Monday, April 30, 2012

Dezperadoz - Dead Man's Hand (2012)

I had pretty high hopes for the Dezperadoz project after hearing the 2000 debut The Dawn of Dying, because let's face it: Wild West themed metal is in short supply, and the thought of a German speed/thrash band taking up the idea and applying Tom Angelripper's vocals is quite inspirational. However, since that point Alex Kraft's project has taken a turn for the worse, upping the atmospherics and Western/cowboy cliches and pairing it with a modern pop production and a more melodic vocal edge that often reminds me of The Cult's Ian Astbury crossbred with Alice in Chain's Layne Staley. There are still distinctly heavy/power metal riffs in there, often with a bit of thrash or groove to them, but it just wasn't enough to justify all the cheese toppings.

Sadly, Dead Man's Hand does not take a 180 back to the roots of the outfit, so this is more or less a direct continuation of An Eye for An Eye, but I'll give Kraft some credit. He's a talented dude. His vocals cut a little more into the skin here, and in general the riffs are kept pretty heavy, a more hostile spin on the bluesy/grooves you'd hear from Zakk Wylde and company. Maybe The Cult or Skid Row if they were more 'metal'. They're often pretty threadbare and generic in nature, but back in the early 90s, where hard rock was one of the styles being subsumed into grunge or groove metal, an album like Dead Man's Hand likely would have found an audience. The production is high end, the use of pianos and acoustics and other instruments give it a massive, dynamic feel, and for the most part they seem to lay off the lame narrative interludes and other bits (they still exist, though). On the other hand, this is all so very cliche and song titles like "Just Like Cowboyzz" and "Yippie Ya Yeah" make it hard to take seriously. I realize the Dezperadoz are a bit of a fun gimmick, but not a 'funny' one.

If only this level of energy was applied to something more devout and vicious, Kraft would have one of the most unique bands out there. Instead of the silly stereotypes, go for broke with some greater concept and more complex, interesting music. You could still use the folksy guitars, the pianos, the theme, but how about steering it in more of an Unforgiven or Deadwood direction and less Blazing Saddles? Ditch the big melodic rock songs like "Train of Souls" and bring back some of that thrashing from the first album, because often this album feels about as Western as Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory" or "Wanted Dead or Alive" and no further. A lot of the lighter hearted throwback tracks like "My Ol' Rebel Heart' just plain suck, and there's no reason to swell up an album to an hour of content when you could just as well cut it down by 20 minutes and keep the more interesting, original sounding compositions.

These criticisms aside, though, I do feel that Dead Man's Hand is marginally better than the two albums before it, and if anyone out there was truly enamored with style established on The Legend and the Truth, then they might as well strap on the six shooters and run and gun with this. Aside from some of the goofiness, there was some effort in its construction, and Alex is a good singer if not a memorable one. But alas, the prize cow of Wild Western extreme metal has yet to be properly milked and butchered.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Judas Priest - Stained Class (1978)

Stained Class was the third masterful album in the 1976-1984 'hot streak' of what is indisputably one of England's most exciting bands of the period. Excluding Point of Entry, each of the individual records the band released was overflowing with songwriting envied the world over, and though there were clear 'hits' among the batch, even here, it's the sort of experience you can still sit through today, 30+ years later and enjoy from beginning to end with painfully few hurdles between them. The cover is iconic, rather artsy for its day and age (even compared to the three previous albums) and for some reason always reminds me of wacky sci-fi pinball machines. And I LOVE wacky sci-fi pinball machines, so you know where this is going...

It's often considered to have a 'cleaner' production than its predecessors, a point which I don't exactly debate, but frankly I thought albums like Rocka Rolla and Sad Wings of Destiny sounded great, so all I really heard was that it felt like a more developed set of songs. Rob Halford was starting to grow more and more into his screams, the strut of Ian Hill's bass was a sound anchor to the generally higher pitched guitar line, the bluesy and reined in distortion of the rhythm guitars was very clear while retaining a full body, and Les Binks' steady and polished pounding was pretty intense for the time, if not incredibly adventurous. This album actually had quite a number of moments where the band returned to some of the groovy rocking of the debut, with the Led Zeppelin/Cream feel of the licks, but even here they strike it rich by executing an unflinching sense for catchiness and an atmosphere and aesthetic that places it in the arcades, roller rinks and high schools of the late 70s. In fact, while it might seem a strange observation, I think this was a pretty cool record even for disenfranchised disco fanatics to find shelter in.

There is just so much you could say about "Exciter" alone, but it's only the first track on the album. Rob's chorus has the ability to burn itself straight into your memory, and the shuffling pace of the rhythm guitars in the verse provides one of the more memorable. Lots of little nuances here, like the 'bow to your knees...' break which Venom would later adapt rhythmically into one of their own famous lines. Or the epic transition of the bridge (around 2:00) where they transform it into a near rock opera with the layered harmony. Or the dual melodies deeper in the track which spawned a million impersonators in power metal with their classical rhythmic configuration. The leads are great, not a lick wasted, and it's simply one of the best fucking songs this band has ever written, fairly advanced and progressive when paired up against even the better songs off Sin After Sin or Sad Wings...

Fortunately, the album has a far deeper roster. No one is warming the bench this time out, whether he or she prefers the searing wails over the driving hard blues of "White Heat, Red Hot", the iron grooves and shrill seasonings of "Saints in Hell" which feels like a track Sabbath might have written and passed off to Priest since they know the Birmingham gods could do it much better. The panning of those chords in the bridge is so testosterone inducing epic that you could probably plug in a car battery and some Dr. Emmett Brown pseudo-science and transport yourself back to any major conflict in history. "Savage" makes you want to beat back smilodons with a giant mammoth-bone maul, and then of course you've got "Beyond the Realms of Death" with its glimmering acoustic intro and driving mid-paced metal eruption that I often use as a meter to determine who can or can not be my friend. They also pull out another of their classy covers here with a version of Spooky Tooth's "Better By You, Better Than Me" (from the previous decade) which is so bad ass sexy that members of the opposite (or sometimes, the same) gender will immediately begin gyrating and stripping.

I haven't yet mentioned "Invaders", or "Heroes End", each of which could serve as an alternate energy source for Western civilization once the petrol wells run dry. Stained Class is so saturated in greatness that it almost begins to feel claustrophobic, and there isn't a song written for this which can't turn back the dials of time to a point at which the emerging metal genre felt so fresh, inventive, and lethal. The leads blaze with a bluesy abandon into your subconscious, and Rob's sharp-edged pitch is not something he refrains from using to its fullest here. How many power, trad or speed metal singers do you hear lately that have even a minute fraction of this guy's immediate distinction? Brilliant, slicing harmonies everywhere. The lyrics here also reached a new plateau of restless imagery and relevance, proving that the infant extremity of this genre had the potential for a literary, not pedestrian message. Frankly, I would not have thought it possible that Sin After Sin could be trumped in such a short span of time, but for Judas Priest that took only about a year. Perhaps not a 100% flawless record, there may be a note or two that I scoff at or a riff that sinks below the rest, but nonetheless an essential, timeless experience which is mandatory for anyone who dares call him/herself 'metal'.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.75/10] (faithless continuum, into the abyss)

Friday, April 27, 2012

Judas Priest - A Touch of Evil: Live (2009)

A Touch of Evil: Live isn't the worst of the Judas Priest live offerings, but considering that it was recorded across numerous tours and following up a pair of double disc releases (fronted by Tim 'Ripper' Owens), you would think that Epic Sony and the band would desire to unleash something far more substantial. At just under an hour, it's not exactly a dearth of material, but clearly the skimpiest they put out since Unleash in the East, only without the awesome working in its favor. Don't get me wrong, it was great to have Rob back in the band and I'm always excited to check out live material and see just how he's held up over so many years, but the heavy focus on newer songs was hardly a boon, and there's just not enough here that I'd recommend spending money on it.

I was neither a fan of Angel of Retribution nor its bloated and boring successor Nostradamus, so the inclusion of four tracks from these records out of a total of 11 did not sit well with me. Of course they were going to be present, because the band has traditionally introduced the more recent material into the live records each decade, but opening the disc with "Judas Priest" and "Hellrider" was not in its favor. Both are acceptable but painfully average tracks, lacking the catchy melodic chorus lines or the intensity of the band's better songs. Halford gives a fair performance, he's lost some of his range but still better than the lion's share of other heavy metal singers out there half his age, and the guitars have the expected heaviness and chugging you'd expect from a very natural live performance post-Painkiller. However, the even newer tracks like "Prophecy" are yet more bland, despite the orchestration with the keys and Rob giving it his grimy best. Just as much a drag on stage as they seemed in the studio.

So it's really up to the rest of the track list to compensate, which it certainly strives to do. Painkiller is fairly well represented with "Between the Hammer & the Anvil", "A Touch of Evil" (of course) and "Painkiller" itself which I doubt the band will ever leave off a live album since it's creation. The songs don't have that same enthusiastic energy that they once had when I was seeing the group gig in the early 90s, but then again that was 15-20 years in the past and with age comes some inevitable slowdown. That said, the leads sound pretty great here, the guitars good and choppy and the crowd response never tramples the performance. The earlier classics include "Eat Me Alive" (Defenders of the Faith), "Riding on the Wind" (Screaming for Vengeance), "Beyond the Realms of Death" (Stained Class) and "Dissident Aggressor" (Sin After Sin), the last of which sounds like a pretty decent update with the harsher vocals and the chugging grime applied to the guitars and serves as my personal highlight for this collection.

All in all, though, there is little or no reason to hunt this down unless you're a huge fan of the newer albums and wanted to hear Rob singing a few tunes that he hadn't done on the previous lives Priest...Live! and Unleashed in the East. There is simply not that much going on here, outside of proof positive that the band still 'has it' as they approach retirement. A second disc would have benefited this greatly, especially as the material was drawn from entire tours. There was nothing else we could have tossed on here many gigs? The meager rationing of A Touch of Evil: Live isn't even a match for Live in London.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Judas Priest - Live in London (2003)

Initially, I wasn't going to include Live in London in my coverage of the Judas Priest discography, because, frankly, I couldn't be bothered to track it down and add it to my collection after being underwhelmed by the very similar '98 Live Meltdown. But, thankfully I've got friends who are far more thorough and obsessive than I am over particular bands, and as it turns out, Live in London is actually a step better than its predecessor in terms of delivering a more memorable performance from the newer singer. Not so much that I would plunk my money down to find a copy, but enough that I could recommend it over Meltdown to anyone seeking out it's probably the definitive 'Ripper' Owens Priest experience without actually being there in person.

This was issued as both a DVD and CD, and as usual I'd advise everyone to just go for the DVD since that has extra footage and multi-sensory rewards. The caveat is that I believe this audio double disc has more actual songs from the set than the DVD incarnation. Either way, it's Ripper's last official release with the band, and the last that would be issued through SPV/Steamhammer before Priest returned to the major Columbia for the reunion with Rob Halford. Unlike the other gulfs between live efforts, Live in London was only five years after '98 Live Meltdown so the set list hasn't changed a lot, and in fact about 19 of the cuts are retreads from that double album. Some of the Jugulator material ("Bullet Train", "Death Row", and "Abductors") and Painkiller ("Metal Meltdown", "Night Crawler") selections have been nixed here in favor of Demolition pieces like "One on One", "Feed On Me" and "Hell is Home", and a few added classics, but in general this is mostly a similar experience in terms of its flow and content.

However, I think Live in London unquestionably sounds superior, in both the tightness of the musicians' performance, and the swell of the crowd's volume. This is because it was all taken from a single set at Brixton Academy in December of 2001, and thus you don't have all those constant edits to mix and match tighter tunes from numerous gigs. This is how it played out, on that night, and we get to experience it forevermore. But most importantly, while he's still not and never will be Rob Halford, Tim Owens sounds far more refined here than on the previous double-live. His tone is better, his pitch richer, and he relies more or an inherent sense of melody than the angrier disposition he had a few years before. He'd apparently come a long way with the band by this point, and likely thought he was in it for the long haul, and quite frankly if he had kept moving in this positive direction he might damn well have deserved it. In particular he gleams on the classics like "Electric Eye" and the unexpected "Desert Plains". I don't give much of a damn for the Demolition material, it's one of the worst of Priest's discography, but even these songs sound a little more alive in this setting, despite their dullness.

Technically it's not a huge difference from '98 Live Meltdown, but I feel as if the band played tighter, the chugging of the guitars and the force of the chords was more impacting, and it feels more genuine. It's without any doubt my favorite audio of this band with Owens (studio-wise I'll stick with the Winters Bane record Heart of a Killer), and if you've got to choose any live offering from the Metal Gods post-80s, then it might not be a poor decision. There are flaws, there are imperfections, and there is still that pervasive sense of a band covering itself due to the different vocalist, but there is more content here than Touch of Evil: Live, and the swarthy sound of the mix sounds great coming from the speakers. Not bad, and a fitting way to send this lad off, and set the band back on track after the whole sidestep that was 1996-2003.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Judas Priest - '98 Live Meltdown (1998)

It seems with each iteration of the Judas Priest live record, the contents are swelling alongside the body of studio work they can drawn upon, so '98 Live Meltdown, with over two hours of content, is justifiably the fattest exchange for your currency. Alas, this is one of the Tim 'Ripper' Owens fronted lives, so anyone seeking to experience the magnificence of Rob Halford performing Painkiller tunes to an audience on disc will be out of luck for several more years (beyond the obvious bootleg alternative). I bring up Painkiller, because this is probably where Owens grates on me the least in these 24 tracks. He uses a lower, more feral approach than Halford, more like a David Wayne or Udo Dirkschneider, but the raw aggression of his voice does work well with the heavier tunes from that album like "Night Crawler", "Metal Meltdown" or "Painkiller" itself.

Unfortunately, I can't really say the same of the numerous early classics that populate the double album. His inflection on tunes like "Metal Gods", "Electric Eye", "Grinder" and "The Sentinel" might seem beefy enough to get the fists and necks of the crowd pumping, since they already paid for their tickets to the gig, but it's by no means exemplary or proof positive for me of why this guy was chosen to front the band. I suppose there's a certain barroom appeal, that the hard working everyman can live out his dreams (as captured by that Mark Wahlberg film loosely based on Owens' ascent to Priest), but hearing these tunes with anything other than the siren of Staffordshire is just not a satisfying return on my investment. Perhaps I could forgive the dearth of quality due to the quantity of Meltdown's selections, but that's like paying for an eight course meal of mediocrity. Who does that? To top off the disappointment, there are a number of lame Jugulator tracks here like "Blood Stained", "Bullet Train", "Burn in Hell", "Death Row" and "Abductors" which sound no more exciting or memorable here than they did in the studio. Makes sense, since they were still heavily promoting and touring on the album, but each time one comes up I feel an impetus to hit the 'skip' button.

The audience interaction here does feel fresh and flush, which is surprising since this was recorded across numerous dates on the tour and meshed together. The guitars feel a lot more raw than they did on the previous Judas Priest...Live! over a decade earlier, but this matches the heavier modus operandi the band had been pursuing since Ram It Down. Scott Travis was obviously a more powerful presence on the drums than his predecessors, and the guy shines through the recording, but I felt the bass a little subdued, and the delivery of the guitar chords and chugs to seem somewhat sloppier, forgiving that the work involved was more technical. Certain climaxes in songs like "The Ripper", "A Touch of Evil" and "Breaking the Law" seem less effective than they do elsewhere, and really there are points on the discs where it feels like a complete cover band. On the other hand, there is something genuine and workmanlike about the more raw approach than the last two, so it's not that this is some complete failure or even all that offensive to the ears, because it feels very much 'live' and in your face and the 90s were pretty much THAT decade for the Brits.

I picked up this album for the same reasons I picked up Jugulator, or the Blaze Bayley era records of Iron Maiden, to give this new vocalist a chance and continue to support a band that had entertained me for many years before. Ultimately, though, there is almost zero possibility of me ever choosing this over the first two lives if I'm in the mood for Priest in the stage setting, and even the far more limited duration 2009 release A Touch of Evil: Live is preferable. Owens is not a poor front man, he engages the audience and does his best with the weapons he was given. I thought he was fine on "Painkiller", and he didn't necessarily do any disservice to the weaker tracks of Jugulator, but his presence in the band seems to be a hurdle I just can't get past, and one of the major obstacle which delegates this to the realm of the 'average'. Granted, I would rather sit through this than either of studio albums the guy sang on, or both of them combined, but it's not among the live efforts in my collection I feel compelled to dust off for even an infrequent listen.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Judas Priest - Priest...Live! (1987)

Priest...Live! might lack the personality and controversy surrounding the first Judas Priest live effort Unleashed in the East, but it compensates by providing a natural update to the band's canon in that it doesn't seek to retread the use of the 70s material in the set list. So, for the fan of the band's 80s period, this was the 'modern' Priest, and since they had been pursuing a new style for their latest studio outing Turbo, it makes a whole lotta sense, really. Would that they had stuck to this policy of recording only newer material for subsequent offerings of this sort, one per decade, I'd have a savage respect for the squad, but due to the change in singers and the long gaps in their recorded output through the ensuing decades, that would not turn out to be the case.

So the tracks chosen for this set were once again culled from numerous dates performed in June '86 at The Omni in Atlanta, Georgia and the Reunion Arena in Dallas, Texas. Having seen the band a few times here in the States, I can vouch for their collective professionalism and explosive sets across the aeons, but what I enjoyed the most about this offering was simply that I got to hear a number of tunes in the set that I don't normally or would never again normally expect on any of their big tours. Namely because it incorporates a bunch of the Turbo material. "Out in the Cold", "Rock You All Around the World", "Private Property", "Parental Guidance" and of course "Turbo Lover". That last one is admittedly a fixture at many of their gigs, but to hear the others from such a divisive record (which I happen to enjoy) is pretty sweet. I'm not sure of the validity of using "Out in the Cold" as the opener, it feels mildly lethargic (as it does on the studio incarnation) and doesn't exactly build up the listener's excitement, but for all I know they didn't actually do the songs in anything near this order at the actual dates. Otherwise, the material sounds pretty smooth. The synthesizer elements aren't as wild as they were on Turbo, Rob's voice is well sharpened and right on the money, and the guitar chords sound robust without leeching from the rest of the band.

Of course, this was also the first opportunity for me to have a live album with some of my favorites from their earlier 80s material, some of which numbered among my favorites of that period. Obviously the huge hits like "Breaking the Law", "You've Got Another Thing Comin'", "Heading Out to the Highway" and "Living After Midnight" were included in the set, after all these were the ones loading up their bank accounts, but I was also pretty excited for versions of "The Hellion/Electric Eye", "Freewheel Burning", "Metal Gods" and "The Sentinel", all of which sound pretty clean here, though occasionally too clean that they come of so polished that some of the natural, inherent aggression seems leeched. I feel like this is due to the mass levels of reverb and expansive sound that were likely needed to fill these arenas, but they still sound pretty close to their studio counterparts, although a few of the lead sequences are altered. The crowd response sounds a lot more genuine than Unleashed in the East, and Rob's voice a little broader and less piercing, and then there's the fact that this is simply more substantial of an offering at well over 70 minutes and nearly twice the set.

Priest...Live! doesn't carry that same nostalgic value I had for the first album, and some of the songs seem a little too tidy and restrained, but I'll take this any day over the Ripper-led live albums the band would produce many years later, and it's nice that the band decided not to rehash the material from Unleashed in the East, as if to let it all stand on its own as a documentation of the band's evolution. Or, they were likely just tired of those songs by the mid-80s. Ultimately, though, this is worth a pick up only to those who are not turned off by the heavy presence of Turbo. In recent years I've been starting to fancy live albums that feel more focused and authentic (from a single gig), but looking back at the past favorites this was almost never the case. Priest...Live! is certainly not a favorite from this period, but it does its job enough to satisfy an ear attuned to Screaming With Vengeance, British Steel, Defenders of the Faith, Turbo, etc.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Judas Priest - Unleashed in the East (1979)

It's difficult not to be sentimental over Unleashed in the East, since it was one of my first metal records, and certainly the first live album I ever owned, gifted to me at an age so ripe and impressionable that it helped plant the seeds of rebellion forevermore into my skull. That I hadn't the slightest clue back then what sort of music I was listening to goes without saying, I was just barely old enough to start kicking my training wheels. I had no inkling of where Japan was on a map, or that I'd ever become a culture-o-phile for that country. I had no idea what leather pants were, or that the man so stalwartly thrusting his microphone into the air above him had little interest in the googly eyes of the female audience members no doubt staring down his lightly haired chest and inviting handcuffs. Or that the person on the left of the cover wasn't a woman. Or that this record was stylistically distanced from the others I owned by KISS, Van Halen or the J. Geils Band. All I could understand was that it was exciting. Fresh. That it rocked. That I wanted MORE.

I could do my best to beat back the tears and memories, to take a more objective view of this first Judas Priest live album, but any way I try to slice it, any aural lens through which I glean it, any meat grinder I attempt to render its fats and proteins through, it's still a fucking kickass experience for the young and old, man and woman, square or hesher. Captured at a pair of Tokyo locations on their February, 1979 tour (their second in Japan), and produced by long term collaborator Tom Allom, it translated the sheer intensity and promise of the band's studio backlog straight to the stage, and helped to promote the worldwide domination of the heavy metal medium in the years (and decades) to come. Wisely avoiding the debut Rocka Rolla in terms of its set list, Unleashed in the East instead concentrates on the blazing aggression that would inspire a thousand neck strained followers to form their own musical endeavors in its wake. I've got the nine-track, US issue of the album, so it's lacking some of the content that the Japanese version has, but even considering those omissions it's easily one of the best lives in my collection, standing alongside Maiden's Live After Death and Destruction's Live Without Sense as a mandatory purchase in its medium.

Nothing too complicated, just 45 minutes of excellence spanning some of the best heavy/power metal of the 70s. Cuts like "Exciter" and "The Ripper" are a given, pumping the crowd into a polite frenzy as they witness the future unfold before them. However, the moodier and more extensive "Victim of Changes" feels superior even to its studio version on Sad Wings of Destiny. The guitars are meatier, the psychedelic breakdown feels more vibrant and the tiny spikes of the lead guitar gleam like they were just affixed to the shoulders of some new leather jacket. The cover of Joan Baez' "Diamonds and Rust" is present, not to mention that of Fleetwood Mac's "Green Manalishi (with the Two-Pronged Crown)" which completely rules to the point that I couldn't believe it wasn't their tune to begin with. Rounding out the track list you get a pair of additional greats from Sad Wings of Destiny: "Genocide" and "Tyrant"; "Sinner" from Sin After Sin, and "Running Wild" from their latest studio album at the time, Hell Bent for Leather (US title). A formidable selection, even for so early in their career.

The sound is still as rich and bright to me as it was when I first listened through it, the crowd's response ebbing and flowing gracefully into the mix at appropriate times. Obviously a little studio wizardry went into the recording to prep it for market, but Unleashed in the East seems so authentic that it would be hard to imagine they tweaked with much outside of the vocal overdubs (which Rob admits to) and maybe a solo or two. Some also say the audience is part faked, not beyond the realm of possibility. We might never know. The vocals are grafted with a good amount of echo, and even where he can't quite emulate the multi tracking of his studio performance (like the important scream in the first few lines of "The Ripper"), he still exhibits that he was quite possibly the best in the entire business at this time. Ian Hill's bass lines feel fluid and corporeal, while the two guitars are slicing, crisp and panned out into their respective tracks that converge on the listener like a pair of horseshoes being simultaneously tossed onto the same spike. Les Binks, who had gelled with the band after two studio outings, sounds like a beast here, taut and peppy but capable of lots of rumbling fills that dress up the riffs in a skirt of natural savagery.

The pacing is great for the order of the set here, the mix sincere and potent, the riffs melt your face, and even the cover image to this thing seems iconic, one of the best pure shots of a metal band in action that you'll ever witness. So wonderfully does it capture the time and place of this recording, with the smoke and lights that once served as crucial components in the stage show (and still do). The Anglicized 'kana figures seem a bit cheesy, but they fit the modus operandi and create just the right level of ignorant Western exoticism. Okay, so there's no motorcycle on the front cover. We can't win them all, but just about everything else on the album demands your immediate attention. One of the live essentials of British hardness. I've heard others that I prefer to this, and I wouldn't call it flawless, since I feel it could certainly have come across as more 'live' than this, but it's still up there. If you don't own this album by now, then clearly we old school nutters have failed at our duties, so while we address this oversight by flogging ourselves the full 40 lashes in the corner, go swipe your credit cards and make yourselves one album poorer (or more importantly, richer). Now, I wonder if my ass is too fat to fit on that old Huffy in the garage.

Verdict: Epic Win [8.75/10]

Mekong Delta - Intersections (2012)

By this point, a number of the better known German thrash acts have released compilations of re-recorded classics, for better or worse. Perhaps the most effective of these has been Destruction's brazen Thrash Anthems collection, with which they modernized an array of favorites into the context of current production standards, but numerous others like Tankard have been less successful. Here in 2012, Steamhammer Records will be releasing two more of these efforts, from mainstays Holy Moses and progressive thrash heroes Mekong Delta, the latter of which has been on a role with their new lineup and recent albums. As usual, I approach this sort of release with some trepidation. While glossier, louder and more accessible, I feel that the re-recordings can tend to rob some sense of perspective from the newer audience who haven't experienced them in their original format, and there's often a sense of 'rubbing out the past', even if the band are just out for a little fun...

But just as often, bands will look back on their past works as flawed and have a genuine desire to see them rehashed in a more digestible format. It's difficult to tell with Intersections, because while these are being executed through an almost entirely new lineup than the early versions (aside from bassist Ralf Hubert), they really don't take a lot of liberties with the material. For instance, vocalist Martin LeMar, while remaining distinct from the band's prior screamers, seeks to honor their craftsmanship closely enough that his timbre doesn't quite distinguish itself. If anything, he's got marginally less of the sporadic character and insanity that his predecessors once asserted over this music. The guitars sound a lot richer due to the advantages of modern studio polish, and the rhythm section truly shines through with some resilient, powerful tones coming out of Hubert's low end, but even though the album might seem a 'friendlier' way to bait a younger audience into their sound, I must admit that in nearly every case, I prefer their older incarnations.

That said, this isn't a bad selection, and if it drags a lot of new fans onto Mekong's radar of influence, then who am I to complain? Gods know, this band fucking deserves some attention over the hordes of also-rans and wannabes that seem to dominate the sub-genre's scene in recent years. The material chosen here spans their 1987-1994 era, the first six full-lengths, which is honestly surprising. I would have thought they'd stick to the first two or three, and then leave the door open for another volume, but then again they could always just mix and match as many of these collections as they desire from the entire backlog. Kaleidoscope (1992) seems the most favored with "Heartbeat", "Sphere Eclipse" and "Innocent?", while most of the others only have one or two proxies. Internally, the balanced mix of the instruments flows very well across the 10 tracks, equalized to the point that they almost feel as if they always belonged together.

Standouts would be "Heartbeat", "The Cure" and "Shades of Doom", the latter for the great and angry counter-vocals, but I fail to see how anyone new to the group would find the entire playlist less than enticing, even if some of my favorite songs in their discography have been omitted (especially from Principle of Doubt and The Music of Erich Zann). Ultimately, the fresh coat of paint and polish will hold some appeal for prog metallers and cerebral thrashers who have very little familiarity with Mekong Delta or the other tech German thrash of the 80s. If you've picked up Lurking Fear and Wanderer on the Edge of Time and feel no compulsion to do the legwork or dirty work in tracking down all the older CDs, tapes or vinyl, then have at it. I can't see myself desiring to experience this over the constituent original albums, but for what it's worth they've done an acceptable, competent job. A fresh coat of paint, but I wouldn't say that the songs sound all that 'fresh', beyond the tones of the bass, the choppier guitars and the muscular drumming. A newer, unreleased track or two would have rounded it out better.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Monday, April 23, 2012

Judas Priest - Demolition (2001)

Demolition presents somewhat of a conundrum to me, for while I felt that Tim 'Ripper' Owens was better integrated into the band's overall sound, there are many laughable, lame choices in songwriting and lyrics that I find it incredibly difficult to take this seriously. I mean, really, this should have been the album that evolved the few tracks laid out by Jugulator into something worth experiencing, not some phoned in devolution into weaker, pedestrian riffing that felt out of touch and out of place in the new century. Even the cover to this album is immensely lazy, with that goofy title font and the lack of even the corny steel-limbed shredder beasts that fronted the two albums before it. If something looks uninspired, then it quite likely could SOUND uninspired, and Demolition is a swollen, 70 minute waste deposit that drowns its few positives in sewer loads of swill and shit.

Like Jugulator before it, the production was kept in the family here, with Glenn Tipton taking on the duties himself. I can't say that the album sounds all that terrible, because it's got a modern gloss and clarity to it that matches the dull thrashing clamor of its music. The chords and the endless chugging sequences are effectively punchy but vapid due to their basic and undeveloped notation, but they're flush with the volume of the drums and the more focused vocal lines. Ian Hill's bass-lines plunk along aggressively, but the problem is that the riff patterns being strewn out over him just feel like rehashes of Painkiller and Jugulator with mild differences, as if the band was, unsurprisingly, lazily trying to relive their past successes to no avail. Demolition is an album that would have GREATLY benefited from an outside input, in terms of the song quality. I mean, none of these are good, but the fact that they keep coming in an endless tide of mediocrity speaks to me that they might have tried to cut this down to 40-45 minutes of the most intense material. Demolition is an obese pedestrian in dire need of vehicular homicide...

...and it doesn't take very long to sink to the bottom of the toilet bowl. "Machine Man" starts out with a Scott Travis drum solo redolent of...well, "Painkiller", before erupting into this dull cycle of chords and a chugging verse sequence. Owens feels more controlled and restrained, and as a result I think he's a better fit to the surge of the music. Unfortunately, that music fairly sucks, and once he breaks into the lyric lines of the pre-chorus/chorus I nearly fall out of my chair and puke coffee out of my nostrils. 'So you motherfuckers want to race/you've all got LOSER tattooed on your face!' They dress the song up with the spurious, wild little affected guitars that lead into a decent if forgettable lead, but it's incredibly haphazard and painfully average. The sad fact is that Demolition gets no better as it progresses. Mid-paced power/thrash tunes like "One on One" and "Bloodsuckers" often feel like they just rephrases some of the Painkiller licks, and not formed into a positive configuration.

It gets worse. "Hell is Home" sounds like some garbage Black Label Society track that lost its way into Tim Owens' vocal booth. "Lost and Found" is the requisite power ballad, and while Tim does a decent doppelganger of what Rob Halford might have sounded like phrasing the same track, it's incredibly mediocre musically, with lamentable blues lead lines. "In Between" follows a similar course, only with more electric guitars, but it still seems dull. Tracks that attempt to take on a more epic, atmospheric structure like "Cyberface" and "Metal Messiah" come up far short of their intention with the Eastern, lurching flavor (though Owens pulls off a couple decent hooks here, too little and too late), and really there is not a single piece here that I would incorporate on ANY highlight reel in reference to this particular band. I realize that moving over to a label like Steamhammer from CBS/Epic might have lessened expectations, but didn't the suits even give this album a listen before releasing it? It should have been confined to its demo reels.

I don't know about you folks, but Judas Priest is not a band I turn to for generic, flatline drivel, and there's really no excuse for such an insipid recording from a band who once wrote classics like Sad Wings of Destiny, Sin After Sin, Screaming With Vengeance, and Painkiller. That this album would more or less put the nail in Ripper's coffin and eventually steer towards a reunion with the siren himself Rob Halford is no coincidence: just listen to this. Ironically, I don't think that Owens was primarily at fault here. His delivery was solid and concentrated, if not exemplary; he just had nothing interesting to sing over, and don't be surprised that these tracks (and those from Jugulator) find themselves increasingly absent from both the memory of the audience and any future set lists.

Verdict: Fail [3.25/10] (watch the suckers self destruct behind)

Judas Priest - Jugulator (1997)

When I think back on the Tim 'Ripper' Owens era of Judas Priest I have to consider it against the greater schema of the band's legacy and my reactions to it. By the time Painkiller had been released, it was in my opinion the pinnacle of their career. They were touring arenas, kicking asses everywhere, much to the surprise of those who might have felt underwhelmed at Turbo or Ram It Down, and they had honed their traditional nuance for catchy chorus melodies and huge, inspirational riffs to its most aggressive and memorable potential. They were, in short, on the top of the world, and I think they would have easily been forgiven, if after all that touring and murdering audiences, they took a break through most of the 90s to pursue solo projects and perhaps ease tensions in the ranks.

But that's just not how it panned out. The band wanted to continue without Rob Halford, and he wanted to try his hand and lungs at different sounds like the street-oriented thrashing groove outfit Fight, or the later NIN clone Two. The rest of the band had families to feed, a reputation to uphold, and a genuine desire to keep touring and enjoying the lifestyle and livelihood they had pursued for over 20 years. Granted, unless they had been pissing their money away on coke and gambling, these guys were probably already set for life. A well paid and well loved entity who could tour the world on short notice, and whose famous singles were so heavily embedded into radio rotation that royalties would be paying for the education of their great grandchildren. And, fuck it, as mediocre as their following studio output would prove, they had every right to go on about their business and leave Halford behind them.

But here's the problem: if you took the best elements of EVERY studio record this band would record post-Painkiller, with Owens OR Halford at the helm, and mashed them together into the skeleton of a single album, it would not be good enough to serve Painkiller its high tea. Or clip that album's hedges. Or deliver its milk to the door. In fact, I don't think a single full-length produced past 1990 could compete with any album the band released prior to that date, not even the heavily divisive efforts like Point of Entry or Turbo; and unfortunately, Jugulator, the debut of Rob Halford's 'replacement', was the first in the barrage of lackluster studio offerings which itself has now spanned nearly two decades. This is a downright miserable record which attempts to season the aggression of their magnum opus with a relish of darker, trendy thrashing 'tough guy' hostility (circa Pantera) while at the same time introducing a new voice which, despite an obviously earnest effort, fails to meet expectations.

Now, everything I've read or seen of Tim Owens tells me that he's a stand up guy, with a good heart and a professional attitude. On a personal level, I think a chap like this deserves a shot. His performance on the Winters Bane debut Heart of a Killer seemed to suit him well, and he's a well practiced technical singer with a range, part of which encompassed the shrieking heights of his predecessor. This was no 'Blaze Bayley' choice. Priest were intent on snapping up someone who could handle their vast backlog of material without rocking and capsizing the boat. But for some reason, when listening to his throughput in either of the records he fronted for the metal gods, I can't help but think Owens tries too hard. Whether this was at the direction of the band veterans or producers or his own judgment is somewhat obfuscated, but his inflection always seems like a chameleon attempting to blend into a new environment rather just relaxing in its native climate.

His presence here is splattered with all manner of schizoid dynamics and special effects that are balanced off against a rather dry, central scream which is devoid of that same, piercing timbre that was so memorable about Halford. You can barely go through a handful of lyric lines on this album without some erratic, distracted bullshit happening, like the lame gang shouts in the first track ("Jugulator") itself, or the constant multi-tracked sneers and snarls or almost guttural vocals he uses to support his angrier mid range ("Blood Stained" and elsewhere). Again, on a technical basis, he hits his targets and does not shy away from the angrier persona required to complement the 'toughness' of the guitars' thrash orientation, but ultimately it feels the least genuine performance on any Priest record. Incredibly forced, as if you were to trace an image on paper, peel it off the original, then try and match them again physically to find that they weren't quite congruent.

But then, I can't really blame Owens for the underwhelming bravado of the musical composition, which lies squarely on the shoulders of the old timers. Predictable, power/thrash architecture which sacrifices much of the melodic, memory searing brilliance of the previous album for the sheer weight of force. The riffs and rhythm section are incredibly precise, with Downing and Tipton never backing down from their own physical exertion, but it's just so banal and boring. Manic, frivolous leads that build upon the Painkiller formula sans the catchiness, and even where the pair rips into tremolo picking sequences or churning hardcore/thrash grooves, they still do not seem to be able to implement this belligerence into anything that warrants recycled listens. Even after 15 years and numerous returns to re-evaluate Jugulator, I can find nothing new here, nothing 'grown' upon me, nothing subtle or interesting, just a washed out meat tenderizer to the face, bludgeoning away past its shelf life.

Seriously, listen to the riffs in the verse of "Blood Stained" or the slower grooves in "Abductors". Any quartet of Pantera-driven 15 year olds in my county in 1995 might have crafted a more compelling, violent groove than this mundane, muted patterns. Jugulator is not without some atmosphere, as they incorporate a lot of dour, cleaner guitars to let Owens resonate with his multi tracked screams (much like Rob), but even at its most 'tender' moments the album feels like a dud. I can't imagine that if Halford were to jam with, say, Dimebag Darrell or Rob Flynn, that the results would turn out so soddenly average and uninspired. Are there a few exceptions? Perhaps "Bullet Train" maintains an interesting, mechanical aesthetic for 30 or so seconds, and the epic finale "Cathedral Spires" is stronger than everything leading up to it, but even these tunes have their moments of disinterest me like the bombastic bridge grooves of the latter.

To its credit, Jugulator is not the very worst of the Judas Priest records, nor is it as awful as other midlife crisis records like Risk, Diabolus in Musica, Virtual XI or St. Anger. It still draws a pretty clear lineage from the band's prior works in 1988-1990, and it feels distinctly 'Priest' even with Owens at the helm. I like the loud and abrasive production of Scott Travis' drums, and where the band layers on the effects and atmosphere, even the varied vocal tracks it all gels from a production standpoint as this modern evolution of their sound. The lyrics are very often trite and pedestrian but at least many of them have a relevant point. I just can't help but think that the Brits would have turned out better if they just waited for a reunion album (which did happen eventually) or toured with guest singers. Or maybe they should have just gone and hired Ralf Scheepers, whose wild and absurd tones feel like a better, more powerful match to the band's material for me (hell, for all my post-1990 JP needs I just turn to the better Primal Fear records like Black Sun, Nuclear Fire or Jaws of Death).

There simply aren't enough of those wonderful vocal melodies here for me to grasp, or volcanic guitar riffs that drove Painkiller into an instant, accessible immortality. Jugulator is heavy, and it tries to keep with the times, and I don't fault it for those traits, I simply wish they had been better implemented. The jump da fuck up chorus parts like in "Blood Stained" are like a terrible foreshadowing to crap like Drowningpool's "Bodies", and despite the myriad personalities of Owens' inflections, I never felt a genuine threat to the music, whereas "Painkiller" made me clutch my blankets in nervous sweat as I looked out into the night, fearing what might be coming down through the skyline in a wreath of irradiated fire. Jugulator seems little more than weak flesh being grafted onto a solid steel skeleton, and I'm no more able to get into it today than I was in 1997.

Verdict: Fail [4/10] (now it's time to jugulate!) (....really?)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Moonloop - Deeply from the Earth (2012)

Moonloop is an act from the Catalonia area of Spain which brings an admittedly dramatic and riff-centered freshness to the progressive death metal niche. Deeply from the Earth is their second full-length, coming out through Listenable Records, which the band has put a considerable amount of time and thought towards. Their self-issued debut was far back in 2005, and though I've not heard it, I can only imagine they've grown in leaps and strides. As they've taken their band name from a Porcupine Tree song title, I feel it's only fair to note that there are often some similarities to Steven Wilson's buddies and progressive death titans Opeth, in particular their harried (and in my opinion creative summit) material on Still Life or Blackwater Park, but Moonloop are by no stretch of the imagination carbon copies, and one can also hear the Spaniards' roots run further back to sounds like later period Death.

There is a very clean, precision aesthetic constructed through a near endless selection of riffs, most of which are of great quality and prove the central focus for the listener's attention. Most of the tracks provide a labyrinthine adventure through constant shifting dynamics, from the exotic Eastern flair inherent to the intro "Awakening Spirals of Time" through the more surgical and hostile architecture of "A Life Divided", mid paced thrashing lilt of "Legacy of Fear" or the epic "Atlantis Rising" which cycles through a good number of aesthetic variations from driving riffs to clean guitars and soaring, slicing vocal harmonies. Speaking of which, the clean vocals used here are in my opinion far better than Eric Baule's guttural delivery, which is often pretty dry and monotonous by comparison to the onslaught of gleaming riff sequences. Granted, the guy's also handling the synthesizers and some of the guitars, a talented chap, but I'd like to hear a bit more emotion and variation there, because the sheer impressiveness of the music makes them feel as if they were just tossed on as an afterthought.

Otherwise, Deeply from the Earth is an adventure, and should appeal to a wide audience ranging from the progressive metal geek to those interested in more technical/clinical death/thrash. When they build up intensity, Moonloop is practically on par with a band like Vektor in the sheer level of invention and effort that was painstakingly placed in the riffing craftsmanship. The samples are all clean and smooth, the cleaner guitar tones resonant but not as heavily prevalent as you'd find in Opeth. The drums and bass are both quite nice, if never stealing the show away from Baule and Juan José Martín, and there's a clear maturity to the music which survives both the more aggressive outbursts of energy and the heavily saturated melodic strains. At about an hour in length, there's a lot to soak up here, but the band handles the length of the record with a seamless grasp of dynamics, emotionally charged and frenetic leads, and there is no doubt that it's capable of transporting the listener elsewhere. Worth a listen if you're into Opeth, Dark Suns, Disillusion, Devin Townsend, Illogicist, Gory Blister, Symbosis or other bands of this ilk.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Kraanium - Post Mortal Coital Fixation (2012)

I have a tendency to associate Norwegian death metal with the more amorphous, dissonant and unusual acts like Obliteration or the cult favorites Molested, but Kraanium are playing with a decidedly US appeal to their slam-oriented misogynistic brutality, and doing a fine job of it. The group's second album, The Art of Female Sodomy flew in one of my ears and back out the other, but I recall getting some enjoyment out of their 2008 debut Ten Acts of Sickening Perversity. Now, in the near past, I seem to have generated some antipathy over the fact that I don't focus in on a lot of releases in this particularly niche, that I specifically dislike this sound, but nothing could be further from the truth. I've listened to and continue to listen to death metal in ALL its incarnations since the damned genre started (hell, before it started). The caveat is that I hold it even its most brutal, masochistic artisans to the same standards I would hold almost anything: the necessity for solid songwriting, engaging rhythmic variation and consistent value. Extremity for extremity's sake is not all that interesting to me if I can't remember it 15 minutes later.

The reason I bring this up is because Post Mortal Coital Fixation brings all three of these things to the table, and it's an enjoyable slugfest that should appeal to fans of slam gods like Dying Fetus or Devourment with ease. The Norwegians build this enormous tone to the guitars which curries a rich, old school depth despite the fact that it's constantly being used as a catalyst for as much moshing as possible, conjoined to loads of squeals and thundering double bass action that strikes just as closely to the gut as the incessant, bouncing grooves of tracks like "Stillborn Neurotic Fuck Fest" and "Baptized in Boiling Sewage". Yet Kraanium definitely has a faster, meaner streak to it which is incorporate among a lot of the slower pit dynamics. A lot of the cuts have blasted sections like "Orgy of Cannibalistic Fornication" and "Compulsive Mutilation Disorder", even if they're not immensely accelerated; and they definitely give the drummer free reign to hammer out loads of fills above the more predictable rock grooves. The bowel rupturing bass tone is also to be lauded, so copious that I don't recommend listening on an upset stomach, and though Martin Funderdud's vocals might not stand out as significantly unique for the genre, but they deliver their gruesome deeds with admirable, guttural enunciation. In particular, I dig his sustained notes which sound like some taxed air filter on a stagnant fish tank.

Post Mortal Coital Fixation is not exceptionally unique or creative, and a lot of its appreciation will hinge on just how much the audience still loves their grisly gore and sample-driven carnage. Personally, I found it fun to just sit back and let my conscience lay into the huge, meat fisted grooves that the band uses as a slamming substrate. Could they offer more variation than you find on this disc? Certainly. Are they capable of more atmosphere? I would say so. Hell, just listen to the resonant growl and frightful ambiance set to the female screaming at the intro to "Orgy of Cannibalistic Fornication" and just imagine how SICK an album like this would be with more instances of such woven through the perverse pummeling. That said, Kraanium has done a good job in arranging 35 minutes of intestinal revulsion, and to top it all off they include a cover of "Entrails Full of Vermin" from Russian slam butchers Abominable Putridity (from their debut In the End of Human Existence), likely to impress a few fans with a broader appreciation for the style (though I've got no real recollection of the original). Post Mortal Coital Fixation should prove worthwhile for any wannabe necrophiliac, mutilation addict or mosh baron out there, but it's pretty fun for the rest of us too.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Exorcised - Reflections of Horror DEMO (2012)

Exorcised is a relatively new Serbian act, fresh out of the grinder, which pursues a commitment to the death metal ideals of the later 80s through early 90s. As such, the focus is on simplistic riffing progressions and a tinge of the doom and thrash inherent to several of their influences like Asphyx, (old) Pestilence and Autopsy, and to this they add a truly grisly production value which honestly hinges on being a pure rehearsal demo. The guitars are incredibly crunchy and raw, the vocals ominous and massive, the drums very tinny due to the cymbal crashing, and the bass low, lumbering along in step with the various old school tremolo lines (circa Death) and thrash/chug sequences. And yet, I have to hand it to them: whilst nothing here is remotely unique, the trio has some heart to it.

Granted, like any of these retrospective death metal bands emerging in the past decade, they've got a lot of familiarity to their riffs, derivations from a vast legacy (now going on about 25 years) of bands who once tread or are now retreading the same graveyard dirt. These four tracks are all tombs whose gates lie wide open, the dust of human decay whorled about their stone edifices and the restless spirits within having long moved on. But Exorcised sound like a group of guys who are having genuinely fun living out their inspirations, and there is plenty of variation on the 20 minutes of this demo to keep the more nostalgic advocate of brutality on the edge of his or her seat. Dour, death/thrash breakdowns, well constructed leads ("Oppressed by Unreal"), varied pacing which often devolves into malevolent death/doom (on the title track) and a knack for faster paced guitar hooks that, despite their lack of nuance, really sink in.

For instance, the lick that accelerates after the groove in "Unholy Awakening" around 2:20 might sound like you've heard it a hundred times, but the style never fails to be effective and I found myself headbanging along. Reflections of Horror is simply littered with such moments, and thus it overcomes the work cut out for it and entertains. It will be interesting to hear how the band sounds with a better production, since the only atmosphere really generated here comes through the very live sound, but the complaints are few. Perhaps the leads could be tweaked a little louder so the details would become more clear, and it wouldn't kill Exorcised (or any other band in this field) to be a little more creative in the riff construction, or to vary up the vocals mildly more than they already are. But for a first attempt this is a decent demo with an legitimate streak to it that should be interesting to hear develop into as the band continues along. Enthusiasts of antiquated evil take notice.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, April 20, 2012

Begrime Exemious - Visions of the Scourge (2012)

Alberta's filthiest band, Begrime Exemious have been gradually improving themselves across the course of their discography. The 2010 full-length debut Impending Funeral of Man was a steady incline over the Set Ablaze... EP the year before, and now Visions of the Scourge surpasses even that, in what must be the group's most virile, venomous and focused effort to date. The striking black and white cover art is their best yet, looking as if it came straight from the pages of some obscure role playing guide like the original AD&D Monster Manual from 1977, and it's a nice portent to the absolute, twisted and sincere extremity saturating the music.

Perhaps one of the band's obvious strengths is how they are able to capture a very raw, live feeling without seeming under-produced. Begrime seems like it could be performing in the rehearsal space next to your own, with this organic tone to the guitars and vocals that feel as if the band seek the most honest representation of their live capabilities when entered into the studio. I found Visions to be mildly less melodic than Impending..., perhaps even a bit slower and less complex, but the writing here is built off a lot of the same influences, crossbred between the realms of formative black and death metal circa the late 80s and early 90s. Certainly you've got the undertow of band's like Hellhammer in the grooves, but I like to think of this sound as what might have happened if Autopsy, Darkthrone and Mayhem were to form a band together in 1989. Black as pitch, brutal without being technical, and weened off a pissed off, punkish subtext (as in the breakout bass-led charge in "Oath of Impiety").

Some of the riffs often feel familiar in structure to many you've heard, but then they take off into these manic, old school evil tremolo twists that soak up the volatile, torn growls like a carpet of human hair absorbing the blood of some nearby stabbing victim. But they're actually quite dynamic, and you'll experience a solid variation through the track list, from the dissonant and ghastly spikes of "Chasm of Obscurity" to the disgusting momentum of "The Vault of Ancient Bone and Poison Saliva" (one of the best song titles this year, easily) and the thundering, thick guitars that meander through the opening to "Sacrament of Virgin Flesh". Where the drums cut away in that song, the grinding of the guitars is beautifully hostile. I also enjoyed the whacked out, sporadic leads that carved an atmosphere into the closer, "Relic of Befouled Incantations".

When you think about it, Canada has always been a haven for these excellent hybrids of the black and death metal niches, to the extent that they really toss all of their components like a salad of rancid guts and then bake them into a dish of their own. Groups like Blasphemy and Revenge paved the way, and today we've got Weapon, Mitochondrion and Begrime Exemious shouldering this hellish burden and battering through the pearly gates, each in their own, inventive way. Begrime might seem the least 'experimental' of this crop, but they also are one of the best at capturing the tangible malevolence of these genres' roots and then smiting the listener upside the face with them, all without the security of unnecessarily polish, symphonic excess or needless wanking indulgence. Visions of the Scourge is their most virulent, wretched embolism yet unto the arteries of humanity, and even if its slightly shy of primal perfection, its pustules absolutely ooze unapologetic evil.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Judas Priest - Sad Wings of Destiny (1976)

Like skilled snipers sharpening in on their marks, it wouldn't take Judas Priest long to fire their fatal bullet. Sad Wings of Destiny might not be a complete digression from the groundwork they had laid with Rocka Rolla, but it's a far more focused record which puts to rest some of the indecision I felt on the debut. Where Rocka Rolla was teeming with the psychedelic rock and heavy blues influences of other British heroes, Priest refined their songwriting here to really strike out on their own, and one could argue that this was the 'birth' of the band we all know and love today, at least in the sense that tracing this point A to any later point B is a smoother course. This is still an admittedly '70s' sound, with some moody, almost tripped out moments strewn through the metallic surges, but I'll be damned if this isn't one of the better records of its type in the whole of the decade that fashion forgot.

The second and last record for the Gull imprint, whom they'd have a few issues with down the road (with the Hero, Hero reprint compilation the band shunned in '81), Sad Wings of Destiny would be heavily responsible for getting Priest signed to CBS, the major label on which they'd explode in the ensuing decade. It's not difficult to reason why, when you hear this thing. For one, the guitars and chorus hooks are far more determined and memorable, on nearly every track. I'm not incredibly enamored of the atmospheric ballad "Dreamer Deceiver", or the Queen-like piano/vocal piece "Epitaph", but just about every other song is gold. The riffs still tug upon the influences of Zeppelin, Cream, Sabbath and Thin Lizzy, but they've fashioned the chord sequences into progressions so powerful in places here that they rival any of their forebears, and there is a distinct increase in the use of 'chugged' guitar lines that flow rather well in the context of the bluesy, wailing leads and the incessant charisma of Rob Halford's piercing timbre.

Though it wasn't my first experience with Priest (that would a Christmas Gift of their first live album Unleashed in the East from '79), this was the first studio album that I ever experienced from the band, probably around 1980-81, and even as a child I remember thinking just how powerful and creative the songs were. "The Ripper" is in particular an ambitious piece for its perfect use of momentum, the vocals and chugging setting up the rhythm section and a wicked sense for melody that felt like you were in some creepy, haunted mansion. Fuck, I wouldn't be surprised if the entire blueprint for the Castlevania games' VGM was based on the one riff in this song, though it also reminds me of Satori from another 70s group, Japan's Sabbath inspired Flower Travellin' Band. There's even some experimentation tucked into this piece, through the trills and wailing noises in the bridge.

Another monstrous number here is the opener "Victim of Changes", a song that likely needs no introduction to anyone who has been following the genre for any decent length of time. Massive, striking and unforgettable bluesy grooves drive the narrative of Halford's multi-pronged assault, and this is one of the points where they get really psychedelic in the bridge, with a simple guitar repeated over smooth, subtle bass and great vocals. "Genocide" has this incredibly, leaden and smoky barroom feel to the guitar lines in the verse, and the chugged guitar lines in "Deceiver" felt nice and relatively complex for their day. "Tyrant" also breaks balls with its heavy as fuck power chords, plunking bass and the nice contrast of the softer 'tyrant' in the chorus with the louder counter-lines. Halford also does a lot of self-harmonizing here (and through the rest of the record), which works astoundingly well, because really, the only thing better than having one Rob is two Robs. (I know what you're thinking, perverts. Stop it.)

Not every song is a hit, but even where Sad Wings... does falter, it's not remotely frustrating or bad. I just felt that "Epitaph" might have been better served elsewhere. Halford sounds great with Glenn Tipton's pianos, as he does with almost anything, but it feels slightly too dramatic, and I like my Priest with the kick ass guitars and cloud piercing harpy vocals. "Dreamer Deceiver" is slightly better because the guy's voice is brilliant, but despite that and the strong bass lines of Ian Hill, I just felt I was waiting for some big, catchy riff that never happened. Another song I often teeter over is the finale "Island of Domination", but thankfully it's got this really interesting structure where the rhythm collapses down in the middle and that one, evil riff sequence around 2:00. You also get a taste for Halford's lower, swaggering 'soul' vocals here which feel to me like the guy could've cut a record for Motown.

Not surprisingly, Priest had a new drummer here (their 5th), Alan Moore, replacing John Hinch, but I didn't notice a major difference in the playing of the two, only that the aggression of the music had been ramped up so it feels more structured and marginally less 'jammy'. As for the production, it's comparable to the debut if slightly more 'aged' when I listen to it today. You can still make out all the nuance, expression and instrumentation as clear as day, but there are a few points where the rhythm guitars feel more muddled than others. Ultimately, though, while this is perhaps not an absolute favorite of mine when rubbed up against certain other gems in the Brits' lexicon (Sin After Sin, Defenders of the Faith, Painkiller and a few others have always seemed somewhat more consistent for me), it's a damn fine record worth anyone's time and money, so any holdouts might want to pony up and revoke their poseur licenses.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10] (you're in for a shock)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Katana - Storms of War (2012)

It's hard to approach Katana as anything more than another spoke on the trendy wheels of traditional speed, power, and NWOBHM worship that have entered the race recently. But to their credit, they do a pretty good job in exploring the nostalgic aesthetics that shaped them. Heads Will Roll was a decent debut, if not exemplary, and the Swedes seek to capitalize on that with a more matured sophomore. I enjoy that this band strives for such an honest tone to their music. Nowhere on this record does it feel like they're over polished to a fault, but performing their craft as a quintet well versed in the roots and attempting to develop some strong songs and hooks. Storms of War is unfortunately not the catchiest of records I've heard in this field (Enforcer's sophomore Diamonds is still the one to beat), but it's a more solid effort than its predecessor.

The best way to describe Katana's sound might be to present them as a mix of Hammerfall's earlier work (when they were actually good) or Riot's 90s output with the German speed/power of the 80s and the the architecture of NWOBHM masters Iron Maiden. This last comparison is felt heavily in a track like "Khubilai Khan" with its airy, melodic setup and driving triplets, the intro to "Wrath of the Emerald Witch", "No Surrender", "The Wisdom of Edmonds Field", etc. Meanwhile, the similarities to an album like Glory to the Brave come through the spry melodic chord-streams present in "Reaper" or "The Samurai Returns". They're capable of a good dynamic spread here, pacing out the album so the faster and mid-paced cuts are balanced out, and most importantly, there are ZERO shitty power ballads on the album. Guitars are quite intricate, with a nice crisp tone that exerts just the right level of distortion to feel 80s, and the leads are well formed if not incredibly sticky in the brain.

Johan Bernspång turns in another pro performance here, tending towards his soaring mid to high range pitch, but still capable of a scream or two (the end of "Reaper"). The rhythm section is also pretty tight, the drums set perfectly into the mix and the bass lines of Susanna Salminen borne of the plodding grooves and muscle that Steve Harris exemplified through the late 70s and 80s. There's a lot happening through the 50 minutes of material, and you can tell the band invested a lot of effort into writing songs. At the end of the day, though, I'm not sure the hooks here grant this the same immortality as many of the classics that influenced it. Vocal and guitar patterns do often feel familiar, if not entirely derivative of their sources, and the choruses just don't stand out despite the obvious talents of all the members.

Storms of War
is a step above Heads Will Roll in terms of craftsmanship. It's competent, consistent, never boring, worthwhile if you're into the retro stylings of similar bands, and the studio engineering is a great fit. But unlike Number of the Beast, Port Royal or other greats of the Golden decade, I don't imagine I'll be giving it more than the occasional revisit.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Septekh - The Seth Avalanche EP (2012)

When your record opens with a track called "Fuckslut from Hell", then you've got a lot to live up to, and Sweden's Septekh gives it their damned and damnable best. The style they've embraced to do so is a blend of splatter punk, speed/thrash and death metal with a lot of riffs that just explode right out of the beat, and an abrasively loud vocalist in Nils Meseke who draws from that old time Kreator school of thought but cranks it up to 11, almost as if the Witchery vocalist Toxiene was barking at you through a megaphone. The guy sounds like he's spitting up blood and phlegm with nearly every phrasing, but while I admit I enjoy such abusive enthusiasm, there were points where I thought it hovered perhaps a little too loud in the mix.

I was also expecting a little more of an Egyptology concept here, judging by the band name and the title of the EP, so it threw me off a little that this was slut starved street fucking alcoholic blasphemy, but I wouldn't say that was an unwelcome thing. Six songs here, most of which rock with a fueled determination, whether they're meting out the speed metal/Motörhead details of "Fuckslut from Hell", the leaden mosh grooves of "Blunt Force to the Head" or even the slightly more clinical, Germanic speed/thrash riffing in "Shoot Them All". I will admit that a lot of the slower riffs here are pretty weak, predictable chug patterns that don't add much to the band's carefree and volatile momentum. I found myself far more invested in the faster bits like the song "Not Quite What I Had in Mind" which is pure, accelerated, aggression, but the overall best song was the finale, their own namesake "The Seth Avalanche" which is loud, brutal death/thrash in the vein of countrymen Raise Hell circa Not Dead Yet.

All in all, with the possible exception of the vocals needing to be dialed back just a notch, I'd say that Septekh got themselves a really great production here. The guitar tone feels punchy and full bodied, apt to handle either the crunch of the muted thrashing sequences or the renegade rush of the punk inflected chords. The lyrics, from what I can make of them, seem pretty down to earth, layman hymns of murder and Satanic woman bringing great harm to your private parts. You know, any regular Friday night for the deviant death/thrasher. Or do they start on Thursday night like the frat guys? Either way, I can't say I was in love with The Seth Avalanche. There were a half dozen riffs here which had me whipping my phantom mullet into a frenzy, but ultimately there was little memorable impact. They've got a lot of their pieces in place on the board, but the strategy needs sharpening.

That said, fans who are heavily into the sounds of acts like Deathhammer, Witchery, Raise Hell, Cruel Force, Witchburner, which merge thrash, death (or black) metal influences with a bit of punk mayhem personality, could get a kick out of this. A kick in the face. So check it out and see what you think.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Judas Priest - Rocka Rolla (1974)

It's not every day that I review an album as old as I am. Sure, I've got a month on Rocka Rolla (the album, not the single), having emerged from the womb of my unknown mother (I like to think it's Satan) in August of '74, but I don't think that there's any question the Judas Priest debut has aged far better than I have. Not that I'm fighting back shocks of white plumage, mind you, but despite being one of my lesser loved albums in the British gods' pantheon, Rocka Rolla has such great production and vibrant songwriting that even today, some 38 years in the future, it still seems 'fresh' when I compare it to some of the most modern music coming out of the rock/hard rock field. That's not to say I'm giving this the most glaring of recommendations, as I find the track list somewhat inconsistent, but there have been far worse debuts to take for granted from longstanding, outstanding bands such as this one.

I'm sure that arguments have been made to disqualify Rocka Rolla as a pure 'metal' record, just as they have for many thus labeled, but of course this is all coming from a retrofit perspective which is not necessarily valid. In a world with Cannibal Corpse, it would be difficult to claim an album like this was even remotely heavy, but for 1974, there were not a whole lot of options. You had Sabbath, Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy a few lesser known groups who only today seem to get a nod and a welcome, and then the emergence of three more of the most influential 'hard rock' bands in all of history: Canadian progressive Rush, theatrical New Yorker man-whores KISS, and a bunch of Birmingham boys who had been kicking around since '69, bred on the hard blues of Cream and Hendrix and soon to shape the 'metal' sound in such a way that they would go on to influence so many in their wake that you might go less insane trying to count the stars on a clear night.

Rocka Rolla is iconic. The coke bottle cover image and admittedly lame old logo would be difficult to forget for any child of the 70s (or 80s), and this was the sole album to feature drummer John Hinch, who at that time was already the fourth to hold that position. The sound on a number of the cuts was much groovier in nature than what we've come to expect. Sabbath was the clear comparison, especially on songs like "One for the Road" where Halford's piercing pitch rubbed up against the bluesier based rhythm guitar not unlike. Or the conceptual trilogy of "Winter", "Deep Freeze" and "Winter Retreat", where huge mournful grooves explode out of a psychedelic din only to return to devolve into wailing experimentation and a smooth, clean closure. Zeppelin also plays heavily into the swaggering dirty blues metal of "Cheater", and there's a progressive and psychedelic Pink Floyd current flowing through the numbing "Run of the Mill" or solemn "Dying to Meet You" (before it explodes).

But, of course, none of those bands featured Rob Halford, who is all over this thing, showcasing the vast range and personality of his voice. He can brood sullenly against the bluesier undertow, he can scream off like a siren, and in general maintain an incredibly consistent higher pitch for just about as long as he needs. This is more than evident on my favorite tracks here: "Rocka Rolla" itself in which he measures off a lot of groovy swagger with a higher pitched counterpoint that cuts right across the throat like jagged glass, or the heavily atmospheric "Never Satisfied" where he's incredibly expressive across both the mid and upper registers, giving even a bark and bite once he arrives at the chorus before that giant Page-like bridge groove with the lead. "One for the Road" is another of the stronger pieces, with some nice percussion from Finch that really highlights the bluesy spit of the guitars and the more top heavy, resilient howls of Halford.

While I don't think Tipton and Downing had quite come into their own here, still adapting the signature dual style they are so known for, both are pretty solid at emulating the grooves of their individual influences. A lot of Clapton in there, even more Hendrix, but it works very well against the impressive rhythm section. 40 year veteran Ian Hill has long been one of the less outspoken members of the band, and I've often heard or read the guy being criticized for his low key stage presence, but he really got a chance to shine here, his subtle strutting perfectly accommodating the bright and rich tone of the guitars. If there's any real problem with this record, it's only that in hindsight the songs are nowhere near as striking and effective as the heavier style they would evolve towards on later records. Not all of them are equally memorable, and if you took Rob out of the equation, Rocka Rolla might well have been any of several other bands in this period.

Still, the production and performance ensures that, while it's never to be hailed as some great masterpiece of psychedelic heavy blues or proto-metal, Rocka Rolla has a timeless nature about it that should sate most people who find themselves in a mood for some of the harder 70s sound. Blues, progressive rock, hard rock, all can be found frothing in the spirit of these musicians, and there's a sense that this is one of the most 'honest' of their works. It's not the hi octane, fire breathing, S&M strapped Judas Priest we'd all come to recognize and worship, but a group of guys carving a sincere, dynamic and refreshing piece of the pie from their own forebears. It's not very consistent. There are few if any 'hits'. Nor is it as musically wealthy or important as other debuts like Iron Maiden, KISS, or Black Sabbath, yet it weathers the decades like a diamond, in whose facets one might glean the firestorms to follow.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (but I know the flame is mine)