Saturday, March 31, 2012

Heavy Load - Full Speed at High Level (1978)

While it's sad that more people likely know of Sweden's Heavy Load through the HammerFall cover of "Running With the Devil" than through any quality time spent with the actual originals, I feel like the time is right for a renaissance of interest in bands like this, who were active by the time the dust alighted on the 70s and deserved quite a lot more attention than was ever granted them. Nostalgia is in full bloom of late, with countless bands attempting to mimic ever more obscure forebears, so why half ass it? Let's skip the 80s and head straight to the roots with this 1978 debut Full Speed at High Level, and album that might have knocked elbows with oldies like Stained Class or Never Say Die! had the winds of fate favored their choice in the treacherously obscure (self-issued) Heavy Sound imprint and given them a single worth its salt.

After all, we're talking about what is arguably the first Swedish heavy metal album, not an insignificant career footnote when one takes into consideration the massive wealth of bands that have exploded from that country, dominating numerous sub-genres in ensuing decades of accelerated extremity. Siblings Ragne and Styrbjörn Wahlquist formed the band in '76 and clearly drew upon the popular sounds of the day, so it's not surprising that the writing often hovers on the margin between the hard rock sounds of KISS, Led Zeppelin or the Scorpions, but there's also a heavier edge redolent of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Judas Priest to the point that Full Speed at High Level might be seen by some as somewhat of an also-ran, if not for the general novelty of the sound and the distinct timbre of Ragne's vocals; the latter of which ironically provides a crippling detriment to this album's potential success, if not an absolute obstacle to its appreciation.

The riffs on the record tend towards memorable rocking, in particular the driving Priest-like "Full Speed at High Level" or the punctuated grooves of "In Two Minds" or "Midnight Crawler", and as early as this debut they were pulling off spicy dual melodies and psychedelic atmosphere worthy of darker 60s or 70s prog rock influences. The third member of this power trio, and their second bassist, Dan Molén would appear only on this record, but he's got a plunky tone to his lines that creates an almost danceable mood to the more serious strain of the guitar licks. But probably my favorite performance here is by drummer Styrbjörn who proves himself a dynamic and skilled rhythm keeper with a sense for dramatic fills and grooves. Heavy Load was unquestionably ambitious here. From the "Barracuda" goes surf rock inauguration of "Moonlight Spell" to the synthesized proto prog-metal epic "Caroline", to the 11 and a half minute leviathan "Storm" which might best be categorized as a Swedish "War Pigs" with its Iommi phrasings, no two songs sound quite alike and that plays to the record's infinite refreshment.

Unfortunately, the vocal performance on the album all but ruins it for me. Strained, unsettling and very often slovenly, Ragne doesn't seem to have the range or the talent for structuring individual lines to really sell the hooks here. I'd compare him to a lower range Osbourne or Rob Halford dowsed in a minute reduction of Robert Plant's whine, with an undeniably dark edge to his style that would later transform into a more potent and polished tone. While I can forgive the guy's obvious accent to a degree (often I find such a thing an advantage), the delivery through numbers like "In Two Minds", "Rock 'n' Roll Freak" or even the title track opener feels forced, frivolous and all over the board. Not to the extent that it entirely destroys the atmosphere of the album, because there's some thriving, theatrical charisma about Ragne despite his faults, but enough that I've just never been able to enjoy it as much as their later full-lengths.

I should also note that Full Speed at High Level features one of the premiere 'Viking metal' tunes of the 70s. Perhaps a pale shadow of Led Zeppelin's titanic "Immigrant Song", but certainly worthy of Canadian Thor and well ahead of Germans Faithful Breath who would adopt that whole image around the dawn of the 80s. "Son of the Northern Light" is far one of the heaviest and most memorable pieces here, not only for the feel good grooves in the faster paced riffing (at least on this album), but the explicit Christian stomping Nordic worship. Pretty intense for its day, when Quorthon was just hitting puberty and Venom had yet to punch their tickets to Eternal Damnation. Alongside "Full Speed..." and "Midnight Crawler" this is one of the tracks I've always found myself returning to, even if the 1982 sophomore Death or Glory takes precedence whenever I feel the need to scratch this particular, archaic itch.

In summation, Heavy Load's debut is a decent piece tempered by variation and personality, but the limited distribution and the flimsy vocals just weren't doing the music any favors. We're not talking "Exciter" or "Saints in Hell" here, but it flows well enough through its colorful cover art and compositional contrasts to appease anyone with an interest in such formative sounds. Fans of harder 70s music with clear psychedelic and bluesy overtones would do well to at least check this out, though the later efforts are admittedly more robust and distinct.

Verdict: Win [7/10]
(I hope you feel engaged)

Friday, March 30, 2012

Germ - Wish (2012)

Germ is an interesting case where an artist puts an eclectic spin on his already established sound, but rather than continue beneath the moniker of a previous project and potentially alienate the audience, decides to transform this into an entirely new entity. Many who have followed the Australian black metal rogues' gallery will probably be familiar with multi instrumentalist Tim Yatras, who has an enormous repertoire in both that and the local power metal scene, having performed and sessioned with bands as diverse as Austere, Lord, Pestilential Shadows, Ilium and Dungeon, to name but a few. Germ is more or less his latest lovechild, an act that takes the depressive, melodic strains of Austere into a futurist format of electronica, choirs and cosmic atmospheres that darker outfit hadn't previously explored.

The result, Wish is a refreshing, nuanced, and mildly flawed hybrid of black/rock aesthetics that might seem like a merger of Austere's tortured, warm tones and fellow Australian Midnight Odyssey, who have also evolved into a similar, modernist space with their sophomore album. Yatras utilizes both his vile, soul scathing post-Burzum rasp and a cleaner pop tone in his vocals that work well off one another, not to mention the spacious choirs that hint at a love for classical, operatic arrangements. Wish tends to alternate between bulkier metal-injected compositions like "An Overdose of Cosmic Galaxy" and "Breathe in the Sulphur/A Light Meteor Shower" with shorter electro vignettes like "Oxygen", "Gravity" and "Infinity". I rather admired the latter, which often recalled the Vangelis soundtrack to Blade Runner, a touch of Tangerine Dream or perhaps even the sci-fi pulse you'd expect out of the scores to Mass Effect or Tron: Legacy. However, I often felt that the synthesizer lines felt arbitrary when paired with the heaviness.

The best example of this would be the 10 and a half minute opener, "An Overdose of Cosmic Galaxy", which I'd consider possibly the least catchy track here and probably not the best choice to lead off. Here, the electronics are poised subtly over the simplistic chord patterns but feel somewhat extraneous in execution. Unnecessary. While predictable, the rhythm patterns provide a rather shimmering basis for the Gothic, cleaner lines plucked atop them, but I felt like this was enough. This is also true of "Asteroid of Sorrow", a shorter piece at least, but the tinny little synth lines did it a disservice. Fortunately, in a few of the other cuts like the epic "Breathe in the Sulphur" with its double bass undercurrent and soaring choirs, or "Your Smile Mirrors the Sun", which is closest in structure to a traditional black metal track, the techno bits seem a little less noticeable, but I don't feel like that dimension of the project was realized to its full potential beyond the aforementioned intermission segments.

Still, Germ is a curious concept, an expansive exploration with near limitless directions that it could be taken off in, and to Yatras' credit, he keeps it quite cohesive and almost restrained. This is not some Gothic/industrial freak show, but an eloquent and emotionally capable journey that could payoff for those willing to immerse themselves in its drifting decor. The production is in general very well managed, with the vocals clear and effective and the uplifting choir sequences exploding into the thematic firmament, and as usual the guy's a very capable drummer. Most of the rhythm riffs are insanely predictable, but the few leads strewn about have a nice, galactic finish to them that fits well to the concepts of the lyrics. It's worth hearing, especially if you've an interest in that rare post-metal which is not gun shy of keys and symphonic ingredients.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Goatpsalm - Erset La Tari (2012)

I don't get the opportunity to experience an album like Erset La Tari often enough, but thanks to Aesthetic Death, the sweat of nightmares has once again manifest upon my brow. I am humbly unsettled by the auditory madness of the Russian trio known as Goatspalm, who perform in the niche of black ambient with a strong emphasis on ritualistic mythology rooted in the ancient cultures of Sumeria, Central America and perhaps Phoenicia (at least I'm assuming from their choice of 'Baal' prefixed stage names and the lyrics). Erset La Tari is comprised of a pair of 20-ish minute tracks connected by a shorter, six minute ligament known as "Bab-Illu", and the listener is constantly assuaged by a sense of eternal discomfort and damnation.

There is certainly a modicum of the black/ambient influence you might recognize from an act like the Swedish Abruptum, but its ethical overtones and ritual environs also remind me quite a lot of the Egyptian-focused dark ambient act Herbst9, or perhaps In Slaughter Natives. The first track, "Utuk-Xul" opens with gentle winds and gradual, distant resonance while the rasps and whispers echo in sparse, disjointed paeans and poetry. Guitars are spliced liberally above the sweltering backdrop, often in little trilled patterns but eventually you'll encounter some chugging near the middle of the piece, minus metal percussion. Instead, the trio incorporates tribal drums to great effect here. The other long-player, "Under the Trident of Ramanu" uses the guitars in a more structured, metallic sequence which certainly bears the aura of traditional black metal but spaced out almost as if it were an older Summoning track, synthesizers glistening beneath the primacy of the drudging distortion, but later the track devolves into carnal noise.

Meanwhile, the middle bridge piece "Bab-Illu" is perhaps the most Eastern and exotic of the three, with some arabesque guitars over the swelling subtext of lush noise. Curiously, the sequential progress of the music seems to banish the audience into an increasingly hostile node of hell itself, increasingly disturbing with only the shorter piece to ofter any sort of harmonic respite from the oppressive atmosphere. Combined with the invocations of the lyrics, and the killer deep red and black packaging of the booklet, Erset La Tari seems to truly revel in its grisly antiquity, and draws the ear not with melody or grandeur, but the stirring of ancient dust and the restless dead. This is not music you turn towards for its 'catchiness', but an immersion into the obscurity of a reality you've never known, and if lucky, never will. A cloak of the grotesque and forgotten worn proudly on the shoulders of three very evil men. A terrifying tempest that is well worth the ride.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Pseudogod - Deathwomb Catechesis (2012)

I've been hearing about Pseudogod for a few years now, so I've no doubt that Deathwomb Catechesis, besides possessing what might be the most memorable album title of the year, is a highly anticipated full-length studio debut for the Russians extremists, with a clear cross cultural appeal to the fans of both old school death and primal black metal aesthetics. They've a sound that's not all that simple to pin down: perhaps a few drops of blood from hybrid forebears like Blasphemy, Angelcorpse, Proclamation or Revenge, awning gutturals that occasionally remind one of Incantation, and a bit of that belligerent, percussion driven riffing that Quorthon wove into the late 80s Bathory records like Under the Sign of the Black Mark or Blood Fire Death. In general though, the Russians do an excellent job of blending all these ingredients together into a savage and forceful experience that, while not exactly perfect, is like to appeal to just about anyone wearing a denim or leather jacket adorned with any semblance of inverted cross.

Deathwomb Catechesis represents pure, unadulterated hostility carried out in simple, barbaric riff patterns that flex between bursts of accelerated violence and slower, driving walls of chords. The drums in tracks like "Vehement Domination" or "Azazel" are very often more busy than the actual guitar progressions, so you can tell they were really reaching back for that nostalgia of the formative black metal years, but still willing to strong arm the audience with copious double bass thunder and effortless blasting. Combined with the ominous guttural vocals though, Pseudogod feels incredibly tight and consistent. I can't vouch for a lot of the individual riffs here, they all function on familiar structures that we've heard in countless works of black, death, or even grind, but each piece of the puzzle is combined into such a Hellish whole that Deathwomb Catechesis develops a personality despite its lack of particular nuance or complexity in the guitars.

There are points on the album, like the breakdown in "Necromancy of the Iron Darkness" in which they come across like this primordial, blackened alternate to late 80s Bolt Thrower, crushing the shit out of the listener like a tank draped in the skeletons and entrails of the damned; or the intro to "Encarnación Del Mal" which simply explodes from its foundation chords and then later contracts with a brutal, hammering confidence as the drums shift tempos below the verse. The guitars, vocals and drums alone create enough of this rank, airy atmosphere that added embellishments are hardly necessary, you really feel like you're being dragged through the vaulted caverns of some unpleasant afterlife to be tortured at the whim of not fiendish, despotic diabolists, but some manner of infernal neanderthals that will club your flesh against the subterranean walls until your bones are shattered into powder. While I wouldn't have minded some more intricate, haunting guitar patterns woven into such troglodyte rituals, Deathwomb Catechesis as it stands is still a horrifying experience not to be missed. Pure hate.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Witchtrap - Vengeance is My Name (2012)

They might not have developed much buzz in the underground until this past decade, but Colombia's Witchtrap has been around for a good 20 years now, busting out into the international black/thrash awareness with their 2002 debut Sorceress Bitch, an album I have previously reviewed and enjoyed. Much like any band with a 'witch' conjunction these days, you can expect something undeniable old school about their sound, and in this case it's a clear tribute to the titans of old Teutonic thrash (Kreator, Sodom, Destruction) with a dash of old Venom, Metallica and Bathory thrown in for good measure. The vocals in particular sound quite a lot like a South American Mille Petrozza, the different and distinct accent of 'Burning Axe Ripper' not withstanding, but I'd say as far as the riffs alone they're not always derivative of any one particular influence.

By now, we've already heard a million of these bands, from Witchburner to Nocturnal to Deathhammer to Aura Noir, all of whom make for perfect patches on the denim vests of nostalgia. Still, it really comes down to the actual songwriting as to whether these acts are worth their salt or mere shadows of their influences, and rarely is it the case where I'd rather listen to one of these albums over Sentence of Death, Pleasure to Kill or Persecution Mania. Witchtrap writes in a pretty spry format with exciting licks caught in a pristine production that allows for the thicker grooves of the bass and the snap of the drum to support the central riffing without ever being eclipsed, and I like that they occasionally throw in a bit of unique spunk like the bass in the verses of "Damned to the Core", or the slightly classical appeal to the riffing patterns of "Venomous Breath", whose melodic nature wouldn't have been out of place on an Artillery record like Terror Squad or By Inheritance.

The issue I had with Vengeance is My Name is that there's a clear line between the better songs and those which seem less inspired or instantly catchy. For example, the closer "I'll Take Your Head" starts off with a pure Kill 'Em All vibe and then accelerates into pure Kreator/Cranium carnage, and "Venomous Breath" has some very well thought out triplets, but I felt like there were others like "Put to Death" and "Metal" that felt like average Aura Noir fare at best, and the aforementioned cleanliness of the production doesn't lend it the savagery of, say, the recent debut Forbidden World by Sweden's Antichrist. Still, the Colombians know how the territory well enough that they manage to keep the range of riffs dynamic, the leads tight and appropriate, the lyrical subjects coiled about the usual suspects of demons, succubi, murder, revenge, Hell, and of course the headbanging audience itself. Vengeance is My Name is probably my least favorite of their albums to date, but it's competent, and not without a few moments of authentic witch-shine that might appeal to fans of similar retro black, speed and thrash acts.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Superchrist - Holy Shit (2012)

This is not my first encounter with Superchrist, a long standing US party metal outfit who have been touring and releasing albums since the late 90s, once through a local imprint here in the Boston area. They've got a simplistic formula to their heavy metal which draws upon influences heavily from hard rock and metallic punk, especially the 'dirtier' side of NWOBHM like Motörhead, Warfare, Saxon and Tank. But don't let the admittedly lighthearted nature of the band fool you into thinking they're mere lazy derivatives, because the Chicago mobsters have great tone and classic songwriting skills that should continue to please their installed fan base and perhaps even win over the new, young audience into such throwback sounds as those conjured by bands like Midnight, Speedwolf or Abigail.

Granted, Superchrist eschew the blackened, wilder vocals for something more along the lines of an Algy Ward or Lemmy Kilminster. Dirty and full-figured but quite clear, and it's a good fit for the dense, ruddy cheeked tone of the guitar. Drums shift between a standard hard rock clip as on the opener "Take Me to the Graveyard" to something decidedly more angry and punk like "Get Lost" or "Run to the Night", and the same could be said for the actual composition. As you'd expect, complexity is not a part of this band's vocabulary, the songs are written with at most 2-3 riffs in mind, bluesy and brief flights of lead work and a lot of genuine energy that transfers directly to their stage performances. In this regard, Holy Shit is not a whole lot different than Defenders of the Filth or any of their past full-lengths, though I think I preferred the production here for its fluid abuse, and the songs, while a bit restrained, seem substantially stronger in their ability to teleport the listener back to the formative, simpler times that inspired them.

To be blunt: Superchrist is way retro, but they've been doing it far longer than most of today's upstarts, and there's a certain confidence and experience that comes with the delivery of this album, not to mention the writing. It would be almost impossible for a band writing in this niche to NOT come off to some degree derivative of the many classic metal, hard rock and punk acts that predated them, and Holy Shit is no exception. But like the similar Midwest throwback artist Midnight, they bring this tangible viridity to the music that comes across entirely genuine, and as the band want nothing more than to have a good time, sharing some music and beers with the audience, I'd say this is working very much as intended, especially on the groovier tunes like "Burn Again" with its old school Metallica spin or "PAMF" which might have just as well been written for Orgasmatron. It might not be anything remarkable, but it doesn't need to be. Rock on, Windy City soldiers.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Grim Reaper - Rock You to Hell (1987)

While I slightly favor Fear No Evil on a track for track basis, Grim Reaper's third album Rock You to Hell is probably the one I've gotten the most mileage out of. It's the sort of cheesy, reliable 80s metal that remains timeless despite any of its shortcomings, and I've been listening to it ever since a friend stole the cassette from a local department store by hiding it in his shoe and later traded it to me, presumably for something far better (or at least heavier). The details are a bit hazy, but then I'm nearing that midlife crisis age where I'm likely to forget far more important minutia. At any rate, Rock You to Hell is a better looking album than either of its predecessors, though certainly no more serious with its cartoon-like reaper and prostrate warrior mummy to whom something doubtlessly unfortunate is about to happen.

The production here is another step forward for the band in that you could run this up against any of the more mainstream hard rock/metal hybrids of its day like Quiet Riot or W.A.S.P. or whatnot and come up favorably, and it's that very margin of aesthetics that dominates a lot of the songwriting. Tracks like "Lust for Freedom" and the bluesy, swaggering and silly "Suck It and See" would've sat quite humbly on the popular hair rock radio of the period, but then a lot of tracks like "Rock You to Hell" and "When Heaven Comes Day" have more of a palpable early power metal intensity to them not unlike Fifth Angel or the Dio solo albums. The composition was characterized by predictable choruses, hooky and energetic guitars dowsed in structured leads and melodies that felt refined even beyond Fear No Evil, but I wouldn't say that the songs were necessarily 'better', just more of the same in a natural cycle of evolution that wouldn't even be shaken many years later when front man Steve Grimmett would appear in his infamous GARMIN GPS commercial.

Personally, I'd rank that man's individual performance through these tracks as the best of the band's albums to date, in that there's really no place you'd want to strangle him for seeming too awkward and shaky (like their first album). He implements a good balance of his mid-range and screaming and tends to vary up the individual lines enough that you can tell right off that he put a lot more work into them. But then, the tremendously trite lyrics are the sort that any teen could scribble into his notebook while dreams of KISS, Alice Cooper and sugarplums were dancing about his or her head, and in some cases like "Suck It And See" they are just downright embarrassing. Part of me likes to think of it as a soundtrack to some vampiric fantasy like the Once Bitten film with Jim Carrey, but the lyrics are, as usual quite bland, and just hearing Grimmett belt out the chorus causes fits of unintended laughter every time, without fail. Not that others like "Rock Me 'Till I Die" or "You'll Wish That You Were Never Born" are anything to write home about.

In the end, the fact that this was released through RCA, with a decent video rotation for the title track (one of the best on the album) via MTV's Headbanger's Ball, and still didn't cause much of a stir among the metal public who were justifiably more obsessed with Metallica and others of that caliber was a portent of this band's demise (compounded by the label dispute they later had to endure). Sure, there was and will always be a niche crowd for this stuff, and it's made a bit of a comeback since, but there was just nothing exemplary or awe inspiring here. Then again, if leopard print tank tops, bad mullets and big, balls out obvious choruses are your thing, then have fucking at this. It might not be revolutionary, but I enjoyed it more than albums like Ram It Down or the Quiet Riot s/t, and it surprisingly doesn't sound any more dated or passe than the day I first heard it. Fun, relatively consistent in quality, and harmless. I remain partial to Fear No Evil, but only by a slim margin.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (but I'm never giving out)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Formloff - Spyhorelandet (2012)

With the loss of several Scandinavian bands like Lifelover and the similar Apati this past year due to the deaths of some important members, I've been inadvertently robbed of a significant chunk of my sky darkening fix of depressive, outsider black metal rootstock. Well, as Formloff prove with their sophomore Spyhorelandet, the fix is back in, thanks to an unusual take on the style which takes on a corresponding level of angst without directly aping any one sound. If I were to compare this album to anyone in particular, it would likely be Sweden's Shining, due to the downcast resilience of the riffing structures and the fact that the primary vocals sound like a mix of Kvarforth and Darkthrone's Nocturnal Culto, yet this Norwegian duo writes with an uncanny distinction all its own.

Swaying, grooving guitars drift across dissonant and eerie note progressions as the bass thumps forth a morbid substrate and the drums generally hammer along an axis of standard rock beats. However, the band is not afraid to incorporate softer, cleaner sequences of regretful guitars or accelerate into a blast beat wherever their emotional stream of consciousness takes them, and as a result the album feels like a schizoid rainbow of extremes, a pendulum between the precepts of tranquility and vein-opening desperation. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the band's compositions was the inventiveness of the chords, for instance the jangling melodic caul choking the more forceful passages of "Harde Ord På Kammerset", or the creepy, minimalist crawl that perforates "Skævven"; but I also loved the mild inclusion of elements like an organ or saxophone which hint at a larger lexicon of experimentation, even though the band tends never to dive entirely into the deep end of possibility.

Production here is clean and wistful, with an organic tone to the guitars that perfectly matches the border between the indie/progressive rock influences and the harder, traditional sounds. There is always something surreal and creative awaiting around nearly every curve in the album's path, and this is usually manifest through the string-work. Melodies will pop and spike up unexpectedly and create this shifting added dimension to the central rhythms which really catches the ear. The vocals are abrasive and gut-felt, perhaps nothing too intense or unique, yet dynamically refreshing alongside the foundation of the beats and guitars, and I really enjoyed where they would layer them for an added texture of torment. Ultimately, Spyhorelandet is beyond merely intriguing, but a free-flowing stream of agony and amusement that truly bridges its disparate influences into a urtical union. Highly recommended for fans of the aforementioned Shining, LIK, Virus/Ved Buens Ende or the more straightforward but similarly evocative Norse collaboration Sarke.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Grim Reaper - Fear No Evil (1985)

The cover of Grim Reaper's sophomore album has ever struck me with a number of questions, not the least of which is: what the fuck are we paying you for, Death? Not to break stained glass windows with your motorcycle, that's for sure. I suppose what the Harvester of Souls wishes to do on his lunch break is of no real import to the quality of the music contained within, but I always thought this image was laughable. Breaking a window. Oh yeah, what a bad ass. A fucking four year old can break a window. You're the angel of death. I know you're excited that Steve Grimmett and Nick Bowcott decided to upgrade you with some new wheels and have the old horse put down, but vandalism? That's pretty low, dude.

Otherwise, Fear No Evil is pretty much anything you liked about See You In Hell, only sounding a whole lot slicker and more appropriate. The raw volume of the guitars has been dialed back to really fit the drums, and they were approaching a level of quality fit to the hard rock and 'eavy metal bands like Def Leppard and Iron Maiden that were the more smashing successes of this particular scene. More importantly, Grimmett had improved as a vocalist between 1983 and 1985, with a more delicate restraint to his vocals overall, but still not afraid to shout his damned lungs out where it feels more appropriate, and some better proportioned screams. The simpler chord progressions remained, tempered with a fraction of chugging heaviness ("Fear No Evil") and Bowcott's knack for screaming, classy little melodies like the tapping intro to "Never Coming Back", lead in the bridge of "Lord of Darkness (Your Living Hell)" or the gleaming neo-power metal that inaugurates "Lay It On the Line".

The riffs were still very much in line with what was hip and hot in its day. For instance, "Matter of Time" is similar to something like "Breaking the Law", and a lot of other note progressions are similar to the "Neon Knights" style Black Sabbath, Judas Priest circa 1980-1984 or even a dash of Holy Diver or Accept's Metal Heart. Well enough written, but nothing exemplary or all that unique. In fact, I feel like Grim Reaper were relying pretty heavily on the personality of Grimmett to carry the band. The rhythm section here sort of follows alongside the guitar, the bass sounding a little less noticeable than even the debut, but never standing out despite the better production values. Wherever Bowcott flexes a little creativity and rises to the fore, the music becomes admittedly more interesting, but even though songs like "Fear No Evil", "Lay It On the Line" and the ripping "Fight for the Last" are among their best, this is still not top shelf material during that whole NWOBHM period which was being subsumed by the faster, more aggressive genres like speed and thrash that were taking over in the mid 80s.

No outright terrible tracks, but certainly "Rock and Roll Tonite" feels a little limp with the lame chorus cycle. I'm also not that fond of the closer "Final Scream", since the vocals seem a lot less memorable or inspired than the rest of the album. The other seven, however, are about as tight as Grim Reaper would ever sound, and ultimately I think Fear No Evil edges out its followup Rock You to Hell in terms of its sum strengths. This was good enough to get the band onto a bigger label (RCA), but not enough to place them among the ranks of their more recognizable countrymen. It's also decidedly less 'cheesy' than the other albums, beyond the cover art, since nothing here seems quite so awkward as "Suck It and See" or "The Show Must Go On". Just some solid, relatively consistent heavy metal and still fun to break out once in a while.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]
(fear will take you when it likes)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Grim Reaper - Best of Grim Reaper (1999)

Grim Reaper was yet another victim of the shifting landscape of heavy metal in the late 80s, not to mention the bullshit label dispute that helped steer them into an early grave. Perhaps one of the most accessible NWOBHM acts not to shift into hard rock territory and reap millions (aka Def Leppard or various Judas Priest records), they had a knack for clean if predictable songwriting, decent leads, a charismatic vocalist in Steve Grimmett and and big choruses which you remember long after you hear them on a record. Admittedly, there was a bit of a 'big dumb fun' factor to the songwriting, and I still find myself laughing today at numerous of their tunes and videos, but but also banging my head along, the phantom mullet of my teenage mullet whipping about upon its airy, nonexistent threads. So in their case, I'd say the rather lighthearted effort and energy expended in their music paid off.

Unfortunately, it just didn't pay off for the band itself beyond the development of a loyal cult following. They had decent visibility, some video rotation and buzz in magazines but were unable to match the success of many of their countrymen. Nevertheless, after 12 years of absence after the Rock You to Hell album, I was pretty surprised, maybe even psyched to see something new come out in the store. Until, of course, I realized that it was the tits-on-a-bull uselessness of a generic studio compilation, all tracks derived from the band's previous studio full-lengths, remastered to create consistency in between the constituent albums, but otherwise not a whit different or improved than on their original releases. I guess if you'd never heard the band, had no means of getting the three studio albums in the later 90s and were one of about 12 people worldwide interested in this sound in 1999, then this might have been a reasonable return for your investment. It's got 17 of the 25 album tracks present.

Ultimately, though, it's utterly fucking worthless, and the individual albums deserved your cash and attention far more than this penny pinching rehash. Frustrating incompleteness, close but no goddamn cigar, RCA Records. I mean, if you were going to go as far as 70 minutes and MOST of the band's songs, why not make it a double disc anthology and really worth the veteran fan's time to get the CDs, in addition to any 'first timers'? A new cover and some liner notes just don't cut it. I realize that Grim Reaper didn't have a lot of 'rarities' or B-sides available to include as bonus content, aside from their first few demos. The singles were just songs ripped from the albums to tapes or 7" records. But this is like someone selling you an Empire Strikes Back DVD with a few cool scenes missing.

As for the material selected here, you basically are getting ALL of See You in Hell minus "Liar", six of the nine cuts from Fear No Evil (excluding "Lord of Darkness", "Matter of Time" and "Rock and Roll Tonight") and four from Rock You to Hell ("Lust for Freedom", "Suck It and See", "Waysted Love" and of course the title track). Skewed a little towards the bands' earlier work, but not a bad selection as far as the big hooks and vocal lines. But as someone who bought the original tapes, it just feels like I'm being sold my own rump fat back as soap, and thus I can think of no reason whatsoever to own it when it might be better smelted down to create new plastic dinnerware for the hungry. What's more, you can actually purchase the whole discog now buy picking up the See You In Hell/Fear No Evil double album through BMG, and then Rock You In Hell on its own. Won't put you out much more than this, so don't waste a nickel on this thing. Not even the cover is worthwhile if you compare it to any of the actual albums.

Verdict: Epic Fail [0/10]

Grim Reaper - See You in Hell (1983)

Grim Reaper is very often associated today with a few of the more negative stereotypes of metal in the mid-80s, especially when the prospective hecklers feast their eyes upon their few videos. Bad hair, inconsistent vocals that were often too jubilant for their own good, a lot of repetitive song hooks (across all three studio albums), generic lyrics and bringing absolutely squat to the table. Dubbing the band 'party metal' would not be far from the truth, since in general their songwriting was configured in a standard verse-chorus-etc. rock format (like many bands of their ilk), and while they weren't glam by any means, their interpretation of cliche subjects like hell, murder and other important topics always felt 'fluffier' or lighter than other bands of the same era (like, say Metallica) who were transforming the landscape of the genre into something more barbed, desolate and extreme.

But let's be honest: this genre wasn't build exclusively on the shoulders of brooding juggernauts like Black Sabbath. Bands like Deep Purple and Judas Priest had their fun fare, and I feel in listening through the Grim Reaper backlog that both, alongside early Dio-era Sabbath (Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules) were instrumental in shaping the sound here. Some will have read the story that these guys were 'discovered' after their victory in a 'Battle of the Bands', in which they bested over 100 competitors to take some prize, but considering that such contests are rarely more than ticket-selling races (for instant, shitty Evanescence knockoffs often win these things in my region, or bands who draw upon the support of their entire high school), I'd say that their emergence was more in line with the fact that British heavy metal was kicking all sorts of ass, a seemingly endless pool of talent that brought us Demon, Saxon, Wichfynde, Praying Mantis, Def Leppard and so forth, all peers to this band in terms of their ability to decisions to straddle the border between the heavier 'metal' and pure hard rock accessibility.

See You in Hell was a reasonable debut for its time, with a fairly simplistic formula that mixed predictable 3-4 chord riffing patterns with spikes of Nick Bowcott's melodies and the charismatic Steve Grimmett, who has through the years become the defining element of the band. He's got a timbre which occasionally reminds me of Ronny James Dio, with perhaps a more muscular edge to the sustained screams (like the end of "See You In Hell" itself), but lacking the late demigod's silken bite and overall intensity. Unfortunately, the mix of this debut was the worst of the band's three albums, and he's cast a bit too loudly throughout, with his tone really shaking apart songs like "Dead or Arrival" (the chorus) or the bluesy lounge rock piece "The Show Must Go On" that I've always found a little 'fish out of water' among its neighbors here. In addition, the guitars are a bit too raw and unpolished for such streamlined compositions as these, the drums a bit distant, and See You in Hell feels more or less like a demo quality recording in dire need of an upgrade.

That said, there are quite a few enjoyable tracks here which would have gone off well in the live setting and remain among the band's catchiest. "See You In Hell" was the standard by which the band would write the majority of their future chorus parts for the successor albums, and it has a few nice screaming twists to the verse lines. "Run for Your Life" and "Wrath of the Ripper" incite pure headbanging fury even despite a few of the campier vocal passages, and Nick Bowcott truly tries to let his leads scream out with some level of emotion, eschewing the rather tame confines of the songs' architecture. Even "The Show Must Go On" has that catchy line in the intro over the clean rhythm guitars, though I still find it out of place. But others here are not so special, like the crunchy closer "All Hell Let Loose" or the shorter, forgettable cuts like "Liar" or "Now Or Never".

Compared to, for example, three of the big Ps of this same year: Power & the Glory, Piece of Mind, or Pyromania, this album feels really roughshod and unrefined. I suppose that's a boon for certain gluttons for might hunger for rawer tones in their 80s diet, but I just don't feel that it always works with the music (the band obviously agreed, since both the later albums are cleaned up considerable). This isn't Venom here, the band was striving for some degree of accessibility. But it's not just the production that falls behind; the actual songwriting was nowhere near as memorable as a lot of Grim Reaper's British peers. A gem yet to be cut, its surface implying an obvious material value within that has yet to be 'reaped'. Still, if you're looking for something dimwitted, entertaining and loud to slake your nostalgia, or you've a fondness for other Ebony Records cult classics like Savage's Loose 'n' Lethal or Chateaux's Chained and Desperate, See You In Hell isn't a bad record. It's got clear problems, a few dud songs, but still seems functional almost 30 years later.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (all you've got to do is bleed)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Diseim - Holy Wrath (2012)

The first trait that stood out to me about Latvians Diseim on their debut Holy Wrath was the strange approach of the vocalist in the first track, simply titled "Black". The band lays out this staunch, muddied death-groove, he barks out a few normal guttural lines and then it sounds as if the guy is wrestling with himself or lifting something so heavily he's about to get a hernia. The oddity passes and we get a pretty average slew of low end thrash/grooves and breaks of melodic death metal, but the conscience still feels soiled from just that first minute or two of the song. Sadly, I didn't find too much else on the album that really stood out to me. A pity, because the band could really have worked that dense, sludge-like guitar tone into something really distinct, morbid, and threatening.

In Diseim's defense, they do come up with some creepy, atmospheric riffs like the intro to the titular "Holy Wrath" or the similar "Insanity", simplistic sequences that are given added berth due to the massive guitar sound. But once they pick up to faster grooves or muted death/thrash note progressions, I felt a lot of familiarity and nothing quite stood out to the ear. Most of the vocals are decent rasps or gutturals, but nothing you've not heard a lot before, and while I like the natural feel to the drumming and the fact that the Latvians do not conform to any one niche particularly, they never seem to manifest this into a strength as far as the writing. Sure, the tunes hang out around the 3-4 minute mark and never overstay their welcome, and they've got some admitted ability at pacing out the more doom inflected pieces like "Agony" or "Witch", but in general I found a dearth of quality hooks that could glue my ears.

For a broad comparison, I'd equate the band's sound to US acts Autopsy and Cianide, who both had (and still have) a penchant for an open, churning guitar tone. Throw in perhaps a bit of Slayer's late 80s moodiness and the groovier, rock influenced Entombed (Inferno, Uprising) and you're within driving distance of what Holy Wrath offers. There's something sincere, grimy and down to earth about the music that I find it difficult to really dislike, and though they're juggling 3-4 styles here that are more often performed as separate entities, they manage to fuse them into something agreeable. In the end, I just never felt all that fulfilled by this particular crop of tunes, but the roots are strong: if they keep planting in this soil they're bound to yield a grisly, effective harvest down the line.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Emptiness - Error (2012)

Having discovered Belgians Emptiness through their superb 2007 sophomore Oblivion, I had build up rather massive expectations for the inevitable follow-up, which I'm afraid haven't exactly been met with Error. Not to write this off as a negative step or a bad album by any means, but here they've gone for a more chaotic, atmospheric tone that falls somewhat short of the riffing explosions characteristic of Oblivion, and I'm not sure the trade pays off. Granted, both of the band's earlier works were quite distinct and atmospheric efforts in of themselves, but the guitar progressions felt more expressive and structured where here they form simpler patterns beneath the low pitch of the vocals, with perhaps a sheen of black influence circa the recent Enthroned (which Phorgath and Nerath Daemon also play in).

Tracks like "Worst" and "Error" are loaded with these simplistic tremolo lines whose intention is to hypnotize the listener while the tectonic gutturals belch forth alongside the thundering drum belligerence of drummer Twan. Very often, the tracks will lurch into these shifting, dissonant grooves that feel seismic in origin but rarely catch the ear for long, or they'll drift into spacier ambient/distorted guitar sequences where the percussion will subside, or the occasional blasted burst. The leads are frenzied and often trippy (once again, I'd refer you to the title track "Error") but rarely very memorable, and though the band are playing in perfect lock step, there seems something so loose and messy about the songs that it seems underwhelming after the sheer magnificence of the last album. That said, there are some points here where it all really gels together to create this warm, cavernous post-metal cacophony with strains of textured chords that write about the mind, usually deeper on the record like "Low" or the closer "No Earth".

Particular threads are certainly consistent with Oblivion, like the minimalistic approach to song titles, the deeper vocals and a number of the guitar sequences, but I feel they were definitely attempting something more tangibly ominous and raw. Strangely, Error is perhaps the most consistent of the band's records in terms of its internal variation. It plays out like a single, menacing symphony from some subterranean space, and it's nearly as oppressive, jarring and unnerving as something from Australians Portal, or perhaps a death metal Neurosis. Alas, this time out the songs simply are not of the caliber that I wished to experience repeatedly; but those who are heavily enamored of the voluminous, chasmal death metal redolent of early Autopsy, Incantation or Immolation, and would be interested in an admittedly different take on the aesthetic, would certainly do well to give these sepulchral emissions at least a once over. For if anything, Emptiness retains a unique quality to it that you won't hear every day.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Anhedonist - Netherwards (2012)

Generally, I'm one of the first people to scoff at the trends prevalent in metal music, and I don't think anyone could deny that we've been inundated with scores if not hundreds of bands channeling forth the cavernous and crushing contemplations that bands like Autopsy, Incantation, Asphyx and Immolation once wrought upon the deaf ears of a largely unappreciative metal audience in the earlier 90s. Sure, I've enjoyed and lauded a goodly number of these younger acts, but when will the flood cease? However, there's also a flip side to this tenebrous tenor, in that there will be artists which emerge from such squamous horde aesthetics and evolve a sound with such a consistent, fluid depth that all those beholden to the metamorphosis are enriched by extension.

For myself, Seattle's Anhedonist is proving to be one such mutant, their full length debut Netherwards a mournful monolith of subterranean strength, invoking the death/doom drudgery of its influences and then fashioning it into an irresistible, atmospheric emission that will have fans of Disma, Sonne Adam, Funebrarum and other contemporary titans of the form clutching their private bits in wanton cognizance. At four tracks and 40 minutes, I was mildly apprehensive that the compositions would come off swollen, endlessly repetitive and numbing, a trait that many bands of this niche seem to mistake for artistic merit, but Anhedonist do an extremely good job of creating an air of momentum and progression through each of the more substantial (i.e. 9-15 minutes) pieces. Sure, the emotional direction of the music is down, down, DOWN, yet surprises await in the album's murky environment that create a real payoff for the descent.

The tremulous tone of the guitar is so dense it feels like having a caul of soil and muck wrapped around your ears and face, and where the low muted grooves and squeals bludgeon along to the cadence of the drummer, as in the slower 'verse' sequence of "Saturnine", you get an impression of titans surging restlessly through the bowels of the earth. Tempos are varied much alike their forebears Incantation, so the album will shift from faster, bottom grinding sequences of mud caked intensity to slower, death/doom passages where solemn melodies will alight upon the thick undertow like funereal mantras. Even spookier are the cleaner guitar sequences, like the haunted intro to "Inherent Opprobrium" or the closing seconds of "Saturnine" where unnerving ambiance and distant bells roll in to welcome the dust of its end.

Granted, the bass is never quite a factor beyond its atmospheric ability to creep along as an anchor to the rhythm guitar, but the drums provide just enough fills to provide a warlike, tribal sediment; and vocalist V.B. binds it all in place with a charismatic guttural redolent of Chris Reifert's formative timbre circa Severed Survival or Mental Funeral. All told, the production to Netherwards is massive, like a gaping chasm beneath the listener's feet from which nightmares boil, and the breadth and variation to the songwriting provides for one of the better efforts of this niche in recent memory. At no point did I feel like the music was some dialed-in approximation lurking in the shadows of its influences, but a fresh, Faustian effluvium that sold its soul to the past in order to crush the life out of the present; morbidly improving upon their 2010 demo The Drear. A great record. Suffer it well.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Friday, March 23, 2012

Eternal Helcaraxe - Against All Odds (2012)

Against All Odds is certainly competent enough as an execution of higher production standards within the pagan black metal niche, and it successfully contrasts its melodic overtones with a raging central fervor, but I couldn't help but feel that this had already been done with far more depth in the past. Not that Eternal Helcaraxe have the intention of heavily expanding upon the parameters that pioneers like Bathory, Enslaved and Immortal brought to light in the late 80s and 90s, but the Irishmen occasionally shoot themselves in the feet with rather predictable chord sequences and familiar melodic tremolo picking that doesn't exactly brand itself upon the memory.

That said, this is a well arranged debut with a number of considerable strengths to it that would be impossible to deny. I greatly appreciated the band's ability to arrange and pace out their dynamics so there is always something refreshing around the corner. The opening string, piano and hovering synthesizer piece "Claim Your Place With the Gods" is the sort that instantly calls forth emotion in the listener, gradually escalating with pangs of sorrowful beauty. They honestly orchestrate their acoustic segments quite well, especially the extended break in the titular track "Against All Odds (All the Battles to Come - Part II)" which saves the 11 minute finale from lapsing into monotony; or the similar intro to "Invictus". Synthesizers are placed liberally about the mix wherever they can drizzle an added sheen of glory or melancholy, and the guitars and rasped vocals are placed right front over the warlike performance of percussionist Tyrith.

A lot of the primary riffs are the usual mix of 90s influenced blast beats and the slower, mug swinging sorts of progressions like the verse of "Invictus", and I'm reminded of later period Immortal (Sons of Northern Darkness) if it were crossbred with bands like Moonsorrow, Thyrfing and Amon Amarth, with perhaps a dash of Insomnium's sad, arching melodic sensibility. The vocals are rather average for the style: audible and serious enough to convey the bloody conviction of the Gaelic, Norse or fantastical battlegrounds from which the band draws its lyrical inspiration, but never cutting or intimidating to the point that they live up to the vicious charisma in the timbre of the black metal forebears. The mix of the music is very clean and professional without sounding overpolished, and everything from the light texture of the keys to the cleaner vocals broken out for songs like "As the Snow Gathers" is well enough managed.

In the end, when it comes to the task of songwriting, Against All Odds doesn't offer the same compelling sense of adventure that some of its contemporaries or influences once culled, but that's not to say it is entirely without value. Despite being 50 minutes long, for instance, there are very few points at which the music ever becomes particularly trite or boring. There's a sense of airy, broad sadness affixed with robust enthusiasm that captures the 'epic' motif the band were obviously aiming towards, and though I found the lyrics (that I could make out) a bit cliche in their imagery, Eternal Helcaraxe manages to somehow avoid the claptrap of 'giddiness' that often fouls up this sort of atmospheric pagan/black sound. Nothing novel or necessarily inspirational here, but a decent soundtrack for tracking your enemies' bloodied footprints across the frozen wilderness.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (we stand with generations past)

Cynic - The Portal Tapes (2012)

I'm not exactly sure why Sean Reinert and Paul Masvidal thought it appropriate to release this material under the Cynic brand. Perhaps to dry up any potential confusion with the dissonant Australian death metal band Portal, or perhaps because in retrospect they've decided this should be incorporated to the lineage of their primary project. To be fair, though, The Portal Tapes, a re-issue of the extensive demo (album length) they produced in 1995 with singer and keyboardist Aruna Abrams does showcase the evolutionary shift between their debut Focus and its 15-year younger successor Traced in Air. But a warning to the potential purchaser: if you're expecting the synthetic complexity and arrangements of the debut, rooted in the jazzy death and thrash metal niche they, Atheist and Hellwitch were molding into the Florida scene, then it's possible you will be highly disappointed.

Portal was essentially a lighter, more ethereal abstraction of the Focus sound, with almost all its metal components eliminated aside from a few heavier chords and leads. Aruna Abrams brought a new dimension with her often haunting, but generally well rounded inflection that wouldn't be out of character for someone like Sarah McLaughlin, though Abrams doesn't have quite the same range. A bit of a dreamy lounge lizard aesthetic as she coordinates with Paul Masdival's dirtier, drearier tone, but then it's this balance of relaxation and subtle technicality happening in the composition that really makes Portal's sound enjoyable. Chris Kringel's flowing, memorable bass lines here are certainly redolent of Sean Malone from the better known Cynic, but the guitars were recorded in a generally clean tone that was so prominent in 80s prog rock, sliced through by meticulous leads that forsook self-indulgence in favor of the songwriting.

I remember there being a fairly sour reaction to this material since it drove the duo away from the heavier fusion featured on Focus, and as we all know the narrow swath of tolerance found in many pundits of underground extremity is unlike to be overcome when a favored artist's sound evolves so dramatically, but they were wise originally to advertise this as a separate band: a practice that they've now eschewed since this material makes a lot more sense in the context of Traced in Air or the more recent Carbon-Based Anatomy EP. Of the 10 songs here, I'd say that at least a half dozen were catchy, whether being heavily driven by Abrams or more of a joint effort with the male-female interchange. An atmospheric accord of guitars, bass and light but dynamic percussion that is certainly comparable to the more accessible sequences they've fit into their post-reunion writing, and songs like "Karma's Plight", "Mirror Child" and "Belong" have a lush airiness to them which might certainly appeal to a cross section of jazz/pop addicts or prog Gothic rock of the less intense variety.

But, as they say, 'it is what it is'. If you harbor an innate opposition to Cynic's material post Focus, then there's not much reason to pursue The Portal Tapes. It's not metal. If, on the other hand, you're a follower of the same existential prog rock, jazz and ambient influences that the band explored in their side projects or on the recent Cynic, then this might prove a 45 minute treat for your senses. It's a little adrift, a little hippy. Numerous of songs feature structures that are a fraction too similar, consistent but not all equally memorable. In sum I'd grade it as a pleasurable listen. Didn't love it, but I did like it, and it's not at all deserving of the unfathomable ire it once provoked from those desperately seeking Focus 2.0. And finally having it all in one 'official' place (a few of the tracks were included on the 2004 Roadrunner reissue of Focus) is not a bad thing.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (an inner world of obstacles)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Flotsam and Jetsam - No Place for Disgrace (1988)

Not only is No Place for Disgrace my favorite album in the entire Flotsam and Jetsam legacy, but it's another of those many 1988 classics which arrived at precisely the proper time to augment and evolve the genre beyond the cruder, often unrefined aesthetics of its earliest expressions. Not that there was anything wrong with those timeless, primal thrashing roots, but this Arizona quintet's welcome application of melodic/power metal riffing patterns and the higher pitched, unique tone of front man Eric A.K. Knutson added an epic, itinerant nuance to the palm muted chugging and aggression which many US acts were settling upon, and No Place for Disgrace put the band well beyond fellow statesman Atrophy and Sacred Reich who had shepherded meatier, violent sounds (though to be fair, both of those bands were once quite great in their own right).

This record also heralded the band's transition from the young Metal Blade to the major label circuit via Elektra Records, following their former bassist Jason Newsted. He had left Flotsam for the coveted and difficult role of replacing Cliff Burton in Metallica, who were pretty much the biggest band in the land at the time coming off Master of Puppets, at least for this style of epic speed/thrash architecture. I'm sure this connection must have had something to do with the signing, but Flotsam and Jetsam were no 'also ran'. Newsted was still involved with some of the writing of this album, specifically "I Live You Die", "N.E. Terror" and the title track, and as anyone who had heard Doomsday to the Deceiver knew, his own shoes were also pretty hard to fill, as his muscular chops and performance were one of the clear strong points of the debut. In flew Troy Gregory, no slouch himself, but perhaps a part victim to what I'd consider the one gaping flaw in what is otherwise a tremendous sophomore: the production.

Metal Blade in houses Bill Metoyer, who had coincidentally worked with those other Arizonan bands I mentioned, as well as took part in the Doomsday sessions, was at the helm here, and he's credited with both production and engineering. The guy's somewhat of a legend himself, and certainly he's got an impressive track record through the 80s (scan his credentials and then try to conceal your ensuing metal erection), but No Place for Disgrace is not one of his finer hours. The mix is admittedly clear, and not constrained enough through its faults to hinder the nearly 25 years of enjoyment I've derived from the album, but there were some problems. For one, the guitar tone was far too crisp and crunchy. For the flightier, rapid melodies it worked well enough, but the heavier breakdown elements used in songs like "Hard On You" and instrumental finale "The Jones" would have been better served with something smoother.

Also, the bass tone, which had been really robust on the debut, seems a bit too thin for Gregory's lines. Overall, the drums and vocals had an airier presence to them which was not so compact as or level as Master of Puppets or Reign in Blood, yet suitable to the more melodic use of the vocal sequences and the spry picking sequences. The clean guitar segments like the intro to "Escape from Within" or the bridge to "No Place for Disgrace" also feel a little flimsy, a pity because the actual writing of the guitars is unflinchingly memorable. Otherwise, it's not a bad mix, but even Doomsday for the Deceiver was stronger in this area. I'm not sure if it was due to temporal constraints, misunderstandings or disagreements between the band and various studio staff, or just that their vision didn't agree with my ears, but I always felt that an album coming out on a fairly big deal imprint like Elektra could have sounded better even in '88; and I wonder if this was not partially responsible for the band not reaching the audience it deserved.

Otherwise, No Place for Disgrace was completely off the hook, and anyone committing seppuku upon its release would have been robbing themselves of years of headbanging enjoyment. The songs here were among the best composed for their day, and the pacing of the album as a whole is just another reminder why I loved this late 80s period. Dynamic tempos abound here, with only a few instances where they retread themselves. Blazing leads and melodic picking patterns which are almost invariably unforgettable, and what is by far the most exciting performance from Eric A.K., if not the richest or most rounded. Where his screams were often rather silly sounding on the first album, here they just seem to hit that perfect siren pitch where glass might shatter out of sheer reverence, like that one he pulls out in the center of "Dreams of Death" or the escalating, vaulted heights in "I Live You Die". Knutson sounds like he is literally being forced to sit on some Judas Chair, and he lends each of the 9 vocal tracks this aggressive desperation so well matched to the force of the music itself.

Also, the fucking guitars! I doubt I could find a single riff on this whole disc which couldn't pass muster, from the shrill, gladiatorial dual melodies rifling through "I Live You Die" to the muted triplets of "Dreams of Death" to that immortal melody inaugurating "No Place for Disgrace" itself with a very Maiden vibe. Edward Carlson and Michael Gilbert were simply loaded with ideas, and their constant runs up and down the necks of their guitars were structured and inspired from a mesh of thrash and traditional/speed metal influences not limited to Judas Priest, Iron Maiden or the Bay Area elephant in everyone's room. Even the muted mosh instrumental "The Jones", tucked conveniently away at the close of the album manages to score points, morphing from chugging pit hymns to ghostly melodies and back again. I can remember a time when you'd hear so much of this novel, exciting composition in the field, in fact you could reliably expect it in most cases, and No Place for Disgrace stands alongside other masterworks like Sabbat's History of a Time to Come, Scanner's Hypertrace, Riot's Thundersteel and Realm's Endless War as an example of ephemeral enlightenment where axes and charismatic vocals collided.

Even the lyrics and subject matter feel epic on this thing, from the non-judgmental harakiri anthem ("No Place to Disgrace") to authoritarian corruption ("N.E. Terror") to the mother fucking gladiatorial epoch of ancient Rome ("I Live You Die"). They take one of the better stabs in recollection at the whole music censorship/PMRC scenario of the late 80s in "Hard On You", with that amazing and threatening chorus of 'if you're hard on us, we're gonna be hard on you!', Knutson transforming into a living embodiment of the First Amendment. Flotsam also brought us one of the finer thrash covers of a classic rock tune in memory with Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting", surprisingly loyal aside from the few instances where they supplant terms like 'rock' and 'dolly' with 'mosh' and 'bitch', and the 'drink' of the original is given a label in 'Jack'. In retrospect, it might seem like an incredibly cheesy idea, but here's a case where the execution is so razor sharp that it might still cut you decades later.

Ultimately, No Place is the pinnacle of achievement for the band, something they've never since been able to either reproduce or rival with any of their subsequent mutations. Perfectly written but imperfectly captured to audio, advanced in every way over its predecessor (a decent album in its own right, but not nearly so impressive) aside from the breadth of the bass and guitars. I still feel just as excited when I hear this today as I was when I was 14, angrily delivering the daily newspapers to my neighborhood, Walkman cranked to maximum to shut out the world around me as my unformed mind sorted through both the onslaught of puberty and geekier escapes. It kicked my ass in hard, like a bunch of thrash bullies hanging out on your corner, ready and willing to mete punishment and build character in their victims. If you've never experienced it, then I look forward to seeing similar imprints on your own posterior in the years to come. I promise not to stare and make it awkward.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]
(honor even in death)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Flotsam and Jetsam - Dreams of Death (2005)

While I admire Flotsam and Jetsam their longevity amidst the constant turning of the wheel that is metal music, I can't say that I've been excited for or looking towards anything they've put out since When the Storm Comes Down, which in itself was a disappointing followup to the band's magnum opus No Place for Disgrace. Dreams of Death is just another case of the band falling short of its untapped potential, and it's not the phoenix we all hoped would rise from these undying ashes, but hell if it doesn't at least start out with a bang, and it proceeds to outclass My God in just about every department other than its production quality.

The Travis Smith cover art is admittedly trendy, but along with the simplified font of the band's moniker, it lends the album a mature character that had been absent for a great many years. Hell, with the exception of the similarly dressed 2010 effort The Cold (also by Smith), it's the best cover in their whole canon, No Place... included. But what's more, there was a simultaneous sense that Flotsam and Jetsam had fully returned to the hybrid power/thrash which spawned them, and executed a fluid grace in the first few songs here that were easily better than anything the band had put out in 17 years prior. Unfortunately, like the album before it, Dreams of Death treats us with the better material up front, and then sort of fades off into the backdrop with the ensuing songwriting. But this time, at least the first few tracks have a semblance of enduring quality to them.

"Straight to Hell" is one such piece, opening with a straight surge of energy that includes some clinical tremolo riffing that one would never really expect from the Arizonans, and then a lush dual melody sequence flowing alongside the verse. The tune seamlessly shifts between eloquence and power, and while it wasn't perfect thanks to the pretty mundane mid-paced palm muted guitars used to transition the better bits. "Parasychic, Paranoid" is likewise strong, a brief and controlled burst of surgical thrash that seems like a tag-team between late 80s Flotsam and Denmark's Artillery from the same period. Love the little melodies, once again woven through the verse, though they are almost done a disservice by the low volume. Again, they belt out this tremolo riff akin to old school thrash/death metal that takes one by surprise as it lurches into the playful leads, and by this point I had every hope that Dreams of Death was really the album I had been waiting for...

Well, it doesn't really hold up, as much as the band tries. Later thrashers like "Childhood Hero" are rooted in banal, mediocre mosh riffing, and there are far too many slow spots on the album like "Bathing in Red" or "Bleed" that continue that wannabe progressive nature of the previous album. Also, the bloated closer "Out of Mind" is an unfortunate contrast of bland thrash guitars and more inspired spikes of melody that in no way fills out its 12 minute bulk with anything hinging on the level of attention holding required for such a feat. I also didn't care for the piece "Nascentes Morimar", an instrumental with generally clean guitars that seems like something Joe Satriani would have included with Flying in a Blue Dream...sans the catchy leads.

Eric A.K. sounds decent, but this is not one of his more memorable performances as most of the vocal lines are entirely throwaway. I also felt that the mix was a bit dry, lacking the depth of its predecessor and perhaps that went a long way to subduing some of the heavier riffs. So, really, Dreams of Death plays out like a massive swan dive, opening with some attitude, charisma and well purposed riffing and then quickly plummeting into more of the same mediocrity they had been releasing for years. The lyrics were still mediocre, though not so sorry as a few of the albums before it, and the riffing quality just not prevalent. Again, we're not talking an awful record by any means, but a sinking ship. A shame, really, but not the first or last for this band.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10] (do I see a future or just a memory)

Flotsam and Jetsam - My God (2001)

Of all the ten Flotsam and Jetsam full-lengths to date, My God is easily my least favorite, because even if you strapped me onto a gurney, grafted earphones to my flesh and subjected me to some Pavlovian therapy of rewards for repeated listens, I doubt I could remember a damned thing about it come the following day. It's just that underwhelming, which is sad considering that it features what must be the best production on one of their albums since arguably the debut. Musically, this is a fraction more 'thrash' than Unnatural Selection, but otherwise quite similar with its incorporation of more modern groove metal elements and attempts at a melodic, accessible balance of its elements that might mainstream it. Most notably, there are a lot of clean guitar sequences that sound like wimpy 90s duds circa something like Queensrÿche that disperse the heavier build-ups.

My God frontloads its better content with the solid, mute-strewn melodic thrasher "Dig Me Up to Bury Me", which if nothing else highlights just how much cleaner the record is than any of those to come before, and Eric A.K. Knutson's vocals sound quite good here. However, despite its level of aggression and suitable complexity, there are zero money shot riffs, and the bouncy groove bisecting the tune is quite weak in of itself. "Keep Breathing" is another number that features a few stronger guitar sequences, but the grooves and clean segments don't do the spikes of inspiration much of a service. And then, with both of the following tracks you get more of these proggy cleans that feel all too wimpy for Flotsam; just as numbing as any of the more ballad directed pieces on, say Drift or Cuatro. The leads here are admittedly superior to those found on Unnatural Selection: songs like "Camera Eye" have a sense of excitement to the solos that feels more engaging anything else in their environs, and clearly the addition of Mark Simpson to replace former guitarist Michael Gilbert wasn't a detriment.

Alas, My God suffers heavily from lack of memorable songwriting and more of those everyman, uninteresting lyrics in which they try to craft these clever lines like 'I'd show you all my self esteem/but I lost it somewhere down the road' or 'I don't know if I'm down in the dumps/But it sure smells like trash to me'. While I can somewhat agree with the sentiment of the subject, I really don't think Islam, even that practiced by extremists, is quite so easy to pigeonhole as they do in the title track. "Trash" in general is a pretty dumb prog metal song, and the acoustic/blues version included as a hidden track is even more regrettable. At best, this is painfully average and fizzles out considerably after the first few tracks, never to restore itself or compel the listener to give a damn. Like Unnatural Selection, it seemed a bit out of touch with everything else going on around it, and the best I can say is that this would be the last album to feature that shitty logo they started using on High. Perhaps it isn't completely terrible, but My God is best avoided unless you really, REALLY loved Unnatural Selection, Drift and Cuatro.

Verdict: Fail [4.75/10] (all I see is sand in my eye)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Flotsam and Jetsam - Unnatural Selection (1999)

Unnatural Selection has a bit of a bad rap for incorporating notable elements of the groove metal that was popular in the mid 90s, but I have to say that it's at least better than the three albums leading up to it. The band's second album after returning to the Metal Blade stable, it suffered somewhat from not having any relevance to what was going on in its day, and thus a general lack of interest, since the Gothic/fairy metal, melodeath and metalcore scenes were really vaulting into the stratosphere. There was also a bit of redundancy here to the lyrics, a lot focusing around personal addictions ("Liquid Noose", "Chemical Noose", etc). In general they're quite bad, with one song ("Fuckers") particularly awkward and embarrassing, but Flotsam and Jetsam were never strong in this department, and just about everything scripted from When the Storm Comes Down on could have used revision, even if the actual subjects were appropriate.

A lot of the groove elements hit up front, with "Dream Scrape" hammering out some rhythmic bounce circa Sepultura's Chaos A.D. and a dense, funky bass tone that is more than a little reminiscent of Korn, if not as utterly dominant. The second song here, "Chemical Noose" might as well be a Prong song, it uses the same percussive sense of harmonics and muted thrashing momentum that would have placed it comfortably on, say, Beg to Differ if not for the lyrics. A little ironic, considering their former bassist Troy Gregory had joined that band. However, what I found appreciable about this album were the catchy vocal lines conceived by Eric A.K. and the gang. There's a lot of melody and passion to songs like "Brain Dead" and "Promise Keepers" which shows that those years spent flirting with the mainstream on Cuatro or Drift were not entirely wasted. In particular, that latter song has an interesting fluctuation of Pantera groove and these ethereal male choirs in the chorus that feels totally unexpected.

The guitar lines are also quite creative here, a mix of hard rock, thrash and even some semi industrial or post-hardcore sounding structures that obviously were pretty well thought out even when they don't completely deliver the goods. New drummer Craig Nielsen stepped in for Kelly David Smith (who has since returned), and his busy rock beats are a good match for Jason Ward's thick, plunking bass. The leads are frivolous and rarely memorable, but I feel like there's a more distinctly 'thrash' feel to this record that trumps its predecessors between 1992-1997 even if it still relies on some degree of accessibility. Knutson's work here is pretty catchy, with the possible exceptions of "Falling" where it seems a little more melodic than necessary and of course the aforementioned "Fuckers", which is one of those lame ranting songs that seems, to the audience, targeted to no particular individual, but to the band probably a critic or backstabbing friend or ex-girlfriend. The lyrics suck, the boring grooves supporting it suck, and it should have been left off.

On the whole, though, I found myself playing the songs in my head more repeatedly than any others since maybe "The Master Sleeps", so I can't claim that Unnatural Selection is quite so miserable as it's oft made out to be. A lot of the riffs are dead weight, I couldn't care less about some of the groovier tunes like "Dream Scrape" or the slow burn of closer "Welcome to the Bottom", but a few tunes like "Brain Dead" are loaded. Not a triumphant return to form, but it's certainly not scraping the bottom of the barrel either like its all too mediocre successor...

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (how many beatings do I have to take)