Thursday, October 31, 2013

October 31 - The Fire Awaits You (1997)

I first ran into October 31 at one of the earlier March Metal Meltdown festivals in Asbury Park, NJ where I was rummaging bins and buying a bunch of vintage stuff, some from King Fowley's Old Metal Records, like the Witch Cross Fit for Fight CD reissue. I distinctly remember being impressed by the band's great name and also the cover art to The Fire Awaits You, and when I realized Fowley was directly involved in this, I picked up both the debut and the second album Meet Thy Maker instantly. Lo and behold, October 31 is indeed what we might dub a 'poor man's Deceased', with a comparable fondness for classic horror lyrical themes and obscure 80s influences. I certainly feel that a fan of one band might naturally appreciate the other, with the caveat that The Fire Awaits You is inspired more directly by traditional/speed metal and leaves out the primitive death and thrash trappings that characterized Deceased's evolution over the decades.

Essentially October 31 creates raw, blue collar epic heavy metal from a host of European, American and more specifically NWOBHM influences, with Fowley's down to earth, dirty vocals at the fore and a slew of sparser atmospheric nuances that lend it more character than it likely deserves. Brian 'Hellstorm' Williams' guitars are slightly muddy, unpolished and unapologetic and I tended to feel that, at least on this debut, many of the chord patterns felt a bit familiar and predictable, but that also was probably the point. There are some exceptions, like "Vindication" which was a little unusual, and I absolutely loved the mellow and moody acoustics that introduce "Lost City", with Fowley providing some ambient keyboard support; but in general this is all very workmanlike and expected speed/heavy metal without an immense measure of creativity. And normally I wouldn't have much of an issue with that, only the atmospheric and unusual choices made here unanimously stand out as the record's most interesting. It doesn't deliver the bold choruses and savage edge that a lot of its 80s forebears thrived off, the gloominess and lo-fi production coming across quite a lot like earlier Deceased.

I'd also say this was one of King's less exceptional vocal'll instantly recognize the guy for that natural grit, but when he attempts to hit a more touching, melodic phrase as in "A Million Goodbyes" or the title track, he seems slightly off-key or straining to really deliver what the song needs. This is not a man under any illusions as to his range on the microphone, but at least with most of the Deceased he sounds ruthless, aggressive or just plain, where the music is less busy and his voice has more space to resonate, his lines do tend to come up short. Not to the point where it's a deal-breaker, because The Fire Awaits You sets its nostalgic mood early on in "The Warlock" and never shakes you from it, but the guy sounds so much better elsewhere, even on Meet Thy Maker (a more powerful and memorable experience overall). The result is that the October 31 debut often seems like a pet project in which they weren't going to go out of their way to do many extra takes, or to establish a better guitar tone than this, instead choosing to rely on its visceral rawness as a strength when it's just not always the case.

His drumming does sound organic and quite fantastic here, especially the kicks and fills that just plow through the mix, but wherein Deceased his pummeling as matched by the guitars, this stuff is much simpler so he is often threatening to trample it all. Again, not a major issue but it makes you wish there was just a little more 'oomph' in many of the rhythm guitar progressions. The bass is simple and audible but not very interesting, so the songs really rely on chorus hooks and atmospheric embellishments to succeed, and the results there are uneven, if not completely inconsistent. As for the horror influences, they clearly revolve around older films the historical haze surrounding witches, warlocks, Hell on Earth scenarios or Halloween itself (in the title track). There's a cover of Witchkiller's "Day of the Saxons" which honors the original but does nothing compelling beyond just hearing Fowley's voice over the Canadian, Metal Blade Records alumni's obscurity. Ironically, the Saxon cover on the second album ("Power & The Glory") is superior...

But then, Meet Thy Maker (1999), or even the Visions of the End EP (1998) were clear steps up in terms of songwriting strength, emotional power and musicianship, though neither was a masterpiece. The Fire Awaits You has the makings of a good album, and even reaches that level in numerous places, but I felt a little more underwhelmed than I expected to after enjoying Fearless Undead Machines, which for comparison was released in the same year. What this album possesses in variation and attitude, it simply lacks in staying power. It's never played for camp, but that actually makes it a little less fun, even though King does his usually good job with the lyrics. I've long been crossing my fingers that October 31 would finally do some justice to their namesake, and release a thorough throwback 80s horror metal effort, but considering that there last full-length No Survivors (2005) was still fairly middling, I don't have a lot of confidence that their wonderful, cartoonish logo with get its due. In the end, Fearless Undead Machines and Supernatural Addiction give you all you could want out of this in spades, since they each have a metric ton of trad/speed metal influence, melody, and good old chops.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (it's watching all the time)

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Helstar - Nosferatu (1989)

'Neo-classical' might not be the right word to describe Helstar's later 80s material, but records like Nosferatu, or its mutually superb forebear A Distant Thunder were certainly culled from the same classical 'shred' inspiration that spawned the popularity of personalities like Yngwie Malmsteen or half the artists on the Shrapnel Records roster. But what separates this Texan USPM icon from so many of its smarmy, overly showy and self-indulgent peers is just how well they've incorporated the scales and techniques into a strong metal style. Despite the obvious technicality employed by Larry Branagan and André Corbin in the structure of this record, it doesn't feel like an exhibition so much as an extremely classy and unexpected take on a horror legend...

In fact, in covering the 'horror metal' theme lately, I've often complained about how particular records failed to approach their subject matter with anything bordering on an appropriate atmosphere or aesthetic, that they never in fact feel chilling or frightening like their original inspiration. Nosferatu is an unusual exception, in that succeeds despite this lack of scares. The only thing 'terrifying' about this music is the players' acrobatic ability to fly up and down scales to the point that it can impose a sense of vertigo or acrophobia on the listener, but what I truly enjoy is how it lends a credible degree of majesty to the Bram Stoker masterpiece. It's a little confusing that the cover art seems to imply that the theme is centered around F.W. Murnau's follically impaired Nosferatu film, when lyrically its based more on Dracula itself, and possibly various other movie adaptations (like the 1979 flick, which is wonderfully sampled); and I also don't always subscribe to this notion of 'half-concept albums', which I'll get more into later, but for at least 20-25 minutes of this album, provided the listener isn't too intimidated by the constantly complex, noodling riff progressions, Stoker's archetypal antagonist is transformed into this culturally sophisticated entity through Helstar's musical vision, and it's truly a unique treat.

That this record is ambitious is an understatement...gone are the majority of the paraphrased post-Priest or Maiden riff cycles you'd expect, replaced by twisting and winding scale patterns whose veils of proficiency are occasionally parted for some kick-ass, storming power/speed metal surge like the verse riff in "Baptized in Blood". It's as if the Texans arrived from some parallel evolution of the form dated straight back to Mozart or Beethoven with only a cursory influence from the Downing/Tipton or Murray/Smith combos, and only faintly cognizant of Iommi. Best are the points at which the delicate, dextrous picked scales are integrated directly into the verses, such as in "Sleep, Perchance to Scream" where they contrast wonderfully with James Rivera's emotional delivery. Shred-nerds are thrown several bones here, especially the brilliant instrumental "Perseverance and Desperation" with its lush classical acoustic passages and arching solos, and I can fondly remember this being one of the few harder metal records that I and some friends introduced to our Musical Theory class, junior year in High School, which managed to impress all the Vai/Satriani/Rhoads fanatics who represented about half the class. I managed to turn a handful onto Deception Ignored, too, but the colder clinical atmosphere there wasn't as huge a draw as the more accessible, familiar classical overtones of this.

To pull this level of intricacy off, the guitars are mixed with a very thin, but warm and clean tone which reveals each harmony with a crisp and effective clarity. Lots of delicious, mute picked sequences with scale fills that flow seamlessly into each loop. The drums are also somewhat emaciated with a lot of snap and pop to them, the kicks dialed back a little but loads of great fills that fill in whatever blank spaces remain from the dazzling onslaught of the dual melodies. Jerry Abarca's bass lines do take a backseat to the rhythm guitars through much of the content, though he's equally capable and complex, and if you listen closely you're hear that. It's just that the music is already choked with such busyness that to have him performing disparate layers of fills might have resulted in too mindbending a structure. As it stands, this is just accessible enough for the more traditional speed/heavy metal fan while earning its thrills for the musician crowd that was so heavily drawn to it. However, the more the band rages along into pure power metal momentum, as in "Harsh Reality", his lines seem to materialize more forcefully. Plus, Jerry's also pulling double duty here, responsible for some of the pianos and synthesizers that are occasionally incorporated in good taste.

As good as the musicianship is on this disc, what really ties it all together is Rivera's performance which brings a heightened sense of urgency and tension to the 'action' of the plot, vampiric or otherwise. If you asked me to short-list 10 of the greatest melodic singers in US metal history, James would be a goddamn guarantee, and I'd be happy to punch anyone who claimed otherwise in the nose. He's not some technical marvel, perhaps, like Halford, Tate or Dane in their primes. He's not always 'perfect' in execution, but it's actually the wavering pitch of his delivery, the minor flaws that make his voice so memorable. He never fails to sound excited here, and the result is that the narrative force becomes equivocally actors portraying Harker, Dracula and Van Helsing shouting their lines across the theater so all can hear. Don't get me wrong, the man is capable of pulling out some smooth, melodic and 'safe' lines, but it's that frenzied fragility of his pipes that really push this past the limits. Not unlike David Wayne, Bobby Ellsworth or John Oliva, there's a real pain there, it's simply expressed differently. All I can say is that, in an age where so many power metal voices have become vapid and uninspired in their pursuit of pitch perfection, Rivera was and remains a treasure. I might not be able to pick out a Fabio Leone or ZP Theart from a lineup (not that they're bad), but James fucking Rivera? I'll know that voice anywhere. The man is fantastic.

A Distant Thunder has almost always been the pinnacle of Helstar's full-lengths in my estimation, since it was just so forceful and the marriage of potent, complex classical riffing with the subject matter in "The King is Dead", "Tyrannicide", or "Abandon Ship" is a spectacle, and it took the hints of brilliance from the first two records to an entirely new level. That said, there are some evenings in which you might catch me swaying towards Nosferatu's favor. Certainly the subject matter is perfect for this sound, but I will also point out that this also leads to the album's greatest flaw: Helstar half-asses the vampire theme, which encompasses only the former half of the record and then seems to skirt off into some real-world issues, all the rage in the thrash and power metal of the later 80s. I'd have had no problem with that on the earlier outings, but Nosferatu deserved 43 minutes of Transilvanian unity, coherence to its subject matter. You could probably squeeze a trilogy of albums out of Stoker's tale, so 10-11 tunes (including interludes and instrumentals) would have been a breeze. It's simply too distracting to have the lyrics to "Harsh Reality" hammering at me after being taken to this shadowy, enchanted fictional realm. 'Why is the world so fucked up?' feels quite out of place after the tragic magnificence of Count Dracula, and ultimately the Stoker tribute ends up seeming rushed.

"Benediction" and "Harsh Reality", which kick off the non-Dracula arc, stand out a little too much, the former for all the gang shout arrangements, which are, to be fair, also present on some of the theme tracks to a lesser degree. Both are good songs with some killer moments, but they do feel like rougher outtakes from A Distant Thunder and lack some of that fragile eloquence dominating Nosferatu. "Swirling Madness" and "Aieliaria and Everonn" do fit the aesthetic better, the first being one of my favorite songs on the album, but I wish they were lyrically streamlined to the concept. In the end, the record just doesn't feel complete, and whilst this might seem a nitpick in the age of .mp3s and most of mainstream media/culture not giving a shit about the actual format of a 'full album', it definitely holds Nosferatu back from its full potential. Beyond that, though, this remains a timeless and kick-ass exhibition of metal at its finest hour: when it strove for something greater than what had been presented before. Hey, I got no problem with blue collar, down to earth 'eavy fuckin' metal...I've got my shrine to Lemmy like anyone else. But don't forget, when those guys started doing that, it WAS, in its own way, forward-thinking and innovative. Helstar, through the 80s, were a band who honored that rich history by forcing at the limits, and records like A Distant Thunder and Nosferatu a just reward, deserving their legacy. Which is, of course, the reason that unproductive six-year gap to Multiples of Black was such torture, and the end product such a shocking icon of dismay and suckiness...but that, friends, is a horror story I'm not yet ready to deal with, so I'll stick with the bloodsucker.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (you are the victim I've chosen)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Mercyful Fate - In the Shadows (1993)

In the Shadows could be considered a righteous 'comeback' record long before metal comeback records became a thing, as the majority of 80s acts hit their midlife crises and decided to give it that last college try. King Diamond and crew weren't leaping back into some trending rebirth of aesthetics in 1993...traditional heavy metal, especially here in the States, was a veritable dead zone. Beyond the touring stability of a few dozen acts, grunge and death metal had all but taken over, and groove metal reaching terminal velocity thanks to Pantera's success. That a defunct Danish staple like Mercyful Fate could return with such a fantastic record as this is a testament to how great they were in the first place, but color me unsurprised...

...because for about 15 years, Kim Bendix Petersen never once let me down on a single full-length. In fact, beginning with Melissa and Don't Break the Oath, up until the time someone lost their marbles and decided to release that riffless, idealess, uninspired creative nadir The Graveyard, King Diamond/Mercyful Fate probably laid claim to the greatest streak in all metal music. Ten full-lengths of quality in that '83-95 era, ranging from just 'great' to utter perfection, and yes I'm including Time and The Spider's Lullabye in that total. So when the King decided to take a short respite from the constant touring and brilliance of his solo group and reunite with his alma mater, with less than a decade since Don't Break the Oath, I had little to no trepidation about the ability of these men to deliver, and not only were my expectations met, but in some departments exceeded. Don't Breath the Oath is, and will likely remain my favorite of the Mercyful Fate records, but without question, I find In the Shadows to be their most creative. The sophomore is the first I'll turn to when nostalgia summons, but this felt far more unique to me in 1993 than Oath did in 1984.

A statement that would likely generate some dissent among various acquaintances who have argued with me that this simply sounds like another King Diamond solo record, but I have to disagree. Apart from the fact the two groups are inexorably linked due to Kim's falsetto shrieking and thematic similarities, I have long found the playing of the Shermann/Denner configuration quite different than Andy LaRocque. These guys had a more workmanlike unity to their playing, where Andy's more like a one man exhibition falling somewhere between Randy Rhoads and Yngwie Malmsteen, regardless of whoever is backing him up. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy all three of these legends (and Mike Wead to boot), and they could easily cover for one another if the need arose; but while there was obviously some influence from the old Fate carried forth into the King Diamond legacy and then back again, it's definitely the rhythm guitars that make all the difference discerning between the two...that and the fact that this particular disc reached a new benchmark in production quality that even renders masterworks like Abigail and The Eye somewhat unwashed (though I wouldn't trade the atmosphere inherent to those recordings for the world).

But In the Shadows has an atmosphere of its own. The record is loaded with these incredibly interesting, eerie and slower lurching riff progressions that are remarkably well-conceived, the sort of planning you're just too rarely going to find in a younger or 'throwback' band more concerned with copying pre-existing patterns of chords and mutes and then juggling them around like lottery balls. Granted, these unique twists did exist on the first two Fate outings, but to a lesser extent, not as fully fleshed out. Fear not: there are still numerous bursts of intense, melodic speed/heavy metal here as found in "Egypt", the spiritual stepchild to "Curse of the Pharaohs". Hank and Michael can certainly eviscerate a fretboard, but without exception, it's the moodier and measured picking patterns on this album that truly excel and stand to memory. By 1993, when many groups had dissembled or were stylistically shifting towards the status quo, Mercyful Fate was polishing and innovating its own brand into crystalline clarity and ear-carving catchiness. And it's not simply limited to the rhythms...the leads and melodies here are spectral, pristine, and just as important as their surroundings, and you also feel a tasteful amount of blues and 70s hard rock inspiration over the entire album.

What's more, the musical decisions here really seem to fit the individual tales of specters, seasons, shadows and other introspective gloom that dominate the lyrics. Unlike King Diamond records, which are more or less metallic-orchestrated novellas following an internal narrative, these read like short stories, though often also from the first-person perspective. Petersen shines throughout, engaging in quite a lot of his mid range to balance off against the shrieks and grooves in cuts like "The Bell Witch" and "The Old Oak", with a few of those blissful, ghostly lower falsettos emphasized with an additional whisper track. By this point, the King might be considered a master composer by any standard, so it's not unexpected that he can so carefully lay down each line, an author aware of every phrase before he dips his pen in the inkwell. The synths strewn across the songs are generally tasteful and supportive, occasionally reminding me of their use on The Eye, especially in the instrumental "Room of Golden Air" which honestly is the one tune that sounds like a leftover from that period. Acoustics are likewise sparse, used only in brief segments (like the intro to "Egypt"), it's ultimately those uncanny and morbid mid-paced rhythm guitars that drive so much of this experience.

Morten Nielsen's beats, while simplistic and rock-oriented rather than intense, have this great mix with just the right amount of resonant to the snares and kicks. No idea why they were credited to Snowy Shaw, but I'd just assume that was an error on the part of the label/graphics team. The one component lacking for me here is the bass playing, which seems really subdued, and not one of Timi Hansen's finer performances alongside the King. I mean, this is a very airy, eloquent mix, like a cold moonlit night with only a few clouds; so a booming or buzzy bass tone might prove distracting, but the volume is such that it only hovers below the rhythm guitar and I don't pick out a lot of interesting or inspired grooves and fills, with a few exceptions like "A Gruesome Time" where the instrument shines a little more than usual. Otherwise, In the Shadows just sounds so timeless and tremendous that I would hardly change a bloody note. Even the 1993 rendition of "Return of the Vampire" sounds dramatically improved thanks to its production...would've been better as a pure bonus track, since it seems mildly redundant, yet in keeping with the various 'sequels' on the album like "Is That You, Melissa" or "Egypt", it makes some sense and is thankfully tacked on as the finale.

Mercyful Fate had such a classy comeback here that it's hard to imagine any long time fans not enjoying it, beyond those easily marginalized louts who seem to joy in clinging to some proscribed period of a band's work and then automatically rejecting everything exterior to that phase. In the Shadows is intelligent, it's intricate, and it's thoroughly innovative despite such a strict adherence to the band's lyrical aesthetics and traditional 80s style. With the exception of "Room of Golden Air" and "Return of the Vampire", it's quite coherent without any of the tunes sounding quite the same, and it's even got that captivating cover image which broaches a number of the album's subjects. Perhaps most impressive, at least to me personally, is that this is one of those rarities which seems to improve with age, despite its minor flaws. I enjoyed this more in 2003 than 1993, and now in 2013 that trend continues, to be reflected in my rating. I simply can't imagine spending a Halloween without throwing this on the deck at least once. I know, the same could be said for anything King put out in the 80s with either vehicle, most of which is mandatory, but In the Shadows is absolutely one of those uncommon gems of that earlier 90s period not to involve death or black metal. If I find myself in the mood for hellfire, leather and burning witch-skin, Don't Break the Oath would still be the defacto Fate disc due to its ferocity and importance, but this is such a great record to kick back to on an autumn New England night with a seasonal brew, to just watch the leaves drift or wallow in the slowly encroaching cold.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (clearer than daylight)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Candle Serenade - Nosferatu's Passion (1995)

One of my 'goals' this Halloween season was to head back in time to the 90s/early 21st century and revisit a lot of the cheesy Gothic/black metal hybrids that were once making waves in the wake of Cradle of Filth and Therion's success over the same period. Not to imply that all of the bands were all biting off these more familiar names stylistically, but there certainly seemed an era when that lowest common denominator 'haunted house' factor was this fresh, unexplored aesthetic in extreme metal that bands were diving into with vampiric lyrics, synthesizers, and of course the implementation of wailing female vocals. Some of the recordings I hold dear despite their obvious limitations, and others not so much, but after storming through the catalogs of Hecate Enthroned, Ancient, Graveworm, Siebenbürgen, Abyssos and numerous others, I suddenly remembered this 'gem' of a disc gathering dust in one of numerous forgotten boxes of my CD collection...okay, not exactly a gem.

I picked up Nosferatu's Passion some time in the later 90s, at one of Koshick's Milwaukee Metalfests. Remember when those were a thing? Remember when they were THE thing? At any rate, this wasn't exactly an blind or impulse purchase, as I had read some zines that placed Candle Serenade in that whole Gothic black and doom metal scene emerging from Portugal (Moonspell, Heavenwood, Desire, etc), but I was also drawn to the grim packaging, sloppy but symmetrical logo, and frankly I had a 'thing' for that whole vampire mythology drawn from a fascination with Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, and White Wolf tabletop RPGs like Vampire the Masquerade, Vampire: The Dark Ages, and so forth. No, I wasn't so much a dork that I was drinking wine and pretending it was blood, or engaging in mutual wrist-cutting rituals with the few ladies who might be willing to sup upon me, but I was pretty fond of classic horror, and even though my preference was for the raw black metal shit like Deathcrush or A Blaze in the Northern Sky, I had no real issue with those imaginative, dreamer bands who were trying to turn it into some kind of symphonic spectacle in lieu of limited resources and oft-substandard songwriting skills.

Well, once I finally trekked back to Massholeville and actually had the chance to go through all my loot, I can't say I was thrilled with this, immediately relegating it to the 'perhaps I will listen again' stack and then moving on to far better stuff. Every now and then I've broken this out to attempt some sort of appreciation, but ultimately I've got to conclude that Nosferatu's Passion, while a well-meaning disc that hovers on the precipices of both black and doom metal, is pretty fucking mediocre. I guess the best way to describe this would be as a mix of Moonspell's first EP, the earlier Theater of Tragedy records, and Therion's Lepaca Kliffoth (which came out the same year, one of my favorite Gothic metal records and infinitely superior to this). The use of the flute tones is somewhat reminiscent of Kawir from Greece, but obviously there's a little bit of a cultural divide and they don't give off that same rustic effect; they're not piping at you from gleeful, sylvan glades where ancient fauns dance, but rather following ghostly lights down corridors, disembodied floating hands with candles in them en route to some ritual. In fact, when it comes to the 'black' metal elements on this recording, which are scarce, there is some other parallelism to the Greek scene in that Candle Serenade tended to play slowly with a lot of simple guitar melodies.

Tunes like "Celtic Lir's Sons (Sad Erin's Legend)", for instance, seem like an alternate spin on the stuff that Rotting Christ, Nightfall or Varathron were putting out, or Root/Master's Hammer from the Czech scene, only nowhere near as poignant or memorable. There's that pervading sense of 'alternate' evolution. Nobody handed these guys a guidebook on 'black metal dos and don'ts', so it bears precious little similarity to the usual Scandinavian sources. Of course, Nosferatu's Passion would not have suffered from some bursts of infectious tremolo picking, some storming surges of energy. The entire album seems too content with its laconic sensibilities, constant glazes of guitar melodies that fail to catch the ear. They're really into using a lot of synthesizer sequences which sound like what you'd hear trekking around a graveyard or necropolis in some old computer RPG from the 90s. Not only in the 3/8ths of the track list that are pure intros or interludes, but also in sizable chunks of the lengthy tracks like "Transylvanic Mistress", which can take a long time to build in intensity and then never offer the payoff it needs to feel as if the song has actually transported you anywhere...honestly, Nosferatu's Passion is rather's biggest crime.

The production seems a little better than I can remember, but then that happens a lot when I'm going these old atmospheric black metal records like Siebenbürgen or Bishop of Hexen. I think a part of me just pines for these simpler times when bands were just lucky to get the instruments to a coherent mix and get something out through an inevitably doomed label (if I'm not mistaken, Guardians of Metal released less than a dozen titles). The drums pop through, the synthesizers are voluminous but contrast enough with the rhythm guitars and vocals that they don't drown them out, and the bass lines, while nothing extraordinary are at least audible. I think my biggest gripe here would be that the guitars sort of stumble along without much impact... not only are the 'riffs' pretty bland, but they simply lack the power or eloquence to successfully provoke the escapism of the lyrics. Vocally, Candle Serenade is also a little scattershot. The harsh vocals have more of a gruff bark to them, slightly reminding me of Johan Edlund on some of the older Tiamat stuff, but there are also some weird clean sections which seem a little 'off' in tuning (something I also felt about a few of the guitar melodies). The female operatic guest vocals are rather inconsequential though not unexpected. The clean guitar tone is also a fraction murky, so these sequences don't really shine on the album like they might with a proper 12-string mix.

All studio gripes aside, Nosferatu's Passion really just strains credibility because for an album that seems so imminently dark, suffocating and possibly undead in inspiration, it never once seems menacing or evil, not at any time visceral or ethereal in its horrors. Granted, not all the lyrics revolve around vampiric topics like Murnau's Nosferatu film, there is also a fascination here for Celtic myth and other history, but I've heard a grade school quartet sing the "Monster Mash" and it sounded spookier. Candle Serenade seems to avoid the incorporation of the darker atmosphere generated through a lot of minor scale exploration and general dissonance, and the riffing lines seem satisfied as seats for the keyboards, only neither is doing much worth a damn. Nothing on this debut is outright offensive or utterly irredeemable, but lyrically and musically you could put on anything by Cradle of Filth, Therion or Tiamat from the 90s, or any aesthetic median between any of the three, and benefit more than Nosferatu's Passion. Hell, pick up Medieval Demon's obscure debut Demonolatria from 1998...much better. I hate to say it, but the most notable thing about this short lived act was its of those handles that seems to just DESERVE better music. No offense, but if I had just spent a hundred years in my coffin and heard someone playing this in an attempt to lull me out, I think I'd just remain in torpor, thirsty, for another century.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Howling - Tear the Screams from Your Throat (2013)

Purportedly NOT the official sophomore album for Razorback's latest house band Howling, but more of a mini-album/EP, Tear the Screams from Your Throat is nonetheless a comparable experience to the debut. A 30-minute excursion into the band's favorite, chilling themes/scenes of classic horror films & stories, all wrapped up in another eye-popping, colorful cover, this time from Mario Lopez. That's right, everyone's favorite reality TV host, aka A.C. Slater from Saved by the Bell is a closet comic book/metal album artist of some talent. Who knew? Of course I'm kidding, and this Mario is probably tired of hearing that, but I'll tell you what I DO NOT grow tired of hearing: this Howling record, which addresses the issues of the first and quite easily surpasses it.

Disclosure: there might be a bit of a bias here, because one of the features that attracted me to this record, is that they've included a cover of Fastway's "Stand Up", from the Trick or Treat soundtrack, which I enjoy for various reasons, not the least of which are nostalgic. That Tony, Vanessa and Wayne even know, much less care about this music proves to me they are persons of good taste, and the cover surprised me because Nocera uses a clean, nasally vocal style, slightly strained but reminiscent of Girlschool or The Runaways. Here I was expecting here worm-retching growls over a classic 80s hard rock tune, and bam, a complete surprise. Overall, a decent rendition of the original despite the lack of taking many liberties. But Tear the Screams from Your Throat obviously can't stand on this tribute alone...the originals are just as entertaining, and what's more they carry a far more balanced mix of instrumentation than A Beast Conceived. The style is still heavily driven by traditional heavy metal harmonies and thrash riffing sequences, often verging on a 'melo death' treatment, with the 'death' component primarily attributed to Vanessa's sustained growls, which are themselves better balanced against the music here. Damn, does she beast out on this thing, like the sustained growl in "Beyond the Fog Shrouded Seas" which brought back memories of Craig Pillard.

This shit is pretty catchy, like popping candy in your ears from your Halloween bag. At the risk of alienating some vest-metal 'elite' listeners who fucking hate the stuff, I picked up a lot of vibes of 90s Swedish death metal like Slaughter of the Soul or The Jester Race, the former for the bite of the guitar tone and the latter for the constant waves of jubilant harmony that contrast Nocera's noxious guttural lyricisms. Surely I heard a few hints of such on the debut, but here it's a lot more evident, like a poor man's Jester Race birthed in a college film lab where reels of old horror flicks from the 60s-80s are in constant rotation. There are still some surges of more brutal thrashing momentum blended into Tony P's glimmering guitars, and surprisingly they have maintained the utter rawness of the debut, only with the levels so much better managed that it all blends together. The only quip there might be that Elektrokutioner's kicks and snares feel a little flimsy and take a back seat to the guitars, but hell even the bass lines are better felt. Not incredibly loud, but they pull out a few little fills and deviations from the melodies that offer their own atmosphere...unlike the debut.

Plenty enough variation, too. Tear the Screams... doesn't really speed up, but that's never been what Howling are about (to this point), so the range is between slower, controlled thrash/heavy metal passages and mid-paced romps that up the ante. It's not exactly the sort of dissonance and brooding songwriting you often expect to accompany horror themes, which is almost always preferable, but it works anyway with the lyrical matter since it's just got this 15-20 year old feel about it, the melodies conferring tragedy while Vanessa handles the lion's share of brutality via her throat alone. I'd fall short of dubbing this a 'great' release, because in many cases you'll feel like you've heard the melodies or rhythm riffs before. I don't think the band has yet reached the level it is clearly advancing towards, but the fact remains that in a matter of months they have already come this there is some cause for excitement when they put out a proper sophomore. Still, it's a nice treat in time for Halloween, and looks and reads like it should: a nostalgia trip into some partially unexpected territory. A great cover, and a great 'cover' to boot.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (torn throats and severed limbs)

Howling - A Beast Conceived (2013)

Howling is the latest collaboration between growl-mistress Vanessa Nocera and skinbeater Wayne 'Elektrokutioner' Sarantopoulous, who have worked together in Wooden Stake and Scaremaker, a number of classic (or camp) horror-themed acts that fit snugly into that extended Razorback Records family. Can't say I'm really a fan of either of those projects, since Vanessa is far better in Skeletal Spectre and obviously Wayne kicks ass in a number of other bands (Decrepitaph, Festered and Father Befouled), but just looking at the excellent Justin Osbourn cover artwork and realizing who was involved, I won't lie...A Beast Conceived had me excited, and not just because of the overt titillation. I mean the ingredients are all here: attractive packaging, a great choice of band name (the first flick still rocks), a mutual admiration for cult creepshows, a hybrid of old school death metal, 80s thrash and traditional metal elements, and the right label for it all to come together.

What went wrong? Well, nothing...terribly. I think A Beast Conceived suffers a little from the possibility that its members' attention spans might be divided between too many projects. My number one gripe is in the production, particularly guitars which have a little too boxy and crunchy a tone, which really takes away from the bass end of much of the recording and struggles to compete with Nocera's gruesome gutturals and snarls. It does appear that the whole thing was intended to have a raw and 'live' effect, especially the drumming and the rhythm guitar tone, which I normally wouldn't have a problem with. But I actually feel like some of the riffs here were good enough to have deserved a little more polish and attention. In fact, the first 5-6 minutes of the record were intriguing obvious wolf howl ceding to some great dual harmonies and then a solid, slower paced clinical thrash sequence which Vanessa just slobbers on with those disgusting growls. I find there are glimmers of hope and brilliance throughout, largely thanks to the choices of guitarist Tony P. (who has worked with Elektrokutioner in Beyond Hell, another heavily guitar-driven project). It's interesting how he stirs up a volatile concoction of ugly, dirty Teutonic thrash-thrust with a sense for old British melody (like the bridge of "Savage Psychosis"), a handful of archaic chugging proto-death metal riffs and even a few Sabbath-ian doom structures.

Patrick Bruss of Crypticus mixed and mastered this, and I'm not sure how much he was even given to work with, but the tones seem a little too primitive and half-formed. The result is that some of the instrumental interaction feels cluttered and sloppy, especially between the drums and guitars. Unless the bass is performed by itself (like the intro to "Savage Psychosis"), it really tends to disappear because the lines are boring and feel like an afterthought more than an essential ingredient. Fortunately, Tony P has written some killer fuckin' guitar riffs here, like the intro to "Museum of Telepathic Madness" which reminds me of vintage Megadeth, or "From Spectral Mirrors" which reminded me of an uglier, cruder 80s Metallica. Nothing really original, perhaps, but the guitar progressions flow rather well together, took a little effort and imagination, and help prevent the production gaffes from taking over the experience. I think Vanessa's vocals could have been dialed back a little since they often seem like they're going to blow up the microphone, but in general she's her usual, brutal self...just don't expect anything unique or excessively charismatic, because all the rasps and roars are akin to those you've heard thousands of times from other bands...only it once again feels 'live'.

In the end, A Beast Conceived is a bit of a letdown, since I've been long hoping for Razorback to release some new gems on the level of those they put out earlier in the 21st the older Ghoul efforts, Claws, Vacant Coffin, Revolting, Hooded Menace, etc. This instead seems a little below par, not only for the label, but for the members involved, who all have written and performed better material. But I think as a 'control group' the album shows some potential. Not all the riffs are great, but enough are entertaining. The lyrics channel classic horror concepts much in the vein of Deceased. And, most of all, you're certainly not going to find many others as committed as these individuals to celebrating the horror genre in metal music... for better or worse.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (not human, not animal)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Being Killed - Massacre of the Living (2008)

As I was picking through some gory stuff to cover this October, I admit to selecting Massacre of the Living because the cover was so similar to Chainsaw Dissection's Zombie Decimation, another disc I wanted to revisit. Sure enough, this is also a Mike Hrubovcak piece, and nearly the same, with a female victim about to be overcome by ravenous undead; only here she's got most of her clothes on (sans the nip slippage) and she's been taken in an alley as opposed to a graveyard. Admittedly, I found this a bit more colorful than Zombie Decimation, and wouldn't you know is the music itself. Though it's marginally comparable in style, thanks to the drum programming, this benefits from a cleaner and more clinical production sensibility that helps the riffs shine through.

And there ARE riffs, aplenty, over the 20 tracks in 23 minutes. Some of them are even pretty goddamn good, if not unique. I've seen several comparisons of this to Mortician, but I have to think those are based solely on the lyrical subject matter, use of drum machine, samples and the brief length of the average track. In reality, Being Killed is quite different. The songwriting is centered heavily on the rhythm guitars and doesn't use the oozing bass line technique (circa Will Rahmer). Also, the riffs here aren't nearly as place of the bludgeoning, drudging dichotomy you find in the New Yorkers, these Californians are more meticulous in how they construct guitar progressions. Not incredibly technical, no, but the punchy palm-muting and use of tremolo riffs is far more redolent of Cannibal Corpse, Suffocation and Deicide than the deathgrinding side of the equation. In fact, the only 'grind' aesthetic here is the short duration of the tunes. Other than that, this is Sevared-class brutal death through and through; the band just seem to wanna get it over with, light fuse and run away from the zombie horde chasing them.

Which is honestly a pity, because even where a song has some decent ideas it's finished in a flash and I came away dissatisfied. I mean, it's great that I could listen to this entirely on a subway ride or a morning jog, but I would have preferred the 23 minutes be devoted to 4-5 songs of substance. Being Killed could do a pretty good 'Corpse, Severe Torture or Severed Savior if they took their time with it, but most of the tunes that are 90 seconds or under here have barely begun before they're over, so only the lengthier 2 minute tracks like "Collapsing Society" and "Brushstrokes in Blood" have a chance to stand out. That's not to say that Massacre of the Living lacks some variety, because they'll experiment with some different riffing techniques and tempos, which only gets you so far in a 50 second song. Basically, the conciseness, which is often a boon to certain grindcore efforts, is a detriment to what otherwise might be a solid death metal records, and the primary reason that success eludes this debut. They did, however, release another record the same year (2008) through Comatose which had fewer and longer tunes, so apparently they learned their lesson quickly, or perhaps it was the idea all along to try their hands at both approaches...

Either way, Massacre of the Living gets few complaints in the production department. The drum machine is rather loud and brickwalled like a lot of modern brutal/tech death outings, but beyond that the levels are fairly balanced. Rhythm guitars are thin, punchy and effectively clear, not that they perform anything truly complex or bewildering that would be difficult to follow, but I enjoy the ability to feel out the riffing progressions and Being Killed does not deny me that pleasure. Bass is almost always a backdrop thing, you can hear a few distorted lines where they're left thrumming on their own (like in "Skull Matter") but by and large they are used to give the riffs more breadth and impact. Vocalist Dave Astor (who drums in Pathology) has a fairly stock guttural that occasionally takes on a fraction of the toilet bowl flush texture you expect in some of the genre's most ridiculous acts; it's not loud or particularly gruesome, but it does serve as a decent contrast to the brighter drumming and guitar tone. I liked the ambient bits that bookended the first and last cut, they definitely have that apocalyptic 80s vibe...the Ghostbusters sample in "Global Shutdown" might seem a little obvious though.

If you're more interested in Being Killed's ability to construct a proper song, then I'd advise you check out that other album Kill Yourself instead. The production is a little grainier than this, but they better fill out their potential on those tunes. Massacre of the Living sounds a little slicker, and has a half dozen killer riffs that secured my attention, but its ultimately annoying that most of the songs can't really generate any momentum for themselves before they're gone. It also affects the lyrics, which are, as you can imagine, short, lacking a lot of effort and rarely going anywhere. Some groups can pull off such ditties, but it's no longer a humorous thing in my book. Maybe when Sore Throat and Napalm Death did it, but I don't even get a rise out of "Hang the Pope" these days. I like death metal best when it immerses me in a torture chamber and then turns me to pulp with a number of devices. Half of Massacre of the Living is like getting a series of insignificant paper cuts, even if it's ultimately not a major commitment just to sit through the entire experience.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10] (disfigured mortal cores)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Chainsaw Dissection - Zombie Decimation (2005)

I've only run into a few of Bob Egler's albums in the decade since he started churning them out so systematically, and my reaction has rarely been one of positivity, but despite that, I have to say I maintain a very healthy respect for his perseverance. After all, Egler (aka Bob Macabre) is an undisputed champion of extremity at its raunchiest. He's doing what he wants, consistently, with a level of proliferation that puts even death metal pundits like Rogga Johansson and Elektrokutioner to shame, and I admire the ability of one individual to essentially create an entire musical scene out of himself. Granted, most of Bob's projects tend to come off as aesthetic doppelgangers of his various'll only find variation and divergence in that he has quite a number of said influences, ranging from dirty old school black metal to filthy goregrind, brutal 90s death metal and other particular epochs on the nastier end of the spectrum. But still, even though I readily admit I don't care for about 90% of what I've heard of his stuff, this man is no hack. He cares about what he's doing, and he's practically an institution in American metal, even if that institution is a mental asylum with a severely limited audience.

Among the (I'm guessing) hundred plus efforts he's released, in dozens of projects, Chainsaw Dissection is his 'baby'. The most prolific of the bunch, and the one he's most commonly recognized for, with Psychotic Homicidal Dismemberment and Satanic Impalement taking the silver and bronze. He's put out at least 18 full-lengths for this band, not to mention various other splits and demos, and they run the gamut from completely amateurish and unhinged to borderline professional in terms of production and presentation. Just out of sheer practice and willpower, across his many musical personas, the guy has developed as a musician and lyricist, but never to the extent that he forsakes the old school intentions or cult horror/exploitation films that so inspired him. Zombie Decimation is the second in this unending sequence of aural abominations, the first of EIGHT full-lengths he issued in 2005, and it boasts one of the better looking cover images in his entire discography; a savage and misogynistic masterpiece of gore courtesy of the illustrious vocalist/artist Mike Hrubovcak (Divine Rapture, Vile, Monstrosity, etc). Not at all comfortable for the squeamish, the appearance of the Chainsaw Dissection sophomore gives us an honest estimation of how it's going to sound, only I have a hard time discerning just which is uglier...the music, or the undead gruesome feast.

That's not to imply that 'ugliness' is a positive in this disc's favor, but its brutality is never in question. The most obvious way to describe Zombie Decimation would be as a poor man's Mortician. Yes, I realize some people would use that very cliche to define Will Rahmer's vehicle itself, as a 'poor man's substitute for death metal', but I do not share the sentiment for that particular New York establishment, and in fact enjoy quite a number of their records for what they are: utter approximations of morbid horror encased in what must be the most nihilistic wall of goregrinding flesh possible. Guitars that sound like lubricated chainsaws almost impossible to decipher as they carve into the innards of convention. Broad, apocryphal gutturals that exhibit less remorse than the most distant and inhuman serial killers. Mechanical beats programmed at a level of extremity that can rival the most intense human players, even though they might lack some of that organic variation that comes with a living being and his choice in fills and distribution of striking energy. But there are actually a number of differences on this album that divide Egler from Rahmer and Beaujard. The first is that where Mortician is heavily driven by the intestine-rupturing bass-lines, this focuses more on the bludgeoning fiber of the downtuned, muddy rhythm guitars which feel like gallstones being expunged from some diseased bladder.

This leads to the other disparity: Mortician, whether you love them or hate them, have a lot of depth to their sound, provided by anything from the movie samples to the contrast between Will's bass lines and the drums. They've got pretty good production standards for music so obtuse and obscene, but Zombie Decimation is sadly not cut from that same cerecloth. It's more like a Mortician demo with the bass turned down (or off), and little ability to create that same, enveloping atmosphere. Not that Bob's influences offer a great degree of variation in their own songwriting, but here in Chainsaw Dissection it's pretty difficult to distinguish much of the track list from one another, and with 15 tunes and 50 minutes of material, you can imagine the monotony sets in before long. To be fair, there are tracks centered around the slower, Realm of Chaos-like chugging sequences ("Fiend" is an example) you find in a lot of goregrind, and others that really hone in on the blast, beats and a juicier pattern of distraught chords, but the songs are pretty dry on ideas. In fact, there were numerous cases here where I felt like just one evil ass screaming melody or lead would have really intensified the experience, or some better fills, or a bass groove...but it's all too straightforward and dry.

As such, the music really lacks the substance and depth to let its lyrical inspiration rise to the fore. It works only on a purely visceral level, without even the droves of samples used to play upon the listener's moral fiber and cultivate that 'icky' response which later transforms into entertainment. Basically, Zombie Decimation devolves into a mental picture of some elephantine, psychotic cannibal beating a sack with some living victim inside against the nearest wall, over and over without any variation or interesting turns of events.You're to get at most 3-4 minor riffing/drumming variations over the course of a 3-4 minute track, and it's just not enough to maintain my interest, not even close. The drums are soulless droids incapable of diverging from their prime functions. I've definitely got my sick side, and I enjoy a lot of metal so brutal that most of my friends and family can barely comprehend it as music and not construction equipment, but Zombie Decimation seems to play to the negative stereotypes of the style, and not in a positive way. 50+ minutes of disposable sameness that feel like a substantial heap of corpses being ground into fertilizer. Retch-worthy to start, but it rapidly becomes too tedious and commonplace, like a boring day on the job...if that was, like...your job. Corpsegrinding. Probably beats McDonald's, but doesn't make for a great soundtrack when you've got an hour to kill.

Ultimately, though it's the last thing you might suspect when looking at the cover, Zombie Decimation fails because it's simply too damn 'safe'. Establishes a formula, and never deviates from it. There can't be any 'highlights', because all the songs more or less are the same, so it would be 'all or nothing'. Nothing. Fuck, I wouldn't have minded an armpit-farting orchestra, a zombie orgasm, a ukelele or kazoo to help break this up. Anything. Blast, drudge, blast, drudge. Even Bob's vocals, as gut-drenched and gut-borne as they are, don't grace us with any surprises...not even the growl/snarl dichotomy so favored in the usual brutal death/grindcore circles. I doubt the guy had any delusion that he was reinventing or innovating in the field, but Chainsaw Dissection is so fucking monotonous on this outing that it devolves from 'underwhelming' status to outright futile and frustrating. I am glad that there are sick fucks like Bob Macabre making music, as much of it as they can muster. All the power to him, but just because you drag me over to a blood bucket doesn't mean I'm going to tear my shirt off, dump it all over myself and run lunatic. You've also got to put the knife in my hand, and implant the psychotic motivation, subliminal or otherwise. Zombie Decimation is more like an undead typewriter with a stuck key thumping over and over on the same flesh. In sounding so sick, it really isn't... Egler can do better.

Verdict: Fail [3.5/10]

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Halloween - Terrortory (2012)

Perhaps I was taken in by the great cover artwork, or perhaps I was expecting too much in the 21st century of the Midwestern metal band that was lucky enough to snag the much-desired Halloween brand in the 80s. Perhaps I was even privately hoping that for a little of that heavy metal magic that has recently reignited the careers of long defunct or merely off-the-radar bands like Warlord, Satan and Attacker. But I'm sad to say that Terrortory not only fails to break into any new territory, or live up to the promise of its archetypal jack-o-lantern-faced Samhain graveyard usher, but it's a bland and insipid experience which just does not know when to quit...72 minutes of uninspired riffing and 'mileage may vary' vocals that aren't even remotely interesting, not to mention lacking in any of the cheesiest 'chills' apart from maybe the narrative intro thing before the title track, and that's really stretching it...

Granted, this is only about 2/5ths of the lineup that recorded the classic Don't Metal With Evil disc in 1985, one I happen to enjoy and break out at least once every October, but even then I wouldn't have thought they could issue such an idea-free, accessible record that lacked almost all of the messy, enthusiastic charms of the debut. Now, to be fair, I haven't followed the Detroit Heavy Metal Horror Show very closely in the years between then and now. The snippets I've heard from albums like Victims of the Night and Horror Fire did little to whet my appetite to pursue them further, but neither felt quite so dated as what I'm hearing on Terrortory. And by 'dated', I don't mean in a good way, but in the dull construction of the riffs that at best emit a passable dual-melody, but at worst are reduced to pitiful chugging rhythms in tunes like opener "Traipsing Through the Blood" that are a piss-poor attempt at generated some power and momentum. Hell, even your lowliest group of corner metalcore kids puts together a bit more excitement with their palm muted effluvium. Here it just seems like Halloween are trying to integrate a little hint of 90s groove or thrash metal influence into their more 80s NWOBHM-flavored writing, and it comes across as wholly unnecessary.

Not to mention, it kills off about half the songs on the record, the rest of which are often more dramatic, slower building numbers where they implement these very bland, cleaner guitar progressions to try and generate a more mournful atmosphere. On the whole, though, the real tragedy is the ubiquitous sense that I'm never in Halloween-land here, nor a graveyard, a haunted house, a slasher flick, or even a candy shoppe buying goodies for the neighborhood kids. You don't write a song called "Scare You" and then not fucking scare anyone with it! And the obvious tribute tunes like "Where is Michael?" don't musically live up to their inspirations (and that's coming from someone who found the Halloween films bland and non-frightening even as a child). On their first record, 27 years ago, these guys put out the sort of wild party metal us kids in the 80s loved, without going all glam-tarded. But Fastway's Trick or Treat soundtrack this isn't. Brian Thomas was once this total wildcard front man whose flawed timbre was all part of the charm...with Terrortory, even he seems to have mellowed out just a little much. Don't get me wrong, he can still hit some screams, and he remains the most unusual or unique feature of the group, but the songs just lack that primal vitality bands once captured in their youth.
I could forgive this if the more seasoned, mature style produced some memorable songwriting, or even a big and compelling evolution in style, but this all feels too 'business as usual', only interspersed with the lame groove/thrash/speed metal riffing in tunes like "Darkside Inside" or "Say Your Prayers". Not all is totally lost here. The lyrics are decent in about half the songs, paeans to classic horror stories or similar imagery being used as a metaphor for relationships. The bass playing, courtesy of George Neal, the other long time member of the group, is quite good for such a clean tone. He has a good sense for subtler fills, and gets into these deep grooves even when he's just playing along the guitar line that sound nice in the speakers. The drums, while not entirely powerful are also fairly flexible, and both the rhythm and lead tone on the guitars are fairly classy. They put echoes on some of Thomas' vocals, probably to compensate that he's just not as crazy as he once was, but really, after decades, who is? Terrortory's polished presentation is certainly not its weak points, rather that it sounds at best like a mix of generic power/thrash and Tony Martin-era Sabbath with inferior riffing.

Also...16 tracks?! I understand this was their first record in about six years, and some of the songs are older tunes from decades prior that hadn't been released, but there are simply too many here that serve the same purposes, so even if the individual riffs and choruses are different, it's aesthetically repetitive. I'm sure I am not the only person that would settle for 8-9 really good tunes with a lot of attention to detail. Alas, this record would fail to produce even a maxi-single's worth of quality. "Scared to Death" and "Trick or Treat" off the debut are light years better than anything here. Not because Halloween have turned to total shit, because they still know how to put together a tune, just not one that has any legs to stand on. The energy levels here feel too maintained, controlled. You look upon Terrortory and you really want it to be cheesy and fun, but it's neither of those things, nor particularly effective in serious mode. Once upon a time this band made me wanna whip my mullet about, pound Old Milwaukees and crash my Trans Am en route to a witch burning. 30 years of 'Motor City Metal', guys...lube this engine, screech these tires, hit us with a wrench and get dirty and greasy in the process.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Deceased - Luck of the Corpse (1991)

Luck of the Corpse is a textbook example of a grave-blossom not yet in gruesome bloom, a record that functioned only as a crude forebear for its superior successors. Yet there are particular charms to it that I always felt were difficult to deny, despite the dearth of strong riffing progressions and melodies that characterized their true 'breakthrough' period that is unquestionably Fearless Undead Machines and its followup/refinement Supernatural Addiction. To be frank, there's not really a Deceased record I dislike. They've inevitably transformed into one of the most unique and consistent voices in American metal, period, and certainly one of the greatest bands on Earth that I'd dub 'horror metal', since their generally excellent music is accompanied by a lyrical wealth drawn from cult, camp or classic horror that King Fowley and crew seem to have a genuine fascination for. They were doing this long before most other death metal outfits, since the mid-80s, vomited forth from that same filthy mindset that produced Possessed, Blood Feast, Indestroy and their ilk, only Deceased were headed in a more distinctly 'death' direction which the adoption of King's full-bore growls, a technique fans of the band's later material might not be too familiar or comfortable with...

Because, let's face it, while Fowley is an adequate grunter and you can already perceive his natural tone in each line, the vocals of Luck of the Corpse were not nearly so charismatic and unique as they'd become on the later material, where he'd dial back on the guttural delivery and commit to his raw, haunting style which, without being overly melodic, seems a better fit to the band's amalgamation of slasher, paranormal and creature-feature themes. The debut is partly held back by this, because it's naturally just not so dramatic or interesting, but then, that's all-around what separates this from the Virginians' stable of great works. I would also point out the riffing for fault, which was often direly predictable even by 1991 standards. A mishmash of pretty average speed and thrash metal structures imbued with an occasional burst of more open punk or grind intensity. With the exception of a few tremolo riff patterns and the vocals, few would probably even consider this a proper 'death metal' album. The lion's share of rhythm guitars really serve to make the album's melodic exceptions stand out, where on later records both areas were equally strong and nary a track will pass without some delicious riff that you've got to constantly replay in your mind or on your stereo. Here, it seems two uninteresting riffs spit past you for every one that sticks, and so personally Luck of the Corpse becomes more an album to revisit more for its lyrics, atmosphere and nostalgia than for digging up the band's most memorable fare.

That said, I absolutely FUCKING LOVE the production on this disc. In fact, I find it superior to either the 13 Frightened Souls EP (which had better songs) or the grainier Blueprints for Madness sophomore (which also had better songs). A great, gritty guitar tone which is worthy of some of the edgier underground thrash of the decade, but still somehow bright enough to shine on the higher pitch riffing, like those creepy little melodies that poke through the savagery of "Psychedelic Warriors", or the more harried and intense flurries of notes that comprise the Megadeth-like athleticism of "Decrepit Coma". King's drumming seems a little ramshackle amidst all the constant tempo changes here, because Luck of the Corpse is nothing if not a dynamic volley of thrash/speed/punk, but the actual mix of the drums has just the right amount of volume and reverb that makes me feel like I'm out at some live gig. Only complaints there would be that some of the snare cracks seem a little loud, and some of the fills feel stilted and half-formed. I also really love the cruddy sewer-dweller presence of the bass guitar, a C.H.U.D. in audio flesh, making it pretty clear that this was also going to be an INSTRUMENT in Deceased and not just lost in translation like on so many early thrash or death metal records. He does often ape the guitar line a little closely, but is given some breaks of his own and tosses in some sporadic and sturdy tremolo picking sequences of his own and fills, which make a tune like "Experimenting with Failure" so wild (a favorite here).

As a whole, even with a lot of the riffs not being individually anything to write home about, I'm surprised just how much Luck of the Corpse seems to stand up to time. It's certainly not modern or polished sounding, but I'd be very happy to get a new record today from an underground band that had this sense of passionate nostalgia about it. It's perhaps the skimpiest selection of great Deceased songs on any of their full-length offerings, but at a conceptual level the group was already intelligent, lyrically interesting. The difference in riffing style between this and, say Obituary...or Suffocation...or Cannibal Corpse really sealed the deal in distinguishing the Virginians' trajectory, but I was immediately smitten most by the manic, excitable lyrics that often feel more like a mad scientist monologue from some old black & white horror flick at the drive in. In his mind, King was already wearing the lab coat, already dissecting the animated cadaver to see what made it 'tick', and it lends a credible charm to the debut even if his vocal style had yet to really leave an impression. Some would probably argue that Luck of the Corpse is the band's one TRUE death metal disc, but I prefer to think of Deceased as always simply doing its own thing, adding its own voice to the choir and never so intent on limiting or labeling itself. This may not be so multidimensional as its progeny, and a lot of riffs pretty familiar, but it was undoubtedly one of the most 'stylish' releases on the early Relapse roster, and is still worth an occasional spin if you can avert yourself from the better albums to follow.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (into a prison of dirt)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Avulsed - Ritual Zombi (2013)

Avulsed is about as synonymous to Spanish death metal at this point as my Keurig coffee maker is to breakfast, but when you break down the band's trajectory they've been all over the place. Taking a 'tour' of the death metal genre, from the humble 90s brutality of their first proper 90s full length Eminence in Putrescence, which was itself rather old school in nature with a clear lineage to the first few Death outings like Stabwound Orgasm and Yearning for the Grotesque which took on slightly more 'gore drenched' characteristics that one might relate to US acts Cannibal Corpse, Exhumed or Impaled. They even failed at a techno-death metal remix thing in Cybervoid. But thankfully, through most of their career, they've focused on baser songwriting aesthetics like simplified riffs and grooves, sparse but well-formed melodies, and I've always had the impression that they've just never properly shaken off their roots to surrender to the ranks of brutechnicality that became ever more prominent upon the turn of the century. At its core, Avulsed has always characterized the 'retro' death metal theme, before it WAS retro, even when it seemed, from their often explicit cover images, that they were escaping that. And speaking of cover art, Ritual Zombi, their 6th full-length, absolutely slays...

By and large, so does the music, to the extent that I might safely cite this as one of their strongest efforts to date. I'm a little biased, being a sucker for veteran Dave Rotten's vocal performance on the two Putrevore records he released with Rogga Johansson, and his decrepit, rumbling, nihilistic growls remain an immense feature here, but in the riffing department this is a balanced and entertaining affair which runs the gamut from late 80s death/thrash picking progressions redolent of Scream Bloody Gore (ignoring even the cover of "Zombie Ritual" itself), to Carcass's Heartwork, to traces of melodic Swedish influences like a few nods to Slaughter of the Soul-era At the Gates, and ending off with some sheer blasting brickwork brutality like the intro to "Zompiro", one of my favorites here. Pacing and riff construction is well enough varied among the 10 originals, and the guitar-driven intro and outro pieces that envelope the album work well to give it that 'overall package' feel that reminds you that you're listening to an album and not a bunch of .mp3 files. I'd also mention the songwriting exhibits an astute lack of overkill, with zero overt technicality or showing off, just a throwback sense of extremity which, had it arrived in that precious 1991-95 period, would have probably proven an undisputed, not so much, it's just a fun excursion through the annals of undead flesh and quite apparently doesn't take itself so seriously. An homage to the saturated zombie culture.

I've already mentioned Rotten, who gurgles like a human sewer spewing forth flesh-eating plasma, but other highlights are the guitar tone and drumming. They've got this cloying, filthy, ripping presence to the rhythm guitars which seems somewhat Sunlight in origin, but also resembles the classic grind grime found on an effort like Repulsion's Horrified. When they brush out some leads or melodies, with a cleaner tone and some mild effects, there is a great contrast which really transports the listener back to the classics. Oskar Bravo is a positive find for the band, the sole new member here, having played on a bunch of underground stuff I've never heard, and he delivers a lot of organic fills standing out in the mix. The kick drums seem slightly more mechanical but the toms and snare are nearly as prominent as Dave's guttural and the rhythm crunch. I did not pick up a lot of bass guitar, apart from where it's alone (the opening of "...Was Not My Blood"); whether because its being performed with a timbre that is simply absorbed the rhythm guitar or its just not loud enough, but the punch of the guitar riffing is enough to establish a proper low end on my speakers and it's not entirely absent. The distortion is actually a little less buzzing than on the previous record Nullo (The Pleasure of Self-Mutilation), and in fact Ritual Zombi seems not so much brash or in your face as several of their prior offerings, but the songwriting more than compensates.

Ultimately, if you're not entirely jaded on the shambling corpses, which many justifiable are by this point, this is a great lead-in for your Walking Dead viewing parties, and just a pretty fun death metal record to boot. Not the best I've heard this year by a longshot, but the attractive artwork is certainly not sold down the river of viscera by its musical component, and with this and Putrevore it seems like Dave is undergoing some Rotten Renaissance, releasing some of the strongest work since he started this all in 1991. Riff patterns and ideas aren't exactly unique to Avulsed, and they were never a band that was able to make much of a name for itself with so much else making waves internationally, but to be honest I can't think of a single release (out of their full-length albums) which wouldn't be worth spinning this Halloween season, and there's a profound 'music first' mentality here that eschews goresoaked, unending intensity for balance; otherwise they might not have included the classical guitar interlude "Elegy of the Rotting". The cover of "Zombie Ritual" seems a bit too safe a choice, and it's not likely I'll be listening to this with any frequency in six months, yet it's surely feast-worthy for all brain-flesh connoisseurs, and a raunchy, Romero-esque stimulant for the dead nerve endings.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Atrocity's Blut (1994)

Atrocity could be described as a band who started off quite strong as a part of the 'first wave' of German death metal, producing two well-liked and solid records before seemingly falling off the deep end into one of the most overt 90s identity crises I've encountered. Specifically their 1994-1996 period it seemed like the band had absolutely no fucking idea what direction they would stick with. Blut is an amalgamation of miserable groove/death metal and Goth metal bits, Calling the Rain dabbles in folk/doom metal with ethereal female vocals, Willenskraft shows an unwillingness to step entirely away from their death metal roots, and Die Liebe (possibly the best of the lot) has them teaming up with the legendary industrial duo Das Ich to create something with both the industrial and Goth components. All of this was of course the setup for their Werk 80 album of popular cover tunes, which was one of their more successful discs, and then they'd actually go on to become a rather coherent Gothic/symphonic metal act with pretty high production standards, but the mid 90s was mired in utter turmoil by their two worst effort. Blut is, unfortunately, one of them...

It's rather a pity, too. My first exposure to the group was a mint cassette copy of Hallucinations I picked up in 1990, the days when I would literally purchase every recording I found with a death metal logo, in any store. It was solid stuff, nothing exceptional like what the Florida/Sweden scenes had produced, but another of those formative harbingers of the notion that the genre had gone viral worldwide, and that it wouldn't be long afore that world caught up. As such, Todessehnsucht did not disappoint: mildly less brutal and vital, but compensating with catchier songwriting. Naturally, I held some excitement out for the follow-up, Blut, since Atrocity really hadn't had their breakthrough yet and from external appearances it looked as if it might be some theatrical concept record about vampires. The logo superimposed over the curtain on the cover even appears to be the same one used on the movie posters for the '92 Dracula film adaptation starring Keanu Reeves, Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins. Turns out, that same movie did in fact inspire the theme here. Seemed like a good fit to me, even if it was still a pretty fresh flick...a European death metal band cutting its teeth on Bram Stoker's horror...that works, right? Oh no, my friends. Very, very wrong, for Blut is a prime example of poor decision making in the decade that threatened to destroy it all: the 90s.

The shock I felt at this is comparable to that towards another German death metal band, Morgoth, on their later offering Feel Sorry for the Fanatic, where they mutated into a more melodic industrial rock band. I mean, apart from a few of Alexander ('How did he get this awesome name?') Krull's barks and grunts, and a few of the death metal breaks littered through the 15 songs and 64 minutes, this bears almost no resemblance towards the group's earlier albums. Instead, it's a scatterbrained transformation into a mixture of 'woe is me' Gothic metal tropes and bouncy, annoying groove metal riffing which lost its way from aping Prong into a catacomb of tremendously dumb, uninspired riffs and vocals that stand out far too far and sound immensely goofy over the tinge of the rhythm guitar tone. What's more, Blut is front-loaded with some of its shittiest tunes...if you dig deeply enough, you'll find there is actually some passable material in the track list, which foreshadows their direction at the turn of the century and beyond, but in getter there it stumbles over some truly terrible songwriting which remains the nadir of their career (alongside Calling the Rain...let me not forget my venom for that one). And while lyrically this album seems well attuned to its subject matter, of eternal life, horrible appetites, insatiable lusts and being forsaken by the divine, left to walk to the earth as a beast, the musical riffs and structures are generally too obtrusive to allow for full immersion.

Imagine you and I are sitting at our local theater, soles stuck in last week's derelict popcorn butter, hearts full of anticipation for this new blockbuster starring one of our favorite actors (an actor's actor!) as the big heel, and the opening act is this shitty, bouncing chug rhythm that sounds like a castaway from Prong's Cleansing. That describes "Trial", a crappy groove/thrash dud that has no fucking business here or anywhere. While I might forgive just the one, then the record lurches into "Miss Direct", a strange BDSM number driven by farting, dorky bass lines and clinical nu-thrash rhythms drowned in some of Krull's worst vocals ever. What the fuck is this? It's hard to hone in on any potential fetish-erection when your song sounds like a bunch of clowns visiting the Red Light district and honking hooker-boobs like they were toy horns. To top that off, they transition back into ANOTHER pseudo-Prong/Pantera groove metal tune ("In My Veins"), and like the opener, pretty much the only saving grace are the methodical lead sequences which hearken back to their older style. We're now about 12 minutes into Blut and there's no relief in sight from the horrors; Atrocity finally living up to their name, but not in the manner they likely intended. It's honestly one of the most pathetic 1-2-3 combos I've heard on a neo-death metal record outside of Massacre's abysmal Promise.

But then, like a breeze of air freshener greeting you in amidst the stench of a nightclub restroom, "B.L.U.T" itself arrives, a mesh of glittery progressive metal melodies and synthesized Gothic choirs, quality arch-like bass lines and Krull's clean baritone vocals interspersed with the angrier grunts that resemble Christofer Johnsson on Therion's superb Lepaca Kliffoth. It's not exactly magic, and I still the tinny crunch of the rhythm guitar here as much as the prior tracks, but such a dramatic improvement in terms of interest-level. It gets stranger, as Blut seems to wobble back and forth between a myriad of ideas, several traipsing back into Todessehnsucht territory and failing, others like the folk/ballad "Calling the Rain" (oh yes, it appeared first) implementing clean guitars with tinny effects, and Krull's sister Yasmin making her appearance with some pretty standard Euro-ethereal vox not unlike a less jubilant Liv Kristine (of Norway's Theater of Tragedy), who ironically would end up marrying Alexander. There's a song in German ("Leichenfeier") centered around some plodding riffs that sounds like a doom metal Lacrimosa variant. The strange Prong-ish tunes continue ("Moon-Struck", "Goddess in Black"), there are several instrumental interludes like the acoustics of "Soul Embrace", but there never seems to be any real sense of coherence to the material, except that so much of it is weak. Blut is not a confusing album, but a 'confused' one, and it speaks volumes that the best song on it is a 90 second bass and guitar instrumental which captures the atmosphere of a moonlit light better than anything else here.

At best, the Goth elements here served as precursors to records where they delved far more consistently into that style, like Gemini and Atlantis or the more recent symphonic/Gothic/death metal hybrid Okkult which is actually one of their best. Stylistic disparity isn't Blut's only crippler, because I found the production of the guitars here to be just too clean, tinny and robbed of any real meat or power. Again, I draw a comparison to Prong, particularly Cleansing, though that album had richer rhythm guitar riffs, superior songwriting over all, and of course was handled by Terry Date who has a decent track record. The drum mix here is also pretty bland, the bass lines rarely interesting, and while I do enjoy Krull's more melodic rantings thanks to the edge and gravitas his death metal origins give them, he's simply too loud on a good portion of the album. The lyrics, while not perfect, seem to do a decent job of getting into the mindsets of vampires or other characters with a lot of Anne Rice's eloquence. The reader can feel these are Romantic, tragic tellings, now if only the music could have more successfully met that benchmark, then Blut could have been well ahead of its time, at least in the Gothic metal field. But the ball was dropped, no, shattered on the cracked, ivy-wrung pavement, and nothing here holds up to any scrutiny. Weak guitar tone, uninspired riffs (even the few delves back into death metal feel pitifully non-evil), and at times sheepishly silly vocals that were unlikely to get Krull laid at the same clubs Peter Steele was attending.

I don't fault Blut because it was an experiment. It's not that Atrocity was 'ashamed' of its death metal roots, and decided not to pursue that genre directly through the remainder of the 90s (listen to Willenskraft or some of the tunes off later albums), but they obviously felt a cloying impetus to branch out into new territory, and not to restrict themselves. It worked out for them eventually, because they dove straight into that emergent European goth metal scene to some accolades...who exploring that stuff at the time didn't stumble across one of the Germans' covers of obvious, dramatic 80s pop songs? Inevitably, I feel like Atrocity did turn themselves into a respectable band once more, and even in these fragile times, they had some success (Die Liebe and Willenskraft are both worth hearing, if not exceptional). That said, Blut remains as a giant warning sign: covered pits ahead, do not tread these paths, do not travel these roads, and if you ignore this advice, bring a grappling hook. I've never lied about my feelings on albums before, and I'm not about to start: this is pretty god-damned bad. Listen to them! The children of the night. What sweet music they don't make.

Verdict: Epic Fail [2/10] (damned and addicted to survive)

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Grotesquery - Tales of the Coffin Born (2010)

The Grotesquery, along with the more primitive Bloodgut, is one of the more conceptual projects assembled with the prolific Swedish death metal personality Rogga Johansson, who handles the guitars here. He is joined by a number of longtime collaborators (bassist Johan Bergland and drummer Brynjar Helgetun), but the real draw to this is probably the involvement of death metal 'royalty' in vocalist Kam Lee, who most will recognize from Massacre, but has himself featured in a number of other projects since that time. In fact, this isn't even his first dance with Rogga, the two having put out the Bone Gnawer debut Feast of Flesh the year prior to this, which featured a more brutal and churning style of death metal. Not that Tales of the Coffin Born lacks some punches of its own, being pure throwback death metal, but the inclusion of the atmospheres and story elements curb it from being a total zombie-mosh slug-fest. Actually, outside of some of the Putrevore, Revolting, Ribspreader and Paganizer material, which I'm quite partial to, The Grotesquery is one of Johansson's strongest acts.

Now, I'm on record as never having been the biggest Massacre advocate, finding them average at best even when their style was a novelty. Far less interesting songwriters than Death, Pestilence or Obituary of the time, with an air of 'me too' written about them in the miasma of early Earache, Metal Blade and Nuclear Blast signings. They were also later responsible for Promise, one of the worst fucking records ever recorded by a death metal band in history, or ANY metal band, for that matter (I've certainly scored that abomination lower than every studio record other than the Hellyeah debut). Yeah, I know it's an anomaly and half the band either denies taking part in it or wants very badly for us all to forget it out of existence, but you can imagine I just don't approach a Kam project with a lot of high expectations. To be fair, it's not because of 'Master' K. Lee's vocal prowess (with that one exception). He was fine on the first Massacre disc as well as his stint in Denial Fiend, and in truth his personality is a large part of what makes Tales of the Coffin Born an enjoyable experience. Ghastly guttural growls with a lot of gut-saturated sustain, balanced off against a higher pitched snarling voice that very often felt like Deicide if not so closely conjoined. He's also got a gruffness that resembles Rogga himself in some of the bands he has growled for.

Musically, this is a total old school hybrid of American thrash-influenced songwriting aesthetics reminiscent of bands like Massacre, Malevolent Creation and Deicide with the meatier Swedish tone inspired by the usual suspects who influenced many of Johansson's other projects. Brynjar's bullet train double bass builds an undertow beneath the largely mid-paced material comprised of a lot of primitive tremolo picked riffs, palm muted chuggery and few craftily carved open chord sequences. A few of the grooves felt like faster Bolt Thrower, but the major difference is all the sampling and 'narrative' stuff used in the songs, from faint industrial clanking to cheesy intro monologs that set up the tunes proper. Although I mostly enjoy this, there are absolutely a number of pretty generic rhythm guitar progressions like the lazy groove in "This Morbid Child" that simply feel too familiar to stand behind. The Lovecraftian horror which spurs on the lyrics isn't exactly represented with a lot of interesting musical ideas, though I'd say Rogga gets into it in a more complex, varied manner than many of his bands, with a goodly number of riff shifts, and a badly needed bit of lead and melody work.

The bass lines sound tight with a plodding tone, some squirmy fills, and as mentioned, the drums are executed with robotic accuracy, but not in a bad way... they simply sound flawless and voluminous in both the kick and snare-work. Like the recent outings of Paganizer or Ribspreader, The Grotesquery really goes for a deeper end effect that stirs your entrails as if by a spoon in a cauldron, but there's also a lot of studio clarity here that won't turn off fans of more contemporary, technical death metal who don't require it to sound as if it was recorded in a cave in 1993. Tales of the Coffin Born isn't terribly eerie or compulsory like its lyrical subject matter, so don't expect the slowly building terror of a Lovecraft tale to translate itself meaningfully into the song structures. It's more of a brutal and clinical sort of old school modernization that just happens to target a more eloquent brand of horror than the usual misogynistic gut-spilling. Aesthetically there have been dozens of other records on which the music and lyrics fit better together, but just on its riffing, vocals, and production alone, Tales of the Coffin Born is a really solid effort that holds up across a number of listens. You might not remember the album long after spinning it, but when engaged in the neck straining experience itself it won't let you down, especially if you're a sucker for old Massacre, Cancer, Bolt Thrower, Jungle Rot, and the like.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Diabolical Masquerade - The Phantom Lodge (1997)

The Phantom Lodge is another of those 90s curiosities which begs of the listener: just how serious do you need to take your black metal? For at least the first three records, Anders 'Blakkheim' Nyström was clearly taking the piss with Diabolical Masquerade... first with the personal and ludicrous Ravendusk in My Heart, an introspective journey of this silly alter ego he created, which straddled the dangerous line between symphonic, Gothic bombast and genre parody. Next, he puts out The Phantom Lodge, which seems like some fairly adept caricature haunted house black metal with a few strange choices, namely various examples of overt idol worship and then a few more bare-bones riffing tracks that lack the cheesy eloquence of others. Don't get me wrong, I have a very soft spot for this band and others like it (Gloomy Grim, Cradle of Filth, Hecate Enthroned, etc), and once enjoyed this even more than the debut, but I've shifted opinions in recent years since The Phantom Lodge just seems to suffer ever so slightly from an identity crisis, a lack of consistent now I think they're equivalent quality.

Had it all been in the vein of the first track, "Astray Within the Coffinwood Mill", bearing one of my favorite song titles in history, I'd praise this one to the rafters, but in reality there are only 3-4 tunes showcasing the symphonic, cheesy and superficially spooky synthesizers. Anders actually takes the subtle approach with his key pads, honing in on just one sound of electrified strings of choirs rather than crafting entire orchestras that offset the guitars and vocals. This is primarily a guitar album, just an atmospheric one. Riff-wise, there's a tremendous influence from the classics here: Darkthrone, Bathory, Celtic Frost all form the foundation from which Blakkheim has built this experience, and he utilizes a lot of slow, grooving chord progressions as opposed to endless tirades of blasting and tremolo picking. I actually really dug the drums at points on this, especially the warlike fills that transform into double bass thunder on the first cut, where you even gets some To Mega Therion-like timpani thumping along in the background to the evil ass grooves. That said, I did get the impression that a lot of transitions were just pulled out of nowhere. They're generally interesting and even catchy, sometimes an excuse for Anders to throw on some narration in a manly, deep voice, but they can feel a little patchwork in structure and that persists throughout most of the tunes.

I'm also not so sure how I feel about the 'hero worship' segments of the album. For instance, for "Upon the Salty Wall of the Broody Gargoyle" (told you it was ridiculous), he spends most of the song vocalizing his Tom G. Warrior impression, and a pretty decent one at the extent that I actually thought it was the genuine article on a guest spot. But then the goofy chorus riff where he starts rasping the song title in a malicious black metal imp voice totally takes you back out of it. It's...unusual. In the latter half of the tune "Ravenclaw", he uses this grating inflection reminiscent of Quorthon on the 90s Bathory material, though a bit nastier. Another quirky decision, not only for the change in vocals but also because the pagan/Viking theme of this song doesn't seem to fit the campy horror implied by the titles of "Astray Within the Coffinwood Mill", "Cloaked by the Moonshine Mist" or "The Walk of the Hunchbacked". That's not to say these stranger tracks lack some decent riffs and compelling atmospheres, but they create an unevenness that makes The Phantom Lodge feel more like an EP with some experiments thrown on, despite its 43 minute duration. "Hater" is arguably another oddball, since it seems like a more straightforward black/thrash tune with some screaming...

Anyway, the other 5-6 tracks are all pretty damn solid, often excellent, and themselves contain a lot of variation, like the woozy dissonant chord patterns woven like twisted thread through "The Blazing Demondome of Murmurs and Secrecy" or the glimmering, warmer melodies used in the chorus and bridge for "Hunchbacked". The drumming is generally great, with a few exceptions like "Hater" where it feels too thin in the chorus. Vocals are also a highlight, Blakkheim attempting to sound as delightfully wretched as possible, and as I said, even pulling off some excellent productions. The bass is audible but doesn't add a lot as far as interesting note selections, and the guitar chords (picked fast or slow) have a thin but effective tone to them which permits the kick drum and vocal barking to steer the experience along. Lyrically it doesn't seem to center so much around the assumed persona of the 'Blakkheim' character, though I still got the impression that a number of them were from that character's point of view (certainly in "Demondome"). A lot of the tunes have a fixation on occult horror, though they don't always match up very well with what you think the song will be about from its title. Considering that most people probably think of Diabolical Masquerade as a joke, though, they're well enough scripted, but I definitely wanted "...Hunchbacked" to be more about Quasimodo, or "...Coffinwood Mill" about some creepy undead, and the lyrics are not really that...

The Phantom Lodge is not without its flaws, and it remains a little puzzling even 16 years later, but there's a good chunk of this disc which has become a bit of a staple for me around Halloween. I'll marathon it with the first Gloomy Grim, Cradle's Midian, Dusk and Her Embrace and a ton of King Diamond, Mercyful Fate and 80s Ozzy solo records, and people seem to enjoy the mix. Nothing here is super-serious sounding and it's not likely to please anyone whose universe begins and ends with De Mysteriis dom Sathanas and Det Som Engang Var, but if you're not opposed to a 'lighter' approach to black metal as conceived by someone of the Count's mentality (from Sesame Street), I can't recommend this enough. Atmospheric and dreamy, or downright carnal at other times, it's just another one of those divisive reminders that at one point, a lot of people explored black metal because it was 'fun', instead of using it as a precursor to suicide or shooting someone. Not welcomed by the People Living Under their Parents' Stairs, but, hey, it's all good, folks. If nothing else, we can take away from this that Blakkheim could have done a straight 80s Celtic Frost copycat band and I would have paid to hear it.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (nightshade serenade, diabolical masquerade)