Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hooded Menace - Effigies of Evil (2012)

Don't be concerned that Effigies of Evil is Hooded Menace's third album for a third, different label, because this is surely more of a case of everyone wanting a bite rather than nobody wanting two. Some of the crushing novelty of this Finnish act might have worn off here, but once again we're faced with a band which takes its craft seriously, so much so that it writes better within this doom/death horror niche than just about any other active group I can think of. With the Relapse deal, they can likely reach an even broader base than before, and Effigies of Evil is perhaps their most accessible record yet, upping the variety of grooves, lurches and swaggers that characterize their approach to this beloved hybridization of extremes.

What has always struck me the most, and struck gold, about Lasse Pyykkö's dominant project, is the attention to detail through the riffing. Many death/doom acts are content to simply bludgeon along in the derivative configuration laid out by genre forefathers Paradise Lost, Asphyx and My Dying Bride, but Hooded Menace always has a lot of creativity and balance between the firmer mutes and grooves and the pronounced use of melodies and harmonies. There were rarely any snub-nosed, one dimensional moments marring their sophomore Never Cross the Dead, and the same must be said for its successor. Tinnier, clean guitars will be interspersed to break up harder metallic components, and even at the riffing's most basest impulse, the drawn out, almost funereal sounding slow sequences, they manage to break some fresh soil with haunting, memorable melodies. Even the 10+ minute opener "Vortex Macabre" eschews any hint of ennui when all its parts simply make a lot of sense together, and the presence of leads and myriad riff patterns ensures that you can forge through this piece repeatedly without succumbing to vapid exhaustion.

The vocals haven't changed much, they're still the same drawn out gutturals, but there's enough breath and sustain to the growls that they, too, elude the tedium I often associate with this style. They're admittedly not the most unique or compelling element to the music; that honor is bestowed upon the melodies, which achieve a great balance of Paradise Lost solemnity and the brazen harmony one might place in the mid 80s with bands like Metallica at their prime. Tracks like "Curses Scribed in Gore" or the ambient/sampled finale "Retribution in Eternity" even show a resplendent grasp of atonal majesty that hints at a deeper, more surreal level of atmosphere. The bass provides a solid pummeling, thick enough that it holds its own against the weight of the guitars, even if the lines aren't as well composed. Drums are polished, loud and perfectly fit to the slower, rock-borne Candlemass grooves that dominate much of the 50 minutes. If you've heard either of the prior full-lengths, then you know this is a band that doesn't exactly aim itself with the rawest trajectory: the tones are voluptuous and clear, but don't sacrifice heaviness in the process.

All told, this is nearly on par with the band's debut Fulfill the Curse, though I found myself drawn more to the songs on Never Cross the Dead. This time out the music just wasn't as creepy, despite the high level of compositional awareness. It's pretty consistent throughout, with no tracks really dominating others in quality, but all steady and varied enough to engage the listener. Samples are used sparingly, and there are at least a dozen or so highlight melodies dispersed through this that feel appropriately climactic and melancholic. Fans of Gothic/doom the likes of which are most common from Britain in the 90s, or the wave of Swedish bands like Isole who have picked up the torch, will have a blast with this and the earlier works, and those who enjoy well produced death metal with no shortage of melody and production will also dig it.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cradle of Filth - The Manticore and Other Horrors (2012)

England's eloquent Gothic horror metallers Cradle of Filth have been on quite a tear of late, producing two of their most potent and practiced albums in Godspeed on the Devil's Thunder (2008) and its successor,  Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa (2010); at least since striking a creative peak with their lush Lovecraftian homage Midian in 2000. I'd even go so far as to say that the band's steady determination and consistency have won them back quite a number of naysayers who quickly dropped the group from rotation once it became 'cool' to do so. At least I know a few people whose averted fondness for their early albums has come full circle these past few outings. Love their image, loathe their image, envy the fact that succulent, saucy faux-Goth fan(g)girls will cuddle up to their records while you spend Friday night at home with your right hand (or left...or...both). Cradle of Filth could be geriatric gargoyles spit upon IV tubes and piss-pots: their music speaks for itself, and if anything, their tenth opus, The Manticore and Other Horrors goes further to cement their commitment to continued quality.

This is, at its heart, a bit less of a flagrant, flamboyant odious operetta than its recent siblings, but probably only because the band has become stronger at incorporating its symphonic textures into the metal riffing. To whit, it's not as seeped in boisterous orchestration as Dimmu Borgir's latest, or as overtly excessive as the latest Fleshgod Apocalypse; but rather tastefully slung over pieces like "Illicitus" or "Frost on Her Pillow" with everything from a flute-like presence to a simmering full-string bombast (as in the full haunted house treatment of intro "The Unveiling of O" or the piano-veiled outro "Sinfonia"). Choir vocals here are well arranged as a backbone rather than attempting to steamroll the core instrumentation, and the sultry female lines provided by Lucy Atkins, returning from the prior album, are also well fitted and far less evocative of the lamer drama present on some of Sarah Jezebel Diva's collaborations with the band. Most impressively, Dani Filth has really dialed back his performance to cut out much of the excess that alienated many from his timber in the past. You'll still get a taste or two of his impish, wheezing petulance, or a shrill scream, but he lays most of the verses out with a more smoky, laid back menace, or brief snips of gutturals, both of which are in truth far more intimidating. Lyrically, he's still one of the best penmen of poetic, horror tinted imagery strong on antiquity, myth and seduction:

Vast boudoirs here
Are mastered by the minatory
Walls plastered with the base relief
Of baser glories

What many will undoubtedly champion here, though, is the rock solid riffing foundation being laid out by Paul Allender, who has essentially bridged the gap between pure thrashing violation, an almost epic 'power metal' influenced architecture molded into the orchestration, and the expectant walls of tremolo picking or Nordic Bathory-styled chord batteries we usually associate with black metal in the 90s (beyond the more punkish Hellhammer/Mayhem roots). Granted, there are such an array of styles at war with one another in this music that you'll get no argument from me that it doesn't belong in any one category beyond the basic necessities for filing. On the whole, I wouldn't claim that all of the guitar progressions really stick. There are a few of the more base, thrash-punk like pummeling patterns that feel derivative or uninteresting in their payoff, but the guy is constantly firing off enough melody, business and variation that you'll never have to sit through any of the duller implements for more than a few measures. He's even got some progressive metal tendencies threaded through numbers like the titular "Manticore" which really play into the vastness of the experience.

The bass playing has never been a prime factor in Cradle's sound, and it hasn't much improved on this record beyond the fact that the instrument pumps along dutifully to the rhythm guitar. As for Marthus though, he's really cemented his seat behind the drums, laying out as professional and persistent thundering as you are apt to hear on such a higher visibility extreme metal record, even if the snares and kicks feel a bit too sterile to really feel them below the weight of the keys and guitars; and of course, he's also primarily responsible for most of the former, so the guy's just really earned his keep here these past six years, helping Dani emerge from the mediocrity of records like Thornography and Nymphetamine with class. On the whole, they've put the usual enormous level of work into the structure and production of the record, so that whether the group is hammering out some over the top orchestrated anthem with choir, or swerving into a more humble breakdown, it's all quite level and equidistant from the listener's ears. The choral contributions are really involved here, and it took a few listens to place them all, since they're not so brazen in the mix; but choices like the keening wail in "For Your Vulgar Delectation" really add a lot to the muscular drive of the guitar.

Now, as consistent and versed as this album comes off, it's not likely to place among my favorites in their lexicon, primarily because there aren't individual songs here that really stand to memory on the level of classics like "Beauty Slept in Sodom", "Desire in Violent Overture", "The Forest Whispers My Name" or "Her Ghost in the Fog". In fact, after about a dozen listens through the substantial 52 minutes of content, I couldn't name any of these to a career highlight reel. In that way, it reminds me a lot of Godspeed on the Devil's Thunder, an album which reinstated my own interest in their music but didn't exactly clout me over the head with fond impressions. As is often the case, I think I found the lyrics more compelling than the riffs or choruses. Yet, as a unified work, there's really no weak point to any one component. Whether I were to count myself among the band's legion detractors, or swooning vamps, the effort Cradle of Filth puts into their writing and themes is clear, and inspirational. Everything sounds seasoned, in place, and busy enough that The Manticore and Other Horrors should warrant numerous, if not infinite migrations off the CD shelf. Not their best (Midian would like a word), but easily on par with titles like Cruelty and the Beast or Darkly, Darkly Venus Aversa.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (a beast of naked flame)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Ghoul - We Came for the Dead!!! (2002)

By no means a parody, We Came for the Dead!!! is like a mischievous little brother for Carcass's Heartwork, a chunky and abusive riff-fest which honors its overt British influence by stamping on an incredibly hammy and entertaining shock rock concept. Some will no doubt scoff at this band's underlying 'Creepsylvanian' theme of morbid, hooded serial killers steeped in campy Halloween horror and cult cinema, much like there are basement boggarts who will whine over Finntroll or GWAR  or any other costumed gimmick act (who back their image with appropriate music) while they fidget with the sticks/rulers wedged firmly into their rectums. Personally, I think this shit is amusing, and whereas the music and lyrics might resemble a good number of their Razorback kin, or the Californian act Exhumed, the fact that they've put so much effort into the cheap, consistent image of plaids, chainsaws and stage gimmicks, and created their 'own' horror story, rather than just endlessly cycle cult film samples as intros and lyrical inspirations, really earns a blood-smeared stamp of approval.

This was the group's first full-length after the Ghoul's Night Out demo (2001), and includes most of that material and a bunch of newer originals. While they weren't the first band necessarily to dive into this horror kitsch, or even the first on Razorback, they wound as arguably the band's biggest success story during that critical period in the early 'oughts when the label was emerging as an underground feast of imagery and 90s styled extremity, in stark opposition to the tech oriented Florida/NY styled brutality so popular elsewhere in the States. For good reason: We Came for the Dead!!! is not only chock full o'guts and riffs, written almost on the level of groups like Impaled and Exhumed (who some of these 'anonymous' characters have been involved with), but it sounds fantastic, and to think this is likely their 'rawest' full-length. Loud, crunchy guitars belt out hybrids of death and thrash/hardcore progressions, with a lot of muscle to the mid-paced chug, and plenty of airy, creepy leads to distract the listener from the rhythmic matrix. Drums have a lot of clap and splash to them, supportive of the guitars, and the bass does little other than pummel away the same notes that the guitars are usually spewing forth, but all in all it sounds really bright and entertaining when slathered in the mix of growls, snarls and sewer-ghoul which combined sound like an update of Symphonies of Sickness (albeit with a higher ratio of those lower, garbled gutturals).

We Came for the Dead!!! doesn't take as many liberties as its successor Maniaxe, which is a more varied album. You won't hear undead surfer tunes, just a steady barrage of organ-churning, aggressive riffs over blasted beats or thrash/rock rhythms. These are not complex compositions, but sort of cashing in on the whole retro thrash flavor while offering prostrate fellatio to Carcass, Impetigo and Repulsion. If broken down into individual riff patterns, there's nothing necessarily astounding or truly sticking to the ear, but when placed alongside the charismatic vocals and the occasional atmospheric bits, like the atonal organ ambiance that inaugurates "From Death to Dust", or the great Vincent Price sample that comes out of nowhere, it all wraps together into this mummified map of amusement. Occasionally the lyrics are self-referential to the characters the musicians have created, but usually they're about drinking the body fluids of rotting corpses, robbing graveyards and...collecting lots of cool dead stuff to decorate their crypts in Creepsylvania. It's aesthetically a hodgepodge of the Munsters, the Hammer Horror back-log, B-rate 80s slashers and a bit of Chris Barnes/Cannibal Corpse influence.

I have to say, as satisfied as I was that they got the guitars right in the intro, the additional cover of "Skull Beneath the Skin" from Megadeth's debut is probably my least favorite track here. They've done well to make it 'their own', but the riff progressions just don't match up with the Ghoulish frolicking of the originals, and so it seems a little tacked on. Otherwise, this is spot fucking on, with songs like "Tomb After Tomb", "Coffins and Curious" and the title track numbering among my faves in their catalog. I wouldn't go so far as to say this is a match for something like Exhumed's Slaughtercult, which is for me the album I rather wish Carcass would have written (before or after) Heartwork, but it's a loving spin on the tradition which does manage to best most of the other sound-a-likes. If you're into General Surgery, Carcass, Regurgitation, Impetigo, Autopsy, Blood Freak, or Impaled and you're not averse to the guys playing dress-up here, then this is well worth owning, and in my estimation nearly on par with its more quirky and unusual successor. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that these Ghoul two records, along with the debuts from Hooded Menace and Rogga's Revolting, comprise the very best I've heard from Razorback.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (and the dead we will take)

Frightmare - Midnight Murder Mania (2003)

Midnight Murder Mania might seem like a relatively typical release for Razorback Recordings, but in actuality it's one of the label's seminal releases, dropped just as the label was reaching its stride in the earlier 21st century. Alongside Ghoul, Frightmare was probably one of the most rounded and accessible acts on the label, generated a fair share of buzz (at least among my circle), and they also had this 'home court' advantage for the niche, with a roster that included members of other Razorback and associated acts like Lord Gore, Splatterhouse, Whore, Engorged and Blood Freak; including Maniac Neil himself. Basically the lineup was a raucous rogues' gallery of that Portland, Oregon splatter death/grind scene, and this explains why the actual musical output bears so much similarity to those other acts.

Midnight Murder Mania is probably one of the most earnest and entertaining paeans to the fictional killers of slasher cinema in my metal collection, with most of its original tracks adhering to specific flicks like Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, Slumber Party Massacre, Black Christmas, and Maniac. A heavy emphasis on the 80s. A few movie samples are included, but unlike some of their peers in this field they never tend to overdo it, letting the music perform its own hatchet to the faces of the audience. As usual, the music is a mixture of grind and death metal aesthetics with some thrash and punk influences, and it never takes itself too seriously, thanks to the lightheartedness created by the band's mesh of toilet flush gutturals, sinister Carcass snarls and haughty barked lyrics with feel a little 'tough guy'. I've never found the band to be quite so riffy as Ghoul in terms of overall quality, but they incorporate loads of leads, tapped melodies and other techniques to keep the music fresh, varied and multi-dimensional rather than heaping on saturated and banal deathgrind riffs you've heard a million times before.

Structurally there were a lot of riffs in the Carcass (Reek of Putrefaction/Symphonies of Sickness) and Napalm Death (1989-1990), and the band thrives at an uptempo-to-blasting pace with only a few notable breakdowns worth their salt. Most of the rhythm guitars aren't incredibly interesting on their own, but once the energetic drumming and hoarse barks and gargles are applied they definitely cut like a trick or treat bag full of taffy-coated razor blades. The instruments are all quite clear, with a nice churning tone to the tremolo mute riffs and a deep, if not all that exciting bass with an appropriate fuzz. They implement a few brutal 90s death techniques like squeals boringly in pieces like "Slasher Holocaust", but almost without exception the highlights here in the songwriting are all leads or melodies that outclass the rhythms. Drummer is pretty damn good, blasting and grinding with tenacity, though often at the expense of interesting beats or fills.

I doubt this debut was written with the intention of taking over the's functional, fun and remains so almost a decade after its release, but I wouldn't place it past the first few Ghoul outings; more on the level of Splatterhouse's The House That Dead Built. The cover of the Misfits' "Devilock" is translated into a more potent, pummeling form reminiscent of the Frightmare originals, so its a worthwhile conclusion even if this treatment doesn't quite ramp up its energy level or impact. In summation, Midnight Murder Mania's a disc worth picking up if you're interesting in goofy goregrind, though it's not quite that intense. A more comic adaptation of Carcass, perhaps, or the usual Razorback crowd who likely need no introduction. A few stabbings short of setting serial killer records, but you wouldn't want to lock yourself away in a vacation cabin with a few friends if this was anywhere in a 30 mile radius.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, October 26, 2012

Intestinal - The Rottening (2012)

Swedish stormers Intestinal might not do anything out of the ordinary on their sophomore The Rottening, but they play the middle of the road rather well, honoring their obvious local influences while not clinging to the sound of any one in particular to the point that they sound balefully derivative. Funny enough, the cover is highly reminiscent of the earlier Cannibal Corpse works, and I half expected this to sound like Tombs of the Mutilated or Butchered at Birth, but it's got far more in common with Unleashed, Dismember, Grave, Entombed, perhaps even a bit of British brawlers Bolt Thrower in the crushing syncopation of drums and guitars or the loping, muscular grooves that are quite common through the songs.

They're using the vast tone you'd expect from their countrymen in the fields of death metal and d-beat, but they pour on a lot of raucous oozing tremolo lines that recall Left Hand Path or Like an Everflowing Stream. The riffs here are nothing remarkable in terms of their sonic sculpture, but all are pretty tried and true patterns that they vary up enough so the listener is never too bored. The Rottening is best when the band is laying it on thick, like the evil double harmony tremolo riffing in "Flesh for Living" that leads into this creepy, bass-driven segment where they just let these enormous chords breathe out. Unfortunately, the bass is usually relegated to playing along with the guitar, and it's not that distinct other than the album sounds very grounded and low-end. Drums have a splashy, lighter feel to them, but you can hear the kicks and snares quite well though the double-bass or blasted segments. It's obvious, though, that the guitar was meant to stand front and foremost with that flesh-blazing tone, a pretty typical trait for Swedish death records. This is another band that also seems to shy away from much lead work. Oh, they exist in small quantities (as in the song "Torture"), but I think a lot more ripping, squealing, brief flights would have rounded out the swarthy matrix of chords.

As it stands, the album isn't incredibly atmospheric beyond a sample, harmony or slower riff here or there. The vocals are a bit more brutal-edged than you'd expect of an L-G Petrov or Matti Kärki; instead, they've got more of an ominous, Karl Willetts nihilistic phrasing to them, if more gravel-gargling. Though it's not as dark overall, one of the band's this was bringing me back to Tormented, another Swedish group who had a similar approach to riffing on their debut Rotten Death. The Rottening is slightly less churning and morbid in flavor, and the note progressions not quite so excellent, but if you're seeking out more soil-churning, grave borne death metal that dwells within the parameters of its forebears. I was fond of the album after my first few spins, primarily because of the huge sounds of the guitar, but it lost a little luster after that. Anyway, The Rottening is competent enough, and fans of acts like Tormented, Ribspreader, Paganizer, Mr. Death or the German band Deserted Fear should certainly give this a whirl.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Lividity - ...'Til Only the Sick Remain (2002)

As common as this whole blood, cunts and semen schtick has become in the wake of Cannibal Corpse, Lividity can certainly hold claim to the title of Midwestern Maestros of Misogyny, because their music has long explored the themes of violence and pornography to a fault, and very often paired the two into an aural snuff film. Though the band had formed in the early 90s and pretty prolific that decade in terms of EPs, splits and deep underground live recordings, 'Til Only the Sick Remain was only their sophomore studio outing, following up The Age of Clitoral Decay from 2000. Lividity are honestly a band that has grown better with age, probably peaking with their most recent record To Desecrate and Defile (2009), but there is certainly an audience for their past works.

The obvious comparison is Cannibal Corpse here, with a similar momentum to that group's faster material on the first 3-4 albums, but Lividity manage to sound somewhat more than surgical thanks to that clean and thinner tone they use when nailing out muted tremolo patterns. These are balanced off with a lot of leaden, dense grooves that recall Obituary and their ilk, but once again pretty polished in terms of the mix. The vox fuse an irascible snarl with a deeper, toilet bowl guttural timber, not unlike Deicide but far more brutal and barbarian in delivery. All told, I would say that the riffs to songs like "Unrelenting Homicide", "Snack Size Tits" and "A Woman's Place is on My Face" are reasonable well structured, with a balance between the blasted elements and chugging breakdowns, and you can envision that their live sets went over quite well since they throw the pit more than a few bones. The bass lines and tone aren't all that impressive, but you can hear them rather well enough. The drums feel a little too sterile in my opinion, so clean are the kicks that I could grill and eat my breakfast off them...and there's isn't much atmosphere, but the band compensates by kicking up some intricate leads, and half-decent riffs that don't feel wholly derivative.

As usual, you've got a load of perverse samples here, some of which are pretty obvious like Cheech Marin's 'Chet Pussy' character in From Dusk Till Dawn, used to 'glaze' the intro to "Second Cumming (Pussy Lover Part 2)". They're funny enough I suppose, and well matched to lyrics like 'cum will keep spurting till my nuts dry up' or 'dick now throbbing in your face' which are about as metaphysical as Lividity is going to get here, not much more than the rantings of some serial killer-crazed, porn-addicted teenager in his junior high notebook (someone call a counselor!) Feminists, PMRC expats and Bible thumping soccer moms will probably want to avoid this, as its obsession with the violation and mutilation of various bodily 'inputs' is both cruel and sovereign, but those accustomed to the genital goregrind and desensitized brutality will find nothing out of the ordinary. Business as usual, with a blood splattered dildo. I think what holds me back from really appreciating this is the production, and the general lack of face melting riffs, but 'Til Only the Sick Remain is at least true to its name, and not an incompetent 30 minutes of morbid Midwestern masturbation from the same scene that produced freaks like Deaden, CorpseVomit and Fleshgrind.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (oh, how it excites me)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mortician - Hacked Up for Barbecue (1996)

In a medium where musicianship, variation, atmosphere and extremity all contribute to a band's broader appeal, it's very easy to understand why a group like Mortician is so often raked over the coals. No one can really argue that the fourth characteristic is in ample supply on their records, but at the same time, the first three are often severely lacking. This is not an act which prides itself on melody, memorable songwriting or accessibility to a wide fan base, but instead on unswerving, unapologetic momentum and gruesome lyrical themes which explore the primary and primitive motives of extreme gore and horror. That said, any childishness inherent in the compositional style is deliberate to its concept: it becomes difficult to fault Will Rahmer and Roger Beaujard for a lack of innovation or nuance to their writing, when this very aesthetic of saturated primacy is in of itself distinct.

Hacked Up for Barbecue was the first proper full-length recording after a trio of cult EP predecessors, to which it stylistically adheres, though the production is taken to a new level. The low-tuned, pummeling palm muted grooves hail from a convocation of early grindcore (Napalm Death, Repulsion and even Carcass) influences and a dash of Hellhammer's infernal darkness. Sodden, cheapened death/thrash sequences very often erupt in the midst of some loping, roiling chassis, and there are numerous occasions of accelerated tremolo picking which is sure to honor Mortician's Floridian forebears like Obituary or 80s Death. All of this is enveloped in a muscular tone with a lot of bite to the mutes, to the point that even the simplest and familiar riffing sequences experience a new sense of grave-dirt richness. But perhaps more distinguished is the speaker rupturing bass sound, soaked in so much distortion that it sounds like static in a submarine, or like mud being slowly churned into a fine paste. If you've experienced a lot of noise music, Rahmer's tone is very much compared to much of the low-end filtering that often occurs. It's not impossible to follow his note configurations, which generally mirror the guitar, but it adds this real sense of ominous sickness to the mix.

The drums on this and many Mortician records have been programmed by Beaujard, but their hostile and mechanical nature has somehow always worked within the context of this very unnatural songwriting. The combination of these soulless beats with the mucky bass and depraved guitars often recalls industrial greats like Godflesh, but this comparison ends with Rahmer's monotonous, low-end barbarian growls, which could probably be attached to some sonic voice and used to burst kidney or gall stones. There's not much variation here, a fact that often draws the ire of many listeners, but Rahmer's inflection is so flush with the surrounding guitars and bass-lines that I just couldn't imagine it any other way. He is what he is, and he's never pretended otherwise. Their effect might come off sillier than, say, Craig Pillard's stint with Incantation in the early 90s, but there's no question that they provide most of what we'd consider 'atmosphere' to this music. If there were a lot more than an occasional rasp or scream, for example, it likely wouldn't possess that same, thuggish charm or consistency.

Like Impetigo, Mortician was a band that relied very heavily on samples to break up the brunt of the riffs' sameness, to the point that you can gather up your horror buff buddies and play a game of 'name that film' as you listen through. I'll give the duo some credit, because they're quite good at picking bits of slasher flicks, cult sci-fi/exploitation and other chillers to intro particular tracks, and they don't use these 100% of the time. In particular, a lot of the shorter pieces like "Abolition" and "Inquisition" eschew the ritual entirely to get a jump start on beating your face in with their robust, necrotic sludge tones. But where they work, they really work, like how the phone conversation from When a Stranger Calls inaugurates "Bloodcraving" (and the whole album), or the narration from The Road Warrior sets up "Apocalyptic Devastation". The lyrics are all quite focused on simplistic, to the point imagery, influenced heavy by how they were handled on a record like Death's Scream Bloody Gore. Often pitifully brief even in a longer track ("Necrocannibal)", but nonetheless an aesthetic match for the under-sculpted music.

Unlike Ultimo Mondo Cannibale, which lost me due to the rather uninspired riffing patterns, Hacked Up for Barbecue manages to hold my interest due largely to that rich, juicy tone, like a fat undead steak that I want to plunge my rotten teeth into. The actual chord progressions aren't incredibly interesting, and rarely does a single tune contain more than 2-3 of them, often played at varying speeds alternated between chord and palm mutes of the same sequence. Still, they do choose some opportune moments to break out into some saucy, corpulent thrashing or virulent death metal assaults that break up the predictability of the big, deep grooves Mortician subsists upon. As a result of these and the well implemented samples, Hacked Up doesn't ever grow tiring or exceedingly repetitive through the 50 minutes and 24 tracks...

Granted, this album could be better, with more solid riffs per song, and perhaps a few wilder leads or eerie, atonal melodies produced through the guitars that would give it a much desired extra dimension without it abandoning that signature, psychotic bluntness, that direct attitude. Their 2001 effort Domain of Death is the album I find myself most returning to, but I have to say Hacked Up for Barbecue places a strong second in their discography. It's not a remarkable effort by any means, but there's something so livid and fresh about its approach, and the varied ingredients congeal into an 'endearing' neolithic sense of purity and hostility. I've opened up for the band some years ago, and seen them perform other times, and they really carry this primal grind into the live setting, only it's loud enough that you might start defecating your own innards. Not much sentience or wit beyond a schoolground bully who finally finds himself with a meat cleaver in his grasp, while the teachers all have their backs turned...but then, to the sicker among us, is that not entertainment?

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (sliced up thin)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mercyful Fate - Melissa (1983)

Perhaps the only tangible quip I could launch against Mercyful Fate's seminal debut is that, compared to the King's next six full-length records (from both Fate and his solo band), I hold Melissa in somewhat lesser regard, owed largely to the fact that the sum songwriting is marginally less infectious. Just about every stylistic die had been cast here which would serve Kim and his companions for decades hence, but in terms of sheer riffing stickiness and atmosphere, this album just doesn't have the same gallery of chops and leads as its successors. That being said, this album still deserves the forklifts of accolades dumped upon it, because Melissa remains one of the highlights of 1983. One of the better overall European metal records of the earlier 80s outside England. Heck, apart from Don't Break the Oath and the band's more divisive reunion disc In the Shadows (which I happen to favor, others not so much), it's probably the one mandatory purchase in their discography.

Melissa was actually my second exposure to Fate, having first bought the sophomore at a young age, and I admit it was underwhelming at first, if only because I had enjoyed the other tape more. But not only does this debut age well, it has managed to never accumulate much dust on its surface in going on thirty fucking years! Melissa still feels fresh and innovative, a more complex offering than what most of the group's British peers were capable of writing at the time, and also a hallmark of strong production values and deft musicianship. It might have taken time for some to adjust to King's eery and unnerving falsetto shrieks, which he lays on pretty thick throughout this, but there is no debating the amount of effort and professionalism in the compositions. Thomas Holm's cover art is remarkable, a screaming skull that bleeds hellish red light and gives a sense of sheer monument. The lyrics are maniacal blueprints for many themes Diamond would later flesh out in both his bands, with an emphasis on history, archaic horror, and occult topics fundamental to King's later pursuance of LaVeyan Satanism.

Pacing and production are key here, integrating the critical moments of atmosphere with the thundering, primal speed metal melodies and swaggering grooves that would come to define the group's sound as it supported the chilling vocals, which in metal music had simply never gone so 'over the top' without losing the gravity and impact of their subject matter. I realize that many outsiders to the band's sound, or power/heavy metal screamers in general (Halford, Dickinson, etc) must immediately find this vocal inflection comical in nature, but there was never anything remotely 'funny' about Diamond on these old Mercyful Fate records, he was a shrill specter that I took quite seriously even if I had to adjust myself to this timbre as the primary vocal tone. He's got his grittier end, mid range register also, but it's not quite so distinct. I wouldn't say that the melodies he summons up here are nearly so unforgettable as those he'd weave in later to several of the King Diamond concept albums, but for '83 this was pretty damn ambitious even when you placed it up against a record like Piece of Mind, Bark at the Moon or Balls to the Wall.

The instruments also sound stunning, with the better balance and clarity than the band's eponymous 1982 EP. Kim Jensen's drums are loaded, with a nice slap to the snare and some great reverb to the kicks that really measure off well against the guitars, though the cymbals and hi-hat seem a fraction more muffled. The bass lines are enormous and muscular when needed, like the close of "Evil" where the guitars remind me of the primary riff in Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" before that charging power metal finale; but Timi Hansen also slinks along with a creepy class through the record's more atmospheric climes. As for the guitars, they are just beyond compare, with an effectively chunky fiber to them that allows the looser, glimmering leads to wail and writhe above and really stand out. They're also incredibly busy here, constantly twisting and turning into some new 'banger of a riff and really controlling the tempo for King's lyrical tales. The leads are usually quite brief through the album, but none of the notes seem misplaced, and I'd rather a band give me some spikes of emotion and harmony rather than indulge themselves to the detriment of the songwriting.

"Curse of the Pharaohs" is a real bruiser, and one of my all time favorite Mercyful Fate tracks, but I'd have to give "Black Funeral" the pick of the litter, a thundering and frightening piece where King's voice and the triplet rhythm collide in a moonlit, haunted tower. "Satan's Fall" is the most ambitious in terms of its length and construction, with an opening segment that feels like an occult "Immigrant Song", and some grimy and shuffling riffs deeper in which are among Shermann and Denner's most inventive (Jensen also shines here with a few cadences in the bridge). That said, there's nothing here which even hinges on 'bad'. Pieces like "At the Sound of the Demon Bell" and the bluesy "Melissa" itself might not resonate with me as much as "Gypsy", "Night of the Unborn" or "A Dangerous Meeting", but they're all well written and stuffed to the ghastly gills with conscious effort and variation. Fuck, I listen to these songs now in 2012 and they still don't give me any impression of becoming 'dated', though as a huge King Diamond nutter I'm understandably biased.

No, it's not the eeriest record in the Danes' lexicon, but along with the rest of Diamond's works from '84-'90, this is well worth breaking out for another Halloween spin, since it's lyrics and concepts of witches, Satan and the restless dead make a great accompaniment to the aesthetics of the holiday. Granted, there's nothing so obviously cheesy or 'haunted house' here like you'd find on a Cradle of Filth disc, but instead more of a bite out of classic horror antiquity, a spiritual celebration of black/white films with Lugosi and Karloff. Like Dracula, The Wolfman or The Mummy is to nearly a century of film scares, this record serves as an aesthetic monument to its medium. How many heavy, power, speed, thrash, black and doom metal acts owe so very much to Mercyful Fate? The answer would be next to incalculable, so I'll just stick to 'all of them' and you can mark your own exceptions to the rule.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (you were mine)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Avulsed - Carnivoracity (1995)

If we were to hold elections for a sole 'ambassador' of death metal from each of the nations in the civilized world, massive debates would ensue in countries like Sweden, England or the USA, where the scenes saw great success in the 80s and 90s and built many stable careers. Not so much the case for other territories, and for Spain, my ballot would very clearly be cast for none other than Dave Rotten, the man behind not only the Repulse and Xtreem Records imprints, and thus a crucial component of his scene, but two outstanding acts in Putrevore (his collaboration with the prolific 'Rogga' of Sweden), and the far longer enduring Avulsed, the latter of which got its start through a number of unsigned demos and then the 1994 EP Carnivoracity, which was later reissued through his own Repulse brand and expanded to 'full-length' status with the inclusion of live material.

Admittedly, this was a pretty rough release, and Avulsed has since had a number of superior offerings, many significantly so. The core of this experience is a pair of originals and a cover of the Chilean Pentagram's "Demoniac Possession". While the Spaniards would later take on a more brutal and busied mold for their material, Carnivoracity is quite contentedly old school in nature, with loads of tremolo picked riffs and a bruising back end that very much remind me of Death's Scream Bloody Gore or Autopsy's Severed Survival. Raw and flesh ripping in delivery, but the actual riffs themselves are not so haunting as many that had preceded them from Floridian antiquity. The vocals are a bit different, choppier and garbled guttural grunts that were more ominous and otherworldly than several of their influences, but the most surprising and impressive element to this is how its titular epic is cut into by this lurching, creepy death/doom passage with violins which reminds me of My Dying Bride or Paradise Lost... Otherwise, I just wasn't floored by the musical content or the ruddy production; even the drums, while able and loud, are sort of dingy.

The live addictions to the album, which comprise well over half of its content, also have some problems of their own, in the tinny guitars which are drowned out by Rotten's barking and the drums. You can make out the bass here, and most of the note structures, but it sounds like noise being flushed through the ears, even if the performance seems like it must have been tight for the audience at the Trallametal Fest (Granada) where the material was recorded. Here you'll get the two originals from the EP ("Carnivoracity" is shortened) in their stage personas, and a number of others from the following album Eminence in Putrescence (1996), but the fact that there is so much live and so little studio content definitely gives it a skewed sensibility, though undoubtedly the Repulse version of Carnivoracity is a better deal for the buck than the rarer, original EP. There are also a number of additional covers among the live tunes. The Slayer/Brujeria medley would be pretty obvious, but they also perform Demigod's "As I Behold I Despise", which took me completely by surprise! Dave and company know their shit...and always have.

This is competent if derivative material, but any fan of Rotten would likely attest that it's mere groundwork for the far stronger efforts to come, and Avulsed have since grown into a reliable source for goresoaked escapism. As it stands, the curious might wanna pass on this and head straight for their 1999 effort Stabwound Orgasm, but in truth their 21st century albums like Yearning for the Grotesque and Gorespattered Suicide have delivered the most carnage for my dollar. Some of the best Spanish death metal alongside Human Mincer and Machetazo. Also, Rotten's vocals on the Putrevore records are fucking outstanding, so check them out if you haven't already.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10] (only a piece of flesh)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Impetigo - Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (1990)

For all its charms, Ultimo Mondo Cannibale is the sort of album of which I've always felt its actual influence exponentially trumped the actual quality of its content. Not only was this arguably the most important disc in the whole Wild Rags catalog (that shifty Californian label which was so prominent in the 90s), but a blueprint that countless brutal death, splatter thrash and goregrind acts would reference when forging their gruesome careers over the ensuing decades. Hell, just about the entire Razorback Recordings roster owes much of its aesthetic gimmickry to this very CD, even if musically Impetigo's 'offspring' might derive just as much from Carcass, Autopsy, Death, Obituary and the like. That label even did a reissue of this. Thanks to its handy chronological placement and persistent cult horror themes, I am not surprised that Ultimo Mondo Cannibale has developed into one of the most impersonated and worshiped records in its entire grisly pantheon.

Even upon viewing the album, you could tell it was going to rank among the more extreme efforts of its day, but I'd say this was achieved more through the lyrics, sample choices and Italian cannibal/exploitation cover art. By 1990, really, who had seen a more repulsive and disgusting film than something like 1980's Cannibal Holocaust, which this seems to reference directly? The samples of torture, suffering and zombie speculation are quite substantial, and used to great effect, in fact I found them the most fascinating aspect of the album, and without a doubt they (along with others like Mortician) kicked off the decades long trend of borrowing audio from cult cinema, something numerous bands have gone over the top with in just about every song. The lyrics are in general well written, a little more 'descriptive' than Cannibal Corpse or Mortician on their earlier recordings; but there are points on the debut, like "Bitch Death Teenage Mucous Monster From Hell" where they take on a more primitive, punk-splatter attitude for laughs, so there's a bit of inconsistency in how much pathos and brutality one is going to take away from this...

The vocals, too, were well ahead of their time. Sure we had John Tardy, Chuck Schuldiner, Chris Reifert and Martin van Drunen out their painting our ears with their ghastly inflections, but Impetigo was way, way over the top. Spunk-guzzling garbled growls are interspersed with hoarse, haughty barks that would remind me of harder edges thrash acts like Rigor Mortis, while they also incorporated sinister snarls and an even more foundation-rattling guttural which often appears to hilarious effect. Where a lot of the death metal vox of the time felt like they were being hurled at you atmospherically from a creepy cemetery, Stevo Dobbins and his backups felt as if they were mocking you, shouting their lungs out before decapitating you with a chainsaw, and though they've no choice but to feel incredibly tongue in cheek, they're probably a fairly apt representation of a serial killer with a few screws loose. Hell, they even transform the lines at the end of "Unadulterated Brutality" into this weird spoken word sequence above the musical clamor, like a horrific Henry Rollins perversion out to terrify every soccer mom in a hundred mile radius.

While Impetigo were never a 'high budget' sort of band, and would never have even desired such, I do have to say that the production of this debut holds up pretty well. The guitars and bass are thick, muddy and feel like a spiked bludgeon being applied to someone's wet, exposed intestines. The ridiculous vocals are all quite clear, though I occasionally felt they were too loud or dramatic over the instruments. The drums are perhaps the most varied, busy and 'technical' element to the music, with loads of fills in among the brutal blasts or the more mid-paced rock rhythms. It's actually better balanced than an effort like, say, Repulsion's Horrified which had that caustic, buzz saw tone throughout, without losing any of its ability to dig its heels right into your guts and induce vomiting (though that other album is far grimier and superior). The samples are fairly noisy, with clear source hissing, and don't exactly transition well into the music, but at the same time this was a relatively novel practice in metal music in 1990, so there weren't a lot of precedents to follow.

So with all this going for it, where does Ultimo Mondo Cannibale fail me? Simple: the guitar riffs. I have never, in decades, found the chord progressions here to be all that impressive or distinct. The primacy of the patterns is perhaps adequate to the intentions of the music, but it's more or less a smattering of notes that have been mildly altered from Carcass, Death, Napalm Death, Repulsion, and numerous punk and hardcore sources through the 80s. Despite the mesh of thrash and death influences, there is not one point throughout the whole of this album in which a guitar line actually becomes infectious. As a result, I'm left with only the 'dressings' of an entertaining orgy of evisceration, and no actual bloodbath in support. There are occasionally harried periods of tremolo picking intensity, but most are just rather average thrash patterns played at a punk pace. The leads are wild, ratty and entirely forgettable against the meatier rhythm guitars, and there's never any sort of interesting dynamic or atmosphere to speak of. Don't get me wrong, the tunes are pretty brutal for this period and do create a stark contrast to the more technical developments of thrash and death metal taking place, but this sort of caveman approach to writing still would have benefited from better songwriting.

There are also boring little drudge-core vignettes here like "Venereal Warts", "Jane Fonda Sucks Part 2" or the grinding "Heart of Illinois" which are all under a minute in length and completely unnecessary; not to mention they don't always feel thematically flush with their neighbors. I really don't need these wastes of space to assert that Impetigo have a sense of humor; that much is already obvious from the vocals. As a whole, the inclusion of such pieces leaves the impression of a sloppy, undecided effort which still drags its heels behind in cheesy garage grind and doesn't fully commit to a stronger sense of gruesome purpose. Not that it would be a far better record without them, but it would at least feel more cohesive in delivering its already lackluster riff progressions.

Ultimately, Ultimo is just not that special of an album, and beyond a healthy appreciation for its placement in history and commitment to its cult horror/exploitation influences, which exceeded that of most other death metal acts of its day, there is rarely any incentive to listen through it. Albums like Consuming Impulse, Realm of Chaos, Mental Funeral, Symphonies of Sickness, Left Hand Path, and Cause of Death were just so much more compelling and atmospheric musically, sticking with the listener long after the sound was emitted from the speaker. In comparison, Impetigo would just splatter brains and beef against your windshield that were easily enough washed free by turning on the wiper. Its limbs might have grown up and strengthened through future applications of the form, but the roots have long since withered.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10] (prone on the operating table)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Chapel - Satan's Rock 'n 'Roll (2012)

I'm all for bringing back the old school sounds and reliving the pioneer years of metal music, even 'blackening' them with harsher vocals, but the issue a band like Canadians Chapel faces is that its riff selection is too immediately bland to really leave much of any impression. Consider that this band's prime influences like, Venom, Bathory and Motörhead were mastering all of these chains and leathers 30 or more years ago, and Satan's Rock 'n' Roll is just bringing too little to the table. You could take a lot of these very basic, primordial speed metal and rock chord progressions the band implements and very easy change up the notes, layer in some dissonance, some atmosphere, or unexpected patterns, but alas this debut plays it far too straight...and far too safe.

Now, I don't mind so much that the band's lyrical themes are a bunch of retread concepts about Satan, Hell, beer, Satan, blood, and more beer, because that's sort of what one expect in the black/speed/thrash party scene. Similar groups like Midnight and Speedwolf have been tearing up the road with a similar schtick lately, but Chapel are a fraction more bloody and bruising. On the other hand, they're not writing songs on the same level, just sort of cruising along with some fairly effortless chord schematics that do little than offer libations to records like Ace of Spades, Orgasmatron, Welcome to Hell and Exciter's Heavy Metal Maniac. The brash bark of the vocalist here reminds me a little of Cronos and with some of Mille Petrozza's mid-80s bite, but it doesn't have the same character or wickedness. The guitar tone is bold and raw, and the performance is pretty tight all around, but despite a few burning, bluesy twists, and some flighty speed punk passages, there's never much interesting happening that you can't hear coming a mile away. And a mile on this album is...practically the entire album...

The bass tone is swarthy, fuzzy and effectively repulsive, and the drums definitely ramp up the band's energy level to the point that I could never argue their enthusiasm, but overall it's not the production which hinders the Canadians. The lyrics are fairly minimal, but they read like a bunch of buzzwords, cliches, or song titles of their influences, and don't provide any genuinely fucked up, evil imagery beyond what you've already read from Slayer, Venom and just about every thrash, black or death metal band walking in their steps since. On a purely aesthetic plane, I dig what bands like this are all about, but Chapel doesn't take a fresh enough spin on the songs to add to the legacy they are beholden too. For some, that might be enough. Certainly this isn't a bad album that I wanted to hurl into the nearest wastebasket. I doubt I'd mind hearing their music in the background (stage or sound system) if I were drinking at some dive. Yet, for something so obviously inspired, it just doesn't sound 'inspired', it merely takes the blasphemous billy goat by its horns and rides its back into being. Busier and better, distinct riffs would make all the difference here. Even the title is all too obvious and average...and we all know Satan's real rock 'n 'roll is Jerry Lee Lewis.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Anatomia - Shreds of Putrefaction EP (2009)

I've read lots of praise for Anatomia in the past few years, for how they press primacy and psychedelic intricacy into the traditional death/doom mold, but their Shreds of Putrefaction EP is the first time I've actually sat down to spend any serious time with one of the Japanese trio's records, consisting of 4 originals and a Repulsion cover. Right away, I was drawn into the grotesque, understated color palette of purple and green on its cover, and coming away from the listening experience I have to admit they're one of the murkiest sounding bands I've ever heard. Not that this becomes a major hurdle for the music itself, which revels as it soaks in this muddy, primordial aesthetic, but it would be unwise to go into this record expecting the smoother drudgery of the British bands who once pioneered this sound with a Gothic grandeur.

No, this is more of a psychedelic, unusual spin on the grimy death/doom materialized by groups like Winter, Autopsy and Asphyx in the 90s. The most obvious comparison would be their countrymen Coffins, but I actually found Anatomia's compositional style less straightforward. Ruddy, churning chords dominate the very live approximation of the mix, while the drums splash beneath the weight of the grooves. Vocals are a pretty nihilistic, disaffected cross between a bark and a snarl, hacking along like a lung full of blood, but I did not truthfully find them to be all that interesting. Nor did I really enjoy the actual riff selections, which seem as if they've just been changed around from numerous influences and then refashioned. Where the band gets far more fascinating is when they change it up from the general sluggishness. For instance, the doomy bass break in "Morgue of Cannibalism" really sets a creepy mood, and the weird, suppressed, spacy guitar tone that leads off "Suicides" is the sort of effect I wish they'd use more often. To their credit, the band is not exactly the 'slow' sort of doom/death; they mix up tempos well enough that the chord patterns never sag along.

Interestingly, their rendition of "Splattered Cadavers" from Horrified has been transformed into something more befitting their genre, a morbid and repressed feeling, drawn out slog with enormous, crushing guitars. Not that it's got the same charm of the original, but it's a fitting mutation. All in all, the sewer production and chord choices just weren't enough to satisfy me, nor did they ever feel 'evil' enough to live up to that great, gruesome cover artwork. It's heavy as fuck, disgusting and bloodied like a series of slow, wet farts after ingesting shards of broken glass, but all too rarely memorable. The lyrics are really nothing more than a cliched sequence of violence, carnage and horror that have all appeared on many death metal albums. Perhaps this EP wasn't the best place for me to start with them, and a full-length might allow for more of their experimental tendencies since it would have more space than the 20 minutes of this, but even in lieu of its filthy aural aesthetics, Shreds of Putrefaction is pretty bland all around. Didn't hate it, but didn't care for it either.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Zombie Ritual - Night of the Zombie Party (2004)

Even if I'm a little jaded on its 'subject matter', and have been for some time now, Night of the Zombie Party looks like the sort of album I'd enjoy even before hearing a single note. The gruesome, colorful cover art fits in well with the Razorback themes of camp and horror. I'm quite a sucker for many Japanese acts, and the decision to use the actual word 'zombie' in every song title seems a direct tribute to their countrymen Metalucifer and their 'heavy metal' fixation. Musically, I was expecting that brand of goofy, gory death, and grind that dominates this particular US label, and thus have been surprised at, in spite of its own silly and childish characteristics, there's quite a lot of depth to the riffing and a genuine overall effort in the songwriting department.

Yes, to some extent this sort of death/thrashing with over the top growling and snarled vocals is in that same post-Carcass niche that spawned Ghoul, Impaled, Exhumed, Splatterhouse, Blood Freak and so forth, but Zombie Ritual are quite heavy on the thrash element, mixing up some serious guitar progressions in the vein of anything from Slayer and Possessed to Kreator and Destruction. They'll occasionally break out into a D-beat styled rhythm ("Zombie Party"), or experiment with some jangly discordant patterns ("Zombie Axe Massacre") or traditional heavy and speed metal licks, but very few of the tracks could be dubbed pure death metal with the exception of maybe "Zombies Devour You Alive" which structurally bears comparison to the classics of Death or Autopsy in the late 80s. What floored me is that, while there are clearly a lot of derivative cycles being performed throughout the debut, that quite a lot of creativity has gone into specific riffs, often strangely melodic or eerie in nature, but well written overall. Thus, far more of the songs stick than falter, and it's easily competitive with the other Razorback acts of the time like Ghoul and Splatterhouse.

If anything holds me back from truly loving Night of the Zombie Party, it's probably the vocals, which are a pretty standard concoction of brute, gargled gutturals and sneers which have no distinguished character of their own. Granted, as soon as you LOOK at this album, you know how the singing is going to sound. They don't exactly rock the boat. But at the same time, while competent, they fail to stand out over the far more interesting riffing variations. Occasionally they'll throw in some outside element like kiddy inflections used as backups, but not really enough through the 12 songs. Otherwise, the production of the record is quite good, with meaty guitars, balanced, furious drums and a loud, bombing bass tone which helps extract some of its more interesting lines from the voluminous guitar. It's never too tidy or clean, but certainly on par with the other bands of this sort which I've listed above. The lyrics are all about...zombies, usually from the first person perspective, and of course transforming the attached terror and pathos into desensitized hilarity, with the requisite Engrish loss in translation.

Fans who have invested loads of love and intention into records like The House That Dead Build, Death After Life, Splatterthrash, Slaughtercult or maybe even other psycho Japanese thrash bands like Fastkill will probably derive the most enjoyment out of this album. Most of the members hail from other extreme metal acts like Magane, SSORC and so forth, but I have to wonder: if they shook the Walking Dead Have a Kegger gimmick, threw in some more memorable vocals and kept that intense level of business and creativity to some of the thrash riffing, how remarkable they might actually sound. As it stands, I enjoy the album even with the comic elements, but I'd almost say the musical composition deserves more.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (happy to be poisoned by alcohol)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Acheron - Rites of the Black Mass (1992)

I've still got pretty vivid memories about Acheron from the earlier 90s, still in my teens, how they were supposed to be this totally evil death metal band attached to the Church of Satan who were writing some of the most insane shit out there. More than one acquaintance had made a recommendation of their debut Rites of the Black Mass, citing it as the most extreme thing since...Deicide. Once I was finally able to get my paws on the JL America issue of the debut, I learned better, because for all its pure intent and purpose, this album is actually quite unintentionally lighthearted due to the decision to alternate hammy, narrated ambient or symphonic pieces between each of the metal tracks...

Don't get me wrong, where it counts, this is a decent death metal effort with a solid old school tone, but it's hardly the harbinger of the apocalypse that I had expected. Bassist/vocalist Vincent Crowley was a former Reverend in the Church of Satan (and I mean 'former', he hasn't been involved with that scene for some time now), so the messages behind the album were influenced by Anton Szandor LaVey, and taken quite seriously by the author. Keys were provided by Peter H. Gilmore, another diabolist involved in such circles, and you've got the requisite Enochian Key-like chants (some Latin, some English) which sound as if they've been pitch-shifted down. These are probably the cheesiest thing on the album; even if you get used to them after many repetitions, they still render the Satanic themes into something of a cartoon cliche, and ultimate negate some of the menace Rites might have otherwise attained. Coupled with the pretty average Luciferian praise in the lyrics, the album doesn't read as if it's got much more depth than Venom or Deicide, it just sort of wears its concept boldly on its sleeve and then never does much interesting with it...

As for the intros and interludes themselves, I rather enjoyed the the mixture of infernal organs to a more perturbing, psychedelic use of ritualistic or martial sounding synth pads that Gilmore brought to the album. There's a fairly stark contrast against the meatier, straightforward death metal content, but as someone who revels in old videogame soundtracks, formative ambient works and other atmospheric records I've got no problem with the lo-fi sounds involved. As for how they 'flow' with the harder tracks, that is certainly a bone of contention, for they rarely provide much of a compliment or transitory motion to the work as a whole. As a result, it feels more like an experimentation akin to Pestilence's Testimony to the Ancients and its jazz fusion interludes: consistent in of themselves, but not so much with the death metal content. You could play all 10 of these in a row and they'd give you about 10-12 minutes of apocryphal ritual horror you might have expected from a cult 80s flick, good for a gag, but they're not really necessary. I could picture hanging a speaker out my window and then trolling the trick or treaters and (especially) their parents with these, but I'm not exactly 16 anymore.

Rites of the Black Mass has since earned a bit of a 'black metal' tag, but apart from a few of the snarled vocals (which are likely more influenced by Deicide and Carcass), the association is nothing more than a thematic and lyrical one, since musically what we've got here is pure death metal with a few traces of doom relegated to specific riffs. I guess if we're to consider the Czech band Root black metal, then it's not such a big deal to speak the same of Acheron. Aesthetically, the two bands share a lot in common, but when it comes to the actual construction of the riffs, I was generally reminded of early Floridian peers like Death  and Obituary, or perhaps some Autopsy and Master. Very vile, simplistic tremolo picked sequences and chord progressions are used to good effect, but you can also hear a metric fuck ton of Hellhammer/Celtic Frost influence in pieces like "One With Darkness", where they churn out those deadened swaggering chords, or some Sabbath/Candlemass groove to "Ave Satanas".

There's quite a variety in terms of pacing and architecture, and all the metal cuts are decent, even if they were hardly unique in their day. The production isn't quite pristine, but it's decent for Morrisound in the early 90s. There's a slightly muddy tinge to the guitars which creates this potent miasma of darkness but holds up even when the notes hit higher registers. Lead passes are quite sporadic and creepy throughout, even when they risk a bolder melody. The bass is very much audible, plugging and pumping away with a fat Faustian tone, but it generally sticks to the same note patterns as the guitar. Drums on this were contributed by James Strauss, who has since gone on to perform with the Pennsylvanian band Sathanas in the 21st century; basic, charging rock rhythms complemented with a few double bass rolls, this record is hardly going to win an award for the extremity of the beats, but since it's not a very fast or complex creature, such weren't required.  As for the vocals, Vincent had a timbre comparable to Tardy, Van Drunen, or Reifert if a little more blunt and less grisly; again, nothing remotely unique, but there are occasionally some snarls, rasps, and  deeper gurgles to add another layer of repulsion, and Mike Browning of Nocturnus also shows up for some backing barks.

In retrospect I'm surprised to say that this is probably my favorite of Acheron's recordings. The band has meddled with other ideas and slightly altered its sound since the early 90s, but I find Rites of the Black Mass to bear an authenticity to its composition that is still pretty fun to break out once in a blood moon. It's nothing exemplary in terms of how they've put together the songs, but with 20 tracks (half intros, half metal) there is quite a lot to digest, and if you can get over the silliness of the narrator during the interludes then you'll find a kindred spirit to Slowly We Rot, Severed Survival, Scream Bloody Gore, Master and The Rack, only spiced up as if it were the soundtrack to some long lost Hammer Horror flick. It wasn't written or played for laughs, that much is certain, and though I have a healthy respect for The Satanic Bible and some of the philosophical motives behind it, I just can't help cackling at how over the top it seemed (and still seems).

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (deliver us from false piety)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Human Rejection - Decrepit to Insanity (2009)

Though Greece will probably always be best known for its unique black metal scene in the 90s, or the atmospheric death elements manifest in groups like the indomitable Septic Flesh, they've in truth got quite a practiced and punishing pack of brutal death metal acts that are slowly but surely making a name for themselves. Human Rejection might walk a straighter path than their more progressive kin in Sickening Horror or Cerebrum, but their combination of lavatory gurgled vocals, which I generally associate with lower-end brutal/slam death, and hyper fits of incredibly riffing that constantly engage and entertain the ear even if there is nothing incredibly unique or novel about them. This is only a recent acquisition of mine, passed to me via a friend who has been getting me into a lot of obscure international death, but it's exciting to the point that I'm actually upset that the group has since parted ways...

'Ballistic' is undoubtedly the first word which comes to mind in describing this sophomore album, but Human Rejection do take a varied approach to pacing out its contents so that the songs are rarely too samey. For example, "Infernal Hostility" thrives off a lot of death/thrash bite before it bursts into its guttural hysterics, or "Demented by Self Declined" experiments with cadence and beats to the simple, chugging riffs. In fact, on the whole, Decrepit to Insanity has an incredibly level ratio of groove to blast, and an uncompromising balance of old school influences wrought into modern, tech-inclined punishment. There are plenty of low end chug sequences which will sate the slamming audience or the deathcore maven, but also a lot of athletic flair ups to the speedier segments that will thrill those who prefer the nihilistic volleys of Hate Eternal, Morbid Angel, or even Vader's faster, modern material. The one thing I was really missing from the formula here is effective lead-work. Some atmospheric, zipping melodies woven above the busied lattice of rhythm guitar would really have put this over the edge...considering the obvious skill of this guitarist, I was shocked at their absence. On the other hand, the drums and bass are fantastic, the latter getting to strut itself once in awhile with a noted fill.

I do realize the guttural toilet swish of the front man can grow a bit repetitive, but he does such a great job of it that I found myself mentally registering it as another piece of the percussion. The songs also do occasionally feel a bit inflated, often perhaps 30-40 seconds over their welcome (due primarily to the lack of great solos or other atmospherics to embellish the core riffs), but otherwise Decrepit to Insanity is a tremendous wedding of two gruesome extremes. Imagine the cleaner, crushing production of bands like Kraanium or Ingested if their songs were being sped up into manic extremes, with loads of riffs flying everywhere but still a tendency to bust out this palm muted mosh-a-thon. The album could use more 'dressing', so to speak, but those who don't shy away from the cleaner, clinical, modern age production so popular to tech or brutal death in the 21st century should find Decrepit to Insanity an incendiary, razor-edged pleasure.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Human Mastication - Grotesque Mastication of Putrid Innards (2008)

As fascinating as I generally find Asian metal, and as promising a future as that region of the world holds for the genre as a whole, there are also, like you'd find anywhere else, quite a lot of acts out there that can be reduced to mere mirrors of those that have come before them. In the case of the Phillipines' troglodyte slammers Human Mastication, and their second Sevared Records offering (the first a 2006 split with Singapore's Flesh Disgorged), the concept is more or less a stripped down alternative to the US act Devourment, which in of itself is devoted to shaving off the more technical and varied embellishments of pioneer pervs Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel and Suffocation into something far more mosh driven; clearly tainted by the influence of meathead hard- or metalcore which was always half audience perspiration to its other half: musical inspiration. For better or worse.

Like their primary influences, Human Mastication are not an all out slam-fest, incorporating some faster flights of colon rupture riffing and drums to help pace the overpopulation of breakdowns. They have a fair grasp of performing their muddied palm-mute rhythms, which are rarely more than re-interpretations of riffs the avid listener will have heard hundreds if not thousands times before 2008. My problem is simply that this music feels so uninspired. One could pick any random band of brutal death (or otherwise) metal musicians and write a dozen records like this in an afternoon. The guitar progressions entirely lack any sense of hook or adventurous nature, they're just chug after chug even when the pace varies, and there's very little musicality if one were to dissect them to their foundations and explore them without the drums. You'll hear a few dingy squeals, but with a lack of solid (or really any) leads of note, and a further lack of atmosphere beyond the bare necessities for windmill kicking and shoving other pit fighters to release some angst. The bass guitar is nothing more than a footnote (common in this niche), and the porcelain god bong-gurgling vocals are just too bland and commonplace, despite their ominous, murky drawl.

Granted, this sort of release has its place in a scene which has often become more about extremity and packaging than actual quality, but I see no reason why one couldn't write a damn good brutal/slam record which delivered both its testosterone quotient and some damn fine music! It can happen, and in fact, it has. See Kraanium, Ingested or Short Bus Pile Up for example of how bands can make such a cranial ache better worth the while. I could forgive Grotesque Mastication of Putrid Innards if its lack of ambition was overcome by some excellent, fun songwriting, but it's just too settled in its arbitrary, meandering sense of sameness and monotony with only those few tempo bursts to keep it from passing the precipice of utter boredom. Add to that the truly muddled, jam room production values and you've got a record which just fails to exit its starting gate, never mind crash and crush against its competitors in the demolition derby. It's not the shittiest shit-stain of a death metal defecation out there, but too little risk and effort reaps too little reward. I think they can do better.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Human Mincer - Devoured Flesh (2005)

One of the finer Spanish death metal institutions alongside Avulsed and Machetazo, Human Mincer have seen a steady improvement thus far through their three full-lengths. Though the 2005 sophomore Devoured Flesh has little on its own successor Degradation Paradox, it was nonetheless a riffy, refreshing dose of decimation with dynamics in spades to keep even the more jaded extremists' expectations from growing dulled in its wake. Unlike their aforementioned neighbors, who possess more of a carnal Carcass craft to their sound, these Spaniards lunged into the faster-paced USDM side of things, inviting comparisons to acts like Morbid Angel, Suffocation, Nile, Cannibal Corpse and Deeds of Flesh with perhaps a tint of Decapitated and Krisiun.

This is characterized by an enormous display of kinetic, often hyperactive riffing which flows in and out of the band's choppy, brutal breakdowns, but most importantly, they're often writing (or at least attempting to write) some really catchy grooves or tremolo riffs which give the impression of a mashup of Morbid Angel's 1993-95 material. Vocalist Carlos Mejias has a guttural that integrates Vincent, Tucker, Rutan and perhaps Alex Camargo into an apt bludgeon which is even more potent when multi-tracked to beat in both your ears. The guitars are so rampant and acrobatic as they carouse through pinches, squeals, harmonics and sheer battery that the bass is often difficult to detect, but it's there if you listen just beneath the surface, and once in awhile curves out more boldly into the mix. The drummer David has to be one of the strongest in Europe at this style, with impeccable double-bass work, blasting on a dime, and great fills that are constantly up to the challenge of the explosive guitar progressions. There are only a few tints of atmosphere provided through the dark ambiance that inaugurates, say, "Devoured Flesh" itself, but the music is so incredibly busy that it adequately tucks the listener away into its envelope of fear.

The production is also quite high end here, with a level, bludgeoning mesh of drums and guitars that create this incredibly consistent vortex of confusion. It's not so polished as other unduly processed modern tech death records, but most of the instruments are clean, and the guitars have this great punch when they lumber into some spastic, mid-paced rhythm to set-up a volatile tremolo pattern. Seriously, songs like "Dirty Remembrances" and "Eternal Ways of Devil" are stunningly athletic and brutal, and any serious fan of groups like Hate Eternal, Morbid Angel or later Behemoth will shit him or herself in glee. Does Devoured Flesh present anything truly nuanced or intensely memorable? Perhaps not, since it's fueled by a formula common even by the year of its inception. And yet they've got this 'whole package' approach to the music that soundly balances musical proficiency and aggression into actual songwriting rather than some tedious display of their mutual prowess. A tight, beastly, effective outing, well worth the listen if you dig entries like Winds of Creation, Domination, Conquering the Throne or Conquerors of Armageddon.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Human Filleted - Blunt Force Embludgeonment (2010)

Though I thought the earlier Human Filleted records were decent in their own right, certain flaws in production and the fact that they weren't really lavishing anything distinct or interesting on the brutal death metal spectrum held me back from further admiration. More or less the same lyrics, song titles, gruesome imagery and sound we'd heard from about a  hundred other USDM acts through the 90s and earlier 21st century, and no sign of surpassing their peers in either songwriting or extremity. Both Hideous Sculptures of the Dead in 2008, and the belated Packaged Human Meat were nothing special, if nothing too shabby either. With their third record, the vile Indiana quartet decided to beat on us with what is perhaps their most accessible and entertaining album overall.

Blunt Force Embludgeonment doesn't entirely up the ante, but it both looks and sounds better than its predecessor, its gruesome and colorful cannibalistic ghoul scenery provided by the prolific Italian Marco Hasmann, whose credits include cover art for groups like Fleshgod Apocalypse, Beyond Creation, Vomit the Soul, and his own band, Blasphemer. This is a very percussive album, with a bucket tone to the kick and snare that isn't exemplary, but still better overall than Packaged Human Meat. Hyper pummeling crunch mutes are delivered at high velocity, lapsing in and out of old school tremolo passages, and the level of precision and polish here give me that 'live autopsy' feeling of punctuality and menace that some love and others hate in most modern, brutal tech/death. Human Filleted doesn't perform anything too perplex in terms of rhythmic dynamics, they just keep the riffs flowing below the guttural chug of vocalist Kyle Christman (also of Gorgasm). The punching bass lines are unfortunately not much of a selling point here, and the drop of a dime rhythmic transitions don't allow for much depth or dimension the music, but some of the faster old school riffs are definitely sinister and incendiary.

As for its production, this is not a massive leap forward, and still sounds quite amateurish when you consider just how processed and polished many other bands in this niche are, in particular that burgeoning California scene with groups like Pathology, Inherit Disease, Severed Savior and so forth. Those who hate that sort of modernist sound sculpting might see this as a boon in general, but probably not in this case, since the guitar tones have a fraction too much buzz, the clap-can drums lack character and there just isn't much of a robust low end to Human Filleted which allows the listener to really dig into the breakdown grooves. Christman's vox also border on the mundane and monotonous, so it was a good decision to feature guests like Damian of Gorgasm and Shaun from Putrid Pile to help vary it up like some Serial Killers Anonymous meeting. In the end, though, while Blunt Force Embludgeonment might inch past its predecessors and offer a few thrills for fans of Deeds of Flesh, Lividity and later 90s Cannibal Corpse, the lyrics and music of Blunt Force Embludgeonment are derivative of better albums, and it lacks the atmosphere, composition and engineering to make much of an enduring impact beyond its grisly exterior.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (nothing left to recognize)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Embalmer - There Was Blood Everywhere (1997)

Though originally released as an EP in 1995, the preferred version of Embalmer's Relapse debut There Was Blood Everywhere is the mini compilation album two years later. Not because it's magically superior in terms of musical quality, but there's just more of it, the group's 1993 demo Rotting Remains added as a bonus. For one, this is the only version you're likely to find, and second, in terms of production and style, the two are pretty even, with Rotting Remains adding some badly needed dynamic variation to the EP tracks. Still pretty short at around 25 minutes for eight tunes, but it just flows better overall, even if the Ohio brutes still come up short of outstanding (beyond another of my favorite Wes Benscoter covers, of course).

Death metal was already about a decade old at the time this record dropped, but for its time, it's admittedly pretty goddamn extreme and was likely an influence upon countless ensuing acts in the brutal death or goregrind scenes. The blasting beats are legion here, especially in the 1995 material, saturated in this heavily distorted, fat guitar tone which seems at odds with the lighter impact of the snares and the thin kick drum in the mix. But they also churn out these surgery riff progressions that were more harried and vicious than even Cannibal Corpse of the day. The vocals are often the paired up contrast of a ridiculous, bloody, higher pitched rasp like those of a post-castration victim; and a guttural, gurgly, septic voice that it had to be ahead of its time. I don't much enjoy the former, since its exceedingly overbearing and goofy, but where you're just getting that lower, rumbling timbre over the flights of guitars, I feel like the band functioned pretty well. They also incorporate these enormous lurching grooves into a few of the songs that come across like a technical alternative to Godflesh or Bolt Thrower; especially on the Rotting Remains songs like "The Cellar".

On the whole, the production here is pretty muddy, but surprisingly clear enough that you can make all of the visceral details, from the lumpy bass lines to those supersoaked entrails of guitar. A few of the transitions in tracks like "Blood Sucking Freaks" seem cluttered and trampled by the sheer volatility of all the vocals and drums, and a few of the vocal patterns in there are laughable (especially the rasped screams). In addition, I wouldn't call the riffing all that impressive. It's blistering fast and rabid thanks to the tone, but there are no actual songs of note throughout There Was Blood Everywhere that I'd categorize among the better brutal anthems of the 90s. Leads are messy, wild screams that zip over the infernal undercurrent, and the lyrics to most of these tracks are pretty basic, comparable to old Chris Barnes Cannibal Corpse or Mortician. The chord progressions often felt a little bit like an update to Repulsion or Napalm Death of the late 80s, with perhaps a dose of Suffocation's Human Waste for good measure, but painfully few are memorable.

That said, Embalmer, if rather unproductive through the years (they weren't active from 1997-2005), had a fairly explosive take on the form that, with some refinement, might have further established them as one of the chief extremists of the 90s. I can recall some buzz and excitement about the group during this period, along with other sick Midwestern fucks like Lividity and Fleshgrind, but it really didn't pan out due to the band's lack of material and the huge hiatus that interrupted their ascent. There Was Blood Everywhere is certainly the sort of album you can picture people being serial tortured to in some dank, earthen basement without even a proper floor (perfect for the inevitable burial of the remains), but beyond its aggressive visage and primal, repulsive production values, it's just nothing spectacular or even necessarily 'good'.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (I'm still killing you)

Friday, October 12, 2012

Deceased - The Blueprints for Madness (1995)

As crucial as Deceased's sophomore full-length was to the development of their later works, The Blueprints for Madness might better be dubbed 'The Blueprints of Better Albums to Come'. For while its riffing variation and the horror-borne atmosphere through the album are nearly as potent as its successor Fearless Undead Machines, the production here pretty much kills the deal, holding it back from that plateau of greatness they've since achieved and, in my humble opinion, never stepped down from. It isn't that this album lacks charisma, but the guitar tracking in particular leaves much to desire, and I'd almost love to hear a remix of Blueprints. Keep the music, toss in better leads, and certainly keep the incredible Wes Benscoter artwork (one of his finest), but fix that ugly tone...

This is not quite the refined, melodic Deceased many will recognize from records like Surreal Overdose and Supernatural Addiction, with all the tasty speed metal flurries and British influenced harmonies, but you get a lot more of their punk, hardcore, splatter-thrash and even a tint of grind, all brought forth from the 1991 debut Luck of the Corpse. Tunes like "Into the Bizarre" bring out a lot of the early Voivod circa 1984-1986, though not quite so eerie or dissonant in terms of atmosphere. Even a few, slower, dreary, doom-inflected guitars show up. King's vocals are at their roughest here, from his usual haughty barks and vapid, mournful refrains to more directly harrowing growls and rasps level with the other extreme metal of the mid-90s (some provided by Les, the bassist). The drums have a pretty organic mix, lots of power to the fills and a very blocky sounding kick drum that manages to present itself despite the smudge of the guitars. Bass is pretty good, and the leads slice through the mix with a decent effect, but the rhythm tracks sound far too muddy and indistinct and they're hands down my least favorite elements...

It's not that you can't make out most of the notes, or even all the notes, but they just sound so cruddy to my ears. When the band is churning out an accelerated rhythm in basic punk/grind chord progression like in the calamitous "Alternate Dimension", it doesn't make much of a difference, but when they hit the slower palm muted power riffs it's fairly repulsive, and not in a positive way. It seems like a conscious decision, too, because it's not like the rest of the instruments and the vocals sound so underwhelming; in particular there are sequences where Fowley is barking out some insane line with just enough reverb that it sounds truly ominous. No, it's just a pretty fledgling tone that suffocates the note patterns rather than letting them breathe and sear themselves into the listeners' memory. Not that the drums and bass sound exemplary, they're vaguely demo level in depth, but the fusion of deeper, surgical thrashing guitars and corroded meathook chugs deserved a little more polish.

Otherwise, the lyrics and concepts behind the songs here are classic sci-fi weird/horror which Deceased have proven one of the best at translating into the medium. As with the later albums, Fowley really gets into character, and each piece feels like a 'story', often told from a first person perspective, which draws my imagination back to late nights watching films on the TV horror block which were morbid and memorable despite a lack of budget. Synthesizers, samples and other orchestration appear sparsely throughout the 52 minute run-time, always contributing atmospherically even where they lack fidelity. The Blueprints for Madness is no slouch when it comes to composition: there are tons of riffs erupting everywhere, all of them varied, and many quite good, but the production doesn't allow them to reach their full, terrifying potential. The Virginians seem to possess a curious, linear progression in terms of their records' quality, and this one definitely inches beyond the debut, but they would only keep improving after this; and for that reason, even if this is well above average, I rarely break this out over Fearless Undead Machines, etc.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (sanity tries to last)