Thursday, July 31, 2014

John Gallow - Violet Dreams (2014)

It would be a little early to dub Violet Dreams the 'best' doom metal of the year, but it's quite likely going to prove the most honest, a riffier analogue to his fantastic band Blizaro which released the Strange Doorways compilation last year. In fact, you could think of this as the 'heavier' alternate to that, for while the two projects do coordinate several of their psychedelic embellishments through the use of synthesizers, Sabbath/Paul Chain influences and Costin Chioreanu artwork, that collection of demo material felt more 'far out' in scope, due to the myriad of recording sessions involved and the varied roster which complemented John Gallo. Violet Dreams is naturally constructed as a consistent experience, an hour of dreary classic doom in which he performs all instruments and vocals and shines almost constantly.

Back to that honesty: it's not quite so traditional as you'd think. While there are obvious cues in the riffs that lead us back down cerebral highways to Sabbath, Trouble, Candlemass, and so forth, one of the things I find so reliable about Gallo is that he does not play the style like it's a dead end, with all scriptures and limitations set into place. You can clearly hear with every drudging, dreary note progression that the guy is playing with the potential in each phrase, attempting to adapt something you haven't exactly heard before. The evil, sluggish chords and grooves are very often permeated with these unexpected, standalone melodies and synthesizer segments which bring in a lot of that 60s and 70s prog aesthetic which was so cool on Strange Doorways. Whether it's the odd, disjointed feel to the jamming late in "Entrance to the Unknown", the pure New Age 80s giallo-synth of "Ancient Tears" or the bluesy instrumental "Part Ways" where the guy just splattered tremolo picked, wild guitar patterns atop a keyboard line, Gallo is simply not content to drone on and on with the same old shit that I hear on so many doom or sludge records. This music is about vision and songwriting, not about genre...

The authenticity translates to the vocal performance. Gallo doesn't do the guttural death/doom pitch, but uses his own voice with as much eerie melody and gravitas as possible. The catch is that he doesn't have some explosive range...he's not naturally gifted in this area. It reminds me a little of Wino, or Liebling, or perhaps Ozzy at a mid-range, because I always found he had that same 'blue-collar' appeal. Gallo makes due with what he's got, and while a few notes may occasionally seem wavering in pitch or inflection than some pro who has been taking lessons all his life, the tradeoff is that you're always right there with him. He is as Charon to these maudlin, sorrow filled landscapes, and you a paid passenger. If it seems unusual at first, it doesn't take long at all to warm up to them, and ultimately the record is stronger for the choice. I mean I love Messiah Marcolin, but I couldn't picture him belting out his operatic melancholy over tunes like these; there is a time and place for that and it works for mightier, crushing Gothic castle-tinted fare like Nightfall, but this record is much more like a humble craftsman pursuing the witches that have stolen his children and blighted the land. Gallo has a torch, pitchfork, and courage as he navigates these gloomy psychedelic haunts.

Guitars sound pretty straightforward, with a little cream, a little fuzz, always the blues, and yet plenty of unusual note choices and harmonies. Pay close attention to a tune like "Wall of Doom" where you can hear those gorgeous little melodies hovering off in the distance, or "Part Ways" where he's just flaying his soul bare. A few responsible special effects used to saturate the tone, but nothing that ever places form above function. The bass lines are likewise delicious, calm and clean grooves and hooks that support the rhythm tracks without just cloning them, to the point where the guitars could drop out completely and Violet Dreams would still have this solemn, immersive design. The drums are likely the one region of the album which is eclipsed by the rest...these compositions are served well by the simplistic pacing of the beats, and Gallo applies some fills and versatility, but I definitely think they take a backseat to the guitars, bass, synthesizer and vocals, and the album would not have suffered with a more fiery, resonant depth to the bass, snares and cymbals. Of course when the music is this dramatic and memorable, it's not much of an issue, so I had to pay a very specific sort of attention to deign to even nitpick that element.

Violet Dreams is not inaccessible on your first few spins, but it's a record I highly recommend you listen to as much as possible, because the moods and riffs seem to unravel upon further exposure so that they transform from 'compelling' to 'revelatory'. I was in love with Strange Doorways, and even more enraptured to these songs, especially some of the more glorious, patient pieces like "Turn Sides", "Wall of Doom", "Entrance to the Unknown" or the curious "Burning Trees" with the clucking percussion and swampy, evil Southern feel. But there isn't a stinker among the bunch, and you can almost guarantee there will be something unexpected awaiting you 14 times, but no cheap thrills...this is one I've been returning to repeatedly to the point where I've lost count. All depth, all the time. At its worst, it still rocks, but at its best: mesmerizing. Captivating. Hazy departures from the mundane. Decades-old overtures clad in current currents. Not just a work of doom, but of that which might lie just beyond our imminent despair.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Samael - Eternal (1999)

While Eternal is clearly a spiritual successor to Passage in terms of its spacey aesthetics, focused cover imagery and further progression towards electronics, it might also be viewed as one of the strangest evolutions in Swiss metal since the much maligned Cold Lake over a decade prior. It's unforgettable predecessor maintained a darker, frightening edge to it in spite of its fantastic riffing and general accessibility, but with this fifth full-length, Vorphalack, Xytras and company would go all happy on us. Pop some xstasy. In fact, it's generally better to think of this record as some sort of industrial universal space-dance music which just happens to retain a metal riffing and garbled, harsher vocal aesthetic than a proper metal recording (akin to The Kovenant's Animatronic without the corny Marilyn Manson band image), and absolute anathema for a chunk of the band's original audience who were stuck at Worship Him. 'No, fuck that man, this band lost it after the first rehearsal in 1987.' Ha!

But herein lies the catch. Despite Vorph's weird whispered and growled vocal lines through Eternal, which resemble pop and hip hop structures just as much as the gnarled, passionate black metal of his prior output...despite the increased importance of typified dance beats and synthesizer lines through which Xytras is attempting to bridge the classical and EBM fields....despite the fact that half the guitars on this album are merely low chugs or chords used to accent the beats...and despite the odd, raw production which would seem out of place for industrial/pop and was likely due to the band's novelty at blending these mediums, Eternal is a charming album. Yeah, it often feels like the band came up with the idea while enjoying a hot tub by starlight, in the Alps with some rich bankers' wives giggling over these artsy young studs they managed to wrangle, but there is this sentimental quality created through the contrast of choir synthesizers, reverberating electronic percussion, schmaltzy lounge organs/percussion (on a few tunes) and Vorph's 'Wait, we were recording that?', diabolic yet mouth-breathing presence that somehow transcends all the inherent flaws and musical faux-pas to produce something worthwhile...

Guitars. They're here, but divided into three camps. First: the aforementioned palm muting or syncopated chord phrases which are there to serve more or less in tandem with the other percussion (examples: the verses of "Ways" and "Us"), a technique you'd expect from a lot of industrial radio rock like Stabbing Westward or Rammstein. Second, and these are better, these floes of warmer and melodic chords, faster or slower, used to emotionally elevate many of the chorus vocals; they've got an alt rock feel to them, but definitely are one of the elements that were drafted forward from Passage. Lastly you've got a few living clever phrases like the creepy melody that comes into the verse in "Ailleurs" (or "The Cross"), and these are probably the most effective on the album, meaning I wish there were actually a few more. Missing are the brilliant, meticulous black/thrash progressions from the prior album, a blow that is felt by this listener, but in the end I can't rightly say that they would have worked with the overall feel and structure of the songwriting. Still, they hadn't voided the guitar as an instrument altogether, far from it, and the notes used here are at least more memorable than the two full-lengths to follow, even if their respective mixes put more emphasis on the riffs.

The synthesizers play an enormous role, largely through the choir pads which are used to give much of the album that cosmic, ethereal effect, like a seraph floating between planets with its glimmering sword out front. Probably a bit cliche, but Samael do them justice with simple but catchy patterns. In addition Xytras uses a lot of busier piano phrases which are amongst the most complex lines of notes on the album, and then they step even further outside with a mixture of 80s prog/New Age and cheesy techno-inspired sequences which occasionally sound like Tangerine Dream writing house music. It's all well and good for me, since I listen to a lot of that anyway, but others are just not going to be so welcoming of this stuff if their expectations were Blood Ceremony 2.0. They'll be even LESS welcoming of the weirder moments like in "Being" where the pianos get all saloon-bluesy with the goofy little electric guitar trills, or in "Radiant Star" where the organs make the intro feel like The Doors are about to stroll into a pastry shop on a Paris corner. I happen to love that song, the chorus is particularly timeless and emotional with Vorph's protracted growls, but it's pretty bizarre how they got from that point A to B and certainly was unique for 1999.

As for the beats, the more danceable nature of the writing definitely brings their artificial nature to the fore more so than Passage, an album that could have just as well been executed with a drummer, but lost no points for the slick programming. Usually they go big and industrial but there are a lot of subtleties here, electronic/pulse stuff hidden in both calmer moments and greater swells which does occasionally hover on glitch without the warping. Since they were at this time really into all the fire swinging cosmic carnival theatrics in their performances, there is definitely a bit of hippie drum circle aesthetic here, only it's represented electronically with some lighter percussion rather than the thundering of some tribal gathering. That said, when the band needs power, like the clashing accents to the chorus of "Together", they really come through, so despite the theoretical superiority this recording might have had with an actual human striking a kit, I don't have much of an issue that they chose to go this route again. Masmiseîm also sounds pretty electrified, with some bass lines that sound quite synthesized, but the simplistic grooves he metes out in tunes like "The Cross" are critical to contrast against that hovering nightscape of keyboard atmosphere.

Lastly, we come to the vocals, which are basically the whispers, semi-growls and rasps of the last album only seeming a little more laconic and poppy in their implementation. The guy's voice does have a hard time standing out against the more shining electronic aspects, and many could be forgiven for thinking the guy sounds absolutely goofy, but it's part of what gives the album it's sense of impossible charisma, since it runs contrary to most of what people love about a good pop or EBM band...a strong singer with an 80s penchant for choral melodies that engrave a tune into memory. Vorph's performance IS memorable, but incredibly flawed all the same, which was either a brilliant or stupid move depending on who you ask. A lot of the meters and ideas seem half-formed, but it is nice that he'll occasionally lay out a larger growl for balance. Lyrically, though, this further emphasis towards spiritual exploration and personal meanings, far removed from the evil occultism on their old material is a bit of a shock. The song titles are incredibly, efficiently Zen and the lyrics almost constantly attempt to uplift the listener with traces of Eastern mysticism and pacifistic enlightenment. It's almost as if they had a Darjeeling Limited moment somewhere between 1996-1998 when they were thinking how they'd follow up their masterpiece.

And that's about the best I can do, good readers. It's a unique album for sure, but one of those 'I'll allow you this one' deals for me, where I admired the band's transformation but wouldn't necessarily want to hear them try this again (which they sort of did, sadly). The first track "Year Zero" is pretty representative of the sound of the whole album, but it's actually the least interesting/memorable so I question its front placement when everything else is so much bloody catchier. That aside, I really liked the album. It's touching and heartfelt and all those sorts of things a Samael record probably shouldn't have ever been, but its combination of airy, raw production and its humanitarian, philosophical approach to industrial metal was one I really went for when the album released, and I still quite enjoyed it when listening to prepare for this review. Are the simplistic, repetition-focused lyrics meek? Sometimes, but just as often they're extravagant. Is it a disappointment after Passage? What wouldn't be? But if you're open to electronic influence, space raving on ski slopes, and listening to music that your girl/guyfriend might also dig on when you introduce it to them, then this might work for you. "Ailleurs", "Ways", "The Cross", "Infra Galaxia", "I", "Radiant Star"...all great songs... in fact only "Year Zero" is worth skipping.

There are no guilty pleasures.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (the move is fixed at the furthest point)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Watchtower - The Size of Matter [single] (2010)

I almost forgot this thing had come out, which is most likely a progposeur crime of monstrous proportions considering how much of a proponent I've been for Watchtower's sophomore Control and Resistance this last quarter-century. Yet as I was digging through some random files in some random, abandoned folder, there it was, staring at me straight in the face, taunting me to listen through it once more, and it's not an act I regret, because if nothing else, "The Size of Matter" has me salivating for the next 'proposed' chapter in the Towerverse, the long elusive new album Mathematics, which I'm not honestly sure is even a thing anymore, but when I go to their official website, I find nothing but four years of crickets...way to keep up on that, folks.

Anyway, the song itself was something to get temporarily excited over, for with the exception that it is bolstered by a meatier mix of guitars than ever Control or the debut was, and Alan Tecchio's shriek ability somewhat more restrained through either age or wear (or both), this links pretty directly to the material they were writing before the dawn of the 90s. Schizophrenic progressive thrash written with an astounding level of musicianship, and just as much attention paid to detail. The bass and guitars here are specifically both pretty nasty, pretending as if the last few decades hadn't existed and they were continuing forth with the previous direction, only feeling even more up front and in the face. Jarzombek's drums are still quite electronic in context, a good fit for the surgical, jazzy leads that punctuate the bridge in the tune, which are easily my favorite bit in the song, but obviously the guy is such a damn brilliant timekeeper that it wouldn't make much of a difference if they were mixed and recorded with a more acoustic aesthetic in mind. Some of the fills and tempo changes are fantastic.

Tecchio does branch out into his high range with a lower, conversational harmony at one point, but I do rather enjoy the mix of his performance, it definitely carves straight into the listener and drives home the lyrics. The one area where this does fall behind Control & Resistance is that, as proficient as the musicians remain, as technical the discourse of their instruments, I did not feel as if I was being catapulted into some alien-to-me tragedy or situation like I felt back in 1989. The riffs and vocals, while impressive and consistent, aren't necessarily as memorable or on the level as the older material, but I can't lie: if they could finally get that long-anticipated post-reunion full-length out, and it was at least this quality or better, I doubt you'd hear many complaints among their fanbase...least of all from myself. As Heathen, Paradox and several other melodic tech-thrashers have already proven, the Old Guard are perfectly willing to step up into the boots of the New Guard if nobody (apart from Vektor) wants the job. Hope more something comes of this, the tune is on point.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Monday, July 28, 2014

Midnight - No Mercy for Mayhem (2014)

Attitude. Sometimes that's all it takes to elevate a pretty standard set of 80s inflected punk and speed metal riffs above the ghetto of mediocrity, and Midnight has excelled with this characteristic now for years, only now unleashing its sophomore full-length No Mercy for Mayhem upon an audience stoked off the leather, spikes, whiskey, women and ritualism of its predecessor Satanic Royalty, which novelty aside: rocked. With this album it didn't provoke my attention span to quite that level of entertainment, and yet we have a damn solid disc, readily accessible and aggressive for those waxing nostalgic for the grime and grit of 30-year-old shock speed/thrash outfits, of whom Venom is only the most obvious, but not the only brick mortared into this Cleveland maniac's creative foundation.

Punchy. Loud. Ready to roll through the dingy dives and dens of human vice, rocking the Devil's gospel to the irredeemable and then stealing their brides' souls and bodies. No Mercy for Mayhem is hardly nuclear physics, but a simple slew of chord-driven concussions and saucy little NWOBHM Kill 'Em All tail-licks which together make for a potent and nightclub-pungent 36 minutes of fun. Have you heard a lot of these note progressions before? Probably, since they're just so simplistic that hundreds of bands have stumbled across something similar, yet the purpose of a Midnight isn't to reinvent what we loved so much about our antique metal, but rather remind us of why we had such a good time with that in the first place. Granted, apart from gruffer legends like Lemmy, Hetfield or Cronos, you wouldn't hear such a raving bark as Athenar's on a lot of 80s trended towards shriekers like those of Exciter and their ilk, but that's one of those little nuances which makes this band instantly stand out to me...they know their limitations and never try to break free of that blood slaked theater, merely to make it their bitch.

It's somewhat of a stretch to label them 'black metal', I realize, but that influence does shine through in some of the lyrical content, if not much else. 'Blackened speed punk' is a more accurate estimation of what Athenar spits out the a median between Venom and Turbonegro if it had been written by Mustaine, Ulrich or Hetfield when they were relevant. Blazing four or five chord patterns  that only rarely eschew their pulse-pounding momentum in order to set up yet another one, with a fatter tone than on Satanic Royalty which really makes you feel like you're in the front row standing before an amplifier. The rhythm guitars are humble enough to let the thudding bass guitars into
your headspace, a crucial tactic for what presumably is set up for a live three-piece, even though it's just the one guy performing all the instruments in the studio (at least on the new tracks). The drums sound pretty tight, never subjugated by the riff progressions and there's a bit of a trash can feel to them which lends even more authenticity to the back-alley charms of the record as a whole. Leads are efficient, wailing, straight to the point, with no arrogance involved, merely enthusiasm.

An album with such a genuine energy as this one is almost impossible for me to dislike, and such is the case with No Mercy with Mayhem. The caveat is that I thought Satanic Royalty had a few songs ("You Can't Stop Steel", etc) which were just more memorable individually, if not by a landslide. This is a consistent effort throughout all 10 of the harder tracks (excepting the intro), but there aren't really any I could say would stand out above the rest or rate even close to the company of Athenar's inspirations. In 30 years I don't know that we'll be humming the chorus to "Evil Like a Knife" or "Prowling Leather" like we still do for "Black Metal", "Iron Fist", "Long Live the Loud" and "Whiplash", but cult classic status or not, let's remain on the level...if this record came on during a car ride and you couldn't feel that urge building up in your neck to bang your skull in a frenzy, then you're either a One Direction fan, in which case: die, or you're already dead and in Hell, in which case: let me know about any real estate deals, because I'll be joining you there sooner than not.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Judas Priest - Redeemer of Souls (2014)

I'll start off with the verdict for once: it could have been worse.

That is not to say Redeemer of Souls ranks on any meter as the sort of career redemption the UK vets implied through their choice of titles, but had they produced what amounted to another overblown waste of time like Nostradamas, my faith in the metal gods would have become incredibly difficult to defend. No, this is essentially a sort of pseudo career retrospective wedged into a supposed swan song, of which the worst crime is that compared to any of Priest's classic run ('74-'90) it feels clunky, retread, uneven, and certainly lazy in enough places that you wish they would have spent a lot more time putting it together...even though it feels like they already spent aeons. But I have to be honest...this is a band I've listened to now for 35 years, and for 2/3rds of that time they have not had much wind in their sails beyond touring, keeping their brand out there, trying out another front man, failing, reuniting with Rob, pressing on, losing K.K. Downing...effort was put into this band on most fronts, but just not in the studio. There was almost no possibility this was going to be good, so I'm simply content that it doesn't suck.

As the cover hints, and many reviews I've seen would have us believe, this appears at first like a call back to the Painkiller years, which is only partially true. The album front loads an inconsequential '88-'90 rager in "Dragonaut" which features some of the most tepid riffing on the whole of the disc, and then follows that up with the title track, which is nothing more than a paraphrasing of "Hell Patrol" only nowhere near as timeless. But once you go in and break down the rest, there is quite a lot of representation here for both their groovier hard rock roots and more heavily conceptual 70s material. In fact I'd say that, from a distance, the album seems to be about 50% what they were doing with its predecessor, Painkiller-lite, albeit with less or no orchestration involved,  and then 50% waxing nostalgic for the era in which they were a dominant radio force in hard rock and heavy metal. At the same time, nods to the Halford solo records, which represented the man's best work since 1990, are also ubiquitous here. I felt like I was listening to Halford IV numerous times, what with the ProTools-ish punch of the rhythm guitars and the heavily moderated/souped up vocal harmonies that partially hide the wear in his voice...don't get me wrong, he still tears out some fucking lines here that remind us why he is perhaps the most important vocalist in his medium, but this is not "The Ripper" or "Victim of Changes"....

Rob is dealing with the inevitability of time, but most people would pass on both their testicles to science in order to sound like this beloved man at the age of 62. Elsewhere, the band sounds on/off in equal measure, phoning in a slew of saccharine rhythm guitar patterns which dive into basically the lion's share of NWOBHM which the band predated and subsequently outlasted, especially a couple licks that recalled vintage Maiden in addition to their own substantial canon. They can snare us a little more consistently with a bluesier hard rock groove more so than a recycled proto-power metal lick, and the leads are fluent and flashy enough to distract the ear from the relative mediocrity of what is typically happening before, beneath and after them, but whether it's due to the newcomer Richie Faulkner or the lack of Downing, I can't really say. If K.K. were performing these very same songs I don't think the results would fare much better. Elsewhere yet, Scott Travis shows up for a paycheck: the guy can play, but he's only ever as good as the music he's providing the skeleton for, and while you can 'notice' Ian Hill following along the root notes, well grounded as usual, he has just never had a presence with this band that could earn him a place among the ranks of essential bassists. I mean I know it's not how Judas Priest writes, but I'd just love it if for once in 44 years he could just let loose, let us know what he's been hiding all those decades...

Structurally, the album starts off with the aforementioned, skippable harder/faster tunes and then actually picks up in quality with "Halls of Valhalla" (decent power metal, superior to anything of Nostradamas) and the mid-paced, driving "Sword of Damocles", in which only a few of the vocal lines really feel exceedingly familiar, but it has a nice swagger, as does "Marched of the Damned", which functions largely because of Halford's vocals and a nice chorus riff. "Down in Flames" starts off pretty strong too with a nice melody cut into the intro lick, but that song is actually where this brief flurry of 'decent' material kind of drops off, and never recovers, with an unbroken sequence of the worst songs on the disc, like the cheesy Painkiller-era wannabes "Metalizer" and "Battle Cry", or the bluesy, generic "Crossfire". In short, there is about an EP here of material worth saving for a B-sides compilation, but it's really just not good enough for Priest. In a few weeks, who will care about any of this? They might suffer you a few of the tunes live, but you know you'll be pining for the 50 or so brilliant songs they wrote so long ago.

For a group so bloody consistent through the first third of its career, one would really hope they could reach somewhere deep within their imaginations and produce an epitaph worth remembering, but I fear that's too much of a Hollywood storyline to apply to reality. Redeemer of Souls is more or less this year's version of Black Sabbath's 13, symptomatic of a band which still recognizes what made it so special in the first place, but cannot achieve that level of songwriting because it has run short of riffs that feel even tangentially compelling when compared to the impressive legacy they stamped on heavy metal a lifetime ago. At the same time, it's not complete trash...a few of the ideas are not half-assed, if not exemplary either, and there are about 15-20 minutes of pleasant Priest to sift through.  It's better than the two Owens-era records, and certainly Nostradamas, but slightly less solid than Angel of Retribution. It's just not a high note to go out with...and considering Rob can still hit some high notes, I'll hold on some sliver of hope. That gibbering late 70s/80s fanatic child within me wants to hear a record he loves by this band again, and not by Halford or Primal Fear or any other band. Kick the new guy, get K.K. Downing back and do it right. We deserve as much, and more importantly, YOU DO.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10] (he's not cutting you slack)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Force of Darkness - Absolute Verb of Chaos and Darkness EP (2014)

Anyone who somehow missed this Chilean band's eponymous debut from 2006 really ought to go back and check that one out. It's a frenetic and rifftastic slab of blackened thrash metal which draws its lineage from obvious but immortal sources like Bathory, but what it might lack for in originality it more than makes up for with its personality and genuine sense of nastiness. The 2nd full-length Darkness Revelation (2010) I didn't have quite as strong a reaction to, but they've now returned with a pretty relentless EP, Absolute Verb of Chaos and Darkness, which was given a vinyl release through the great Iron Pegazus Records and a CD version on Hell's Headbangers, two labels that could not be more fitting to the petulant, infernal sound these guys wring out of their instruments and imaginations.

Granted, there are a lot of really straightforward, steady blast parts here with some pretty basic and predictable tremolo picked guitars that do little more than channel the many bands that have walked this fiery path before them, but it really does have its moments, like the third track "Creations from Obscurity" with its sinister rhythm guitars and those cute little bass lines in the opening moment that set up a really strong, vicious attack, or the warlike and blinding momentum of "Abraxas Revenge" with its surges of neckbreaking thrash. The hellish vocal rasp doesn't betray the native accent nor the barking, messy influences of Quorthon, Angelripper, Mille and T.G. Warrior, and the guitars sear with an honest saturation reminiscent of earlier Teutonic thrash, only a little brighter and stronger than you'd remember from Endless Pain or Sentence of Death. Drums are lethal and fast as fuck, not exactly interesting but then they don't need to be, and the bass deserves some credit for where it occasionally perks up with a wild fill or spasm that immediately distinguishes it from the guitar, though the mix heavily favors the latter.

Force of Darkness might occasionally lapse into a one-track, black thrashing hyper-mind, but they're not above some variation, like the lurching, belligerent closer "Oceans of Black Lava", which is heavily reliant on the thundering lower end of the drum kit and some fat walls of bass guitar; or the eerie chanting and laughing over the acoustic guitars in the intro. The result is a very well rounded 20 minutes of fun while you dance amidst the shadows and flames that form the trio's creative station. It's got as excellently riffy or memorable as that last Deathhammer, or the Antichrist debut, but it's certainly got more depth to it than your average Bathory/Nifelheim knockoff, and worth a listen the next time you whip out your spikes, chains, leather, denim and inverse crucifix. But I reiterate: if you have not heard the first album, and you dig this, go back and buy that one! You can thank me later, with a big old hellthrash embrace (but no tongue, and no spikes, please).

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bölzer - Soma EP (2014)

There must be quite some pressure on this Swiss duo, having raised many expectations with their previous 2013 Aura, which garnered loads of positive feedback (I am no exception) and even got them flown in for a Maryland Deathfest here in the States. With all that on their shoulders, you might expect them to buckle and break, the 'sophomore curse' take effect, not that it generally applies to the short form EP releases they seem compelled towards, but in lieu of something more substantial, it counts. Well, Soma is not as good as Aura. I'll say that up front, but with the caveat that I found the two tunes here a little uneven in their quality, with one matching the last batch of material and the other coming up slightly short.

Bölzer continues to mete out an atmospheric hybrid of black and death metal in equal proportions, the former coming through heavily in the vocals and a few of the faster riff progressions, which are often redolent of Immortal on the song "Steppes" to the point that tonally and structurally the pacing and plot of that particular cut wouldn't have seemed out of place on Sons of Northern Darkness. Now the death metal element is cut from the same cloth, some of the tremolo picked guitars definitely feel more like a morbid throwback the earlier era of that genre, and there are also numerous gutturals to support the KzR's standard rasp, but the distribution might marginally lean towards the black when you factor in the lack of much bottom end/bass to the recording (they perform as a two-piece), the lyrical themes and artwork. Either way, it's how they approach this union which makes it seem more unique and effective than most of their peers who engage in this same crossover space. The actual techniques have been stripped back to the genre's origins, but they don't approach songwriting with that same over-the-top blasting, furious war metal mentality I generally associate with black/death.

That said, I haven't really been able to get into "Steppes". I appreciate that the palm mute to tremolo Immortal-meets-Bolt Thrower riff phrases do give it that feel of a great bloodstarved host marching across that selfsame terrain, but it often too dry to stick to my ears, whereas the bulkier "Labyrinthine Graves" (almost 13 minutes long) brings in a lot more of the atmospherics and range that I loved on Aura. Pensive, thundering drums built off fills continue into a compelling, simple tremolo guitar line with an unusual depth, and they layer in a lot more of the grotesque layered growling/rasping vocals, including some good ol' Tom G. Warrior/Nocturno Culto grunts which function as a callback to that legendary countryman, and really elevate the song when accompanied by the lower chants around the 5:30 mark in the tune. Also the ambient finale to this second tune is stunning, cavernous but soothing tones resonating off the roof of some faint picking; it really tied the experience together and gave me a stronger emotional feedback than I would have expected to that point.

Stylistically, the two tunes are connected well enough, so the riffs from the first do flow naturally into the second. I simply felt as if something in the Bölzer formula was absent in the first that was then reinstated with "...Graves", and so my praise for this EP is heavier in the back, where Aura was really damn consistent throughout. This is good stuff, and I've listened to it a half dozen times, but mostly for those closing components. A larger issue with this group is that I feel like their style of writing might better lend itself to a full-length experience, 40 or 50 minutes in which the band can really thread their penchant for gradual development into some truly brilliant escapism. Here, once the goings really start to get good, it's over unless you loop back into one of the two tracks. Soma is ultimately a marginal disappointment if you go in listening for another revelation, but not the sort to give me pause as to their greater potential. Just an open/shut case of me not digging one track as much as the rest I've heard. Otherwise, it did transport me to that same nocturnal plain that they did last year.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fallujah - The Flesh Prevails (2014)

Serving as both an evolutionary leap forward for the San Franciscans, and a modern day analogue for Cynic's classic Focus, The Flesh Prevails is one of those records I sat down with expecting only a tepid reaction, but came away feeling this was the best solitary experience I've had in the technical death metal field thus far in 2014. That's not to imply that it is by any measure some straightforward, brutal exhibition of musical proficiency like a lot of Fallujah's West Coast peers, but a unique record which blends a lot of sublime New Age and jazz fusion styled guitar effects with the melodious precision and surgical incision of the aforementioned Cynic or Swedes Theory in Practice, taking it to an entirely different level. I'm also reminded a little of Lykathea Aflame's Elvenefris, not that the two discs sound much alike, but they both have that penchant for a combination of simplistic melodic, synthesized components with hostility...though where that Czech anomaly is founded more on a grind ethic, this has a more acrobatic guitar wizard feel to it, which when bound to the 80s-like ambient tones and tasteful use of ethereal female vocals, seems as ridiculous as it does refreshing.

First I must mention the drums here, which are astounding, not solely for Andrew Baird's obvious blasting ability and effortless technique, but for his willingness to flush out those fills and implement some tasty higher pitch percussion to balance off the business of the slick snare/kick patterns. It's one of those rare recordings of which I could honestly just shut off the rest of the tracks and enjoy the amount of effort and finesse put into the beats alone. But that's not to take away the rest of it, the swerving and colliding bass guitar mechanics which give it a lot of that Cynic feel, or the pinpoint rhythm guitars which shift between clinical death/thrashing patterns, hyper melodic death and the more pummeling intensity we equate with a lot of their Unique Leader peers. Certainly there is an undercurrent of post-Human Death here, much like a band such as Decrepit Birth exudes, but with that obvious added level of brutality which you would never have heard out of Chuck Schuldiner's 90s transformation. The leads are honestly one of the weaker elements to the recording, but that's saying a lot, since they're all well-constructed, technical spectacles of shred inspired by both the fusion gods of the three prior decades and the fret-lords like Steve Vai, Satriani etc who ran concurrent as a mainstream alternative to that musicians-only scene.

Where this disc really stood out for me is how it will just mete out this minimalistic sequence of melodic notes, much like Fredrik Thordendal of Meshuggah/Special Defects fame would do on records such as Destroy Erase Improve, and you get this unified disparity of throttling intensity and transcendent airiness. Intros to songs will often involve cleaner guitar passages that ramp up fluidly into the riffing barrages, and that great use of the female vocal, which in many situations would sound absolutely cheesy on an Enya level, but here just blends in with the magnitude and scope of what Fallujah are pursuing. Production is polished to a vorpal edge, but there's also a lot of depth due to the mix and multi-tracking which gives it a stereophonic, radiant, futuristic you are actually listening to this panning at you from a cloud-top throne, rather than through a headphone jack. The Californians were well on their way to such a sound with this album's 2011 predecessor The Harvest Wombs, but that was not so much about this sort of progressive balance as just getting the heavy correct, and while I did enjoy that to a degree this just exceeds it on so many levels...Fallujah have written something here that I'm going to spin repeatedly through this and several subsequent years at the very least, a dynamic whirlwind of calm and storm.

If I found any component of the disc to be lacking, it might be the guttural vocal performance of Alex Hoffman, which in any other band of its scene would seem perfectly adequate, but against the wealth of ideas presented through the instrumentation does come up somewhat bland. However, through the use of reverb, panning, and occasionally layering in of a Deicide-style snarl/growl combo, even he manages to embrace the shifting currents so crucial to upgrade The Flesh Prevails from a compelling technical exhibition to something with more emotional impact. The lyrics are personal and poetic, decent with the exception of the ambient/electropop lead-in piece "Alone With You", to which the words are obvious and groan inducing, but musically I didn't have much of an issue with the will appeal to people who enjoyed Yoko Kanno and Origa's collaborations on the Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex anime, for instance, which I really enjoy. But I found that those are really the only two areas in which the chinks in the armor of this record are revealed.

Ultimately, the clean vocals (female and a few faint male lines) and synthy melodies will prove an instant turnoff to that same niche audience which is likely going to (i.e. already does) hate the band for its production style, deathcore roots, and emphasis on flashy musicianship anyway, but even to those folks I want to exclaim 'we already had 35 records these last two weeks which sound like Autopsy...sweet, how about spending 42 minutes with something else for a change?' Fallujah's full-length sophomore is not perfect, but it does instill some faith in me that a band can put the pedal to the metal of proficiency and production standards while still writing something inspired and important. No, The Flesh Prevails is not for everyone. Nothing is. But it IS an exception, an exemption from the trending now, challenging and curiously accessible in one, and I have already listened the shit out of this record, with no plans to stop anytime soon.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (you're weaker now, but you're alive)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Diskord - Oscillations EP (2014)

Diskord's musical palette might not always prove as vivid and splashy as their choices in cover artwork, but they are certainly left of center when compared to the majority of the retro death metal currently trending everywhere, without lapsing into the excessive self-indulgence employed by a lot of the cutting edge tech death outfits. Their sophomore album Dystopics was an improvement over its predecessor Doomscapes in several departments, most notably the stickiness of individual, insane riffing sequences, and this new Oscillations EP out through Hellthrasher Productions tends to follow that pattern, with solid songwriting and a few clever surprises awaiting those that can wrap their heads around it.

Norway does not have an extensive history of death metal, perhaps, but they've always been a go to for unusual artists like Molested in the 90s, or Obliteration's last two full-lengths. But at the heart of Diskord's jilted and jarring aesthetics, I found a sound most comparable to 80s dystopian sci-fi thrash and speed metal bands like Canada's Voivod and DBC, only embedded into a more brutal disposition involving both traditional death metal and spurts of grindcore chords which keep the material moving forward and always on the edge of control. Curious, jazzy bass lines support a contrast of both crude and exotic patterns...the trio seems to know just when to shift between the exotic and mainline mode, and so the result here is something that might damn well appeal to fanatics of spazz-core or uncanny metalpunk just as much as those who want their death metal constructed from an unusual, musically proficient perspective. I mean, sure, I could tell you that this has a few traces of Gorguts' Obscura, Demilich's Nespithe or Carbonized's Screaming Machines, but they might necessarily be conscious decisions...

Of course, it's 2014, you can barely explore a fretboard or chord relationships without treading on some familiar ground, but at least a few bands like this are trying. More often than not, Diskord are succeeding, with enough variation and exciting riff structure that I must have spun this a half dozen times before even thinking about typing a key. Zany without going too far overboard that the listener cannot readily digest the material through his/her ears, I enjoyed a lot of the band's breakpoints and 'calmer moments' which would inevitably explode into a carnival of punishment. Hans Ersvik's vocal lines have a strangely nihilistic bark which at times reminds me of Satyr, but at others older David Vincent and maybe even a little of van Drunen's style on Pestilence's Mallevs Maleficarvm, sans that more grotesque and clinical tone. Considering his drumming talents, this is actually something I'd really like to see pulled off live, but that's not to take away from the other two members who are even more impressive due to the warped and colliding patterns they spawn.

I did feel that the EP was slightly backloaded with its better material, the closing trio of "Elystrous Oscillations", "Symbiotic Whims" and "A Downward Spire" some of my favorite tunes the group has released to date, but it's all equally impressive for anyone who enjoyed Dystopics. I also would point out how they imbue this all with a very natural production; unlike the more brickwalled tech death bands invested in studio modernity, these guys sound like it all sprung straight from a jam room and was put to tape and dusted off with some post-work. I think it's that feel which will allow for a lot of more traditional death metal types to become interested in their sound rather than intimidated or outright opposed to what they're creating. But as someone who enjoys both extremes in the genre, I found this a great balance of components that aren't entirely unique independent of one another, but once combines give the Norwegians some desperately needed personality among a field of more overt impersonators that no one will give a shit about next year.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Necros Christos - Nine Graves EP (2014)

My response to Germany's Necros Christos thus far is that they rank among the more ambitious of the old school death metal throwbacks in how they incorporate loads of instrumental, ethnic vignettes as a counterbalance to the metal elements, and also have quite the eye for packaging that is no doubt responsible for a lot of hype that surrounds them. Unfortunately, I just haven't found the band's music to really live up to repeated scrutiny, being that the riff selection left a lot to be desired. Both Triune Impurity Rites and Doom of the Occult were decent albums, don't get me wrong, but I rarely found myself breaking them out to re-listen after the several mandated review spins.

So I was a little surprised when I came across "Black Bone Crucifix", because it seems like the group had examined itself and decided to get a little more in depth and charismatic with the rhythm guitars, as they weave between both occult death metal nostalgia and crawling, funereal death/doom. The riffs in this thing are both laid back and genuinely evil, the lead placement invigorating, and though they don't play with a level of extremity or saturated, obese gutturals or cavernous rhythm guitar tone that a lot of folks probably expect of that Autopsy/Incantation niche, the drums keep delightfully busy enough to give the riffs a sprightliness that amazingly does not betray their diabolism. Fuzzy and direct tremolo picked riffs give way to the slower sequences where atmospherics like organs or bells are sparingly implemented, while the solo harmonies always stick way out like patterns of candles being lit around the circumference of an ancient summoning. Vocals have a straightforward bark with a modicum of reverb, but their nihilistic tendencies weave well into the gloomy environment created by the guitars and drums. It's not like it didn't work before, it just works better this time...

As for the acoustic guitars/percussion that represent a lot of the 'temple' interludes, some purists will scoff at their presence, but I find they really place Necros Christos into their chosen context: that of the brooding, black world antiquity as seen through the lens of an early 90s death metal band. As brief as most of these are, they still seem like they required a little bit of work that they'd be catchy enough to maintain the listener's curiosity, and frankly I've always thought this was one of their more standout characteristics. But it's the meat of the matter, the death metal component, which has on this EP improved steadily, if not dramatically. The style is not much different than Doom of the Occult, it's just that note placement on cuts like "Black Bone Crucifix", "Baptized by the Black Urine of the Deceased" and "Nine Graves" itself which keeps me coming back. Quite enjoyed this.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, July 21, 2014

Cardinal's Folly - Our Cult Continues! (2014)

This was actually my first brush with Cardinal's Folly of Finland, despite it not being their first record, so I was immediately drawn in by the opening track "Chant of Shadows", this creepy atmospheric piece which lives up to its title...occult samples, gloomy multi- tracked vocals, droned out guitar feedback and thudding bass that was used like a percussive bottom end for the remainder. Sadly, once the next tune "Morbid Glory" broke out, it became evident that the intro was going to be an exception and not the rule, but even then the Finns have a slightly unusual approach to the doom medium which made for a decent, often interesting listen. The cover art definitely fired up the imagination with its more colorful approach to the ritualist orgiastic baphomety we so often associate with the tenets of Satanism in cult horror film and literature, but the music itself doesn't consistently enough cling to that aesthetic.

Our Cult Continues! is all about its massive, fuzzy guitars and louder, plodding bass grooves which both tend to dominate the recording while the wistful, everyman vocals of M. Karnstein just sort of hang in there with an accented, weird tone to them (somewhere between Yearning, My Dying Bride and Reverend Bizarre). You'll experience the simplistic, 70s-borne chord patterns so familiar in many doom and stoner rock bands traced back to Sabbath, but they also will sprinkle in some more tremolo riffing, melodic higher-pitched progressions and other elements you wouldn't necessarily expect. Unfortunately, as you might have guessed from the opening few lines, this was an occasion on which I found that the more moody and atmospheric the band became, the better the music was. Their straight out riffing patterns leave something to be desired, adequate for the style but never really standing out like the classics which inspired them. But then, when you hit a toon like "Sighisoaran" with its more soaring, sorrowful vocals and mourning guitars, or the bass-driven charge of "The Lovers Crypt", it all becomes so much more effective, and these are genuinely great songs that I kept going back to...

The album's a fraction louder and muddier than some might find comfortable in their doom, but the band isn't performing with such harrowing despair as an Electric Wizard, so instead it gives off a more garage rock vibe only if jammed out by bands like Witchfinder General or Iron Man. The vocals were real spotty for me...I realize the guy is also contributing the bass, which is an extremely important factor on this record, but when he sings it's either appropriately melancholic and melodic or just sort of laconic and sloppy sounding. Each line is a roll of the dice, really. In the end, this was one of those cases where I thought about half the album was really good ("Chant of Shadows", "The Black Baroness", "Sighisoaran" and "The Lover's Crypt") and the other half not so much, so the two sides sort of balanced one another out. But I have no question there is some promise to this band, and with only a few tweaks they'd be representing the forefront of nostalgic Finnish doom alongside neighbors like Seremonia and Reverend Bizarre. Coincidentally if you like those groups, the current wave of retro psych/occult doom, or the rosters of Rise Above and Hellhound records, then it's likely worth the hour of time to check Our Cult Continues! out.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Overkill - White Devil Armory (2014)

I had the inverse response to many Overkill fans over the course of the last two albums, finding The Electric Age more memorable and explosive than its predecessor Ironbound, which of course was the group's most viral effort since at least the earlier 90s, but I don't think there's any question that the incessant New York thrashers have found a new lease on existence this new decade which has catapulted them back to the levels of legend they deserve...and depending on whom you ask, have always maintained. White Devil Armory (which seems to me like it could be a syllable too long due to some last minute chickening out on the part of the band) is now the group's 17th full-length, and yet there is evidently no tiring of the joints or phoning in of much, just a solid, appreciably intense effort which throws a modicum of unused riffing phrases into the arena, but otherwise seems like business as usual, neither one of their strongest works nor worst by a long shot...

The deal sealer has always been the relationship between Blitz' pissed off, charismatic raving and the pulverizing guitars, and the bonds have been renewed here since these guys can still really knock out a verse/chorus structure without ever lapsing into tedium. That said, there are a lot of individual vocal lines in tunes like "Bitter Pill" which certainly recall older tunes, and I also believe more of a groove metal element akin to their 90s material. For instance, in that very same song there's a lot of low end thrash chugging redolent of early 90s Pantera, and in fact a lot of what Tailer and Linsk are playing on this particular album reminds me of Dimebag's technique, with the harder concrete grooves being supplemented with some melodic finesse, bluesier bluster and bar room attitude. That's not always a bad thing, unless you've got an eternal hate-on for the style, but those expecting the purest of thrash and speed experiences (Taking Over, Feel the Fire, etc) out of this disc might find parts of it to mirror an era of Overkill they don't really care to revisit. Only parts, I assure you, since so much of this is just uncaged bricklayer blue collar aggression reminiscent of the bigger label thrash masters of the 80s, with not only nods to their own legacy, but riff progressions akin to those found on records like Master of Puppets (listen closely to the picking through "Freedom Rings") Fabulous Disaster, etc.

On the production front, Overkill has rarely proven anything less than professional, and this one maintains that severely punchy, compacted rhythm guitar tone which goes for maximum impact in the listener's guts...effects are left to the atmospheric, melodies which almost always do their job of standing out due to the sound alone. The drums feel incredibly mechanical and clean, as if Lipnicki showed up with new cybernetic parts, but still human at the core. Loads of double kicks to help the and keep that harder relevance. This is not a band which has ever shunned the evolution of their medium...not that they've fully embraced it, but clad themselves in this or that technique to keep themselves 'current'. On the other hand, D.D. Verni's distinct plopping bass lines are fully intact, at this point on of their most recognizable characteristics alongside Ellsworth's singing. The leads did not always catch me, but it's obvious they try to, with scads of little licks in there that uphold the melodic ballast and variety of the rhythm guitars. However, the simpler melodies they'll toss onto a verse or bridge almost always give the music that extra something which pushes it up past mediocre.

Very few problems with this, and I can't really explain in much more detail why I don't like this quite as much as The Electric Age, but on the same fundamental level as Ironbound, beyond the fact that the songs just don't individually grip me as a handful did back in 2012. Rotten apples to squeezed's an Overkill record, and if you've heard anything they did in the late 80s (Under the Influence, The Years of Decay) or really, EVER, then you're not going to surprised by a single second of this fucking music. If you're one of the old guard, you can crank this on your Harley while you cruise the strip in a tank top and combat boots, and still justify to yourself why this is one of your favorite fucking bands on earth and always will be. The attitude stays the same, as does much of the songwriting. Blitz and crew have never teased us with massive upswings in progression/evolution, and they're sort of grandfathered into just living up to a standard that they set so long ago. White Devil Armory is worthy of the brand, like a reliable steakhouse that you'll always fall back on when your significant other concedes a dining choice from one of her usual, eloquent and exotic Thai, Vietnamese or Indian haunts. Take a knife and fork and dig right in. Medium bloody. Wrought with iron. Just like the last few trips.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (give 'em what they're looking for)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Empire Auriga - Ascending the Solar Throne (2014)

Much like its predecessor Auriga Dying, Ascending the Solar Throne functions far more effectively as an ambient/industrial piece than a metal one; no doubt what the Michigan duo had intended, and yet still clinging to its black metal inspiration in the use of ungodly snarled vocals and walls of heavily effected tremolo picked guitars, or raw, droning chords that take inspiration from the more suicidal, depressive black metal sources. I suppose Empire Auriga belong in the same sphere as acts like I Shalt Become or Austria's Summoning, only the thematic geography of is a long way from the former's varied-by-album concepts and the latter's Middle Earth fixation. Instead, the duo inhabits a sort of metaphysical/cosmic environment in theory, but the music felt a lot to me the ruins of burnt out, blasted industrial cities on distant world where the hostile, native environments have reclaimed the technological defiance of advanced human civilizations... Radiated memories, floating through the now-empty shells like phantoms while fields of radars still reach to neighboring worlds in hopes of a signal...anything.

Sounds pretty cool, right? If you can subordinate yourself to its sense of escapism and sense of 'background' aesthetics to a bright nightmare, then this is certainly an improvement over their debut, but it does still lack somewhat in the personality department. Walls of distorted, heavily affected guitar are used as an atmospheric cloak to the clunking, minimal sense of percussion, as opposed to the riff-centric structures we associate with most black (or other) metal acts. The vocals range from distorted black metal rasps to more wailing, edge-of-perception haunted tones that seem to blend right into the blinding, fiery ambiance of the guitars. There is no tenable bass element to the music beyond some of the deeper drums occasionally resonating off into this or that speaker, but this is not really the sort of style that would benefit from it. No, tunes like "Jubilee Warlord" and "Are You Worthy of Gold?" feel more like you've just awakened from a cryogenic sleep in a post-apocalyptic survival capsule buried on the edge of a desert, and you nearly lose your sense of sight once the airlock doors open and you behold the fiendish radiance of the sun-stroked wastes...

And then "Waste" takes the sense of foreboding even further: dissonant, raw-as-fuck filtered chords giving the impression that this nuclear wanderer is being stocked by mutant scorpions who have yet to finish proving to mankind who is the new king of the food chain. I kept thinking of the film version of Zelazny's Damnation Alley when I listened through this disc, or Fallout 3, rather than the fields of colliding asteroids and glimmering celestial bodies the band might have intended, but I guess you also do get a small whiff of interstellar radio noise being broadcast through the uncaring void. At any rate, if any of the imagery I've painted in this critique tickles your curiosity, and you'd rather have such music crafted in an uncomfortable, repulsive means rather than that of melodious warmth and harmony, then Ascending the Solar Throne is probably worth the time. It's not too heavily industrial, more reliant on the stinging static of its guitar effects than on beats, so just expect something a little more loosely defined, which leaves plenty of terror for your imagination to fill in, rather than incessantly guiding your hand through a standard pop or rock song structure. I have a feeling there is better yet to hear from this pairing, but the sophomore is undoubtedly more effective and troubling than its predecessor and consistently caustic.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, July 18, 2014

Provocator - Antikristus (2014)

Slovenia's resident cult black metal act Bleeding Fist has almost constantly reveled in the old 90s template of the medium, producing raw and simplistic aggression the likes of which pays homage to the 1st and 2nd waves with little consideration for the very existence of much beyond them. So it's no great revelation that their vocalist Hellscream's solo project Provocator remains within the same wheelhouse. He gets a chance here to perform all instruments, and has written what equates to stock bedroom black metal, saved from (or committed to) the fire solely by his distinct, charismastic vocal presence, since there are sadly not a lot of musical ideas or individual tunes here that really stand out...

Antikristus is more or less a collision between faster, blast-based raw black metal circa Mayhem, Marduk or certain Bathory records with an overt Hellhammer influence in the slower sequences, to the point where the chord choices are basically just paraphrased from Warrior's early 80s backlog. If this were merely the inspiration, and Hellscream created some more interesting riffs from the same building materials, then it could have been a lot more compelling. That's not to say he doesn't try once in a while here, like the doomy, disjointedly melodic front half of "7 Storms of Damnation", but even those potentially memorable moments cede to a rather generic mid-speed blast beat which a chord series that is all too predictable, so much that it in of itself is barely modified from other tracks on this very album! The rhythm guitar also doesn't do much to assist the situation, sort of just roiling along the crashier tones of the drum machine while another track seems to hover at the edge of the mix like hearing mosquitoes occasionally buzz into the ear. What leads exist are messy and don't really hit for maximum dissonance or impact.

Really thought it was silly to blatantly resurrect the 'let Jesus fuck you' intro scheme, seeing that Marduk had already done it some 23 years ago and to much greater effect; perhaps Hellscream was just being referential?! There is little or no bass presence to speak of throughout the album, and also I felt like individual tracks had inconsistent mixes, giving this a sort of 'demo collection' feel about it like Bleeding Fist's last compilation Death's Old Stench (which was good stuff, don't get me wrong). But what saves Antikristus from dropping below the level of passable to outright bad is that this guy just has so much fucking fun with his vocals...growling and snarling and groveling and sometimes (if not always) completely over the top. He's like a pack of wild dogs fighting for meat-scraps, a poor man's Attila Csihar who uses his natural accent to his advantage and never settles for just boring lyrical lines...not 'technically' excellent by any stretch of the imagination, but that is exactly what makes the disc so raw and sporadic and, once in a while, genuinely cruel, even if the music itself lacks the quality that could distinguish it against the many thousands of middling demos and albums created in this very style.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Emptiness - Nothing But the Whole (2014)

Belgium's Emptiness is not a band which could ever be accused of putting its roots down in one site and never moving. From the more structured sophomore Oblivion, with its frenetic and memorable death metal riffing palette, to the more loosely defined surreal black metal of Error, they've never precisely locked down one single sound, and somehow that fact has kept them interesting. With Nothing But the Whole, they sort of attempt to continue the atmospheric overtures of the latter while bringing back a more consistent and diverse riffing component, and the result might just be their most interesting and unique effort to date, notably for just how well its disparate parts flow together as a whole...

The intro tune on this thing ("Go and Hope") is brilliant; distant and eerie tremolo picked guitars accented with creepy spoken word passages and cleaner plucked guitars that help the momentum ascend into a broiling, echoed distortion and subsequent calm. It's incredibly unusual and catchy, with a similar, captivating psychedelic effect I felt on the first Oranssi Pazuzu record, and thus ran my expectations for the entire record straight up the charts. That song is not exactly characteristic of the entire album, which explores a broad range of black, death and thrash metal aesthetics in the rhythm guitar structures, some freakish and others quite mechanical, but they absolutely keep the ball within an atmospheric playing field. Dense, broiling bass lines, somnolent voices hovering above the instruments, and a near constant ambiance created through the guitars that serves up a welcome contrast to the churning and grooving riffs used to maintain the metallic balance. Most importantly, there is just always something compelling happening within the music which the ear can focus on, so even if a riff comes up short in quality, it never stands alone in the esoteric nightmare Emptiness is forging here.

A few of the songs seem so deliriously post-industrial in nature that I'm reminded of some of Dodheimsgard and Mayhem's experimentation, or the Polish band Non Opus Dei, who had a few similar albums, or maybe even a black/death metal analog to Coroner's much debated Grin, but I think a lot of Error does bleed through onto this more so than its predecessors. Particularly the vocals, which are an ebb and flow between a wall of nihilistic barking and the more sinister, cerebral garbles and whispers that help loosen the architecture of the record to something more spontaneous in nature. Upon first exposure, there was no telling what was going to happen next...for example, the percussive, meandering "The Past is Death" cedes to the haunting, escalating ambiance of "Lowland" at the close of the record, but at the same time that sort of 'completes the circle' they had set up at the start. The drums are often more akin to scene-setting dark theatrical effects than standard beats, and the thick bass is constantly concocting a subliminal groove in between the viral metallic outbreaks.

Nothing But the Whole is ultimately a pessimistic, emotional journey which shows very little respect for convention while simultaneously and subconsciously keeping those bases covered, if only by the bands' toes while they choose where on the field to steal next. It's brooding and leaves a sulphuric residue in your ears and mouth, almost like you were chain smoking to some cut-up noir film reel via projector, in which some eccentric had hidden a message of the end times you are trying to unravel. The lyrics are personal and interesting, contending with the processes of self-awareness and addiction, and while it's not perfect, it is those very imperfections which make for such immersion. My personal tastes still run towards their second album, being a riff guy that album's genius would be criminal to ignore, but Emptiness have delivered what is easily one of the most mesmerizing efforts in recent months, something I'll surely still be visiting years from now. Plus that cover...fuck!

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (to end up in the same cage)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Kurnugia - Tribulations of the Abyss EP (2013)

Tribulations of the Abyss was a two track promotional CD put out last year which caught the attention of Blood Harvest records, who are pressing it as a vinyl in summer 2014. The Kurnugia roster reads like the white pages of underground Ohio brutality, with former members of groups like Decrepit, Nunslaughter, From the Depths and Embalmer, not to mention the drummer of Soulless and bassist Brian Bergeron who even did a stint in a local Masshole black metal band (December Wolves). Just by cross-referencing what these guys have collectively written in and participated in from the past, you can kind of glean that whatever style the new project has settled ain't gonna be pretty.

And yeah, this is stifling, mirror-cracking ugliness which ranks among the most rank and rotting old school USDM I've heard lately, what might occur if you were to supplant a Midwest beauty pageant with festering, shambling revenants bearing plague-carts. Take bands like Cianide and Autopsy as a reference point and then just sort of weave in hints of old Bolt Thrower, Benediction, and the first Death full-length Scream Bloody Gore. Roiling, primal tremolo picked guitars lines crush the tinnier snares and steady kick drums while the vocalist Duane Morris channels ungodly incarnations of dudes like Chris Reifert, though not as, this guy sounds like he's breathing out clouds of fucking flies after a dirt nap in a sarcophagus. The songs move at generally slower paces where the ravenous, raw guitar tones settle into harrowing grooves, and the fat bass lines can pump out enough blackened ichor to support them...but as with the second tune "Diseased Angels", they really show they can ramp up that pace to insert a little versatility.

Most importantly, while the guitar patterns aren't anything you haven't heard a million times if you're into this style of death metal, they're at least refreshing because this totally has a genuine production feel like it was written and recorded in 1987 and then just dug up recently, remixed to meet the suffering standards of this New Age of Old, Mouldering Death Metal. I'm about as jaded on this style as one could possibly be, receiving dozens of albums, demos and EPs each much that reach back straight for the roots, and yet Tribulations of the Abyss didn't annoy me in the slightest. It's not mandatory, perhaps, but you can just feel in the primal presentation that they were 'there', a bunch of maniacs who have been repressing these carnal, cavernous confessions for decades and have just permitted us to join them in a booth reeking of fleshy antiquity and ages-old murder.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ghoulgotha - Prophetic Oration of Self EP (2014)

Things had seemed pretty quiet on the Wayne Sarantopoulos (aka Elektrokutioner) front these past couple years, whether from the burnout of the dozen or so retro death metal projects he was part of at the end of the last decade, or some other personal reason. But in truth, he was working away in his underground laboratory on this, the latest of his many incarnations, put together with a number of other Californian musicians. Three guesses as to what this sounds like? You got it on one: old school, morbid death metal with no inclinations to sound anything like it existed beyond 1993, only this time Sarantopoulos has taken on the dual tasks of vocals and the guitar, where usually he's been a prolific drummer. And he shows no lack of competence in either area here; though Prophetic Oration of Self does encounter some limitations, ability is not among them.

All the usual corpses have been cemented into the foundation of these two tracks: Incantation, Autopsy, Pestilence, Obituary, Immolation, Deicide, Grave, etc, but Ghoulgotha scores a few points for just sounding weird. It's not that the riff structures and notes are all that infrequent, but this band churns out slightly more atonal note progressions than normal, and when they hit their death doom stride in the midst of the title track, they have an atypical way in which they syncopate the slow, crushing chords along with the vocals, that prevents them from becoming too lazy and boring. The guitar tone is ugly and abusive, reminding me a lot of the old British and Swedish records out on Earache records in the label's prime (Bolt Thrower, Carnage, Napalm Death, etc), while the growls have two pitches, a guttural and snarl which when contrasted with one another remind me of how Glen Benton used to approach his older works, only the two inflections aren't in that same sort of constant, impish tandem. At times, you'll get a whiff of some of Wayne's other, better known bands like Decrepitaph or Father Befouled, only this feels more doomy than the former, and raunchier than the latter, with slightly stranger riff selection that gives off a marginally alien vibe.

Unfortunately, though my first few passes through the 12 minute EP were interesting, it's not the sort of stuff that holds up for long in the memory, and like so much of the other claustrophobic death metal being fawned over, it seems to triumph only in how it services its influences rather than how it inspires a listener with its own potential. Certainly Ghoulgotha is not the most banal and generic death/doom band to brood nostalgic in these times, and there are hints of more uncanny structural songwriting that should be fostered and refined for future releases...though I feel like 'refinement' might run contrary to the quartet's goals. At any rate, it looks fuckin' evil, and it definitely sounds unnerving for a short time until the inevitability begins to dawn that none of the riffs are really all that great, nor are any of the other components in the music. But there's no question that if you're into some of the other band's this guy has done like Encoffination, Beyond Hell, Father Befouled, Howling and Festered, this would be worth at least some passing interest due to its refusal to conform directly to what a few thousand other bands are aping.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Monday, July 14, 2014

Meliah Rage - Warrior (2014)

I assume at this point everyone who ever suspected Meliah Rage was just some 80s flash in the pan with a few near misses at success (via the CBS/Epic Records deal for their first two records), has now planted their moccasins firmly in their mouths; because the Boston area band has shown no signs of passing quietly into oblivion, and continues to build a solid legacy upon its great debut album. Not to mention they play a brand of what we might label 'power/thrash' that is by no means trendy, popular, or even considered relevant by generations to which metalcore, deathcore, brutal death, black metal and cheesy anthemic power metal have become the standard by which nearly everything else is judged. In fact, despite the more modern, opulent production values most bands simply can't avoid, Meliah Rage still sounds quite a lot like its earlier material, only they've gotten a fraction more varied and creative with their riffs.

The sound on Warrior, their eight full-length overall and second with Italy's Metal on Metal records, is somewhat akin to Metallica's Death Magnetic: guys in their middle years performing ball splitting, loud proto-thrash riffs rooted heavily in the NWOBHM tradition, with a bit of requisite hard rock groove and a predilection for cleaner guitar segues to balance out the harder hitting moments. It's this enormous, pounding, simplistic sort of songwriting we don't hear very often from younger bands, but at the same time melodic and emotive. Of course, even their first album was compared to that hugest metal band in history, which is perhaps partially responsible for why they never made headway with it (it didn't have the immaculate songwriting of a Ride the Lightning or Master of Puppets), but when you look at the big picture, not a lot of bands out there pursuing the style, and Meliah Rage prove here they are a match for any of them. I'm not saying the record is great, because so many of the rhythm guitar patterns fall well short of brilliance, but they at least try to pull them off in a way that is convincing, respectable and memorable enough that anyone partially/wholly stuck in the 80s mindset will not toss this one back on the slushpile without wanting a few more cracks at it.

The only major change between this and the style on the prior two outings (both of which were decent, so if you have fallen behind go check them out), is that they've brought on a new vocalist in Marc Lopes, who specializes in a cutting, sneering mid range which reminded me of the lower pitch used by legends like James Rivera, Mike Howe, David Wayne or Apocrypha's Steve Plocica. It's angry and effective, and doesn't deviate much from the Hetfield-like aesthetic introduced on the old albums by their 'classic' frontman Mike Munro. Bass lines are thick and simple, drums bold and crashing, but most people will probably be drawn most to the rhythm guitars which really evoke that sense of nostalgia and power we felt for the Big M and other bands following their footsteps. That's the area in which the Massholes are most divergent and willing to branch out, so we're treated to both the standard raging power/thrash momentum and then a lot of melodic hooks and lead structures that lend themselves to a balanced, fulfilling experience...provided you don't just write them off for not adhering to whatever sound is currently the hero of the hour, because let's be honest, Meliah Rage proudly champions not-giving-a-fuck about a sound that is heavily dated and not even popularly retro like a lot of other old speed, heavy and thrash metal.

Ultimately, Warrior, with the 1988 Kill to Survive battle-starved Native American mascot returned in an updated head shot, capitalizes on the solidarity of the two records before it while integrating a new vocalist that fits directly within the band's musical margins. It's not itself the stuff of legend like the cult classic debut, which I would heartily recommend over anything they've put out since, but this is an example of seasoned songwriting that won't disappoint the long-term fans despite the occasional clunky sounding riffs here or there, or the fact that even with 25+ years behind them, they can't even come close to escaping the shadow of the mega-band (in their prime) who they most resemble. But who in 2014 truly gives a shit about that besides nitpicking scum like myself? Here's an opportunity to bang your head before it gets scalped. If you've ever enjoyed Meliah Rage before, you might want to take it.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Mortalicum - Tears from the Grave (2014)

I was not the biggest fan of Mortalicum's last record The Endtime Prophecy, competent doom metal with some appreciable swagger but vocals that I was just not that enamored of. So there was some hesitation on my part to even listen through Tears from the Grave, the group's third album through Metal on Metal Records. But I'm glad I did, because this is an improvement over its predecessor in many ways, with Henrik Högl really starting to gel into both his roles and singer and guitarist. To be up front, this is classic doom with a lot of groove and 70s Sabbath inspiration, a Swedish analog to our own American Trouble, but with a different approach to the vocals that eschews the grating, tormented, formidable presence of Eric Wagner for something a lot smoother and I'd dare say even redolent of Bruce Dickinson on his solo albums like The Chemical Wedding or Accident at least how he hovers a deceptively fragile timbre into something more significantly powerful. He picks the right notes this time.

Structurally they shift between boogie-down, bellbottoms-in-the-graveyard rockers like "The Endless Sacrifice" and "Spirits of the Dead" to a moodier, near-Candlemass Gothic crushing step present in tunes such as "Remember the Fallen" or "The Illusion", to some stuff which is even more melodious, and psych rock in scope, like the shining guitars and fat bongwater bass tones of "I Am Sin" which break out into those potent emotional heavy hooks which burrow straight into your memory and won't quickly let go. That's not to say the content here is necessarily original, there are quite a lot of bands who have come before and laid bare the blueprints, even some of Mortalicum's countrymen like Grand Magus, Count Raven and so forth. But the trio seems to take all of this into account, blend it up and settle back to produce songs of value as opposed to monotonous retro worship, and they do so with a sincerity that seems like it would be equally presentable in a live format without losing any of the hook quality. Högl's pitch is still far from extraordinary, it's still got that wavering, almost nasally factor, but here it just works so well with the riffing choices that its thinner nature provides for a competent contrast against the fatter, bluesy rhythm guitar.

The rhythm section is equally fit, with constantly engaging bass grooves and a nice, organic sound to the drums where the snare and cymbals have a lot of impact and it keeps your hips shaking. The darker mutes on the rhythm guitars (as in "The Passage") sound fucking awesome, and as songwriters, the Swedes keep things constantly evolving without settling too often into the same repetitive riffs. Although its lyrical subjects are presented with gravitas aplomb, and no laughing matter whatsoever, this selection of songs is surprisingly fun in execution, just as easy to get down with as to mourn over some open space in the earth in which a loved one has been interred. It's not perfect, but great production and good songs go a long way for me. Mortalicum has proven in this reviewer's estimation to be one of the 'most improved' acts here in 2014, and fans of anything from Lord Vicar and Solitude Aeternus to Burning Saviors and Spiritual Beggars will devour this.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Outrage - We the Dead (2014)

Outrage was an obscurity during the German emergence as thrash, speed and heavy metal masters in the 80s, but after nearly a 20 year silence decided to give it another go, which has turned out a lot more productive than any of the aspirations of their respective youths. Demo compilations and six full-length albums have now seen the light of day (since 2004), and We the Dead will mark the seventh, retaining the simplistic and effective cover art style of its predecessor Go to Hell (2011) and I had presumed a musical one as well. And would you know it, that's the truth, but the 4-piece has gone ahead and surpassed itself with a bloody, appreciably loyal aesthetic to anyone that has heard not only their last works but the sadistic directness of their far more popular German peers like Sodom, Kreator and Destruction.

Essentially, this is a rough & ready blackened speed/thrash metal album which recounts the older offerings of the Gods like Sentence of Death, Endless Pain and Persecution Mania, with raucous death bark vocals more akin to Angelripper than Schmier, and lots of precise machine gun riffing which isn't above the occasional transition to a classic headbanging middle pace, or something even more slow ("Be That As It May") where the bass lines can push through the wall of rhythm guitar a little better than when they're on full throttle. But overall, I think they really shine when they're picking more rapidly and resurrecting nostalgia for their countrymen; you get that same incendiary feeling you heard on the classics 30 years ago. The lead guitars are efficient, expressive and blazing, the drums tight, and the vocals have a lot of the grisly flaws that give the album that much more personality. As for riff construction, I can't say it's really all that special or unique when contrasted against their forerunners from either the Teutonic big three or the West Coast US legends, but at least they offer you quite a good range without losing anything by way of consistency.

The production is actually pretty good, though, rivaling some of those better influential recordings rather than the demo-like caustics present on a lot of 'tribute' bands. Like their peers Necronomicon, Wicca, Assassin and Accuser, Outrage prove that the German bench is just as deep as that of its international futbol team, at least if you're seeking out a more authentic nostalgia concocted by guys who were actually present when the magic unraveled. We the Dead isn't going to change the world, and it's likely to be written off pretty quickly in lieu of a million other bands... After all, most of these underground scene veterans, when reunited, are facing off for the attention of an audience which has been inundated by decades of exposure to both their more successful counterparts and all the 'retro' party bands which photocopied their creative template well enough (but were more interested in how their battle jackets looked than doing anything to expand upon the music they so love). It's a tough crowd to crack, but I promise if you're hunting for material that can give you the same visceral impact you might have once felt for Pleasure to Kill or Agent, Escalation or Agent Orange once did, Outrage and We the Dead present a reliable option, at least until something brilliant comes along.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, July 11, 2014

Vasaeleth - All Uproarious Darkness EP (2013)

What a title, what a cover, and what a level of expectations for creepiness this thing had set before I heard a single sound off it. All Uproarious Darkness is visually comparable to the Crypt Born & Tethered to Ruin album, but privately I had hoped it would expand Vasaeleth's sound upward and outward. Alright, maybe those are not the best terms to apply here, since the band's aesthetics are so deeply rooted beneath the dirt, but that's really an obstacle so many of these acolytes of the old Incantation, Autopsy and death/black war metal bands face: how to refine a template and deter potential monotony they might face from repeatedly dipping into the same, opaque waters...a hurdle that this duo does not quite leap, but at least tries to sneak around.

If anything, All Uproarious Darkness is uglier and more primitive than the full-length, a real racket of primordial tremolo picking and Neanderthal gutturals that seems like they stepped into some weird alternate reality in which Wells' Morlocks had taken over the planet, and paid bloody, black audio tributes to their pantheon of deformed deities. The drums and general pacing of half the material fit both the black and death metal paradigms, which reminds me a little of the ugly Canadian war metal outfits of the 90s, but over the top you've got these utterly barbaric tremolo picked riffs which eschew harmony and memorability for sheer Cyclopean force, while the gutturals just soak in the cavernous atmosphere much like they did on prior Vasaeleth records. Occasionally the beats will slow down to a death/doom step, but I found some of these sequences really vapid in structure and even less likely to create much of an impression than the rest...even some of the unexpected, clever chords they'd occasionally spat out on the full-length album seem to have gone the way of extinction here, and beyond a few of the lurking, eerie turns and patterns in "Fathomless Well of Ruin" and "Throat of the Grey Watcher", I found myself a little bored listening through this.

That's not a fault unique to Vasaeleth, of course; I feel like so many of these suffocatingly underdark death metal bands usually have about one album in them which sails by on atmosphere and all the best accumulated riffs they can muster, and then when it comes time for a successor they just tend to stay too snugly in their wheelhouses. Yeah, it's a little strange to call extremity like this 'snug', since it would freak most of the humanity the fuck out while they struggled to even identify it as music, but it just doesn't come across as if a lot of effort was placed into it. Crypt Born & Tethered to Ruin was an excellent control group from which the band could have branched out and summoned up something truly impressive, but I'll be the first to admit I don't want to hear 10 more albums just like it. This 5 track EP is not an exact duplicate, but sojourns along an even more crude course which thrives on loyalty to its gloomy designs rather than the composition of unforgettable, evil songs. Some might love it for that very reason, but I just wanted something more daring and horrifically adventurous.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]