Monday, June 30, 2014

Cemetery Fog - Towards the Gates EP (2014)

Another band riding the hype-train out of the underworld, Finns Cemetery Fog has recorded a number of demos which got, if what I'm reading is correct, some buzz through the underground due to their unflinchingly primitive songwriting style and old school hand drawn cassette cover artwork which likely reminds us all of our youths and what we would scrawl on our notebooks in high school. I did hear one demo prior to this (Shadows from the Cemetery) and was relatively unphased, but the sounds I'm hearing on this 12" EP, which is coming out through Iron Bonehead records, at least carry an authentic, atmospheric vibe to them which manages to surpass the rather vapid death/doom riffing passages which rarely seem in the slightest bit curious or compelling.

Perhaps the best way to describe this is vintage, slower Autopsy with an organ sound added to great effect. In fact, had it not manifest that additional, funereal quality I would have been quite bored with the riffing of tunes like "Withered Dreams of Death" and "Embrace of the Darkness". The grimy tone on the rhythm guitar is quite nice, it definitely seemed like a mashup of Severed Survival or Mental Funeral with the first Cemetery record (An Evil Shade of Grey), and they also have a few uptempo moments where the guitar hit an almost speed metal quality while the drums groove along at mid pace with lots of double kick fills. Most surprisingly, there are these moments deeper in the tunes (like "Embrace of the Darkness") where they implement softer, acoustic passages with soothing clean vocals...something that I'm sure many bands in this niche consider sacrilege of the lowest order, yet the Finns really pull it well as some black metal tremolo riffing elements! I never felt put out by ANY of the variation on this record, and I think it's that same quality which gives this some legs to stand on, rather than remaining prostrate to its influences like so many other bands.

Ultimately, I found the atmosphere itself superior to a lot of the musical choices, but if you're in the mood for some nostalgia, infantile visions of haunted castles, monasteries, charnel houses and other horror set pieces, then this casts an effective, dim hue. The band clearly seems the type that went back to their roots, a crossroads of the death, doom and black genres, and then decided to kick off a new trail where those paths met. It's not necessarily unique, and its pretty cliche when it comes to the lyrics, song titles and the imagery that all of this evokes, but I was inevitably won over by its mood and mix of instruments. It's not as serious seeming as that new Rippikoulu EP, a band who I'm sure Cemetery Fog warrants some comparison to, but it was more memorable and entertaining. Certainly if you've got copies of classics like Mental Funeral, Retribution for the Dead EP, An Evil Shade of Grey, Lost Paradise, Gothic and December Moon EP among your collection, or Coffins, or the recent Macabra album Blood-Nurtured Nature, then this deserves at least a once over. It's not spectacular, but it does set the stage for such a potentiality in Fog's future.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Unaussprechlichen Kulten - Baphomet Pan Shub-Niggurath (2014)

I've run across Santiago's Unaussprechlichen Kulten several times in the past, largely because I appreciated the Lovecraft reference in their name, but then was never quite impressed with the few older samples that I had heard. So when the buzz over this new record Baphomet Pan Shub-Niggurath (reading like the nuptials of some Elder God tryst) popping up on the feeds, and the the gorgeous cover artwork emerged, I grew excited for the promo to turn up. And so it has. And so have the Chileans outdone themselves with what is not only their best written work, but it also avoids the increasing pitfalls of sounding like yet another Incantation or Entombed clone, tried and true, pandering to a crowd which seems sated by the same cavernous, tumultous, compelling-riff-less death metal repeated ad infinitum while the rest of us become increasingly bored out of our skins.

There is quite a lot of glaring 80s and 90s influence here, to be truthful, but this is more like a hybrid of Pestilence's Consuming Impulse, Suffocation's Effigy of the Forgotten, and Finnish cult death circa Demigod, Convulse and Demilich. Clinical, morbid muted riffing patterns are paired up with bold gutturals, atmospheric tremolo picking passages, superbly weird strange lines grooving along to some otherworldly presence, and the drop-of-a-dime ability to burst into primal brutal death phases which seem like a union of Testimony of the Ancients, Pierced from Within and Blessed Are the Sick. That's not to imply that the riffs here are necessarily genius, but they are at least approached with an old school fervor that partially trips up the current trends and does not necessarily shun the progress of death metal throughout the 90s, when it began to border on the soulless tropes of technicality that some have grown to hate (and others to embrace). Baphomet Pan Shub-Niggurath...I'd best not say it three times, lest I invoke the foul entities it not exactly complex by today's standards, but it's constantly busy, throwing a new idea or two at you with each track and never sticking to any one precise riffing medium.

When I heard the first few moments, I had no set idea of what the rest was going to sound's consistent, sure, but there was always some unexpected evil harmony or rhythmic change-up. The only gripe might be that I wasn't in love with the production. It definitely sounded archaic and imbalanced, with the drums coming off a little less thunderous than I'd like, but the guitars rich and raw and flesh rending all the same. Like a reasonably well produced demo for the year 1993, but I'm sure that's going to prove half the charm for those seeking out this style. I can ignore this in the wake that the music is so interesting, but occasionally a few curious guitar parts gets lost beneath the brash weight and force of the rest. Anyway, yeah, this thing functions on a number of levels, a modern day analog for Mallevs Maleficarvm with meatier growls and deeper gutturals, that eschews the studio production levels that would naturally imply. There will obviously be the Incantation/Immolation comparisons, and surely you can hear a bit of that in there (especially the vocals), but the Chileans obsession with their forebears seems to range a little wider than just that, which makes for a tight yet sprawling accumulation of combustible rhythms and orgiastic occultology. Mythospoeia.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Steel Prophet - Omniscient (2014)

Within the first few moments of Steel Prophet's first full-length studio effort after the hiatus of a decade, they make it abundantly clear that this thing is going to be glazed over with lavish little harmonies and a metric ton of dynamic punch in support of Rick Mythiasin's thin but commanding vocal presence. In fact, having had such mixed feelings about so many of their past works, I'll say that I've never been so impressed with one of their openers, but that initial reaction becomes someone diluted by the following tunes, in which a lot of the riffs feel somewhat more commonplace as they flirt with typical power metal charge territory. However, that's not to say they really disappoint, and the sometimes science fictional themes and progressive veins coursing through the disc are more than adequate to keep it interesting, even if it's constituent components aren't really anything new to the USPM scene...

In fact, I'd liken this quite a lot to the past few Pharaoh records (Be Gone in particular), or the last handful of Jag Panzer outings, only the melodic guitar riffing isn't nearly so memorable, and the vocal strength really only rivals Tim or Tyrant when Rick hits his higher pitches (a range in which he's far more impressive than normal). This is really one of their busier efforts, with tunes like "Chariots of the Gods" packed with mute picked action and loads of percussive fills that keep it crashing forward like an alien fleet en route to take out the Earth. They certainly wear their influences on their shoulders, those involving a lot of the 80s Metal Blade roster like Fates Warning and Liege Lord, but the intensity level here often rivals the Bruce Hall fronted post-reunion Agent Steel records, especially when you involve a few of the lyrical themes. Steel's music is not always 'on the attack' though, since they incorporate a lot of sparser prog metal grooves, slower vistas that help chop up the glittering frenzy of their faster edge. These do tend to clash with more pedestrian trad metal passages here, though, like those harbored in the chorus of the goofy "666 is Everywhere (The Heavy Metal Blues)" which is almost embarrassing sitting there smack dab in the center of the record...

Subtle electronic effects and superb drums from James Schultz really help round out the experience, but I still feel a little split on Rick Mythiasin himself. He's often seemed a little inconsistent on the records I've heard, and this isn't much exception. Unless the guy is screaming or straining his pitch, where he excels, he seems pretty average and doesn't give a lot of emotional impact to the music, even though he's putting a lot of effort into harmonizing and shooting his voice all over the place. Beyond that, there are some really cheesy filler tunes on this record, like the happy, Queen-ish "Oleander Deux" or the unnecessary Queen cover ("Bohemian Rhapsody"), neither of which make much of a case for a triumphant Steel Prophet. Better that distractions like these would have been left off the album and shelved for bonus content somewhere else. Also, there are a few instances like the closer "1984 (George Orwell is Rolling in His Grave)", where they move into a noisier, clinical tech thrash direction slightly redolent of Heathen, Paradox, or Toxik and it seems a little out of place compared to most of the other material.

So really it's a case of letting Omniscient run a little too wild with itself, which doesn't do the stronger songwriting justice and leaves me with an impression the band was a bit scatterbrained after so many years as to what they would include on this final product. But if you trimmed off the fat, you'd have a good 6-7 tunes here that are competitive with some of their stronger material they'd released in the past (Book of the Dead, for example). Not enough for an album on the level of Be Gone, Bury the Light or Attacker's phenomenal Giants of Canaan from last year (which blew my head clean off), but enough to proudly proclaim 'Did you miss us?' Whether you answer that question in the affirmative or negative will likely inform your reaction to this return flight. I myself liked it to an extent, partly because I don't hear enough of this music released fresh for the 20teens...but sacrificing 4-5 of the sillier or confused tunes would have gone a long way towards buffering the strength and consistency of the remainder.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, June 27, 2014

Undead Creep - Enchantments from the Haunted Hills EP (2012)

The Ever-Burning Torch was a passable if not formidable entry into the Classic-Swedish-Death-by-Non-Swedes rat race, a competition that had spilled beyond the source borders and then back across them due to constant recycling and osmosis as thousands of modern musicians chased the ghosts of their forebears. Like it's some sort of personal achievement to make a record which sounds just like the ones you grew up with. Yeah, we've all been there, but at least a few of us went so far as to pay homage to an amalgamation of acts which inspired us, rather than just one or two. And I'm fine with that, but let's be honest here, the vast majority of the groups writing and performing in this style don't sound all that much like Grave, or Unleashed, or Grotesque, or Carnage, or even Dismember. They sound like fucking Nihilist and all comes back to that.

Italy's Undead Creep, ironically, can justly claim that they do in fact pay some tribute to a number of other older death metal bands, including many that I just listed, because while they probably take their foremost influence from the usual suspects, there is a particular crudeness and ugliness about their music which thrives between the Floridian and Swedish titans. The rhythm guitar tone is loud and abrasive, but somewhat 'cheaper' sounding than a lot of the big budget Left Hand Trailblazers. It's like the fatter, pugnacious, broken-nosed twit brother of the more traditionally grim graveyard keeper, with churning, chewy, oblique tremolo picked riffs that channel bands like Death, Cadaver, Carnage, Grave and Obituary just as much as they do Clandestine. The riffs are deeper and more turbulent than L-G Petrov, with a little reverb on them to carry them through the dungeon din, and when the band slows to a groovier section it almost explodes into a shower of bloody steak sauce, since the guitars are so blubbery ripe to bursting. They also try their hands at primitive death/doom melodies, like in the second, titular cut, but they feel rather sincere when plugged into the obese bass lines and soiled rhythm guitars.

It's not impressive stuff, because not only does it lack in creativity, but it simply doesn't excel beyond the forerunners of the style in any possible department except that it benefited from production values over a decade into the 21st century. Drums, vocals, riffs, alright...and nothing more. But I give the Italians a modicum of credit for the fact that they seem to at least be tapping into other veins of the regional medium than merely the typical Entombed xerox redux, and they've got no aversion to writing songs that are just dumb, ugly fun steeped in the mysticism of a ouija board session or late night D&D adventure. More focus needs to go to making riffs that stand out, and they could also ramp up their atmospherics & leads for a more rounded and memorable experience. They've gotten a new, female vocalist since this EP, so we shall hear where they take all this.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Tormented - Graveyard Lust EP (2012)

I'm approaching the Graveyard Lust EP as one who has already listened to and reviewed the band's later sophomore full-length, Death Awaits. That was decent, sure, but played it a little too close to the belt of their excellent debut Rotten Death which remains to me one of the benchmarks of this incestuous Swedish retro death movement which has produced far too much chaff by ratio to the wheat. So that sense of jadedness had already set it, that this would not in fact be a band that could evolve the niche in any meaningful way, and would inevitably become lost among so many others who are already on their way out of the collective memory. Graveyard Lust is unfortunately nothing which could have convinced me otherwise, but for the purist at least, it clings so loyally to the trousers of its predecessor that its nose is smothered in denim threads and waste.

It's a little less necrotic and claustrophobic, perhaps, but just as much of an analog for the classic Entombed sounds. Soil sifting Stockholm guitars, dense and dirty to compensate for the lack of interesting riff structures, laden in the baleful melodies that once were woven into records like Left Hand Path and Like an Ever Flowing Stream. Even the song titles don't try to deviate much from their overt influences ("Revel in Blood" instead of "Revel in Flesh", for example). The drums charge along with a d-beat pulse, redolent of Rotten Death, and the main difference between this vocalist and his sleeve-worn influence is the slight layer of distortion given to his inflection, almost like he was on a pickup truck that arrived on the set of the original Night of the Living Dead and barking orders that they need to move the shoot and herd the zombies to another location. In fact, if you look at the cover art here, that's pretty much exactly what they were going for, and it works well enough in the context that this was a live recording, without a lot of retraced overdubs. It definitely has a tightly sprung momentum to it, a nice low end due to the guitar fuzz and bass, so the production is saturated with that unhinged filth that so attracted me to the first album.

Dynamically, it's solid in that they'll hurl a few slower break riffs with drudging chords into the midst of the uptempo charges, but very few of the songs really seem to burn with that same evil as they did in 2009. "Slowly Twisted to Death" and "Sick in the Head" were the better tunes here, probably good enough for the first album but I wouldn't wish to fatten that up any more than needed. This is very much a side project by a bunch of guys who set out to pretend that the year 1993 had never happened yet, and I think they do a bang up job with that formula, but Graveyard Lust certainly doesn't stand out much from a lot of other bands (Mr. Death, Revel in Flesh, Entrails, Miasmal, Gluttony) who also occupy this particular throwback club, and I feel like they might end up as a 'one and done' situation, where the first disc was this great nostalgia trigger which was consistently engaging throughout, released at exactly the right time in this NWOSDM; and then subsequent recordings just feel increasingly redundant. Here's to hoping that a potential third full-length with juggle the rules, jiggle the handle a little bit. Flush the decaying flesh and show us another, fresher layer of skin.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (a brothel of corpses so still)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Mayhem - Esoteric Warfare (2014)

Esoteric Warfare is an interesting amendment to the Mayhem canon, a valiant effort to bridge the suppressed atmospheres of its predecessor Ordo ad Chao with the razor hewn traditional Norse black metal riffing the band helped pioneer through seminal works like De Mysteriis dom Sathanas and Grand Declaration of War, or perhaps most accurately the Wolf's Lair Abyss EP that so many seem to forget about. To that extent, I would consider it a mission accomplished, only with the caveat that I ended up finding one half of the equation a lot more compelling than the other. This is very likely my least favorite of the band's full-length works, but it does what a Mayhem outing should: dowse you in its evil clutches and remind you exactly who your Daddy is. And that's fucking Satan, if you have to ask.

But here, through Esoteric Warfare, the Norwegians channel the author of all sin through a curiously nuclear/dystopian theme which pervades the lyrics and artwork, like this unholy union of the Cold War and their creepy occult roots. It's hands down the most fascinating component of the record as a whole, followed by Attila Csihar's performance, in which he's whispering, mouth breathing, gargling, growling and otherwise sounding like his basic, decrepit, creaking-wooden-stairs self. Generally his more resonant and catchy lines come during segues from the faster action, and this is where I found a little disparity in the quality of what I was hearing. The muted, tremolo picked black/death patterns which drive the ferocity of the effort are sort of a bland strain of earlier Mayhem (Chimera, Wolf's Lair Abyss) with classic Morbid Angel, punctured and punctuated by slices of brighter, dissonant chords and partial arpeggios that were common fare for much of the Scandinavian black metal output of the mid through later 90s, or a faint few zipping, hypnotic lines cut through that remind me of the German band Endstille. Emperor and Satyricon also come to mind, but more directly these guitar progressions paired with the caustic, mechanical nature of the songwriting evoke Snorre W. Ruch of Thorns, Aborym, or Dodheimsgard's guitars in the techno-infused 666 International.

That's far from an unwelcome aesthetic, but unfortunately so many of the patterns just whip into the first frenzied patterns the guy can seemingly slide across on the fretboard, without much thought put into anything, and they become increasingly predictable as a footnote for an intense, agile Hellhammer performance which I found infinitely more interesting just on its own. Granted, the abbreviated leads and the higher range chords often sound efficaciously malevolent, and oftentimes clinical enough to match the album's lyrical style, but I'll be damned it there were more than a handful of fingers worth of rhythm guitars on the entire experience that I wasn't bored with. Most are just too predictable, and it gets to the point that even the primal, slow chugging in a tune like the unusual "MILAB" grows even more fresh on the ear. Speaking of which, that is one of my easiest favorites on the album, with its spidery bass lines, dissonant and disheveled architecture and really grasping the full range of Csihar's vile, filth smeared, unique presence, and ditto for "Posthuman", which captures an almost minimalist Voivodian atmosphere (not the only case here) until the noisy blast breaks; suitable for an album that many might describe as PostMayhem.

So I was really leaning towards these less structured moments on the album, and whenever they burst into another stock deathened black riff I just found myself phasing out. Maybe this was intentional, or maybe it's that the new guitarist Teloch was channeling a bit too much of his alma mater Nidingr, which has long thrived on this very same style of riffing, sometimes to its detriment. Either way, it gradually de-escalated my initial appreciation for the record's grimy intensity to levels of a more lukewarm reception. The production here is also pretty threadbare and dry sounding, which on the one hand makes much of the procession clear to the ear, but on the other doesn't exactly help give the rather averagely scripted rhythm guitars much meat or impact. I liked most of the lyrics (except perhaps "Pandaemon" which is just a shopping list/incantation of the names of various devils, demons and idols through religious mythology), and Csihar is just all over this, truly the Mike Patton of black metal. But apart from the themes and the potential of what Mayhem might have created within this wasteland of post-apocalyptic vision, I only ever found myself semi-satisfied. Never truly impressed.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (a detour to suicide)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Samael - Solar Soul (2007)

While Samael wouldn't ultimately jump back on the horse for me until the angrier, 2009 effort Above, their seventh full-length 'heavy' album (discounting the experimental contractual filler Era One/Lesson in Magick #1) Solar Soul at least pulled out a little damage control for the stunningly mediocre Reign of Light. In other words, it was clear by this point that they had hit their nadir, swirled around the bottom of whatever bottle was indulging their respective identity crises, and decided to swim back up to the surface and take a few breaths. Once again, I really, really enjoyed this when I first came across it, but was obviously listening through rose-colored...ear. After a few months or so, I came to the decision that this was not in fact some savior of a record to reaffirm they could attain the brilliant level they were at in the mid 90s.

However, the songwriting chops here seem to hearken to their glory days, and there are actually a few tunes on this one which I'd include with any career-wide highlight reel. It's still quite a bit cheesy in the lyrical department, recycling the 'let's all hold hands together' globalist hippie garbage promoted so heavily on the prior few albums, almost like this band of former Swiss occultists had suddenly discovered Krishna, or tantra, or universal unitarianism, or whatever. But at least the music here serves up a serious beating when matched against the electroid detritus of Reign of Light and Era One... The guitars still bounce back and forth between the inspirational hooks and chords of earlier works and the vapid dumbell chugging of the most LCD industrial metal you can fathom, but there is far more effort placed in the context of harmonies and other melodic structures. It's a busier album than Eternal, for example, and I really like that the guitars were reasserting themselves as a riffing force rather than passive accompaniment to the beats and synthesizers. Remarkably, it still adheres to that sense of Romantic escapism which defined that album as so unique at the end of the 90s... the point that I really feel like, if you stripped off its production and just analyzed how the songs played out, it's like an amalgamation of tracks that were left on the cutting room floor during both the Eternal and Reign of Light sessions, but with a refined production that itself is stronger than either. There are a couple dragging, lame tracks where they err on the electronic side a little too much (like "Western Ground" or the Rammstein-in-the-Orient vibes of "Quasar Waves") but they also beat you over the head a few times, foreshadowing the aggression level of Above ("On the Rise", or the chorus to "Valkyries'"). The synthesized horns smack of Reign of Light and Passage both, the vocals are largely in the style they had been since 1994, but once awhile they'd surprise me with a tune that follows in the 'spirit' of a precursor, but adds a new twist in the keyboard pads used, or the direct construction of the rhythm guitars. For instance, "Olympus" seems like a callback to "Jupiterian Vibe", but the guitars are nearly as interesting, more so than something like "Ave!", which isn't so compelling, or the prior decade's "Tribes of Cain" which was obviously a less inspired rehash they didn't want on Passage itself due to the redundancy it would create for the listener.

In the end, though, Solar Soul just doesn't go far enough into either a new direction or back into the past to really have made much of a difference. It thankfully and deservedly avoided the dumping on that Reign of Light took, but after perhaps a half dozen listens I recall shelving it and rarely having the interest in hearing it again when Passage, Ceremony of Opposites or Eternal were available to me. A tight album, which fixes some of that awkwardness which stunted its predecessor, and confirms to the more confused corner of their audience that they weren't going vocal electronica full-time (which a few folks might have feared when hearing Era One); and not unpleasant to listen to. In 2007, I might have ranked this a point or so higher, but time hasn't been the kindest in terms of keeping this set of songs moored in my memory banks, so it remains among their least visited albums in my collection, excepting the two before it. If nothing else, Samael seemed to be gaining ground again, instead of losing it, and the gradual incline in quality it hastened has since continued through Above and Lux Mundi.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (push aside yesterday)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Samael - Reign of Light (2004)

There was a brief window of time in which I had convinced myself that Reign of Light was a great follow-up to Eternal, Samael's first foray into a more uplifting, poppy and dare I say 'Romantic' sound which further distanced them from the occult roots of their primal, nasty black metal origins. Thankfully, I was deluded only for a few shorts months as the record began to almost immediately flake off its replay value, and then the forest was seen for its trees: Reign of Light is an attempt to take the ideas presented on Eternal to a more accessible level by ramping up the production standards (one of the few iffy traits of its predecessor), imbuing the music with a more overtly techno/EBM presence redolent of early 90s KMFDM, and, at least for the most part, dumbing down the lyrics and guitars to the point that they seem fixated on pandering to a Euro Goth metal crowd who was still willing to accept the band after they had long since begun to shed the underground black metal fans who represented their original audience.

I'm not going to say this is totally shit, because there are a few saving graces here or there that render it a pretty harmless effort, but when I look back over the Swiss band's career, this is the full-length I am least likely to ever reach for on my CD racks. In fact, I sold it a few years after it was released, when living space started to trump my completist/collector mentality. By and large, though, this is an album where the band had seemingly reached the creative end of their evolutionary cycle, morphing into something akin to a caricature of the albums preceding it, and having very little new on the table apart from the slightly unwelcome (or rather unsuccessful) endowment of cheap electronics and the attempts at exotic, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian influence to some of the guitars and synth lines, prominent in tunes like "Telepath", which are structurally the highlights of the album but do suffer from some poor compositional choices and goofy lyrical delivery. And those are really the two major banes of Reign of Light as a whole: lots of mundane muted guitar passages representative of the second rate industrial metal of the 90s and the Neue Deutsche Härte dance metal that Germanic bands like Rammstein were capitalizing on. Samael was always predisposed to fail at such heights due to the snarled, strange vocals of Vorphalack, so it's almost pitiful to hear them try...

A lot of the tunes are meant to make you shake your ass at the club, which would be fine if they somehow stuck out to memory, but sadly that takes the form of transforming the glorious synth tones so resplendent on records like Eternal and the immortal Passage and then applying them to these pumping beats and vocal lines that occasionally seem so ridiculous that they fall out of meter when Vorph tries to wrap them around the drums and keys. A few songs here, like "As the Sun" are outright fucking early 80s Olivia Newton John workout videos given a grimy EBM spin with the nihilistic rasping of the deranged Swiss man. I'm not necessarily averse to such contrasts, having played for awhile in an industrial/extreme metal hybrid band where I'd growl over late night radio house synthesizers or such, but those were usually tongue in cheek situations; whereas Samael is dead serious, seemingly unaware of how absurd they sound. You see, the reason why this record became such a quick 'sinker' is that it does actually have a few clever guitar riffs, at best recapturing that universal, unusual industrial metal warmth of Eternal, but when you break everything down, there are probably only 2-3 tracks worth sparing, if we could somehow change the lyrics...

Yeah they are pretty uneven here. I was willing to buy this newfound, smug, life-embracing happy happy Samael for one record, and one record only, but here it just becomes ridiculous on a cut like "On Earth" where they ramble off a long list of cities (presumably those where their fans reside) and attempt to bind the entire human race together in an orgy of sentiment. So, like that awful scene in the Matrix sequel where the Zionians were having a vast, multicultural passion-rave of release, all colors and ages of bodies roiling together in the sheen of aspirant supermodel sweat. Only the Fluke tune during that scene was far better than this song or really anything on this album. It's just fucking goofy, man...what happened to the "Jupiterian Vibe" or "Baphomet's Throne"!? I mean you know a band's running out of ideas when the lyrics consist of a series of 'shout outs', and there are all these other songs about 'our vibrations' and 'our souls' and how 'we keep growing' in our new world and all this other ambiguous philosophical pap that sends the hearts a-flutter, or in my case the heart a-shitter. Fuck, "Reign of Light" itself has some of the most cliche and excremental lyrics you'll ever see in posi-metal. Perfect for those who think Theater of Tragedy's electro hardpop records were anything more than catchy club rock (to be fair, those were really damn catchy...this is not, at least not often).

The cleanliness of the mix only serves to make Vorph sound even more goofy when singing a lot of these, whereas Eternal had the smokescreen of sounding a bit more raw and spacey, and Passage was brilliantly poetic, angry and humanistic. This is not a disc entirely void of its hooks, and I like a few of the guitar melodies as they appear in the bridge of "Moongate" or the "Jupiterian Vibe"-like "High Above", which alongside "Telepath" represent the trio of highlights here. The ethnic female vocals are put to sparse, decent use and the mix of programmed drums, multiple atmospheric levels of keyboards and guitars are very evenly balanced, but really even the best songs seem like retreads of the songs on the two albums before it, only friendlier for the whole family. Half the material is just as corny as the vocal-half of the Era One/Lessons in Magick #1 double-album which was released later by Century Media (but written around the same time as this material). And, really, if any of this sounds even remotely interesting, just go straight for its successor Solar Soul, which has a much harder hitting guitar presence alongside the vocals, but still features the same fancy for the exotic, Eastern synthesizer lines while feeling slightly less awkward overall.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10] (hungry for life again)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Tankard - R.I.B. (2014)

I've probably lost count now of just how many years I've actually been listening to Tankard; it's well over a quarter century with no real signs of ever letting up. They've always been my sole source for genuine alcoholic thrash, impersonated by many but rivaled by none...even a decade before I could legally obtain the sauce. Not only do they still possess the same level of momentum and energy that they've been on since at least the turn of the century, but they're still cranking out good records on a consistent basis. Granted, there is a little fatigue setting in when it comes to how they structure their songs. Riffs and vocals have begun to grow redundant with those off the last half dozen discs (I dub it 'Running Wild syndrome), but they still insert just enough novelty (by their own standards) and fresh inspiration that I gladly buy each and every hops-scented platter they clench down the pipes. And now I apologize for that image.

R.I.B. (Rest in Beer) is not returning to the brilliant, raw liquid diet carnage of the first three discs, and I have long given up hope that they'd bridge back to the filthier production standards of the 80s. Sure, I fantasize that they'll one day unleash their swan song (let's hypothetically title it Reign in Beer, with a grand finale dubbed "Raining Beer"), reduced to 30 minutes or less of that propulsive, energetic, riff-rich environment that characterized masterpieces like The Morning After and Zombie Attack. But R.I.B. is far more like a natural progression from their 2006 effort The Beauty and the Beer, which is for me their greatest record of the 21st century, experimenting with a more melodic hybrid of thrash and heavy/speed metal cognizant of modern production standards. A lot of the emphasis here is on well-structured lead harmonies, mute-dense thrashing patterns which pummel the listener repeatedly thanks to the fat production, and of course, Gerre's absolutely timeless fucking voice. A million beers later, I have no idea how he keeps this up, but honestly if you just dialed back the production level a few decades he sounds almost EXACTLY like he did in the band's late 80s's almost uncanny. Fellow Teutonic front men (and women) like Mille Petrozza, Sabine Classen and Onkle Tom Angelripper all seem to have mutated their tones for better or worse, while this particular exhibit remains a permanent fixture of the museum, what comes out later at night and breaks all the glass on the other collections by flinging empty bottles at them...

The album threads in a few cleaner guitar passages and bolder, thicker bass-lines to offset the intros to a number of tunes ("War Cry", "R.I.B.", etc) from the consistently muscular thrash found coursing through the majority of the material, but this has really been the case for much modern Tankard, so it doesn't necessarily come off as expansive or innovative within their canon. But that aside, they do try their hands at a few new tricks like a 'choir'. The riffs are far more hits than they are misses, though the majority of them are just later analogs for those they've always written, and even the chorus vocal structures and techniques, like how Gerre raises the pitch and harmonizes himself with all the ballast of an angry soccer hooligan, seem to tread over ground they've already dug up. There is a certain degree of German power metal influence circa Running Wild and Rage which you can find in a few of the picking progressions ("Riders of the Doom", etc), which for me is welcome but not something you might have expected back in the days of Chemical Invasion or "Commandments", where they were all out blistering speed/thrash with a heavier punk influence. Some tunes, like "Hope Can't Die", in fact thrive off being pure melodic heavy metal performed at a moderate pace, a tactic employed pretty often on other recent discs like the last one, A Girl Named Cerveza.

Instruments all sound great here, in particular the aforementioned bass and vocals, but they do wonders to get each sounding like an equal in the mix. Tankard have essentially transformed into the most professional sounding drunks in the industry, a characteristic you might not expect...since a wilder, more frenetic and disheveled production might better suit the subject matter. But of course the Germans don't ONLY sing about beer, much like Running Wild didn't ONLY sing about pirates. Tongue-in-cheek social issues are represented as they always have been, and like a lot of these German thrashers have done (like Destruction or Tankard themselves), there is the slightly irritating self-referential quality where they keep tooting their own horns for having been there since the dawn of the genre. For instance, the R.I.B. cover artwork is clearly a callback to Chemical Invasion, as are some of the lyrics a continuation of that mad professor character (one of their old mascots along with the alcoholic alien). It's become a little annoying in that it feels like these old timers have so little left to say to us rather than repeat themselves. Sequel-itis to a fault. Yet for younger audiences just starting to turn on to these legends, I think it's probably par for the course.

Nitpicks aside, though, R.I.B. is a fun album to listen through. The pacing and riffs are diverse enough to hold the listener through to the 40 minute hangover, and it sounds fucking excellent pouring out of the three pairs of speakers I've thus far played it on. Tankard is a big, fat, ugly, immoveable and goddamn proud rock in this medium, and the kid inside me is so unfailingly beaming to have waved around the flag for them so long (in fact, this is one of the few bands I'm upset to have missed by not attending MDF '14 in Baltimore, but new parenthood calls). That does not mean they cannot write and release better than this... Ultimately, it's a less memorable Beauty and the Beer/A Girl Named Cerveza which still gets its kicks off, but while for that next stage, that next burst of inebriated inspiration, records like this are solid exhibitions of continued commitment and entertainment value, so really there's just not much to complain about, beyond the fact that, like so many of these decades-old metal monarchs, their best efforts remain way back in the rear-view mirror, obfuscated by the dust of maturity.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Cannabis Corpse - From Wisdom to Baked (2014)

Add Gorguts, Death and numerous others to the roll of the legions of lampooned death metal icons celebrated by sort-of funnymen Cannabis Corpse, here on their fourth full-length From Wisdom to Baked. "Individual Pot Patterns", "Medicinal Healing", "Baptized in Bud", "THC Crystal Mountain" are just examples of their fixation on pot puns, which I'm sure for a green chunk of their audience (or anyone twiddling their thumbs for the next Bongzilla record) is the primary draw to their material. I've mentioned in the past that I felt the band has musically outgrown its lyrical and titling gimmicks, and that sentiment persists with this album, but I'll concede by now that it's probably too late to change. Beneath Grow Lights Thou Shalt Rise, a damn fine disc, catapulted the Municipal Waste side-project into the death metal conscience at large, and this follow-up largely stays the course, with a few marginal differences.

They still sound like Cannibal Corpse. A lot. And I know that's the 'point', but there are 'points' on this album where I almost got confused as to which band I was listening to. The rhythm guitars here are denser and punchier than on Beneath..., which reminds me of the other Corpse's recent tonal transitions, though the Virginians seem slightly more infused with the clinical, technical inclinations of their last effort than on, say, Torture, which was a stricter simplification. Tunes like the abusive and uptempo "Considered Dank" seem as if they were just copied, pasted and paraphrased from Cannibal's Bloodthirst-and-beyond legacy, whereas Beneath Grow Lights... had felt to me like it was moving off in a more unique direction. That's not to say they don't still possess the capacity to throw a left hook, a spurt of psycho tremolo picking or swerving, brutal chord-play which distinguishes itself from its forebear, but a lot of the riffing choices felt pretty safe and standard to the catalog of the band they offer themselves to in tribute. You might hear a few hints of Morbid Angel and old Gorguts in there, too, but largely they stick to that one primary influence, using the comparable octave chords, dissonant embellishments, and meat-hammering rhythmic undercurrents.

Land Phil's vocals draw the obvious Corpsegrinder comparisons, though I think there's a more haughty nature to his gruff guttural which draws also on a bit of David Vincent/Steve Tucker, not to mention a little Deicide when the multiple growls are layered together. The drums of HallHammer and the sheer volume of riffs give the disc a constant sense of being busy without lapsing into outrageous levels of technicality, but I have to say the most interesting instrument is the bass...Phil's lines are snapping, slapping, sliding, plunking and poking all over and through their neighbor's stash, and even when the guitars seem too derivative, he's there fattening up that bottom end like a stream of bog-water being flushed through a hydroponic system in the cellar. The mix is really well balanced between the vocals, guitars and percussion and you'll occasionally hear a more surprising melodic component to some of the riff progressions buried in a number of the tunes. As redundant as it might often seem, this is far from an effortless record, and at least the proficiency is on the same level as its predecessors.

Yeah, if you crave more of Cannibal Corpse, Severe Torture and other bands of that ilk than the originals can offer, and enjoy getting high at every available opportunity, then From Wisdom to Baked is more or less a godsend. It doesn't rock the boat as far as the prior releases, and once in a great while even tries something modestly 'new' to the cannabis canon. That said, even if it's not at all bad, I didn't get much out of this, with so many other great releases coming around lately. In truth, I found that song-for-song, riff-for-riff this wasn't as entertaining for me as the third album, or The Weeding EP for that matter. Kind of like the latest Municipal Waste full-length, it just feels like more of the same. Diminishing returns. Here's to hoping that Land Phil will give himself a little breathing space to reinvigorate both bands and lift them back up to the humorous relevance they both shared when they felt like a fresh perspective on the sounds they paid homage to.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Friday, June 20, 2014

Septicflesh - Titan (2014)

I'm a sucker for symphonic death and black metal arrangements when produced and performed accordingly, so it's been a real trip over these past few Septicflesh albums as they continued to forge ahead and transform the largely synthesized operatics of their old material into genuine orchestrated escape. Granted, I still cling dearly to 90s records like In the Nightside Eclipse, Ophidian Wheel, Passage Lepaca Kliffoth and so forth, where there just wasn't the budget and exposure for the labels to front out the cash for the 'real deal', but having a genuine host of musicians does carry the benefit of a more vivacious stereo sound, and richer intricacy to all the individual strings, horns, woodwinds and percussion. Although a divisive effort in some corners, The Great Mass achieved for me the peak of marrying those exotic Middle Eastern aesthetics redolent of To Mega Therion or Theli with simple, dense, effective riff construction and broad, resonant guttural vocals which catapulted me into new visions of antiquity.

This is bombastic, sweeping music, often of the Wagnerian school, or perhaps the more brazen of the Mediterranean composers, no doubt a massive inspiration for Christos Antoniou, the band's resident composer. There is plenty of attention to detail, though the rhythm guitar components are strikingly simplistic as they shift from the pummeling chord progressions that dominated The Great Mass to tremolo picked passages that seek to cycle the Greeks full circle to the original death metal that influenced them in the mid 90s (featured prominently in tunes like "The Order of Dracul"). These are of course mixed within a modern, melodic context...Septicflesh is not a band that has shied away from the technological imperatives of the recording industry, and that's going to provoke endless enmity from the old school stalwarts who want Mental Funeral, Dawn of Possession and/or The Mortal Throne of Nazarene over and over and over and over again unto endless redundancy, but while I wouldn't outright preclude the possibility of approaching the symphonic death from a more 'filthy' vector, I just don't imagine Septicflesh and Season of Mist are going to shell out the big $ for an album that sounds like it was recorded in Spiros' garage. Not at this point in time.

What it all boils down to, is that the last three full-length albums moved me, some songs more than others, but in general they brought such new life into a band that had really been starting to slack off near the end of the 90s. Upon first hearing the Titan samples, I was apprehensive that Septicflesh had unraveled into the jumbled, chaotic mess that their neighbors Fleshgod Apocalypse have been trying to sort through ever since decided they'd become the fastest symphonic extreme metal act on the seven continents. But hearing those same sequences in the context of the full 45 minute experience, they gel together and make a lot more sense. That's not to imply there aren't misfires here, because a number of symphonic sequences and riffing patterns border on the lamentably generic, but there is no question for me of the love and effort the Greeks placed into assembling these songs, which are more or less a more 'harried' and complex followup for The Great Mass, with a greater note count from both the orchestra and the guitars, in a comparable framework. The symphonics evoke everything from belligerent mythic warfare suites to cheesy haunted house organs, but the guitar writing is just so much more focused and important to the 'fore' of the production than the aforementioned Italians who just saturate, saturate, saturate the compositions into sheer suffocation.

Special credit goes to Fotis Benardo, who on the surface performs his double bass rhythms and blasts with the same mechanic fortitude we'd expect out of Polish death titans Vader and Behemoth, but seems to have a knack for exploring grooves and fills that immediately draw my ears to the snap of his skills in lieu of the swelling choirs and atmospheres riding above them all. I think it's so difficult for a drummer to stand out on this sort of disc, and he does it. Elsewhere, the guitars deserve praise for imbuing some spikier little melodies (akin to early Septicflesh) in among the sliding octave chords and chugs that the band has continued to develop, while Seth's growls achieve that same impermeable gruffness they had on past works (a good thing, because while his bass tone is audible, it doesn't feel terribly important to the work as a whole). As for the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, they deliver precisely what you'd expect here, a level of bombast that would quite easily sweep the entire death metal mechanism beneath the rug if it weren't so carefully pieced together in production. The riffs are decent, but not so blindingly interesting that they can compare with the rising and falling tides of strings and operatic choirs.

If I had a major complaint here, it's that for much of the playtime, Septicflesh are merely treading on ground that they had already mastered with the previous three albums. There are probably technical details, processes in the writing and recording prowess that have changed, but having an orchestra at your disposal gives you almost infinite capacity with which to experiment. To explore. Just think of the wide range of ethnic and aesthetic versatility in film scores? The Greeks sadly 'go all out Godzilla' through almost the entire track list, which might have seemed novel and acceptable years ago but is starting to dull the blade. I'd love if they would further embrace their imaginations, because frankly even an older record like Ophidian Wheel seems more inspired than this. You hear a few hints of change, like the woozy and weird intro to "Ground Zero" with the punctuated clean guitars and ghostly wails; but in summation, it's all more of the same that we've gleaned across all the post millennium Septicflesh releases, only a little more labyrinthine and involved. The tunes here, while solid and often excited, have not stuck to me the way a "Pyramid God" did, or Hollenthon's "Y Draig Goch". Titan is a pretty good album, worth my money, but I don't want to hear it again in, say, 2017. 'We've done this, let's move on.' Here's hoping they've shaken this evolutionary phase out of their systems and will ensure that the future once again belongs to the brave.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (your soil will have our seed)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Ocean Chief - Universums härd (2014)

Who ever imagined that the vast and infinite spaces between the bodies celestial would be so full of sludge, saturated with dreamy ambient undercurrents? Well, the answer to that would be Sweden's Ocean Chief, who on their fourth full-length transport us into that void between the glittering lights and then begin to flood that emptiness with anger and frustration. These guys tackle the doom medium with somewhat of a unique instrumentation that involves a keyboard player, and yet he's often so remarkably subtle that his presence is fully flush with the grimy distortion on the guitars. Faint hints of organs, lighter ambient tones swirling into the bitter rage of colostomy chords and gut-fed grunts that present a polar opposition to comfort and kindness, but ensure that Universums härd is a place of subtle contrasts infinitely crushed with the force of a million hammers.

Sounds awesome, right? Well, there is a serious limitation here in that the guitar patterns all just sort of drudge and drone without much individual personality. They work best when paired as a heavily laden harmony with the synth ("Oändlighet"), which gives the music a more funereal aspect, but in general the rhythms are just really raunchy primal sludge with slowly churning notes that are just not so compelling. The drums have a much lighter presence, with the upper range of percussion hitting just as loudly on the ear as the kick drums, and the bass just sort of follows along with the guitar, though it too has this burdensome, loud presence, especially when you hear a chord being strung. To my delight, though, there are some pretty diverse pieces spread in among the typical style, like the "Färden" and "Frihet" instrumentals which are both a little groovy, psychedelic and riffier than some of the more straightforward tunes. Really love the synthesizer lines in the latter, though the lead parts are give or take and rather predictably cast in a bluesy mold with a bit of tremolo picked indulgence. It's just the longer tunes where the guitars can tend to drag, or give you the impression you've just heard their ilk so many times before...and only the keyboard embellishments help to carry them above the potential mediocrity.

Another strength is the vocalist/drummer, Tobias Larsson, who sounds about as pissed off as the lower, grueling stuff by Mastodon, or really anything by Crowbar. He really reaches in there and pulls the demons from his intestines and then vomits them all over the galaxy, and usually this sort of cosmic themed material goes in an opposite direction, so it feels all the fresher due to this choice of tone and style. I also keep mentioning the word 'sludge' here, but Ocean Chief approach it more from the angle of 70s longhairs bred on Sabbath, instead of the 'hip metalcore kids wanting to play something much easier on their instruments' scene which births a lot of today's most popular acts in the niche. This is more like if the band Esoteric had been created 40 years ago with a different singer and not nearly the same level of drugged hypnosis induction during recording sessions. And it's effective enough, I simply wish the guitars were more involved through much of the experience, by which I mean the note choices being more unpredictable and/or unusual. That said, this is apt to turn most smiles upside down, and it's not so dry of ideas in the riffing department that you'll fall asleep.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Zaum - Oracles (2014)

The instrumentation is what will immediately draw you in or turn you off from Zaum's capacious aural escapism, because the space in which they operated is entirely limited from a 'riff' perspective. That is to say, the New Brunswick duo puts together incredibly simplistic bass lines with a custom sound rig, slow and flowing beats with a margin of shuffle and groove to them, and then uses synthesizers and sitar sounds to create this greater illusion of depth, which is filled in largely through the listener's imagination. They're not the most minimalistic kids on the block, perhaps, but they clearly mirror the efforts of the phonetically similar Om in crafting drawn out, atmospheric excursions into the primacy of lethargic, heavy fucking music...and if you can shut down any expectations that they're suddenly going to transition into something 'busy' or complex, you'll probably fall in with this camel-back passage to foreign shores, inspired by Middle Eastern culture and lore from thousands of years ago.

Four tracks, fifty know where this is going, that it will require a personal investment not to fall asleep, but Zaum ensure that it's not such a difficult task. Despite the comparable pacing of most of the material, they offer distinction and variation between tracks through shifting moods. For example, "Zealot" is solemn and drifting, with Kyle Alexander McDonald's vocals capturing their cleanest and most soaring range, to the slow but dreamy weight of the bass riffs. But move on to "The Red Sea", and the layered textures of the chanted vocal and the more crushing note progressions give it less of a psychedelic magnificence, and more of a claustrophobic sense of doom. "Peasant of Parthia" falls between the two, but those fat, molten bass grooves strike a more ominous, Gothic momentum. They're also not above letting the percussion drop off and the guitars ring out with a hazy, hookah-smokescreen resonance ala the intro to the finale ("Omen"), so there's always this constant sense of dramatic rise and fall. The Canadians take their sweet, sweet time, probably inhaling copious amounts of non-medical marijuana and other vices while they keep a mental clock of exactly when to just dump all that deep-rooted sorrow of centuries over your face.

There are unquestionably a few moments here where the meandering tendencies trump the common sense they apply so incessantly elsewhere, but thank fuck they keep it from ever becoming so boring that I tune out...a symptom of so much modern of this trippy stoner/doom mentality where 'We Are Heavy Because 20 Minute Songs', 'You Doom Fans Are Suckers And Will Buy Anything With a 60s Fashion Sense Because Like Retro'. The songs top off around 14 minutes at most, and there's very little in any of them which feels arbitrary. The vocals are uniformly mesmerizing, excellent and I would find it hard to believe as a result that McDonald won't be vaulted into the preternatural pantheon in which such front men are this case, a well deserved distinction, especially since he's also keeping busy with nearly all the other instruments, establishing that exotic, flavorful vision of shifting, arid sands, long aeons of tradition so rarely transcended by change, a slowly spiraling time machine into times where faith and fire alone set the paths of men. A very well constructed, convincing debut here, and it will be curious to see whether they remain loyal to this particular theme or if they'll explore other aesthetic eras and instruments as they press forward.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (exalt upon a deity of the unseen)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Samael - Era One/Lesson in Magick #1 (2006)

Era One/Lesson in Magick #1 might have come as a surprise to many unaware Samael fans, but it was not wholly unexpected from this sector. One need only peruse some of the various remixes and ambient filler tracks the Swiss had included on their EPs to know they were pretty big fans of electronica and orchestration both, and when you consider the direction the harder material had been taking through Eternal and Reign of Light, then it's hardly coming out of left field that they'd tackle not one, but two full length albums of pure electronica...not entirely EBM, not quite industrial, but sort of a Samael-pop if that makes any sense. But that's not exactly the story, because these albums were pitched a few years before even Reign of Light got out the door, so I smell some degree of contractual filler here, even if Xytras and Vorph were enthusiastic about these being released to their audience in an official capacity. They had, after all, been working on another label and would again for the next heavier disc Solar Soul.

So: two discs, distinct from one another in that the first, Era One, features Vorph's vocals and lyrics, and they're actually pretty good lyrics, far more in depth and interesting than most of what we had to suffer through on Reign of Light. They still fall into that ambiguous, humanist perspective, but the imagery conjured is more complex and compelling than the preachy, let's all hold hands minimalist pap they had been spouting for a few years. Musically, it's throbbing electronic mid-paced stuff which is not unlike Reign of Light sans any of the heavier guitars...they exist here in a cheesy, sampled capacity, but they're nothing more than a chord or harmonic used as percussive backdrop for the lightning rod synthesizer lines. I'd compare it to Theater of Tragedy (Musique, Assembly) without the ethereal, cute female vocals and walls of guitar. Vorph's vocals have a monotonous, dorky consistency to them here not unlike Raymond's lines, robotic and solemn like you'd hear from a bunch of German EBM/New Hardness industrial. It either works ("Night Ride") or does not work ("Universal Soul"), depending on how well the vocals and central pulse figure into the backing ambiance and cosmical electric atmosphere. Oftentimes, when Vorph is trying to sing cleanly in a higher pitch ("Voyage"), it just collapses into hilarity, a mentally challenged version of Tiamat's Johan Edlund in which the pronunciation gets in the way of taking it seriously...

In Summary: ecstasy popping Samael for Euro-ravers, after hours at ski lodges where one employee sneaks his manager's key to let a bunch of freaky friends in. The Samael guys, trying to distance themselves as far as possible from their 80s and 90s legacy of excellence, show up for a few drinks and to look smug and handsome among the younger attendees. Nocturnal Alp clubbing.

The experimentation works FAR BETTER on the second disc, Lesson in Magick #1 which should have been released under the Xytras name. This content moves at a generally consistent pace with the first half of the release, but it's got sweet, throbbing electro bass lines, glimmering cascades of ambient starfall and pulsing arpeggios that convey elegance, machinery and mystique in even measures. Basically it's Xytras doting on his Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Jean Michel Jarre and Vangelis influences and adding a subtext of his considerable talents at beats and orchestration which made records like Passage and Eternal so delightful. A little of The Orb in here, too, and this stuff would make a solid score for a futuristic video game platformer/shooter. I like that there is a good balance of calm and intensity among these tracks. In fact, Lesson in Magick #1 is good enough that I half wish to throw out the first disc so that it doesn't stain the experience when I crack open the CD like "Flying High", "Red Unction" and "One With Everything" are simple but well made excursions into that turn of that spiffy, turn of the century FutureVision. I could put this on when I'm playing Android: Netrunner or re-reading Neuromancer for the umpteenth time.

Post-Summary: If you can get this on the cheap, and you love some of the electronica influences I've ascribed to Xytras, then pick it up solely for the second disc. I can't imagine who the first half could appeal to except for some really confused EBM goths whose incursions into metal music go no further than Samael, Moonspell and Nightwish...and stand in denial that the Swiss had fallen off the deep end, not to re-emerge until their hard hitting 'comeback which is not a comeback' Above in the year 2009

Verdict: Summary Indifference [6/10], Constituent Horror [4/10] and Delight [8/10]

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Samael - Exodus EP (1998)

Being that there was next to no possibility of topping Passage (then and forevermore, apparently), Samael did the next best thing by releasing outtakes from those recording sessions as their own short form product to tide the audience over until a real followup could be produced. Exodus arrived to little fanfare and has since not generated any, and it's not hard to tell why: the songs here, while obviously similar to Passage and belonging to that same fertile, lunar creative streak, would have really weakened the album and demoted it from being 100% memorable. That's not to say the stuff here is poorly written or executed, in fact most of the tunes are better than what they'd produce for the Reign of Light album, but they clearly lack the compelling hooks and glorious Xytras orchestration to match their peers.

Half of the material, however, is merely re-recorded and re-configured from the Ceremony of Opposites album, not to mention the Rebellion EP, which is ironic because that release itself also had some re-recordings. Essentially they've tried to clean up "Ceremony of Opposites" and "Son of Earth", "From Malkuth to Kether" and tacked on an instrumental track drawn from the "Static Journey" pieces. So the majority of Exodus is just a retread, and not a particularly necessary or good one. The only value here would come down to the three tracks that might have otherwise ended up on Passage. Of these, the titular "Exodus" has enough strength and originality to its riff-craft that it wouldn't have stunk up the full-length too much, but there are rhythmic cues in there that would have seemed redundant to other cuts like "Rain". Still, the organs sound fine, the rhythm guitars churn along with strong enough, memorable note progressions, and Vorph and the drum programming both deliver with the same strength as their masterpiece.

"Tribes of Cain" is not far behind, creating a warlike pacing to it that once again would have suffered on Passage due to its aesthetic proximity to "Jupiterian Vibe". Again, the guitars are not at all throwaways, and the organ tones really tap into that cosmic, mythic pulse, but it's just not a song which continues to replay itself through my memory time and time again. If I was desperate for an analog to the material I already owned, it would suffice. Lastly, "Winter Solstice"...and you will not be surprised that this is just too similar to another Passage tune to include it, in this case the brilliant "Moonskin" which haunts and delights me to this day. A calmer pace, synthesizer pianos driving much of the action while Vorphalack spews his seductive poetry. The lyrics are quite similar to "Moonskin" but nowhere near as beautiful, and musically it's not even a fraction as memorable. So this all really illustrates why these selections were wisely shelved and not included alongside their betters...until, of course, the EP would later be reissued on Passage itself (bad move) much like Rebellion was joined with Ceremony of Opposites...

If you have that version, well then I apologize, because surely this material tarnishes the perfect progression of that album's track list. Do try to ignore it, but captured in its own environment, this really isn't so bad. The first two songs are far more interesting than the rest, but at least it's not just a shit mCD single like they'd put out for some of their later albums.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10] (remember the gate you got in)

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Samael - Rebellion EP (1995)

Rebellion is at the very least an interesting little median between Samael's strongest albums, a relic from a time when most bands still seemed to care about releasing short-form works that had some unique content and genuine value. At the time it was easily the most experimental and varied of their recordings, if only because they saw fit to really test the waters beyond metal with some of Xytras' evocative, ritualistic ambient music with beats (something they'd further extrapolate with Era One/Lessons in Magick #1). But I also remember this for its iconic serpentine yin-yang cover imagery and for having a few pretty decent, harder hitting tunes which mark that transition from Ceremony of Opposites to the sheer brilliance which lay just past it...

Of course, two of these are the re-recordings of older tunes, "After the Sepulture" and "Into the Pentagram", which I'm sure somehow infuriated someone, but strangely did not suffer from being given a Passage-like makeover with the upgraded production. Not that I have a huge problem with the original incarnations, but these are crafted well enough that I can't say I'd mind if the process was applied to a bunch of their other seminal material. The bass and vocal effects sound superb, the rhythm guitar tone meatier (ala Ceremony) and the melodies and atmosphere really ramped up. The other heavy piece here is "Rebellion" itself, a rousing piece which canters along with the same, menacing and grooving cadence present on Ceremony only with the synthesizers creating that cosmic mystique which so enamored me to the following album. I'll say it: when I first experienced the EP, that was my hands down favorite tune of the band's career up to its day, but I've since retrogressed to enjoying a few of its predecessors more ("Baphomet's Throne", "Black Trip", etc). Still, really dig some of the unexpected progressions in the keyboards, and it still sounds bad ass.

The EP is rounded out with a cover of Alice Cooper's "I Love the Dead" which is integrated rather well into the Samael sound. Hearing Vorphalack's goofy rasp hit the melody in the chorus is admittedly quite hilarious. That tune always reminded me of high school, but can you imagine showing up to Prom with this guy? Inverted crucifix in his cumberbun?! Lastly there are the two versions of "Static Journey", the first of which feels like an electrified Dead Can Dance, all martial bombast and synthetic industrial sounds used to convey an almost Predator-like threat that develops along an axis of clanking pipe-work and even a pulsing, inevitable techno beat. Basically this tune sets up the instrumental/alternate version of Passage, and the hidden version at the end of the disc features Vorph doing his best Laibach/Das Ich impression to boot. Again, a little unintentionally silly sounding, but still pretty excellent (the instrumental take in particular).

These days, this is conveniently attached to the 2001 CD reissue of Ceremony of Opposites, and I think aesthetically it matches up pretty well with the content of that full-length, but even in its original format this was not at all a waste of money for any Samael fan who was content to follow the group's gradual transformation. Considering the promotional detritus maxi-singles they'd put out for future efforts, this one had the courtesy of standing on its own two feet, even if one of those feet was re-recorded/cover material. I still break it out from time to time, though it's obviously wanting when compared to its immediate full-length neighbors.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (instinct is not the path of man)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Samael - Ceremony of Opposites (1994)

For quite a few folks I know, Ceremony of Opposites is the point at which first contact was made with the music of Samael, and thus it cultivates a level of nostalgia that subsequent recordings might not ever have been able to generate. I can't say I share this sentiment, but it is easily the first album they released upon which the Swiss had truly come up with a distinct sound. It's probably also where a lot of the heretic-burning 'underground or die' pundits also fell off the wagon, for even though the band had been pretty simple up to its manifestation, this was a whole new level of accessibility and base riffing which eschewed any notion of complexity or raw, obscure malevolence. But fuck if this wasn't/isn't unique! In fact, despite a few of the band's own impersonators, and perhaps Therion's more Gothic/death oriented Lepaca Kliffoth, I can't think of much else I've heard over the course of tens of thousands, decades worth of CDs, which is much the same...pieces, perhaps, but not in full.

It's undoubtedly controversial to purists that one might label this 'black metal' at all, but at the core of the experience, that is what manifests; it simply exists as a stark contrast to what many of the band's Scandinavian peers were generating with a shift to tremolo-picked riffing, technicality and speed (Emperor, Immortal, Enslaved, etc). Instead, this is plodding, moderately paced warlike black metal with a lot of grooving hooks and warmer melodic chord progressions, so simplistic that at several points, when first experiencing the album, I wondered why half the riffs hadn't been written before. Here you also get a little more priority placed on the synthesizer elements, which prior had served largely for intros, interludes and instrumentals but would ingrain themselves into one of the most fundamental pieces of the band's sound. Ceremony of Opposites certainly takes its cues from the sophomore Blood Ritual, and you can clearly hear how this serves as a prototype for the albums to follow, but it also really stands on its own as a sort of 'gateway drug' into the band's evolving style, not to mention a swan song for the stricter adherence to occult-based lyrics which dominated the earlier catalog. Not, not my favorite Samael, but as a runner up, it will more than suffice.

Songs trend towards shorter, pop and rock-length structures which maintain a steady procession of new and intriguing content, but at the same time wrap up the record tightly in 36 minutes. Almost are the songs are equally mesmerizing and yet have an interlinked quality about them that generates the same aesthetic of some pompous infernal army marching through a nocturnal battlefield with their chests puffed out, horns polished and sharpened and ghastly standards unfurled. We're still hearing a lot of those base thrash and death metal elements in the chord patterns, but the rhythm guitars just have this memorable flow to them ("Black Trip", "Celebration of the Fourth", etc) which grooves on the conscience. Don't be mistaken, as I mentioned earlier, it does show a further proclivity towards symphonic arrangements, but this is very much a guitar record, because without those unshakeable chords, wrought in a loud, simultaneously blunt and spiked distortion (like a morningstar of post- modernized Hellhammer tone), grinding up against Vorphalack's nihilistic barking, this would fall completely fat. There are a few tunes later on in the track listing where the guitars do seem to revert a little more towards the style of the earlier albums, and these represent the least compelling moments of the experience, but even there they have that chunky predisposition for throwing out a catchy death metal line ("To Our Martyrs" bridge).

The bass playing is also a titanic improvement over Blood Ritual and Worship Him, not because it's more technical or involved, but because of its thick, syrupy texture to it which becomes important in propelling the percussion and forging out its own path; even when the lines are super minimalistic accompaniment for the pulse of the kick drum. The beats in general are exceedingly bare, rock oriented with the added weight of a few double bass patterns and muscular fills, and frankly nothing more intense or busy would really fit this set of tunes, but strangely enough they're not as effective as the programmed stuff on the followup album. Probably because this relies just so heavily on the listener's attention to those guitars, but there are instances like "Baphomet's Throne" where they fit incredibly well with the sampled horns. Most of the synth lines here are actually divided between choirs and horns, so it maintains a marginal nod to the exotic Celtic Frost influence (To Mega Therion). I wouldn't say they were quite as developed as they'd become on the next pair of full length albums, nor as essential, and even mildly 'cheesy' in nature, but it adds just a crucial fraction of atmosphere which rounds Ceremony out as something 'greater' and/or 'deeper' than the debut.

The lyrics, on the other hand, are fucking brilliant when paired up against either of the prior records, with plenty of quotable lines for listeners who can relate to the band's narcissistic mysticism, night sky fascinating and occult devotion. They've saved the best of this for last. Passage does possess a few logical throwbacks to similar themes, but I found that more deeply poetic, personal and broadly appealing in terms of its flow of imagery. At any rate, this and that album represent the pinnacle of the prose, since they'd eventually start penning drivel which came off like they were supposed to be the metal version of the Universal Unitarian Church or some tripe. Here, you can just revel in the evil, the masquerading about in human skin, the blood red seductions and the greater picture of the encroaching endtimes embedded in Samael's collective imagination. "Black Trip", "Flagellation", "Celebration of the Fourth" and "Son of Earth" are all particularly poignant, but not one tune here really lags behind in this regard.

First two albums: great. This one: the first bonafide classic in their repertoire. Tightly balanced between eloquence and barbarity. Simple riffs masquing complicated themes. Hidden beneath every groove, every structure, every rough-shod synthesizer, a Dark Prince leering at the listener. Hail the Goddamn Devil. Roil with the Flesh and Earth. One last time, before the call of the Cosmos.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (there in I plunge)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Nunslaughter - Angelic Dread (2014)

Long a staple of the American underground, and essentially our alternative to the great Sabbat of Japan due to their proliferation of releases. Rarely, however, have I heard Nunslaughter go on such a vicious tear through all good taste as on Angelic Dread. A real bitch of a thrasher, heavily focused on a slew of simplistic and punchy riff patterns which, granted, have all more or less been done, but in the capable hands of these blasphemers seem to take on a renewed vivacity, fleshing out the speed/thrash metal undercurrent with some obvious nods to death metal, punk, and hardcore, sticking to their traditionally conservative, tight song structures which tend to involve 1-2 riffs and hover below the three-minute threshold.

The production on this album sounds lethal and bright, but otherwise pretty bare, with a great, clapping and crashing drum mix that supports the cut muscle of the guitars, which are performed with the grace of a butcher and have this meatiness which, strangely enough, reminds me of the band Vengeance Rising on their first few records (anti- the Christianity), and possibly also a little of Sweden's Witchery before they became boring. Don of the Dead's vocals are the fucking flagship here, gnarled rasps which are often balanced off with these higher screams which only catalyze the level of excitement coursing through every track. The majority are mid to faster paced in the vein of old Slayer or Possessed, maybe some late 80s Razor, with bass lines largely matching up to the rhythm guitars, but they're also not above throwing in a few doomier grooves as in close of  "Looking in the Abyss". There's also a little overt camp, like the horror voices thrown about in a tune like "The Bog People", which reinforce that this is not a band to take itself quite so seriously.

Overall, there isn't a massive amount of variation in the riffing progressions, and so due to the large track list you've got a good deal of redundancy which might have been better served by stepping a little further out of the safety box. But on the flip side, you can expect a solid 36 minutes of the same incendiary blitz, without many interruptions, sort of how classic thrash discs like Reign in Blood or Violent Restitution maintained that level of pacing straight into legend. Okay...this isn't THAT good, not even close, but it's nice to know some bands still aren't interested in dicking around for the sake of fattening their recordings with a bunch of nonsense. It just wouldn't work within Nunslaughter's medium. Having said that, Angelic Dread is somewhat of a treat, because it includes a second disc loaded with re-recordings of limited press 7" material that most will find difficult or obnoxious to track down. Collectors which want the individual vinyl products might not be so keen on this, but those of us who really only pay attention to their full-length albums are getting an impressive value along with the strong new material...arguably just as good if not better than anything they've put out to date, even if it's written in a more streamlined, sadistic style.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Temple Desecration - Communion Perished EP (2014)

Poland is hardly a haven for haunting old school black or death metal bands, since so much of that scene's momentum subsists on the polished and brutal (or non-brutal) evolution of death metal titans like Behemoth, Decapitated and the mighty Vader. Every now and then you get an exception, like the eerie and evil Cultes des Ghoules, who have come along way with their exceptional album Henbane (2013), but the place is hardly littered with cavern core spelunkers or excessive Swede-o-philes, at least not from my personal listening experience. Thus enters Temple Desecration, a mysterious act adorned in ancient imagery, occult lyrical themes and an oppressive sound which leeches liberally from the clotted bloodstreams of the death, black and doom metal throwbacks internationally.

The Communion Perished EP consists of two lengthy, oppressive, churning pieces which seem most closely assembled from a hybrid of violent warblack metal (circa Canadian legends Blasphemy) and the gloomy, subterranean strains of death metal pioneered by Autopsy, Incantation, and their own Floridian peers Obituary (Slowly We Rot) and Death (Scream Bloody Gore). Fueled by oozing, driving distorted bass lands and rhythm guitar progressions that are about as intricate as a burly meat hammer which hasn't been cleaned off in months, the riffs range from slower, downtrodden chords reminiscent of funereal death/doom to more uptempo tremolo picked palm mutes and bludgeoning faster paced chords reminiscent of something like Bestial Warlust or older British deathgrind ala Napalm Death and Bolt Thrower. There are some pretty cool, cascading growls aired off in the distance, but the central vocal style is a pretty standard guttural with plenty of sustain, and while the drums take a backseat to the crushing quality of the riffs and vocals, they're competent at the simpler blast beats you'd find on the Osmose recordings of the 90s.

They throw in some chants and samples to round out the atmosphere of the music, but by and large this is really raw, straightforward and opaque stuff which thrives solely on its own darkness and momentum. Unfortunately, there is this ubiquity of standard and uninspired riffing which is just a mere recycling of so many bands to come before it, and that totally drags down the experience, which might otherwise be respectably ugly and consistent. Seriously, had each of these chord patterns or note series been filtered through just a little bit of minor variation, dissonance, or some eerily and stringy higher notes, they could have better served the barbaric undertones. I feel like so many metal bands these days (in both black and death categories) are relying too heavily on attunement to the nostalgia of their limited audience, instead of taking the steps to manipulate that authentic hostility and oppression of past decades into something more novel, interesting, even marginally complex. Temple Desecration is no more guilty of derivation than the five thousand other bands pursuing the legacy of their influences, but Communion Perished is another example of how a little more patience and unexpected songwriting choices could have really burst such raucous brutality out from its confines and into some memorable capacity.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Sacrificio - Sacrificio EP (2014)

Strapped with some of the sexiest helmets in Europe, and some of the oldest school jams appropriated in 21st century black metal, the Spaniards Sacrificio attempt to dial back the years to a time where this niche could have been considered more 'innocent', or to be a little more accurate, genuinely diabolical. This effect is sought through a stripped down, raw 80s/90s cassette demo production and by re-purposing the rudest and crudest of aesthetics culled from the bands that were actually there at the time: Bathory, Hellhammer, Mayhem, Sarcofago, Samael, Venom and so forth. This is truly meant to feel like a lost 1st wave black metal demo that someone just randomly finds while searching through the slush pile of some ancient 'zine, but unfortunately its charms are kind of limited to that...and the great cover photo, of course.

See, the problem here is that the riffs are blemished with such bruising predictability that the six tunes never quite establish their own identity beyond just trying to present us with an 'ancestor' to the sounds so influential from that fabled 80s era. Mucked up production aesthetics are a given, granted, so you've got the hoarse and occasionally flanged sounding raw guitars coming in one ear, while the tinny and clunky drums attack from the other. The vocals are in Spanish and the guy has an effective, charnel rasp which is compelling enough in how it vomits out its disgust over the fat grooves, but overall the interaction of the instruments seems a trifle clumsy. Bass guitars are chubby but dull, and ultimately the most compelling part of this is the 'lead' guitars, which are these frivolous, warbling and atmospheric evil note lines, some of which seem entirely sporadic, that just bellow over the mix like smog elementals...if only the rhythms were in the least bit distinct and evil sounding a subtext for these moments, Sacrificio might have proven truly memorable.

Alas, not all the parts here were created equally, and the EP will thrive only as far as its audience is willing to stretch for old school, no-fucks-given black metal of a primordial age when the style was still being polished off. The riffs and beats are straight from the lexicons of Hellhammer, Bathory and Sarcofago, clubbing you over the head with methodic, distorted grooves that don't go very far. Structurally this is the antithesis of ambition, and while I realize that's part of the 'charm' the trio was aiming for, black metal records were perfectly capable of sounding sincere and sinister without having to sound like they were just rolling tape in a jam room. Not that I haven't heard that approach done with some success, but here it's little more than a crutch. A shame, because this band LOOKS pretty cool...the helms, the leather, the chains, the torches, who would NOT want to be friends with them? I certainly would...hell, if these guys went to my high school in 1989 I'd have followed them around and given freely of my lunch money. I just hope when they produce some new material the music will actually live up to the image beyond mere aesthetic choices.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Monday, June 9, 2014

Hellyeah - Blood for Blood (2014)

The suck just keeps on sucking. One might presume that by their fourth full-length album, Hellyeah would at least find themselves capable of aping the least of those works they are trying to emulate, which by my count is Pantera's Reinventing the Steel. Sadly (okay, not so sadly) the few spare riffs of worth spent on this material are intertwined with such mediocre groove/thrash/grunge passages and saccharine bullshit tough guy posturing vocals that I often find them impossible to differentiate. There is appreciable meat and force behind a few of the rhythm guitars, I'll grant the Texan all stars that much, but when all your choruses sound like Phil Anselmo attempting to front Alice in Chains and Black Label Society, you're playing to an audience well behind the times, who has yet to realize that such a union sucks and pretty much always will suck outside of the genuine article...

I'll be a little more fair: they bite off more than Pantera here. For instance, "Demons in the Dirt" has a mechanistic rhythmic callback to something you'd hear on Prong's Cleansing, tunes like "Moth" might has well been sent over to Nickelback or Hoobastank to plague the radio channels, and there are even a few clean guitar passages here which sound like something In Flames would have woven into some of their signature melo-death. But it's all so pasteurized, so meek, so 'Ozzfest 1997' that I could not listen through this with a straight face. Once in a while, a riff with some genuine heft will arrive and then quickly become marginalized by the garbage 'catchy' chorus which isn't so catchy, the emotional self-touching of Chad Gray which will no doubt inspire BMX rallies and WWE walk on themes for the next decade. So heavy, bro! That thick, credulous guitar tone recycling groove metal is perfect to pump me up during my next CrossFit training session. Maybe they'll play some of this in between the next Monster Truck session at the muddy local arena-grounds.

Do we still really live in a world where people think shit bands like Stone Sour and Disturbed fucking matter at all? Because if we do, this should go multi-mega platinum! I feel like this is a symptom of musicians remaining well out of reach (err, out of touch) with reality. Look: some trends or styles or distinct individual bands are everlasting. Iron Maiden? Forever. Judas Priest up to 1990? Timeless. Ride the Lightning? Right on. The chum-sucking detritus starving for creativity in the wake of records like Far Beyond Driven and A Vulgar Display of Power will not, and even if Vinnie Paul has more of a right to this obese bucket of swill than anyone else can claim, it doesn't mean he shouldn't leave it for the fishes and do something worth a damn. The guy has the chops here of a glam metal drummer, lazy rock beats with an occasional feat of exertion when they start to get heavier. Okay, there's a little deja-vu in that statement, but we all know he's capable of being a part of something greater than this, and I'm not saying jump back on the Pantera bandwagon, but perhaps start something that is more than the sum of a self-caricature. This is like Five Finger Death Punch (one of the worst bands on Earth), albeit with a few more genuine thrash riffs mixed in. Blood for couldn't even come up with a half-decent title. Lone star sharks with blunted teeth.

Verdict: Fail [2.5/10]