Saturday, May 31, 2014

Vader - Tibi et Igni (2014)

Post-pinnacle album releases are generally among the most difficult to critique, and at least for myself, Welcome to the Morbid Reich has proven the best of Vader's material since formation. That's not to imply I don't love a lot of their older records, quite the opposite, but not only was that album my favorite metal of 2011, it attained this zenith of phenomenal songwriting, menacing atmosphere, rhythm to lead balance, and brutal indifference to arbitrary technicality despite the high level of proficiency pumping through the lifeblood of all the band members. It was as a grand conflagration/conjunction of everything I'd ever appreciated about the Poles, spawned some 20 years or more deep into their career, and a reaffirmation of what it is I so cherish about death metal as a perpetual follower of the form. It was also far more of a true 'death metal' record, at least in mood, as opposed to its own predecessor Necropolis, which clearly favored the death/thrash tag that is so often applied to their output.

Tibi et Igni, long awaited now, even if that's only across the span of three years, potentially deserves its hybrid categorization even more. While a massive Slayer influence is no stranger to the band, never has been, it's boldly flagged across this album alongside compositional cues to Dark Angel, Kreator and other extreme speed/thrash acts of the 90s, in both higher speed tremolo picked hellish 'chase' sequences and the mid-paced headbanging riots that spew forth from tunes like "Triumph of Death". While these were not exactly absent from Welcome..., they're far more obvious, pronounced due to the general punch of the rhythm guitars here, which are still as smooth as the prior works in terms of clarity, but have a bit more of a haughty bluntness to them. That said, this is still threaded with the presence of brief and effective orchestral set-ups as you'd find on its direct predecessor or Impressions in Blood, and the lead work very closely matches the thoughtfulness, restraint and catchy qualities which have maintained Welcome to the Morbid Reich in a monthly, sometimes weekly listening rotation for me years after its birth. So when I say that there's no surprise, Tibi et Igni is another goddamn great Vader album, it really IS no surprise...

For Peter is a master of his craft, THIS craft, and by 2014, deserves the status of 'death metal royalty' far more than many of his better-known American and Swedish peers. He is hands down one of the most competent guitar/vocal dual taskers in his medium, and along with Spider, metes out a strong and varied array of slashers, thrashers, spry bursts hinging on a black metallic efficacy, along with the formidable chugging that performs so flush with Peter's grainy, constipated vocal barks. Once again, we've got some new additions comprising the rhythm section, with Brit James Stewart tackling the coveted drum seat now vacated by Paweł Jaroszewicz, who hard recorded Welcome to the Morbid Reich and is now involved with fellow Polish punishers Hate. Stewart is easily the measure of most of his forebears (though most will retain an emotional attachment to the late Doc), with an ease to his blasting and grooving that fits the breadth of Vader's ambitions, though I think some people might not like the actual mix of the drums as much as earlier efforts. Personally, I found them clear and consistent, but in terms of beats and fill choices he doesn't exactly amplify the record's intensity. I'd say the same for the other new blood, bassist Tomasz 'Hal' Halicki (Abused Majesty, Hermh), whose lines are fat, functional and worthy to support the guitar duo, but not entirely interesting when they're not given some space of their own...and even sometimes when they are.

But, hey, as important as the percussion has always been to Vader's incessant sense of momentum, it's the guitars that have always made or broken their material (far more often the former), and here they blaze within a large margin of success. Tracks like "Hexenvessel" and "Go to Hell" are just stunners, the first for its tasteful weave of atmosphere and taut heavy/death/thrash measures, the second for the brazen heraldry of its intro, and the ensuing, apoplectic carnage. When first hearing that single, I wasn't too fond of it, but it has since grown on me in bounds. As for the rest of the material, there are probably a half dozen riffs which just don't hit me all that hard, partly because they are derivative of others the band has unleashed in the past (a typical complaint against Vader which is not wholly untrue), and also because...yeah, the notes just don't always add up. At other times, though, they'll launch into a slightly unexpected progression that shows they thought this through and made a conscious effort not to take the obvious path in every songwriting decision. As far as its overall strength and capability with me personally, I'd place this somewhat below the last three original studio full-lengths, which resonated with me considerably more.

Welcome to the Morbid Reich was a 'statement', both cyclic and evolutionary, cleverly adapting the title of the band's old demo and thrusting it boldly into the future-now. It was this arching, evil, and expressive triumph. Tibi et Igni, as mighty as its components, seems more like a 'holding down the fort' sort of effort. It works on all tempos, but it feels more brutal and obligatory than so incredibly inspirational as some of its forefathers. I mean it's apples to apples here. I'm biased, to a degree, because there is not a single Vader album I dislike. Even the oft-maligned Revelations or The Beast are discs I break out on occasion, because they are unquestionably the most consistent band in their scene and probably in the entirety of death metal. I doubt they've written anything I'd attribute with a perfect score, but they're often so far up the pantheon that I've built a shrine regardless. Tibi et Igni ('for you and the fire', though my translation is hazy) takes a few measly missteps, like the bonus cover of Das Ich's "Des Satans neue Kleider", which I could have lived without, though I like the original and admire Peter's eclectic tastes as always. A few of the originals could be better, but on the other hand, I'm sure I'll be spinning this through the summer months (at least) and it's got enough arterial spray and memorable meat to it that it mandates a purchase by nearly any Vader or death metal fan.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (no prayers will help)

Friday, May 30, 2014

Blacksoul Seraphim Interview

Interview with Joshua by Autothrall.

New England is such a diversified womb of metallurgy that some of the best often slips through the proverbial cracks. An endeavor to right this situation brings me across the path of Blacksoul Seraphim, one of our rare Gothic/doom metal outfits, and the prodigy of one Joshua C. (aka Morte McAdaver of local black metal act Sorrowseed). Eclectic, well spoken, professional and devoted beyond mere words. The debut Alms & Avarice is some of my favorite material he's written, and I wanted to discover out just what lit this solemn fire...and so was humored.
Auto:  Was the concept behind Blacksoul Seraphim conceived prior to Sorrowseed, or was there a natural inclination towards writing slower material to contrast with the general speed and lethality of the other band’s black/death metal style?  

Joshua: The concept came after Sorrowseed’s debut.  The dual discs of the Extinction Prophecies was a foreshadowing of the split that would occur within my mind when it came to making heavy music.  The Dread Sylvan Summonings was my favorite disc of that album, but future Sorrowseed material was fated to become more aggressive in nature, and I wanted to put my own voice forward with the doleful tunes.  This, combined with my desire to become better at playing guitar and singing gave rise to Blacksoul Seraphim.

How much time do you put into lyrics as opposed to writing the actual guitars and keys? It seems you have a comparable investment in them to someone like Dani Filth, steeped in the dialect and verbosity of English/American masters of poetry and fiction, from Wordsworth to Poe? There’s a sort of antiquity there I really enjoy. Do you feel like the lyrics are often given the shaft in extreme metal?

Oh, absolutely with the shaft.  I’m very critical of lyrics, and they are often the hardest part of a song to write due to my high (or at least peculiar) standards.  Unless a song is meant to be cheesy/corny/stupid, or the songwriter’s first language is not English, I can’t excuse terrible or vapid lyrics.

Now that you mention it, I think Dani Filth is one of my main influences...

As for how much time I spend writing them, I’d say probably too long!  I review the words repeatedly in my head, reviewing them against the rhythm of the song (which also may or may not be fully written), altering things as necessary, making sure I’m not repeating myself or selling myself short, etc.  In short, I am very neurotic and obsessive about lyrics.

The themes behind the debut record are fascinating, sort of an anti-Milton vibe or an inversion of Dante’s Inferno or  Purgatorio. I know you’ve probably gone on at length about them, but could you share a summary of this vision for the readers? Are there any particular literary sources which inspired the idea, and do you plan to continue to weave the theme into future material, or will newer songs follow a separate and/or disparate concept?

Actually, I don’t often speak of the album concepts; I like to wait until asked by inquiring minds such as yourself and your readers!  I am honored that you find the themes fascinating.

The entirety of Blacksoul Seraphim’s material is essentially the world viewed through a fallen angel’s eyes.  He is meant to represent hope, but this becomes his torment as he is constantly filled with despair at the sight of the mortal world and what it has become.  He cannot truly connect with us, nor can he express modern concepts as we do, but he does see the evils and corruption that pervade our society, and wishes to inspire humans to rebel against these ills and devils.

Literary sources include, as you mention, Dante’s Inferno and Milton (Paradise Lost), but also the Bible itself.  There’s always been this elegant morbidity to Christianity that I’ve appreciated (just like all the other cool goth kids), and it seemed all too appropriate to use their traditions and imagery in this project. 

My main source of inspiration, however, is the news.  Seeing how complacent people are with the perpetual corruption of elected officials (who are unequivocally owned by wealthy donors and/or corporate parties), the lack of compassion in the face of tragedy, and the addiction to sensational, insignificant stories and all makes me sick to the point of writing angst-ridden music.

Have to hand it to you, I loved how the deeper vocals meshed in with the material here, very melodic but stern, giving the listener the impression he/she is irrevocably doomed, which is rather the point. I felt like a peasant listening to a witch-finder’s sermon in the old English countryside. Did you have to train your voice a lot for this, or did it come natural after the Gothic style you performed in Pandora’s Toybox?

Funny enough, when I first set out to do a gothic rock band, I was all geared up to do my best 69 Eyes impression.  Naturally, Pandora’s Toybox would end up becoming a more silly and theatrical thing where I used whatever over-the-top voice was appropriate for each song.

Growing up, I was often in chorus classes throughout school.  We sang lots of religious pieces (despite not being church-affiliated), and I loved singing these solemn, though sometimes overly elaborate pieces.  I suppose in this way, I was trained to sing this kind of sonorous, despondent material.  As opposed to the Toybox, Blacksoul Seraphim seems to be the return to my “choir roots.”

Also, there are occasionally these grueling, excellent growls used sparsely? Were those by the guest vocalist Matt Smith, or yourself, and do you think you’d be open to including harsher vocals more commonly in the future (regardless of who performs them)?

Matt Smith did the harsh vocals on "Plague of Pawns", along with the guitar solos.  He seemed perfect for an angel of sickness, and I highly recommend checking out his project, Faces of Bayon.  The only harsh vocals I do are the sibilant growls, and I tend to reserve those for when I want the listener to feel haunted.

The newest material has more harsh vocals on them by my drummer and friend, Rick Lowell.  He unleashes his fury in the song “Exalted Genocide.”  When the music calls for a more stentorian style of male vocal, he more than cuts the mustard.


How was it working with Clay Neely of Black Pyramid, who recorded the first record and also contributed the drums? He did a pretty pro job, especially considering that Blacksoul has a more archaic/antiquated Gothic/doom sound than his mainstay. Is that a relationship that might continue onto the next full-length, or will this be more self-produced?

Clay was, and continues to be awesome.  I loved working with him.  Very patient guy, punctual, and gave great feedback.  He has since moved to Georgia with his family and,  far as I know, has not been involved in music production since last year.  I actually didn’t know it was him until I first set foot in the studio and recognized him as the Black Pyramid drummer.  Once I realized he was in one of my favorite doom bands, I was certain that we’d work well together.

While I would have relished the opportunity to have him produce this next Blacksoul Seraphim endeavor, distance prevents that from being possible.  But I do have another excellent producer helping me on this: Benjamin Jon of Stillwork

You’ve brought on a new drummer, Rick Lowell, who also plays with Sorrowseed. Will this change lend itself to a broader dynamic range in the newer Blacksoul Seraphim material that we’ve yet to hear, or will the core creative process revolve around the same tempos and aesthetics?

Rick is more the metalhead than I am, and he does occasionally influence me in a heavier direction.  Suffice it to say that new Blacksoul Seraphim material does include some faster songs with some French black metal influences (hooray for Alcest), and one song that pays homage to Enslaved.  However, Rick understands what the project is about, and we’re still mostly building off the same dynamic of the first album.

Blacksoul Seraphim has a very inclusive presence through social media, with you debuting new tracks (uncut or finalized) for fans to experience as they’re written and recorded. I’ve listened through a number of them and they’re quite good, arguably even catchier than on the debut. What inspired this decision? Do you think it might cripple some of the mystique fans feel for a new album as a ‘product’, or will you hold back just enough material to keep us guessing? Or will these come out as some sort of compilation and then you’ll have an entire new album above and beyond them?

Thank you!  We wanted to go with a monthly release approach (though reality getting in the way has made that occasionally miss the mark), and keep people apprised as possible. 
In terms of mystique and being a product, I am at the point where I would rather just be honest with my listeners.  Advertising is simply not in my blood, and I’d prefer people just have my music and enjoy it on their own terms.  If money is given, that’s wonderful and I am grateful, but reaching hearts, minds, and ears is more important.  With that being said, I am all for just releasing the songs as they become presentable.  The only thing I hold back is the “final” product for download, since I’d rather ensure that listeners are able to keep the highest quality I can offer.

For now, we will be releasing songs each month as we are able, and once I’ve run out of ideas, time, and/or money, we’ll release it via digital download.  Incidentally, I offer CDs to people at shows for free, and while Alms and Avarice is sold globally through digital distribution, the CDbaby and Bandcamp downloads are free.

You worked with Hillarie Jason, a local photographer/artist for the cover image to the debut, which was both memorable and fitting to the lyrical vision; you also use another illustrator for each of the preview singles, and several others for the Sorrowseed discs. How do you track these people down, are they within a circle of friends & acquaintances or do you hit up places like Deviant Art?

For the initial Sorrowseed album for Extinction Prophecies, I did ransack DeviantArt for Brett MacDonald, but otherwise, I have met artists through mutual friends and contacts.  Hillarie I met at shows, and I believe Lilith of Sorrowseed hired her to photograph a show at the Oasis in Worcester.   Rebecca Meyer has done the recent artwork for the new songs.

I’ll probably pick your brain a lot more about Sorrowseed at some other time, but I noticed you had a guest spot on Nemesis Engine from Andy LaRocque, who recorded and threw a lead up on one of the tunes. Have you considered tracking down a feature like this for Blacksoul Seraphim? Maybe Leif Edling of Candlemass, or Hamish/Andrew from My Dying Bride?

That would be amazing, though I fear the cost.  Andy was very prompt and professional, but he was expensive, and unfortunately, his name did not seem to lend much to the promotional process of Nemesis Engine.  While it does feel wonderful to have a favored artist as part of my own work, the expense is considerable.  However, if and when I do write a new Sorrowseed record, I plan on asking Devin Townsend.

Massachusetts, and New England in general, seems a relative hotbed for a number of niches in metal and hardcore, but your projects bear a distinct and somewhat more European feel to them, what with the Gothic imagery conveyed. Here a lot of the fans/bands seem to have been bitten by the old school 80s/90s bug, whether that’s thrash, black, death metal or old hardcore. Has this created any notable conflicts or sense of alienation? When listening to this project in particular, I picked up a lot of vibes similar to Candlemass, Yearning, Draconian, Isole and My Dying Bride. Would you be thrilled by the prospect of a tour there, or a label deal with Napalm or some other imprint sympathetic to the Gothic/doom style?

I would be ecstatic beyond words.  I’ve resigned myself to the fact that my local area and most of the country doesn’t really have much enthusiasm for my style, and have entertained pipe dreams of achieving success in Europe, whether it’s a tour or just being distributed and promoted there by a label.  Should the opportunity ever come, I would gladly take it.

Speaking of which, you’ve actually performed live with this material, if I’m not mistaken? Is there a current complete lineup which could perform a gig on call? How was the reaction to that from an East Coast audience, did people stare slack-jawed and incomprehensive at the brooding eloquence of the vocals/lyrics and the graceful, riff and key-based doom which relies less on a fat/stoner guitar tone with down-tuning, and more on actual musicality?

I have performed three Blacksoul Seraphim shows to date, and will be performing alongside Sorrowseed in September at Ralph’s Diner.  Folks tend to just ignore Blacksoul Seraphim performances, likely regarding it as background music.  Those few that listen have given positive feedback and great compliments.  But yes, incredulous stares are often the best for which I can hope.  If, however, there have been people who have appreciated it in silence, I am grateful.  And besides, I love playing and singing the material, so the crowd needn’t feel obligated to indulge me.

Much gratitude for taking the time to speak with us! When do you think we’ll hear the full follow-up to Alms & Avarice, and is there any other news for the near future?

Thank you for this chance to be heard!  I rarely have my brain picked, and someone has to clean out these cobwebs.

If I have my way, the next album will be available by the end of 2014, but we will see.  I don’t like to set deadlines, since they occasionally get in the way of something being done correctly and to the best standards.

In other news, I’ve mostly been laying low, gathering resources, and relaxing however I can.  Music is a stressful thing, and the scene(s) often only compound the ideal.  I’ll be more active when I’ve figured out a new game play to approach this faltering and over saturated industry.

Gaze upon Blacksoul Seraphim at Facebook.
Experience Alms & Avarice through Bandcamp.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Thantifaxath - Sacred White Noise (2014)

I had heard a tune off this album some weeks ago, probably via a friend's YouTube link, but for whatever reason the Thantifaxath debut slipped my mind. A mistake, as it turns out, because I've now listened through this a dozen times, fallen completely in love with it and can't stop subjecting myself to its sense of eloquent opacity. What these hooded, enigmatic Canadian mystics have essentially pulled off is a rather original spin on what some might dub a form of 'psychedelic' black metal; only unlike the trippy artists this tag has previously been foisted upon, like Finnish spacemen Oranssi Pazuzu, there is a more cinematic sense of tension, release and wonder to these tracks which is simply unforgettable.

It's black metal, sure, but with a range of strings and ambient accoutrements that so delicately balance off the harsher vocals and riffing. We're not talking aimless navel-gazing, but purposeful, sweeping anthems for the sodden, captured in simplistic but effective chord patterns that have the texture of some city corridor after a rain has subsided. Rhythm guitars don't encompass techniques that we're unaccustomed to, per se, but the selection of notes here has an uncanny knack for infecting the mind even without the catchiest of progressions. No, there is something ornately mechanistic about the album that really registered a mood...a nostalgia for a life I've never lived. Unique urban bewitchment that I simply don't encounter often on record in this medium. At points it felt like Voivod and later Enslaved jamming out some score for a formerly silent film 80 years after the fact. Dissonance and drama shifting about a black and white stage in the form of human thespians, and yet such specific aesthetic definition can't really even begin to cover this...

All manner of haunted, unexpected melodies are harbored over these six tracks and 44 minutes, but what really drives them deeper is just how fluently they are mixed against the raucous bark of the front man. The bass lines are strong, viscous and flexible to each rhythmic configuration while not mocking the listener by boringly cloning the guitar patterns. Strings and orchestration are very often understated, simple supports for the guitars which cast a theatrical shadow, the sense once is alone in some cinema, but for the ghosts running the projector. Tremolo picked harmonies are beautiful, often lighter than air, at other times droning and depressive. The drums are pretty evenly delivered, with some force to the snares and a solid kick tone, but to be honest they do somewhat dissolve against everything else happening, not for lack of volume, just lack of brightness. Further embellishments, like the tonal chants that inaugurate "Gasping in Darkness", or the ringing, spacious guitars set against the shrill strings of "Eternal Falling", are just breathtaking.

There is no other way I can state it.

Sacred White Noise indeed, somewhat shy of perfection, and I'm a little worn out on this sort of cover image (though it does fit the songwriting). That said, this is easily among the most intriguing experiences I've had with metal in 2014, or any music, for that matter. I feel shameful giving my Canadian neighbors any more credit than I already have, but without John Candy and Dan Akroyd to vent my jealous frustration upon them, I concede that this is extremely goddamn awesome. At least this time it's not from Quebec, right? The wealth is spread. Resonant, wonderful music. Nightmares and lightmares. Thantifaxath joins Hail Spirit Noir, Spectral Lore and Funereal Presence at the top of my curiosity fulfillment shortlist as far as recent black metal.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Dead Congregation - Promulgation of the Fall (2014)

Dead Congregation's 2008 debut Graves of the Archangels was among the more popular of the 90s death metal throwbacks, and I surely know a number of folks on and off-line who continue to sing its praises to this day, though I was not particularly enamored with it to the point that I could share in the cheers. Basically well done Incantation worship tempered with the shifting energies of NY standbys Immolation, the speed and temerity of vintage Morbid Angel (first three albums) and a smattering of other, more obscure acts like Rottrevore, that album was consistent and solid material which only fell short in terms of how the songs resonated with me. As a follower of the genre since its birth, I still have that notion implanted of me that when I want to hear a death metal record, I want great songs, and the Greeks' material sort of all flows together, cohering into an album on which individual tracks don't have a whole lot of distinction from one another. Promulgation of the Fall follows suite, though after a six year hiatus, mother fuckers be so hungry for this sound that they are very likely to devour it. This will be an album of the year upon many a short list come December, but not for this author...

That said, it would be remiss for me to sell short the strengths of this quartet. Promulgation is one damn level playing field, that level being one of the substrata of Inferno. The production on this disc is pretty much Incantation's last outing, the dissonance, twisting melodies and force of the rhythm guitar chords work in perfect unison, while the drumming here is of a more innately brutal and technical leaning than what you expect out of many cavern core/occult death metal bands. It's just much cleaner and less crashy than you might expect. The bass isn't the thickest, but it's stuffed with enough bacon to satisfy its own presence, and the Pillard-ian gutturals also have enough depth and resonance to compete with the busier goings-on in the rest of the band. Structurally, the Greeks a good deal more variation than most of their peers, oozing from slower, roiling grooves to storming blast bursts and loads of tremolo picked guitars which summon forth the 90s. There is an impressive sense of balance, a very measured element to the songwriting that makes it seem like an album which took so long to produce...nothing feels cheap or fucked around or boring, and they almost never take the 'easy' way out with riffs that are less than busy, textured or atmosphere in how they fit one another like pieces of a subterranean, cryptic puzzle.

But ultimately, where Dead Congregation excels in a more professional and complete package than so many similar bands of the last 5-10 years, the song quality here still seems to evade me. Most of the tremolo riffs are mere derivatives of a million that predate them, without offering catchier or more unexpected note choices. The best I can say is they rarely wear out their welcome, and the band does perform with a lot cleaner skill than others who go for bulkier saturated distortion or far too reverb laden leads and vocals. How the Greeks paced this out was rather smart, interspersing the more atmospheric tunes like "Promulgation..." itself in with their busier, frenzied counterparts, but even then I just wasn't hearing riffs that stuck with me for very long. The blasted parts are rarely very interesting beyond their tight execution, the floods of melodic chords there just hammer away into a void of disinterest, rather than shimmering up from the depths with a hellish pallor. The lyrics were actually quite well written, often quotable, and a nice match for the aesthetics of the songwriting, but I often felt like the delicate balance of atmosphere and aggression was much stronger than the notes themselves, and wound up having a lukewarm reaction not unlike the one I felt for Disma's debut, which was another heavily hyped release post-Incantation, though slower and more crushing.

There are death metal records from 25 years ago, 20 years ago, 15, 10 or 5 that still manage to stick with me in an ageless fashion, whereas I've struggled to remember Promulgation of the Fall even an hour or so after experiencing it. It just lacks the identity and novelty of so many of its influences, and can really only ever be another 'good' outing rather than a great one. Of course, Dead Congregation should be credited for the proficiency and morbid perspicacity with which they approach the genre. The 'down time' was spent polishing up their skills and sound, and through touring promotions and word of mouth, I find it very likely that they'll prove one of the survivors once this nostalgic wave of 90s death metal moves on and something else takes its place. There is no horsing around here, a seasoned and serious assault on the houses of the holy. It just lacks that infectiousness to it which I so rabidly seek in death metal, and it's not really innovative or unforgettable enough to tear itself from the long shadows cast by its influences.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (imminent submission)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Incantation - Dirges of Elysium (2014)

Godless, primal death metal mavens are having a veritable feast of late, with new records from bands like Teitanblood, Autopsy and Dead Congregation; yet I find myself drawn slightly more strongly towards the latest offering from another scene veteran, John McEntee and his fellow lords of gloom, Incantation. Coming off Vanquished in Vengeance in 2012, an incredibly strong re-affirmation record which saw the Pennsylvanians ramp up their production values and songwriting to a marginally more accessible tier, without losing any of what made them so important back in the 90s (even if fans at the time wouldn't know it yet). Enter Dirges of Elysium, a new effort which adheres to the same potent level of sound and variation, only venturing slightly further into the death/doom well which they've always inhabited, and I cannot say I'm disappointed in the least...this is one effective, oppressive, spiritually cumbersome beast which compensates for a lack of innovation with really well-written songs, and largely winning riffs.

That's right, there isn't necessarily a single damned thing on Dirges that you've not encountered before, from either this band, Autopsy or others of their ilk, yet Incantation pull it off remarkably, as if the whole medium were fresh and had just been invented yesterday. Not every individual riffing thread is victorious, perhaps, but the slower tremolo picked sequences feel morbid and cavernous, the downtrodden harmonies enough to churn the clouds and grey the sky, and both the leads and rhythm guitars covering a broader scope of tempos than much of the band's backlog. If this were some brand new head on the chopping block, it might feel entirely too derivative of McEntee's legacy, and yet this is the fucking genuine article, an ablution of sickness, suffering and depravity which takes its sweet time crushing your head. In fact, paired up with its predecessor Vanquished in Vengeance, I'm going to have to say that this has been my favorite epoch of the band since the first two records. They just have that much more of an impact on me as I'm listening...not the most memorable works in their field by a very long shot, but prime examples of seasoned mortuary-craft which possess a metric ton of replay value. Dirges is slower, sure, and that's not always my thing, but I was rarely bored here (perhaps in 1-2 songs top). Incantation continues to spew the gene-seed that still runs in the veins of so many of their followers...

McEntee's vocals remain a selling and life-quelling point, rumbling like boulders being shifted about the Underworld to participate in Sisyphean tortures, fully evocative of the darkness beneath that this band has always called home. Rhythm guitars retain that robust flesh, alternately murky and dextrous despite the largely simplistic chord and note progressions the band champions. Bass lines are fitful, creepy and adventurous. Drums: clear but crash-tested. Nothing technical anywhere, but where Incantation succeed and so many others fail is in how perfectly level they can measure off atmosphere against finesse, opacity against clarity, the static and the kinetic, the dying and the fucking dead. I'm not saying these are the sorts of riffs to die for that we'll be recounting for the next 20 years, like the ones we first dug up 20 years ago through the most seminal of works, but this is just a very dependable, believable form of escapism into the subterranean haze. The intro is good, the faster riffs sound evil, and even the more bloated compositions manage not to induce the 'snooze setting' because they feel epic rather than meandering or directionless.

Oh, the grandeur of the gruesome! Dirges of Elysium beats with the same rotten heart that started pumping a quarter century past, and yet the ichor-choked arteries seem to have undergone some refinement. Friendlier, maybe, but in the way it's more congenial to be eaten alive directly than to be toyed with over a long, bloody hunt.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Monday, May 26, 2014

Cemetery Lust - Orgies of Abomination (2014)

Your band is dubbed Cemetery Lust. Your second album, Orgies of Abomination. You have a bassist who goes by the handle of 'Raypist', and several members nicknamed 'Nasty'. You are out to troll the universe at the expense of the politically correct, the weak of heart and stomach. To do this, you'll mete out some of the most intentionally crude and brash death/thrash metal possible, with what must be among the most puerile of riffing progressions available, often involving just a small handful of chords, wailing leads and a vocalist with a gruff, barking profile heavily redolent of tough sounding 80s mid-listers in both the crossover and pure thrash mediums. You have cast any and all illusions of nuance, musical ability and (possibly) good taste to the stinking winds, the only pretentiousness that which is well within spitting distance...

Shifting perspectives: my first thought was that I was either going to love or hate this record, but like so many of the death/thrash or black/thrash hybrids promoting the baser instincts of their influences, I found myself stuck somewhere in the middle of those two reactions. Orgies of Abomination is as plain as day, derivative old school dirty thrash metal with a slight impetus for tremolo picked death metal passages and perhaps a little bit of smut-black cultivated through the lyrical themes and visual aesthetics. A little Slayer, a little Speak English or Die, a healthy heaping of Fistful of Metal all sauteed with a modicum of German influence via Kreator or Sodom, only lacking in the mighty riff construction capabilities that vaulted such names into legend. You've got some angrier gladiatorial charge parts, mid-paced neck-jerking thrash mutes, and most of what you'd find in between those poles. Bass is murky but audible, but even if it were at a louder volume I don't think the lines would really stand apart from the rhythm tracks. Drums are lewd and rude, clangy, rehearsal raw but tight enough that they eschew any sloppiness in that area.

As a thrasher of about 30 years, if we count Show No Mercy and Kill 'Em All, I naturally have some high standards for the style, and those are very far from being met here. Cemetery Lust doesn't sound particularly pissed off, wicked, evil or even that invested in what they're creating here...just a bunch of guys out to have some fun and play the music which obviously inspires them to this day. A number of similar acts have also come from the Hell's Headbangers, and you can really tell the allure: there is something primal and authentic about the leather, chains, denim and attitude that radiates from a recording like this. Unfortunately, that authenticity can trace itself back to a pretty average garage thrash band in the 80s, or a dime a dozen death metal demo from the dawn of the genre, emulating its heroes without adding anything of note. You might not hear a lot of vocals like this in the current time, since more go for the black rasp or death growl, but it was never the most interesting style despite its everyman sense of brute honesty. I really felt like the band showed the potential to punish us with better and more aggressive riffs, but seemed to hold back since seriously kicking our asses might not have been the modus operandi...

I did appreciate that loud, sincere and lo-fi production, as Orgies holds up to rather high volumes and reminds me of a lot of jam sessions I participated in as a teen when we'd just let a tape recorder role and fuck around with choppy blast beats, proto-death and derivative thrash passages while coughing randomly into microphones. There's a place for the style, and if you've a natural predilection for party trash of a goofy but sinister bent, this album might be worth checking out. Alas, the tunes just eluded me almost seconds after hearing them, on numerous occasions, and I'm just looking for so much more out of this style. For instance, check out Ketzer, or Deathhammer, or Antichrist Sweden, all more or less exemplars of the niche who blaze paths of blood and fire across your skull. I don't fault it for its simplicity, but even in that realm there must be some more vile and memorable set of riffs that can be impaled into the listeners' ears...Cemetery Lust seemed to be all about the 'fun' here but it's just not that funny or ironic or charming beyond the black/white cover art.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Vallenfyre - Splinters (2014)

Splinters is another of those retro death metal records of which the production values alone will no doubt spin a lot of heads. I only wish mine was among them, because when I break this down to a musical level alone, there's just not much interesting happening and I feel like this entire wave of throwback extremity is surely and steadily starting to jump a shark. That's not to mock the efforts of Gregor Mackintosh and company, since they at least generate a solid effort at contrasting moderate-speed Swedish death metal with the harrowing death/doom of Gregor's mainstay. But when the considerable smoke clears from this sophomore experience, I don't think there's a single riff I feel like revisiting, and that doesn't speak of its chances when there are a few hundred other comparable records vying for the same attention spans.

Splinters is not a far cry from the Vallenfyre debut, only it seems a bit more raw and attitude driven, like a hybrid of modern Asphyx/Hail of Bullets with late 80s Paradise Lost, ancient Celtic Frost/ Hellhammer grooves ("Odious Bliss") and then some creatively bankrupt d-beat riffing passages which remind me quite a lot of tunes by the latest in the Entombed-core craze. You've got sad little melodies woven through the meatier, flesh-torn distorted rhythm guitars, but unfortunately they all feel really plain and simplified to the point that they can't even touch the genuine melancholy and gloom cast by Gregor's earlier material with Paradise Lost (Gothic, Icon, etc). The drumming is quite fantastic, in fact I love how the album opened with just the simple string of crushing chords and then a mighty fill which put me instantly in the mood to enjoy this...only it turns out that much of the material really lacks that sense of explosive excitement and so many of the riffing patterns are derivative to the point that I wanted to skip over them and hope for some light in the mist. At best they erupt into some semblance of almost-memorable punishment ("Savages Arise"), but the notes just never fall into place for me to fully invest myself into these songs.

On the plus side, for a lot of younger fans, or people who just want the enormous guitar tone you'll find amongst those bands attempting to out-Swede Sweden, the sound on this album alone is likely to make it one of your weekly favorites. Combined with Gregor's enormous, brick-faced growls, it does pack a loud punch somewhere in between Nails and Hail of Bullets. Now if only the chords chosen were thoughtful, interesting or at least bluntly evil in effect, there would be something more than a mere visceral thrill in listening through this. The slower, doom parts never make me feel doomed, just sort of run of the mill seeing that they come from a guy who has been part of some of the best tunes the field has ever offer. The speedier bits are just analogs for a thousand other bands, showing some life in the old limbs of the performers but never once presenting something that sticks. I'm usually a guitar guy, so if I'm paying more attention to Adrian Erlandsson then Gregor and Hamish, that tells me something. On the whole though, if you want Grave, Dismember, Entombed and Unleashed updated yet again with the crush dialed up, this is likely to sate that craving...I just think there are so many other bands doing it better, and a severe lack of nuance and atmosphere (beyond the guitar tone, I mean) send this one pitching into an opaque void, while A Fragile King managed to hover for awhile longer over that same precipice.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Realmbuilder - Fortifications of the Pale Architect (2011)

One of the most interesting aspects of New York's Realmbuilder is how, in the construction of their fantastical mythos, they often approach the world-building from a 'ground level' perspective. That is, they tell the tails of the highwayman, the builder, the miner, the peasant, the beholden of the heroic setting, rather than taking the easy way out and scrawling out some woefully generic fantasy tripe involving a cut & paste warrior and his cakewalk over evil wizards and/or dragonkind. Basically, they're the anti-Rhapsody. It's all in their chosen moniker, and the duo's proves all too loyal towards the themes of their sophomore Fortifications of the Pale Architect, a consistent and well written bridge between the first and third records, both stylistically and qualitatively.

Yes, Realmbuilder is the polar opposite of all the frivolous, ribbon-wearing flower metal which thrives upon speed, sugary melodies and fits of classical orchestration to make its point. This is the metal of masons, of craftsmen, laborers who serve beneath their masters, trying to eke out a stable living in an age of sorcerous and barbaric oppression. As 'worker placement' games like Agricola or Pillars of the Earth are to the board game genre, so Fortifications is to the world of heavy/doom metal, and it's a major draw for me. I feel that the instinctual comparisons to Manilla Road or Manowar remain intact: there are obvious Sabbath-borne riffing progressions, and some melodic glazing redolent of Omen, but the honest timbre of Czar's voice reflects that Man-ly sensibility, a guy working with what he's got and not what the genre stereotypes tell us we need. So no screaming, or excess musicality or ability to his music, just pure working class sincerity, with which he manages to work wonders. I mentioned in my review of the third album that it took some getting accustomed to, but going back in time, I wonder why I ever might have hesitated...he's distinct, and plugged into the harmonic vocal arrangements that often spring up in these songs, quite a flawless fit.

Architecturally, the riffs are still extremely simple, as are the drums, with the bass taking a mere support role (not a forte on this disc). But here's the catch: they're relatively memorable, and for all the head scratching about where I've heard them individually in the past, which often soils my experience with a record, I feel like they actually have a unique quality, making chord choices that I really would only expect from this band. As usual, the material is slower in nature, steady and very stripped complexities to distract from the duo's strict adherence to theme. You will feel, in every single track on this sophomore, exactly as if you'd been thrust into the world they've created, which seems like a pastiche of pulp 60s-70s fantasy influences ala Howard, Moorcock, Lewis, Wolfe, Lieber and Saberhagen. Blue collar melodies are about the only uptempo component which breaks from this mold, but when we're in the mood for tales of empires being carved from wood and stone, the pacing here really is effective in relaying the appropriate atmosphere, without ever reducing itself to a glacial procession as you'll find in much monotonous doom.

Seven tracks, nothing wasted, nothing exceedingly repetitious or welcome-wearing, even though the lyrical themes might even arguably lend themselves to such. The rhythm guitar tone is a bit dirtier than on the debut, but we're talking only the most miniscule difference. Aesthetically this throws no curve balls from Summoning the Stone Throwers, but the songs generally rule, in particular "Iron Wheels of the Siege Machines", "Highwayman" and the ridiculously-Bal-Sagoth-titled "The Stars Disappeared from the Sky When We Uncovered the Bones of the First Gods". But really, there is not one I would replace, because this band casts such a unique shadow of escapism that expands the history of their imaginative worlds...but unlike so many fantasy-based power and heavy metal bands, they show a willingness to first place the cornerstones, to harvest the soils, to hunt the beasts, and give us a rare glimpse of a humbler perspective, without betraying the grand concepts we hold so dear in that literary genre. Realmbuilder is a GREAT band, though the polished minimalism of their compositional aspirations might turn away those who seek something more solemn and crushing.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (stack the stones)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Realmbuilder - Summon the Stone Throwers (2009)

I ask you, fair readers, to take a hiatus from your metrosexual and technologically-advantaged lifestyles for just a brief spell. Step outside and til your fingers through the soil, or your toes through a stream. Build a small cairn of rocks, whether as a marker, a tribute or a tomb. Take a handful of sticks and assemble a simple lean-to, and then cover it in a mesh of leaves. Sharpen a stone or branch as a tool, or a spear, and forage the environment for berries, for fresh water, for anything that will give you that modest edge of survival. New York heavy/doom duo Realmbuilder perform all of these functions, only in the context of heavy rock music which reaches to the roots of its medium, jerks them forth from the dirt, and then cooks them into a refreshingly tasty stew, enough to feed a family of forever.

Timeless, interesting hooks define this debut, a few overt nods to Black Sabbath being the only true comparison I can make without feeling unfair to the band. Imagine if bands like Manilla Road or DoomSword started releasing records in the 70s, after checking out a pile of damaged mass market paperback fantasy novels from the local library. Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, Earthsea, Chronicles of Narnia, Conan tales. Now imagine they also strived for the clean production values so many pop and rock bands achieved during that age, and were fronted by a workmanlike, charismatic individual who is fully cognizant of his own limitations and so supplants any illusion of 'range' and 'screaming' with a stolid, earthen sense of authenticity. Glaze this over with somber, harmonic choirs, a constant sense of steady momentum, and a genuine sense of inspiration you certainly don't hear in a lot of copycat doom metal acts, or 80s cheese metal throwbacks. Summon the Stone Throwers is hardly flawless, and in fact I find it the weakest of their three full-lengths, but already they had sown the seeds of style AND substance here, which were very near flowered.

If you can guess already, I want this to be one of the biggest bands in the world. Most likely they'll remain deep in the underground, appealing to a few hundred souls, which is acceptable, but they are a paragon exemplar of how you can reduce a musical genre to its seminal components and then rewire those into a damn fine frame of heavy metal, where anything is possible. Horns, melodies, bitter but brew-sated vocals, this band will cautiously test the waters of a number of possibilities over their career, and Summon the Stone Throwers is an adequate indoctrination to a future that is so heavily strung up by the past. The riffs are quite simple, sluggish if not entirely static chord progressions that are laced with quaint and catchy melodies. I believe the sheer cleanliness of the guitar tone might prove a little too polished for some listeners, who want their doom pregnant with saturation and disgust, but I think this choice works staggeringly well in the context of how they deliver the vocals, absurdly vacant bass-lines and minimalistic drum beats.

Lyrically, Stone Throwers is mildly more epic and warlike than its successor, but you still get the perspective of a looker-on rather than the predictable, heroic visions of fantasy spewed forth from the pens and minds of most heavy and power metal musicians. This is riddled with themes of power or class struggles, siege warfare, reading like second hand accounts of historical events in a low fantasy setting which isn't plagued with multi-hued rainbows or excess magical weavings. As such, it's a little beyond the barbaric perspective of Howard's Cimmerian hero, more of a cultured milieu, points of light and civilization being snuffed out by greedy brigands or other challenges of a medieval or Dark Age setting. It's a fine soundtrack for either a rustic afternoon, a drive to the Renaissance Faire, a board game with cool friends (Shadows Over Camelot, Citadels, Kingsburg, etc), or just reading ancient architectural texts by candlelight. Among the better songs are "Ninety-Nine Raids" and "Forgotten Minion", but it's all pretty consistent in value. Hell, could there be a better catapult song than the title track, or did I interpret that wrong?

Verdict: Win [8/10] (ready the granite storm)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Pestifer - Reaching the Void (2014)

Part of me is a major nerd for progressive ideas enveloped in a tech death metal context, but by the year 2014 I'm afraid that a lot of acts exploring that 'fringe' seem themselves to be repeating the past. Take Pestifer's sophomore Reaching the Void, for all intensive purposes a vortex of busy melodic riffs, bass lines that explore much of their fret-board, and a level of complexity which never eschews composition for pure wankery. Problem is, while the Belgians are not shy on the application of ambitious musicianship, it's still something we've all heard before. That's not to say I didn't derive some enjoyment from the album, but its labyrinthine charms do not always lend themselves to the most ambitious, memorable songwriting...

At its most clinical and convulsive, the playful and punctual thrash riffing passages brought to mind a death metal analog for Deathrow's underrated masterwork Deception Ignored, with some overt nods to Voivod's dissonant 80s material. Early Cynic (Focus), Watchtower (Control and Resistance) and Atheist (Unquestionable Presence) are other obvious references due to the flow of the bass player and the frenetic pulse of the music, with a hint of older Gorguts or 90s Death and Pestilence. But to place this in a more modern context, the songs feel like a collision between Canada's Beyond Creation, Germany's Obscura and America's Vektor, with that spacey, clean cosmic feel of the former two and then the occasional death/thrash viciousness of the third. Pristine, punchy production on the rhythm guitars allows us to hear every drum and bass note, and there are mass amounts of notes flying around, even though precious few seem to stick beyond their own hectic function. But don't be fooled into thinking this is even remotely chaotic or sporadic, because everything is heavily structured here and the band rarely escapes the envelope presented by the list of bands I name-dropped above. Thus, you've got a lot of minor variations on pre-conceived riffing formulas, arpeggio patterns and not a lot else here...

That's going to be enough for some, because let's face it, there is so much more actual 'music' here than on your garden variety death metal record, and even though many bands from Sceptic to Decrepit Birth have sought this sound, it does not seem like there's a heavy overpopulation of them, so there remains that slight illusion of nuance and 'freshness' which captivates the listener who is an admirer of the ability exhibited on the instruments. Through its tight cohesion of melodies and darker, dissonance, Reaching the Void is certainly a disc of some depth, so much fluttering about that I spent a few listens just picking out the bits and bytes of what I enjoyed, but on the flipside this is a 'plug and play' sort of album where many of the tempos and riff sequences could have been mixed up into their neighbors and you wouldn't really be able to distinguish them from one another. The bass, leads and drums keep things interesting, because they're actually dispensing some effort to stand out rather than facing subjugation by the guitars, but ultimately I came away from this feeling more like I'd experienced an 'exercise' than a set of songs I want to re-spin endlessly.

Pestifer have their chops, and I appreciated the detail and effort of this album, but it's not something I'd revisit when I wasn't in a very specific mood; but on the other hand, I obviously share a passion for many of the bands which influenced this one, and though I'd love to think the Belgians could travel further outside the box like their inspirations did at one time, Reaching the Void is more than enough to at least appreciate for the time spent in its conception and execution. If you own and enjoy at least a half dozen of the bands I referenced earlier, or others such as Gorod, Illogicist and Hellwitch, I think this is an easy enough recommendation.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Puteraeon - The Crawling Chaos (2014)

Puteraeon's latest opus, The Crawling Chaos, is very unlikely to breach the Swedish sound-off barrier, being that it's nearly a direct tribute to classics like Left Hand Path. But that aside, a few listens through the thing have convinced me that one should not be so quick to write them off, if only because they seem to really engage with their subject matter, engage with their songwriting and in the end provide us a pretty genuine window into the death metal ideals of their forerunners. This is accomplished almost entirely through their strict attention to melody and harmony, far more so than the usual runts of the Swedeath litter, which provides just the correct amount of musicality and atmosphere to save this one from the chaff-bin and put it with the rest of the wheat. That's not high praise, and this disc doesn't deserve such, but you could listen to this front to end, the entire 45 minutes and not really come away too bored or banging your head into a wall at the vast level of derivation it subsists upon.

In short, it's Left Hand Path with a few cruder grooves and d-beats shuffled in to balance out its more interesting ideas with something for the pit ghouls. The set-up is great, with the grimy, doomy grave dirt melodies inaugurating the 7-minute, sepulchral "Wrath" raising the bar for my expectations, and a number of riffs across most of the individual tracks providing some follow-through...only just not enough that it seems incredibly level or consistently memorable. Rhythm guitars are ugly, Swedish, but in accounting for themselves they incorporate a fair share of melodies that travel off in some fulfilling directions. In fact, had the band changed production styles and tones to something more unique, and dropped a few of the bland d-beat drive-punk passages, we could be hearing a fresher take on the death metal nostalgia that has started to corrode its welcome. Alas, The Crawling Chaos is planted too firmly in its safety zone. There are occasional riffs which deviate, like the opener of "The Abyssal" which is a grinding, evil paean to Consuming Impulse-era Pestilence, and in truth about 3-4 of the songs here would have made for a killer EP, but like a lot of old school stuff I get, the 'good' parts are watered down by a surrounding miasma of 'meh'.

Vocals are a little blunter and more monotonous than, say, L-G Petrov, but they at least compliment the growling with some even further guttural bursts. I can feel the repulsion bass lines spewing out sewage on the bottom end, but they never present themselves as something that deserves the same attention as the other instruments (a common fault in this style). The drumming is steady and has a live show feel to it, but in terms of beats and fills there's nothing really creative happen, it just happens to work within the context of the style like you'd expect from most bands playing at this level. The Lovecraft lyrical theme seems more or less serious, as it was on the first two discs these guys released, but this is such a commonplace thing in the 21st century that you wonder what the old corpse of everyone's favorite horror author would think about this. Personally I don't feel that The Great Old One would choose Swedish death metal as his entrance music when he steps in the ring against humanity (in a brief, one-sided bout). Nah...something more chaotic, orchestrated, layered and probably impossible for our species to comprehend. But the Mythos, and cosmic horror is such a fascination that it doesn't really get old, even when you're using a title like The Crawling Chaos which has been done before many times. So, yeah, not any better than the last two Puteraeon discs, but at the same time, no worse. You like Demonical, Revel in Flesh, or the original purveyors of this sound from that important 1990-1993 era, and you're not tired of the endless recycling of those ideas, then I don't imagine this one would put you out much.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Puteraeon - Cult Cthulhu (2012)

Puteraeon may not have stood so tall above their Swedish death metal throwback peers that their debut The Esoteric Order could be mistaken for something 'unforgettable', but it was unquestionably a well done example of how bands like Carnage and Dismember had a magic immemorial about them which is still possible to recapture when you're not spending half your record fucking around with some of the laziest riffs possible. I'm a little late in covering its followup, Cult Cthulhu, but as the Swedes are on the verge of releasing their third full-length I thought I'd check it out, and would you fucking know it, I don't regret making that choice, even if they still leave something to be desired...

I feel like somewhat of a flip-flopper, because this is presented in a pretty common style which I will either love or condemn to the pit of mediocrity depending on nitpicking of individual riffs, and apart from the ravenous, brutal growl of the frontman, it's pretty much lock, stock and barrel worship of Left Hand Path, Life is an Everflowing Stream and Dark Recollections, with the added benefit of being recorded in the 21st century. So those Sunlight studio rhythm guitar tones sound as plump as over gorged zombies, the harmonies sad and sepulchral, the drums fresh and hellish with kicks that sound like they're stomping straight up your spine. But somehow, the chord patterns and abysmal atmosphere created by the churning of the guitars against the drums stir in me the very dark mood I so loved about its overt influences. It's swampy, oblique, and maybe even evocative of the titular Mythos divinity, no matter how corny the title itself seems.

How about just Club Cthulhu? Bathe in a spa of squamous tentacles, stinking maws and other things that spell your end. Anyway, the Elder ones are nothing to make light of, and I doubt that was the intention of Puteraeon, just to write a savage record in the mold of their heroes. And this is no more or less that very thing. Inspired, not inspiring, chock full of guts but very little resonant evil beyond its visceral finish. If you're sick to death of this sort of cutting and pasting of a style (and I usually am), without adding much new to it (Revel in Flesh, Gluttony and a million others), then this isn't apt to change your mind, but I felt like the sophomore was at least well done. Examples of better efforts in this style include the first few Demonical outings, Entrails, the Miasmal and Tormented debuts, but I managed to make it through this brain-sucking 45 minutes with what shreds of my sanity remained failing to find offense in the style. I hope with the new album they'll try a little harder to differentiate themselves, or build upon the past rather than clone it, but this is just passable.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, May 19, 2014

Zgard - Contemplation (2014)

I've always got this soft spot for grandiose, atmospheric pagan black metal. Even when it's a bit shy on the memorable riffing, just that over the top use of keys, vocals in tongues foreign to me, all of it serves as some quasi-cultural escapism that compensates for the 'cheese' and bombast arguably inherent to the entire medium. I bring this up because Zgard, a one-man Ukrainian project, seems to encompass and embrace most of these traits without apology, and on his fourth full-length album seems to collide the aesthetics of bands like Summoning, Burzum, Graveland, Hellveto and Gontyna Kry into an emotionally powerful, if not entirely memorable experience. It took me to a place. Held me there. Not much more can I ask of it...

Laborious, workmanlike riffing which ranges from spacious and dissonance chords to lightly thrashing palm mutes, drenched in simple synthesizer patterns that resemble a steady and slow  Carpathian accumulation of snow, or a raven in flight at half speed. I don't really get tired of the sort of rasp Yaromisl metes out, tortured like a hybrid of Vikernes and Darken, always convincing even if the syllabic lines he intones are quite simplistic. But really, for as packed a record this is in overall atmosphere, it's all quite minimal and predictable. The guitars and synthesizers rarely surprise, and the flute playing is only added for emphasis, it rarely evades the basic chord progressions behind the tunes. Drums are programmed it seems, but so suppressed in the structural composition of these tracks that you won't really notice or mind, since they just don't play a major role when run against the keys, vocals and guitars.

There's one scintillating ambient piece here ("Silence") which I absolutely adored, if for no other reason than it cultivated nostalgia for old fantasy films of the 80s, or rather what I'd perceive might appear in such a cinematic sojourn. But Yaromisl also paces the album really well, with a lot of variation. The more soothing pieces are contrasted with the more uptempo, mug-swilling surge in "Incarnation Memory" which is marginally reminiscent of Bathory's viking metal if you threw on a mouth-harp and some haunted, wavering folk vocals. In the end, though, this is unlikely to appeal to a listener who has a vested disregard for synth-heavy pagan metal, and we're talking a more saturated sound than, say, Kroda. Personally, I didn't find it amazing, but immersive and at times enjoyable, enough that I plan to get around to the earlier material from 2012-2013 which I missed out on. An album for wintry dreamers into Caladan Brood, Summoning, Rivendell, and their ilk.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sacrocurse - Unholier Master (2014)

Punishment is the design of this international 2-piece collaboration, and punishment is perhaps the one musical region in which it does succeed. Unholier Master attempts to reach the epitome of raw, flesh ripping black/death hybridization through a formula that unfortunately opines for the overuse of a blast beat which can very quickly grow monotonous with nothing interesting happening over it. I'm not questioning the skill of this skin-beater, he's an absolute fucking maniac and incorporates a lot of clamorous crashing and even handles the death/thrashing breakdowns well, which often lend the music a bit of an Altars of Madness-era frenetic aesthetic, but like a lot of infernal war metal, it very often doesn't resonate.

Bass-lines are full-throttle abysmal muddiness, and guitar patterns so forceful and fast that they often become lost alongside the beats and the ominous, sustained growling which represents the vocalist. It's not that the guitars aren't busy, per se, but they rely a lot on pretty standard deathgrind or hyper black metal chord progressions which are performed in such a flurry that there is little emphasis on them being inherently memorable to begin with. At times, this feels like Blasphemy, Repulsion and Bestial Warlust pooled their collective hatred into a single, frothing mass of hell-flumes and chose simply to annihilate everything in their shared path with utter speed and disgust. Frivolous lead guitar frenzies flying all over the atmosphere, lightning fuck bass guitars which are played with the same level of intensity as the rhythm guitars, and a living NASCAR rally on the drum kit. My problem here is just that once I've heard one or two songs I feel like I've heard them all...they break it all up once in awhile, just not enough for my attention to become consistent.

Don't get me wrong, on some level I admire this sort of utter 'fuck off' attitude which courses through the album like burning blood, and in the past there are a few insane albums like this which I have held dear, but other than its pure, violent and visceral atmosphere I never discovered anything here I wanted to hold on to. If someone were flipping through my records and asked me for something sick and headache-inducing, I'd break out Unholier Master in a second. It's THAT relentless, THAT brutal and uncompromising, and it hates your guts, but the only real evil lies in its indiscriminate sense of aggression. All that said, there is a place for this stuff, and a number of individuals will worship the fuck out of its outrageous aural nihilism. This is the stuff I imagine would be played when various domains of Hell lay siege upon one another, the damned crushing the damned in an endless cycle of chaos which can never be broken. Wanna hear that? Then you'll wanna hear this. But check your desire for subtlety at the door, because Sacrocurse will not brook that foolishness.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Obscura - Illegitimation (2012)

Illegitimation shouldn't really be viewed as a comprehensive collection of Obscura's odds & edds...I mean, that's what it is, but I think of it more like a chance to hear/purchase the Germans' 2003 demo with a bunch of other random junk tacked on that likely no one cares about. A reasonable fan package for the few that want to experience their new favorite band in completion, but not exactly worth the money you might pay for it. However, it does offer a little insight into the band's origins and how they developed into one of Europe's premiere progressive death metal bands due to the excellence of their sophomore album Cosmogenesis in 2009.

Curiously enough, the titular 2003 demo itself seems aimed partially in a melodic black metal direction, or at least that's how some of the more majestic tremolo picked passages come across atmospherically. There are plenty of obvious death metal overtures, and the vocals and breakdowns place it firmly in that camp, but the chord choices that were later more heavily informed by bands like Death and Atheist seemed more vividly European in execution, almost like older Moonspell or Dissection had they gone death metal. Beyond that, the songs feel slightly misshapen, awkward and uninteresting. The 3-minute instrumental intro track wasn't the best choice, and would have greatly benefited from lyrics, while a lot of the shifts between thrashier, simple mid-paced rhythms and floods of blasts with melodic, texture chords seem to struggle with writing anything I'd consider memorable. You can definitely hear the raw space-matter condensing into what they would later evolve into with Retribution and Cosmogenesis, but it might also have gone elsewhere. The guitars are mixed alright, bright enough to make out what they're playing, and the drums are actually more charismatic than on the debut album...but the growls are mundane, and the songs just pass through the ears and mind like so many other melodic black/death demos that fell under the radar in the 90s and 'oughts.

The next three cuts represent a pre-production demo for Cosmogenesis, and you'll immediately recognize "Incarnate" as the best thing on this collection and possibly their career, a spurious and uplifting journey through the cosmos riding on wings supplied by Floridian progressive death metal. "Open the Gates" and the intro riff for "Headworm" are also decent, more brutally inclined stuff with spikes of that aforementioned progression and melody. But really, I'd rather just listen to the sophomore record which is more consistent and fulfilling...I'm not sure how much of the other two tunes were redistributed into later material, if not then perhaps these were good enough that the band could re-record them. Lastly, we get three more cover tunes, which are really obvious like those on the Retribution reissue. A Cynic tune ("How Could I"), an Atheist tune ("Piece of Time"), and another Death track, the unfortunate "Flesh and the Power It Holds". Okay, we get it, fellas, you LOVE Florida so much that I'm surprised there aren't any photos of you wearing Mickey Mouse ears...also that there wasn't also a Nocturnus or Hellwitch song represented. Anyway, these all sound decent, but not removed enough from the originals to be memorable depictions.

Ultimately, Illegitimation does not legitimize itself unless you just love Obscura and want to throw money in their direction. The Germans' roots are very clearly humble, the added content average, and in all honesty they just have one impressive album to their name: Cosmogenesis itself. Even its own successor doesn't necessarily live up to it, so frankly it's hard for me to define this band as anything anyone should really be compelled by beyond just that one disc. Hopefully they'll make me eat that statement in the future, but for now, this isn't worth the trouble.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Friday, May 16, 2014

Obscura - Retribution (2006)

Though its successor Cosmogenesis is the sole Obscura record that I find myself repeatedly returning to, Retribution was a fairly interesting control group from which the band's more interesting ideas evolved, and it also possesses a fraction more raw intensity due to the less polished production values and wilder exhibition of those ideas...several were thrown out there to passing celestial bodies in the great expanse, and only a few stuck, but it was obvious from the beginning that these German exemplars might fill the void left behind by Necrophagist's indecision to continue producing and releasing material beyond their sophomore album Epitaph. So, hey, if Obscura, Cytotoxin and Centaurus-A have decided to shoulder the kraut tech death burden themselves, so be it...I like a lot of what I've heard from them, if not everything.

Retribution is based in blasted brutality like a lot of other, cruder death metal of the last 15 years, but the difference here is that they drew upon the jazzier, progressive chord arrangements redolent of forebears like Death, Atheist and Pestilence in the early 90s. I'd liken it to Chuck Schuldiner having written a record for Brazil's Krisiun, or Morbid Angel going all cosmic with a more scientific, adventurous theme rather than that of grotesque eldritch horror (though Retribution is lyrically more personal than its followup). Perhaps a meatier-clad Mithras is also a viable comparison. At any rate, you'll recognize a lot of the techniques, in particular the drumming, but these are imbued with some more atmospheric phrasing, chugging and squealing reminiscent of commonplace US brutal death metal, and even some cleaner vocals to balance out the rather indistinct post-Chuck growls here that would probably flee my mind entirely if not for the contrast they create when sustained against the busier music. But lots of the chug riffs feel like those spidery Morbid Angel crawls of yesteryear, and though there are some calmer and more atmospheric passages dowsed in harmonies, a lot of the tremolo picked passages feel pretty bland with the blasting...I'm just glad they break these up often enough that Retribution doesn't grow totally dull.

On both a technical and memorable level, the songwriting on the debut just doesn't match up with the second album, due to the fact that most of the more interesting riffing breaks just feel like leftovers from either Death's Human or Atheist's Unquestionable Presence, only beyond their more savage context with the more intense drumming, they really don't do anything special. Speaking of which, I found the mix of the kit a little hissy, especially the cymbals and hi-hats. Just not something I really enjoyed...he can blast or roll out the double bass with the best of 'em, but has no more character than a drum sequencer, and I wouldn't have been surprised to find out that was what they used here. I've even got the remastered version of this through Relapse with the better cover art, and it doesn't sound so hot. The cover tunes (Death, Suffocation and Morbid Angel) are probably a little too obvious to be interesting, but they at least showcase their ability to play at that level, just not to write at it with their originals. All told, this is an adequate but skippable debut which ekes out little more than the groundwork to launch its successor into the depths of the cosmos.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (dawn of the face of the crown of creation)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Demonic Rage - Venomous Wine from Putrid Bodies (2013)

Chile's an interesting scene, because across pretty much all the metal spectrum the bands there seem more intent on capturing the vibes of the old school rather than just aping the latest status quo. Granted, depending on who you ask, nostalgia might very well BE the status quo, but I'm still pretty happy when I hear an album come along that seems like someone threw Pestilence, Immolation and Krisiun in a blender. If that sounds like money to you, Venomous Wine from Putrid Bodies is a no-brainer, because for whatever it lacks in originality it compensates in unrelenting, primal death metal brutality that manages to eschew the overtly reverb soaked cavern core or Swedish doppelganger characteristics.

I believe this was actually released last year by a local label, but now is getting an Iron Bonehead LP reprint, and a good thing because more people craving the 90s death metal should hear it. Churning, low end guitars often take on a sort of Testimony of the Ancients style, but fastened to a more direct guttural vocal style reminiscent of Ross Dolan or Craig Pillard. The kick drums are fairly robotic in tone, giving off that South America/Krisiun post-Floridian vibe where they resemble something Steve Asheim or Malevolent Creation would have played. But then there are a number of slower, tremolo picked rhythms akin to Scream Bloody Gore or Slowly We Rot, and also a number of slightly left of center riffing progressions which aren't unlike what Robert Vigna might have written back on the first couple Immolation discs. Variation isn't legion through these eight cuts, but it is clear that the Chileans know how to put songs together...they mix up the faster, mid-paced and crawling content enough that in 32 minutes, you never really have the chance to be bored.

Venomous Wine from Putrid Bodies is not a classic in the making, if only because the vocals do grow monotonous and the riffs are generally hit or miss, but when I pay attention to the muted tremolo picking phrases here they seem imminently more evil and dangerous than what so many other of these throwback death metal bands emit. The few doomier chord segments are rather forgettable, and there is next to know worthwhile bass presence (the lines are performed by the drummer and guitarist in the studio, which might explain it). Leads are functional and conservative, they seem to get lost against the weight of the rhythm guitars, but at least give the music more body and depth. Really, the central strength of Demonic Rage's sound are those tremolo picked parts which channel most of what I loved about old Death, Gorguts, Obituary, and Pestilence, and the rest of the performance is just solid enough to drive's enough that it looses itself from the middling pack of generic drones, if it could itself still be considered fairly derivative. Still, should the band expand this sound to a higher level of atmosphere, with nastier sounding drums, better leads, and more corpulent and compelling bass guitar, they could have a bright...err gloomy future.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Funereal Presence - The Archer Takes Aim (2014)

I count myself lucky to have a year where a select few bands are translating the whole 'occult horror rock' fad in a more feverishly, darkly delightful black metal context. First there was that Hail Spirit Noir sophomore, and now the drummer of Negative Plane has put his own spin on the medium to craft one of the most riff attentive, atmospheric experiences I've had in months. I can't say I'm incredibly surprised, since a little of the 2006 record Et in Saecula Saeculorum bleeds into the sound here, with a lot of classic doom/heavy metal riffs circa anything from Mercyful Fate to Paul Chain being sewn into the compositions to contrast the more trad black metal elements, but I CAN say that I still fucking love it!

The Archer Takes Aim is but four tracks, three of which are over 12 minutes in duration, but so much happens within this space that it almost takes on the narrative aesthetic I felt when listening to the mighty Sabbat's opus The Dwelling. Rather than rambling on with a number of numbingly generic tremolo picked guitar patterns, Bestial Devotion entwines evil harmonies and resilient melodies against the support back beats and fuzzed out chords. Granted, there are some pretty unimaginative rhythm guitars here implemented over the 'charge' drums, but they're only bland until those brighter, eerie guitars splay themselves into the rafters of the album's dim shelter. Bass lines are groovy and mildly psychedelic, though the patterns don't often distinguish themselves far from the guitars. That said, the balance of Bestial's standard rasp and soaring, dreary cleaner vocals is brilliant, and the other keys and instruments used to emphasize the theatrical, black & white creepiness cast by the album are all tastefully executed and never detract from the metal instrumentation.

All riffs deliver on about a 9-to-1 ratio, with just a few monotonous or underwhelming chord sections marring the album's surface, but I was particularly enamored of the opener "The Tower Falls" with its cautiously woven melodies, and the instrumental "Dämmerlicht" which opens with atmospheric bells, clean and ringing guitars and then explodes into this amazing riff which sounds like Dark Thrones and Black Flags era Darkthrone jamming with fucking Voivod! How cool is that?! It's the shortest tune here at six-and-a-half-minutes, and yet it's possibly my favorite metal song this year despite the lack of vocals. "Gestalt des Endes." is likewise extremely strong, with a lot of thought and expression put into the note selection that easily separates it from the vast majority of bland black metal which crosses my digital doorstep every week in the slush pile. That's not to say Funereal Presence is strikingly original, all of the components have been present in black metal past, but The Archer Takes Aim is tangibly malevolent, lovingly crafted. A singular, shadowy vision of the obscure, easily recommended to fans of Negative Plane, Cultes des Ghouls, Head of the Demon, or Bethlehem's S.U.I.Z.I.D.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (with poisonous arrow)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Hellspirit - Dawn Under Curse (2014)

Sometimes simple is best when one sets upon carving out a legacy, and that is precisely the strength of Hellspirit's debut Dawn Under Curse, which for all intensive purposes is a slab of pure 90s melodic black metal. Written at a measured pace, where each individual riff is given some space to breathe, this is actually not so typical of the Finnish sounds I normally encounter. Song titles and lyrics are in English, for one thing (usually that's about a 50/50 chance), and they don't chase after the grimiest of guitar tones. It's polished, and certainly there is no faulty advertising that they pursue a sort of black/heavy metal hybrid of the 'epic' variety, which tightens its bond to its one most easily gleaned influence: Bathory.

You hear Quorthon's imprint in the slower to mid-paced riff sequences which feel like fell glories of the Blood Fire Death era, even though this is written with a Satanic motif more redolent of Under the Sign of the Black Mark. Warlike drum cadences with lots of thrifty little snare sections, and lots of somber ingrained melodies in the chord choices. The guitar tones are neatly distorted without a lot of meat, but big enough to support the even louder melodies, which all work rather well despite the fact that they're not even remotely unique. It's just that there are progressions of notes here which have a timeless depth to them, an evocation of nostalgia through the listener for times when an album like Dawn Under Curse would have simply been enough; technicality and orchestration not necessary, just layers of maudlin and melancholic guitars used to imbue a sad majesty. Hellspirit, despite the name, doesn't come across as particularly threatening or evil, even when the subtle synthesizer symphonics arrive to support the guitars ("Weak Flesh - Filth Blood" for example).

Bass lines offer a nice distorted additive to the chord patterns, and the tremolo patterns, while a little predictable and repetitive are also nicely done. I actually didn't like the sections where the vocals were layered up with a slightly more throaty, lower range affixed to the central rasp, but this was a minor nuisance since the music below was uniformly solid. It sets a mood and maintains that over the course of 37 minutes, and even the longest, 11 minute piece, "Eternal Night (Millenia of Might") doesn't dull my attention all that much. Basically, if you could imagine yourself enjoying a more guitar driven Barathrum or a band which took Bathory's late 80s output to heart, with perhaps a few threads of a mellower Marduk or the more melodic Horna offerings, then I think Hellspirit is worth hunting down for at least one listen. It lacks any sort of groundbreaking quality, and there are loads of better black metal offerings which it could at best serve as only a proxy, but the band has a patience and maturity which shines through in the compositional choices. Decent full-length debut.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Monday, May 12, 2014

Teitanblood - Death (2014)

Rarely does an album come along which tears my reaction into so many pieces, and Teitanblood stop at absolutely nothing to garner as much audio disgust as possible on their sophomore, simply dubbed Death. This is one of those records that seeks naught but to watch the world burn, everyone in it reduced to smoldering ash. I won't tell you that I enjoyed the experience, because I'm not sure this is something positioned for 'enjoyment', but the Spaniards have unquestionably trumped themselves by concocting one of the most brutal twists on antiquated death metal aesthetics that I've probably ever heard, certainly in the current craze for the style. If only this thing had even a modicum of quality guitar riffing to match its unholy and uniquely oppressive atmosphere, I'd be growling its praises...

The downtrodden drudgery inherent in the guitar tone catapults me back to the first time I heard Earache records stalwarts like Godflesh, Bolt Thrower and Napalm Death, all in their formative years when they were churning out some of the most savage swill imaginable. The meat and fiber of the instruments is perhaps more redolent of old Incantation, but it's that smoke-belching sense of post-industrious dystopic vision that leads me more towards the English influences. However, to go further, they incorporate loads of intense blast beats, haunting ambient passages and a gruff bark that resonates over the doomed waste left behind consistently by each composition. This has essentially been assembled as a symphonic holocaust which is about three parts metallic songwriting and the fourth is this gruesome classical orchestration anchored by the deep chants of the 17 minute finale "Silence of the Great Martyrs". They've even roped in Chris Reifert (quite active of late) to add some vocals to the track "Burning in Damnation Fires" and his distinct growl is easily assimilated into the unfriendliness the Spaniards spew forth with every note.

Though the tempos do shift back and forth across the track list, I found it compelling how the album opened with some of the most wretched and intense material and then closed with that ominous, ritualistic behemoth. At its most unforgiving I am reminded somewhat of another act involving a Spanish musician, Putrevore, but the way the tides and signatures ebb and flow here seems like one is in the presence of titanic, land-mass-sized beasts of fell mythology as they gore and then gorge upon one another. Cyclopean clamor, speckled with feedback, soil-and-soul-grinding chords and absolutely no fucking heavenly light peering through the roiling clouds of pollution that smother everything beneath them. The lyrics are these odd, gleeful exclamations of entropy, decay and the futility of all living things, legitimizing the 'poignant' simplicity of the album title by serving as paeans from that very antilife force. I would actually recommend this just to experience how far the human imagination is willing to go to pay its homage to this misanthropic musical medium, but that does come with a cost...

The guitar riffs bore the living bejesus out of me. Really, apart from the production, which is likely what will turn a lot of ear (as usual) who have no interest in compositional creativity or individual note progressions that will keep ringing in their minds for years or decades to come. This is all pretty basic, dense chord patterns that rarely visit evil upon the unwary beyond their pure decomposition. I can only imagine what another, mildly eerie melodic layer might have added to this album, or just a more dissonant and interesting set of chords which could have just as easily been molded along the record's utmost sense of oppressive desolation. I probably listened to this about five times just to attempt to pick out minor details throughout the crushing force, and came away wishing that there was just a fraction more musicality to almost all the songs. This might not prove important to some listeners who care more about the sheer extremity and atmosphere and haven't heard a lot of these riff formations to death, but it held me well back from a deeper appreciation. But even saying that, I could not completely escape the shadows this monolith cast over me. It...just...looms there.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (sterile seeds, yawning scars)