a pairing of two of the group's demos, the Second Peel Session (1991) and Ego Death Grind (1996). At a half hour playtime and 7 tracks (some of which are redundant with the band's two studio albums), it's hardly a substantial tour through Prophecy's past, nor is it an unwarranted criticism that it feels incomplete when there were numerous other antiquities (demos, EPs, and split material) that might have been added for a better sense of completeness. That said, you never know with these things, there might be licensing issues or member disputes that preclude such an effort. Certainly the songs here are great representations of the band's style, though one will have to accept the demo level production here which is marginally less clean than what I recall of Acknowledge. Thick, punishing guitars weave dirty grooves that lie somewhere between Symphonies of Sickness, Realm of Chaos, Harmony Corruption and Disharmonic Orchestra's Expositionsprophylaxe in structure. Not exactly complex, but certainly busier than your stock chord progressions inherent to so many death/grind or death/doom acts of that era. The drums are taut and tense while the bass has a muddy, pervasive air about it that looms off in the near distance.

But the real standout for Prophecy of Doom was the vocal presence of 'Shrew', which felt like a more garbled alternative to Barney Greenway or Karl Willetts sauced in these grim, echoing effects which are incredibly ridiculous but at the same time: entertaining. Even where the riffs suffer from a bit of a blander note progression, the swerving swagger of the emboldened bass and Shrew's inflection really take this to another level, as does the presence of the spacious ambient swells in the midst of Ego Death Grind tracks like "Protogenesis", easily my favorite on this compilation. You'll definitely hear those hints of death/doom on the latter demo that started to creep into the band's sound through the 90s, as they slowly drifted away from the grinding roots. Lyrically, the Brits were fairly political and technological, mirroring several of their peers like Napalm Death or Deviated Instinct, and well scripted from what I can recall of the debut album.

Ultimately, though, Total Mind War is going to appeal most to those interested in collecting such gems who have never owned the content. As I said, a few of these cuts did appear on the full-lengths, the first of which would probably be the best intro to new fans who can find it; but this is probably the best place for tracking down Ego Death Grind. In terms of quality, Prophecy of Doom were not the most memorable writers, surely, and yet I think there's something charming about their style which might appeal to old school bloodhounds that are tired of the same old cavernous Autopsy/Incantation advocates, or the xeroxed Swedish blueprints. This band and these songs were very indicative of a scene long abandoned (though its chief practitioners still attract a large following), and the combination of raucous vocals, sludgy death riffs and the maturity of the later content here lead me to believe these guys were capable of bigger things.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Vomitor - The Escalation (2012)

Australia's long been a haven for raving metal madmen, much as it has been for brutal cult film like Razorback and the Mad Max series. I mention these, because Vomitor has always struck me as a group of barbarians reared on both this 70-80s cinematic extremity just as much as the fundamentals of death, thrash, black and speed metal, all of which they pulp together into a whipcord of frenzied, raw energy and Teutonic inflected riffing circa Sodom, Kreator and Destruction (in addition to Slayer, Hellhammer, 80s Morbid Angel and Possessed) in the early through mid 80s. Denim, vests, helmets, bullet belts, beer, patches, this is the archetypal band of retro maniacs who, rather than just endlessly aping riffs and production, do try something mildly different with the joint petulance of their production values and the sinister intentions exacted by the nasty vocals, frilly leads, etc. It's not hard to reason why their prior efforts like Devils Poison generated the buzz they did, and Vomitor is surely a fine fit for the crowd enamored of Hells Headbangers, Nuclear War Now! and related labels who specialize in this field.

It's also no surprise that these sickos (past and present) almost all have history in other Down Under deviants like Gospel of the Horns, Spear of Longinus, Portal or the seminal Bestial Warlust. The writing is not exemplary, perhaps, but it is incredibly seasoned mischief that never sounds insincere or trying to take the piss out of the genres it celebrates. I realize the band is generally labeled as a death/thrash hybrid, but the bloodied, Mille-like barks and unwashed savagery of the presentation also reek of Mayhem's Deathcrush era or a few of the earlier Bathory records. The guitar tone here is crisp, crunchy, and never obscured in the mix, but at the same time it's light and primitive and just about perfect for both the churning grime of the slow to mix paced chords and palm mutes, to the more harried and intense picking sequences that drive pieces like the opener "Pitch Black" or "Hellburst to Fight". When they pursue a more melodic progression of notes, they always pop out of the mid-toned backdrop like vulture cries, and the leads are generally interesting developments no matter how dissonant, incendiary or frivolous the patterns. Drums have a very live feel cast about them, with the kick set at a tolerable level and lots of crash to the fills, and the bass, while audible, has a thinner tone that allows the guitars and vocals the center stage.

I love the effects placed on the crude, barking vocals which help them feel like echoes across a traumatized, irradiated wasteland. Malevolent desert ghosts, stalking any mutant who survived the fallout. These guys are also capable of building intensity to the point where it becomes like an ungodly offspring of Repulsion and mid-80s Dark Angel, but then they'll simmer down into some less overbearing material for a swell contrast ("Horrors of the Black Earth"). Despite its wilder embellishments, The Escalation is focused and concise, with about 31 minutes and 7 tracks (with an intro), and never grows boring unless you're just not in the mood for such a rough handling. True, the songs don't really stick out in my memory for much longer than when I'm listening to the disc, but they easily stoke the hell-hearths of nostalgia for that crucial time when a lot of bands were branching out, and the borders between the thrash, death and black genres were somewhat blurred, with no one in a rush to define them to the exclusion of all others. A fun, consistent record which easily affirms their place among the better groups in this niche, safely recommended to fans of Pleasure to Kill, In the Sign of Evil, Darkness Descends, Hell Awaits, Altar of Madness, Seven Churches, as well as newer outfits like Cruel Force, Antichrist, Ketzer, Deathhammer, etc. Thunderdome cage metal.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Endezzma - Erotik Nekrosis (2012)

After what I believe to be a looping Doctor Faustus quote, Norse heathens Endezzma dowse the listener in about 60-70 seconds of gradually escalating noise and horror, before letting loose the black metal dogs of war. It's a dramatic entrance, and one that they are fortunately able to capitalize with 40 minutes of consistent material that balances off the primalist riffing of early 90s Scandinavian extremity with a fair share of atmospheric content that prevents the record from ever growing stale. This is an important characteristic in a world where so many bands seem to aim for either one or the other half of this equation, and thus end up in a rather narrow confines from which it becomes difficult to escape. This is not some amazingly unique or inventive outfit, mind you, but they get the job done in the songwriting department, and the rhythmic variation here is appreciated.

Essentially, you've got these dense and compacted grooves ("Against Them All" is a good example) which draw upon the heritage of a Darkthrone, Celtic Frost/Hellhammer, or perhaps even a touch of the latest Satyricon black & roll; and sauteed in higher, jangling strings that often bear the brunt of dissonance. Some tracks go out for an even more anguished, atmospheric structure ("Swansong of a Giant", "Hollow") through which the guitars are used more as a malevolent backdrop for the tortured vocal. Elsewhere they lay on the thicker, double bass drums up to a faster pace, but this is not a band who ceaselessly blast across material: they want you to feel every note, every dripping, malignant emotion dispersed through the instruments and vocals, and as a result Erotik Nekrosis has all the airs of a seasoned, maturated recording. The bass is a copious brute, pumping along against the rhythm guitar, and the drums have a lot of crashing rock techniques that help support the grooves. Endezzma doesn't shy away from using cleaner (though still distorted) strings where they're applicable, and the vocalist puts a lot more character and meat into his inflection than the typical, forgettable rasp many black metal bands drone along with.

The late and prolific Trondr Nefas (also of Angst Skvadron, Beastcraft and Urgehal) shines on what is possibly his final recording, and that richness and cautious rendering of the rhythm guitar paired up with M. Sorgar's (aka Morten Shax) bloodied grunts and howls kept me transfixed upon the music throughout. Individually, I wouldn't claim that most of the note progressions are oh so memorable, and the songs aren't so infectious that I wished to immediately cycle back through them, but on the whole this is a album that really gets it right: it's immersive and interesting, and even the lengthier tracks don't tend to force any sense of boredom during the experience. The bold, up front production readily translates the band's oblique, ominous themes through the speakers without ever threatening the sterilization that often comes with overt polish and overdubbing. Erotik Nekrosis is nothing amazing by virtue of having heard its components many times before through Norse and Swedish black metal pioneers, but darkly pleasurable, well above average.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, December 14, 2012

Megascavenger - Descent of Yuggoth (2012)

Megascavenger is yet another of the myriad Roger 'Rogga' Johansson projects, and one of the newest. It's been a busy year for the Swede, with at least a half dozen releases under his belt, from the exceptional (Putrevore's Macabre Kingdom) to the acceptable (latest from The Grotesquery and Revolting) to the downright average (the ghostly death grind of Humanity Delete). Somewhere in the midst of all these recordings he's managed to eke out an additional, monstrous old school death metal act and invite a few of his friends among the underground royalty to help flesh it all out. Where to place Megascavenger in the Rogga pantheon? Where other acts in his retinue might represent overt tributes to his Swedish peers and forebears, I like to think of this as a meatier homage to something like Bolt Thrower or Asphyx.

You can expect the typical traits out of Descent of Yuggoth: solid, effortless production that seethes in its own boiling atmosphere, and a riff-set which is both unashamedly derivative and entertaining. There is a load of grime on the guitar which seems like churning blood and sludge, but he also incorporates some melodies to counterbalance the low end domination, and a slew of guest leads from Patrick Mameli (Pestilence), Jonas Lindblood (Puteraeon, Taetre) and Eric Daniels (Asphyx). The album measures off its slower grooves and faster blitzes in balanced succession, and it ends up feeling like a more a mix of Realm of Chaos/War Master era Bolt Thrower or The Grand Leveler Benediction if it were molded with a more modernized production redolent of Autopsy's first two discs. The guitars are abrasive and intense, the bass like a toxic ooze slinking alongside the drums, and the vocals are Rogga's general low-end gutturals and don't necessarily distinguish themselves from numerous of his other projects. Here, too, he is assisted by a few of the old timers: Paul Speckmann (Master), Marc Grewe (Morgoth), and of course Dan Swanö. My one regret is that they're not all used more often, to create a sort of brutal Hear'n'Aid of barks and growls.

As it stands, though, Descent of Yuggoth is a crude, crunchy album which succeeds thanks to how it front loads a lot of the best tunes: the tank-like treading opener "Nihilisticon" or the bouncing bombardment of "Catapulted Through Aeons" to name a few. Not quite a 'cavernous' style album like so many that seem all the rage in recent years, but 100% committed to satisfying the nostalgic death metal crowd who largely disregard aesthetics post-1995, with the possible exception of the production values that are tremendous here. My one caveat is that everything this album does, I felt Rogga and Dave Rotten did better with the Putrevore sophomore. The sounds of the two albums are not entirely the same, but the riffs and the overall mix there was just so staggeringly, motherfucking unbelievable that I've been spoiled on some of his other works. Riff for riff, this isn't quite that consistent, and a few times I felt myself nodding off on the later half of its content. But it certainly stands out more than a few of Roger's other recent works like Bloodgut, Bone Gnawer or Humanity Delete, and you could do a lot worse than this crushing collection of Lovecraftian caveman hymns.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Unburied - Murder 101 (2012)

As open minded of a guy as I am, with a vested interest in many genres of music and especially sub-genres of metal, every now and then there's a release which comes along and gets under my skin: and not in a good way. Unfortunately, for Virginia's Unburied and their sophomore outing Murder 101, this was indeed the case, and I found it torturous to sit through this the acceptable number of times that I usually take to fashion my observations into a written opinion. Now, let me clarify first: this was a band from another age, formed in the 90s, and some of their primitive approach to brutality carries through from this simpler time period. I have no real issues with music of such a neanderthal nature, nor can I persecute Unburied for its heavily misogynist lyrics and themes (let's just say the cover is indicative of a lot of the album's inspiration). Cruelty of this nature is a common trope among many brutal death & grind acts, and if you're not used to it by now...there's always brostep? Granted, the band themselves might not hate women, but this album most definitely fucking does. Murder 101 does not pull any punches, and some will appreciate such defiance.

The album is being branded as death metal, and certainly that's a large part of what's going on, with some faster based riffing segments, old school chugging, and a production on the guitars that definitely reminds me somewhat of that old Morrisound tone so popular among Floridian bands of olde. That said, I also heard a lot of hardcore influences in the leaden, unflinching simplicity of the groove riffs, and especially in the gruff lead vocals, which have a sort of  thuggish inflection I equate with East Coast bands like Sheer Terror or Blood for Blood from the 90s. This isn't necrophiliac gore & guts, but more of a wifebeater brand of death metal which attempts to deliver maximum punishment through minimum riffing. And this is where my major issue with the album comes in: the note progressions almost 100% suck. Seriously, such dreadfully mediocre patterns in the breakdown riffs that they're often just two chords bouncing back and forth ("Trapped in a Delusion" and the title track "Murder 101" are two offenders), preschool punishment that I wouldn't find funny or interesting if I were to assume even the most ironic stance. In the band's defense, the aforementioned tracks are some of the worst here; others pummel along with a lot more intensity...

...and yet those, too, are incredibly underwhelming in construction, even in the most clinical thunder-chug thrashings of "Heartless Corpse Defilement" or the uppity punkish chord configurations embedded into the song "Witchburner". Not a single damn riff sequence on this entire 30 minute album was remotely compelling, and there's really no compensation anywhere. Not in the banal, predictable NYHC meets NYDM grooves, nor the spurious use of samples. The drumming is decent enough, with a nice slappy snare sound that functions adequately against the broiling guitar, and the bass guitar has a nice pop to it which reminds me of NY thrash bands like Anthrax, but neither is performing anything interesting enough to ignore just how vapid a reaction I had to the riff set. It's not the worst album I've heard by a long shot, and the band at least keeps the tracks concise enough that they don't drag on forever. They showed up, and they played. I guess in the end, I get what Unburied were trying to pull off here, a totally stripped down return to their roots and a total 'I Don't Give a Fuck' attitude.  An approach that might warrant some consideration elsewhere, but I really think it would leave a bigger impact with better plotted songwriting. Wasn't my thing.

Verdict: Fail [3/10]

Naer Mataron - ΖΗΤΩ Ο ΘΑΝΑΤΟΣ (2012)

Long subsisting on savagery, Naer Mataron have unquestionably proven themselves to be one of the most sinister extremists among the cult of Hellenic black metal. One of the closest in that scene to adhere to the concept that this genre's roots are raucous, fast, unhealthy, unholy and uncomfortable music to damage the psyche and soul. Their records have traditionally not been the stuff of glorious gallivanting and singalong melodies, but more interested in skinning the audience and cannibalizing their organs, and their latest, sixth full-length ΖΗΤΩ Ο ΘΑΝΑΤΟΣ (i.e. 'Long Live Death') is a further affirmation of their scathing Satanic blood ablutions and the organ harvesting of an angelic chorus. Now just a three piece (they were five on 2008's Praetorians), one would think that they might pursue a more stripped-down approach to violence, but that's not really the case with this...

To my surprise, Naer Mataron have actually ramped up the death metal elements in their music to the point that this latest album is basically a death/black hybrid. Granted, the last album had a bit of this felt through the construction of the muted picking and several of the riffs, but the vocals there were more of an abrupt and uncouth snarl placing it largely in the latter niche. Here, we get denser death grunts, which combined with the hyper-accelerated riffing bring to mind veterans like Morbid Angel, or Polish acts like Behemoth or Hate. Rhythmically they continue to implement a lot of dissonant, cutting chord patterns which reflect their Norse black metal influence and the heritage of their earlier records, but this is a blasted, brutal assault which will potentially sate followers of both camps (or each, individually). Frenetic, tireless drumming lays out the groundwork, and above the clamorous configurations of chords you get zipping, unhinged leads that feel as oblique and evil as the Floridian forefathers, if perhaps not as complex or interesting as something Trey might have written in his prime. But fear not, because this isn't some monotonous blast-fest lacking in variation: they use a lot of great rhythmic tricks, stop/start patterns festooned in spikes of morbid melody (as heard in "Sleepless Beings"), and even some rabid, turbo-thrashing riffage as in "Faceless Wrath of Oblivion".

The mix of ΖΗΤΩ Ο ΘΑΝΑΤΟΣ is murky without being muddled, and you can hear each course being carved out by the frenzied guitars in a strong balance with the kick, bass, and grunts. Perhaps the least compelling components of this new focus are the guttural vocals, which simply don't offer much of a distinction among hundreds of like-minded death or death/black outfits; and the bass-lines which maintain the presence of a rumbling hell-train beneath the abyss, but primarily get lost behind the guitar flurries. But to be honest, I can forgive cases, since Kaiadas does not do a poor job with either, and never has (cut the guy some slack, he's an actual elected member of parliament in Greece for the Golden Dawn). Ultimately, Naer Mataron prove that they 100% have the chops to succeed in this field, and if songs like "Whispers of Begotten Premonition" or "Sleepless Beings" are any indicator, they've gut the raw intensity to sate fans of death/grind or brutal death without alienating their core black metal audience, and hell, the title gave us plenty of warning, right? It's not amazingly memorable, but we've got a pretty fucking explosive album here; despite its mutation away from the sound of their first few discs, it's just as good as efforts like Up from the Ashes or Discipline Manifesto.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Kawir - ΙΣΟΘΕΟΣ (2012)

Where many metal bands initially pursue a traditional and derivative aesthetic in their writing, and later abandon it through progression due to outside influence, Greece's Kawir might be considered an opposite. This was initially a flawed but curious band whose use of instrumentation did wonders to enact idealized visions of their homeland's ancient folklore and history. This was the stuff of glades and ruins, gods lamenting their mortal lovers, mortals lamenting their mortality. Pure myth-stuff, and it was indeed a compelling prospect. After all, the world round, we are inundated with Greek myths and legends as a part of our education (or at least we were), so it's great to hear a band finally delve into that, especially one on native soil with a more immediate and interesting perspective on the rituals and lore involved. Sure, many other bands like Virgin Steele have explored the territory in depth, but perhaps not enough among the Hellenic extreme metal scene.

Kawir continue to journey through this collective cultural atavism in terms of their lyrical inspiration and themes, even with the title, Isotheos which translates to 'godlike'. Sadly, though, the music itself has continued to transform into a more standardized form of European black metal that has few differences from the wealth of Scandinavian, German and Italian bands clinging to the compositional qualities of the masters in the 90s. To be blunt: this should not really be happening, not for a band with 20 years behind it which has had ample time to develop its roots into distinct and unforgettable schema. Alas, ΙΣΟΘΕΟΣ becomes a victim of this affliction. Despite a few moments of genuine melodic bliss which recount the charms of their earlier work, this 5th full-length is too often reliant on the basis, exhausted blueprints of the genre without advancing or exacerbating them. The faster-paced tremolo guitar progressions (chords and single note picking) are more or less what you'd hear from a thousand other bands, the harsher vocals are not highly unique unto themselves, and the drums, while competent, aren't noteworthy. It's for this reason that the album's more atmospheric passages, like the chants in "Hymn to Winds" which accompany the more glorious, Triarchy of the Lost Lovers-era Rotting Christ-like rhythm guitar, stand out instantly.

Negatives aside, though, I must give Kawir some credit on the production here. This was a band with some pretty primitive sounding recordings in their past (not necessarily to their benefit), and from the sound of ΙΣΟΘΕΟΣ, you wouldn't know it. All instruments are represented in crystal clarity, from the nice crunch on the central rhythm guitars to the slightly fuzzed backing melodies. The deeper male backing choirs truly resonate through pieces like "Hades", and Greek bands (this one and Rotting Christ, at least) excel at incorporating this into the music more than perhaps anyone else in the genre. The rhythm section is fluid, though they rarely stand out. Wind instruments still maintain a solid presence here, especially in the short instrumental "Panspermia" where they flutter through the sylvan emptiness like naiads splashing through lakes; or the grandiose, 10 minute "Hymn to Apollo", which was hands down the most impressive track for me on this record, really digging out the Kawir that I wanted to hear. I only wish that these moments were more the 'rule' than the exception.

There is also quite a lot of variety throughout this, the band carefully measuring off the faster black metal surges against acoustics, or slower chord progressions. My issue just stems from the fact that about 50% of the riffs here are too familiar and uninteresting to justify themselves among Kawir's better use of atmospheric segues. If the riffs were more memorable during the stock black metal moments, then I'd be a lot more forgiving, but I just couldn't get into much of this. I wouldn't call it boring, though, nor a 'bad' album by any means. It's on par with the last full-length (2008's Ophiolatreia), and probably worth checking out if you've an interest in Greek bands who are actually invested in their cultural roots rather than the typical Satanism you'd expect in the field. A decent effort, and smooth enough on the ears, but I'm still waiting for this group to really arm itself with the past and deliver a truly evocative Elysium that I cannot experience elsewhere.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Thy Darkened Shade - Eternvs Mos, Nex Ritvs (2012)

Guitarist Semjaza is quite a busy man of late, writing and performing with a number of Greek black metal acts including Acrimonious, who have just released a strong sophomore album, and the leather bound wildmen Nadiwrath, whose debut dropped last year. More impressive than either of these, though, is Thy Darkened Shade, a project formed in the later 90s which has long since been silent, until word was dropped that their debut album would be arriving through World Terror Committee. And quite an exciting record this is, kicking its tired niche in the ass with a vicious precision, ample turmoil and riffs flying by a thousand miles per second like a razorblade tornado above which the rasps beckon like maddened carrion birds awaiting the human carnage in the storm.

Definitely getting that late 90s Scandinavian black metal vibe once again, which a good number of Greek groups have adopted over the past decade rather than follow in the footfalls of their more distinguished, renowned countrymen like Necromantia or Rotting Christ. This isn't a bad thing, of course, since most of the world has similar influences; and it's also not really a surprise if you've heard Acrimonious, Acherontas, or Ravencult. To their credit, Thy Darkened Shade really get it right. The lashing maelstroms of tremolo guitars are adorned with a lot of higher string dissonance redolent of groups like Emperor, 1349 and other Nordic varieties, and they also like to burst into these excellent black/speed or black/thrash progressions which are like a ramped up Aura Noir (in "Reconstruction of Soul and Matter", etc). Blast beats are meted out effortlessly and there's definitely a lot of forward thrust through most of the songwriting, though a few pieces like "To Suffer the Perpetual Curses" slow things down and incorporate atmospherics like keys to break the rabid pace. Songs are all pretty average length, around 4-6 minutes, but within these margins you are generally due for at least a handful of exciting guitar riffs and a reasonable level of internal variety.

The mix here is cutting and uncomfortable, without a lot of natural low-end, and I wasn't too impressed with the bass overall. Then again, this is generally par for the course on an album of this sort, once again in league with the ferocity of the Swedish and Norse influences. One area I feel the group could improve is in the vox, which are competent enough as they appear, but lack much variation against the far more exciting music. I believe some shrieks or just a sharper delivery would work wonders to compensate, but certainly I've heard a lot less inspired and enthusiastic rasping elsewhere than what 'The A' and Semjaza are retching out here. Otherwise, Thy Darkened Shade is intense, entertaining and admittedly quite pissed off, and I've come away from this debut numerous times feeling that same scathed sensation which bands like Marduk and Impaled Nazarene were delivering about 15 years ago (though this is a bit more technically inclined in terms of its structure). Eternvs Mos, Nex Ritvs is frankly one of the more promising Hellenic assaults I've come across lately, alongside Spectral Lore's Sentinel and Acrimonious' Sunyata.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Acrimonious - Sunyata (2012)

The previous Acrimonious full-length, Purulence (2009) was not one I derived much enjoyment from, a fairly typical Scandinavian styled black metal disc which never really distinguished itself with strong composition or even just damn good riffs. Having said that, the Greeks have rallied, regrouped, and produced a far more poignant and compelling offering in Sunyata, perhaps not something as riveting as Hellenic masterworks like Triarchy of the Lost Lovers, Scarlet Evil Witching Black or the latest from countrymen Spectral Lore, but nonetheless a proficient, multi hued opus which should garner them some attention through the underground. It's not exactly a paradigm shift away from its predecessor, and it's not composed of wholly novel aesthetics, but there is an unshakable sense of mystical fulfillment here which stands up to numerous listens with little hint of decay.

For one, the ambient and black metal components really gelled through this release, the Greeks employing a clear dark classical influence, through both the standalone pieces like the intro "Nexus Aosoth" with its grim string swells, and the subtle and complementary synths and effects used to heighten the riffing surges. Even though the guitars aren't anything we haven't heard before among Norse and Swedish black metal royalty, the tone of the chords is so level and dense that they really stand out against the echoing, clamorous vocals and the polished if intense drumming. Bales of melodies and harmonies are constantly writhing above the flood of the rhythm guitar, and in truth there's a lot of intricate, acrobatic groundwork here which draws the ears far more than on the debut. The general quality of the riffs might not be the highest or most memorable you'll apt to encounter in this field, but there are at least a dozen standouts spaced out among the hour of music that create anticipatory highlights. Acrimonious is not yet a band one would turn to for astounding leads, but the contrast of rich dissonance, brighter melodies and loads of variation is intriguing enough.

Bass lines have that hint of progression and groove to them which lends itself well to the exotic ritual and introspective grandeur felt through worldly black metal, once again creating a subtext of progression and exploration rather than merely aping the rhythm guitars. The drums are tight and fill-heavy across all tempos, with a nice sheen of reverb that helps them cut through the glinting, harried guitar work; and the vocals are possessed of a solemn, soaring angst which breeds a lot more character than the standard rasp would have been able to achieve over these tunes. It's full-bodied, rapturous and works well with the choirs and other distractions the band uses to balance off the aggression of the core instruments. In short, there's a good deal happening throughout Sunyata, and thanks to the production values, you'll be able to discern it all. Much of the music is accessible, yet there's more to greet you with each successive spin, not to mention the strength of its passionate occult lyrics. Tracks like "The Hollow Wedjat" will prove a thrill for fans of mid to late-90s Emperor, and I'd very much recommend the album to those who enjoy the other, more ambitious Greek outfits like Spectral Lore or Acherontas, the latter of which several of the members were once involved in.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (and so Moves the Voice that no Thought can Bind!)

Legion of Doom - The Summoning of Shadows (2012)

The hurdles faced by Athens' Legion of Doom are not those of musical competence or authenticity, but those of redundancy and the dearth of ingenuity which plagues a lot of those mid-tier European black metal outfits, even those with a 20+ year history. These Greeks have a solid backlog of records like For Those of the Blood and The Horned Made Flesh, and have never truly disappointed, yet they're still complacent in arm wrestling against the law of averages. Certainly, they've powered through most of their matches to emerge victorious, but not without a struggle. One that persists through this latest offering The Summoning of Shadows out through Zyklon-B productions. For all intensive purposes, this is a solid, proficient black metal album with a mild atmospheric flair, but that's unfortunately where it begins and ends.

To put it bluntly: a band which has been around as long as this one has no choice but to provoke higher expectations from the black metal audience, expectations which are simply not met with this fifth full-length. The strange torment of the vocals, and the atmospheric embellishments are about the only things keeping this from an utter state of banality due to the bland riffing sequences. Legion of Doom, once kicking their death and grind roots to the curb and transforming into the black metal entity most would recognize, have never shared that sense for novelty as their peers like Varathron or Rotting Christ. Apart from the infusion of classical and orchestral elements that have occasionally appeared through their records, this is more of an 'assembly-line' style of black metal with its roots in groups like Mayhem, Emperor, Marduk, Enthroned, and the like. Tremolo picked notes and rapid ridges of chords and dissonance that never really deviate from predictable outcomes. Double bass and blast beats which feel more obligatory than passionate. Symphonic intro and outro which in this case are sadly thwarted by the muddled, masculine goofiness of their narration. The bass never feels important whatsoever.

This would all be fine if the tunes at the core of The Summoning of Shadows were any good, but I found it incredibly difficult to generate any interest with the vapid progressions in "An Infra Calling" or "The Garden of Flesh", which are little more than retreads of Northern forebears. Don't get me wrong: Legion of Doom play in key, they play in syncopation, and they can muscle their way through material as if the dynamics on offer were second nature. Fits of cold hostility are balanced with more soothing segues (like the cleaner melodic guitars in "The Garden of Flesh"), but when one steps back a few paces and absorbs the work as a whole, it feels all too comfortably structured. Those with a massive amount of nostalgia for the Norse and Swedish studio efforts of the later 90s might appreciate this sense of familiarity which clearly left and imprint on these Greeks' creative process, but even in that particular niche there is no feeling that this music excels or pays lavish tribute to its inspirations. Coupled with the cheesy bookends, and the lack of much content, this is easily the least impressive Legion of Doom record I've heard yet.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Nocternity - Nocternity EP (2012)

Few would accuse Nocternity of being one of the more prolific or 'busy' bands in their scene, but the empty aural landscape since their 2003 sophomore Onyx has at least been littered with some EP and split releases, not the least of which was the last, Harps of the Ancient Temples (2007), which was in my estimation the pinnacle of the band's subtly atmospheric sledgehammer approach to their genre. Five years hence, we are at last treated to a pair of newer tracks, but while they stay firmly on guard in the Greeks' aesthetic camp, they do absolutely nothing to further their position on the battlefield...

Nocternity have always been about creating this dark, distant and incredibly bleak envelope through which they pummel along at a barbaric pace, and here is no exception. The EP was recorded on an 8-track recorder, and it's certainly got a very oblique, murky feel, with the bass lines just as loud as the guitars and only the vocals and tinny tremolo melodies coming out on top. The drums offer little more than a mechanistic charge in the background, leaving the vocals and guitars to captivate the audience. Daemon of Limbonic Art replaces Whyrhd on the vocals this time, and he's got a sufficient enough, ghastly rasp to match the subdued din of the music, joined by some deeper growls that hover on the edge of perception. There are a few bright synthesizers implemented (in particular the late moments of the first tune "Titans"), and the bass is juicier than you'll normally hear on a stock black metal recording, but all of this is useless with songs so devoid of compelling riffs...

Each of the two tunes is a 'universe' until itself, with "Titans" being the faster paced, at the cost of seemingly unbroken cycles of monotony that had me checking my watch only about 2-3 minutes in. "River of Woe" is more spacious and experimental, with sparse percussion and a lot of guitars being used in a funereal sense or as sheer ambiance. Unfortunately, despite the variation of the pair, there is naught here but a pretty mundane 14 minutes of blackened emptiness that evokes only a sense of numbness and ennui. I did not exactly hold up high expectations, but Harps of the Ancient Temples at least had one kick ass tune and a fascinating Vangelis cover. The content this time around is incredibly dry and uninspired, so one has to wonder what else they've got going on these past five years? I'm sure Nocternity is more of a project than a full time thing, but even then...this draws blanks. The decision to record with older equipment is admirable and speaks of an impulse to really gnaw at the roots of black metal, but these guys are surely better than this.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]