Friday, September 28, 2012

Hellcrawler - Wastelands (2011)

Slovenians Hellcrawler perform a brand of hi octane death 'n' roll that I don't experience all that often anymore, which they interestingly balance with a lot of purer death aggression, tapered off with sequences of almost pure punk/hardcore revulsion. Though they'll draw obvious comparisons to groups like Entombed and Disfear that pioneered the possibilities of such a match made in hell, I wouldn't say that they follow those footsteps too closely. There's something duly primitive, dirty and even understated about Wastelands which I found rather enjoyable. It's as if the music itself were dowsed in the same gloom and obscurity of the debut's cover image, and they manage to go really raw in the production without ever sacrificing the listener's ability to comprehend the simplistic, battering riffs.

The D-beat is of course employed pretty often through the album, as in tunes like "The Molten Faces Tribe", but thankfully it's not used to the exclusion of anything else. They'll burst into some double bass driven brick wall breakdowns, swarthy black rock & roll grooves, even riffs that border more along the thrash genre due to their choppy, muted picking; but I actually found it best when they were just barraging along through the minimalistic but effective hooks in pieces like "Firefly Powerplant". The guitars have a very downtrodden feel to them which evokes images of damaged automotive equipment strewn about an apocalyptic landscape, and I love the little hints of feedback and noise that creep through everywhere (like the intro to "Yet Again the Greed of Man"). The Slovenians aren't afraid to use atmosphere amidst the rocking sections, and this is most evident in shorter pieces like "Demons Within" or "Wastelands" itself. Bass is repulsive, loud as the intake valve at a sewage treatment plant, and the drums keep a good balance of manic fills and steady hammering beats. Vocals are a hoarse, broad growl not entirely unlike the Swedish forefathers of an Entombed or Disfear, though they're not penned out in the most interesting of patterns.

Certainly this style is popular in particular circles, with bands like Tragedy and Trap Them seeing success worldwide through a combination of metal, hardcore, crust, punk and grind fans. Hellcrawler doesn't have as much of a dissonant hardcore spin on what they perform, nor vocals that seem quite so crazy, but they still sound like a pent up, blunt bulldozer rolling over your kneecaps at a moderate speed, and the varied flavors that comprise their foundation are handled well enough. It's a dark, almost opaque record even despite the veritable accessibility of its riffs, which are honestly about 50% great and 50% too familiar, but in the end it wraps things up tightly in about 30 minutes of solid pacing and filthy atmosphere that makes you wanna crash your truck into something living. Decent for a debut, even if the songwriting isn't entirely memorable, and the lyrics help enforce its consistent apocalyptic themes.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Runes of the Evening - Indra EP (2012)

Like their Agni EP, Runes of the Evening's Indra takes on a primal Hindu force, in this case the deification of thunder and war, and then interprets its theological subtext into a mesh of melodic death and black metal. Do not expect a recording of sitars and other folk instruments, for this is sheer destruction redolent of Norse and Swedish stormers of the 90s like Dissection, Immortal, Naglfar and so forth. It's admittedly a compelling idea, and I wonder if they'll take it further and cover a host of other divinities. I was pretty surprised when reading up on these Texans, not only for their literary tastes, but also to find out that a few of the band members were previously involved in another Texas band I've covered recently, Psychiatric Regurgitation; though between the two, sounds and subject matter are quite a lot different, apart from both acts having a great deal of musicality.

Of the pair of EPs, I found Indra more to my liking than Agni, if only because I felt the dynamic range here was stronger and the tunes more emotionally resonant and better paced. Though for all I know the songs might have been recorded in conjunction with the others, this seems a measure more progressive in terms of its construction. From the great pianos that herald "The Spiral Descent" to the great warlike cadences in the bridge of "Deities of Our Deities", the compositions were more dramatic, and particular melodic strains were better able to capture my attention. The vocals are still swarthy and grimy black rasps, and the intensity of the drumming is comparable, but even though a few of the songs here are longer than anything on Agni, I found them more durable and more interesting to explore, with a few of the depths of "What Once Was" numbering among the most desperate, atmospherically effective I've yet heard. You've still got a variety of breakdowns, blast beats glazed in floods of harmony, and mid-paced, somber cruising melodies, but in the end they are simply catchier.

The production actually feels a fraction less 'together' than on Agni, but this is probably because the guitars get more room to breathe (essential, since if what I've read is correct, there are actually three of them). Much of the material doesn't feel as condensed. Interestingly, both of the EPs were mastered by death and thrash metal legend James Murphy, but overall I wouldn't sway that either of them were overly cleaned up. The best moments for me were where the mournful streams of melody played against the harsher timbre of the singer/bassist's delivery, and some of the transitions were quite well handled. Though I wouldn't dub it 'unique', Indra also feels mildly fresher than its companion. The writing is pretty close, enough that the two could have been conjoined to a single album, but with the slight differences, it also makes sense that they'd be separated. Beyond the other bands I mentioned, I feel like fans of Finland's Rapture or Katatonia's Brave Murder Day might also dig this, the floes of sad guitars often reminded me of those.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Runes of the Evening - Agni EP (2012)

The first of two EPs recently released from Texans Runes of the Evening, Agni takes its name from the Hindu deity (much like its sister recording, Indra) and presents three cuts of searing, melodic black and death metal with a distinctly European flavor from about 10-15 years ago. As usual, I was expecting a little bit of ethnic influence relevant to the concept, so I was thrown off that this was rather straightforward aesthetically and not drowned in Indian folk instruments, but that's not to say that a concept need always reflect its cultural inspiration in the choice of music itself, and for playing a nearly gimmick-less variation on the formula, these gentlemen do not make a bad show of it. Lyrically, also, the band seem heavily inspired by all manner of interesting fiction, theory and Eastern philosophy.

Best way to describe this might be later Immortal (Sons of Northern Darkness) meets Dark Tranquillity, but in truth I heard a whole host of sounds including Enslaved and Dissection. Guitar progressions aren't scripted in the most evil or threatening patterns, but more a flurry of bright, dense chords threaded with choppier runs of almost thrash-like muted sequences for variation. Runes of the Evening includes a lot of warmer, glorious notes, but that's not to say this is at all uplifting or happy, because often the chords crash along with a cold, cutting grandeur that makes you feel like you're staring out across a glacier. Not what I expected upon seeing the cover, of course, but that's just how I felt. The drums are loaded, plenty of double bass and blasting when the action picks up, a few percussive breakdown style beats that keep the tempo from repeating itself ad nauseum, and you can also make out the splashing clamor of the cymbals. Bass lines are kept simple, but the instrument is admittedly pretty loud when you've got this on full crank, and it really stands out against the higher pitch of the guitars.

Vocals are a grimy, petulant rasp that doesn't always distinguish itself much from the music beneath it, but again it's pretty fitting for the style, and they often bulk up the inflection with some deeper, broader growls to keep it from becoming monotonous; and there's plenty of echo to give it resonance over the busier riffs below. They don't skimp on the guitar riffing, and there is variation enough that none of the blasted rhythms or melodies wear out their welcome. As for production, it doesn't sound too heavily polished, the guitars have a nice texture to them and the levels of all instruments could be tweaked on a higher budget, but Agni is still vivacious, loud and clear all around. If the EP suffers from anything, it's that there's just not a whole lot of creativity happening beyond the very idea of this, and even though Runes are decent in most departments, and you won't hear many American bands playing in this niche, this doesn't present much that the seasoned follower of Swedish and Norse black and death metal hasn't already got in spades. Still, if you enjoy stuff like the harder Agalloch, Woods of Ypres or Wolves in the Throne Room tracks, or the Scandinavians I mentioned earlier, it's not a bad listen.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Monday, September 24, 2012

Binaash - Binaashkaari (2012)

Nepal! Not a place I hear from often, and not a place with an enormous metal scene; of the few groups I've seen listed, Binaash members have probably been involved with half of them. As a student of metal culture the world over, always learning new sounds and new places, I was immediately interested by what I'd find. The gruesome, primitive art work and the shocking iconography of the band's Devanagari scripted logo warned me that I was not in for the most pleasant of experiences, but as it turns out, Binaash ('destruction') have a pretty good sense of humor, and this translates into their hybrid of caustic grind, splatter thrash and gory death metal aesthetics.

By looking at the album, and acknowledging the group's independent status, I wasn't expecting it to have high production standards, and this is probably the one area in which the album is most lacking. The guitars have a loud, crunch tone to them which almost blew my ears out, and also tends to drown out or overpower the cleaner precision of the drums. The guttural vocals are delivered with a very percussive inflection that benefits from the layered grunts and barks, and the bass is nearly as boxy as the guitar, especially when you hear it on its own (the beginning of "The Wests", for instance). Overall, it's pretty chunky to the point that it sounds like it could've been far better mixed, more atmosphere might have better serve the lethality of the brutal songwriting. There were also lot of intros to the various tunes, many of which involve fucking around and making wild animal noises, but occasionally you get a surprise like the acoustic intro to "Nihilist" or the spectral screams that initiate "Eerie Sentiments"; still, I'd have preferred if a few of the tunes just outright launched into one another for continued chaos.

These gripes aside though, Binaash can play their instruments, and they can also beat your head in with those same implements time and time again. Loads of slamming, chugging grooves reminded me of everything from Suffocation to Pestilence to Morbid Angel, and these things are simply loaded with riffs, even if most don't feel highly original or memorable. You'll get some clinical, evil thrash passage threaded through the beatdowns. Where many bands that cross over death and grind elements subsist off shorter tracks, Binaash can write them at 4-5 minute lengths and consistently be changing up the muted ballast. In particular tunes like "Eerie Sentiments" and the hyperactive, blasting matrix of "Gravitational Imbalance" were quite fun, and they hurl in crazier, higher pitched guitars, madman howling (as in "Bancharo"), whacky chord progressions ("Waak"),  and other measures to keep somewhat varied, even if the limited production hinders them from sounding as brash and visceral, as, say, Wormrot or Napalm Death.

Did I love Binaashkaari? Probably not, due to the relatively fugly tones that kept me distracted from more closely following the rhythmic charges and churns. In addition, though they've no shortage of ideas for the riffs, most of them roll right off you. However, the album's blunt edge cannot be denied, nor can the abrupt, acrobatic talent of these Nepalese musicians. Get these guys centered into a better studio setup, and the East is going to have yet another rising force fueled on thuggish, unbridled mayhem.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Evocation - Illusions of Grandeur (2012)

Long primed as one of the flag-bearers for the current crop of retro Swedish death metallers, Evocation have maintained a reasonably high profile since they re-emerged from the underground in the 21st century.
Up to this point, I've enjoyed all their studio efforts, in particular Tales from the Tomb in 2007, and had every expectation of lavishing praise upon this latest full-length. For some reason, though, this record just isn't sinking in with me, perhaps because, for the first time, Evocation don't sound so much like a fresh take on an old feel, rather than a smattering of ingredients from other, prevalent Swedish acts, and I was constantly feeling distracted with where I had heard this or that riff sequence, or one quite like it...

Don't get me wrong, they've not become a group of plagiarists or precise clones, but so much of the song process here reminds me heavily of their contemporaries Amon Amarth, that with the exception of the more rasped edge to the vocals, I almost though I was experiencing a pseudo-sequel to Twilight of the Thunder God. One of the tunes even guests Johan Hegg. Largely built on slower, driving guitar patterns threaded with somber, mug smashing melodies, pieces like the titular opener reek of those familiar, frothing waves. There are also lots of picking sequences which recall the late At the Gates, particularly in the bridging riffs of "Well of Despair" or the escalation through "Perception of Reality". I'd also add Hypocrisy to the list of influences, especially their late 80s/early 90s phase, with those floods of melodic-imbued, simple chord structures that steer the drama of the bloodied vocals. I suppose, to some degree, these similarities were always present in Evocation's earlier records, but here they seem to have crowded the spotlight, and thus Illusions is a work of diminished distinction.

Not to say that the album doesn't have a few highlights in terms of brighter, memorable riffs, but they seem to be seated amongst a slew of average neighbors which serve little more than to bludgeon along and fill space. The mix of the record is both bold and laid back, another factor reminding me of Amon Amarth, and this is a contributor to how the songs tend to 'march along', but never explode. The vocals were never the most unique element of Evocation's style, but here they border on annoying predictability, subdued as they strive to match up over the beats. Guitar tone and drums have a higher end production, but nothing you haven't heard before from various of their countrymen over the last decade. You get a good bass level, and the songs are reined in at around 3-4 minutes, with little fatty excess to bore the listener, but ultimately Illusions of Grandeur does not feel so inspired as even its more divisive predecessors Apocalyptic and Dead Calm Chaos, and hopefully next time they'll grasp at some broader, exciting dynamics. Not bad, just not on par the other records.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Rise of Malice - Rise of Malice DEMO (2012)

Though Rise of Malice is a Greek band, they sound nothing like what you'd expect from Hellenic heroes like Rotting Christ or Varathron; this eponymous demo, their second, bears a more ghastly characteristic redolent of the Norse bands in the earlier 90s. A heavy Darkthrone influence is evident through the unwashed grime of the music's mix, but the tremolo picking sequences and the tundra-scavenging grandeur of the songwriting also bring to mind Immortal, or perhaps a few Swedish groups like Marduk. There's even a cover of "Withstand the Fall of Time", from Immortal's 1999 album At the Heart of Winter, which occupies over a third of this 21 minute tape. To their credit, the Greeks have a few traits that prevent them from sounding like carbon copies, but in terms of individuality, the demo doesn't set itself apart form the thousands of other, straightaway black metal acts spawned throughout the underground.

Not necessarily a bad thing, if a band has the control and ability to conjure that cold nostalgia for the past, and at this the Greeks do succeed. The tinny beats blast along distantly below the fuzzy confidence of the guitars, and I found that the fills were often louder than the snares and kicks during the faster sequences. The bass doesn't do all that much other than mimic the guitar progression, but then it rarely did at the dawn of black metal. The vocal inflection forms a decrepit, grumbled tone that doesn't always match up percussively with the instrumentation, but still sounds like some scarred warlock conjuring up a curse; and the acidic, atmospheric whispers that follow the eerie clean guitars in "The Forest of Mist" were a nice touch. Riffs range from tremolo streams, to melodic chords with an air of dissonance about them, to even a blackened thrash riff like the one in the depths of "Bloodshed", a decent variety even if few of them feel fresh or unfamiliar. The Immortal cover doesn't sound anywhere near so powerful as the original, but they pull off the various licks well enough in tribute.

Ultimately, I was torn between my enjoyment of this style and the lack of anything particularly savage, new or compelling happening on the three original metal tracks. Let's be clear: this is self-aware, archaic and grisly black metal which seeks little more than to honor its foundations. Aesthetically, I felt fully in step with the rawness of the music, the fragile balance of viciousness and melody which Rise of Malice does not disservice. This is cold, authentic, buzzing and bestial; not as unflinchingly primordial as something like Nattens Madrigal, as the instruments are quite clear (save maybe the blasting). The demo is reasonably well paced out, from the creepy dark ambient intro "Silent Echoes" to the gruesome grandeur of the cover at the close; and they're not without some sensible riffs. The isolated torment of the lyrics is well suited to the genre. Grim, cohesive, and decent, yet clearly there's enough talent in the group that the riffs and transitions can be improved upon in the years head; a little added dissonance and atmospheric insanity might go a long way.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Ragnarok - Malediction (2012)

Though I've no doubts Ragnarok are one of the most consistent of Norway's lesser known 90s black metal veterans, my interest in the band started to wane after their 1997-2000 material, the peak of which was their incredibly satisfying sophomore Arising Realm, on which the songwriting was simply fantastic. In the interim, they released one pretty decent record with 2004's Blackdoor Miracle, but the others have seem to have flown in one ear and spat back out the other. Part of this is that Ragnarok have never been known for having the most distinct style among their countrymen. Musicality and aggression have never exactly been the band's kryptonite; they excel in both areas, but where groups like Burzum, Emperor, Enslaved and Ulver had unique traits which spun their immortal legacies, Ragnarok had a little bit of this and a little of that to bring to the table.

That said, what they do, they have almost always done quite well, and Malediction, their 7th and latest full length, coming two years after Collectors of the King, is a colossal, crashing and competent excursion into the band's insidious grandeur, melding together elements of most of their prior releases into a bright, savage display of atmospheric carnage. Nihilistic floods of dense chords are strewn with diabolic tremolo picked passages, while the hammering blast beats hurl the earth asunder in seismic fits. Ragnarok plays loudly, and it plays abrasively. This black metal is meant to scrape at the foundations of Heaven until the clouds cower from the incendiary onslaught. Subtlety and nuance are not expressions in the Norwegians' vocabulary; they storm and swagger and then storm some more until your face caves in. Not that this is some mere, simplistic bludgeoning, there are enough moments of atmosphere and variation permeating the blitzkrieg to keep the audience from growing exhausted, from the symphonic ambiance that heralds opener "Blood of Saints" to the twisting, glorious harmonies that inaugurate "Dystocratic". The bass is repulsive and grimy, and the vocals, while nothing out of the ordinary, are gruesome, direct, and leave a trail of angels' blood in their wake.

There are indeed some great tracks here, in particular "Divide et Impera" with its hostile interchange of punchy bass lines and death-like tremolo riffing; or the more melodic twists woven into tracks like "Sword of Damocles" and "The Elevenfold Seal" which pay homage to the great Swedish black metal of the mid 90s. But in the end, I felt like the album was divided up between truly inspired passages and then others that felt as if they were just more of the same. Being someone almost genetically programmed to enjoy this style, I definitely had a fonder reaction to Malediction than Collectors of the King, but ultimately I wasn't entirely mesmerized by its ghastly procession. It's a spirited work, with no signs of aging or slowing down creeping into the joints of longtime thunderer Jontho, and the vaulted sense of magnificence that often characterized earlier records from Emperor, Dark Funeral, Gehenna, Marduk, Gorgoroth and 1349. In no way a disappointment if you're a frenzied, long term fan of their sound, but it doesn't really graft anything new onto the established formula. Good stuff, certainly, but not their best.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Forgotten Tomb - ...And Don't Deliver Us from Evil (2012)

Forgotten Tomb was a band I had heavily in rotation through the earlier years of the new millennium, a spectacle of grisly sadness that, from Songs to Leave (2002) through Love's Burial Ground (2004). Somber architecture threaded with suicidal hostility, they were by far one of the most promising black metal exports out of Europe in this period. And then came the inevitable progression phase, through albums Negative Megalomania and Under Saturn Retrograde, and though I certainly couldn't fault the Italians for trying something new, my own interest in the output had begun to wane. ...And Don't Deliver Us From Evil feels, to some extent, like 'damage control'. It's got a slightly more modern feel to it than, say, Springtime Depression, but a lot of that fell majesty of the old Forgotten Tomb creeps in here, albeit lavished in the brighter polish of the new production.

I think the 'atmospheric black/doom' tag still fits really well here, for while the vocals and riffing sequences often fall on the former side of the equation, there are plenty of slower grooving chord rhythm in tracks like "Deprived" (which had its own EP earlier in the year) that tether off the more cutting, higher pitched melody. The drums have a lot of variation, from the steady beats that moor the mid-paced, Katatonia-like rock out patterns (an in opener "Nullifying Tomorrow"), to the muscular double-bass batteries. Vocals are entirely over the top, gruesome and robust rasps that, along with the slice of the upper register guitars, really drench the rhythm section in sheer agony. Herr Morbid sounds much the same as he always did, only the inflection is more full-bodied and totally audible alongside the instruments. The bass is also a strong point to this, with a lot of curving, interesting grooves that support the guitars without often cloning them; in part responsible for giving the Italians' music that massive, progressive subtext you'll recognize from other groups like Opeth. There are also some Gothic-tinged, deeper melodic vocal harmonies (as in "Adrift") and clean guitars that shine in contrast to the heavier moments, without being particularly memorable in of themselves.

The longer, meandering songs are pretty much the status quo for Forgotten Tomb, but here they are reined in usually around 8-9 minutes, briefer than some of the swollen, depressive behemoths they penned back in their prime. The mix is in general quite bright, you can hear everything perfectly, like most modern black metal albums that have a budget and aren't afraid to sound like it. I occasionally got enveloped by a few of the dreamier, glorious guitar melodies throughout the 54 minutes, but didn't find most of the drudging rhythm guitar progressions all that exciting, despite the nice dichotomy they create against the airier flights of eloquent suffering. That said, there are certain exceptions, and tunes like "Let's Torture Each Other" reminded me of why I loved the groovier, simple black metal strategists like Finland's Ajattara or the older Darkthrone records, even if the packaging is prettier here. All told, ...And Don't Deliver Us From Evil is pretty damn solid, better at least than Under Saturn Retrograde, and it was great to experience those old sounds I so enjoyed from the first few records. If you're into vast, tragic swaths of sound crowned with melody and grandeur, check it out.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, September 21, 2012

Primal Rock Rebellion - Awoken Broken (2012)

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows my tastes that I eagerly anticipated hearing Iron Maiden axe-man Adrian Smith’s new side project, Primal Rock Rebellion (okay, I guess I wasn’t so eager about the name) when it was revealed this January. Formed in conjunction with former SikTh frontman, Mikee Goodman, PRR allows for Smith to once again flex his muscles outside the Maiden bubble, something he hasn’t been able to do since 1996 with his alt-metal outfit Psycho Motel’s Welcome to the World. PRR’s debut has some moments of brilliance that display a side of Smith’s songwriting that has not been evident to me before. But a few songs that, even as I write this, fail to really resonate with me hinder it from achieving greatness. Not for lack of effort though. The album is a bold step away from Smith’s previous work, in part thanks to the manic – dare I say primal? - vocals of Goodman. The overall sound of the album has much more in common with Smith’s Psycho Motel and contemporary metal acts, with the instrumental compositions meshing with Goodman’s unique vocal delivery to create something altogether fresh. 

The album gets off to an okay start with “No Friendly Neighbour”, but I can’t help but feel the following track, “No Place Like Home”, would’ve served as a better introduction to this unlikely collaboration. A stuttering guitar riff builds to one of the better choruses on the album, one I found myself humming to myself on a few occasions. The album’s lead single, “I See Lights”, grinds along at a slower pace but loses none of the heaviness, with Smith showing a willingness to take his playing into some darker, sludgy territory. Not sure what to think of the lyrics though (Smoke comes out that cafè / Got enough Euros and you'll get laid). 

“Bright As A Fire” only manages to live up to its name at the 3:45 mark, with some tremendous double-kicks and a thrash riff laying the foundation for an explosive solo. Unfortunately, getting to that point isn’t particularly interesting. It would’ve been nice to carry the momentum all the way through, but alas. It’s still worth a listen from that point to the end, though. 

The standout track on the album for me, “Tortured Tone”, is comparable to “No Place Like Home” in that they’re both the most “radio-friendly” tracks on the album. Whereas the latter goes for a straight-ahead rock approach, “Tortured Tone” is a little more ballad-y. A little cliché in it’s lyrical content, perhaps. But, with a hooky chorus bolstered by some fantastic backing vocals from Adrian, I find myself coming back to it more often than the rest. Add in some viola and female backing vocals for the last push, and you’ve won me over. 

“White Sheet Robes” chugs along at a moderate pace with Smith once again demonstrating he can do more than gallop. I get a Maiden vibe from the harmonized riffing in the chorus, and we get another stellar solo performance interlaced with Goodman’s vocals at about the midway point. Other moments on the album worth noting include the driving title track, and “Search For Bliss”, the latter featuring more killer vocals from both Goodman and Smith. 

The rest of the album is just kind of there, with “Savage World” and “Snake Ladders” failing to offer me any reason to go back to them. Goodman offers up a taste of his spoken word performances on “As Tears Come Falling From the Sky”, merely a set-up for “Awoken Broken”. The last track, “Mirror And The Moon”, is a mostly acoustic track that comes and goes without much offense, but the melodic motif begins to wear on me by about halfway through. 

Overall, Awoken Broken will probably hold fractional appeal to anyone not already familiar with either Adrian or Mikee. As a diversionary side project however, and for someone who is as enamored with Adrian Smith as I am, it’s worth a listen. His playing takes some interesting turns here, and while I can’t say it works one hundred percent of the time, I admire his willingness to experiment with someone so far removed from Maiden’s realm. Give it a spin; just don’t go expecting a rebellion anytime soon. 

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (ain't no place like home)

Erupted - In the Grip of Chaos (2012)

Based on what I've seen of the band's promo pictures, Erupted seems like a relatively young band of morgue dwellers, and In the Grip of Chaos is the Swedes' first album. I can only imagine what it must be like to live in one of those godly metal countries; for all the United States has contributed to the field, I'd be hard pressed to find a single younger guy (or girl) here in my Witch City neighborhood who listens to anything other than the usual Nicky Minaj or Lil' Wayne bullshit. For fuck's sake, I'd have to wander downtown during peak social hours before my radar could even spot a single damned Goth wannabe. If only the youngsters in this area grew up on fucking Grave, or Entombed...

The band itself is also quite new, forming in 2010 out of the ashes of some earlier project. I'd like to state up front, that while everything I've stated thus far points towards this being yet another fit of old school death worship circa the 90s, Erupted do not practice the typical overdrive and melody that their hundreds of peers thrive off. This is a much cruder sound, redolent of brutes like Cianide or Autopsy, with filthy, palm muted chugging patterns that alternate between barebones grooves and faster, busier movements. The vocals are a pure, hoarse guttural bark emanating from deep within the guy's lungs and guts, and above all this is some violent fucking music well-suited to barbaric moshing circles. The Neanderthal note progressions are often sauteed in slightly more mesmerizing melodies or lead wails, which add the only real depth to the album, but otherwise this is flat-out, muscular evil in which the drums sound really raw, and that central thuggish drawl of the guitars is matched only by the vocals in its punishing primacy.

Those compliments aside, In the Grip of Chaos does suffer from an overstock of derivative, simplistic riffs that don't exactly evoke much imagination. It's hardly an ambitious record, and often it drudges and drags along with an admittedly dull bombast. That's not to say that the Swedes lack variation, because they know enough here to infuse some speedier elements into the low end morass of knuckle sandwiches that comprise most of the guitar progressions; but even with the change ups, the album feels as if it's nothing you haven't heard elsewhere, done better. The nihilistic growls are as weighted as wet cement, but they're pretty much a one trick pony, except where they go super-guttural like in the atmospheric bridge of "Born to Hate". The double bass driven, chugging beatdowns are delivered as seriously as old Bolt Thrower, but the guitar patterns just don't add anything new to a tired formula. Overall, not incompetent for what it is, and I dug the cover artwork and the band's commitment to raw savagery, but while the sheer force of the record might be enough to leave a dent in my skull, musically it left less of an impression.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Daemonicus - Deadwork (2012)

My previous experience with Daemonicus, their 2009 debut Host of Rotting Flesh, was of a pretty hungry, competent and pummeling young Swedish death metal outfit with a primal energy and production that just didn't manifest into very memorable songs. With Deadwork, they seek to refresh and modernize their songwriting to better results, and I can claim with zero hesitation that that is exactly what they've done here. It's not the most consistent record, and there are a few truly dull grooves or hooks we've all heard a thousand times before, but at the end of the day, there are a few tremendous songs among this bunch which any fan of the style should appreciate; the early signs of a band beginning to flourish.

Daemonicus is not one to eschew melody or variation in a stumbling attempt to recreate Left Hand Path, Slaughter of the Soul or any other Swedish monument, but there's no doubt they've got a lot of influence from Dismember, Grave, Unleashed, Bolt Thrower, Amon Amarth and other Euro gods. The rhythm guitar tone is heavily redolent of that old 90s sound still so popular; muscular enough that it strongmans the simpler grooves, but also pretty polished to pack a punch. The melodies, where they appear, are usually quite good, and rescue what might otherwise be a pretty mediocre matrix of chord progressions; the use such leads and atmospheres often recalls the death & roll oriented acts like Hearse or Desultory, and altogether these elements fashion tracks like "The Grandeur of Total Termination" and "We Feast On Your Flesh" into effective ragers that won't soon escape your thoughts. The drums are bright and splashy, the bass uses a grimy distorted sewer tone to good effect, and as a whole, the production of the album is huge and 'now', not so clean as, say, Twilight of the Thunder God, but nonetheless tight and professional.

The vocals aren't too guttural in nature, more of a visceral, rich snarl imbued with plenty of charisma, and they hold up when he sustains syllables out over the ballast of a chorus groove. Where Deadwork truly worked for me is where those slower, Bolt Thrower-meets-Grave, breakdowns, melodic guitars and vocals all congealed into this epic bruise on the chin; where it became something of multiple, emotional dimensions and not merely a simpler, thuggish exercise in familiar note placement. It's not as dark of an album as you'll hear from other upstarts like Miasmal or Tormented, but at the same time it's mildly more accessible towards the melodic death fans, without sacrificing its churning core aesthetics. There are probably only 3-4 songs here that I'd return to with any regularity, but it's easily a rank or two above its predecessor Host of Rotting Flesh, and I'd recommend it for fans of anything from other newcomers Puteraeon and Entrails to Feral or the latest Desultory record.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Insepulto - Morbid Spawn of Resurrection (2012)

Insepulto is only the second Costa Rican act I've covered in years of writing reviews, but don't mistake the novelty of their surroundings as any sign that they don't possess the chops and ability to impress anyone; the trio has about 20 years experience in various other groups, and they bring it all to bear on what must be one of the most well-rounded, crushing hybrids of old school death and thrash metal that I've heard in many a month. Morbid Spawn of Resurrection might only be their debut, but it honestly sounds like the output of some seasoned voices in the field, if they were to reach back into the dawn of the 90s and then write an album fully centered on the sounds so potent and prominent back then.

Everything from slower death metal like Bolt Thrower, Cianide, Benediction, Cancer and Autopsy to the roots of primal death/thrash like Sepultura, Assorted Heap and Protector is crossed over into a matrix of brute, pummeling riffs, while the atmosphere and occult/sacrilegious themes often reek of Incantation. The rhythm guitar tones are dense and rich, and even though the individual, slower patterns do often hinge on the too-familiar, the songs are written in such a taut, 3-minute average format that they all pace themselves out rather well. I'd also note that the leads are incredibly well-defined; not exactly complex, but they scream out over each bridge rhythm efficiently and really pack in that extra texture of eeriness that will sometimes be lacking from one of the lower end riff passages. The songwriting splits its time pretty evenly between vile tremolo picked note progressions and mid-paced, swerving brutality. Drums are supremely polished, with great kick work and grooves that sit like blood-soaked bedrock beneath the incessant riffing, and some nice fills into the transitions. Bass is also very fulfilling, ominous and low even if it doesn't divert from the guitar.

Vocally, you've got a blend of the deeper gutturals circa Karl Willetts, Dave Ingram or Craig Pillard, with some blacker rasps that have the same natural level of atmosphere and sustain. It's nothing you've not heard before, but consistent and lovingly delivered with a primal brutality that gives the album much in the way of a claustrophobic, bruising atmosphere. There are a few flights of more frenetic, clinical notes that remind me of a Pestilence or Sinister, but otherwise it's all pretty basic. The Costa Ricans clearly have roots in the 90s, when so much of this music felt fresh and threatening, before bands began to explore a more technical sphere of expansiveness, but nonetheless Morbid Spawn of Resurrection feels completely timeless, as if you woke up one morning, glanced over at your clock to find that it was 1993 again. And yet, this is no clone band, you can't quite trace their sound back to a single band, but more of an amalgamation of all of those English, US and South American pioneers of the period. This isn't your typical cavern-core dowsed in tons of reverb and ominous drudgery, or a Swedish derivative. Complete with a great logo and hellish cover, it's a worthy paean of past punishments time warped into the present.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Depopulate - Til' Man Exists No More EP (2012)

Depopulate is a new band of brutes sprouting up in the crowded Polish scene, but while they certainly possess a comparable level of aggression to their countrymen, they seem to practice a more crude and percussive style, stripped down from the richer production elements to a basic core of bludgeoning breakdowns, loads of double bass footwork, murderous but somewhat monotonous gutturals, and some occasional bursts of slightly more complex riffing sequences. This is not so much like their locals Vader or Behemoth as it is a primal approximation of US legends like Suffocation, Dying Fetus, Cannibal Corpse and Devourment diluted into a thuggish, live sense of sincerity.

I've got to say that this is not an incredibly musical release, just a brief, 15+ minute explosion (including the gruesome torture intro) that delivers its points at the ends of balled fists. The guitar has a very wooden, boxy tone to it which emphasizes its battering quality, and many of the muted note progressions are dressed up in squeals and other fills to add a bit more flair. Later tracks like "Wastesoaked" and the hilariously titled "Show Me the Way to Your Heart" stir up more of a rhythmic frenzy with solid blast beats and tremolo guitar patterns, but unfortunately a lot of the breakdowns throughout this album (like the middle of "Show Me...") feel like they've been recycled from decades of death metal, hardcore and hybrids of the two. The brute vocals are occasionally joined by a higher pitched snarl in true Deicide fashion, but beyond matching the band's sense of imminent, percussive anger, they don't really do all that much out of the ordinary. The bass guitar also didn't stand out here, whether it's because of how it's mixed or just that the lines don't often escape the guitar progressions.

That said, Til' Man Exists No More isn't exactly a bad recording, it's just very stripped to the fundamentals and exerts no real creativity beyond the constraints of its genre. If you want an immerse yourself in some total package, epic and atmospheric brutality then you'd be better checking out Lost Soul or the latest Vader. This is more of a pure slugfest, a boxing match in which blow after blow are delivered ruthlessly to the face, gut and kidneys in desperate athleticism. Depopulate seems tailor made for a mixture of the slam obsessed and those into the more brutal old school USDM of the mid 90s. Some might scoff at the lack of polish to the EP's production, but I didn't mind that aspect whatsoever. It's the very definition of blunt and honest, and the music propels itself along quickly and directly enough that it never goes boring, even despite its most derivative riff cycles. However, I think they've got plenty of room with which to develop their chops, and perhaps write some catchier, surgical guitar progressions to better complement the concrete underbelly.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bane - The Acausal Fire (2012)

The first thing that struck me about The Acausal Fire, much like Bane's prior album Chaos, Darkness & Emptiness, is just how Scandinavian an approach they take to their atmospheric, semi-symphonic brand of deathly black metal. The majestic progressions present in their tremolo bursts are redolent of groups like Dissection, Dark Funeral, Marduk and Lord Belial, the vile dissonance of the eerier minor chords was pretty much the standard in the formative works of Norse and Swedish acts through the 90s and beyond, and they're not the sort to shy away from using higher, cleaner production standards than the primordial swamp of grime and wretchedness that inspired them.

However, despite its obvious level of competence and polish, I didn't take much away from their debut. A decent album, sure, but nothing to write home in blood about when there were hundreds of other, similar options through the prior two decades which had already marked out the territory. The Acausal Fire is a superior use of the band's arsenal in just about every department (save maybe the vocals). The Serbians have made better use of their twisting tremolo progressions, and loads of eloquent dual harmonies that create a necessary contrast against the gruesome dual guttural-rasp vocals. Needless to say, there are effortless blasts coursing beneath the rush of the guitars, and the band lean on the faster side of composition, but The Acausal Fire takes plenty of moments to breathe here, and the riff selections are in general far better than those of the prior album. Symphonic elements used in spots like the 'intro' and 'outro' are lavish, moody, orchestral and engrossing, while the gleaming melodies of tunes like "As Chaos Rises" will instantly settle themselves into your memory without much concentration.

Vocals are quite varied here, with the aforementioned grunts and rasps used throughout most of the metallic sequences, backed by excellent, cleaner choirs or the occasional surge into some salacious snarl not unlike you'd have heard from Ihsahn or Dani Filth in their primes. The mix is incredibly, almost surgically pristine, so those who want a lot of mud, reverb and noise in their black metal will not desire to slop from this trough, but personally I'm a fan of both sides of the coin, and have no problem with either when the music's good. And this music IS pretty damn good. Not perfect, surely not unique in the slightest, but very well executed black metal that furthers the Serbians and songwriters. The inclusion of the cover of Dissection's "Night's Blood" is a fitting bonus, not only because that's a great song, but because Bane knows exactly what to do with it; the Swedes were unmistakably one of this band's most fundamental influences. Apart from being brighter, though, it's hardly an unusual re-interpretation. But it doesn't need to be, because the rest of this album leading up to it is quite spectacular of its own right.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

The Gardnerz - It All Fades EP (2012)

While it wasn't in of itself a highly impressive album, The Gardnerz' 2011 debut The System of Nature brought a riffier breath of fresh air to the doom/death spectrum, one that needed only some mild refinement to push the band into a more memorable terrain. Enter It All Fades, the Swedes' followup recording, a 36 minute EP which flavors its marginal brutality with a number of eclectic departures that work wonders for its overall presentation. Not only are the group's heavier compositions all the better for the improved structure and guitar progressions, but this also contains one of the most beautiful cover songs I've heard in 30+ years of my conscious awareness of rock and metal music...

Where many of the bands who cross the streams of these two extreme genres depend heavily on slow, dull and bludgeoning rhythms to impart despair, The Gardnerz would rather keep themselves, and their listeners interested in what's happening. Many of the guitars here are, if not complex, quite busy, almost a progressive death metal which recalls sources as wide as Death and Opeth. They'll occasionally evoke some simpler doom harmonies or dense, thuggish chord patterns (as in opener "Don't Look Back"), but it never once gets to the point where you feel tired or exhausted of arbitrary repetition. The vocals are your stock guttural that you'll recognize from a lot of Swedish or Finnish death, but these are joined by more tormented barks and even the use of female guest vocals for an operatic fix. The EP has a clean, but fertile mix which allows you to easily comprehend the guitars, while the rhythm section provides a taut dichotomy of smooth bass and snappy drums. The clean guitars also sound eloquent, and the music they write with them is actually catchy, rather than just placed into the tunes for appearances.

However, what really drew me to this disc is the band's lavish interpretation of Darkthrone's "Transilvanian Hunger", which has been converted into a gorgeous, glimmering and wistful folk track with the lyrics intact, performed by female vocalist Paulina Strihavka, who also adds the operatic lines to the title track. You'd think a transmutation like this would solely rely on its gimmick, but there's nothing at all tasteless, ironic or patronizing about how The Gardnerz translate this beloved, bestial classic. The original chords are wrought out in solemn, river-floes of acoustics, and the contrast of Paulina's voice with the lyrics is strangely effective. It's possibly the best folksy incorporation to an extreme metal album I've heard in quite some time, and though it's not really representative of the Swedes' original compositions, I haven't stopped listening to it since I first experienced it. Otherwise, this is all solid material, more fetching and interesting than on The System of Nature, and I look forward to the inevitable sophomore full-length, crossing my fingers actually that they'll incorporate more of the folk, if you can believe that.

 Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (we are not part of the plan)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ketzer - Endzeit Metropolis (2012)

Even just looking at the cover of their sophomore album, the Germans seem to have cast aside the Satanic security blanket to provide more of an enigma into the nature of the music and lyrics on Endzeit Metropolis. What mysteries will this dark, doomed city and its ebon domes hold for the listener? The image is simple, to be sure, and perhaps strange in tandem with such a violent and demonic band as Ketzer ('Heretic'), but it's immediately interesting, where another devilish slave master or grim reaper would likely have prompted only that 'this again?' reaction that I sadly and jadedly take on a large number of blackened works in the 21st century. Fortunately, the creativity also extends into the lyrics, and to some extent, the music.

Digging below the surface, the album is quite close to its predecessor in style, blackened thrash and speed metal aesthetically redolent to Teutonic forebears Desaster, but the band has actually stretched its wings out a bit and interspersed additional passages of atmospheric variance into the bevy of bedrock, sinister riffs that dominated Satan's Boundaries Unchained. The guitar tone is more potent than on the debut, and the vocals mixed to it a bit more closely in volume, so it lacks a fraction of that record's echoing misanthropy, but feels more abrupt and straight to the listener's face, especially those lower paced rhythm guitar grooves that hail from the school of Bathory, Hellhammer and Darkthrone. There is more an emphasis on the mid-paced, textured and swaggering tempos dowsed in harmonies that made up about half of the first album, and the band even stretch out into a more 'tender' territory, like the guitar driven, melodic interlude "Farewell, Fade Away" or the understated acoustics that inaugurate the closing epic "He Who Stands Behind the Rows".

There is certainly a maturation here, but not so much in the actual metal riffing as there is in the lyrics, which are pretty damned interesting paeans to the fragility of existence, almost poetic introspection as the band speaks of its last minutes before Armageddon, spent in a passionate revelry. Completely unexpected, and far beyond what you're usually exposed to on a record of this sort. I also felt that the riffs were more naturally dynamic, with each individual composition expressing some nuance, not to mention that the tremolo guitar patterns and beefier rhythm tracks saunter off into more unpredictable configurations. Not to the point that it feels 'progressive', per se, just better conceived and more interesting, especially in cuts like "Aesthetics and Ecstasy" or "The Fever's Tide". Some degree of cruelty and sadism has been traded off here, and it's not quite so fiery and sinister as the debut, but I'd have to say, in the end, even if it's not perfect, that I enjoyed this more than its precursor. Only by a small margin, though. Not just for fans of blackened thrash or speed this time out; Endzeit Metropolis should also hold some appeal to fans of melodic Swedish black metal circa the mid to late 90s. Whether your poison runs from Desaster or Dissection, this is well worth a listen.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (still crawling from behind)

Ketzer - Satan's Boundaries Unchained (2009)

Though the blackened thrash metal category has long held its strongest presence in Scandinavian territories, Germans have not been far behind in producing some of its underground favorites. After all, the niche WAS birthed by records like Sentence of Death, Obsessed by Cruelty, and Pleasure to Kill just as much as it was by the Bathory s/t, and groups like Desaster and Witchburner have long carried its torch, passing its hellish flame on to upstarts such as Rhineland-Palatinate's Cruel Force and Nocturnal. One of latest circles of tyrants reaping these rounds is Ketzer, who've generated quite a buzz in this sphere, and after spending some quality time with both their full-lengths, I would have to agree that the praise is indeed warranted, even if I've not been entirely won over.

Satan's Boundaries Unchained is not the sort of black/thrash you'd liken directly to the ripping, raw and ruddy speed metal influence of pioneers Venom, Piledriver, or Bulldozer. In fact, the band I was most reminded of is Desaster, with similar, epic and incendiary chord progressions that draw upon the ire and might of Bathory circa 1984-1988. However, they do have those no-frill acceleration runs in cuts like "The Fire to Conquer the World" and "I Am Your Unholy God" where they crisply conjure forth Satanic speed metal circa Slayer and Destruction, walls of tremolo terror erupting into mid-paced, mosh readied rhythms that do wonders to help balance out the pacing of the debut as a whole. Admittedly, a lot of the note patterns Ketzer whips up are pretty predictable, nothing you haven't heard a dozen or so times in the past, but they offset that fact with a lot of atmospheric, airy tremolo melodies that give it an edge. They do not simply throw 2-3 riffs at you and expect them to stick like a lot of the cruder black/speed cults; all of the tracks on Satan's Boundaries Unchained are well-developed and fulfilling.

I'd also comment how much I loved the drums on this record, complementing the typical, driving speed and black metal beats of antiquity with busier snares and fills than I might have expected. The guitar tone is solid, thinning out beautifully for the tremolo picking sequences, condensed for the classic feel of the chords. The echoed rasp of front man Infernal Destroyer is nothing new for black metal or black/thrash in general, but it does an efficient job of resonating out into the haunted night like an abyssal kite (the bird, not the hobby) as it surveys the torment and damnation beneath it. The occult and violent themes and titles found here are your standard fare, ubiquitous tracts of Satanic terrain you can find elsewhere, but this isn't much of a detriment, since most of us who enjoy this cursed hybrid of styles revel in its unholiness, and the band seems to have further developed its lyrical material on the followup.

Ultimately, this is a savage and entertaining debut that fans of Desaster and Swedish acts like Bewitched, Nifelheim and Witchery should absolutely check out. It didn't knock all the teeth out of my face like Antichrist's Forbidden World or Nocturnal's Violent Revenge, but it's confident, competent and carnal enough to enjoy through numerous exposures, and quite consistent in its hellish enthusiasm.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Putrevore - Macabre Kingdom (2012)

We've been so spoiled with great old school death metal these past few years that it's felt as if there were a carnage strewn Christmas taking place at least once per week, but fuck if I'm going to complain about it. Is it trendy? Sure. Has much of it amounted to anything more than a tribute to the forebears of the early 90s? Indeed. Does Putrevore's sophomore album still kick ass? Yes, yes it does, and in a year that's brought me such gifts as the Horrendous debut and Necrovation's self-titled sophomore, I just don't know if I can bear any more of this level of awesome without imploding. And yet here it stands, a ghastly monolith, the second full-length collaboration between Dave Rotten of Avulsed, Repulse Records and Xtreem Music, and the inimical Roger Johansson of Sweden.

Yes, somewhere between recording his other thirty-eight death metal projects  this year, Rogga found the time to compose and release what might just be the best album in either of these guys' careers so far, a pummeling and enormously wretched paean to the age of Incantation and Rottrevore, smeared with a bloody reduction of churning Bolt Thrower brutality, muscular Pestilence death/thrashing grooves, a few Hellhammer or Obituary styled chord progressions (as in the bridge of "Awaiting Awakening Again") and other techniques of old. But I don't want to sell Macabre Kingdom short (if you could call such comparisons 'short'). This does not at all sound like a clone of any one particular group, it's another of those records that proudly wreathes its influences in the production capabilities of the current era, and thus it achieves a dense, abysmal grandeur that might not have been possible were it released back in the heyday of the style. Let's just admit it: the niche of crushing, atmospheric death metal was never quite so popular as it is right now, and Macabre Kingdom is hands down one of the best of the bunch, far more effective and memorable in my estimation than other, heavier hyped records like Disma's debut Towards the Megalith last year.

This is due in no small part to the Cyclopean production values on exhibition. The guitars are raw, potent and absolutely furious, both in the slower, grooving context and the floods of choppy, blasting viscera that help offset any possible sense of rigor mortis from ever infesting the listener's newly slain corpse. Whether they break out an airy, eerie squeal or a massive octave chord in a breakdown, it all translates evenly onto the album's rictus death mask. Though most of the guitars are simplistic in structure, some of the faster passages have a few flights of complex death/thrash guitar patterns that always attract the ear, or clinical, evil tremolo melodies and sinister, sluggish solos. The riffs do occasionally feel familiar, but they're nonetheless entrancing in their undiluted hostility, and the album's relative brevity (about 35 minutes) ensures that it repeatedly feels blistering and fresh. The bass is deep and ruddy; and new drummer Brynjar Helgetun, who has worked with Rogga in other projects like Ribspreader, The Grotesquery and Those Who Bring the Torture settles in nicely to the alternating matrix of blasted momentum and leaden, sparser steroid grooves.

But props really have to go out to Dave Rotten here, who takes this Craig Pillard-like inflection to great heights, resonating out over the album's underworld atmosphere far more effectively than most of the other cavern-core front men you've heard lately. The Spaniard sounds fucking monstrous. If only this guy had voiced the Balrog in the mines of Moria, Gandalf would have pissed his robes, and the Fellowship would have been fucked. Voluminous, rumbling sustain creeps into the longer intonations, and though one might mistake the actual notation as monotonous, it sends crackles up the listener's spine as if he was standing on seismic disturbance. Perhaps it isn't the deepest or lowest pitch in this particular niche, but still found myself erupting in laughter...nervous laughter. Fear.

I was already a fan of this outfit since they released Morphed from Deadbreath in 2008, but as good as that debut was, it was a mere finger-frank appetizer wrapped in bacon compared to this swollen sausage meal of blood, grime, guts and hellfire. Juanjo Castellano's cover artwork is excellent, a ghoulish fiend with huge claws upon a throne of spines and bones, almost looking as if he's watching some damned jester dance before him. Putrevore excels in just about every category here, and while admittedly not the most innovative or unique record I've heard lately, it's for sure one of the highlights of 2012. A sometimes lumbering, something bursting necrotic juggernaut siphoning off the souls of the innocent. Rrrraaarggghh...fucking die!

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10]

Monday, September 17, 2012

Dead Hills - Purgatory/Winds of Time DEMO (2012)

Dead Hills proves to be yet another voice of potential in the opulent, emerging Australian black metal scene, but the take on this substantial double-disc demo offering is somewhat differentiated from its neighbors. For example, you won't find the sweltering, claustrophobic clamor of a Striborg here, or the strident, echoing atmospheres of Drowning the Light, Temple Nightside and Atra. Purgatory/Winds of Time has a more directly Scandinavian interpretation of sorrow and madness, and comparisons to forebears like Burzum, Vinterriket or Ildjarn, due not only to the tortured, screaming vocals, but also to the mesh of simplistic synthesizer ambiance with the primordial riff structures, and the nature obsession implied through the lyrics and atmospheric vistas of suffering.

That this is the product of just one musician, and that said musician, Weaver, manages to maintain such a high level of consistency through over 90 minutes of material left me nothing short of awestruck. Granted, there are a few of the lengthier compositions like "Wells" and "Leaves of Ash" which might have benefited from a few minutes' trim, but in general the balance between the majestic and desolate keyboard phrases and the ghastlier black metal sequences is well rationed. Weaver never lets the repetition of any one riff get out of hand here, constantly integrating melodies of grandeur and sadness to complement the primal fuzz of the rhythm guitar. The drum sequences will often drop out entirely and allow for the guitars to generate an epic, wilderness haze before returning, and there's a decent variety of faster paced tremolo surges and languorous, drudging chords that ramp up the demo's capacity for a chilling, enduring aftereffect, as you experience in the mournful segues of "The Wilt" or the more graceful, expansive heights of "Leaves of Ash". There are also some periods in which the guitars become more melodically busied than one would normal associate with this niche, but not at all to the music's detriment.

Needless to say, the intros and interludes here are equally scintillating and varied, from the more psychedelic beaming keys of opener "Clearing", to the muddied bass of "Haze", to the solemn twang of the clean guitars that course through the finale "Graveyards Over the Sea". The production of the demo is perfect for what the project represents: isolation, sorrow and obscurity. Delivered with more evenness and clarity than its stylistic ancestry, perhaps, but not at all a negative when one is expecting to sit through an hour and a half of such material. It's a fraction more accessible, than, say Filosofem, but not as robust, polished or punchy as a band like Sweden's Dråpsnatt, which also draws upon that Burzum heritage. The vocals, riffing patterns and overall atmosphere are hardly a novelty in this genre, but when handled with such respect, who cares? Ultimately, Purgatory/Winds of Time takes the listener on a shadowy expedition through the natural world, and I enjoyed that each of the two discs offered a separate, personal, lyrical journey (the first a darkened woodland, the second more of a sea meets earth euthanasia). The pacing is great, the songs suffice even when extracted from the whole, though they work best when you've got at least 45 minutes to spare.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (eating away my peace)  (free download)

Spectral Lore/Locust Leaves - Split EP (2012)

Having explored the latest Spectral Lore album Sentinel before this split, I can't say I was quite so surprised at the level of quality on exhibition. However, there were a few tonal shifts in Ayloss' offering here that diverged ever so slightly from the full-length, and I was likewise impressed by the pairing with another promising act called Locust Leaves, whom I've never heard before, but match up rather well in terms of the effort and ambition they bring into the black metal spectrum. Each of the bands has penned a massive composition for the split, two tracks clocking in at nearly a half-hour, and they give us a good glimpse of what makes the clockwork of each project tick.

Spectral Lore's offering, "Duty" opens with warmer melodic textures than I'd expect, but reeks of a similar, fell glory to Bathory's later 80s/early 90s material, or perhaps the more matured, mid-paced Immortal. That said, it's still a veritable riff-fest, eventually gathering speed to gallantly escalate into a mountainous crescendo, before coming back down to a calm segue of acoustic guitars. The vocals are mildly less ominous and guttural than I found on Sentinel, assuming more of a thicker, Burzum-esque, tormented rasp, which is complemented with various, cleaner, narrative passages for variation. While I think ultimately I preferred the full-length's calculated, schizoid sense of purpose, I must say that the last 5-6 minutes of this 15 minute monolith, with the lilting leads and the closing ambiance, were breathtaking. By comparison, the companion piece "Promise" by Locust Leaves, is more dense and in your face, lacking some of the airiness that Spectral Lore revels in. Sensual, whispered periods of tranquility are alternated with harried with blasting, bloodsoaked, gruesome drums and vocals, but the band also creates an enormous atmospheric bridge with clean, melodic vocals and guitars that reminds me of a more tormented 90s Anathema.

All told, we're getting a glimpse here into two of the brighter, more comprehensive acts in the Greek scene which should be taken notice of, since each has a highly defined, refined sense of expression you're unlikely to experience in the more primitive Hellenic underground. I wouldn't say that I enjoyed this split riff-for-riff, since a few of the note progressions lost my attention, but especially in the case of Spectral Lore, which is a single man performing all instruments, the effort is incalculable. The production's a bit better balanced on "Duty" than "Promise", or at least more to my liking, but otherwise the two acts pair up quite well. Fans of atmospheric, experimental black metal which doesn't shy away from dramatic, emotional effect would do well to pursue these names.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Spectral Lore - Sentinel (2012)

Alas, another throne has been usurped, and I have found myself once more late to the coronation. Though one of my co-bloggers covered the Spectral Lore sophomore II a few years back, Sentinel is actually my first exposure to the Greek act, and it's by far one of the most ambitious and evocative black metal recordings I've heard this year, combining the far left chaos of explosive, quasi-experimental fiends like Deathspell Omega and Dodecahedron with the stronger sense of fundamental melodic tremolo picking and grandeur possessed by Norse acts through the 90s: Mayhem, Emperor, Immortal, Satyricon and Enslaved. A one-man symphony of staggering ability, and an unpredictable landscape of dissonant miasma and floods of overwhelming rapture.

Sentinel is a nightmare embodied into airy flights of sinister, streamed tremolo guitars, meticulous blasting and ominous growls and rasps so insidious that one might feel one has attracted the ill favor of the Olympians on high, just waiting for whatever curse they send down upon you. This is heavily textured music, and it's incredibly rare that you'll find only one thing happening at a time. The guitars are tracked with much nuance, crisp and bleeding note progressions that almost entire evade the burden of derivative placement. There is a tendency towards orchestrated acceleration throughout the whole of the album, but Spectral Lore can also settle into a slower, progressive groove like "The Coming of Age" without losing a fraction of intricacy. The riffs whip around the listener like the tethering tentacles of some Cyclopean, otherworldly lifeform, gradually sucking him or her into a hidden pocket of reality. The drums alternate between eruptions of unbridled violence and jazzier fills and rhythms that maintain a substrate of complexity even when one strips away the adventurous guitars. The vocals are threatening and petulant, even though their presence is often too sparse, but part of this is that over 30 minutes of the album have been committed to a single ambient track...

Which might have proven a detriment, if "Atlus (A World Within a World)" wasn't one of the most lush and impressive pieces on the entirely of the album. A contrast to the cavorting, evolving chaos of the metallic compositions, perhaps, but incredibly gripping, and aesthetically flush with the album's gorgeous cover art. It's like starting off some mystical evening with an incendiary, psychedelic, structured black metal jam session and then having Peter Andersson of Raison d'être show up to score the after party, when all the maniacs are stoned on a grassy hillside, grazing on celestial bodies. That Spectral Lore's sole author of pain, Ayloss can shift from one extreme to the other without losing focus or sacrificing quality is something baffling to me, and yet here it is, scrawled out across the firmament like a nebula of nihilistic ravens. Sentinel holds up after numerous listens, with more pieces of its puzzle unraveling aurally and existentially each time. Every calm and every storm dwells upon the imagination with a supernatural contemplation. Don't expect a Triarchy of the Lost Lovers here, or Scarlet Evil Witching Black; apart from the mystical fabrics of, say, Acherontas, Spectral Lore doesn't have a lot in common with their classic countrymen. But this is by far the best record to hail from that scene in nearly a decade.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10] (eternally perplexed)

Psychiatric Regurgitation - Stabbed in the Eyes with a Crack Pipe (2012)

On its surface, Stabbed in the Eyes with a Crack Pipe might seem like the product of some adorably tongue-in-cheek ghettogrind or gutterslam outfit, but I was quite surprised to find that there's much more to Texans Psychiatric Regurgitation than just a sense of humor. For the most part, this sophomore album shows a clear departure from the taut, grind focused material dominating the self-released 2008 debut Vaginal Fluid: The Sweet Taste of Revenge. The focus here is on weightier compositions, a lot more riffs and variation packed into each, while the quintet maintains a high level of musicianship; most importantly, one can never really predict where the band is going in any given moment, and its unexpected textures and melodies really push it over the precipice from mere brutality and intensity to something worthwhile.

Imagine dowsing the bonesaw oppression of West Coast Carcass-worship royalty Exhumed or Impaled in the progressive death metal of pioneers Death, Atheist or Sadus through the 90s. The Texans coerce a lot of clinical savagery from their guitar passages, harried and calculating without becoming overtly technical to the point that they induce eye rolling from the misplaced string wanking. They cycle through blast beat outbursts to meticulous death/thrash riffing, and the lead sequences are engaging and well-plotted in cuts like "Smoke crack, worship Satan, kill people" or the frenzied bridge in "13 addictions and 5 STDs". The vocals are a brute bark interwoven with sepulchral snarls, redolent of Carcass and Deicide, and the drums have an almost mechanical aptitude which never fails to anchor the constantly shifting landscape of tempos. The bass lines are fluid and acrobatic, not often stretching out their neck on their own, but more than sufficient. Most impressive for me was just the sheer array of riffs these bastards evoke, there have got to be a dozen at least in each song that jerk the listener back to attention if he/she's ever about to doze off.

Lyrically, the album is much like it looks: tales of drugs, drugs, fucking drugs, and all the baggage that comes along with the crack pipe culture and its inevitable aftermath; treated with punishing glee. Samples are lifted from sources both obvious and less so, for example Morgan Freeman's school-top suicide prompt from the 1989 film Lean On Me. Very often these are well-positioned as a setup for the arrival of a particular riffing burst to kick your face on, but occasionally they're more substantial and atmospheric, like the introduction to  "Smoke crack...", which features a synthesizer accompaniment. As comically ironic as some of the titles and packaging of the album might seem, once you get into some of the lyrics like "Schizophrenic withdrawal syndrome", Psychiatric Regurgitation becomes just about as bloody, cruel and sick as you'll find out on the USDM circuit. I would say that some of the songs felt slightly overlong, tracks this choked with ideas can become exhausting after about 5-6 minutes, but otherwise I've not got many complaints, because it is evident that these guys put a tremendous amount of work into this music, and there's something here to sate any of a wide variety of death metal fans, whether they're into sheer nihilistic bludgeoning or aggravated melody.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (lust, an emotion sewn to thee)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Voivod - Nothingface (1989)

Something I rarely seen spoken of Nothingface is just how prescient it was, not in terms of its outlandish musical aesthetic, but as a work of science fiction. Though its setting and subject matter could hardly be considered novelties by the late 80s, mirroring everything from Asimov to Borges, I like to imagine the Wachowski brothers had worn out a few copies of this album when coming up with the 'awakening' sequences for Neo in the Machines' human battery incubators. The overwhelming level of synesthesia created through the narrator's stream of consciousness reads like an earlier draft of Greg Bear's 2010 novel Hull Zero Three. Nothingface doesn't just tell the listener, it 'shows', in the accumulation of first person imagery and the cloudy dystopian nature of the music.

It's the most cryptic of Voivod's records, in that the audience is thrown so deep into its universe, the chilling images coming on in such rapid succession, that it plays out like psychological warfare; like Anthony Burgess' Alex undergoing a Ludovico Technique not of reconditioning violence, but force-fed domestic bliss. In stark opposition to the central character of Dimension Hatröss, we're dealing not with an outsider looking in, but an insider finally escaping a dream-haze, glimpsing for the first time the cold shell of a world that surrounds and supports its slumber. Nothingface was certainly impressive in theme, exponentially more compelling and intelligent than the vast majority of crap choking up the airwaves, even in harder metal; and yet it's not so brainy that a barely literate fan couldn't tune into its eclectic threads and ride the revelations. Once more, the Canadians had gifted us with a concept that can be unraveled in multiple lairs, grandiloquent metaphor that can resonate far beyond the bounds of the actual narrative. For example, how many of you office employees and salary men/women could relate to "Into My Hypercube"?

Nothingface is also one of the first authentic cases of 'post-metal' in memory, in terms that it so far removes itself from the precepts of the genre that it's difficult to even compare with its own predecessors. Perhaps a more appropriate tag might be 'post-thrash', steeped in progression and psychedelia like a tea leaf in heated water. Clearly there are still a few surgical muted, aggressive intricacies to the guitars in "Nothingface" itself, "Sub-Effect", "X-Ray Mirror", or the stomping staccato chord barrage in "Missing Sequences" that plays out like a muscular Rush. Denis D'Amour has refined many of the dissonant and jazz-based, atonal chords he experimented with on the prior albums, but here they've been grafted into a mechanistic haze that becomes the rule and not the exception. The distortion is also dialed back an increment, to match the cleaner, clinical atmosphere of the story's setting. Beyond the fact that there is still an investiture of anger and confusion inherent to the music, understandable in the narrator's situation, one could honestly get away with not calling this 'metal' or 'thrash' so much as its harder and more nihilistic predecessor Dimension Hatröss. 

Ultimately, though, whether one defines this as interstellar ukulele robofolk or Asimovian progressive metal, the album is fucking outstanding, with not a single second of compositional choice detracting from its depth of message and character. I doubt I've ever heard much bass playing that can compare to Blacky's work here: nebula-surfing grooves ("Missing Sequences"), apocryphal future funk-punk ("The Unknown Knows"), or android assembling schematics ("Into my Hypercube"). Maybe he's not the fastest, or the most technical performer, but in terms of the lines he writes, Geddy Lee, Les Claypool and Flea can all eat their fucking hearts out; and the decision making on when to apply a little distortion or not is spotless. Piggy also earned enough of a creative paycheck here to retire (though I'm glad he didn't). Despite the fluidity of his four string counterpart, he truly takes the helm on the album, steering us into a dream state of eloquent oblivion with hundreds of brilliantly conceived chords and picking sequences. Seriously, there is not a single phase of Nothingface upon which something interesting is not happening, no corner you'll turn where a wonderful hook or bass line won't attract your attention, whether the album's intensity is expanding or retracting.

Michel Langevin's drums are likewise reflexive and perfected, manifesting all manner of cadences, jazz techniques, double-bass rolls and killer fills which you can hear rumbling through your gut as clearly as anything else on the album. His performance is actually more important than on any prior effort, not that he wasn't giving it his all then, but because his interactions with Piggy here provide that callous, mechanical substrate of the setting's fallen society, so crucial to its effectiveness. Perhaps the only member who has not technically upped the ante here is vocalist Snake, but I don't think his evolution was quite as necessary. In fact, since he's polished his inflection of most of the haughty shouts and grime from the earlier efforts, we're getting that pure, crass, punk delivery with almost no exception save for a few harsher barks (as in "The Unknown Knows"). Still, it adheres so wonderfully to the groove of the bass and the collision of the varied riffing sequences, and the more tranquil passages ("Missing Sequences" intro, for example) that I wouldn't have changed a damn note.

I do regret that the album was most known at large for the cover of Pink Floyd's "Astronomy Domine". A brilliant choice, mind you, and the Canadians' mutation with heavier guitars, harder percussion, and textured cosmic serpent vocal harmonies is the best rendition I've ever heard (possibly even superior to the original); but I'd have liked the album to break out for one of their own pieces, which in my estimation are every inch as brilliant as their progressive forebears. It was a little disheartening to have someone approach me in high school and ask if I'd heard this 'cool new band Voivod with the Pink Floyd cover!, which generally resulted in a response of 'have you heard all the other great music, you know that they've been releasing for fucking YEARS now?' dumping a classroom trash can over their heads and kicking it repeatedly. Yes, I was one of those assholes who couldn't stand peoples' sheepish predilection to allow MTV to do their thinking for them. I went to find the music, I didn't always wait for it to find me. Especially after the previous year's Dimension Hatröss, to which I had practically built a shrine and handed out leaflets of information, with null response.

But, hey, that's not the band's fault, and the tune fits in fluently to the remainder of the album's narrative, not just being wedged in at the end. Funnily enough, though Nothingface was the band's best selling album, and even had the Canadians headlining a tour with Faith No More and Soundgarden of all fucking bands (back before they both exploded, obviously, and were themselves putting out some of their finest work), its impact beyond the loyal niche of progressive and thrash metal fans was negligible at best. Voivod's ensuing efforts Angel Rat and The Outer Limits, while both excellent, never hit the same buzzing stride, and the flame of science fiction-themed metal temporarily quelled, or handed off to extreme metal outlets like the Floridian Nocturnus, who were no more successful despite their own earnest efforts. People didn't want to dream in technicolor and static, or explore the Outer Rim: they wanted doc martins, Perry Farrell and Eddie Vedder, and had begun to converted their morning coffee to a cappuccino.

Alas, Nothingface is still considered by many to be the Canadians' finest hour, and its a sentiment that I find difficult to argue. Certainly Killing Technology and Dimension Hatröss appeal more to the thrasher within me, and my taste in apocalyptic, frightening savagery. The latter of those is probably my favorite to this day, but this 1989 gem is nonetheless immortally haunting and awe-inspiring, and it stuck its nose out the furthest from the safety net of its predecessors' extremity. Forty-five moments of perfection translated through a cautionary escape into the perils of the mundane, the inherent entropy in ultimate order, and the potential threats of eternal, unchecked apathy in civilization; all cloaked in musical expression so thoughtful, creative and forward thinking that almost a quarter-century later, few can even comprehend it, much less match it.

Verdict: Epic Winface [10/10] (loop rewind)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Voivod - The Outer Limits (1993)

Leave it to Voivod to come up with the gimmick to include 3D glasses with a CD, but that is indeed what happened for the limited edition of the 7th full-length album, the last for MCA records and the first without longtime bassist Blacky. To be honest though, I'd risk being mauled by Martians to get a glimpse of Michael Langevin's artwork, and was not disappointed with the great concept behind the booklet, and lucky to buy that version day one. Like Angel Rat, the songs here each have their own, individual sci-fi concept, many with a more nostalgic tendency than previous albums. So the various 3D graphic panels and the comic book kitsch match up well with their themes, and with the possible exception of deciphering Nothingface, I doubt I've had so much fun with the superficial aspects of a Voivod album.

Of course, they'd be pretty hollow without some damn good music, and The Outer Limits provides plenty of it. God, I remember these days, when I could head out to the store on a release date and pretty much count on my favorite bands to release quality albums, evolution or none. For the Canadians, this would be the last of these, for not only was this Snake's intended swan song with the band, but they'd also lose their major label status. Most people in the 90s were far too busy with alternative rock, hip hop, grunge and hardcore music to really give a fuck about the creative side of the metal spectrum, and Voivod were clearly a casualty of this trend, especially when you consider the buzz they had been generating through the latter half of the prior decade. At the very least, though, The Outer Limits sounds like a lot more push was put behind it than Angel Rat, at least in terms of studio work. This sounds like the last album's more muscular brother, with brighter, mightier guitar tones, and a less psychedelic mix fit for the Saturday Night at the Drive In aesthetic that permeates much of the songwriting.

Similar to "Panorama" or "The Prow", you've got some uplifting, energetic tracks here with a few of the most catchy and accessible choruses the band has ever written, namely the opener "Fix My Heart" and closer "We Are Not Alone", such proud exclamations of joy for the band's lyrical niche that I practically had to restrain myself from crying out in happiness. Piggy's got a lot of flare on this record, almost like he's at long last taking his place as an 80s guitar god, so expect some craziness in both the rhythms and blaring leads, often with a bluesy hue. The Outer Limits is indeed more 'metal' than the two previous albums, but that qualification takes the place of a lot of driving, positive melodies and not so much the murk and groove of a Dimension Hatröss. That said, there are still plenty of creepy moments, or vivid atmospheric tweaks to his performance that it feels like a Voivod, just a Voivod that was cheery to head out the studio and lay these tracks down.

Though he was only a session musician, Pierre St. Jean keeps the bass busy enough that we can forget and forgive the lack of Blacky. The tones are cleaner all around, with less distortion but plenty of low end presence thanks to the higher pitch of the guitars. Drums are very polished here, but more powerfully driven than on Angel Rat, and Snake brings some of that due aggression back from, say, Nothingface. The best moments on this album are admittedly the atmospheric guitar passages reigning cuts like "Moonbeam Rider" and "Jack Luminous", but for 54 minutes, there are few moments worth complaining about. Voivod return to the Pink Floyd cover well with a brazen rendition of "The Nile Song", and while it lacks that hypnotic splendor of "Astronomy Domine", it's nonetheless quite excellent.

The crowning gem, for myself, was the 17 minute epic "Jack Luminous", the tale of a TV-faced invader from beyond the stars who is coming for Earth, and the disenfranchised alien who comes to warn us. First time the band ever attempting such a swollen concept within just one track, and it truly pays off without ever growing dull. Otherwise, you've got plenty of cuts about kitschy, out of this world themes like rocket ships, time travel and, perhaps more ominously, a near abandoned space hulk soaring through the void. This might just stand as one of the band's most professional sounding records, but it's brighter, carefree aspects and looser concepts haven't stood the ages with me like some of its predecessors. That said, it's a Voivod album. A great one. Not much else there sounds like it, and well worth owning, 3D glasses or not.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (give me a reason to stay)