Friday, August 31, 2012

Voivod - Kronik (1998)

Kronik was a fan package released the year following Phobos, which I assume was meant to whet the audience's appetite for fresh and alternate material while they wrote and recorded some hypothetical third studio album with Eric Forrest. As it would turn out, this record actually contains the final creative input for E-Force's time with the band, and though Phobos itself had been an undeniable step above Negatron in terms of quality, I cannot say I was all that put out by the decision to bring Snake back into the band, regardless of whatever bad blood it might have created between the Canadians and Forrest. That said, Kronik was not exactly a case of ending on a high note...

There are three 'sections' to this release, the first of which is comprised of a trio of remixed songs from the recent studio albums. "Forlorn" is reduced partly to a hack, bouncy industrial metal tune, but as it proceeds you get some more depth with the clamorous percussion and choppier vocal mix. That said, it's a fucking utter mess, especially when it breaks into a cheesy hip hop beat that wouldn't have been cool if DJ Shadow used it the same year. "Nanoman" goes for more of a Prong approach, only more mechanized, with jungle drum patterns woven under the distorted vocals of Forrest, and lots of deep jeep bass interspersed along the far more difficult to make out guitars. "Mercury" is almost total jungle, and though I realize this style and its happy hardcore variant were pretty big in Canada during the 90s (I myself even enjoyed a bit of it), it sounds even less well plotted than anything on Fear Factory's similar turd Remanufacture.

After this comes the only chunk of Kronik that actually might matter to anyone, the unreleased material, which followed in a similar vein to Phobos' brute, spacey aesthetics. Really simplistic chord grooves that are dominated by dissonant counter-riffs, while Forrest's piercing, alien rasp howls out over the booming bass. Admittedly, "Erosion" and "Vortex" aren't a bad pair of tunes, nor is "Drift", though I had the impression most of these were mere variants on riffing progressions the band had already used for the past two albums, but if you're into that crushing Dimension Hatross type of guitar pattern, these provide a more muscular version that functions well enough above Away's pacing, and there are a few atmospheric and moody moments in the bridges that deliver some whacky, extradimensional thrills. In fact, if they'd just released these four tunes as an EP, I'd have a much higher opinion of them.

Lastly, the are a few live offerings here, chunky and atmospheric and all around more impressive sounding here than on the later Voivod Lives (which was recorded in '96), but three of the four tunes are also found on that album. The only bit of interest might be Eric Forrest's performance of Floyd's "Astronomy Domine", but while the guitars sound good here, E-Force simply does not have that same presence as Snake did. Still, this sounds a lot closer to how the band came off when I saw them in Northampton in the late 90s as a trio, and they're not as much of a misstep as the dumb remixes. In the end, Kronik is only serviceable to fans with a hard-on for Negatron and Phobos, all 30 of them, and even then I'm referring only to the unreleased studio tunes, which aren't so shabby. I believe I bought this for $1 at a used record store, and I wouldn't value it much beyond that.

Verdict: Fail [4.25/10]

Voivod - To the Death 84 (2011)

The necessity of To the Death 84 really depends on just how back your love for Voivod really goes. I've made acquaintances with folks who just don't have the same desire for the Canadians' primal punk/thrash roots as they do for their later, more involved, progressive works; and others that find the versions of several of these songs on War and Pain to be the definitive studio performances. I tend to side with the latter camp, but the caveat is that there are a number of cuts on this which simply aren't on the original tape or CD. If you've got the great War and Pain 2-disc re-issue, then most of this will prove redundant (even if the exact performances are not the same, those were also culled from demos in '84), but if you're still kicking around with an original copy of the debut, there might be something here for you.

This was basically the re-release of an extensive recording the band made in 1984 in their own rehearsal room, with 15 tracks and running at about 70 minutes, which was passed around to help the Canadians secure a deal for their debut. While undoubtedly primitive, and slightly less structured than War and Pain itself, I will admit that I've heard far worse jam tapes, and you're able to hear everything here from the wild, raw as fuck rhythm guitars, blistering and almost nonsensical leads, drums and bass, to Snakes' distinct, grimy and garbled vocals, and the charm in a track like "Hell Driver" or "Blower" is impossible to deny if you've any fondness for splatter-punk, thrash or aggressive speed metal. At the same time, you can actually hear slight hints of how the band would later develop through Rrröööaaarrr and Killing Technology to the entity most would find familiar. But, really, not much of the music here shows the same capacity for thought and variation that the band would later adopt. And it doesn't need to. They bull rush you with sinister, pent up energy in the vein of a Venom or Motörhead, and you can either band your head along, circle pit with your shit kickers and mohawk, or shut it off and listen to Angel Rat.

In terms of bonus material you won't find the original War and Pain, you've got about six options. They do a decent rendition of Mercyful Fate's "Evil", in which Snake's inflection is so over the top that it comes across like an old black metal rasp; and they also do a mean pair of Venom tunes in "Buried Alive" and "Bursting Out", to which Snake slathers even more wretchedly than Cronos. "Hell Driver" and "Slaughter in a Grave" would come out a few years later on the sophomore Rrröööaaarrr. But unless you've got a bootleg with them handy, this is probably the only place you're going to be able to experience, the monstrous, ballsy metalized blues of "Condemned to the Gallows" or the spoken "Incantation" interlude with its accompanying, spectral guitar ambiance. I can't tell if Snake is drunk or trying to really summon some infernal creature there, and it's not really a 'song' so much, but as far as I know, it's unique to this.

Ultimately, this is more worth it for the fans who don't own the 2CD War and Pain edition, and possibly worth it even to those who do. While I appreciate that purist, unpolished enthusiasm and spirit you'll only find in rehearsal and garage recordings, I couldn't think of a single place here where I thought the songs were more manic or effective than they appear on the studio full-lengths. One might find the vocals compelling, or just the loose nature of the thing, but it's honestly not all that unhinged. Voivod weren't fucking around here, they were attempting to make something out of themselves, and thank the constellations they did.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Voivod - Live at Roadburn 2011 (2012)

While it might seem a little 'too soon' for another live album so early after the magnificent Warriors of Ice was released, bear in mind that this was actually a very limited edition vinyl recording with a few hundred copies in circulation, and not meant to be a viable commercial product at large. That's quite a good thing, really, because while Live at Roadburn 2011 is still a decent experience and a collector's item in of itself, I don't think it holds a candle overall to its predecessor, thanks in part to the limited size of the set and a few audio imperfections that marred my enjoyment. In short, this is for whatever diehards can lay their hands on it, and desire the attractive tone of the cover art and another Voivod record for their shelves.

In terms of the Canadians' tightness and execution level, this is probably on par with Warriors of Ice. The Roadburn is a great, eclectic festival loaded with hard and stoner rock acts, a little hardcore, punk and other rock-related spectra like metal, so Voivod's progressive, sci-fi infused genre-spanning persona must have been right at home to anyone high as a kite. That said, I have nightmares of shaggy High on Fire hipsters throwing popcorn and tomatoes at one of my favorite bands. But if they can manage to get by on the Ozzfest bill without bodily harm, then I think they can handle the more intelligent and serious level of fans that Roadburn is likely to attract. They do it well, with a largely killer set of 10 tracks that are very often redundant to the Warriors of Ice set. The exception is that they've actually included "Forlorn" from Phobos, which stands out a little to its relative lack of memorable hooks next to the remainder of the selections. To compensate, though, we get "Experiment", so I'm more than willing to forgive that one, unenthusiastic lull in the procession.

Of course, the catch is that this is a more thuggish and bass-sounding stage capture than its predecessor, and I didn't feel Blacky was so effective with his tone so swollen. Mongrain's performance is adequate, and you can tell he's still concentrating on aping all the nuances of Piggy's style, but I felt that a few more flaws and inconsistencies snuck into the gig than were on the prior live. As a result, where you get this really full, convulsive sound here, and the other instruments match up on a volume level, the album seems much more like an extraterrestrial bludgeon to the face. Warriors of Ice, turned up just right, felt far more the total package experience that I wanted. Ultimately, while it's a more formidable experience than is provided on Voivod Lives (from 2000), it's not exactly worth the investment unless you've a collector's interest or you must own anything involving that incredibly goddamn logo.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Voivod - Warriors of Ice (2011)

As disheartening as it was to lose one of my all time guitar gods in Denis D'Amour, and to then discover the band would be continuing on without him (a feat I couldn't at that time feel possible), I've since put personal feelings aside. It's their band, Piggy undoubtedly wanted them to press forward and honor his memory, and they at least made the best choice available in selecting Cryptopsy, Martyr and Gorguts alumni Daniel Mongrain as his replacement, because frankly he's one of the only Canadian axeslingers with the style and imagination to really pull it off. And if Warriors of Ice, the second official Voivod live album, is any indicator, he's not only fitting the bill, but stamping all over it as he waits to sign the next.

This is the Voivod live record we should have gotten a lot earlier, when Piggy was still alive. Recorded in 2009, close to home at Montreal's Club Soda, this is 70+ minutes of excellence which does more than merely 'live up' to expectations, but damn near exceeds them. Not only does Mongrain kill this, but the fact that you've got Blacky back on the bass, and Snake handling his vocals (and not Forrest) ensure that this is an exponentially superior experience to Voivod Lives. The vast majority of the material here is culled from the band's classic period, up to and including Angel Rat, and hearing all of these diverse mechanics from albums as varied as Nothingface, War and Pain and Killing Technology is a treat. In fact, apart from two tracks ("Treasure Chase" and "Global Warning") off Piggy's last studio effort, Infini, everything here is taken from the band's Golden Age of invention, and songs from "Voivod" to their cover of Floyd's "Astronomy Domine" are delivered with passion and precision. Hell, even the subtleties in the original guitars are mostly present, proof that Mongrain stayed up many a night doing his homework to deliver the article as genuine as possible.

It wouldn't mean much if the album didn't also sound awesome, but it does. Rough around the edges, but it only adds character to the performances. Snake sounds as pissed here as ever in the studio, and he does seem to drown out the guitar a smidgeon, but the drums and the bombastic, distorted bass are amazingly clear, and Blacky in particular deserves enormous praise. It's like he had never left. Had never been replaced by Forrest, or Jason Newsted. Most importantly, though, the mix of the record conveys that same ominous, otherworldly level of alien threat that distinguished all of the group's earliest albums. A bleak future, prophetically presented to the audience in the progressive thrashing fits of the now! I can't speak much for the 'crowd interaction' moments, like the goofiness used to initiate "Tribal Convictions", but otherwise Warriors of Ice is a straight shot of paradise for the long term devotee, a balance of primacy and brilliance which could be wrought only by a band that cares a WHOLE lot about getting it right.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Voivod - Voivod Lives (2000)

With the exception of the Eric Forrest years, Voivod is perhaps one of my overall favorite bands to have ever picked up musical instruments and given the career a go. This is in part because I am a massive nerd whose tastes run between science/speculative fiction and metal music, of course, but also because they are just that distinct. That important. That unforgettable. Being the case, I waited patiently for about 15 years until I could finally buy an official live album. There were bootlegs and clips out there, some of which I purchased, but I never found them satisfactory, and having witnessed the band several times on stage even by 2000, I really wanted to translate the experience into my car, or on my home stereo. Not that the studio efforts didn't offer enough value on their own...fuck, they're so creative and fascinating they'd last me dozens of lifespans, but the point remains. I wanted a live album.

So it's admittedly bittersweet that, when this finally happened through Metal Blade, it was during the 'trio' years, with E-Force handling bass and vocals. Don't get me wrong, I found Forrest to be a talented enough individual, who did a decent job of growing into his role with the band, having to replace not one, but two core members that were around during the Canadians' unstoppable hot streak in the 80s. I'll go more into depth on this situation when I'm covering the studio records he was involved with, but needless to say my tenuous interest in his phase of the band's career rubs off on my feelings of Voivod Lives, as I find it to be the single worst Voivod live offering of the three I own, patched together from two performances in New York and Holland. I attribute much of my disdain for these recordings to the selection of material, much of which is taken from the mediocre Negatron album, and also the fact that the crushing, dumbed down, simpler style of songs they were writing for this period simply did not translate very well to the live setting.

Of the 11 tracks on this live, six hail from Negatron, another is a Venom cover, and the remaining four are strewn about the rest of the band's classics. Pieces like "Nanoman" and "Project X", while maintaining Piggy's patented, dissonant and alien feel to the guitar tone, are simply too much like the band wanted to revert to the most basic of thrash, without all that punk energy of their formative years. There are a handful of decent riffs throughout this material, to be fair, but the mix here is really rough, with Eric's voice sounding like he's entirely one-note, the harsh, gravely tone; the bass drum sounds like crap, and the guitars are a bit too clunky and distorted sounding to make a difference. Where I constantly turn to this band for their brilliant sense of variety and exploration, much of the playlist on Lives flows together in a clunky manner that does nothing to build any anticipation. Even the songs I WANT to hear, like "Tribal Convictions" and "Voivod" itself, don't leave much of an impression, with the possible exception of the trippy bridge to "Nuclear War".

It's like ordering a feast, only to receive scraps because they ran out of meat. Forrest had only been in the band for a few years, granted, so I can somewhat forgive them for not loading up the set with the more progressive material from Nothingface or Angel Rat (none of which exists here unless you have the digipack with "The Prow"). But this doesn't excuse the questionable audio quality, the lack of real balance across instruments, and having to suffer through a lackluster song selection in general, and Voivod Lives was unfortunately nowhere NEAR worth the wait. Avoid this unless you like spending money on things that make you sad.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Muknal - Muknal EP (2012)

The mysterious Muknal came to my attention earlier this year, when a number of readers recommended the trio's eponymous demo of freakish, atmospheric black/death metal. I had listened to a few of the tracks and enjoyed what I heard; but until now I hadn't acquired a copy for review. Thanks to Hell's Headbangers, who have wisely now snapped up the demo as a 12" release, I'm sure I won't be the only individual getting a more formal inauguration into the group's sound. Lush, beautiful and enigmatic, the cover of this thing alone is enough to inspire attention, with the perfect central logo placement and the gleams of light among the yawning, cavernous depths which beckon out at us.

These same aesthetics translate directly into the music, which is loaded with voluptuous, distorted tremolo riffing passages that resonate over both blasted beats and steadier pacing, all of which seems contained in a subterranean space, the primal aggression bouncing off the walls, stalagmites and stalactites. The drums do seem to be buried beneath the raucous guitar tone, constant sliding, spectral echoes and hovering funereal synthesizers that drift out over the procession, but in the faster pieces like "Cruciation" and the crashing conflagration of "Eidolon", you can tell they're busy as hell as they're blasting along the substrate. Perhaps most impressive are the disgusting vocals, which occasionally veer towards a black metal rasp, but are slightly more effective when they explore a more ghoulish guttural register that barks and mocks out over the underground landscape. There is some variation through the tracks, with the band eking out a death/doom passage in "Rotten Genesis", but I did feel that overall, the band skewed towards their more accelerated histrionics, and this is primarily where they excel.

Imagine what might have happened if a subspecies of humanity, long locked away from the light of the surface world, had found a handful of Incantation, Blasphemy, Autopsy and Angelcorpse tapes dropped down a well. Next envision if these cavern dwellers developed the technology to generate electricity or batteries, and audio equipment necessary to play those tapes. Then they began to listen and worship them as if they were some form of aural bible, and the 'priests' formed a band themselves with newly invented instruments, to continue meting out this sacred diatribe to future generations. If you've ever wanted to experience the product of such parallel evolution in extreme metal, then I present to you: Muknal. Not all the riffs cling to you, and several of the transitions here feel cluttered and clumsy, but nonetheless there is something roiling, dissonant, hypnotic and threatening about the material on this demo that makes it well worth while for ardent supporters of old school black, death and war metal to feast their unfettered ears upon, and be thankful for the sun and stars they are allowed to experience each day and night.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Blackened Wisdom - The Angels are Crying EP (2012)

As much as I appreciate nuggets of extreme metal obscurity being made readily available through reissues, even in limited supplies, it's often hard to justify much interest when the content is as shaky, incendiary and volatile as Blackened Wisdom's obscure 1993 material finally coming to light in its intended 7" format. Don't get me wrong, The Angels Are Crying is nothing terrible (apart from the title), and I actually admire how much visceral aggression these Nebraskans were able to evoke for their day and age, but musically there's just not a lot of value beyond the sheer extremity being produced. Enough for some, perhaps, but as a sucker for quality riffing and song structure, there's just nothing here I could sink my teeth into. It's more or less a clusterfuck of clamorous splatter.

Some might already be aware, but this was Bill Taylor's old band in the 90s, before joining New York state juggernauts Immolation in the 21st century. Some of his band mates here were also involved in other of his past projects like Xenomorph and Laceration, but even the former's 1995 album, Empyreal Regimes, which I wasn't entirely fond of itself, is better built than what I'm hearing on this. Blackened Wisdom played primitive mesh of the black and death metal styles, with an undercurrent of grind to the blasting sequences. Taylor does the guitar and vocals on this, and he's got a blackened, hostile rasp that is drenched in its own simmering viscera due to the incredibly underwhelming production. There are lots of fits of bursted speed in the drums and guitars, and the bass tone is repulsive and voluminous in its overbearing drive, but throughout the 10 minutes I simply couldn't discern a single riff of interest. The titular B-side track has a decent stormy intro and feels more structured than the earlier tunes, but even there the darker, grooving guitars do little to quench my thirst, though the brief, doomy break in the middle comes close.

Comparatively, a few of the tracks come close to Angelcorpse, or the more recent Deiphago, though obviously the production of this is nowhere near so guitar heavy, and the music really suffers. Granted, there is some degree of glory to the fact that this has finally arrived after so many years, and I doubt the constituent members themselves find it to be a work of genius. More like a piece of history for extreme metal addicts who might never have heard it. But that's just not enough for me to recommend it, unless you are brutally obsessed with impenetrable war metal chaos and need some fast and grimy to floss out your ears and brain cavity, to relieve you from the stress of a hipster dominated environment. I enjoy Taylor's work in Immolation far more than his earlier bands, but that's still not enough of a reason that I could get invested here. Unless you're an extreme black/death metal collector in search of scarcity, or an audio masochist, you may wish to pass on this.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10] 

Nunslaughter - Cerebus EP (2003)

Though originally released in 2003, Hell's Headbangers have recently reissued Nunslaughter's Cerebus EP as a part of their 7" vinyl initiative, adding gorgeous artwork to the disc itself, and a pair of bonus tracks for an additional value. Though the songs "Mother, Cunt, Whore" and "Cerebus" have actually been available before on demos and a rare compilation, this is only my first exposure to them, and I must say that I am officially impressed: these are two of the best individual tracks I've actually heard from the prolific, longstanding goat-perverts of the US underground. So if you're interested in their catalog, enjoy the vinyl format and can spare a few bucks, this is as good a place to start as any.

As usual, this is death metal which wears its speed/thrash influences plainly on its sleeve for all to behold; characterized with gruff if not incredibly ominous vocals, and crisp fretboard attacks that call to mind 80s extremists like Slayer, Possessed and Razor. Nunslaughter has always approached its music with a brazen authenticity that couldn't give a fuck about higher technical standards, originality or heavily polished studio production, but nonetheless Cerebus is pretty clean sounding. The drums pop, slap and kick without much ceremony, and the presence of the bass is minimal beyond its role of supporting the guitars. Vocals are bloodied, brief barks without any heavy saturation of effects, and the whole thing honestly sounds like the band is giving a pristine performance in their rehearsal room. Of the two cuts, "Mother, Cunt, Whore" is more of a blistering, psycho thrash abuse, while "Cerebus" incorporates a slower mood, more tremolo picking and a primal death metal undercurrent more effectively. The two work quite well together here, and all the breakdowns and tempo shifts are well structured if mildly predictable.

The one caveat to this is that the rehearsal versions of the songs, which comprise the EP's bonus content, are really not all that much of a boon. The vocals are more cavernous and shook my headphones, but the drums are heavily oppressed by the raw guitar tone, and it sounds more like an ill-recorded live gig where some primitive recording device was unable to pick up the band in its entirety. For some collectors and hardcore fans, the rehearsals are a thing of importance, purportedly meant to represent the band at its most sincere and uncluttered by studio wizardry, but in many cases they just sound like shit, and were never meant for the audience's consumption. I'm afraid that these two lean towards the latter class, and add little to the EP other than to show you just how much better the studio incarnations are. So, really, if you're going all in for this, it's for the better dressed tracks, disc art and collectible nature; and considering how rare the other releases including the songs might be, it's probably still worth having if you really love this band (and don't already have the original EP).

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (made of spite and horn)

Soliloquium - When Silence Grows Venomous DEMO (2012)

Soliloquium (try saying that with your mouth full) is the latest project of two gentlemen who hail from a pair of other underground Swedish acts I've covered: Desolator and Ending Quest, both of which are cast in a more decidedly death metal mold. When Silence Grows Venomous is their first stab at an atmospheric death/doom aesthetic, and the duo has been offering it for free over at their Bandcamp. Judging by what I've heard in these two tracks, I'd have to say the demo is worth checking out, for while it doesn't exactly bring anything new to the table, it exhibits a strong knowledge of the niche's fundamentals, and a firm awareness of the suffering with which it seeks to burden its audience.

Clearly you've got the trace elements of early Anathema or My Dying Bride here, circa the spacious and mourning guitar drudge and broad, guttural vocal inflection, and the lack of apprehension at incorporating cleaner sequences with both the guitar and vocal. Yet, there's also this constant surge of melody being expanded above the simpler chord set, which reminded me of fellow Swedish monoliths October Tide and Isole, and really helping to keep the listener invested in what might otherwise prove a slog. Both of the two tracks clock in at 7-8 minutes, with neither becoming boring whatsoever. There isn't a lot to the lethargic drums here apart from the occasional fill or double bass, but the guitars are so omnipresent that I felt like I didn't need much more than that, and I must compliment the vocals, which definitely take a broader spin on the Dan Swano style. The cleaner timbre used for the end of "Garden of Truculence" isn't exactly distinct, nor evocative of much range, but then, the solemn and slightly monotonous pitch is suitable to the gloom of the guitars.

They'll also pick up the pace from time to time, with bolder, rock-out rhythms redolent of Tiamat, Lake of Tears or Cemetery, and when the growl erupts over a sequence like this, the band takes you away to that obscure paradise available only in Swedish doom. Rhythm guitar riffs are hardly inventive or unique, but to a long time fan of records like Clouds, Black Vanity, Headstones or Rain Without End, this familiarity won't prove much of an obstacle. The bass-lines don't exactly thrill me, they seem content to meander along with the guitar for the most part, but the tone is affluent and adds a little depth. In terms of production, I do feel like the drums could benefit from a boost to their volume, and I would say the same for the melodies, but otherwise this is clear and present for a free demo recording, and with a little more time and energy the rest could easily be fixed. Ultimately, When Silence Grows Venomous is one of the stronger works I've heard from these two, and it delivers exactly what it promises, a slew of saddening dynamics that shall wrench despair from the Autumn air.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Heavy Cross - Street Wolf EP (2012)

Heavy Cross is yet another project involving the mysterious Satanic Tyrant Werewolf, who most recognize from Satanic Warmaster, but has also played in a large number of other black metal and old metal inspired projects, one of which, Armour is not entirely unlike this EP in execution. But while that outlet attempts to capture the wilder side of 80s metal, with a mildly US vibe, the Street Wolf EP is essentially a straight shot of NWOBHM style riffing and everyman vocals, with hints of the old Scandinavian heavy metal like Oz in there. The popularity of these retro bands is tenuous and likely doomed in the long run, since no matter how hard they try they seem pale shadows of their influences, but who can fault them for having a good time?

And that is precisely what Street Wolf EP guns for, nothing so much ambitious or distinct, but an attempt to kick in the door to a club and rock out over the evermore distant 80s haze of cigarettes, hairspray, leather and chain. The riffs here brought me reminiscence for early Judas Priest more than anything, but I did like the adequate crunch to the guitar tone, and even if they're the sort of riffs one feels like he/she could concoct in a matter of minutes, they've always been and remain fundamentals for this type of band. The melodies are honestly a bit thin, and once again entirely too simple, but they give it that elder British glaze sufficiently; and it was interesting to hear them break into a moodier, acoustic/atmospheric sequence in the title track. Rather than attempting to shriek or scream, the vocalist stays within his limits, which in this case is a mid range. I don't naturally mind the sincerity of this style, but I will say that it does little to amplify or excite when it comes time to howl out the chorus to "Street Wolf", even with the backups; and this, for me, was a critical part of metal in the 80s which I'm missing here to an extent.

Otherwise, the drums and bass are functional, and the 7" is produced with its target decade in mind, sans any possible gimmicks. Of the two tunes, "Street Wolf" felt slightly more turbocharged and 'epic' than its partner, "Red Light Woman", a stock mid-paced Saxon/Priest rocker, but I wouldn't say I favored the riffs in one to the other, both are admittedly somewhat average. Compared against more intense forays into the excesses of the past, like Midnight, Enforcer or Armour, these Finns really have their work cut out for them, and the songwriting needs a bit of refinement, a boost in volatility. However, I dig the group's aim here. The logo and the style they're adopting are cool enough. Even though they aren't reaching for one of the higher branches on the tree of nostalgia, Heavy Cross is certainly not 'bad' in the slightest, and if you want a pair of pretty mellow heavy metal tracks to provoke remembrance of an age in which you may or may not have even been alive, then this will at least suffice.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Gouge - Doomed to Death EP (2012)

Norwegians Gouge are on a roll lately, not only getting a deal to issue their debut 7" through Hell's Headbangers, the perfect home for it, but also a recent 'Band of the Week' recognition from the esteemed Fenriz of Darkthrone. That right there tells you that you're in for some ghastly, unflinching old school emissions, a hint enforced by the cheesy cover art and the track listing, which reads like a paraphrasing of old Repulsion, Autopsy or Death song titles. Visceral kitsch aside though, Gouge does not disappoint, conflating pre-90s death and thrash ingredients into one unwholesome, wretched and satisfying blend of severed limbs and an unabated disregard for technicality or innovation of any sort, which for some will provide the ultimate stamp of authenticity.

If Doomed to Death were just another stroll down memory lane, with nothing to speak for itself, then I'd write it off to mere, empty, nostalgia, but fortunately this duo have invested enough fiery energy into their riffing sequences to succeed where many others fall short. This is essentially a primal and uncompromising tribute to records like Horrified, Scream Bloody Gore and Severed Survival, with a few nods also to Slayer's Haunting the Chapel EP in terms of simplistic note structures that writhe their way into the listener's ears like irradiated serpents. They also break into some pure, mid paced thrash riffs, often to support the wailing, sporadic leads, but the note progressions in these are not quite as interesting as the more accelerated phrases written for tracks like "Ritual of Gore" and "Nuclear Vomit". The drums are tinny and harried, shifting back and forth from straight punk beats to controlled blasts, and the distorted bass serves to add breadth to the guitar lines more than to stake out its own identity. The guitar tone is redolent of ancient speed metal, perhaps a bit of Chuck's sound on Scream Bloody Gore with the older Razor records, while the vocals eschew the Scott Carlson sneer for more of an ominous, Reifert gargling of gory gibbets.

For a band so new (the members also play in another group called Condor with a blackened edge), this is definitely consistent and entertaining, even if it strives for little more than having a good time their obvious inspirations. It's about as 'fresh' as the Cold War, but if, like myself, you grew up in that age where extreme metal was beginning to take roots, you've got no choice but to have fun with this. It wouldn't hurt to work up the thrash metal sections with more interesting riffs, but otherwise Doomed to Death is a 9 minute burst of frenetic excreta that should appeal to splatter-punks, death-grinders, denim-and-patch-thrashers and old school lobotomists the scene over. Looking forward to a full-length of comparable quality.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Dire Omen - Severing Soul from Flesh EP (2012)

One of the true highlights in this hobby of mine is to experience the positive growth of younger, underground acts as they develop into more mature, seasoned sounds; and Severing Soul from Flesh is the latest instance of this I've come across. I had a neutral reaction to the 2011 promo Dire Omen had sent me, but they've upped their ante this time around, with a considerably stronger sense of identity. Everything from the Tim Grieco (Antediluvian) artwork, to the punchier production, to the very atmospheric spin they place on centrally old school death metal motifs is advanced. I can't promise that the Canadians' new EP is wholly unique or consistent to the point where it's ready to march into the upper echelon of its newfound niche, but it's certainly a step up in the ranks.

The core strength I noticed in this set of songs (only one of which has been drafted from the previous promo) is their ability to balance out the simplest of old school death metal grooves with atonal tremolo passages or spikes of dissonant melody that immediately capture the ear with creepy precision. This is prevalent upon a piece like "Severing Soul from Flesh" itself, which alternates between airy, ominous simplicity to sequences of choppy, thrusting rhythms anchored by the drummer's double-bass footwork. To an extent, the EP services that same set of influences that most of the band's I've dubbed 'cavern core' seem to honor. You'll hear tufts of Autopsy, Obituary, Gorguts, and Incantation floating about the nihilistic nothingness, but I also heard traces of Bolt Thrower, old Sepultura (before they sucked) grooves, the slower works of Morbid Angel circa Blessed Are the Sick, even more recent acts like Sonne Adam or Nader Sadek. None of this is managed with any jumbled technicality or complexity, but dowsed in a pungent, wet guitar tone that sounds simply beautiful when the band picks up its pace for "Decaying Moral Scripture" or the title cut, like human organs being spun on a potter's wheel.

Add to this the ritualistic, unfeeling, languorous haze of the EP's opaque production, and you get this inky wall of impermeable darkness hovering just over your shoulder. Like the best atmospheric death metal, Dire Omen scares the shit out of you. There's a sense of 'wrongness' here, something so eerie and effective about what they conjure here that was almost entirely missing from the last release. I'm not just referring to the angry, aggressive Thelema chanting of the "Presence of Ra-Hoor-Khuit" intro, but the actual metal music throughout. I wouldn't want to run into these guys in some tomb or cellar after midnight, not unless I was armed and armored with holy water, crucifix, and plate mail to defend me against the sacrificial knives.  Partnered with the richness of the mix, gruffness of the occult guttural vocals and the overall pacing, this is something I'd easily recommend to those seeking new voices from the abyss, even if it's not entirely perfected or distinguishable from several of the other names I've dropped above. Well done.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Queensrÿche - Operation: Mindcrime II (2006)

Mindcrime II is the Hyde to the original's Jekyll. The Goliath to the original's David. Meatier and modern, but inferior in every plausible department. The songwriting sucks, the musicianship is nowhere near as impressive, and unlike its consistent and cohesive forerunner, the album feels more like an attempt to offer the more 'eclectic' Queensrÿche experience via 'open minded' and 'worldly' composition rather than a unified architecture. They might have gotten Pamela Moore to reprise her role as Mary for this, and the late Ronny James Dio to take over Dr. X, but neither can help compensate for the lack of Chris DeGarmo, and even mindless of the recent drama between Tate and the other members, through which it has been revealed that the band was not evenly invested in its creation (for this or the albums surrounding it). Worst of all, Operation: Mindcrime II reeks of some banal attempt for the band to execute a 180 back to the style that originally put them on the metal map...only this is, for the most part, manifest through the title alone.

Last weeks theoretical minutes from the meeting of a band that next to no one had cared about in a long time: Our star is long past rising, folks. In fact it's sinking faster than a ten ton turd in a swimming pool. How do we turn this around? Well, what's our best album? Empire, dude! *the band laughs, the management smirks* Well, then, Operation: Mindcrime, the rest of the members agreed in unison. Yeah, yeah, I dig it, claims the singer, stroking his chin while giving his best Sartre impersonation. I'm not really into that metal music bag anymore, but the kids seem to want it. I've a few ideas. We can make it even more 'street' than the original, and use real orchestration than just keyboards. We've got enough in the budget. But it can't sound like Tribe, say the rest. We need more metal elements again, like the old days. Yes, yes, the BRAND will rise again. We'll get some TV spots, and merchandise rolling pronto...lighters, headbands, and maybe even Dr. X tees. But, Geoff, you know we don't have Chris in the band now, right? Ah, shit, well let's just scrape it together, man. Pull it together. This is the Jesus Christ of undertakings. We are saved. Saved!

All supposition aside, though, it was really inevitable. I wouldn't have been surprised to discover that the band had thoughts of a Mindcrime II since shortly after the original. I'm sure they received countless fan requests for that very thing down through the years, the only question is why it didn't happen earlier? Very simply, because this band was more concerned with tapping into the commercial success of the original's followup, Empire, and took this imperative far beyond the reasonable, leaving us with a string of ineffectual refuse like Hear in the Now Frontier and Q2K. To their credit, the Queensrÿche of the 21st century does their utmost to make this a heavier effort than the 4-5 leading up to it. That's about as far as the album's successes take it: songs like "Re-arrange You", "I'm American" manage to evince more aggression than anything I can recall of Tribe or Q2K. The incorporation of the symphony also feels natural with the loud, abrasive production of the album, not unlike Judas Priest's weakly Nostradamus. Queensrÿche went big for this, pulling out all the stops, and attempting to conjure the grandeur they'd lacked for almost two decades.

Unfortunately, no one reminded the band that this effort would be entirely misspent without the great songs that defined the first Mindcrime, and what we've got is a fraction of mediocre rhythms buried in a hulking heap of underdeveloped feces. The riffs suck throughout, juvenile note progressions you'd hear from any rehearsal room anywhere in America where some axeslinger is just fucking around (not even planning to use them). The muddied guitar tone here lacks gravity and power beyond the visceral, and the band keep a lot of their alt rock and grunge influences patterns in play, a handful of tracks like "A Junkie's Blues" reminding me once more of something left on the cutting floor by the Stone Temple Pilots. Really, Mindcrime II seems to have no precise idea of what it wants to be. Some songs want to be rock, some metal, some rock opera ballads cashing in on the "Silent Lucidity" idea but falling well shy of that song's consistent catchiness. For example, the finale/duet "All the Promises", with Tate and Moore playing off one another in their respective characters, is laughable tripe; "If I Could Change It All" trying its hand at the spacious 80s Pink Floyd aesthetic (which Queensrÿche had used on the prior albums) and conjuring boring drama.

The whole album lacks the poignancy and domineering melody of the original, and instead feels like a group of festive old farts leaping around to a selection of raucous distorted rock riffs. Tate can still scream, he proves this in a few of the pieces like "Re-arrange You", or his duet with Dio in "The Chase", which is sadly supported by some of the most mediocre guitars on the record, but in general he seems like he's putting too much effect on his tracks to make up for a slightly diminished power to his delivery ("Signs Say Go", for example). That seamless clarity and pitch from Rage for Order and Mindcrime has unraveled, and beyond that, the melodies in his lines have little impact. There isn't a single chorus on Mindcrime II that I can say captured me whatsoever, never mind with the surge of urgency and emotion in a "Speak" or "Eyes of a Stranger". A lot of backup shouts are used in tracks like "Murderer?" to make up for the lack of a hook, but they just sound silly rather than the menace exuding from a lot of the tough guy gang core.

A few of the leads and melodies show a modicum of skill and harmony ("I'm American", "The Hands"), but they don't really jive with the rest of their surrounding tracks, and stand out like sore thumbs. Supposedly some of the guitars were re-tracked at the last minute by one of the assistant engineers on the records, so it's unclear exactly who is playing what throughout, and Stone and Wilton were clearly under utilized. I've also read that Scott Rockenfield was absent here. Regardless, whatever person is drumming here is hitting with the about the same strength under such a mire of creativity, but I actually didn't enjoy how loud he was compared to the guitars on much of the album. Jackson has some freedom here, and he does his best to ground the punch of the guitars and the dominance of the vocals, but really, there's no room for him to vastly improve on such a cruddy selection of note progressions.

Lyrically, though the first Mindcrime wasn't exactly poetry in motion, this still seems a step down, a tired series of cliches that one can experience in just about any rock or pop song. Again, a listener can displace most of the individual tracks from the concept and appreciate them for any personal relevance, but there were no clever phrases here that caught my attention. The story itself takes place nearly almost two decades after the first (equivocal with the gap between album releases), and it deals with the primary perspective character Nikki getting his revenge on Dr. X and struggling through a downward spiral that leads to conversation's with Mary's ghost and all this other typical nonsense. It never needed a sequel, the story as it plays out is all too predictable, and it might have been better just to leave the original alone, with a more ambiguous ending. Even if the sequel was fucking Faust-level Goethe quality, though, the music is middling garbage that did not deserve a release under this banner.

Operation: Mindcrime II is terrible, and even if I could muster no expectations towards it due to the band's record of mediocrity post-1994, it still arrived as a great disappointment. Because, really, that's that. This part of the saga is canonized, and it's never going away, like the memory of putting on vomit-soaked socks one hungover morning. It will stink forever and it will sting forever.

Verdict: Fail [2.25/10] (reasons are damned)

Queensrÿche - Operation: Mindcrime (1988)

It would be remiss of me to think of Operation: Mindcrime as a mere album, because to me, personally, it has served more as an institution. Along with records like Port Royal and Somewhere in Time, both of which share a similar, airy eloquence in their production values (thank the 80s), this has become a monumental benchmark by which I've judged much melodic metal I've experienced since. In fact, if I myself was to be locked away in some remote gulag or asylum, stripped of my iPod, but allowed a mere car mirror CD visor worth of metal music to bring along, this would be guaranteed a slot. It's one of those rare cases of a record upon which I wouldn't propose a single alteration. If given the power to time travel and manipulate musical media, I wouldn't change a damned note on Operation: Mindcrime. It was, and remains in my estimation, flawless. Never broken. And never needing to be fixed. Or compromised by its own authors (but that, as they say, is 'another story').

However, despite its massive commercial success, and the endless landfill of praise and detraction that has been laid upon it through the ensuing decades, Operation: Mindcrime is not a record without some baggage, and this I would largely attest to conflicting perceptions of its conceptual merit. Queensrÿche's third full-length was not its first with a unified theme, but the first to really splay it out into a narrative rock opera involving brainwashing, political assassination, and a clear violation of doctor-patient confidence. The band hired on friends and actors to perform brief character roles, and they set it up with a number of briefer story vignettes to round out the metal tracks. For some listeners, this is a huge hurdle, but personally I rather enjoyed each of these pieces, not only for their value to the central theme, but also because of the clinical atmosphere and sense of gravity they lend to the story. They're also musical for the most part, with but one or two exceptions; for instance, "Anarchy-X" is a 90 second anthem with brazen guitars, dual leads and warlike drumming cadence that fully fits with the lengthier cuts. It's not like Pestilence's Testimony of the Ancients, where the interludes seem to be incorporated just for the sheer whim of experimentation. No, these pieces actually seem to belong to their surroundings.

Of course, one of the joys of this album is that it can actually be listened to in two ways: straight through the story sequentially, or by skipping the central narrative and appreciating each of its regular length tracks for their individual values. Some might contain snippets of samples or story, but the lyrics behind a tune like "Eyes of a Stranger", "The Needle Lies", "I Don't Believe In Love" could hold some relevance for a listener whether or not he/she gives two shits about Sister Mary, Father William, or Dr. X. Nor would it take a high intellect to be able to make an 'abstraction' out of "Suite Sister Mary" or the title track. Much has been said of how 'genius' or 'brilliant' the album's concept was. I myself was incessantly exposed to such praise in high school to the point that I couldn't stand it, joyous that, for once, the hairspray-drugged Poison and Bon Jovi crowd, and the male students chasing their tails, had invested themselves in an album of quality. But let's be honest: Mindcrime's story is an average psychological thriller at best. It's not a Gravity's Rainbow, or Foucault's fucking Pendulum. It doesn't have the same pulse pounding action and intrigue as Robert Ludlum's Bourne series. The twists and turns are fairly obvious, and the lyrical diatribe used to convey the tale is hardly complex or inventive prose. That said, though, so what? Compared to most of the driven being spewed upon the radio to glam fans, or the same half dozen issues being beaten to the floor by the more serious metal acts of the 80s, Operation: Mindcrime was indeed something special. Different.

What's more, the music itself is superb. Bearing aside the standalone intro and interludes, which I've discussed above, the level of composition on this album is far beyond that of its predecessors, and needless to say any of the miserable albums since. Tate and DeGarmo, Wilton, Jackson and Rockenfield create this monstrous admixture of melody, harmony, atmosphere, power and drama through a riff-set that even for its day would hardly be considered complicated or technical, and yet its impact is timeless. After a few cycles of the ten 'core' tracks, I have never been able to get them out of my head. Aesthetically, this is an album which walks the line between the mainstream hard rock sounds of its day and a slightly more progressive metal inclination. The writing is similar to Rage for Order, but with an exponentially superior polish and level of refinement. I mean, for fuck's sake, I like every single (complete) song on this album more than Rage for Order in TOTAL, and sitting here a quarter century after its release I can't hear a single flake of rust on this whole spectacle. Sure, you could 'date' this to the 80s, but three decades later I find it all too rare that I pick up any album which covers so many bases as this.

All five of the musicians deserve top honors for this feat, but I suppose, to start at the top: Geoff Tate. There is a reason this man built a legacy which brought him in firing range of legends like a Halford or Dickinson. Some consider the guy the greatest vocalist in the field, and you're listening to exactly why. His timbre is impeccable. His range, perhaps not limitless, but so fully utilized that he's the equivalent of a living siren. Had the sailors of antiquity heard this voice through the maritime mists, and changed course to find a naked, German-born man calling them to their deaths from a rocky outcropping, they would have questioned their own sexuality before hull breach and drowning. Higher pitched, inspirational and unforgettable pre-chorus and chorus sequences litter this record like lemmings a cliff-side, and he structures every individual line with skill and quality. Where he hits those highs in "Speak", or "Revolution Calling", or the eternally pleasing chorus to "Eyes of a Stranger", all 6'2", 220 lbs of burly, bald-headed, linebacker-like, (nearly) middle-aged me wants to break down into tears; partly because of the sheer level of emotion inherent in the melodies, and partly because I know I could never sing that beautifully in my entire life, with or without computerized assistance...Tate even excels when it comes to adding a playful or maniacal component to the verses, and his lower range is cautionary, moody and eloquent where it appears.

Yet the chords, leads, and rhythm section support his crystalline delivery brick by brick. DeGarmo and Wilton weave the sorts of gracious, burning melodies over the lattice of backing guitars that I so loved about a song like the Scorpions' "No One Like You". I must have spent hours in my formative years with the instrument scratching out the chorus melody to "The Mission", or the Maiden-esque, opening volley of "Speak" which is probably better than anything those same Brits wrote at their own peak. But the MVP award here might go to the rhythm guitars, which are muscular and spacious, whether chugging or hanging on an open chord. DeGarmo earned a paycheck for the next century with these riffs. If I were to dissect all of the album's central songs, or even "Anarchy-X" measure for measure, remove the drums and bass, the beautiful vocals, the subtle but effective synthesizers, each of the guitar progressions would be enjoyable by its lonesome. That proves just how well-composed this is, and in fact I can barely understand how they were able to arrive at such impressive riffs and vocal lines individually, both so glorious in tandem. The leads, too, are all wonderful, though they've got their work cut out for them to even ATTEMPT to live up to the other riffs and choruses that lead into them.

Jackson and Rockenfield should not evade mention, either, for while the ears might remain affixed to Tate and the guitar harmonies throughout Mindcrime, their steady pummeling is part of the appeal. Jackson's tone is punchy and plodding, especially for a lot of the mid-paced numbers where he's repeated such simple note sequences below the workmanlike gait of the guitars (reference "Breaking the Silence" or "I Don't Believe in Love" for a prime example). Rockenfield doesn't overdo anything here, as usual he gives a mightier than typical approximation of the standard rock beat, but he earns his signature steel cage, and those snare hits really drive home the emotional wait of each mournful chord sequence and palm muted mugging. Nothing too technical, which would feel arbitrary in the universal grasp of these songs, but it sounds like it must have been quite fun to lay these out. James Barton and the rest of the engineers did a knockout job of fusing the varied elements together, none ever too loud that they drown out another, despite the 80s proclivity for setting the vocals so high in the mix. Like the satisfaction of finishing a puzzle, everything seems to snap into place, even the less pronounced components like airy synthesizers and the vocal acting used for the intros/interludes. I still have my original CD copy, and it sounds unbelievable cranked up.

In terms of individual songs, there are no personal favorites, or to be more accurate, they are ALL favorites. I could not choose one over another, since the consistency of quality is omnipresent. Even comparing two of the most 'contrasted' neighbors on the playlist, the 11 minute epic "Suite Sister Mary" with its ominous, operatic choirs, overcast clean guitars, and varied, almost frightening arrangement; to the succinct power metal pummeling of "The Needle Lies", there is no lapse in fulfillment. I suppose the songs that were made singles are sensible, like the soul searing, climactic finale "Eyes of a Stranger" or the hard rock pleaser "I Don't Believe in Love", but even the more unsung entities "Spreading the Disease" and "Breaking the Silence" are better than anything most bands ever concoct in their entire careers. Lyrically, while the album serves to follow its character perspectives with a blue-collar rage, its perfectly cast to the music, and there are a number of unforgettable phrases throughout. 'Twenty-five bucks a fuck and John's a happy man', 'People always turn away from the eyes of a stranger', all great stuff that most of us can relate to.

Like any masterpiece, there will be opposition to a record like this. Hell, even the most recognized chefs attract roaches to their kitchens. Crunch. Operation: Mindcrime is an indisputable, indispensible cornerstone of the progressive/power metal field, even if most bands in this niche seem to take more direct cues from the wonkier Rush-like expressions of an act like Dream Theater. It might not be jammy or improvisational, or as nerdy sounding as Rage for Order, but it was blessed with an accessible edge that somehow managed to blow the lid off the band's potential audience, while not insulting the more underground sensibilities of the serious metal fan. It 'speaks to all of us', if you'll pardon the phrase. While its far from the first rock concept album (the 60s and 70s had some pretty heady stuff), or even the best of its type in 1988 (Voivod's Dimension Hatröss was more interesting, if not musically superior), it set the bar for many to follow it. In fact, it set that goal so high that its own creators have failed to match it since, even with the greater mainstream success of its follow-up Empire. That's the one 'down side' to Mindcrime. It won't happen again. Perhaps the album's narrative saga is not the most brilliant of ideas, but the music didn't get that memo.

Oh, and as for my teary-eyed confession above, well... I never wrote that. Never happened. Forget it. I'm sending someone over. I've got a job for you. Time to make something of yourself. Take this number and welcome to: da-neh-na-neeeeh.

Verdict: Epic Nun [10/10] (we've got so much to do)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Silencer - The Great Bear (2012)

Not to be mistaken for the suicidal Swedish black metal act of the same name, this Silencer has instead been kicking about the Colorado scene for well over a decade, sharpening and polishing its sound into an aggressive fusion of thrash and power, with smaller hints of groove and death metal for good measure. I've heard a few samplings of their past albums Death of Awe and Divisions, but never looked further into their material, an ignorance that The Great Bear will hopefully shake from not only myself, but many others. I wouldn't say that I was entirely amazed with this music, yet I can promise you that to experience Silencer is to experience something DIFFERENT, and that is more than I can say for the lion's share of new music I'm often sent for analysis.

Most impressive is the concept behind The Great Bear, which deals with the Soviet/US space rivalry in the 1950s and 60s, not necessarily a factual reenactment but more of a hypothetical alternative history. No, it's not about ursus arctos horribilis mauling nature enthusiasts in Alaska, but we can't win 'em all. Silencer has to my knowledge given us a 'first' here, and more than that, the music has the remarkable ability to actually transport the audience into the setting of its subject matter. Atmospheric, blazing and dynamic, the tracks here range from pure speed/heavy metal inflected semi-thrashers like "I Am Thunder!" with faster paced, intricate grooving licks reminiscent of bands like Megadeth, to storming, simpler walls of chords. The leads are endowed with a lot of bluesy, wild abandon, wah-wahs and such that remind me of guitar heroes like Slash if they were actually performing music with balls, and the band will occasionally even bust out a series of tremolo like, aggressive notes in tunes like "Great Bear" amidst the steadier trade metal riffs. There are even a handful of more grandiose, atmospheric overtures in the intro "Sacred War" or "Orders/Noble Sacrifice" which teeter along the precipice of glorious doom.

In other words, The Great Bear is not the easiest to pin down in terms of an exact style, but the Coloradans handle all of these components with a seasoned maturity, and none ever feel quite out of place. As to the quality of the riffing, there were highs and lows, places where the note progressions were kept harried and interesting, and others where they'd settle into a stock pattern or groove that never went anywhere exciting. Clearly a lot of work went into putting this together, and the album as a whole flows well through its brief 30 minute play-length (on the short side for such a great concept), but broken down into individual riffs it isn't quite so consistent. The drums sound sleek, and the bass is like an amplified Steve Harris in spots (intro to the song "Light", for example). The vocals have a lot of grime and gravity to them, inspired not only by the deeper end power metal growlers, but by vocalists like James Hetfield and Chuck Billy who have that natural grit to their timbres, or perhaps even the original Meliah Rage vocalist Mike Munro, and they fit well to the rather ominous atmosphere of the music, even if it's not the darkest or most despairing.

Seems to me that Silencer could find itself a widespread audience, whether amongst the usual US prog and power crowds who don't mind a more serious, aggressive subtext to the style (Savatage, for example). Or maybe fans of crushing Swedish stuff like Tad Morose or Morgana LeFay, or a less intense variation on thrash (like Testament's excellent and unsung offering The Ritual). The Great Bear is both modern and traditional, it's a work of depth, and it scratches a lot of itches. Beyond the concept, I cannot say that I was entirely blown over, largely because the choruses didn't exactly call out to me, and the riffs were about a 50/50 mesh of brilliance and banality, but make no mistake about it: Silencer is the sort of band that needs encouragement, because it's an act like this that will be capable of putting out one of those records we all wax nostalgic about 20 years later. This is not THAT record, to be sure, but I hear nothing but capability and genuine inspiration here, so we'd all better pay attention.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Deserted Fear - My Empire (2012)

My Empire had me at 'hello', or rather the frightening, effective and simple swell of ambiance, low timpani and horns that set up "The Battalion of Insanities". I admit that when I first looked at the album, I felt as if I was in for yet another treatment in the tireless yet exhausted crusade of classic Swedish death worshipers. There is a hint of that, sure, but I was happy to hear that Deserted Fear had more of a Bolt Thrower angle to their style than I was expecting, if it was tempered in the more modern and potent sounds of bands like Hail of Bullets or Amon Amarth who know very well to weave a tight melody through an ample, crushing, headphone-storming tone.

The caveat here is that the Germans also incorporate a very abusive vocal tone that offers more emotional splatter than your average guttural grumbler. It's like Martin van Drunen, John Tardy, Chris Reifert and L-G Petrov thrown into a blender, the resulting viscera spattered all over the riffs; and with guitars this muscular, you really need that distinction to keep the music forceful, primal and aggressive. Drums and bass here are in general just enforcers for the guitar, but they're kept voluminous in the mix so that they're never drowned out, and overall Deserted Fear feels more taut and tempered than a tank. Ballistic and bred for war, this is, and while the actual construction of the riffs throughout My Empire might not feel incredibly original or distinct in this theater of combat, the pacing is very even throughout. The leads are sepulchral, spectral and constantly provide aesthetic elevation to the horde of fist-pumping zombie hymns beneath, and tracks like "The Black Incantation" have these incredible breakdowns that you can feel deep down in your gut. In fact, you should probably listen to this alone, because if another human being is in close proximity, you're likely to perform some unwelcome piledriver or body slam on them that gets you a night in a cell and a court date.

Fans of modern Asphyx, Hail of Bullets, or Fleshcrawl, or The IVth Crusade should be first in line for this record, because it maintains that same marriage of blustering studio clarity and ceaseless, pulverizing aggression that those bands honor; but it will also hold a lot of appeal for those into Swedish veterans Dismember, Grave and Unleashed. Topically, the lyrics don't seem all that interesting or unique, and the black/white cover art and logo feel typical, but My Empire is just one of those albums that succeeds on its volume and sincerity. Nothing reinvents the wheel, but where the riff structures often suffer from that sameness we all experience when deeply invested in decades of a musical genre, the Germans know how to create a journey that at least keeps the listener engaged throughout. Certainly huge sounding for a debut.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Evil Entourage - The Opposition EP (2012)

Though my exposure to Mexican metal is admittedly far from complete, I've always had a tenuous interest in the bands there, probably because I've been disengaged by a number of the thrash and black metal acts I've heard from the region over the past few decades, and probably also because I'm just an asshole. Death metal is one area, though, in which the nation has held together a more consistent output, not only through cult albums from Cenotaph or The Chasm, but a more recent surge of extremity through the likes of Hacavitz and Denial. Despite already having two full-length albums under their belts over the last five years, Tamaupalis' own Evil Entourage is not a band I've crossed paths with, but while they don't necessarily engage the listener with the same levels of atmosphere or innovation as those others I just listed, they are nonetheless proficient at kicking in the door and then kicking in your face.

This is chop-heavy, 90s-influenced brutal death that draws often on the lurching, chugging squalor of greats like Morbid Angel and Deicide, with a few hints also of Cannibal Corpse, Suffocation, and I also picked up a handful of older Sepultura vibes in a few of the grooves. But to take it a step further, Entourage have ingrained this truly rich, brash texture to their guitar tone so that the listener can suffer every single palm mute as if it were stepping on his spine. Where they pick up the pace with a blast beat (as in the opener "Insidious"), the material was redolent of modern Cannibal Corpse (Bloodthirst and beyond) or Severe Torture, where the grooves in other pieces smacked of Morbid Angel circa Blessed Are the Sick or Domination. Footwork and beats are all solid throughout, and I was satisfied that the drums held their own against the crush of that guitar mix. The bassist is quite good, swerving all over the place in Alex Webster fashion wherever he gets the chance to loosen up, and the vocals deliver a stolid, guttural bludgeon that has a bit of the expected Vincent, Tucker, Benton or Fischer inflection. Brief leads and tremolo breaks are spliced through the meat of the potent rhythm guitars, and though this is not a flashy or particularly technical band, they hit the spot more often than not (like the wild solo in "True Rejected").

Still, though the production is an adequate and laudable marriage of past and present, The Opposition really never takes itself beyond any of the myriad acts who have already explored this niche. I dug the synthesizer orchestration in "Oblitus Fidei" for its ominous, martial step, and cuts like "Insidious", "Swathe to Blind" and "True Rejected" are nothing to scoff at, but there were rarely any of those 'money shot' riffs that keep me continuously returning to songs in sweaty anticipation. Evil Entourage is balanced, and competent, and they mete out destruction with avid enthusiasm and fresh, repulsive tone, but there is no truly distinct characteristic that a listener couldn't find elsewhere. The writing is solid, varied enough for 20 minutes of testosterone and neck strain, but the songs just aren't so memorable. That said, if you're heavily into the group's influences and you are seeking more along the same lines, there's no reason to avoid checking this out.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Hell United - Aura Damage (2012)

Hell United's 2008 debut HornoKracy was a total surprise for me when I first experienced it. I had never heard the band prior to that, but here was this visceral, bloodcurdling burst of black metal so fierce that it seemed to ignite your eardrums, burning you long after the music had passed. Along with several other acts in this scene, like Thunderbolt, Infernal War, Azarath or Stillborn (the last of which shares some members with this very band), there was this relentless punishment inherent in that album which embraced both its accelerated, flesh shearing outbreaks and slower, crushing sequences, and I've found myself going back to it numerous times in ensuing years when in a fix for unadulterated aggression, though I regret that I missed out on the band's intermittent EPs.

With Aura Damage, Hell United retain a lot of the core characteristics of the debut, but they've fleshed them out into a more prominent death metal aesthetic. Blasting and intense tremolo riff patterns are still prevalent in the composition, but there's this more charnel, grinding edge to the guitar tone that feels like they're rapidly tilling graveyard dirt and all the festered scraps of flesh buried within. The vocals here skew a bit more towards a guttural timbre than a rasp (though both styles have manifest on both albums). The riffs seem to run the gamut from a unswerving old school death hostility ("Apostle of Plague") to a convocation of gnarled, blackened thrash guitars as in "Aura Damage" itself which twist into sporadic bursts of lead or unnerving melodies that seem to shiver up the listener's spine. Like the latest Stillborn record, you get this constant hint of atonality, a slight stream of dissonance bled along the axis of the meatier guitar rhythms. Aura Damage is as fresh as a ripe corpse, its bones not yet stale beneath the earth; where HornoKracy had a more airy atmosphere about it due in part to the vocals.

Still, though this is an evolution, it's not such a huge departure as 1349's Revelation of the Black Flame, or Emptiness's Error, two albums that abandoned a more complex and structured extreme metal sound for a more atmospheric, but less appealing direction/aesthetic. Aura Damage is first and foremost brutal. Simpler atmospheric tints, like the intro to "Hinterland" or the drudging pacing of closer "Totality of I" always seem to go somewhere more important. In terms of the riffing involved, I believe I retain a slight preference for the first album's feral ferocity, but this is unquestionably a darker and moodier outlet which functions on several levels, both in its unbridled, churning force and ability to leave haunting scars upon the listener through eerier, sparse strikes on the higher strings. Never extremely catchy, but solid and dynamic, the 35 minute run time ensuring that there is no room for a listener to become bored. Despite the slight transformation in technique, Hell United still takes no prisoners, and Aura Damage still represents unsafe, volatile expression.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Masachist - Scorned (2012)

It is my firm belief that Polish infants are raised in incubators with which they are fed audio samples of Suffocation, Morbid Angel, Deicide, Cryptopsy, and their own national 'A-listers' Vader and Behemoth, alongside other forms of nutrition. How else could one explain how deep and wide the death metal scene over there has become, with even third and fourth tier bands show such a firm understanding of the genre's composition, married to their individual instrumental proficiencies and an incessant array of brutal chops and concepts that continually to floor me year in, year out? Masachist is another of the country's myriad living weapons, and while their sophomore Scorned might not seem like the most striking or unique in the field, it's unarguably a balanced, dynamic, atmospheric and effective dose of punishment from another act of near limitless capacity.

As we experience straightaway with "Drilling the Nerves", Masachist is well practiced at filling out a groove with mechanical exaction. Crawling, spider-like palm muted patterns are set to an ominous, low backing choir synthesizer while the garbled guttural vocals punctuate the nihilistic momentum. I admired the low tuned tone of the chugging here, you can really feel it wrenching your last few meals from your intestines, to the point that this might even please the 'slam' sect of the death metal fandom, though I didn't feel the Poles' influence was drawn so much from hardcore breakdowns as caustic, mechanistic concepts. However, while the band excels in this slower, surefooted tempo (also in "Straight and Narrow Path"), they also offer up a lot of tense, unbridled, dissonant bursts of acceleration that draw more on the inspiration of a Morbid Angel or Immolation ("Liberation" and "The Process of Elimination"), perhaps even a bit of Pestilence riff structures circa Testimony of the Ancients ("Opposing Normality"). The final 10 minutes of the album is devoted more to experimentation, with the abrasive ambiance of "Liberation Part II" morphing into the massive, lethargic grooves of "Inner Void" which evoked thoughts of a more muscular Vader.

Scorned has also been very well engineered, with poise and clarity enough to discern the slight complexities inherent to the riffing, but also a lot of punch to each of the low end guitar progressions. The listener will find either his (or her) physical or mental form flailing about violently through each varied act of punishment. Masachist is not a highly technical outlet, but there's a wealth of variation here to keep the ears from gluing to any one, predictable pattern, and with musicians like percussion paragon 'Daray' Brzozowski involved, who has performed in groups like Hunter, Vesania, Vader and even Dimmu Borgir (live), and others that played with Yattering, Azarath and Decapitated, you're in strong hands. They know when to erupt into fits of concussive clamor, and they know when to restrain themselves and let a riff settle, and they're not afraid to break up the morass of meticulous hostility with some simple, atmospheric ebullitions. There are leads present, but they're often quick and to the point, never flagellating themselves at the listener's expense.

Even if Scorned isn't the most memorable record of late in this niche, it's overall quite impressive, and trumps the 2009 debut Death March Fury with relative ease. Fans of USDM staples like Blessed Are the Sick, Gateways to Annihilation, Pierced from Within or Close to a World Below might be thrilled to hear their influence upgraded with traces of other Polish upstarts like Lost Soul, Trauma, and Calm Hatchery.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Monday, August 27, 2012

Yellowtooth - Disgust (2012)

While I can't vouch that the band has adopted the most unique style in the history of sludge and doom, Indiana's Yellowtooth truly knows how to kick off an album with a mix of hilarity and crushing riffs that smash you mightily on the jaw, extracting the two teeth that they've placed in their logo. A relatively new band with a few demos to their name prior to this debut full-length, the ranks here nonetheless boast a number of old schoolers, most notably bassist/vocalist Peter Clemens who you've possibly heard in some other US acts like Invasion, Skullview and Nocturnal Torment. Stylistically and thematically, though, this is a pretty far cry from those other projects, more of a crude knuckle sandwich of beer swigging, bong hitting brutality borne of a simpler, stoner rock foundation.

Once the opening sample cedes to the massive, lumbering riffs of "Wizard Dust" you get a nice taste of the band's straight forward songwriting. The guitar patterns have a bit of an old school 70s rock feel to them, maybe something like Down or Black Label Society might pen, albeit more swollen and sinister in both intent and doomed delivery. The molasses-thick bass is just as prevalent as the guitar, both so enormous that at times they seem to almost drown a few of the drums, but what I found most impressive here was the use of the more filtered, gruff death metal style vocals. When the Neanderthal inflection collides with the weight of those chugging or grooving rhythms, it's like some unholy union of old Godflesh with the Black Keys, perhaps the most innovative component of this entire disc. They seem to draw more on the death metal influences of some of his other works, or perhaps their death & roll forebears like Entombed, than the nihilistic rasping or agony you'd expect out of a group like Bongzilla or Eyehategod, but the results are just as heavy.

A lot of the riff progressions remind one of usual suspects like Sabbath, Cathedral, Orange Goblin, or Trouble, often pretty minimalistic and predictable, but there's enough of a wailing verve and bluesy authenticity to them that the listener's still going to be slowly banging his head through "John Wilkes Booth" or "Prophetic Ramblings". Even though most of the 4-5 minute tunes only have a few dominant riffs, they are spun out with enough variation that they never feel tired or repetitious. Grueling, slower paced sequences are set against the more up-tempo barroom bravado, and Disgust feels pretty fresh and developed overall, though there are a handful of throwaway riffs. The raucous mix of the album is heavily guitar-oriented, and I wouldn't have minded a bit more cranking on the drums to balance it out. Also, the vocals, while themselves adequately churning and aggressive, would not suffer from more of a dynamic range. Otherwise, Yellowtooth has itself a decently fun debut here. The trio is well aware of its parameters, functions effectively within them, and has fun doing so. More than a few black eyes are just waiting to happen to this album.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Tragic Death - Apocalyptic Metal (2012)

Tragic Death is the second group I've heard lately from the Madison, Wisconsin area, and like their neighbors Warseid, they approach the extreme metal aesthetic with a lot of ambition, albeit with a different set of rules. Their self-branded 'Apocalyptic Metal' style, which also serves as the title for this self-released debut, is a weighty amalgamation of the death, thrash and black genres, with the added implementation of some symphonic overtures via keyboards. While I'm not sure the invention of a new sub-genre is warranted to truly define this, since there have been scores if not hundreds of other bands down through the years to merge all these qualities, it's at least admirable that the band desires to celebrate and embrace the ambiguity that this fusion creates.

The trio creates a very bass heavy sound here, with a lot of low end, charging and pummeling riffs that seem like the bastard offspring of Amon Amarth's glorious Viking death (post-The Avenger) and Rotting Christ's propensity for mid-paced, brazen melodies (circa Triarchy of the Lost Lovers or Thy Mighty Contract), both of whom number among their influences. The driving double bass patterns serve as a concrete support for much of the forceful, deep chugging, but rather than just bludgeon the listener for moments on end they also break out a lot of melodic thrash riffs. The vocals range from a bloodied, Sakis Tolis rasp to a deeper, ominous guttural, and even the bass lines and clean guitars (as in "The Christian Disease" bridge) have a moribund sense about them. On the other hand, they'll often dispense with the gloomier aspects for this brighter, atmospheric edge created by the keys ("Empty Whore"), and I found myself slightly more attracted to this side of their sound, since there was more going on and the material retained the sweeping bombast mandatory to such a feat.

Pieces like "Leviathan" also reveal a tendency towards that more melodic, Swedish side of death metal made prevalent through Dissection, Dark Tranquillity, Hypocrisy or In Flames during the earlier through mid 90s, and here the pacing of the guitars expands to include vast swaths of tremolo picking harmonies, which make for a nice countermeasure towards the largely slower slugfest that runs through many of the songs. Unfortunately, at the same time it often creates the impression that the band might have bitten off mildly more than they can chew. Of the near hour of material, only a handful of the guitar riffs really stick on the memory, primarily as they hail from such affluent and familiar influences; and for such an early record in the band's development, some of this staggering amount of material have been sacrificed for a narrower focus on the rest. For instance, the ruddy death/thrashing intro "Khloros" with the Barack Obama samples could have been clipped, its better riffs mixed elsewhere with vocals; the outro "Promethean Skies" and its moody, dark classical guitars are more than enough instrumental for this album.

Elsewhere, there were other minor aesthetic hiccups. The cover art with logo felt a bit cheap and cluttered, especially the album title placement and the bird flying over the moniker. The production, while clear enough that you can make out all the vocals and instrumental lines, is still a bit muffled and underpolished. For instance, there are a few melodies in tracks like "Grave Years Past" that get drowned out by the vocals and rhythm track, and brighter tones overall would seem better suited to the majestic phrases where the guitars and keys clash. Despite these issues, though, Apocalyptic Metal is not a bad record, especially for anyone enamored to the black and death metal rosters of Nuclear Blast and Century Media in the 90s (before they succumbed to the tide of trendy metalcore garbage and 'rock stardom'). Tragic Death came up listening to a lot of good music, and they don't at all do a poor job of fusing it all together into something of their own. Not a lot of bands in the States sound quite like this, and with a little more work they may damn well hone their considerable weaponry to a fine, cutting edge.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Oshiego - The Heretic Priests of Amon (2012)

The Heretic Priests of Amon is the followup to last year's Woe to the Conquered, the full-length debut of Singapore's Oshiego. Rather than dive headfirst into another complete album, the group has decided to ply the waters with a single-length release, so the reins here are held tight at three songs and under 15 minutes. That said, this is unquestionably a positive evolution for the band. Stylistically it resonates with the prior material, an urban mesh of death and thrash metal ingredients with a mildly Eastern flair to the note progressions, but a few of the nagging discrepancies and jagged edges of the 2011 album have been smoothed over, and the result is a more entertaining and consistent set of tunes that are fit for violent consumption.

Love the huge, chunky guitar tone on this thing, it lends a lot of power to even the simplest of riffing patterns, and in particular it sounds amazing on the grinding eruptions in the verses of "Blade of the Conqueror". The higher pitched snarled vocals are still present, but the gutturals reign supreme here, and that's a good thing, because this guy's voice makes me wanna punch the fucking newspaper boy. Broad, fulfilling, and carries very well over the busier lattice of riffing. Lots of dynamics here too, from brief blasts to mid-paced clinical thrashers, tremolo picked melodies, well-fashioned lead sequences, you name it. Most importantly, the breakdowns throughout this material are far better plotted than those of Woe to the Conquered: Oshiego is always threading some slightly exotic sense of melody through or above the mosh-chop. As someone with a worldly, adventurous taste in music, but who has largely remained confined to North America in his travels (my own fault), I really appreciate getting a sense of a band's place in this world, especially a place far away from mine. Oshiego could certainly spice up this aspect of their sound further, but as it stands, their sense for explosive thrashing is excellent.

Everything is on point here, from the enthusiastic drumming to the ample bass tone (which even gets a bit funky in "Legions of the Nemesis"). It's hardly the most polished production you're like to hear, but instead fresh and bludgeoning. Try and imagine aggressive 80s thrash from bands like Sepultura, Mortal Sin and Demolition Hammer, but with vocal cues taken from old death metal luminaries like Benton, Willetts or van Drunen. The use of occasional melodic death elements also reminds me of another Asian titan, the great Intestine Baalism, who had a lot going for them in their decision to eschew strict genre boundaries. The Heretic Priests of Amon might not be so brilliantly riffy as An Anatomy of Beast or Banquet in the Darkness, and it often feels a little cluttered as they lay out one smackdown after the next, but it scratches a similar itch. Nothing but honesty here, guys who love metal playing their hearts out, never forgetting the golden rule of these genres: you're only as good as your riffs. Make them count, and make them hurt. Oshiego does both, and we're all the richer for it.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]