Friday, June 29, 2012

Corrosive Carcass - Composition of Flesh (2012)

I must state up front that I've got a little bit of a bias towards the sound of an album like Composition of Flesh, because it seems as if these Swedes sat down with me and probed my brain to discern exactly what I'm seeking in an 'old school' death metal record. Like being examined by the mental health board at the looney bin. Upon first exposure to the guitar tone, I was a little worried that we'd be getting another direct bite off Entombed, Dismember and their countrymen, a trait I and many others have likely grown some 'fatigue' over, but that turns out not to be the case. While the raw level of putrid distortion might in fact draw a degree of inspiration from Corrosive Carcass' national forebears, they clearly bastardize the aesthetic with elements of US veterans Autopsy, Obituary and (early) Death, with some archaic Finnish sounds (Demilich, etc). The result is nothing short of an all-purpose, dynamic descent into the umpteenth layer of horror.

Composition of Flesh fires on all bony cylinders, strong songwriting skills enshrouded in a tumescent state of eternal darkness. While the band is certainly sniffing along a breadcrumb trail of nostalgia, I never had any sense that they were 'limiting' themselves to any particular palette of necrosis. They incorporate blasting, grooves, and mid-paced rhythmic variation without ever dropping the ball, and they can harry the listener into rapt, fearful attention throughout the entire 41 minutes and 13 tracks of the experience. Deep, dual rhythm guitars grind like a pestle in a mortar of flesh, while the leads are eerie, atmospheric, and never indulgent to the point that they exceed their welcome. The bass feels like a depth charge riddled with beefy distortion, and the drums, while strong, are set at a level which supports the voluminous axe-work. On top of this, you've got a damned solid vocalist in J. Sjöblom whose inflection falls somewhere between a Chris Reifert and L-G Petrov in style. He barks, he growls, he sounds like a pack of hell hounds and pit fiends melted into the psyche of a mortician drunk on formaldehyde fumes.

Lyrically, the band is deceptively simplistic, but I found myself really drawn into the perspective of tracks like the serial killer hymn "Twist of a Knife" or visceral and suicidal "Self Mutilation". Nothing novel as far as the imagery being described, but they certainly evoke an ardent sense of psychosis that matches well with the riffing architecture. Speaking of which, while I can't award points here for much originality, but the Swedes function exceedingly well within the parameters they've established. A few guitar progressions, in particular some of the tremolo sequences, are admittedly generic, but in general I feel like they know how to mix up the selection and keep the listener's focus, whether on a brief burst like "Avatar" or the more extensive finale "The End of Us All", which is close to 8 minutes. There are some amazing moments of atmosphere like the moody intro to "Collector" with its numbing bass and creepy, cleaner guitars, and I would have loved if the band could have more evenly dispersed these through the track list, but otherwise its spot-fucking-on infectious. Combine with the sheen of opaque, drudging production and wallow in the album's gore soaked oblivion. It seems we've been spoiled this year with all manner of fantastic retro death metal recordings, and you can add to this the stockpile of Horrendous, Necrovation and Binah on your next sepulchral excursion.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (the shadows guard me well)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Southwicked - Death's Crown (2012)

I probably won't be the only person that looks upon the cover of Death's Crown and thinks to himself: 'Confederate death metal? Yesss!' Alas, I felt a bit of disappointment that this was not entirely the case for the debut of Southwicked, a Tampa area band featuring former Obituary and Six Feet Under guitarist Allen West, and a surprising number of Belgians. On the other hand, this is about as close to the 'classic' Obituary sound circa Cause of Death and The End Complete that you're going to get, so those pining for the primordial aggression of those promising years will find themselves in very familiar terrain. Whether this is a good thing or not really depends on just how much you want to hear more of the same, because there are very few embellishments on the style here, just an honest, well rounded session of skull crushing grooves performed by one of the niche's very own forefathers.

I was expecting this album to open with the thunder of Civil War cannons and the screams of dying and fighting men, but instead was caught off-guard when the band pulled out a sample from the schlock 80s horror film Shocker, before launching into a loud, lumbering sequence of open drudge chords and groovy bass hooks with a bluesy lead on top. Before long, though, we're in total flashback mode, the rhythm guitars chopping along in patterns which feel like mere variations on riffs West performed decades ago. The major difference, though, between Southwicked and either of West's aforementioned alma maters is vocalist Sven Poets, who has this deep and ominous guttural drawl redolent of bands like Incantation. Far closer to Chris Barnes than it is John Tardy, he really lets his intonation resonate through the mix and adds this brooding sensation over the music that gives it breadth and dimension, which helps the rather average slew of riffing progressions sink a little easier to the palette.

Otherwise, the production on this thing is quite a good fit for the churning of numbers like "Graveyard of Bones", "Craving for Blood" and so forth. The guitar tone is eerily reminiscent of Allen's older albums, but I enjoyed the fluid and fairly live feel to the drums. The polish on the bottom feeding bass-lines which throb under the chugging monoliths. As for the writing, it's decent enough to sweep you up into nostalgia for those years you first heard Slowly We Rot or Undead, but I had hoped for a more distinct conceptual character. The riffs are heavy, but never exactly evil. More of the band's bluesier excursions would have worked wonders here, or perhaps some folksy rock guitars to give it a more 'Southern' feel, as some might have experienced on that Tardy Brothers side project. Instead, most of the atmosphere is created solely through Poets' timbre and the weight of the guitars, which just aren't that fresh or impressive. Ultimately, there is nothing necessarily 'bad' about Death's Crown. It is what it is, but perhaps the customary Obituary bits hold it back from evoking its own identity.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Deiphago - Satan Alpha Omega (2012)

Deiphago of the Philippines provides such an over the top, barbaric blast to the face that it's almost difficult to qualify or quantify what they play as 'music', at least in terms of the traditional aesthetics of melody, harmony and the memorable fortification of rhythmic timekeeping. That's not to say that what they perform is void of any intrinsic, blasphemous value, because a more fucked up ride than this you are not likely to take again anytime soon, and in the tradition of their prior efforts like Filipino Antichrist, they really grind the genre to the hilt, as if they were audio manifestations of living hellfire that sought to seethe and burn through the speakers and headphones into their target audience and melt their damp brains.

I suppose at the root of this repulsive abomination is a hint of incendiary black/war metal redolent of groups like Bestial Warlust, Blasphemy or Revenge, with a fraction of Impiety's noisier 90s friction. I'm also reminded of a local group called Watchmaker, who pursued a similar if more dynamically integrated sense of chaos.The drums are splayed out in blast beat patterns, and the guitars highly distorted. So distorted, in fact, that they feel like they're being twisted through space as they brutishly mete out their discordant clamor. Several sequences are slower, gaping and doom-like, and these feel just as unnatural and fucked as the rest of the riffs, but usually they rifle along at an accelerated pacing. The leads used in tracks like "Exalted Hate" feel like web-works of madness being strewn about the abyssal layer of pummeling and painful momentum, and it's quite easy to become confused and unnerved in the process. The bass is unadulterated, churning sewage, a manhole to an underworld of heinous torture.

Be warned: there is nothing remotely comfortable about this material. Most music is written with the intention that you'll recall and hum along to it later. That's not what an album like Satan Alpha Omega is really about.
Where most extreme metal bands encapsulate their infamy into familiar rhythmic environs, this is extremely, ergonomically unsafe and highly stress inducing. It's like having your spine removed and cast into a giant hamster wheel with ravenous daemons doing laps inside, the nerve endings still attached to the rest of your being. And yet, it's internally consistent. There is a method to this madness. The band doesn't merely fire up a conflagration of random sounds, they leave the chaos to the architecture of the guitars and tease you with the familiar, hoarse rasping of the black metal genre, the solid and spastic drums. It's familiar, and yet so very, very different.

In the end, Satan Alpha Omega is infernal nihilism in the flesh. A tantrum of Leviathan. If I listened to this any more out loud in my apartment, I'd probably get evicted. Primordial, ugly and repulsive, it will rape your ears, then leave bleeding on your doorstop without so much as a goodbye or apology. It's not an album you experience to 'enjoy'...but to 'destroy'. Not in any way 'great', but grating with as much beatific hostility the trio can muster with the 20+ years of history behind it. If this sounds in any way attractive to that misanthropic imp that awaits restlessly within your psyche, seeking to punish you at any given moment, then suffer it well.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Gojira - L'Enfant Sauvage (2012)

Easily one of my most anticipated releases this year, Gojira's fourth album comes at a point in which the French band's star couldn't possibly be rising along a steeper incline. Strong label support from the cold/hot Roadrunner, doubtlessly huge touring plans, a backlog which has only progressed in quality since the 2001 debut Terra Incognita, and an audience which seems to transcend any particular pigeonhole into which you might place it, they've got the chops and support to become one of the premiere 'groove' metal icons in the world. L'Enfant Sauvage is not likely to disappoint anyone with a strong connection to the past releases, and proves a pleasurable listen of some depth through numerous spins.

That's not to say it's a masterwork, or even that it surpasses From Mars to Sirius or The Way of All Flesh in quality, because for the first time in the band's chronology, I feel like we're faced with an album that does not progress from its predecessor in any blatant, meaningful way. The post-hardcore inflected rhythm guitar chugging, perky emotional tremolo or tapped melodies, expressive percussion and gruff vocals all return are by now all par for the course on a Gojira record, and the patterns proposed here do not carve themselves a new path through their sonic framework. If there's one exception, it might be the sheer atmosphere evinced through a tighter, more compacted space than The Ways of All Flesh. This is a shorter album, with only the opener "Explosia" eclipsing six minutes, and the Frenchmen manage to effectively exhibit mood and tone with no need for rampant technicality or undue complexity, while retaining the same modernist aesthetic in the riffs and lyrics which broke them out from the depths of the underground.

Where I enjoy this band the most is in their ability to communicate a hybrid of psychedelic and mechanical emotions through the hypnotic structure of the note progressions, and L'Enfant Sauvage has not let me down in this regard. The way the lush tapping repetition in instrumental "The Wild Healer" plays off the sludgier rhythm guitar, ringing ambiance and lightly distorted bass is so beautiful I wanted it to go on forever (it's not even 2 minutes long), while the denser chugging and harmonic sweeps of cuts like "Planned Obsolescence" build to an efficacious battering ram of headbanging payout. The vocal arrangements here are enormous and inspired, almost as if one were experiencing a robotic, post-metal Pink Floyd on "Liquid Fire"; and the use of cleaner guitars throughout the record ("Pain is a Master", etc) do not derail from its numbing convocations of wrenched violence and fragile melody.

Production and performance are two huge factors for Gojira, and the former is sleek and potent here which is truly key to the band's simplistic, palm-muted calculations. Without the strong mix, recorded in New York and assisted by Josh Wilbur (who has also worked with the popular Lamb of God), such a tactic might not yield such a penetration in the listener's skull. Everything is as clear as day, yet as heavy as nightfall. Mario Duplantier's beats are never showy or overly indulgent, but surprisingly organic considering just how damn mechanical the overall writing can often seem. As usual, I love Joe's vocals for their unique timbre, whether jarring and hoarse or ascending to some wistful, fulfilling harmony. Always, he sounds like an internal monolog being cyphered through the listener, one of great pain and joy and volume.

If anything holds L'Enfant Sauvage back, it's that the actual structures of the riffs here just don't seem all that novel or wholly consistent in their compulsion. Individually, the very stripped down note sequences don't hold a lot of replay value, so without the vocals, drumming and full, ooze of the bass, they might seem a bit undercooked. The band lacks the benefit of surprise here, and there are few songs quite at the level of an "Oroborus" or "Ocean Planet" in breadth of power. But that said, I've still been enjoying the heck out of this thing, despite its failure to set any new bars. It's a case where the phrase 'more of the same' doesn't equate with a negative resonance, and Gojira's balance of crushing and subtlety still shakes my teeth.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (the sky is all over me)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Cripper - Antagonist (2012)

Cripper might not write the level of brass knuckle hooks and memory searing choruses that would earn them instant access to thrash royalty, but one thing I must say for the Germans is that they're incredibly consistent implementing their tool set; and Antagonist, while not exactly raising the bar set forth by Devil Reveals (2009) and Freak Inside (2007) before it, shows a slightly stronger sense for variation and nuance than I remember from either of those. It also benefits from a downright muscular production, and the brutal frontwoman Britta Görtz shoots for an even more over the top arsenal of grunts, growls and barks that glue together her local 80s influences and the more aggressive inflection one experienced in the 90s with bands like Pantera or Pissing Razors.

Musically, too, the band channels a lot of those tough thrash/groove forebears into a pummeling matrix redolent of fellow Germans like Destruction, Holy Moses and Tankard in their modern modes, so the album ends up somewhere between A Vulgar Display of Power and The Antichrist in execution. This is not achieved through any lax aping of riff patterns and song titles; it's merely the pretext to Cripper's ability to freshen the genre into a jerking, barbaric, street brawling sensibility which has just as much of a Bay Area spark to its conception. That said, there is something far more vital about this band's songwriting, than, say the latest Exodus and Onslaught records, two higher visibility groups that have tried to update themselves from the same post-80s sources and produced little more than unmemorable tedium. Tracks like the gut busting opener "New Shadow", rifling "General Routine" or the crawling and accelerating "Totmann" are loaded with some genuine mid to fast paced thrashing patterns and precision breakdowns that will loosen most any neck in its spinal socket, or fuel the primitive mosh dreams of a restless audience.

I most enjoy how they graft the meatier rhythmic riff circa The Haunted or Carnal Forge with the more clinical Teutonic thrash textures, like in the tune "Dogbite". These guitarists are always up to something, so whether or not the actual riffs stick, one need not wait long for infinite change ups to clobber you back into submission. There is a marginal level of experimentation, like the tremolo step that heralds "Another Lesson in Pain" (an Exodus reference?) or the baleful tones that cycle into the unique grooves of "God Spoken Prayer", and I haven't heard a lot of thrash records in recent months that are so well balanced in dynamic delivery. You may hate this band's music, or you may wallow in its punishment, but you will never be bored by it! Britta's vocals might seem overly blunt and forceful at times, rooted very much in death/thrash tropes with a bit of that Anselmo wildness, and it would seem restraint is not a word in her vocabulary. Yet she too reflects the kinetic, harried growth of the band's rhythm section...

Now, this isn't instantly infectious like a Zombie Attack or Sentence of Death or Persecution Mania, but it does have some legs to stand on, and I'd say it surpasses the prior efforts, which were both pretty good in of themselves. Other than the occasional gem from one of the German veteran bands, I can't say I've heard a lot of impressive bands coming out of that particular underground, so don't be surprised if Cripper rises to the fore. Tight, hostile, and not artistically bankrupt when it comes to their choice in titles and lyrics, they have all the weaponry to go further, and they very easily deserve the level of attention being foisted upon other modern thrash acts like Warbringer, Evile, etc.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, June 22, 2012

Nuclear Assault - Third World Genocide (2005)

It says a lot to me that, even at its very best, Third World Genocide is capable of evoking little more than nostalgia for other songs that came before it, and not only those of the Nuclear Assault canon, but others from the 80s. For instance, "Price of Freedom" has a chorus bit that sounds eerily reminiscent of Lääz Rockit's "Leatherface". It says even more, that even with bassist Dan Lilker back in the fold, dragging Brutal Truth guitarist Erik Burke along to fill the vacant guitar chair of Anthony Bramante (who appears only on "Glenn's Song" at the end), these guys managed to whip up one of the hands down worst 'comeback' albums of the 21st century to date, not because it's totally out of character or style as an attempt to return towards the group's 80s hardcore/punk-laced aesthetics, but because the songwriting flat out sucks. The riffs on this thing might not have even been good enough as demo fare before the guys got a record deal. It's nearly 100% cutting room floor pap that makes me frustrated to just think of it, uninspired to the point that it would even make me pine for their less than ideal 90s records Out of Order and Something Wicked...

When the band aren't fucking off with a TERRIBLE punk joke song like "Whine and Cheese", a requisite, brief grinder like "The Hockey Song", or covering a countrified John Connelly Theory tune (why?) in "Long Haired Asshole", none of which are even remotely funny, they are meting out the most generic riffing patterns in their whole history. These guys must not have spent more than five minutes writing a single track here. 'Guys, does this riff sound like thrash?' 'Uh...I think so?' 'Okay, rolling tape.' The lyric patterns seem like afterthoughts squeezed onto trifle guitar progressions that evoke absolutely none of the pavement cracking filth of the past. Tunes like "Third World Genocide" and "Exoskeletal" are little more than dime a dozen whiff thrash, which at best offer you a burning lead. Occasionally there will be a busier pattern, like in "Human Wreckage" where the group guns for something more involved and ambitious, but even these come up dry due to the stale sounding production permeating the entire effort. The reformed New Yorkers had moved over to the Screaming Ferret Wreckords roster (a local New England label from New Hampshire), so one could not have expected high budget wizardry, but this still comes up shy of any prior full-length.

Lilker is perhaps the only consistent positive on this album, but he had little to work with. Still, his buzzing and thumping bass lines seem as driven as we remember them, and to be fair the lead sequences are often pretty explosive too. The saddest fact is that, aesthetically, Third World Genocide is quite close to the first pair of albums in terms of the riff structures. Gone are the more accessible overtures of Something Wicked. This is pure regression, but it forgets to drag with it those songwriting chops that put the band on the map to begin with. This is not The Antichrist, with a veteran squad (like Destruction) finding such renewed vigor and purpose that it manages to trump itself. Rather, it's about the same level of quality one might expect of a random, drunken rehearsal session in 1987 when the band hit record on their tape deck and decided to spontaneously create songs, then scrap them the next morning for a lack of hooks. The material on this album is structured, with clearly defined verses, choruses, and tempo change ups, but its wholly unimpressive, even at its 'high point': "Glenns Song", with the "Critical Mass" like bass rhythm, dull chugging bounce riffs, weak as shit, barely audible verse vocals that somehow transition into one or two screaming moments of actual value. Conveniently tucked away at the end...

Hell, even the lyrics seem uninspired. One might think these guys would drop some wisdom on us after all their time in the industry, but it's the usual thrash anthems against racism and dictatorship that the band, and many others like them, had already trampled in the past. Not that I'd mind these subjects if they were gifted with a decent chorus sequence that made my fists fly as in the old days, but such is nowhere to be found on Third World Genocide, a complete dud which even makes the worst output of fellow East Coasters like Anthrax and Overkill in the 90s/00s shine by comparison. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to go back to pretending this doesn't exist.

Verdict: Fail [3.25/10] (and their families starved)

Nuclear Assault - Something Wicked (1993)

My first recollection of Something Wicked was that John Connelly had joined Megadeth in the 90s, because certain songs here reminded me of Mustaine's writing for tracks like "Symphony of Destruction" off of Countdown to Extinction, or perhaps something from Youthanasia. A painfully simplistic, chugging riff leads into an escalating lattice of melody, primed for easy radio accessibility, and somehow lacking that dystopic nuclear fervor that made me such a fan of their first three albums. As one progresses through this record, the motif seems to hold up, and it feels about as different an experience from Nuclear Assault as John's side project John Connelly Theory which put out an album in 1991. Sure, his vocal inflection binds the groups together, but if not for his presence, and the logo on the awful cover to this record, I wouldn't have even known it was a Nukes release.

Ironically, it's his vocals that prove one of the saving graces for this album, keeping it from plunging fully over the precipice to utter suck. He adds a little more rock and roll spice to his formula, while keeping that raw, urban harshness that defined the earlier works. Almost like an East Coast Chuck Billy, with a few traces of former Whiplash singer Glenn Hansen (in fact, Something Wicked does occasionally remind me of their 1989 LP Insult to Injury). He even pulls off the moodier pieces like "The Forge", with dire, bluesy acoustic guitars, or "No Time", the sorta power ballad in which he pulls off some of his most refined melodies ever. In fact, this album has more clean guitars than any other in their catalog, a sign they were striving for that added mainstream penetration, that late breakthrough they never quite reached in the prior decade. Unfortunately, the brighter points to Something Wicked are counterbalanced by one of the most mundane riffing selections you'd find anywhere: nothing offensive or lacking in variation, but pitifully average at a time when the genre had been largely reduced to just its most ardent supporters, and the dustbin.

I realize there's a more horror spin to the lyrics here, what with the Ray Bradbury inspiration to the title/title track and the Twilight Zone-themed cut "To Serve Man" (both cool topics in my estimation). The Cold War had receded, the street fighting mutant clobbering Damnation Alley aesthetics of the past records probably seemed moot. There were also two new members in the fold: David DiPietro of Jersey might-have-beens TT Quick replaces Bramante, and bassist Scott Metaxas has some huge shoes to fill with Dan Lilker having gone off to focus on grind superstars Brutal Truth. The former's flashier guitars are certainly felt through the album with the added licks and leads that burst out through pieces like "Another Violent End", while the latter just doesn't have those same, pulverizing rhythmic chops that his predecessor brought to the band. Neither is incompetent, but certainly their performance here contributes to the album's clear separation from their prior outings, and when they've only got such generally simplistic, chugging post S.O.D./M.O.D. riffs to work through, what could we really expect?

Reinvention I can handle, but not at the cost of that vital, youthful energy the band thrived upon through the 80s. Tunes like "Something Wicked", "Madness Descends" and "Chaos" are capable of getting the head banging for a few seconds, until one realized that nothing surprising or memorable is coming down the pipe. So many of the guitar progressions and lead sequences remind me of something Dave Mustaine would have written around this time that it's almost a distraction. They've also brought back a few of the useless ditties that plagued older albums, with the 9 second "Art" and a 40 second acoustic variation of "Another Violent End" called "The Other End". Only a few tunes like "Poetic Justice" (pre-profanity bridge) are ultimately able to conjure up that violent momentum of a Game Over or Survive, and while Connelly and Evans each deliver a decent performance, I found the album a sliver less impressive than Out of Order, which was already a letdown for many of the band's fans.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10] (draw the lightning out of my mind)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Nuclear Assault - Alive Again (2003)

To this day, barring bootleg recordings which I might or might more not have any recollection for, Nuclear Assault have yet to produce a really great live record worth owning. The videos are alright, and certainly their gigs have been cool when I've attended them, but the sound they achieve on these discs sounds a little cluttered and lacks the ability to deliver some of the nuance they actually had in the studio. Not that this was ever a subtle band, mind you; more of a locomotive to the face, but I still like to hear all the instruments clearly. I had stated on the earlier live album review that they played a lot of reformation gigs here in New England, and this was partly due to the devotion of a local thrasher named Eric Paone (of veteran act CSDO) who loved the band so much he helped set them up some gigs and even filled in on bass for a few. I mention this only because Alive Again was recorded right here in Massachusetts, in spring of 2002, to a fairly enthusiastic crowd.

It doesn't sound a whole lot greater than Live at the Hammersmith Odeon, but that ruptured tone of the guitar seems a little smoother, and you can hear the bass vibrating off here like a radiation warning sounding off in some overheated nuclear facility. Connelly has a lot more piercing pitch here than I was used to, but this is likely due to the natural aging of his throat, so I've got no real problems with his performance. The drums are also on the level, but then they were not one of the issues I took with the last live. At any rate, I would say that Alive Again has a more 'dry' feel to it with the guitars better blended into a single bludgeon, less saturated and disheveled by the mix. Almost like the equipment used might have been more primitive, but the results balanced so that they don't annoy the ear; that said, this is hardly a gem in of itself, and I could rattle off 50 or 60 thrash/speed metal lives in short order that would be infinitely preferable.

When it comes to the set choices, though, this record blows away the Hammersmith. The only bullshit short comes at the end with "Hang the Pope", and the one actual song choice here I don't care for is "Butt Fuck", two words that might have once been shocking and rebellious in the 80s but are now just a few clicks away on anyone's weekday porn search. Every damn song, however, is taken from the first three albums, when the band actually really mattered, and you are at long last treated to great numbers like "Brainwashed", "F#" and "Radiation Sickness" which were suspiciously absent from the previous live album. "Trail of Tears", "New Song", "Critical Mass", all of those tunes you used to gnash your teeth and mash your head are present and unleashed with a fury, by the same lineup that fucking recorded them! How about that?

In the end, if you absolutely MUST purchase a Nuclear Assault gig in pure audio format, then you are not presented with the best of options. But Alive Again is the better of the two official ones. Personally I'd say to try and hunt down some of the videos like the European tour in '89, but those are probably even harder to track down than this. Not a standout thrash live, but far worthier of the brand than its predecessor.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Nuclear Assault - Live at the Hammersmith Odeon (1992)

Live at the Hammersmith Odeon is one of those 'late to the party' live efforts which was released at a point where it was incapable of making its maximum impact on the band's following. Recorded in 1989, at a gig the band played in England with other greats like Dark Angel and Candlemass, it features a group on the verge of releasing their most successful effort (Handle With Care), playing for one of their most supportive international audiences. It was also put out by a number of the band's affiliates (Relativity, I.R.S. and Roadrunner/Roadracer) so clearly there was some push to sell the thing. Unfortunately, Live at the Hammersmith Odeon was not about to impress anyone, because it sounds like shit.

Or, more specifically, the guitar tone sounds like ass, enough that it completely crippled the experience for me. Now, I've seen the band live on several occasions, since the Northeast US was a hot spot for their gigs and they had an avid following (New York and New England, specifically), and whilst I can't claim that they lit me on fire with envy at their performances, they certainly sounded superior to what we have here.The guitar tone just feels too loud and crunchy, as if its always about to cut out, and sometimes the notes feel as if they're being warped. Not to mention that the balance between Connelly and Evans is just ugly, with lots of annoying squeals and other bullshit. The rhythm section is fine, you can't make out every nuance in Lilker's playing as well as you might like, but Evans at least sounds clear. As for the vocals, they're good enough at conveying the inflection on the records, but lose a bit of their luster. It's the 'crunch' that truly pisses me off, making the tunes that were new here (like "Critical Mass") sound like the unpolished crud that hangs from the lips of a public toilet.

Doesn't help that the band also included a sort of 'medley' of their lame, brief grind tunes here. Yes, tracks 9-13 concern every trifle the band ever thought was funny or clever, and while 1% of the audience might have found it amusing in their rabid devotion to the New Yorkers, it seems like a throwaway opportunity. "Mother's Day", "My America", "Lesbians", "Hang the Pope" and the stupid "Funky Noise" should all have been lifted from the set and replaced with "Brain Death" or "The Plague". Or, for fuck's sake, how about "Brainwashed"? It's nowhere to be found here. Too much emphasis on Handle With Care. "New Song", "Critical Mass", "Torture Tactics", "Trail of Tears", none of which sound up to snuff. Why include "Butt Fuck"? Or "Good Times, Bad Times" when you've got some searing originals to foist upon the blokes across the pond who've been waiting for your gigs. They do include "Survive", "Nightmares", and "Game Over" but that's not enough to save this unbalanced set from the swill.

To me, this just reeks of capitalizing on the logo of a pretty popular thrash act, otherwise it might have been more confidently issued shortly after the gig, like their European tour video a few years prior. The set's no good, the songs sound a little ruddy, so all Nuclear Assault are able to impart here is their presence and discernible level of energy. Do not waste your own tracking this down.

Verdict: Fail [3.5/10]

Nuclear Assault - Out of Order (1991)

If we were to chart the histories of most 80s thrash giants, whether in the first, financially-sound-to-this-date tier or the plane just below that upon which groups were able to get out there internationally and create a following that put them just out of reach of becoming a 'household name', then we'd no doubt pinpoint a specific breaking point at which each either altered its style dramatically in the new decade, or just plain old started to suck. For New York's Nuclear Assault, it was their fourth album, Out of Order, upon which many lay the blame of shark jumping. Even the title itself seems to imply some sort of dramatic disjunction for the band, though in reality it's a sociopolitical overview like that of the previous full-length.

I'd like to say that this album is in no way the aesthetic failure some seem to claim, but instead a sensible evolution for the band's sound moving forward into the 90s. That's not to say it's a great work, or even a good one. There are a number of flaws throughout that deign it unfit to even share the same restaurant table with the first three, but this is far from a Load or Diabolus in Musica in terms of its 'disappointment factor'. It's simply a case on which the good ideas don't outweigh the uninspired songwriting, the riffing and chorus sequences don't stir up the same frenzy as they did on Survive. Beyond that, this was coming at the tail end of a troublesome period for Nuclear Assault. Their hectic schedule in the later 80s seemed to wear upon the band's focus, and apparently the rewards for their work weren't hitting expected goals (they even seem to make fun of this in the lyrics to "Sign in Blood"). They never quite 'broke through' that Headbanger's Ball barrier to a level commeasurate to the 'Big Four', and really, thrash was starting to fold all around, its prime movers looking towards their own ass-saving (and ultimately lame) mutations in a changing landscape of popular music.

Much of the recording process for Out of Order was placed upon the shoulders of the rhythm section, Glenn Evans and Dan Lilker. Connelly and Bramante were still involved, but in particular the latter seemed to have a reduced role in its conception. As such, the vocals here just aren't anything special. He's still howling at the same pitch, and applying some melody to that natural, raw edge in his voice, but the chorus parts seem never to reach an appropriately memorable climax, and at best they often felt like reiterations of patterns the band had already used on earlier works. It also seems like they put a little extra reverb on the guy, so he does come off a little more separate from the riffing. There are a number of gang shouts and samples that come off mildly dated and corny, but probably the greatest offense is on the Sweet cover "Ballroom Blitz", which is just fucking stupid. As with actress Tia Carrere in the Wayne's World film, they should have just let this one rest, because it adds nothing on the original and sounds like the band are just fucking around (even weaker than their Led Zeppelin cover, in my opinion).

But most of the originals aren't nearly that whack. I noticed a more prevalent use of more clinical thrashing mechanics in several of the songs, almost like they were done clubbing the audience with the baseball bat of their previous albums and instead wanted to see what a scalpel would do. Several of the grooves in opener "Sign in Blood" remind me a lot of the West Coast Excel, for example, while songs like "Quocustodiat" and "Hypocrisy", two of the best here, almost had a Teutonic/Bay Area intensity to them. They also experiment with the vocals a lot more, the other members contributing lower pitched barks and even full lines of lyrics in a more blunt, hardcore timbre. Hell, in "Resurrection" they try their tongues at a few guttural death metal vocal lines, which might seem somewhat of a novelty if there weren't already full death/thrash hybrids starting to put out records around this time.

Conspicuously absent are the little grind clips the band tinkered with in the past. No complaints here, though the band do seem to have shifted their lighter sides to some of the full length tracks, like "Save the Planet" in which they experiment with everything from atmospheric, Spanish speed-picking/classical clean guitars or the jamming prog synth freakout solo near the close. I already mentioned the cover song, which is crappy, but a few of the earlier tunes like "Preaching to the Deaf" with its few lamentably generic riffs, or "Too Young to Die", which unfortunately muddies up a decent guitar progression or two with some of Connelly's worst vocals to its day, and some unnecessary acoustic guitars, leave much to be desired. If they'd cut off about 4-5 of these songs and then refined the rest, Out or Order would have been in far better shape.

Despite its missteps, though, this still felt like a step forward in stylistic direction for the Nukes. Particularly if they had sought a more technical sound altogether, keeping the same vocal style and hardcore undercurrent, like an angrier Crumbsuckers, there could have been something interesting to come out of all this. Instead, at its very best, Out of Order is just another average thrash effort with a few moments of promised intensity that don't really pan out. It's not an awful record, and such reports seem not a little exaggerated, but the fact that they seem to hide the experimentation later in the track list, doesn't reek of confidence. That said, the bass playing is pretty good here (Dan's last album with them for over a decade), and I don't have much of an issue with the production. It seemed like a speed bump that the band could overcome with a little added focus, and its not nearly so creatively bankrupt as their flaccid and pathetic 'comeback' album in 2005.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10] (relinquish control)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Binah - Hallucinating in Resurrecture (2012)

The last thing the world needs right now is another of these cavernous, old school death metal throwbacks, but that doesn't stop Binah from shoving that sentiment straight up my nether region, or excelling at this particular sound. This UK band didn't get the memo. To be fair, Hallucinating in Resurrecture is not nearly so derivative or 'second hand' as one might think: they might use the ominous, growled vocals redolent of Autopsy and Incantation, and some of the muddier and haunted resolution of Finnish pioneers like Demigod, but they apply a particular atmosphere to them that keeps the music creepy throughout. They might also utilize that driven, voluptuous Swedish guitar tone so commonly aped from the early 90s, but they use it more as a broth to season and saturate their ideas rather than a vehicle for riff lifting from Entombed and Dismember.

And ideas they have: from the eerie, saddening pulchritude of the clean guitar instrumental "Into the Psychomanteum" (or the later intro to "Crepuscular Transcendence"), to the fits of melodic tapping and other lead techniques that seem to arrive out of left field ("Eminence...", etc) against the enormous, dominant grinding of the rhythm guitar. Binah, so named from kabbalistic philosophy, implement the dynamic skills of seasoned travelers into the darker wastes of the psyche through dramatic tempo shifting and pure, unadulterated horror. The result is that the listener feels as if he or she is some unfortunate asylum inmate where it turns out that the warden is also an occultist who has just opened the gates to the Abyss, and as payment has offered up the souls of his patients in return for a grotesque immortality. Tracks like "Absorption Into the Unearthly" and "Eminence of the Sombre" will churn your spirit to paste with their manifold blasts and grooves, each sauced in the loud and primitive density of that weighted guitar tone.

Perhaps my favorite single element to this album is the growl, which is incredibly bleak and full and left to resonate over the busier undercurrent of guitars like some subterranean slavemaster traumatizing his flock. It's simply mortifying, even when the riven rhythm sequences and the tactile drums are performing the less interesting of the riffs. In truth, I didn't feel like there were a lot of catchier note progressions outside of the leads. Binah seems to have such an intense focus on production and atmosphere that the songs do tend to fall by the wayside, but then I could say the same for most of the group's peers pursuing this same path. In the end, ironically, it is this very specialization that itself burns Hallucinating in Resurrecture into the bowels of memory. This is hellish, disturbing music which admires its genre fathers from fathoms beneath the earth, enough distance that the vast and tenebrous scope of its production pays off in nightmares. Fans of Sonne Adam, Necrovation, Ignivomous, Disma, Incantation, and of course the Finnish/Swedish revival will likely want to add this album to their wish lists. Just turn off the crush control, and wallow in the fear.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Nuclear Assault - Handle With Care (1989)

Handle With Care was about the time Nuclear Assault broke out from the underground to that tier of bands primed to be the next big thing (along with Testament, Death Angel, Forbidden, Exodus, Suicidal Tendencies and so forth). They had transferred over to the newly established In-Effect records alongside several of their New York contemporaries, and this was a huge album for both that imprint and the band, charting about 20 slots higher than Survive, and to date, probably their highest selling. They had gone from buzzed about to fawned over, and had solid video support for songs like "Trail of Tears" and "Critical Mass", the latter of which featured 80s scandal 'starlet' Jessica Hahn reclining seductively in a chair while the band thrashed about her in an oil field, occasionally flashing over to shots of landfill heaps. Hey, it WAS still the 80s...

I've heard people speak of this as the 'sellout' album, or the official shark jumping, but frankly I find such a notion delusional at best. If anything, Handle With Care was a more seasoned, mature, offering that missed the memo where they tell you such a transition is suppose to be accompanied by softer tunes and sterile studio production. Nah, this is just as rambunctious as Survive, permeated with hair flailing grooves and flooded, caustic bass lines which up their distorted tone to the breaking point. The lineup had remained the same for years, so they were playing tighter than ever, and if Handle With Care could be considered the 'best' at anything, it would be its staunch sense of pacing. The tunes here flow in and out of one another as if they were borne off a brilliant blueprint for thrashing, crashing and setting a mood, and I'd at least hold up the first four cuts (and three of the final four) cuts on the record among the best they've ever set to tape. In fact, it's not really a surprise that the album was so successful, because on a tune for tune basis, there are arguably more 'catchy' chorus sequences here than on either of the earlier full-lengths...

But it wouldn't be a Nuclear Assault record of the 80s without a number of stupid little vignettes that had no rhyme or reason to the remainder of the track list. One of these, "Funky Noise" is a splendidly retarded :50 second burst of funky guitars and horns, serving no purpose whatsoever except maybe to remind us that the band's got a 'lighter side'. That they're class clowns. Or that they're setting us up for Sacred Reich's abominable "31 Flavors" off The American Way ('don't just be a metal dude!', yeah, thanks, Einstein). The other is the :30 second "Mother's Day", a high velocity grinder in the tradition of "Hang the Pope". This one's certainly got the riffs to it, and the vocal patterns, while goofy and annoying, are curiously structured, but I still don't think it has a place alongside "Trail of Tears", "Search & Seizure", "Inherited Hell" and so forth.

There are also a number of tunes which sound like partial 'also rans' of others the band had already written. For instance, "When Freedom Cries" sports a nice chorus, but the verse rhythms seem predictable and generic even for its day, only slight reconfigurations of others on Game Over, Survive or earlier on this very anthem. "New Song" and "Critical Mass" seem the richest soil for ideas here, with such enormous neck breaking grooves that were bound to get a crowd moving; it's one of the better one two knockout combos you were likely to hear in 1989. "Trail of Tears" also had a great intro rhythm, but the bluesy meandering and clean guitars here seemed to drag on. Not the first usage of such in their career, but here you get just about everything you need to hear in the first 20-30 seconds and then wish they would just stick with the heavier momentum of the pure thrashing patterns. Other, less famous cuts like the bouncing fist baller "Torture Tactics" and the escalating, atmospheric romp "Surgery" are unsung heroes, even if they're not at the level of a "Brainwashed".

Handle With Care was the second album through which Nuclear Assault had worked with producer Randy Burns, and along with the engineers, they do a pretty smash up job of drawing forth that thicker guitar tone they had manifest for Survive. Both the vocals and guitars have a strong sense for melody here, not necessarily new to their sound but showing some signs that at their, core, the New Yorkers were just as concerned with memorable songwriting as raw aggression, and fully capable of balancing the contrasts. As such, many would probably view this as their peak in terms of studio quality, an opinion I cannot disagree with due to the excellent sense of variation and bold, straight to the face tone. But even though this is only a few minutes longer than the first two albums, it somehow feels a bit fatter, and I would have trimmed it down to just the best 8-9 songs and let them speak for themselves, skipping the shorts entirely.

That said, I don't have a lot of other complaints. Lyrically, the messages in the songs tackle fascism, abuse of authority and other prevalent social and political themes which carry weight yet today. I thought the cover was a bummer after the first two albums, and yet it too is the product of a pretty blunt message. I suppose we 'survived', and now Nuclear Assault was more concerned with our environmental awareness. Granted, this impetus conjures images of ex-cons picking trash of a highway more than the radioactivity and street fighting of past works, but at least the music itself maintains the thundering, bass heavy pit savvy the band had built into a science. Sadly, despite its relative success and penetration in the American and English markets, Handle With Care would prove the last of the band's albums of import. Doesn't feel quite so vital as its predecessors, and certainly I don't feel the same level of nostalgia for this, but it's still a great time.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (atomic waste displaced)

Rumpelstiltskin Grinder - Ghostmaker (2012)

The ill-named Rumpelstiltskin Grinder doesn't likely require an introduction to a lot of folks following the more popular modern thrash currents of the 21st century. Their goofy nomenclature alone sticks to the brain like flies to scat, and collectively the members have a shit ton of experience from groups like Divine Rapture, XXX Maniak and others that you've also probably never heard of. That said, beyond just the 'novelty' and weak sense of humor that they cull from their lyrics and topics, they stand out from the legions of 80s wannabes through their incorporation of melodic death/black and grind elements into the primal Bay Area energy they evince from their guitars. Thrash is the mortar, surely, but the pestle is something more decidedly 'extreme'.

In the past, I haven't had much interest in their records; not just because I found them cheesy and unfunny, but because their tendency and technique of throwing a bunch of influence at the listener never configured itself into particularly memorable riffing or songwriting. Granted, Living for Death... was a firm step past the debut in quality, but let's just say Ghostmaker was not something I highly anticipated. As it turns out, though, this is a more cohesive and volatile product than tiehr of the preceding albums, a more muscular expression of the group's puerile purpose delivered across a dozen hymns of various fantasy contrivances like "Desert Goblins", "Nightworms" and so forth. The style is still propulsive thrash metal sped up with a variety of 90s influences, usually from Sweden, with the barked out snarling timbre made popular by groups like At the Gates (or Carcass, really). Sturdy rockers like "Nightworms" recall Witchery during their prime, with a fraction of added intensity, but these it turns out are only the tip of the beard.

Clearly, the Pennsylvanian band puts a lot of effort into scripting these tracks, because despite the fact that they ricochet all over the spectrum, they seem pretty well paced and balanced. I doubt anyone could accuse Ghostmaker of lacking variation, but sometimes, as in the bouncy grooves of "Iron Jaw" or the predictable breakdown grooves in "Dripping With Venom", this just doesn't payoff. They're far cooler when they are tearing out the more complex, busy death/thrash riffing reminiscent of fellow US groups like Soulless, Impaled or Ghoul, or their 'eerier' melodies like at the intro to "Cold Haunting Death". Thankfully, there are more than enough of these passages to declare Ghostmaker the best of the three albums I've heard so far. The production is good and even handed, impressive as they did it themselves; with a nice punch to the riffs; the one caveat is that the vocals are entirely too generic sounding and in dire need of some character. At any rate, fans of Witchery's Restless & Dead, Ghoul's Splatterthrash or Exhumed's Anatomy is Destiny might dig this.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Whitechapel - Whitechapel (2012)

Tennessee's Whitechapel could hardly be called my favorite band in the deathcore spectrum. Not that I spend an inordinate amount of time mining the prospects in that particular strata, but their past output has been more or less a poster child for all the vapid, derivative grooving, shallower hardcore lyrics and uninspired vocal abuse tailor made for little more than teenaged moshing and high school strife. Enter their eponymous fourth full-length Whitechapel, and truth is once being hammered into that age old cliche 'every dog has its day'; for while it still retains some of the traits and flaws that critically marred my appreciation of its forebears, this album prances straight out the gates of the puppy pound and takes a big old, chocolaty dump on my sneaker-boots.

As with their contemporaries like Carnifex or Job For a Cowboy, I got a real sense from this music that Whitechapel felt an aching desire to expand itself into something more progressive. Evolutionary. Epic. And what I'm hearing from this album translates that intent into some admittedly intelligent and well implemented designs that, while not enough to concoct a masterpiece, are enough to quash its predecessors by an order or so of magnitude. Whitechapel is an album of 'moments' more than a fully-fleshed out experience. There were a good number of palm muted, chugging mosh rhythms strafing both the metalcore and djent genres that I felt ruefully unimpressed with, but where these guys deserve some credit is in how they pepper the aggression with ear sweetening leads, progressive metal leanings and what some might dub 'experimentation'. Not that their earlier albums were entirely void of minor escapes and nuances, but the 38 minute duration of this album is incredibly well balanced between the puerile brutality and something...more.

That 'more' is, itself, spread among the stars of possibility. You get some calming pianos in the intro to "Make It Bleed", before some intense surgical thrashing ensues; or strewn throughout "Devoid". There are slight passes at electronica/noise like the intro "(Cult)uralist" and "Section 8". Though a good portion of the album's grooves are directed at the sort of ballistic timekeeping present on the older albums, they are almost constantly including some little tremolo picked fusion guitar melody or other atmospheric distraction to create a depth that otherwise would have been lost upon the concrete foundation. The grooves themselves are often contrasted between Meshuggah-like jerking and the Earth Crisis/Slayer breakdowns that death- and metalcore were partially hatched from, though you can also experience some aggressive post-hardcore dissonance (check out "Section 8" which flirts with all three of these paradigms).

But more, you're getting a similar taste of the highly technical, modern riffing and soloing inherent to the younger Californian brutal death acts, and they've clearly sharpened their individual musicianship. The band has three guitarists, and they USE them, whether in tripling up the rhythms for a fat, pummeling excess or gauging off dual melodies against the third. The single major setback to the album would be the lyrics and vocals. The latter are decent enough when roving thuggishly along a guttural axis, but the various Deicide snarls and tough guy gang shouts used to complement them are less than complimentary. What's worse, while the music is far more cerebral and stimulating than past jaunts, the lyrics are still held back in that 8th grade hardcore mentality, where the world is all out to get you and you must battle it with the cliched script of social antipathy. Lots of 'lies', 'falling', 'bleeding', and 'fuck' as if I were listening to some second rate wrist-cutter metalcore demo from 1994.

I would LOVE for this band to attempt some poetry, using more interesting symbolism, abstraction, surreality, or even just a more technical vocabulary to streamline with their rhythmic chops. I realize that to some degree these guys are writing for their younger audience, who can appreciate a violent lift-up when he or she has been dumped by society or a significant other, or stabbed in the back by a former 'friend', but as the band ages, I think they should spit some more progressive wisdom in that microphone. But beyond this glaring distraction, I must admit that Whitechapel is entertaining more often than not. You could pull 3-4 songs off this thing in almost any order and come out with a far stronger listening session than the older albums combined. I also like the minimal approach to the cover. The information age, dystopic horrors of the past records weren't bad, and sawblades are nothing necessarily novel, but I like that it doesn't show or tell me anything, it just implies progress. It makes me want to dig deeper.

All told, this is a vast improvement in most departments. 2012 and the Metal Blade roster is full of surprises. First that Six Feet Under record, and now this? There are probably some Whitechapel fans who will find this less appealing due to its implicit variation, who don't give a shit about hearing the band challenge itself, they just wanna mosh. Plenty of that here for the dude-bros, but honestly, it's high time to grow up: something this Southern sextet has done nicely with this very album. I'll try not to track dog poo all over the rug on my way out the door.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Nuclear Assault - Survive (1988)

One minor detail that always struck me about the Nuclear Assault sophomore was the imperative tense of the title. This isn't 'survival', or 'surviving'. No, the band is telling YOU to survive, while a menacing Satanic skull leers at you from above a pair of toxic smokestacks. It all plays into how relevant the New Yorkers were to the 80s, that time of late Cold War paranoia, AIDS pandemic, waste dumping and ozone depletion circa 'glamor'. Like Jimmy and Billy Lee fist fighting through the fictional streets of Double Dragon, so too do the Nukes, ramping up the level of hostility showcased on their earlier EPs and issuing what might prove to be the very pinnacle of urban East Coast riot-thrash to its day, an excellent soundtrack for curb-stomping post-apocalyptic mutants or just flossing out the cerebral nodes of all the bullshit that surrounds you on a daily basis.

Tonally, Survive is not a massive evolutionary stride forward from the previous album. You're still getting those punk and hardcore motifs, they just seem to better bleed into the harder bite of the metallurgical ingredients they culled from their traditional/speed influences. The crisp springiness of the Game Over guitar tone has been supplanted by a more muscled aesthetic fit for abusing carcasses at a meat packing plant. I'd say that the production of this record was more 'professional', better balanced than the other area breakouts of this time without sacrificing any of its visceral potency. For example, State of Euphoria and Under the Influence had nothing on this in terms of sheer bludgeoning force quotient. That's not to say I preferred the sound here to the debut, but it certainly fits the bill for a band who were outwardly exploding into the market like this one. The vocals, bass and drums are all well managed in the mix, and there remains that substratum of urgency to Nuclear Assault's performance here which made you feel like the sky was dropping, that all hell had broken loose in the street outside your home, and that you'd break out that spiked bat or those brass knuckles and phase into survival mode.

The bass playing is quite good. Not only do the lines bustle along with a kinetic, workmanlike utility similar to fellow New Yorkers Anthrax, but Dan Lilker loads in the fills and sufficiently anchors what many people today would probably consider a relatively simplistic palette of axe rhythms. Evans is mildly more forceful than on the debut, with some of his own refined fills heightening the intensity, and the guitars implement a lot of atmosphere to round out the crude, belligerent rhythms (like the melodies in the bridge of "Brainwashed"), a component they drew forward from their moodier pieces like "Brain Dead" or "The Plague". Connelly seems more emotive in his singing, though that might just come from the better lyrical configurations. These guys truly know how to get the pits worked up and the dead proteins whipping in their audience, and a huge part of that is the message behind what they're singing. Survive encourages intelligence and individuality to a fault with tracks like "Brainwashed" and "F#". This isn't poetry, and the lyrics and concept might seem rather plebeian to a modern audience, but in 1988 we needed all the ammunition we could to battle the hordes of  Bon Jovi and Poison drones, and Nuclear Assault provided us with an entire silo of rockets and rounds.

Where the album really excels for me beyond its elder sibling is in the songwriting. There are still a few of those flighty, cheesy briefs like "PSA" and "Got Another Quarter" which speed past in such a blur that they hardly matter. The cover of Led Zeppelin's "Good Times, Bad Times" does nothing for me, not because I can't appreciate the band's love of classic rock or the contrast against the harder originals, but I feel like they might have made it far more incendiary and a better fit to the remainder. Survive is not an album I wanna turn to for hard rock grooves and firing up a bong. It's for flinging manhole covers at the passing vehicles of police and politicians, or subway rumbling with Ajax and Swan. So, while it's not at all a bad version of the 1969 classic, I've always felt like one of these things did not belong with the other. Otherwise, though, you're getting about 28 minutes of knuckle dusting, pavement scraping apocalyptic entertainment the likes of which you're just not going to hear outside of other classics, like the painfully underrated Act of God (ZnoWhite).

"Brainwashed" is the towering juggernaut here, a mid-paced anti-TV/radio brawler which earns points not only for its unforgettable, iconic chorus of 'why don't you think for yourself ' but also for the gleaming knife like leads, bridge atmosphere, and for including the phrase 'regurgitated pap' under its eaves. This also had quite a cool video with the guys moshing around their local turf, creating havoc, Connelly standing on stage for his close ups with an utter lack of pretension, just a baseball hat and ANGER. Again, as I mentioned on the previous review, there was no sense of separation between this band and their audience. These were the dudes standing next to you at the gig. They WERE you, only given a louder voice through vexed, precision thrashing. Easily one of my favorite headbanging tunes of 1988, which is saying a lot, since more than any other the year was over saturated with excellence (to the point that, as much as I enjoy Survive, it wouldn't even have made my year's end top 20). This brought the word 'conformist' to the forefront of my vocabulary to the point that I must have pissed off everyone I knew.

It's not alone, of course, and between the hammering momentum of "Rise from the Ashes", "F#" and "Equal Rights", the last being the most hardcore inflected on the record, there seems no end to the crushing unrest. Other mid-paced beasts like "Great Depression" and "Wired", with its great bass flow and echoed, arching screams might not prove so catchy as "Brainwashed", but they effectively exhibit the band's added level of compositional variation and depth.There's another pretty popular tune called "Fight to Be Free", the first single, which brings back the clean guitar and harmonies the band had used before, and even while it's not a particular favorite of mine, there's an airiness to it that seems to foreshadow the following record, Handle With Care; though the band does lurch into a straight up mosh sequence in the bridge with some countered, rhythmic barking and zippy leads.

Survive has itself survived the ensuing decades with nary a scratch to its surface, sounding just as volatile, energetic and rebellious as it did when I bought it. There were definitely other thrash albums around this period which I preferred, like the the staggering artistry and complexity European groups like Coroner and Deathrow had evolved towards, or the accelerated splatter of Razor's Violent Restitution and Tankard's Morning After, but this felt like East Coast. It felt like home, and like Game Over, Taking Over, Among the Living, Why Play Around? and other staples of the region, belongs in the paws of any discriminating cypher of the asphalt.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (you hate the system but adhere to its view)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Nuclear Assault - Game Over (1986)

New York City. Where the bomb dropped. Nuclear Assault. Perhaps never one of my absolute favorite thrash bands in the universe, but I'm not gonna lie to you: I owned the t-shirt. I bought the records. I watched the videos. I went to the gigs. I learned the songs on my guitar. This was surely one of that group of 'essentials' in the 80s that could provoke excitement by the mere mention of the name. Their visibility, touring and lyrical matter transformed them into one of the most emblematic, idolized and oft imitated thrash acts of the period. Hell, just the logo alone. But even more than that, I feel like Nuclear Assault were the 'iconic' East Coast band in this niche. Sure, Anthrax and Overkill sold more albums in the long run. Outlived Connelly and Lilker's band of mutants. M.O.D. might have developed a comparable buzz with their goofy antics. But when you close your eyes and think back on those halcyon days of hi top sneakers, denim vests and moshing in the shadow of the Cold War, your inner child drifts towards memories of mushroom clouds, panic on the streets, and a group of ragtag New Yorkers whose dead center delivery and violent riffing might have carved out an empire had they not rendered themselves irrelevant by the dawn of the 90s.

Of course, Game Over was set to tape well in advance of that inevitable decline, and it might be better dubbed 'Game On', because it sowed the irradiated fire seeds of its influences into something that would inspire urban slammers and party thrashers everywhere. The West Coast might have been the best coast, with its incredibly advancements in aggression (Dark Angel, Slayer, etc) and what with producing the most popular metal band of the 80s, but where the Atlantic metropolitan groups like Nuclear Assault excelled was in brandishing their punk and hardcore influences more directly into the angry writing and lyrical modus operandi. It doesn't take a genius to discern bands like Discharge or Minor Threat on this album; the brilliance is how they took such youthful unrest and applied to classic NWOBHM/speed metal riff structures to produce an urgent, distinct style to themselves, producing a cross cultural aesthetic that drew even more of the marginal metal audience over from the skinheads and mohawks usually associated with 'the other side'. There's a damn good reason bands like Nuclear Assault came up alongside the Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, Leeway and Sick of It All: their sociopolitical messages and gang-like resilience were often only divided by the length of their hair. And, in some cases, not even that...

But first and foremost, Game Over is a metal album. Its clean, rapid fire licks are the stuff of Venom and Motörhead intensified to beyond the speed limit ("Live, Suffer, Die"). The thundering implementation of the double bass to punk-borne chord sequence ("Sin", "Vengeance") manifest a complexity and busyness that you simply didn't expect out of the Ramones or Sex Pistols. There was a deeper side to the band than just their street savvy, and songs like "Brain Death" or the clinical mid-paced thrasher "Nuclear War" were more cognizant of melody and traditional riffing from over the pond, to the point that the contents of an album like this one were often set at great contrasts ("Hang the Pope" vs. "Brain Death", for instance), and perhaps the band were still not quire sure of how to flesh out their identity. But, then, that's the joy of this album: it's so damned earnest and innocent that it's impossible to dislike even in lieu of its flaws, which primarily appear in the uninteresting and unfunny vignettes like "My America" or the "Mr. Softee Theme", which even made me cringe as a 13 year old.

It was pretty par for the course in the 80s for thrash, punk and hardcore groups to include these goofy shorts as if to remind the audience that they were comedians in addition to musicians (a trait that would rub off on a lot of later grindcore), but where something like "Hang the Pope" at least has some vicious fortitude due to the accelerated riffing, these other two briefs always felt painfully unnecessary to me. Otherwise, this is a damned strong album, at least 7-8 of the tracks kick ass, and there's no question that this was one of the most manic and potential-ridden blue collar groups of the scene. You always felt like Nuclear Assault were your peers, your friends, good for a beer, never snotty or inaccessible, and the character pervades the very music on this album. So what if a bit of snot ran out of Game Over's nose and wound up in a cloning vat that would later produce the party crossover throwback called Municipal Waste?

The real star of this album: the production. Man, do I love the mix of the guitar on this record. Crisp and clear, with a lighter use of distortion than you might expect. Later records like Survive and Handle With Care would take the band into a harsher environment tonally, but here they were able to perfectly capture the balance of hardcore and speed. Lilker's bass also deserves mention, pumping and throbbing and bouncing with all the puerile punk tropes, yet too fast for the ol' circle pit. Glenn Evans' drums are admittedly pretty clean, but the levels provide an excellent exhibition of his fluidity. The guy was no Gene Hoglan, granted, but you could hear how he earned his sweat and respect, whether jamming on a typical rock beat in the lurching and quickening "After the Holocaust" or blasting through "Hang the Pope".

Which leads us to John Connelly, whose vocals were one of the most distinct features of Nuclear Assault. I can't think of anyone else out there who sounded like this man. He had an almost drunken swagger to the raw timbre of his throat, and yet it carried a particular melody with all its edginess. I suppose you could compare the pitch to something like Accept or AC/DC, but despite his ability to hit shift between higher notes and a ruddy mid range, what I enjoyed most was how I could connect to it. He didn't sound like a Geoff Tate or a Bruce Dickinson, removed from the everyman by several orders of magnitude due to their natural talents, but like a really fucking pissed off dude next door freaking out over some unforeseen spike in his electric bill. Like a metal Sam Kinison in one of his fits of rage. Or, rather, an even MORE metal Sam Kinison.

Favorites? I'll have to go with the intro instrumental "Live, Suffer, Die" which could have given Dave Mustaine and Megadeth a run for their money, so fast and flurried and precise. "Sin", "Stranded in Hell" and "Radiation Sickness" all stand with the fast paced chops, and the lyrical patterns and mid-paced banging gait of "Nuclear War" would no doubt rub off on the following album, Survive. "Brain Death" might just take the cake, though, the epic finale of the album which opens with clean and atmospheric guitars and then busts into one of the more memorable vocal choruses, and even got its own EP the same year (which I've covered elsewhere). The fact that even among the more impulsive, youthful tunes that make up the bulk of this record they would include a moody departure (and not a shitty ballad) like that speaks volumes that they were something special.

Ultimately, Game Over is not my favorite of the group's full-lengths, if only because I prefer the pummeling industrial-grade abuse and stronger songwriting of the two that followed it. I don't like some of the short bits. A few of the riffs (like the punk verse in "Vengeance") just don't stick with me. But it's immediate. It's (for the most part) fun. And miraculously, it holds up to scrutiny after 25+ years of dust and rust. Well worth owning whether you're a crossover diehard, you've got NYHC stamped on your knuckles, or you believe yourself any level of urbanite thrasher. If an East Coaster from Boston down to Washington, then this applies doubly to you: neglect at your own risk.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (I've paid much for my sins)

Fetus Stench - Stillbirth (2012)

Ah, the fetus. That unborn paragon of innocence so soiled and exploited by the death metal community, once again taken to task, this time for its very olfactory qualities. I can't imagine the things smell great, nor would I ever wish to find out, but this new Swedish outfit has wrapped itself in the notion and exhaled its first full-length from the womb of brutality with a decidedly non-Swedish spin on the composition; always a welcome trait in a world saturated with soundalikes of Entombed, Dismember and At the Gates. No, Fetus Stench clutch the reins of US aggression handed them by Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse and Suffocation and ride forth into a sunset of slaughtered infants.

Stillbirth is that sort of album which straddles both a nostalgic territory and a more youthful impulse. You're not getting anything new or nuanced out of the songwriting, but the means by which they hone their 90s influences into a formidable, brickhouse slugfest loaded to the fists with tempo and riffing variation will nonetheless have you twisting your neck out of its socket. Skin basher Emil (also serving time as the most recent drummer in Blood Red Throne) is a veritable whirlwind of blasting and double bass sequences which keep the momentum up to snuff with the more contemporary, technical acts in the field, but most of the actual guitar progressions alternate between early tremolo grinding, choppy death/thrash breakdowns and palm muted recoil circa Cannibal Corpse, Malevolent Creation, etc. Nothing exceedingly complicated in terms of the raw rhythmic patterns, but an appreciable percussive mesh to levy the blunt vocals, which recall the Morbid Angel/Hate Eternal camp lent the subtext of a more visceral snarl.

Frankly, as studied and busy as Stillbirth keeps itself, there are not a lot of individual tracks that stand out through the playlist. Taken in as a whole, it's a fully competent execution with well placed leads, zero cases of lazy monotony thanks to their constant sense of transition, but there were only a few tunes like the ballistic "Brennkommando" or the surprisingly groovy "Severe Suffering" (my favorite here) with the sticky riffing that constantly made me want to hit the repeat button. The production here is so straightforward and clean that I can't say it lent much character or distinction to the album, exchanging the darkened possibility of a dirtier guitar tone for something bludgeoning and sterile. This is not so much an 'evil' record as one that bullies you upside the face repeatedly. Most of the lyrics and titles ("Bashed, Defaced, and Disfigured" for example) feel as if they'd just been reworded from familiar sources, but then again, novelty is not a characteristic bands like this specifically seek.  

Fetus Stench possess all the weaponry required in the death metal of today, with their feet firmly planted in the fundamentals. They pull off a taut and muscular debut here, but it wouldn't kill them to apply more atmospherics and striking riffs into the gestalt of their arsenal.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Suture - Skeletal Vortex (2008)

Have to say I found the cover art to this one quite hypnotizing. While it seems little more than some haggard, lich-like being opening some sort of extra-dimensional portal in its own ribcage, the high resolution pic I was sent with the digital promo was quite beautiful, and I couldn't help but stare into it as I was listening. At any rate, Suture are a Louisiana brutal death metal act formed in the late 90s who took a hiatus shortly after this album was released through Unmatched Brutality, but have recently returned. Yes, sophomore Skeletal Vortex might 'officially' be a 2008 release, but this new version has been remixed and mastered, its dense and darkening overtures painted with a fresh coat of agony, and I can only imagine that it has benefited from the treatment.

Once again, I'm faced with a death metal group that does nothing particularly new or different than the many before it, but executes its style extremely well. Though they clearly belong to the 'brutal' niche of the genre, with the obvious influences in Immolation, Suffocation and Florida extremists like Morbid Angel and Malevolent Creation, there is something measured and contemplative about the writing which erupts whenever they break into some more soaring, tremolo melody among the more pummeling currents of the chugged and blasted rhythm guitars and drums; or a choppier, progressive pattern circa 90s Death. The titles alone, like "Escaping the Confines of my Skin", "Exiled to Undead" or "Overseer to the End of Days" would seem to imply a more philosophical bent on the brutality, but the subtle strains of melody coursing beneath the brunt of bludgeoning hint at a band who are perhaps interested in more than just the mere gore of so many fellows. Affix this to the jerking, attention keeping variation found in cuts like "Chaossuary" or the titular "Skeletal Vortex" and you've got yourself a band who can run neck in neck with some of the California crushers of late like Severed Savior, Inherit Disease, etc.

That said, Skeletal Vortex is not exactly perfect. The Deicide/Morbid Angel-like brutal grunts (and occasional layered snarls) are rhythmic and percussively sound, but they hardly distinguish themselves among the myriad others who sound almost exactly the same. A lot of the driving patterns sound like they were torn directly from the Hate Eternal/Morbid Angel playbook without adding much pizzazz, and there are a few low-end chugging patterns throughout that seem forgettable as soon as they've played out. But for an album four years old already, the new production is rich and captivating. The Louisianans know how to lock you into an eerie, extraworldly space and then beat the Jesus out of you, almost as if you were hijacked by Elder Gods who wanted your wheels. This is another 'total package' band, with musicianship, intelligence, ideas and an ability to contrast numerous emotions into the resonance of their writing: from fear to wonder. Looking forward, but skinned in the past. With bands like Suture and Alabama's Chaos Inception writing the albums we WISH Morbid Angel would put out, the South is looking mighty strong in this new era of punishment.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Humangled - Odd Ethics EP (2012)

I vaguely remember this Italian group's debut Fractal from just a couple years back, but not enough that it left much of an impression. I will say, though, that Odd Ethics immediately struck me as a more varied and experimental work (like its title implies). Not so much that it entirely evades the bounds of its death metal roots, but enough that each of the four cuts included seems to take on a life of its own. It's almost as if one were to take the grisly old school approach of a US group like Autopsy or Necrophagia, add a touch of Pungent Stench rock n roll groove and then let the whole mess simmer in a slightly introspective sauce that makes it feel somehow progressive despite its obvious, crude impulses.

They wrench this hideous, huge distortion out of their guitars which somehow manages not to ape the huge Swedish tones so prevalent in Euro-death. Never is this more evident than in "Skinned, to Feel All" which operates off these unnerving, weird sludge/doom grooves while the vocals shift between a straightforward , deep guttural and its snarling counterpoint. "Deny Your Creed" opens with a bass-driven flood of almost ambient guitars before quickly devolving into lumbering, meaty and minimalistic death riffing; and the song "Smells Acrid" explores a similar contrast, with busier, churning rhythms. The songs seem to constantly flux between tempos, but all of the individual note progressions are actually quite simplistic, even if the tuning and chords feel slightly off kilter and disturbing.

It's never particularly catchy or evil sounding, but it certainly seems like a band opening new doors for itself to explore a sort of neanderthal hybrid of death 'n' roll which is admittedly rare. There are instances in which the various rhythms clash with one another, or rather the transitions don't seem particularly smooth, but it's interesting that they walk such a path without attempting to inject complexity and progression into the writing. That said, I found myself pretty underwhelmed by the vocals, and the 15 minutes and four songs didn't really offer me a rush of fascination. It's not an immense leap from Fractal, which was more clinical and standard to my recollection, but the stripped down, unusual approach to the riffing, and the almost poetic, ghastly sensibility to the lyrics prove a curiosity to say the least. I can't exactly sing it praises, but it's nice to hear a band work its way outside the box once in awhile. And Humangled does just that: goes out on a limb, then severs that appendage and gnaws upon it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Marasmus - Mountains of Dead (2012)

Much like the catastrophic tornadoes that often strike at their native Missouri soil, Marasmus perform in a very pent up vortex of hostility that, if one is not careful, can easily snap you up in its violent winds and proceed to break every bone in your flailing frame. That's not to say that they're any more explicitly unique, barbaric or inventive than many others in the spectrum of USDM, but their debut Mountains of Dead works up enough of a dynamic sweat that both the slam set and those followers of faster paced, acrobatic technicality will find it effectively taxing. Loyal to the obvious influence of a Deicide, Morbid Angel, Suffocation or Cannibal Corpse without ever coming off like some exacting derivative.

This is achieved through tightly reined compositions that primarily hover in the 2-3 minute bracket and fire off dozens of dizzying rhythmic configurations against the backdrop of blasted snares and athletic footwork so harried it seems like there must be 2-3 guys playing it. I can only imagine how much endurance it must take to rifle through a set of beats like these without your limbs giving in on you with fits of rebellious convulsion, but Trynt Kelly levels this kit like whatever storm hit the heaps of bodies on the album cover. The vocals are kept blunt and guttural, not exactly novel or compelling on their own, but occasionally affixed with additional snarls and background gurgles that add another dimension of serial killer intensity. The guitars, meanwhile, focus on a very intestine-churning tone that spins into this surgical excision when they race up and down the frets in callous contortions; and the leads are mixed with just the right level of effect to help them strike out above the concentrated clamor like a flight of eagles warning one another of the impending stormblast.

Still, Mountains of Dead does suffer from the setback that its twisting, turbulent nature never aligns itself with strong enough songwriting to its brand upon the listener's skull. Only the signs of actual impact. The riffs feel like so many you've heard before, splayed out in patterns that don't necessarily heighten or intensify the immense strength behind the instrumentation, and moments of climactic, frightening atmosphere are few and far between, lost amidst the storm of limbs and gutturals. I really liked the intros and intervals used for the album, but the metallic components are little more than the business end of a hastened landfill tractor, unforgiving but systematic, a well-oiled machine performing the same task as others off its same assembly line. From a compositional standpoint, it often felt difficult to discern where one track ended and another began. Marasmus knows its shit very well, and when taken as a 25 minute lozenge of aural manslaughter, this is an effectively relentless debut. Just not one that I'm likely to remember in a few months' time.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Friday, June 15, 2012

Metal Church - This Present Wasteland (2008)

Knowing what I know now, that this would be the final Metal Church album before another dissolution, it's hard not to gaze upon its cover as some sort of memorial service for the once great West Coast band. But beyond that, more than most of those leading up to it, This Present Wasteland is an album which struggles for a distinct identity, and for much of its play length, comes up pretty short. Competent, but even less compelling than the few before it, it's probably the least impressive of the full-lengths involving Ronny Munroe on vocals. Not through any fault of his own, because he's the strongest component of the group here by an order of magnitude, but the album spends about 40 minutes in mediocrity before it finally dishes out a song to remember it by. This Present Wasteland, indeed...

Not nearly so dirty or past-obsessed as A Light in the Dark, you could probably argue that this fits between that and The Weight of the World in tone. Munroe has shifted away from the grimier low range he was exploring on the previous effort, and here he flexes his pipes more along the lines of Weight. There are points on the album where he sounds quite close to Tim Aylmar of Pharaoh, and others where he pursues a wavering, lethal Dickinson inflection, or some pure Rob Halford screams. He tries to make the best out of some highly atmospheric tracks like "Deeds of a Dead Soul" (8 minutes of slow burn heavy metal with some synthesizers and clean guitars) or "The Perfect Crime", which sounded like something off a mid 90s album by Queensrÿche, but despite the well rounded structure of these, they all feel a bit dry in terms of delivering memorable riffs and chorus sequences. Balanced off against the harder drivers like "Meet Your Maker" or "The Company of Sorrow", or the bluesy hard swagger of "Crawling to Extinction", the first half of the album seems like dreadfully average, but well performed and produced heavy metal with a mildly dark angle to it.

The final three tracks are likely the best, with "Mass Hysteria" pumping a straight mix of modern power metal with potent bass grooves and some nice melodies added to what otherwise would be some generic, if busy riffing. "Congregation" kind of enforces the whole funereal feel of this record, but it has some of those Aylmar styled vocal lines which imprint themselves on your mind. However, "Breathe Again" took me entirely by surprise, opening like a bouncy and uplifting NWOBHM anthem and then manifesting some excellent verse guitars that made me think I had taken a wrong turn onto Pharaoh's Be Gone. The vocals here are great, the breakdown which once more reminded me of Queensrÿche or calmer Fates Warning, and though it might seem the friendliest song on the album, it's definitely one I wanted to listen through repeatedly. Unfortunately, the rest of the record just doesn't reach this plateau of success.

As with the other Munroe records, the lyrics are appreciably poignant and effective here, even if the Internet  rant "Monster" seems as exaggerated and ridiculous as these things usually are. 'I am just a screen name and a new profile'. Who the hell really feels that way? It's a tool, not a soul sucking conspiratorial leech. 'We've created a monster, it's taking us down.' Hilarious. Philosophical differences and cliches aside, though, you can tell they put a little effort into the 'script' of the record. The production is crisp and well balanced across all the instruments, without feeling squeaky clean or wholly synthetic. As simple as it is, the cover is one of their most eloquent and eye catching, especially with that familiar shadow being cast by the cross, and I do sort of dig how the title reflects the band's state of being at this time. With Wayne having passed away, and the rest of the classic lineup members spread thin elsewhere in the music spectrum, there is little if any chance that Metal Church will manifest in a configuration which rivals its heyday. This Present Wasteland is far from an impressive finale, but there have been worse swan songs for longstanding acts, so it seems they at least experienced closure with some confidence.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]