Friday, June 28, 2013

Lucifericon - The Occult Waters EP (2012)

Originally self-released in late summer 2012, with decidedly cheesier cover art which has been dressed up here, The Occult Waters is a burst of old school purity from the Netherlands of all places. Granted, the country produced some of the most important death metal acts of history in the genre's prime (Pestilence, Asphyx, Sinister, etc), but of late I haven't recognized it as a prolific harbor for 80s/90s nostalgia. That said, Blood Harvest records has a real nose for sniffing out primitively brutal and purist sounds as you'll rarely find elsewhere, so if you've lately appreciated the works of Burialkult, Cerekloth, Necroccultus and the many others they've released, then this 12" MLP reissue should be placed immediately on your least to check out once.

This is your genre-standard, viscera gargling dawn of the 90s sound drawing heavily on ancient US influences like Morbid Angel, Deicide, Incantation, and Death, with a lot of busy tremolo picked guitar lines and resonant, echoed, utterly nihilistic guttural vocals that unfortunately become pretty monotonous over the intonation of both the verses and choruses. They cultivate a very underground, DIY aesthetics with clear but slightly raw guitars and tinny, understated drumming, but I give them points for simply sounding ancient as they intended. That doesn't necessarily translate into great music, though, since painfully few of these rhythm guitar progressions stand out for anything more than their adherence to tradition, but I felt a fluctuation of both cosmic and cavernous aesthetics when the band were all out riffing along to one of the faster sequences, and they incorporate a lot of wild leads and rhythms that occasionally hinge on a black/death hybrid style ("Moon Over Fading Statues" or the closer "Deathtongue").

Though a lot of their impulse is to play fast, Lucifericon also throw in some slower to mid-paced breakdowns that definitely chop up and better balance the songs to a more fulfilling degree. They also delve into atmospherics; the dark, monotonous, brooding ambient intro "Infinituum" leaves a lot to be desired, a pretty bland setup for "The Temple of Lucifericon", but I dug the acoustic guitars inaugurating "Moon Over Fading Statues". Overall, though, the riffs are just pretty basic and uninspired by themselves, and I felt like the tone was pretty dry and incapable of standing on its own legs without the barking madness of the front man. There is texture and effort in the composition, but the end result just wasn't memorable in such a wide sea of similar acts. That said, there is a sub-set of nostalgic death metal fanatics who go absolutely apeshit over these sorts of authentic, raw and straightforward recordings that recall the old 90s production levels, and The Occult Waters falls somewhere between a demo and album mix. I doubt that audience would be too turned off by what they heard here, but personally I found the atmospheric qualities trumped the actual music.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Autopsy - The Headless Ritual (2013)

Whereas its predecessor, Macabre Eternal, was a comeback album wrought with a few new ideas and 'progression' for the Californian cult Autopsy, The Headless Ritual is more of a direct return to the style of Severed Survival and Mental Funeral. Can't say I'm complaining, as those have already remained my favorite in their canon of carnage, but at the same time, though if I was only slightly warm on Macabre Eternal or The Tomb Within EP, I admired that, even after 15 years of studio absence, speculation and the on- and offline accrual of a wider fan base than they ever originally had, this was a band still willing to expand itself and take a few chances, which in conjunction with the rise in popularity of nostalgic death metal aesthetics, really paid off with one of the most buzzed-about revival records in the genre. The Headless Ritual certainly doesn't take as many chances, and thus it's by nature a little 'safer' than its older sibling. Yet, curiously enough, I found myself enjoying this a bit more...

Probably due directly to the fact that my only substantial connection to their music had come and gone by about 1991. Gruesome and timeless, indeed, but Autopsy were just never one of my top tier death metal acts, simply due to the fact that a lot of their doom-dowsed riffs (of which there were plenty) bore the brunt of familiarity with a lot of other Sabbath inspired music, and the faster riffing sequences, while filthy and effective thanks to their production, were just not as impressive and mind blowing for me as Autopsy's more surgical and/or evil sounding contemporaries on albums like Consuming Impulse, Leprosy, Scream Bloody Gore, Symphonies of Sickness, Left Hand Path and Altars of Madness. Personal preferences aside, though, Severed Survival and Mental Funeral have never lost their charnel lustre, and they absolutely deserve their pedestals in the pantheon of festering flesh where they remain. The Headless Ritual pays tribute, and often rises to a similar level of quality, thanks to a superb balance of death and doom riffing progressions, but as loud and capable as its production allots, I can't say that I come away from it feeling as viscera-soaked as I might have when younger.

It's a cleaner record, but that doesn't exempt it from sounding heavy as fuck, especially when they lurch into a morbid groove like "Mangled Far Below", an excellent if mildly predictable fusion of death and doom in which the vile harmonies and writhing, serpentine lead-work really help to balance off Reifert's raving and growling, which frankly sound no less over the top than any of the past album, especially when he angles his inflection upward into a more snarling delivery. A number of the tunes like "Coffin Crawlers" and "When Hammer Meets Bone" are fueled by that same hellish punk foundation one can recall from several of the older albums, but at the same time they don't enjoy the most memorable of chord progressions, simply barreling over the listener like a trolley car full of flailing zombies, while Reifert's grotesque and charismatic microphone spasms steer them up and down the San Fransiscan landscape. There are a handful of surprises here, like the melodic death metal interlude "Thorns and Ashes", which is almost entirely built of Maiden-like guitar harmonies and barked out lyrics, or the closer, "Headless Ritual" itself, which is similar but with more layers of rhythm, but neither is necessarily all that exciting. Interestingly, where The Headless Ritual branches off  towards its most melodic material, I am heavily reminded of Arlington's Deceased. Not a bad thing!

Pacing is meticulous, or I might even say masterful. No two songs in direct succession sound repetitive or redundant, and most are kept concise and centered around only a handful of riffing ideas, with the exception of "Slaughter at Beast House" and "She is a Funeral" which are drawn out largely because they are among the slower, death/doom pieces. There are definitely some bum riffs in there, especially the first few minutes of the latter, but eventually you get some payoff in the bridge. Bass playing is thick but very often follows the rhythm guitars, which are themselves only inspirational about half the time, despite the broad, effective tone. Reifert has no choice but to occasionally feel hokey, since he places so much emphasis on grimy syllables that they tend to fall overboard (nothing new, really). However, the guy's drumming is still among the most organic and natural feeling in the genre, tinny or raw where it needs to be, but feisty as fuck during the more charged segments like the storming early riffs in "Slaughter At Beast House". Lead guitars are probably the most central and adept they've been yet in Autopsy's career, but I will admit that many of the rhythm riffs are sorely lacking in creativity or compelling chord progressions, and they don't often stand out.

I've seen a few individuals butt hurt over the cover artwork, probably because Macabre Eternal had a great color scheme and looked fantastic; but hey, it's better than earlier Autopsy like Acts of the Unspeakable or Shitfun, right? Still, veteran Joe Petagno has had better showings (Angelcorpse's Exterminate, Mammoth Grinder's Extinction of Humanity, and many of his Motörhead covers, for example). I think this one still gets the point across of the ritualistic, occult horror that informs a lot of the lyrics, but some folks probably won't be satisfied until they get another Severed Survival. Ultimately, some people just aren't going to dig on The Headless Ritual much at all, since it doesn't necessarily capitalize on Macabre Eternal so much as it's a regression towards their older works spiced up with a cleaner production and a lot of melody. But for what it's worth, I've had a pretty good time listening through it. Didn't impress me nearly as much as, say, the latest Incantation, or what newer 'old school' bands like Tribulation, Horrendous and Necrovation have been churning out in the past couple years, but I felt satisfied that I paid for an Autopsy record, it sounded much like what I expected off the samples I had heard, and I got some giggles and headbanging out of it. Sometimes that is enough.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Astrum - Battalions of Hell (2013)

Prior to Battalions of Hell, Astrum was a band I enjoyed more in spirit than in actual music content, essentially a primal and punked out alternate history imagining of the old Hellhammer/Celtic Frost aesthetics which suffered from a little too much sloppiness and also blandness in the riffing selections. That has changed with the third full-length, because the pieces have really fit together into something better-paced and better-rounded, not to mention superior in terms of production and writing. Granted, it's still exactly the same set of sounds you'd have expected if you actually heard the older works, but the riffs, even if not original by any means, still hang with you, and Tim's vocal delivery here is really on point, with the familiar, beloved raving and haughty barks of Tom G. Warrior...I mean, really, if you've run out of Warhammer records, and you want more in this very particular niche, then I'd urge you to track this down.

Basically, envision if somewhere between Apocalyptic Raids and Morbid Tales, Celtic Frost had decided to cultivate a union of occultist lyrics and old school hardcore punk with a few spurts of morbid thrash, and ignore the Oriental mystique and experimentation that flowered throughout To Mega Therion and Into the Pandemonium. Maintain the horror and ritualistic lyrical bent, but revoke all pretentiousness, and you arrive at Battalions of Hell. The riffs, while more or less based on variations of the familiar motifs these early 'first wave' black metal masters conceived, feel feisty and fresh thanks to the raw buzz of the distortion; not so grimy and gutter-spawned as the classic material of the hardcore band Sheer Terror (who also had a massive Hellhammer influence in their riffing), but quite straightforward and translatable into a live setting, which I'm sure will make an evening with Astrum hella entertaining. Not all of the riffs are facsimiles of this one influence, mind you; they'll often cruise more directly into a crusty oi punk terrain, some drawn out traditional Sabbath-ian doom licks, or a bit harder of a thrash/black bit with some muted sequence, even a blast beat, but they all revolve around this consistent core which honors the Swiss butchers wonderfully.

Production is still pretty threadbare, but the instruments are well mixed to give a clean, live impression in which you can make out all the rich, ripping fill work and the booming thud of the bass lines. Which, granted are not all that interesting, since Tim's focus is more on the vocals and guitar, but the volume and enthusiasm are both very steady, and I'm not sure the style of writing really lends itself to using the bass for harmonies or individual grooves set apart from the rhythm guitar structure. Just enough echo and pitch on the vocals so that they really sound like a younger, more energetic Warrior (nothing like the Triptykon stuff), when he used to belch forth a mid-paced whine in the 80s. The lead guitars are completely atonal, frivolous and sporadic in the tradition of old thrash or speed metal when tapping and scale techniques weren't priorities, but they also help to saturate the writing with an extra dimension of immediacy and busyness that keeps its intense. I'll also add that the lyrics are quite solid. Not a lot to them, maybe, but each gets its imagery across concisely and effectively without any need for eloquent verse.

The best, though, is how Astrum doesn't bore you here with the same shit over and over again in a direct sequence. Sure, some tempos and riff patterns are only mildly reconfigured across separate songs, but they open with a blasted title track, then cruise into a groovy number, then fast again, slow again, and so on. It's simply a well structured album, and its hellish defiance is very much viral. Tunes like "Moonscapes of Infinity" and "Under the Pentagram" are among the best he's ever written. Not all the songs are amazing, and a few inhabit a redundant sonic space, but overall, this is tight. Obviously, if you're hunting for technical instrumentation, progressive qualities or unique songwriting, Battalions of Hell is probably not some Holy Grail from which you should drink. Tim leaves no room for second guessing his influence, and he bears it proudly on his sleeves...but that makes this record no less fun, trust me, and he seems to finally have mastered what he set out to do with Apocalyptic Dawn and Tales of Witchlore. It will be interesting where he goes from here, whether he'll mete out more of the same or perhaps drag in some other cult sounds for an added level of dynamic potential. But I doubt we'll be hearing Cold Lake II anytime soon.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (galloping the unholy steeds)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Túrin Turambar - Rzeczpospolita Czartowska (2013)

Apart from its mighty death metal armada, which has long ago achieved international notice thanks to groups like Behemoth and Vader, Poland also harbors a less outspoken black metal scene, a slice of whom could be considered to toil around with the genre and offer some atonal, mildly experimental variations on the theme. I speak of groups like Furia, Non Opus Dei, MasseMord, CSSABA who take a slightly left of center approach to songwriting that translates into a more memorable listen than if they simply blended in to the bulk of European black metal acts in impersonating the Scandinavian forebears. While not yet at the same structural or conceptual level as those I just listed, Túrin Turambar offers us a very flexible, almost jammed out selection of black metal or black/thrash bastard riffs which shifts tempos often enough that it's simply not your usual volley of dissonant black metal blast beats, and there's a real sense of 'exploration' as you listen through the track list, even if a lot of the actual progressions are primitive and aggressive, rather than atmospheric or haunting...

However, there are exceptions, like the intro to "Jazda", which is a sparse, jarring landscape of dissonant notes set over grimy, distorted bass guitars, or "Więzienie z kości" where some harmonics and jangling cleaner guitars strike against some drum grooves, which feel almost like the band are improvising, Or a piece like "Rok olimpiady" which has a heavy, drudging rock architecture with some spy-like bass structures, and "Autodefenestracja" where it's more of a direct, discordant slew of chords. Here the band almost entirely escapes the 'metal' brand, and where Túrin Turambar begins to flirt with the unusual, at least in terms of its parent genre. Elements of jazz, alternative rock or post-hardcore creep into the framework, not to the extent of something like Italy's Ephel Duath, but enough that it's clear these guys are drawing upon more than one bag of tricks. Unfortunately, I felt like a lot of the ideas were only half-formed, and that just in selecting some left field chord choices, they don't necessarily assemble them into a memorable product for the listener. So in truth I actually found the more intense metal sequences to be the superior points on the album.

Biggest problem, though, is the production, which is more like a rehearsal session with a recorder running than a polished studio outing. Which wouldn't be an issue other than the levels felt a little unbalanced. For one the guitars are just too loud, boxy and bulky for my liking, even if I can constantly understand what they are playing. Same goes for the bass guitar. The drums are more modest in terms of volume, but I did not like some of the individual sounds like the snare. The vocals are really raw, with a harsh and nihilistic bark that might have benefited from a fraction more reverb, though the guy can sustain a snarl well enough on his own. All in all, it's definitely loyal to that jamming vibe I mentioned earlier, which is probably cool for a listener who loves live recordings, or rehearsal demos, and I also think it's pretty honest...but Túrin Turambar would sound a lot cooler if they went wilder with spacey effects and atmospheres. Rzeczpospolita Czartowska seems 'strange', but not strange enough if that makes any sense.

At any rate, the album was at least not one you hear every day, and this sort of unfiltered artistry is not unwelcome in my book. I'll say one thing: I had no idea what to really expect next, since a lot of the tunes throw you a curve ball in either the intro sequence or during a bridge. As far as black metal, or thrash and groove riffing, they're not incredibly creative, but also not so bad. Some of the sparse death metal styled tremolo riffs were bland, but nothing here is repeated unto oblivion to where you can't stand it. I was probably most mesmerized by the final tune, "Deszcz III" with its sampled precipitation, ritualistic guitar rhythm and the pounding drum of the intro, but there are definitely a lot of 'what the hell was that?' moments that prevent it from becoming monotonous. A curious sophomore, but they should crank up the oddity and atmosphere.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

In Silent - Potępienie (2013)

For myself, Polish death metal is like an erotic massage or a wine tasting session...I find it hard to say no. Conversely, In Silent's Potępienie is like receiving an erotic massage from a hydraulic car compactor, often crushing and with almost always ugly results. Having come out of a doom background on some of their earlier demos, I actually expected a slower consistency to their songwriting, but was quite surprised that they cover a lot of ground here, from a primal form of 90s death metal circa Bolt Thrower, Autopsy, Cancer and Asphyx to faster salvos that play out like a union of blackened death aesthetics more reminiscent of their countrymen Hate or Behemoth. In fact, the latter style dominates more than half the material, so clearly they've found their inner need for speed.

With only 22 minutes and seven songs, Potępienie is not an extended vacation at the graveyard, but in such a short time I must admit that they deliver a pretty thorough, hammering exhibition of their skills without a lot of arbitrary repetition that the listener must sift through. The riffs are legion, and even if there aren't a whole ton of them that stuck with me well after the experience, these seemed like a pretty earnest attempt to graft together some memorable note progressions without directly receiving tutelage from any one influence. In other words, it's more busy and technical than most of the trendy old school death I've come across lately, and more reflective of what Polish masters like Vader can accomplish. The blasting is delivered at a pinpoint precision, and this guy has effortless hand and foot strength and speed to build a proper basis. As almost a contrast, the rhythm guitars have a bulky, fuzzy distortion which is felt more in the crunch of the slower riffs but miraculously manages to hold up when they're flying along at light speed to a blasted segment...

It is in those particular moments, like the lightning thrust of "Potępienie" itself, where you begin to feel the slight black metallic influence in the dissonant chord selection strewn over the blast, but the dryer melodies they spray over the din of destruction are definitely more like what you'd find out of early death metal. As for the vocals: nothing out of the ordinary, but a raucous guttural with good sustain, peppered by impetuous rasps to create that hybrid effect which has been popular since the late 80s, though this is more like a Deicide meets Tom G. Warrior approach than a Carcass one. Bass guitar is in there, but sometimes I felt like I was struggling to hear it against the meat of the rhythm guitar, it blends in pretty often and isn't given a chance to shine in the mix, though the guy is pretty good (and shares vocals with one of the guitarists). For the most part, though, the production here is well balanced and forceful, blunt and brutal and really gets the message across like a piledriver on tile flooring.

Ultimately, I wasn't in love with this record musically, but not for lack of effort, and the band does pull of at least a dozen neck-jerking riffs in a brief time that show to me what they're capable of meting out. At the very least, I'd say that fans of Polish black or death metal brutes ranging from Thunderbolt and Infernal War to Vader and Hate might find a lot to enjoy here, or US hordes from Vital Remains to Diabolic. Assuming, of course, that a listener doesn't mind the lyrics in Polish (I don't at all mind, though I couldn't understand them apart from a few song titles and select words). This is concise, compact, and indisputably brutal, but it just didn't leave a huge impression on me apart from the one on the back of my skull, and part of that is probably just because I've heard its like so many times; but it's decent.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Alice in Chains - Alice in Chains (1995)

After nearly a year on hiatus, Alice in Chains released their self-titled LP in the fall of 1995. Coming off a length of time that saw the band deal with a cancelled tour, side projects, and a lead singer struggling with heroin addiction, the recordings here symbolize a band that wasn't quite holding itself together. Much like the three-legged dog in the album's cover art, the music here feels at times like there is something missing. In all the time I've had to listen to this album over the years, I've never really been able to appreciate it outside of a few moments here and there. 

To start, the album's overall production is much more... sludgy then on previous works. The album sounds like it was recorded in somebody's garage, lacking the scope of sound present on Dirt, or even Facelift. While the more intimate recording gives it a certain quality that I'm sure the band was eager to experiment with, I have never felt like it had an edge over the metallic quality of their earlier work. With the band's trademark vocal harmonies, it sounds like the band went the route of layering Layne Staley's own voice over himself, as opposed to having Staley and Jerry Cantrell's distinct voices compliment each other; the result is a kind of acidic drone in some of the vocal lines that, once again, don't do much for me. Case in point, the verses in "Again" and "Brush Away"; both songs seem to remove Cantrell from the equation. Again, it's probably part of the aesthetic the band was going for here, but it's not winning any accolades from me. 

That's not to say the album is all bad, and I certainly don't mean to come down on it as hard as it seems I am. The blending of acoustic and electric elements on some of the songs is a welcome step for the band; "Heaven Beside You" and "Over Now" are two of the more memorable tracks. The former devolves into a discordant grind in the second half of the song that provides an effective shift in tone, while "Over Now" is an excellent closer to entire album. Both songs recall the stellar "Brother" and "Got Me Wrong" from Sap, which is a plus. 

The album is not afraid to get heavy in some parts; things get particularly crushing during the aptly-named "Sludge Factory". Again, the vocals here don't quite do it for me 100% of the time, but they are unsettling and provide a great dressing for the fuzzy distortion of Cantrell's riffs. But, what can I say about the last three minutes of the seven(!!!)-minute song that amounts to nothing but guitar-dickery and Staley repeating the word "guilt" over and over? Puzzling. "Frogs" is another song in a similar vein as "Sludge Factory", with a pained and mournful chorus; "Why's it have to be this way?" Staley asks, to a desolate soundscape that offers little answers. It suffers the same problems as "Sludge Factory" though, in that it just crawls along for far too long, like algae growing along the surface of a pond. 

The rest of the album is an amalgamation of the band's works up to that point, with songs like "Grind" and "Again" providing the mid-tempo chug that wouldn't be out of place on Dirt, and the aforementioned acoustic-laden tracks naturally evolve from Sap and Jar of Flies. But for all of its value as a culmination of what came before, I don't feel like AiC quite found their footing here. Perhaps it's reflective of the time during which it was written, but Alice in Chains ultimately comes off as sounding like a band struggling to come to terms with the very real personal issues plaguing its members, and I can respect the fact that others may find something to appreciate there. It would have been interesting to see where things went after this in regards to new material, but as history has shown it was not meant to be (not with Staley at the helm, at least); this proved to be the last new studio material from the band for fourteen years. 

This is not an album I find myself revisiting very often, and in doing so for this review, it becomes apparent why.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (Hey, I know I made the same mistakes)

Geoff Tate's Queensrÿche - Frequency Unknown (2013)

I'll play the devil's advocate here in saying that I actually don't mind the defiant nature of the cover artwork on this disc. Hell, I would have gone further, removed the album title and band name, and flipped the fucking bird! The icon and acronym would have been enough. After all, if Geoff Tate wants to persist in his delusions, why not go into an all out mental meltdown! The problem is that he just doesn't go that extra mile, and that no matter how belligerent or 'in your face' he wants us to imagine he feels right now, this album is entirely incapable of roaring past the finish line. In fact, it whimpers even attempting to pass the starting line when the gun fires off. Sure, it's predictable that the primary force in Queensrÿche's creative demise over the past 20 years would issue a stinker of a solo album when left to his own devices, but the real crime here is that he has surrounded himself with a virtual 'choir' of talented guest musicians and singers and come up with such idle results...

I'm going to ignore getting into the absolutely idiotic decisions this man has made in recent times, because Frequency Unknown fails entirely on its own demerits, without any historical context required. It's more or less a revolving door of guest solos, vocals and other session performances that ultimately ends up a fairly weak production with a slew of forgettable songs that aren't about to change anyone's mind that this guy has earned himself the shorter straw. Surprisingly, while Tate has given the impression on numerous occasions about how he has moved on from the metallic years of his alma mater, he opens this with a pretty straight forward muted riffing piece in "Cold", as laconic and lazy as it ultimately proves. Almost as if he wanted to prove to the world that he could still rock hard, but sadly it devolves into a standard rock chorus no more poignant or interesting than much of what he's released over the past decade, and not even near the level of numbers like "I Am I" or "Empire" when his former band had started to wane, but still held on to that edge of relevance through strong record sales and loyalist fans. It's not the only instance, either, since you've got the tune "Slave" with its brief spurts of speed licks and groove metal, and then some truly awful groove metal in the track "Running Backwards".

But largely, Frequency Unknown drifts around in context from textural melodic rockers to other bland commodities that probably wouldn't break regulation-rock radio-space even in a time when they might consider supporting a washout pariah from a once-famous metal band. Riffs are abysmal, never standing out on their own and at best just vomit-soaked rehashes of tired ideas with no fire lit under their asses. Organs and other instruments are used to dress up the atmosphere, and the bass guitar bumps along with a very deep but digitized feel, but neither area is particularly compelling. Most importantly, the production of the album feels as if its been glued together from a patchwork of piecemeal recording sessions he had to put together just to accommodate all his guests, who hail from everywhere: Rudy and Robert Sarzo, K. K. Downing, Ty Tabor, Brad Gillis, hell even Chris Poland shows up for a lead on "The Weight of the World". Yet the power chords sound pretty unconvincing, the shuffle of the palm mutes mediocre, and the drama of power ballads ("Weight"... again) overwrought and having no definable payoff in terms of melody or structure. With different people playing in different songs, Tate has crippled any possibility of consistency, except consistently sucking.

I could only suffer through a lot of the numbers here due to my own self-constructed obligation to give the records I cover a minimum number of cycles to properly feel them out, and even then I was compelled to cheat. What's even worse are the gimped re-recordings of tunes from Operation: Mindcrime and Empire. There are four of these bonus tracks, and they utterly fucking blow, devoid of the solidarity and formative power of their original incarnations. I mean, listen to that woeful guitar tone on "Empire"? What the shit is wrong with you people? How could, in any ordered and rational, cold universe, ANYONE think that this was a good idea? Did you not listen to these things before releasing the album, and decide to yourself "yeah, people are going to have enough of a problem with the crappy new originals, we'd better leave these off". It's this sort of misinformed decision making process that contributes to how rushed and pathetic Frequency Unknown feels as a whole, and I really hope Tate gets the message when no one inevitably gives a shit...

But what of Tate? How has his voice fared through this new material? I'd consider this the equivalent of a live performance with 'the actual Queensrÿche' over these last 10 years. He still has his range, a few chops, but he's obviously not as seamless and ambitious as his younger self. That the vocals aren't the worst component of this record is to his credit, but no way in Hell are they strong enough to carry such a forgettable selection of songs, and even in the lead-off single "Cold" the chorus seems to evade my mind after mere seconds. I mean, I'm not going to completely toot the horn of the Todde La Torre-fronted, eponymous new album from Tate's former business partners, but compared to this it seems positively inspirational. Goddamn, Mr. Tate, if you ultimately wanted a clean break from this whole situation, you should have put out a Timbaland- produced pop album (like your fellow Washingtonian crooner Chris Cornell) or gotten a strong songwriter to come in and build some strong, supporting hard rock for your vocal assets... Frequency Unknown doesn't cut it. Seek help, go and listen to your 80s output, and plead for an inevitable reunion tour/album. Or at least pull a Halford Resurrection. With this sorry package/entourage, you've only flipped yourself off.

Verdict: Fail [2.5/10]

Queensrÿche - Queensrÿche (2013)

While I've already covered their discography at length, one of the points I don't think I've driven home was my disappointment in Queensrÿche's decision to 'shy away' from the metal genre, like a turtle retracting its head to avoid some sort of predator; this predator, of course, being the changes to the musical landscape in the 90s which leeched away a lot of the attention the metal and hard rock sub-genres had been enjoying for over a decade. Here was this colossus of a band, riding high off their career-defining masterpiece Operation: Mindcrime, and then suddenly 'whoosh', we were lucky to get a few tunes per album that were metal based (in theory). I know I'm not alone in wishing I could erase the vast majority of their post-88 discography from my memory. So when the drama surrounding the band erupted over the past few years, with Geoff Tate alienating himself from his band mates creatively and financially, and the others recruiting a new vocalist, Todd La Torre, who had himself been primed as Wade Black's replacement in Crimson Glory, I was also not alone in feeling a tinge of excitement in my disenchanted brain...

Would Queensrÿche, at long last, release the musical (if not conceptual) successor to Mindcrime that I had long fantasized and drooled over in some alternate dream-reality? The pieces were in place: the band had admitted their desire to return to the material that once excited their fanbase in the 80s. The new singer could more or less deliver a close impression of his forebear. Fuck, they even signed to Century Media, a label that (despite many missteps) still holds a fraction more 'metal cred' than the majors. And, last but not least, while they never abandoned 'the icon', here it returns to the forefront of attention with a clearly rusted, old metallic sheen to it that simply reeks of some nostalgic retrogression 'to form'. So, have they actually succeeded in sticking it to their old main man and launching the monumental comeback so many have craved? Well, yes and no. I'd be a fool to deny that this was better than anything they've put out since Promised Land, and it certainly arching back towards the metallic angles dominant on the first three records, but apart from its general sense of competence and an earnest attempt at sinking some hooks into a long-jaded audience, I can't say that it's a substantial triumph when acts like Angra and Pagan's Mind have already flipped its script and widened this medium's parameters to a breadth that the Washington rockers can probably never reach, hand in hand, with all their collective arms spread to the maximum.

What this record is, is a collection of glossy, polished, out-of-date progressive rock songs which do once in a while hint at some greater heaviness, but even then usually have to rely on more of a light grooving texture with a figment of crunchy tone than the trad metal leanings of The Warning. In other words, it's more or less a Promised Land or Tribe 2.0, including even a few of the Eastern rhythmic influences, where most of the meager riffing progressions take such a back seat to a showcasing of La Torre's range and ability that they'd might as well relocate to several vehicles behind them on the freeway. Granted, they hadn't really been a 'riff first' band since the Mindcrime years, but the guitars fused so atmospherically to Tate's arrangements that they were brilliant anyway. Oh, there's metal here, with tracks like "Redemption" and "Fallout" offering some 18-wheeler aggression and grooviness, but by this point we've already heard these sorts of riffs so many times in even harder edged glam rock that I just never found myself engaged. Ultimately, if you're expecting some sort of mind warping transition using the 80s as stock, or a progressive metal gem at all, then this is not the droid you're looking for. If you want an album that's more or less the same thing they've been peddling for the past 20+ years, then this is that, with a little more bite due to the new singer's conviction.

Now, since it's the question on everyone's tongue: yes, Todd La Torre is a healthy replacement for Tate, in part because his inflection is so similar (allowing him to 'slide' right into the earlier material), and in part because he's got a power to his lungs which his predecessor no longer seems fully capable of, but can also pull off the dramatic, sustained mid-ranged huskiness Tate had brought in the late 80s. Admittedly, Geoff is still a little silkier and smoother in delivery, but with decades of experience, he should be. La Torre pulls off a number of ace choruses, like in the opening rocker "Where Dreams Go to Die", and he's got a nice sustain when he layers on the higher notes, similar to Nils K. Rue (Pagan's Mind). But let's face it, he's really not that unique in a field that has already given us a Tate, a Midnight, a Tom Mallicoat (Lethal) or even a Michael Kiske. It's been done, and so La Torre is relegated more to 'holding the line' than improving or expanding upon it. It'd be a stretch to say that in a lot of the verses and a few of the choruses, he was doing anything more than going through the motions, because the supporting music is just not that inspirational...but I'd still green light his artistic visa to remain in the Ryche-ranks for years to come, until those group therapy sessions and inevitable reunion. Hey, Dickinson, Halford and Osbourne returned, so it's highly unlikely that Geoff Tate won't.

Otherwise, it's the same band we've been hearing for years. Eddie Jackson returns to the fat, propulsive bass tones here that occupy a great deal of space, while Rockenfield continues to hit hard through a selection of basic, but tribally-injected rock fills that lend that larger than life quality to the production. Harder rhythms have the requisite crunch, but there are still a lot of classic clean, chorused, ringing, sparkling strings that signal a lack of total commitment to going balls out, which frankly I would not have minded. They haven't gone heavily synthesizer based, with only a tangential keyboard presence, and there's still a lot more of a Rush lineage than Yes, but the atmospheres seemed to fade from my memory almost as soon as I'd heard them, a trait also typical of their last 7-8 records. The production is really loud and even, but even though I've no idea what software and equipment they actually used in-studio, it has a pretty 'pro tools' feel, if that makes any sense. Punch, volume, brightness and lots of space for seamless overdubs, but maybe a bit too tidy. I read that Wilton used a lot of his old amps to achieve the 80s/90s tones, but I certainly felt like this was an album recorded in various places at various dates, which it apparently was.

The short length of the disc (about 35 minutes) might shock some people, yet I really don't mind it. The intro ("X 2") and ambient interlude ("Midnight Lullaby") are entirely throwaway, but I realize some people even thought that way about the story-filler bits on Mindcrime. I guess I just wish that the 33 minutes of rock were far better written and prone to delivering stronger riffs and choruses. As it stands, I'm pretty lukewarm on Queensrÿche. It proves to me that, in a less diminishing capacity, the boys might still 'have it', but if so they are just not spewing it all over us this time around. A solid effort, and practically a masterpiece when compared to tripe like Q2K or Operation: Mindcrime II, but my hopes of this creating the magic I used to feel in their music of the mid 80s were dashed against the rocks in just the first few songs, and then never restored through the scant remainder of new material. Not bad, but with luck, in further warming up to this flexible and capable new frontman in their midst, they'll also challenge themselves to write and perform at the level they've long abandoned. This material is basically like they're toe-testing the jacuzzi's temperature. Dive right the fuck in. Don't be afraid to beat the shit out of us, Queensrÿche. We deserve it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Monday, June 24, 2013

Portent - Dismal Deities EP (2013)

Dismal Deities knows how to drag you into its depths with the diabolical pageantry-riffing of its first track, "Woven" and then not let you go as its continues to unleash a stable of death, black and doom progressions that maintain an appreciated level of variation without sacrificing their sense of sweltering darkness. Impressive, considering this is just one man (the eponymous entity 'Portent'), but really I'm just happy that extreme metal artists amidst such a massive swath of mediocrity are still focusing in on 'the riff' as a concept. Though Portent might not be a paragon of the medium, the music here is at the very least thoughtful and concise, with arbitrary repetitions or soulless, uninspired note sequences left by the wayside, which only benefits the listener.

The writing is more or less a level playing field between the three niches I listed above. Overt, sepulchral death/doom ("Hollow Oaths") that should appeal to fans of Finnish groups like Hooded Menace or the younger Solothus. Textured, mournful melodies, obscure whispered rasps and thick, corpulent performance on the bass guitar totally flesh out the voluminous, raw drumming. But then there's the ghastly, scaling, winding mid-paced melodic death metal ala "Woven" which feels like you're gallantly riding a nightmare steed on a ferris wheel unto damnation, or the great "Dismal Are Our Ways" which is slightly more entrenched in a barebones, sinister black metal aesthetic. Despite the range and ambition, though, Dismal Deities never becomes untangled, unglued or indecisive...the stylistic overlap is consistent, the transitions feel like the product of a single, demented mind rather than an individual attempting to bite off more flesh than he can devour. All the music is also regulated by the central vocal timbre, which is a gruesome, resonant guttural bark that can occasionally whittle away to a more rasped inflection.

Bleak, apocryphal cover artwork, some incantation of snaking, smoky souls is a nice accompaniment to the dingy, ritualistic but mockingly playful variety of the musical ideas here, and clearly you've got another proponent for the 'way things were'. Portent gladly eschews the concepts of technicality or clutter, concerned strictly with riffs and atmosphere, two of my favorite things, and as such I feel that this EP will hold appeal towards a good cross-section of fans. Whether they're into the archaic death/doom stylings of a band like Autopsy, the black/death of Abyssal, or other morbid mash-ups like Sonne Adam or Father Befouled (though this UK act is more uppity in nature), the cult potential is undeniable. Who can say what will result when this guy gets his skeletal digits on a full-length's worth of material? But for now, this very reasonably priced four-tracker is headed in the right direction: down, down, ever downward to the lightless catacombs and crawlspaces of the Underworld.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Desolator - Unearthly Monument (2013)

Desolator is perhaps the most unabashedly old school death metal act in a family of underground Swedish projects that includes Ending Quest, Soliliquium and Within the Fall, but beyond getting the fundamental aesthetics right, I wasn't terribly impressed with the Gravefeast demo in 2010. Though a number of those early tracks have made the transition onto their debut full-length Unearthly Monument, releasing through Polish Hellthrasher Productions, the larger selection of material here definitely gives us a better insight and a stronger songwriting showcase of their capabilities. Add to that a straight to the face, down to earth production job and some clear thrash-to-death conversion compositions circa the early 90s, and you've got yourself a decidedly archaic sound arriving at a time when the irons are hot for such flashbacks, and the Swedes have taken a step forward in quality, though not yet an elephantine stride.

I'll give Desolator some credit: they absolutely do not sound like your run of the mill, Left Hand Path worshipers but instead go out for a less abrasive, honest guitar tone which immediately displaces them from the plethora of Entombed/Dismember doppelgangers that have been wearing out their welcome for some time now (with exceptions, of course). Here I was more reminded of those 'other' Swedish cult classics like Into the Grave, Fornever Laid to Rest, or An Evil Shade of Grey, but with a liberal helping of Cianide, Cancer, Autopsy and Bolt Thrower. Granted, the chords seem a little too dry and bare, but meaty and oppressive enough to carry the weight of the quartet's aggressive. A few of the riffing progressions could be linked back to a d-beat or predictable, bouncing breakdown influence you find so readily in this niche of death metal, but for the most part they really drag the imagination back towards the thrash-inspired riffing from which death metal emerged in its infancy. Desolator are also no strangers to evil melodies, like those that open "Feeding Frenzy", and they do a lot to help round out the less interesting chord patterns, though not to the extent that they're like to haunt your dreams for a substantial amount of time.

Unearthly Monument's honest, earthen visage extends to the drumming, which has a nice, hovering live presence felt through the snares, fills and general pacing. Bass lines are thickly pumped along with the rhythm guitars through I'd prefer they were more distinct and independently musical, and the vocals have a dense and guttural inflection which is often drawn out with a bit of Floridian snarling influence. Speaking of Florida, they pull off some respectable, morbid tremolo-picked riffing progressions that hearken back to records like Scream Bloody Gore or Leprosy, only not quite so memorable; but there are also some intense blasted sequences (like in "Impaled") that usher in some of the brutality of the mid 90s. In other words, even if Desolator isn't the most atmospheric or sinister sounding band in this particular scene, there is no denying that they're well-rounded, and unafraid to change gears or tempos to avoid stagnant repetition of ideas. They get their elbows hands dirty shoveling death. It's not an amazing album, but it's a fleshy, humble, and antiquated means for old school purists to kill the better part of an hour (48 minutes), fully aware of its limitations and identity.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, June 21, 2013

Viranesir - Fountain of Uncertainty (2013)

With its phallic cover image and cleverly relevant album title (don't we know it, males), and a track list that reads like a chronological overview of the reproductive cycle, Fountain of Uncertainty is quite a rare bird that I've received for the blog. In fact, what makes the album even more unusual is that it's the soundtrack to a short Turkish film, Drink from the Fountain of Uncertainty, which examines the life and relationships of a musician in the Adana-Mersin provincial area, and it's quite fascinating just how the lyrics for each of the pieces matches up to the themes of alienation, subcultural isolation and so forth while still having that duality of purpose to remain an abstraction for the sexual process hinted at. But even cooler, what surprised me was just how well the ambient textures and drudging, evil black metal guitar aesthetics actually function alongside the clips of the film that I've actually seen.

This isn't Emir Toğrul's first dance with this particular admixture of ingredients, having released several albums as Yayla, but Fountain of Uncertainty is the most visionary and compelling of his works that I've come across yet. An oft times chilling, oft times majestic affirmation of the qualities once manifest in the music of an artist like Burzum or Abruptum, only cast in a more urbane, post-everything mold. Distant and cacophonous, wailing vocals hover just at the edge of perception alongside the dreamy, crude synthesizers (think early M83) and rasping guitar lines, while the drum programming thunders just loud enough that you realize there is a beat mooring the music. However, there is quite a variation in the structure of these five pieces: "Stark of Dark", for example, is a roiling marriage of molten, fuzzed out bass tones with eerie layered synthesizers, while the album's 12+ minute centerpiece, "Ejaculation" is a more jarring, progressive piece with some staccato and flooded chords, and overall the most guitar-oriented, and the closer "Fertilization" makes the best use of the snarled, decaying black metal vocal style.

Whether vocally or instrumentally, though, the album is equally engaging, with a distant and murky mix that feels like its clamoring off the crumbling walls of an inner city, only to transcend the building-tops and escape off into a dingy night sky. The caveat is, while Emir exhibits a lot of control here on the shorter instrumental tunes ("Stark of Dark", "Sight of Light"), Fountain of Uncertainty is not an album that will sate anyone who seeks the norm. Architecture, percussion, verse/chorus conventions are at best, loosely defined, and the totality of the 30 minute experience plays far more like a dark ambient experimentation than a heavily metal infused monument. There is no shortage of sounds or textures, but Toğrul leaves plenty up to the imagination, especially when one is listening through this independent of the film. That said, I found that the music worked in both situations, as ancillary tension and warmth to the story, and as a background piece one can insert into the turmoils and victories of one's own existence.

It's not perfect, and I would actually not have minded a broader palette of sounds and instruments here, but it IS consistent in quality, and has enough conviction to really swallow the imagination while it lasts. A well rationed, well executed proof of its concept. Recommended if you're seeking out a more loose, surreal, urban alternative to Filosofem, Darkspace, or that intriguing, obscure Alpha Drone s/t out of Germany.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Autolatry - Native (2013)

Ever come away from a film screening, a listening party, or an art exhibit with a broad smile on your face that translates into 'something right just happened'? Well, Native, the sophomore full-length from Connecticut's Autolatry has proven the latest instance of this phenomena for me, a conceptual piece which musically expands and expounds upon the band's prior output (the Of the Land EP) in decidedly thorough and positive directions that help to address any possible shortcomings there might have been. Previously an intensely melodic, harmony-drunk black metal outfit who were already quite skilled, they've now successfully embraced and smoothed over tangents of jazz, folk, and post-rock/hardcore chord progressions into a delightful, dynamic whole that remains compelling across a number of listens, and while perfection might still have eluded the quintet, there is no question that Native demands to be head by anyone interested in forward thinking, eclectic spins on its parent genre.

There is precedent, of course, and I'd be remiss to ignore that established European acts like Enslaved and Klabautamann, or modern US cults like Krallice have already tilled some of the fertile soil Autolatry are harvesting, but these guys seize such aesthetics and paint them onto a personal palette of grace and agony which becomes even more engrossing the further through Native one travels. For instance, "Colony", while a formidable exhibition of (or introduction to) the group's rhythmic versatility and devotion to non-standard chord choices (at least in this niche), barely scrapes the surface of the range of emotions and ideas lying in wait for the listener, and is quickly eclipsed by the bass-driven grooves of "Waning Moon" or thundering blast-work which ushers in "Unrest with the Tide", and from there the surprises never cease, from the warm and proggy bridge of "Pale Dishonor" to the immediately memorable acoustic/saxophone interlude "Setting of the Sun", or the immense surge of the titular finale. Autolatry's sense of pacing here is brilliant, through both the consonant and dissonant flux of their riffing progressions, and combined with the lyrical themes of native New England subjugation during the early colonization of the United States, it's clear we've got an album that is unique and important.

This is not pulled off through strict adherence to conventions, but through creative, proficient instrumentation culled from a number of influences. For one, the excellent, fluid and occasionally frenetic bass playing has its roots in jazz, fusion, or progressive rock & metal, an almost Cynic-level attention to details. Its fat, thriving, swerving tones create a seamless contrast to the harsher discord of the modernized chords, which are just as often steeped in post-punk/hardcore (Sonic Youth meets Voivod) architecture as they are paeans to the formative melodic black metal out of Sweden in the 90s. The drums are everything they need to be: whether blasting in concussive clarity or settling into a rock groove, the strikes and fills are well-placed, well-timed, and I love how they're able to achieve such audible, loud levels in the mix without smothering any of the guitars or the vocals. Speaking of which, the snarling might be considered the least of Native's 'curiosities', but there is plenty of conviction there, an occasional growl, and they thankfully avoid the predictable cliche of the Scandinavian soaring cleans. When Karl Chamberlain goes for a mildly cleaner timbre (as in the bridge of "Pale Dishonor") there is still a lot of grime and constipation there which I enjoyed.

Autolatry is artfully abreast of their US contemporaries like Krallice, Liturgy, and Deafheaven, only more intense, memorable, and less prone to the frustrating bouts of ironic and uninteresting compositional choices that render their works incongruent to the amount of hype they celebrate. Native doesn't bear that same philosophical burden of 'let's be artsy for art's sake' which plagues a lot of unfortunate, insipid hipster neckbeard black metal. This isn't some forestry-obsessed Fugazi with rasped vocals, but an actual black metal album, albeit with a difference. Complex, and challenging in that it will occasionally flood the listener with its jarring dissonance and tempos, but ultimately not difficult to follow or headache-inducing. In fact, the harder hitting riff sequences here proved quite a compelling counterweight to the simpler imagery inherent to the lyrical passages of nature and loss. Like if a reincarnated Walt Whitman, speaking on behalf of the Nehantics, Sequin or Pequot-Mohegan tribes, was putting together a Lulu-styled collaboration with members of Enslaved, Agalloch and  Borknagar. Only awesome. I can't say that I loved this record entirely, since I found 3-4 tunes more interesting than the rest, but at its worst, Native is still bound to be one of the most engaging USBM recordings of 2013. Translation: listen to this.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Alice in Chains - Jar of Flies EP (1993)

Alice in Chain's second EP, Jar of Flies, is an enigma in my personal hierarchy of the band's discography, in that while it is far from their heaviest work, it is unquestionably my favourite. There are a myriad of personal reasons that inform this declaration (young-adult angst, mostly); but its an impeccable album in its own regard, with brilliant songwriting (almost) all the way through. There's something remarkably pure about this album, possibly thanks to the circumstances of its recordings (the band supposedly wrote and recorded the entire EP in a week, while living in the studio after being evicted from their shared apartment after the Dirt tour). 

Much like Sap, the songs feel more personal here; less about the wallowing in the mud and more about wondering where you are, and where life's taking you. To a young nineteen-year-old who was going through the aforementioned angst (not looking for sympathy, honest), a lot of this album rang true on a few levels. The stripped-down arrangements, dominated by acoustic guitars, evoke a more reflective side of a band that seemed to have a lot to reflect on, not the least of which being newfound critical acclaim after the release of Dirt

The band isn't afraid to experiment beyond the acoustic arrangements here, either. "Rotten Apple" showcases one of guitarist Jerry Cantrell's best solos, played through a talk-box; "I Stay Away" and "Whale & Wasp" both feature strings, with the latter having the honour of being the band's only instrumental piece. All the songs here are unique and manage to differentiate themselves in bold ways, which is all the more remarkable with the EP being - for all intents and purposes - an impromptu jam session. The level of craft on display here is incredible, and its made even more so when considering it was done such a short time. The fact that something so beautiful and completely integral to a band's ouevre as a song like "Nutshell" appears here is astounding. 

"No Excuses" is arguably the centrepiece of the EP's concentrated genius. All four members are at their A-game here, with an incredible rhythm section consisting of Sean Kinney and Mike Inez (replacing the late Mike Starr on bass) supporting Cantrell and late vocalist's Layne Staley's impeccable harmonies. Once again, the guitar is nothing to scoff at, with Cantrell's playing absolutely shimmering during the verse, all building to an incredibly memorable solo. The song is more upbeat than AiC has ever sounded before and since then, a stark contrast with the remainder of the disc yet never feeling out of place.

The same can't be said about my only real slight against the album, that being the final track, "Swing On This". A bluesy track ushered in with a walking bass line, there's nothing inherently bad about it. In fact, its just the kind of off-kilter track, with a chorus that reminds me a bit of Dirt's "Hate to Feel", that really characterized some of AiC's deeper cuts. That said, I feel like it doesn't flow very organically from the rest of the album. The first six songs form such a cohesive picture that "Swing On This" comes off as jarring. Some will certainly disagree, but for myself, its the only reason why I would refrain from calling Jar of Flies perfect. 

Last song woes aside, however, Jar of Flies remains an introspective, honest, and unpretentious work from a band that had worldwide acclaim at its fingertips. To take the time away from superstardom and and bare it all on a work so genuine is nothing short of remarkable, and I recommend everyone give it a listen. No excuses.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (Take me home)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Zealotry - The Charnel Expanse (2013)

Ever a pleasure to discover a band like Zealotry haunting the New England underground, especially in the death metal niche, which I've honestly never found to be particularly strong around here. Sure, we've had some local heroes to cheer on in the past, and we've got a few at the moment (Abnormality, Revocation, etc), but The Charnel Expanse is something positioned at quite the right place and time: an old school exhibition which never shies from introspection, atmosphere and most importantly, a higher plane of musicality you just don't expect from your garden variety Incantation, Entombed or Autopsy clones that have admittedly helped rekindle an interest in the sounds of the genre's grade school years. Zealotry takes chances, and the band's full-length debut allows each of its constituent instruments to breathe witchery into its arcane whole, plus the cover looks like a squamous send-up to Cryptopsy's Blasphemy Made Flesh, or at least a handmaiden of Lloth...

The obvious comparisons conjured by The Charnel Expanse would be Immolation's first few albums in the 90s, with perhaps a helping of the less blatantly groove-infested riffing off Demilich's Nespithe, but more recent parallels could be drawn towards Canadian acts like Mitochondrion or Antediluvian or a hint of the more structured Portal material. The music is quite complex in its phrasing, tempo shifting and peppering of techniques like harmonics, squeals and splaying out the individual notes of chords as a counterpoint to the more rampant manifestation of the other, driving rhythm guitar. Variation without loss of cohesion, and plenty of creepy segues coursing through the album, like the strangely addictive clean guitars opening "Blighted", which are an excellent dynamic digestive aide for those turned off by incessant onslaughts. When I mentioned 'old school' earlier, I was referring more to the 90s school of thought, when the genre was evolving through the musical proficiency of its practitioners...The Charnel Expanse is far more demanding, for example, than the rudimentary, evil tremolo patterns or bludgeoning grooves used to anchor classics like Death's Leprosy or Obituary's Cause.

No, it's more catered towards fans of records like Here in After, Obscura or None So Vile. As such, a brazen, ballistic and ranged performance is required of the rhythm section, and it is given, with the drums in particular standing out in the mix. A few fills seem to fall flat in the context of the motion of the riffs they are accommodating, and there are occasional stock blasts alternated against the more interesting mid paced riffing or grooves, but it's one of those albums where I feel like I could shut off the vocals and guitars and still enjoy listening to this guy batter away. Same could be said of the bass, which is a little deep in the mix but every inch as nimble as the rhythm guitar, with some nice effective deviations from the centric progressions that help justify its independence (for example, I loved its zipping and bumping beneath the leads in the track "Decaying Echoes"). Leads are also a standout component of this record, both flashy and atmospheric enough to enforce the otherworldly lyrics and imagery of the band's cosmic and philosophical schemata, and giving the recording just that much more overall depth.

The Charnel Expanse was not crossed in a day, and the effort applied by the musicians was obvious from the first few fell, majestic note progressions that herald "Avatars of Contempt, pt. I". There are a handful of transitions through the record that I felt could have been tightened to greater effect, where the volume of ideas and execution almost suffocates itself. Also, the leverage between the two simultaneous rhythm guitar tracks seemed a fraction unbalanced so that it could be slightly difficult to pick out the nuances of one over the other...but then, I've got to admire just how much work was put into their coexistence. The only other gripe I had was that some of the dual-layered guttural vocals were slightly overbearing, and that I preferred when just one growl was emitted since there is just so much happening musically that it could become a bit claustrophobic to include more. But as a paean to the madness of social and moral decay, all of the pieces here do ultimately fit the puzzle, and Zealotry has got itself quite an engrossing experience which holds up through a large number of listening sessions. The lyrics are thoughtful, and many of the riffs fantastic. Expect a great, reality-warping future from Zealotry. First, we Massholes hosted Miskatonic University, and now this band. No pressure, gentlemen!

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (conflict spreads exponentially)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Unconscious Mind - Where Philosophers Fall (2012)

Experiencing a void of decent symphonic tinted melodic black/death metal of late? Quebec's The Unconscious Mind have your back with an effectively vibrant and destructive mesh of 90s style melodic tremolo guitar picking, sweeping piano overtures and progressive metal bass acrobatics that each twist through a series of thundering blast burst beats and meticulous, palm muted grooves which are delivered with the lewd punctuality of both modern death/thrash and metalcore timing (and I don't include that last reference with any sense of negativity). What results is an all-purpose assault which isn't particularly catchy or novel, but clearly the product of many long hours of calculation, composition and a severe chip on the band members' shoulders.

Angry and agile, Where Philosphers Fall is further proof of how metal musicianship in general has evolved. 15-20 years ago, you'd never expect a self-released debut record being written or performed at this level, and fuck, it even boasts some killer cover artwork. That's not to say that The Unconscious Mind are anything more than a pastiche of varied extreme metal styles that have risen or plateaued over that period, but they alternate between them with ease, and the range of the 50 minute debut is internally consistent, with enough symphonic/piano segues to break up the harsher content. Once in awhile, they'll lapse into a fairly generic mathematical chug sequence (like the bridge to "The Mirror of My Punishment") without setting up anything compelling, but more often you'll get at least an interesting fusion of notes and instruments. By far my favorite component of the record was the bassist...I could probably just listen to his tracks alone and be entertained, since he's got a lot of harried fusion chops redolent of groups like Cynic, Obscura and so forth, but the guitars also have a lot of surgical exaction that I also admired, and the black metal runs totally take you back to the heyday of Dissection, Emperor and early Old Man's Child.

The drums don't have a lot of character, but they exhibit all the appropriate brickwork and foot speed one would expect of this hybrid of styles. Perhaps the least impressive element were the vocals, which are a near constant pairing of snarls and growls that feels overbearing and monotonous like it would on a lot of similar, modern recordings in the realms of melodic death, metalcore or other, more insipid black/death hybrids. It isn't that the vocals are 'bad', per se, but they're simply never evolved beyond typical, and thus I don't hear a lot of passion or torment within them...I honestly preferred when it was just the more guttural style by itself. They also don't concoct a lot of riffs that really stick with me, but on the other hand there is so much happening that I was listening through the album a number of times and still picking out new phrases that just hadn't gelled in my brain previously. In other words, it's busy enough that it never becomes boring, though I could not choose out particular standout tracks that I wanted to keep re-listening through.

In the end, Where Philosophers Fall is a solid and exceedingly proficient debut for a band that likely will grow as songwriters as they conceive more material, but in the meantime more likely to thrill due to the contrasts of keyboard arrangements and pinpoint extremity. A curious combination of the mid 90s black metal boom and the sophistication of fellow Canadian death/thrashers like the popular Quo Vadis or maybe a few hints of older Neuraxis or Despised Icon. There are moments of inspiration and moments of retread coursing through the content, but it's clear to me that musicianship alone is not an issue...these guys can play circles around anything they desire, but this particular set of songs didn't really endure for me beyond the initial impact of their raw talent at stringing them together. Still, not a whole lot to complain about here, they are already quite seasoned and beyond ready for some label exposure.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Odium Nova - Death Comes Sudden (2013)

Young, talented, and interminably ambitious (perhaps to a fault), Odium Nova offer us a pretty unique interpretation of the melodic death metal/ symphonic hybrid which is at the very least going to burst them onto the radars of those interested in polished and dynamic modern death with absolutely no shyness in terms of incorporating keyboards and pianos. I believe a direct comparison to any one precedent might be difficult, but I feel like this is somewhat of a spin on the Finnish formula of groups like Kalmah or Children of Bodom, only with a tinge of Amon Amarth's propensity for deep growls and driving, simpler guitar progressions; and then maybe a hint of Septic Flesh, Stormlord, or another Moscovian act you may know, Mental Home, in the use of sweeping but measured orchestration.

Of course, in a world so presently enamored with old school, dirty death metal, a record like Death Comes Sudden is anathema, but I think there's quite a lot of crossover appeal in what they write, perhaps to the Gothic metal crowd, aforementioned Finnish melodeath scene, the popular pagan/folk metal acts hailing from Europe, US groups like Alestorm and Blackguard, or even symphonic black metal stalwarts like Dimmu Borgir, Cradle of Filth and Chtonic. These Russians just capture that much of a range in the staggering 17 tracks of their full-length debut, but it's this very overwhelming scope of the album that also causes it to suffer from some inconsistency in effectiveness, and to be truthful I think it might have proven superior with just 9 or 10 of the better tunes packed together into a more concise exhibition of the band's strengths. That's not to say that the weaker tracks here suddenly fall off some steep incline of quality, and in Odium Nova's defense you're getting a broad range of stuff here, from straight riff-based ragers like "Paradise Sold" (a power metal and melodic death bastardization) and "Private Gehenna" (almost a rocking black/thrash) to "Sunset Over Styx" and "Hecatomb" which are more eloquent due to the keyboard arrangements.

The mix of the album is incredibly clean, if not entirely resonant. Rhythm guitars have a lot of punch but their particular neutered sense of saturation can lead to the subjugation of the riffs by either the keyboards, vocals, or more sensibly, the lead melodies and harmonies which are basked in brighter effects. The bassist is given plenty of space to breathe, and thus he's not always stuck to the rhythm guitar, and the drums performed with a mechanical precision that includes plenty of double bass and other mandatory techniques, even though they never really rise to the fore of the songwriting. Pianos are perfunctory but occasionally memorable, and other atmospherics like choirs and calmer clean guitar passages are strewn throughout the 55 minutes of content to help balance off the harder, driving sequences. Vocals are everywhere, from a deep guttural growl to a more Carcass-like snarl; nothing quite original, but effective and well structured to the verses and chorus progressions. If I had to pick one area that shined above the rest, it's got to be the lead guitars, which are very polished and balanced between flashy technique and emotional impact. Maybe not unique, but they certainly show a lot of effort there...

As tastefully executed as the atmospheric/symphonic based tracks are, I actually found myself siding more with the brutally inspired tracks like "Crypt of Fatal Truth" or "Human Larva" which feature a bevy of  precise, exciting, death/thrash riffing. But ultimately, I think if you're going to hammer us with 17 fucking songs, it's best that they show a broader palette of ability, which Death Comes Sudden clearly does. This record was clearly a labor of love, perhaps biting off more than it could chew, but revealing that there is probably no limit to what Odium Nova will be capable of, if this is so early in their career. They formed in 2011, after all...hell, most bands couldn't write something like this after a decade. Even the lyrics are pretty goddamn solid and interesting. Is it mind blowing or intensely memorable? That I can't promise, but I was definitely surprised to get a recommendation out of left field for something I'd never heard of that was this fully realized. Fans of anything I mentioned in the first two paragraphs might wish to give this a whirl, or lovers of modern, hygienic extreme metal which splits its attentions pretty evenly between the graceful and grotesque.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Monday, June 17, 2013

Neige Éternelle - Neige Éternelle (2013)

Neige Éternelle is a Quebecois black metal act which seeks a dialing back of the clock's hands to both the attitude and aural aesthetics of the earlier second wave black metal of the early 90s, characterized through a
sense of reductionism in production values that is responsible for both its stylistic parameters and icy, effective atmosphere. The band is well aware that that its intentions not to expand or complicate its medium, and thus settles directly into a sinister, distant and surprisingly elegant set of songs which I've found rather difficult to stop listening through. Having gotten a number of good promos via Montréal Sepulchral Productions lately, I can say that with no uncertainty that this was my favorite, and it scratches an itch I get every few years for the basest of black metal, steaming its open wounds out into a frost-tinged eveningscape, silent but for the howling of winds and wolves.

Naturally, my first comparison would be to Darkthrone's A Blaze in the Northern Sky, largely because it was the first album I owned to successfully dole out such an uncompromising, frigid atmosphere, but the marginally more melodic underpinnings inherent in Neige Éternelle's chord choices are actually more in league with Under a Funeral Moon or Transilvanian Hunger, De Mysteriis dom Sathanas or the first few Burzum outings. A melancholy captured in shards of ice, kept in a distant din beneath the drumming and the sustain of the vocalist's substantial rasp, like you were hearing it all performed half way across a frozen lake from an unheated cabin on the shore. The actual structure of the chord progressions is nothing novel, but doesn't really need to be...its nuance is strictly in its ability to cling to the listener's psyche like the uncertainty of surviving a blizzard in a primitive shelter void of modern amenities. To their credit, though, they mete out a fairly varied palette of riffing techniques which help this from falling into the quicksand of ceaseless repetition; "Comme une charogne" operates off eerie, mid-paced chords with a spiky emphasis on the higher notes in their respective chords, while "Fier patriote" incorporates some moody speed/thrash metal picking, or "L'appel de la mort" is your full-on, desperate blasterpiece.

But, while I enjoyed the writing, it's really the production that sold me on this eponymous debut, helped in part because I received this during the opening notes of summer, when the New England heat begins to swelter to a degree that I have simply never found comfortable (though I've no doubt many would consider it 'mild' at worst). All the instruments are audible, but never 'up front', if that makes any sense. The snares and crash along like an old Bathory disc, the double kick lines often feel like a bunch of rowdy fans thundering the bleachers during a hockey match, and the vocal sneer is constantly raving like someone stabbed and isolated in the woods, whose pleas may or may not reach the neighboring village. Granted, the actual timbre of the rasp is admittedly monotonous, but here that serves only to help distinguish the rhythm guitars and the sordid plunk of the drier bass guitar tone propelling alongside them. Feedback and subtle storm atmospheres greatly influence the direction of the music, as in the intro to "Pluie de couteaux", in which some dirty 'clean' patterns set up a dreamlike precipitation that really lives up to the band's name.

Ultimately, Neige Éternelle was an exhilarating 40-minute indoctrination into a genuine realm of suffering that I so rarely experience of late, perhaps due to some jadedness with a lot of the derivative works fielded in this niche that are ineffective at placing both production and compositional skills in proper context. This is raw, fundamental, wholly convincing black metal whose only 'crutch' might be seen its lack of originality, only not to the majority of those who are likely to invest in this. I thankfully felt my fingers and toes turning blue as I did with Anguished of Finland's debut or Atra's Death Coven, and the record struck me as a solid summer curative to help deal with the disgusting sweat on my forehead and limbs. After all, as Leonard Jeffries Jr. once reminded us, I'm one of those 'ice people', so I've somewhat of a bias for music that makes me feel so good by feeling pale and awful. Neige Éternelle does exactly that, and so I've got no choice but to recommend it to all the craven, despotic and the desperate who might crawl out from their crypts and rocks to acquire it. A great debut!

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Mirthless - A Dirge for Your Suicide (2013)

While I'm sure I've seen Peru's Mirthless described as a 'funeral doom' band in the past, this full-length debut album is actually quite flexible in terms of how it balances the standard slog of the form with more up-tempo sequences that help to break up the longer cuts (of which there are only two on the recording). You'll hear a lot of 80s or 90s trad doom, straight rock 'n' roll or even punk influence in some of the chord selections, which are unfortunately rather standard in execution; but where the rhythm guitars might severely lack in the novelty department, the rugged analog mix and raw presentation of the vocals and instruments definitely gives it some character that it might otherwise have lacked if it were your straight up, garden of gravestones polished tribute to old Anathema, Paradise Lost or My Dying Bride.

In fact, A Dirge for Your Suicide feels so raucous and live that you could be sitting in the same garage or basement where the trio were performing. Meaty, driving chords cover up the bass a little, but you can totally feel the chugs in your gut as they creep along, morphing into and out of chord progressions that are surprisingly not as despairing and dreary as you might expect from the cover artwork alone. Which once again brings up the trad doom comparisons, for there's quite a lot of Sabbath, Pentagram and Vitus in the way the note patterns play out. That said, there's a slightly more sorrowful side to the band when they fuse in some ringing, Candlemass-like melodies during the slowly paced majority of the fix tunes, like the titular "Dirge" which also incorporates some cleaner, mournful vocal melodies reminiscent of My Dying Bride. Otherwise you're getting sustained guttural grunts interspersed with slightly higher pitched snarls, which are effective but occasionally a little contrasted to some of the more rocking chords that pop up in places like "Pantheon of Disgraces" amidst the depressing strains of harmony.

Wasn't totally impressed by the drum levels, since the kicks, toms and tinier hissing cymbals all seem to occupy separate planes, but they certainly contribute to this no bullshit, live vibe that Mirthless are giving off here, even when they toss in something like a blast beat out of left field. A Dirge for Your Suicide is almost entirely unprocessed, stripped down so that it wouldn't sound a lot different if delivered on the stage than the studio. Other gripes were that I felt myself wishing for more interesting bass guitar lines to help deviate from the pretty predictable rhythm guitars, and the melodies aren't exactly the sort to haunt you long after the fact. Sometimes transitions just seem haphazardly tossed into the songs so they don't achieve a high emotional impact, but then this is not constantly a soundtrack for suckling your regrets, since the Peruvians don't seem to share an interesting in boring the listener like many others clogging the medium. This is just unapologetic, rough, sincere death/doom more in sync with decades of olde than the heavily produced, over-tracked Gothic whining with female ethereal vocals that you'll hear in a lot of European bands of the 21st century.

I can't exactly say that I enjoyed the album, since I wish the rhythm guitars would attempt some more unusual and memorable riffs regardless of the pacing, but at the same time, it never once put me to sleep. Varied tempos and song lengths ensure that it remains marginally fresh on the ears, but both the chord progressions and melodies could use some work to become more melancholic, jarring or soul scarring.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Friday, June 14, 2013

Gaschamber - Gaschamber (2002)

With a provocative name like Gaschamber, you've really got your work cut out for you in sonically living up to it, something that this Pennsylvania trio did with their eponymous, obscure debut back in 2002. Granted, the album is little more than glorified Slayer worship, with song structures, vocals and even production choices eerily reminiscent of the masterpiece Reign in Blood, not to mention the faster elements present on South of Heaven and its successor Seasons in the Abyss, but if you're going to it from the best, right? And I'd definitely point out that while there were always a handful of throwback bands in the 90s and early 'oughts who were also quite derivative in keeping the fire burning for the nearly defunct genre, Gaschamber was well ahead of the trending rethrash that has blown up over the last 6-7 years. It had been done before, but this was violence, speed, cruelty and an absolute lack of apologies...without the goofiness or image obsession that seems to make light of a genre that, apart from a few retarded gimmicks from bands like M.O.D. or Anthrax, was not in league with the irony some youngsters seem to believe.

Gaschamber is short and wastes no time getting to the point, with eight tracks in 24 minutes, a technique its mentor Reign in Blood mastered in the mid-80s. The songs are ALL fast without being excessively samey, and you're not going to have to suck up some ballad or worry about any experimentation. The guitars are a bit juicier than King and Hanneman on that iconic release, but they definitely cultivate that same sense of dry authenticity, not too harsh or distorted, but vibrant and thick enough that you can perceive all the acrobatic speed metal-inflections of the rhythm tracks ripping and racing all over one another. The vocal timbre and meter in many of the tracks (like "Defeating the Gods" or "Death in the Gaschamber") is highly reminiscent of Tom Araya, but this guy Karl Mitchell definitely sounds a bit more youthful and petulant, with a splash of more splatter- or crossover thrash frontmanship in there. But, clearly he's barking up that same tree, and a lot of the lyrical themes of genocide and warfare will naturally recount classics like "Angel of Death" in more ways than one; though something like "Trenchcoat Justice" helps update the topics to incorporate the social strife and mayhem of the early 21st century. Samples and vocal effects are used sparsely but tastefully, and I definitely never grew bored on any of the eight tunes, despite the glaring sense of familiarity.

The bass guitars are thick and quick but rarely stand forth from the rhythm riffs, though with Mitchell already performing vocals and other guitars, one can sort of forgive that lack of attention. At least you can hear them cleanly enough in the manic and pestilent thrashing of a "Hurricane of Blood" or "Raped to Death", and certainly there is more personality than a number of 80s discs I could think of, especially the punk/hardcore attitude they're given on the intro to "Civil War". Drums, on the other hand, sound pretty claptrap, organic but there's just something about the boxy snare that tends to distract me, and the tom fills can occasionally feel a bit too bulky. But you can't really fault the level of enthusiasm or energy there, and the beats are all fairly standard explosions of earlier Dave Lombardo which don't rely too heavily on the extreme metal drumming techniques (blasting and endless double bass) that Slayer helped pioneer. The leads are just as rough and frenzied as their spiritual successors on Reign in Blood, without wiring in a lot of cohesion or classical/scale influence, but they don't emotionally stand out from the supporting rhythm guitars too often, and internally rely on a lot of the same tremolo repetitions of notes, not taking much of an opportunity to rifle off the spurts of screaming, incendiary wizardry one might hope for.

Ultimately, the album is not a particularly great or memorable one, but it functions because of the timeless alternations between tight picking/sheer velocity and those gnarly, evil ascending or descending break riffs that Slayer or Destruction made immortal on tunes like "Raining Blood" or "Mad Butcher". These just don't get old, even if I have to give Gaschamber low marks for innovation or originality, and never feel compelled to listen to it over the genuine articles that inspired it. I'm loathe to call it a 'ripoff', since note for note it is not, but they were more than wearing their influence on their sleeves, and enjoyment of this lone album in their career will really depend on whether or not one wants to hear the 'magic' of 80s Slayer (post-Show No Mercy) resurrected, repackaged and force fed down your ears with a mallet. If the answer is yes, then try and locate a sample of this disc. Gaschamber, at the very least, had great taste, even if we'll never hear what they might later evolve that into. At least this album is blissfully void of the 'HEY U GUYS LOOK WE R SO THRASH' strike-a-pose bullshit that's due to send this excellent genre back into a state of hibernation for another 15 years.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]