Thursday, December 31, 2015

Autothrall's Execution Through Listification: The 2015 Edition

The Top 25 Metal and 'Hey, That's Not Metal!' Albums of 2015

01. Leprous (No) - The Congregation (97)
02. Enslaved (No) - In Times (95)
03. Arcturus (No) - Arcturian (95)
04. Enforcer (Se) - From Beyond (93)
05. Solefald (No) - World Metal. Kosmopolis Sud (92)
06. Heaving Earth (Cz) - Denouncing the Holy Throne (90)
07. Kontinuum (Is) - Kyrr (90)
08. Sulphur Aeon (De) - Gateway to the Antisphere (90)
09. Trial (Se) - Vessel (90)
10. Ghost (Se) - Meliora (90)
11. Dodheimsgard (No) - A Umbra Omega (90)
12. Tribulation (Se) - Children of the Night (90)
13. Crypt Sermon (US) - Out of the Garden (88) *debut of the year*
14. Chapel of Disease (De) - Mysterious Ways of Repetitive Art (88)
15. Queensrÿche (US) - Condition Hüman (87)
16. Deathhammer (No) - Evil Power (87) 
17. Moonreich (Fr) - Pillars of Detest (87)
18. Napalm Death (UK) - Apex Predator - Easy Meat (87)
19. Obsequiae (US) - Aria of Vernal Tombs (85)
20. Sarpanitum (UK) - Blessed Be My Brothers (85)
21. Division Speed (De) - Division Speed (85)
22. Lost Soul (Pl) - Atlantis: The New Beginning (85)
23. Leviathan (US) - Scar Sighted (85)
24. Satan's Wrath (Gr) - Die Evil (85)
25. Melechesh (UK) - Enki (85)

My final sampling size this year was 813 metal albums and EPs, I had originally halted myself about a few dozen before that but decided to do some cramming over the last few days. I'm probably the only person in the world that feels so strongly about what Norway produced this year, but those are easily the picks of the litter for me, with excellent showings from Enslaved, Solefald and Arcturus. But I had no other choice than to give the top spot to The Congregation, a fairly understated, elegant progressive metal record which has crept through my bones to lounge in my eardrums. I find myself constantly singing the tunes, there was just something transcendent about the vocals and composition, well within the wheelhouse of modern records by their countrymen but still unique. Otherwise, there was some really great throwback heavy/speed metal this year, a resurgence of quality blackened speed death thrash, and just a great variety altogether...and isn't it great to have Queensrÿche back in shape? This selection of 25 might not be completely representative of the trends I just mentioned, but as tradition dictates, you can check out all my Top 100 over at RYM. I'll also try something new, where I haven't written a review I'll instead link to a tune/video.

The Top 15 Actually Not Metal Albums of 2015

01. Chelsea Wolfe (US) - Abyss (Rock)
02. Mew (Dk) - +- (Rock)
03. Squarepusher (UK) - Damogen Furies (Electronic)
04. Bjork (Is) - Vulnicura (Pop)
05. Zombi (US) - Shape Shift (Electronic)
06. Purity Ring (Ca) - Another Eternity (Pop)
07. The Exploding Eyes Orchestra (Fi) - I (Rock)
08. Ennio Morricone (It) - The Hateful Eight (OST)
09. Grimes (Ca) - Art Angels (Pop)
10. Ellie Goulding (UK) - Delirium (Pop)
11. Blanck Mass (UK) - Dumb Flesh (Electronic)
12. Steven Wilson (UK) - Hand Cannot Erase (Rock)
13. Happy Fangs (US) - Capricorn (Rock)
14. John Carpenter (US) - Lost Themes (Electronic)
15. Grave Pleasures (No) - Dreamcrash (Goth)

A lot of synth pop, industrial and electronic music are a given for me when I'm away from metal, but I also love a smattering of Gothic, prog, punk and pure rock & roll bands; and the occasional soundtrack score, especially when it's created by a guy who is 87 years old but whose writing could rival his prime... Most records here have their flaws, for instance I thought the vocals and music on the new Ellie Goulding were on par with her great debut, yet some of the lyrics are beyond dumb. Still, this is the stuff I listened to most often when I wasn't flailing my face around in the meager imitation of a blast beat.

The Top 15 Films of 2015

01. Max Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
02. The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
03. 99 Homes (Ramin Bahrani)
04. Inside Out (Peter Docter/Ronnie del Carmen)
05. Yakuza Apocalypse (Takashi Miike)
06. Partisan (Ariel Kleiman)
07. Bone Tomahawk (S. Craig Zahler)
08. Beasts of No Nation (Cary Joji Fukunaga)
09. Turbo Kid (Simard/Whissell/Whissell)
10. The Gift (Joel Edgerton)
11. The Martian (Ridley Scott)
12. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)
13. He Never Died (Jason Krawczyk)
14. The Visit (M. Night Shyamalan)
15. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Anotha J. J. Remix)

Thanks to having a few cinephile friends, I ended up watching a LOT of new films this year, far more than usual, probably 70-80 minimum. I tend to rank them not solely for the quality of acting, direction and cinematography, but mainly the fun often am I going to go back to these? How many times have I already? Are these flicks ones I'll be talking about in 20-30 years like a lot of my 80s favorites, and will I share them proudly with my children? That's why I'm unashamed to include absurd but entertaining pieces alongside the more serious, topical fare (which generally don't stand the test of time as well for me). Have not yet seen Krampus.

The Top 15 PC & Video Games of 2015

01. Sunless Sea (PC)
02. Pillars of Eternity (PC)
03. Axiom Verge (PC, PS4)
04. Shadowrun: Hong Kong (PC)
05. Westerado: Double Barreled (PC)
06. Crypt of the NecroDancer (PC, PS4, Vita)
07. Ori and the Blind Forest (PC, XB1)
08. Undertale (PC)
09. Fallout 4 (PC, PS4, XB1)
10. Hard West (PC)
11. Cities: Skylines (PC, XB1)
12. Broforce (PC, PS4)
13. Downwell/Skiing Yeti Mountain (PC, iOS, Android) *TIE*
14. Apotheon (PC, PS4)
15. Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime (PC, XB1)

My tastes continue to run towards indie and creative, retro-styled games, and there were quite a few of them this year which were simply stunning. I guess I've just grown extremely tired of state of the art, uncanny valley graphic realism and such. The sole compelling Triple A title for me this year was Fallout 4, but I tried my hand at others like Mad Max and Witcher 3 and didn't really enjoy myself. I did NOT play all that many mobile or hand-held console games this year, so if I retroactively find some I love I will adjust this list later. Anyway, the Steam links I provided for most of these can get you a lot of great games dirt cheap if you're interested.

The Top 15 Tabletop Games of 2015

01. Argent: The Consortium (Trey Chambers)
02. Elysium (Matthew Dunstan/Brett J. Gilbert)
03. Pandemic Legacy (Rob Daviau/Matt Leacock)
04. Brew Crafters (Ben Rosset)
05. Antike II (Mac Gerdts)
06. Legendary Encounters: Predator (Ben Cichoski/Danny Mandel)
07. 7 Wonders: Duel (Antoine Bauza/Bruno Cathala)
08. Champions of Midgard (Ole Steiness)
09. Super Motherload (Gavan Brown/Matt Tolman)
10. The Voyages of Marco Polo (Simone Luciani/Daniele Tascini)
11. Above and Below (Ryan Laukat)
12. Sylvion/Castellion (Shadi Torbey) *TIE*
13. Isle of Skye (Andreas Pelikan/Alexander Pfister)
14. Fury of Dracula 3rd Edition (Brooks/Wilson/Hand)
15. The Bloody Inn (Nicolas Robert)

This was a year in which my board and card game collection grew exponentially, with both new titles and expansion content, and there were quite a lot of good games to try with my friends and family. I could have listed twice this many, in fact, without dipping into anything less than quality. The choices here are a mix of worker placement, area control, deck building, abstract and other play styles I enjoy. There are a few others I or my friends have just gotten that have yet to hit the table, like the lauded T.I.M.E. Stories and Blood Rage, so if my opinions change I'll adjust the list accordingly.

The Top 15 Books of 2015

01. The Iron Ship (K.M. McKinley)
02. Children of Time (Adrian Tchaikovsky)
03. The Acolyte (Nick Cutter)
04. Savages (K. J. Parker)
05. Cthulhu Ftaghn! (various, ed. Ross Lockhart)
06. Son of the Black Sword (Larry Correia)
07. SevenEves (Neal Stephenson)
08. Twelve Kings in Sharakhai (Bradley P. Beaulieu)
09. Her Brother's Keeper (Mike Kupari)
10. The Grace of Kings (Ken Liu)
11. SJWs Always Lie (Vox Day)
12. The Two of Swords (serial, K. J. Parker)
13. The Aeronaut's Windlass (Jim Butcher)
14. Half a War (Joe Abercrombie)
15. The Dinosaur Lords (Victor Milan)

As usual, most of my reading interests lie within the realm of science fiction, fantasy, horror, cyberpunk, steampunk, alternate history, and the occasional historical fiction with an edge. The McKinley stole my heart with its excellent worldbuilding, so I can't wait for the follow-up to that, but there were a lot of strong entries here from regulars like Parker, Butcher, Abercrombie, Correia and even a single controversial non-fiction entry here which I found hilarious and will probably prove enlightening for a lot of folks.

Quite a lot to take in, I know, so I hope you enjoy these expanded count lists and perhaps find something you enjoy among them. I considered including other passions of mine like anime, TV shows and comic books, but those are a little trickier, especially TV with the multiple seasons. Maybe next time.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Necronomicon - Pathfinder...Between Heaven and Hell (2015)

Pathfinder...Between Heaven and Hell is the eight album in a 30+ year career by a band that has hardly broken out beyond a small audience of die hard Teutonic thrashers, but while you might look at that as some proof of failure, it's also proof of consistency and sincerity. Necronomicon is not in this game to make friends and brown-nose trends, the differences between the material they make now and what they were putting out in 1986 are largely through minor aesthetic shifts, professionalism in production details, and all around seasoning. Where the band was never really a stranger to incorporating speed, heavy and power metal elements into their proper thrashing, this effort is probably where that practice becomes most evident, and I'd be lying if I claimed that it didn't strengthen the overall product.

Now, the band has always more or less stood in the shadows of the far better known Destruction, and this is due primarily to the similarity in vocal styles, that nasty, pinched, slightly melodic rasp that the magnificent Schmier used (and still uses) to convert the world. That timbre is certainly retained to top off this  new material, with Volker 'Freddy' Fredrich remaining in place as the sole original member, but when it gets to the riffing I noticed a lot more semblance to other bands. You've got fast picked speed metal licks, and a lot of strong solid chords which honestly reminded me more of how groups like Accept, U.D.O. and Primal Fear put together songs, only with the clear differences in vocals. Perhaps a more direct comparison could be drawn to Schmier's other bands like Headhunter or his recent heavy metal 'supergroup' Panzer, since they show tendencies to more traditional metal than his mainstay. Truly, Pathfinder is more of this than it is pure thrashing, and thus you're getting a lot of solid, moody hooks and chord selections in cuts like "Reborn" which are pretty good; Freddy's voice wavers and cuts through the meatier rhythms with a nice, clinical slice.

Big drums, thick bass that doesn't veer too much from the rhythm lines, and plenty of variation round out a substantial record upon which quite a number of tunes go well past 6-7 minutes and don't fill out their bulk with boredom. Not all the riffs are winners, and few of them will feel unfamiliar if you've been listening to these styles the last 30-40 years, but it's evident that a great deal of care and craft went into each, and so the 70 minutes of content is consistently robust if not exceedingly catchy. Fans of classic bands like Iron Maiden will discover rather obvious homages, as in "Alone in the Dark", and I actually heard a lot of similarities to some of the grimier tunes by the late X-Wild, especially with that mesh of harsher, rasping vocals with the consonant, melodic power metal rhythm guitars. But a lot of this is pretty straight Priest/Accept worship with the occasional lapse back into thrashier territory, and even though I wouldn't say that they constantly mete out the most memorable phrases, respect has to be given that so late in their career they'd take some of the edge off, or at least invest in a different brand of razor to write something so measured, fluent and mature. Enjoyed this more than their prior album Invictus, and right around the same level as their 2008 full-length Revenge of the Beast.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Monday, December 21, 2015

Pestilence - The Dysentery Penance (2015)

It's kind of shocking that The Dysentery Pestilence hasn't happened until now. I mean I remember tracking down bootlegs of the Dutch veterans' demos long ago, so obsessed was I with their early LPs, but always wanted the material in some 'official' format. A desire which Mind Reflections, the Roadrunner compilation released in the 90s, was all too happy NOT to oblige. Now, in 2015, once it seems that Pestilence has gone defunct yet again (possibly for the best, but who knows), we are presented with both their original 1987 demos pre-Mallevs Maleficarvm, a couple of live tracks added on, and the whole shebang remixed by Dan Swano for Vic Records. Sounds like a plan...

Obviously, the tunes here are more oriented to the thrash metal which informed their Roadrunner Records debut Mallevs Maleficarvm, only with the first demo you've got Patrick Mameli doing a more straightforward, bruising vocal style over riffs that HEAVILY remind me of Slayer circa Hell Awaits, especially in tracks like "Delirical Life". They really hadn't gone that extra step of clinical development which cultivated those morgue room aesthetics on the first full-length, so we have a cruder riff-set that channels more of a West Coast US feel than even the more neighborly German thrash scene of that era. Volume has been brought up here, and it sounds almost like a basement gig of some crossover/thrash band in places, but you can hear some of the churning even in these early riffs which would influence later stuff, especially Consuming Impulse. That said, this doesn't really elevate beyond that garage speed/thrash level which hundreds of bands were creating in the mid 80s, and the songs leave no lasting impression even if they're appropriately abusive..."Throne of Death" is probably my favorite among them, a solid mid-paced thrasher with the riff that feel closest to me to Mallevs Maleficarvm.

For The Penance, they had acquired Martin van Drunen, and a more forceful, impactful riff set that, while not entirely in the ballpark of what they'd accomplish later, invokes a lot more anger and headbanging and probably took just as many cues from Exodus as Slayer. "Before the Penance" is a straight mosher, for example. Now, this is the earliest example of van Drunen's vocals I'd ever been exposed to, but you can already hear that unique, grotesque tone of his, only the vocals are a little thinner and not so brutally pitched. Some of the riffs in "Affectation" and perhaps a little in "Fight the Plague" were modified or borrowed wholesale to create tunes on the following full-length, and as you can already guess from my fanboyism of the first couple Pestilence records I would be much more inclined to visit this demo again than their earlier material. It's just more dynamic, evil and memorable, and while it won't stand out against fully formed bands releasing label efforts in '87, it's solid.

All in all, this was a decent acquisition for Vic records, and now that the Dutchmen are on hold (maybe for the last time), it's nice to be able to complete the cycle of their discography. The tunes aren't new to me, but Swano's mix elevates the material to a level just that you'd be rewarded with if you had previously fumbled around the underground for copies of the tapes. It's brought down by the average first demo, and the two live tracks (both tunes from The Penance) sound like shit, so I can't recommend it unless you're an enormous fan of Pestilence who must have everything. If you're entirely new to Pestilence, then any of the first three albums will serve you much better, or if you're not one of those anti-reunion slags, Resurrection Macabre probably won't let you down, it's a great amalgamation of their earlier sounds into a more punishing modern studio context.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Fungus - Predatory Harvest (2015)

The more death metal splits into its paradigms of old school nostalgia, cavernous atmosphere and tech brutality, the more I find myself drifting towards albums somewhere in the middle, which can cover a lot of the bases inherently and just commit to the actual process of songwriting. Fungus, a largely Portuguese act with one foreign member, tends to dwell within that range... You could make an argument that they veer slightly more towards the more technical side of things, but Predatory Harvest also features a widespread use of riffing constructions that remind me a lot of USDM, Deicide and Morbid Angel as they were emergent through the early 90s. There is nothing here on their full-length debut which you haven't already been exposed to hundreds if not thousands of times, but the level of competence and execution is such that it fits the bill when you're just in the mood for an explosion of turn-of-the-millennium death metal performed with a modicum of potency and proficiency.

A lot of stop/start blast-work here which supports tremolo picked patterns and evil bass lines that themselves occasionally remind me of note patterns from bands like Death back when they were fresh and creepy, but you wouldn't know it from the speed and volatility. Powder keg beats with the fuse about to be lit slathered with choppy clinical mute picking sequences redolent of anything from modern Pestilence to Cannibal Corpse. Unfortunately, a number of these often feel familiar to one another, and I was often relying on the slower or mid-paced riffs in between them to differentiate tracks. The vocalist has a straightforward, nihilistic guttural to which he applies some sustain, but it doesn't necessarily stand out in a crowd of so many others in the field. I do feel, though, that there is one department here where the band excelled beyond others, and that's just how much excitement the leads provide, soaring in like wailing death metal pteranodons and making everything else much more kinetic and memorable simply by association. They're not using anything out of the ordinary in terms of technique, but they just attribute a well roundedness to the material which would be partly nullified without them.

Lyrically Fungus deals a lot with technophobia, or just how much computers and nanotechnology will inevitably warp and twist mankind as you'll read a lot in science fiction/cyberpunk horror stories, and they often get down to the technical details of the process, which is not uncommon in death metal but also not the most frequent topic I associate with it. The studio production isn't overly polished or processed, but rather clean and straightforward enough to discern every note, grunt, bass line and individual drum. I feel the main limitation here is just that there a lot of bands and records in this niche, but if you're in the mood for stuff like Prostitute Disfigurement, Gorgasm, Suffocation, Decrepit Birth and Mortal Decay, and you'd rather have with a different logo and some new faces, then Predatory Harvest is not a bad way to satisfy that craving. Solidly executed tech death precision, with no aversion to throwing down on a simpler groove from an older era when appropriate.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Deluge - Æther (2015)

Deluge are somewhat of an anomaly in how they arrive at a similar space to a lot of sludgier black metal bands but do so through an entirely different roster of influences, the most prominent of which are those in the post-hardcore field. There are a few similarities to New York's Castevet, Flourishing or fellow Frenchmen Celeste, who put out a number of killer records, but these gentlemen are far more direct in execution, and the shining series of chords they implement is used to a largely brutal effect. Most of the tracks here are front-ended or book-ended by rain samples, and it creates much to the band name's credit this utter downpour of emotion that can actually grow quite exhausting through its blasted portions which are dressed up with simple but surging rhythm guitars that channel a slightly airy presence over the tightly knit bass and drums.

It's not always a tug of war between the stillness and storms, they do perform some slower paced material which is just as basic in construction. This is another case where the music itself doesn't require a lot of variety or proficiency, the production is just so enormous and crushing that it can transform even the most minimal of notations into something more emotionally effective. I did get a little tired of the shouted, harsh vocals, which just grew a little monotonous, and I craved a little more intricacy in the guitar riffs, which are just standard flumes of tremolo picked chords with a slightly brighter feel than your average European black metal. The blast beat sections feel just overly straightforward, so once you've latched on to the patterns they never go anywhere unexpected, and a few bizarre or unique melodies popping up through the verses and choruses could have worked wonders against the more stable backdrop. The cleaner guitar progressions are also a little mediocre, they function only to create contrast but never seem so memorable by themselves.

In terms of engineering, Æther is just enormous; the drums alone will beat you into submission before you can even reach the volume control. But when the whole band is pouring on all the rhythmic concrete, you feel like this is just a pure wall of force. Bass lines don't deviate much from the rhythm guitars, but at least they're thick in the mix and thus ground the assault. Cover art by fellow French artist Metastazis for the digipack is just about perfect, a hypnotic image that does actually reflect how the band sounds. Ultimately, though, while I can't fault the sound Deluge are going for, this particular selection of songs all too rarely thrills with memorable licks, it's all too direct as it flattens the listener. Subtle touches like the distant, clean vocals in "Avalanche" are quite nice, but I just wish there were more of them, and that the band would invest in more jerky and unusual guitar riffs like a lot of the groovier post-hardcore bands from earlier eras. A curious, solid foundation has been laid out here, but I'd just like the architecture that springs from it to captivate my senses a little more than just merely beating me with a hammer.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Regarde Les Hommes Tomber - Exile (2015)

Blackened sludge metal is hardly a novelty by now, but what I will say for Regarde Les Hommes Tomber (named for a French film) is that they've captured the hybrid just as professionally as any other band, by which I mean the production on this sophomore effort is truly outstanding. Enough that I'd recommend you listen to it for that alone, it's just so well balanced. Thick and juicy bass lines tunnel beneath a landslide of mid-paced driving chords and eerier note patterns while the front man alternates between the angst-ridden barked vocals common to the medium, and some deeper gutturals and snarls which feel more maddening and decrepit.

Drums splash and thunder with a mixture of tribal intensity and upbeat outbursts above which the rhythm guitars transform themselves into more post-black/shoegaze patterns, only to alleviate back to the predicted angry Neurosis crawl. There is also a real sense of 'lows and highs' created by the contrast of giving us a few peaceful seconds to recoup and then just laying into us with these melancholic floods of notation which capture that layered emotional effect this niche of metal music is so known for. Nothing being performed is necessarily complex, the band isn't attempting to rival Mastodon or even incorporate the grooving textures of a Gojira...they thrive solely on those 3-4 note or chord patterns while letting the sum momentum of the material force its way into you and then over you, and you'll feel the walls shake to those beats while your neighbors flee from the torture in the front man's inflection.

Sound-wise, Exile absolutely nails it, but where I felt the tunes were slightly lacking is in the department of individually memorable licks. They all serve the band's bludgeoning aesthetic well enough, with hints of mystique and post-industrial annihilation, but few of them had me crawling over myself to continuously replay the album, and there was in fact a sense of sameness to the entire proceedings, even though Regarde Les Hommes Tomber do their damnedest to provide some variation amid the calms and turbulence. But there are certainly some riffs here which are vastly less interesting than a few others, and I constantly felt like just one more note progression out of left field here or there really would have rounded this all off. Regardless, Exile is a competent work which would be easy enough to recommend to fans of this style from both sides of the Atlantic, whether your poison is Isis, Neurosis, Cult of Luna, or even stuff like Tombs and Castevet.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (distress smashed on walls)

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Autopsy - Skull Grinder EP (2015)

When the first tune on your new EP sounds like blistering, vintage Slayer with Chris Reifert vomiting all over it, and coincidentally superior to anything on the latest LP by Slayer themselves, then you officially have my attention. And if Skull Grinder has any defining characteristic at all, it's that it is the most unabashedly primal, old school recording Autopsy have released in this latest era of gruesome productivity since The Tomb Within EP five years ago. I mean, I'm probably not the biggest fan out there of the last three full-lengths. I appreciate them all to an extent, and they do no disservice to my fond memories of Severed Survival, Retribution for the Dead and Mental Funeral, but beyond the loud, abrasive production and obvious personality of the vocals that I enjoy, I just haven't the desire to spin them in any regular rotation these last few years.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, my reaction to this material is much the same. I've had fun with it for a few spins, but ultimately the guitar riffs all too rarely go off in interesting directions, and I find myself relying far too much on its attitude and less on the music. They cycle pretty evenly between their death and doom halves, fronting the record with churning proto-death ragers "Strung Up and Gutted" and the title track, and then about half-way through "Children of the Filth" it slows to a crawl. "Sanity Bleeds" is interesting because it's basically an atmospheric doom piece without the drums, so the guitars wail off all over the funereal landscape and some of the vocals take on this heavily sustained, mourning atmosphere, paired up with Chris-snarls. A coupling that provides for the most unique moments of the EP, and signifies a change in tone since the next 13 minutes are all slower in nature and yearn for that same dreary chunks of human flesh swaying slowly on meat hooks, measured pendulums of mortality. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, since Autopsy are experts at that pace, but it wouldn't have killed the recording to have a little more speed/death in there for added balance throughout.

All very straightforward, carnal and ugly stuff, targeted at the band's built in audience and very unlikely to disappoint them. The instruments sound huge, about to ear themselves from the vinyl onto which they're captured, so even when they're playing the riffs that I'd argue are the most dull (like the bluesy doom near the end of "The Withering Death"), they're still vivid and raucous and making the most sonically out of what is fairly uninteresting. Add to that more of Wes Benscoter's colorful artwork, in line with Macabre Eternal and Tourniquets, Hacksaws and Graves, and you've got a record which fits in flush with the band's yesteryear classics and the incessant meat-train of their recent output. Not their best material by any means, but if you're reading this you probably already know what to expect, and they do not fuck around with those expectations, but grab them by their throats and drag them all down into their gutter of grime and gore. Consistency with its skin stripped off.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Maïeutiste - Maïeutiste (2015)

It's a testament to Maïeutiste's ingenuity that across the 76 minutes of their eponymous debut, ridden with stylistic variation, the French act still manages to convey an effective experience which eschews the safety parameters of its constituent genres to manifest whatever it so pleases. There's a certain amount of creative dissonance and emotional disparity at play, especially when leaping between cuts of such different vision as the atmospheric doom of "Introductions..." and the ensuing bursts of melodic black metal dubbed "...In the Mirror...", but what patches all the bands' ideas into a coherent quilt is the constant focus on surprising, memorable hooks that are strung along with just enough frequency that the audience's attention will snap back from any precipice of disconnection.

Granted, for some listeners, the wealth of aesthetics here might prove too scattershot and unfocused to really immerse oneself. The slower, drearier sequences create an obvious contrast against the faster, blast beat-driven segments, but beyond that the black and doom tags are threaded liberally with elements of thrashing or melodic death metal licks. There are ambient-honed interludes using double bass strings and deeper chants ("Purgatoire"). Saxophone. Anything that sticks. Moody jazz progressions are interlaced with explosions of metallic aggression ("Absolution"). And it never feels as if it's cheap, as if the band is writing 'different' for different's sake, because so much of the actual composition is well-comported, intelligent and interesting. When they're scathing along a pure black metal axis it captures a lot of that mid to late 90s vibe when the Scandinavians were evolving their individual sounds to incorporate more progressive inclinations and complex melodic textures, but that is by no means the defining 'sound' to this album, just one of many weapons on exhibit.

Even the vocals are all over the place, for better or worse. Stock black rasps and deeper gutturals are juxtaposed with soaring, folksy male cleans and whispers, and while individually these don't feel too distinct in the wake of the many other bands that have used them all, it almost seems necessary to match up with the versatile palette of instrumentation. There is a risk here that Maïeutiste would collapse under the weight of so much eclecticism, especially when you consider the sheer length of the debut, but this is staved off by the general quality of the individual riffs and the overt amount of effort they must have expended putting it all together. Overly ambitious? Over extended? Perhaps, to some orthodox  extreme metal listeners who prefer everything wrapped tidily into their chosen lifestyle package with a bow on top; but I can't help but feel admiration for how these Frenchmen conduct themselves and their orchestra of kinetic woe. There are awkward if not jarring transitions, and some licks fall slightly behind others in overall impact, but the album is just so substantial and cleanly produced that it's worth checking out by fans of  Ne Obliviscaris, Cormorant, Enslaved, Opeth and Vintersorg-era Borknagar.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Moonreich - Pillars of Detest (2015)

Although Moonreich could hardly be considered as eclectic and bizarre as countrymen Peste Noire, Deathspell Omega or Blut Aus Nord, there is a peculiar specificity to how they compose black metal music which goes above and beyond the predictable tropes to a more focused selection of riffs, production choices and atmospheric ingredients combined into a sum that is not quite like any other singular entity in the genre's heavily saturated canon. Truly this is a French act which puts together music and gives fuck all about an audience's predisposition. From beginning to end, their third full-length Pillars of Detest seems intent on embellishments of rhythmic versatility, contrasts of intensity and contemplation, and 'jumping' genre for death and thrash metal components whenever it suits the imagination...and never suffering for it. Having heard both their prior albums, I can say with certainty that this was the most compelling and listenable, while never cheapening itself with undue sentiment or fits of happiness.

By which I mean it's dark, but strangely accessible. Riffs can crawl through a morose landscape, as  pitch as blackest night, glinting of melodies while the drums jam along at a prog rock pace, and then the band can explode into atypical blasted rhythms in which they still manage to embed a little nuance and distinction. They can lay out an excellent chord groove ("All Born Sick") and lunge into overdrive within the span of seconds and yet the musicianship is flawless and taut. The vocals are meted out through a rich, barking rasp that performs enough syllabic deviance that it never flirts with monotony, and has just the right level of reverb and sustain to match the riffs in effectiveness. The guitar tone is excellent, both the precision of the tremolo picked notes and the atonal bliss which is always drawing the ear above the deeper fret progressions. Special credit should also be given for the bass lines, which are sultry and swerving and contribute heavily to the hazy, bleak emotional space into which this album shoved me. Moonreich is extremely well-rounded for such a jagged sound... with no ingredient out of balance or league with the remainder.

There are slight touches of ritualism and expansiveness captured through chants and percussion, but the narrative of guitar-and-drum-driven black metal is forever at the fore, and Pillars of Detest is quite simply one of the better examples of its form I've heard in 2015, especially coming from outside of Norway which has had an impressive showing from a number of its veteran acts. Sure, this is not a band which entirely delves into or benefits from the eccentricity and strangeness of many of its local peers, but for those seeking something more sanely sinister, I'd rank this easily alongside a number of overlooked gems like Spicilège or Of Entropy and Life Denial. Fans of Merrimack, Satyricon, Temple of Baal or even the recent works of Belgium's Enthroned will find it easy to submerge themselves into this meticulous monstrosity, and not escape without leaving a trail of tar.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Friday, December 4, 2015

Spectral Lore - Gnosis EP (2015)

Having already proven fluency in both the black metal and ambient spectra time and time again, Spectral Lore has sought to broaden its horizons even further with a series of even more experimental departures from the structured soothing and savagery. These have taken the form of what amount to full-length EPs that each channel a specific aesthetic skill set. With Voyager, Ayloss delved into a more purely electronic/ambient ritual, a science fictional aesthetic both pulsing and sparse. Now, with Gnosis, he has concocted what is nearly an antithesis to that effort, by tripping the rifts of antiquity with metallic guitar rhythms, busier bass lines and a meditative style of composition which creates a landscape of ancient Hellenic and Oriental callbacks, a marriage of moods and exoticism.

Of these two diversional EPs (thus far), this is of course closer to the Spectral Lore you have made previous acquaintance with, at least in instrumentation. But the spaciousness and simplicity of the guitars, drifting and dreamlike, generally inhabit a more atmospheric, background realm on the earlier half of the track list, than the raging tremolo picked excellence and aggression I associate with records like his excellent Sentinel. That DOES play its part, threaded through the odd and extensive "A God Made of Flesh and Consciousness" along with the heavier drumming, but it's not the rule of thumb early on. There are points of pure folkish writing with a psychedelic bent ("Averroes' Search"), clean guitars and looser percussion instruments, and even a minimalist ambient backdrop to such strings on the closer "For Aleppo", which is nearly 10 minutes with the same synth wave struck in the background, enough that you might be driven mad if not for the classical licks being sporadically brushes across the monotony. Probably my favorite piece was "Gnosis' Journey Through the Ages", with some really great melodic hooks and a sense of urgency and majesty that isn't prevalent in some of the other tracks.

Overall, though, Gnosis really functioned as intended, as a support for the listener's contemplation, and is best experienced either through stillness or some other activity in which the motor skills will veer one way, and the imagination the other. It was a curious choice made to keep what vocals you can perceive as sparse rasps buried in the mix...the lyrics themselves are fairly substantial, but it's as if the audience is presented with some existential test to apply them to the songs him or herself. They certainly sound sick when "A God Made..." escalates into a primal explosion, and in that specific spot it might have benefited to crank them up, but it's the clear intent that they never dominate the instruments, and rarely participate, so their exile from the foreground is understandable. Now, having a predilection for spacey electronics and synthesizers myself, from Tron to Tangerine Dream to Mass Effect, I'd have to say that I was more absorbed by the previous EP, but Gnosis was still a compelling excursion to tide us over until the next 'proper' full-length, a welcome contradiction of an experiment achieved through somewhat traditional riffs both acoustic and electric.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Nachtlieder - The Female of the Species (2015)

The Female of the Species comes across as quite professional for a solo act, both in the production values and the musical proficiency of its creative occupant, Dagny Susanne, who has been at this for a number of years now but just never seemed to cross my desk. With a signing to the eclectic I, Voidhanger, she's likely to not only reach out to a broader base of listeners, but also provide the label with a truly Nordic sounding, traditional black metal artisan who channels a number of the Norse and Swedish pioneers into a cohesive whole. Aesthetically, the rhythm guitar patterns feel as if they're bound to the Sagas, the naturalistic surroundings, and perhaps even a bit of a pulp sword & sorcery, though the music is not all that adventurous.

I guess I'd describe it as a brand of choppy black metal redolent of old Enslaved or Immortal, but slightly less intense and overwhelming...the complexity hovers somewhere between records like Vikingligr veldi or Battles in the North and the late 80s output of Bathory. Fast and forceful in some aspects, but not afraid to slow down for some deceptively simple chord patterns that are the setup for a melodic burst of intensity (as in "Fatale"). She'll often imbue the basic riffs with these harmonized tremolo melodies that patter off into the distance, but cuts like "Cimmerian Child" just feel like the primal savagery of a Blood, Fire, Death, or belligerent Barathrum, recast in a contemporary studio mold so the guitars are really potent and loud. On the downside, a lot of the rhythm guitars just aren't that interesting in scope, and without that added layer of melodic texture, some might be pretty dull, but Dagny has the sense to provide that, and the material feels fuller, balanced, and has just the right tinge of dissonance and darkness to it that it pulls you right under.

Vocally she adopts a growl reminiscent of a more strained Quorthon, or perhaps Abbath is a better comparison on the more recent material by Immortal or I. Visceral and sustained, gravelly and constipated. The bass lines don't often deter from the guitar chords, and there was plenty of space for a little variation. Drumming is tight and functional but this isn't exactly an album which yearns for record speed intensity or endless walls of double bass and blasting into exhaustion. Overall, it all sounds loud and streamlined and effective for those who like the modern records by the Scandinavian veterans, and I think that's definitely the crowd that is most likely to appreciate what Dagny has put together here. Not exactly unique, and not consistently memorable throughout the duration, but there is obviously a competence and effort here which result in a workmanlike sophomore album.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, November 30, 2015

Nar Mattaru - Ancient Atomic Warfare (2015)

Whilst I wasn't entirely sold on this Chilean band's 2012 debut Enuma Elish, I could at least recognize that Nat Mattaru had a genuine take on antiquated death metal which wasn't solely drawn from any one classic band's wake; more a hybrid of the New York, Floridian and European sounds. With Ancient Atomic Warfare, their sophomore, they don't exactly cross any boundaries to explore new visions, but they've slightly ramped up the songwriting so it seems a little less banal, and with such a thick, viscous production as you'll find here, it does at the very least sound more pungently evil and alien like its forebears from the 90s.

Ironically, I felt like the tone and structure of the riffs here was a little more directly in the vicinity of Incantation, with brief flourishes of Immolation and Morbid Angel. Slower, creeping rhythms are interspersed with frenzies of fleshy, roiling mausoleum tremolo picked guitars that hearken back to an Onward to Golgotha. Driving tempos give way to slower, ritualistic death/doom sequences joined with a more tribal drumming element. The entirely of the record is cast in a really deep, bass-like hue which gives it the impression some sprawling ancient evil is shaking its belly at the listener in jest of his or her eternal consumption. The drums thunder constantly, the toms being the loudest individual component with a dissonant cymbal crash and unending brickwork being trodden by the feet. There's a certain Eastern flavor to some of the riffing which lends it a mystique not unlike a band like Nile or Melechech, only slowed down to a molasses-like aberration that crawled along until struck by its own sugar highs that resulted in spurious, busier riff patterns, melodies and percussive clamor.

The vocalist bounces back and forth between two roaring pitches: guttural and deeper guttural, and this definitely contributes to the ancient repulsion of the recording. Even the occasional whispered line is dense and meaty, so you feel like some ugly priest is reading glyphs by torchlight from the walls of some musty, forgotten tomb. The riffs don't offer much intricacy, they're often just base line patterns of chords with no surprises, or fat slices of tremolo picked morbidity which seem to retain echoes of the dread and nausea that their influences once mastered. Where Ancient Atomic Warfare works for me above its predecessor is just in simple immersion, the songs wedged my psyched further into subterranean nostalgia and stirred through the guts like a sludgy black coffee. Fans of Disma, Cruciamentum, and Funebrarum might want to take this along on their next ride through some damp caverns or to the cosmic emptiness beyond.
Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Awe - Providentia (2015)

If you've read my review of the three-way conceptual split album Moerae, released this past Spring, then you'll know I already feel confident about the enigmatic Greeks known as simple Awe, who might or might not have anything to do with other spectacular bands from the Athens area. Through Providentia, they engage us in their own triptych of tunes which experiment within the black metal medium, not to the extent that it becomes unrecognizable as such, but a more immersive, fleshed out experience in which contrasts of intensity and minimalism are waged across 50+ minutes of richly and clearly produced isolation and contempt.

To an extent, the tracks here might be compared to French acts like Blut Aus Nord or Deathspell Omega in how they champion abstraction and dissonance through note selection, generating both restlessness and discomfiture, but lacking the post-industrial aesthetics of the former's modern recordings, and the all-out assault on the senses created through the latter's Paracletus. Awe conspires to create these lengthy landscapes of shifting note textures, rapid but gently curving bass lines and other hallmarks of variation, bound together by a forceful, sustained, guttural vocal presence which emits a radiant nihilism alongside the more complex guitar patterns. There is much consistency with the faster sequences, at least in the sandbox of their note selection, but there is almost always some new disturbance occupying the earspace which keeps the material compelling throughout.

Granted, this is the antithesis of consonant riffing, so if you take issue with your black metal being beholden through an unnerving, almost Voivod-ish lens, then it's not about to change your mind. Even where the guitars shift out briefly to a cleaner tone, like in "Actus Purus", they still enforce the trepidatious, haunted vibe of the album. But oftentimes, records like this also strive for obliqueness in the production...not so for Providentia, which is as clear as day, converting each of those aggravating, dissonant guitar lines into an effusion of paranoid sunlight to warp your psyche. The drumming and guitar tone are pro and polished, the tortured flaws and intricacies of the guttural fully exposed to the elements, and yet it comes across just as insidious as some basement tape. The lyrics are also quite good, Biblical and visceral, Dante and Milton striking their best Abbath and Demonaz poses. Awe prove yet another worthwhile voice in the inexhaustible Hellenic ranks. A voice of insanity, perhaps, but everyone needs a hobby.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Gravesoil - Oblations of Blood DEMO (2014)

Judged by the criteria of a demo alone, Gravesoil's Oblations of Blood is if nothing else an exhibition of consistency which meshes together elements of black and death metal, but a lot heavier in the former category than the latter which appears through the growled vocals alone. Sonically I'd trace this back to the tradition of bands like Mayhem and Bathory, with flurries of tremolo picked guitars interspersed into crashing, roiling mid-paced chord patterns. But I think it's probably more accurate to place this alongside fellow Finns HAIL, or the more driving moments of the rising Swiss act Bölzer, with the caveat that the atmosphere here is conjured up through the sheer force of impact that the guitars and growls create as opposed to dynamic sensibility.

The aggression here almost never ceases with the few exceptions of sparser guitar parts in a couple of the cuts, where the drums march on with cadence-like beats, but the rhythm guitar chords become airier and dissonant. Bass lines are thick and noticeable, providing bedrock upon which the raw but potent guitars can build, and contributing some density to the aforementioned force. The guitar progressions are far from intricate, and were probably one of the weaker elements in the music, not for their tone but for the fact that they seemed incapable of offering a surprise or left turn. Whether it's the tremolo parts, chords or the chugging in "Ashen Pillars", the trajectory always became obvious to the listener. When coupled with the double bass battery, vocals and bass lines, I found that the tunes became resilient mantras of primal power, just not ones that I could remember once the dust of their passage would settle.

This might have something to do with the format. 15-16 minutes hardly ideal to show a band's full range of capabilities. On a longer demo or LP, Gravesoil might stretch its wings further, but I still think a few more uncanny melodies & leads or unexpected breaks would go a long way towards adding compulsion to what's already available. The production is voluminous and even, with storming drums and windy atmosphere manifest in the rhythm guitars; it lends some credence to the band's namesake, since it sounds like the dirt of some moonlit cemetery being churned endlessly, ghastly roars emanating from the dead that were spit forth. But Oblations of Blood doesn't quite reach too far beyond that, clutching at its tombstone but not yet pulling itself fully into the state of undeath. Solid for what it is, but would benefit from some added versatility even within its particular niche.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Friday, November 20, 2015

Infera Bruo - In Conjuration (2015)

One of the hazards of a band peaking so early in their career is that you'll be blown away by the debut or sophomore and then struggle to find that same connection on subsequent records. Massachusetts' Infera Bruo, who put out a really astonishing s/t debut demo, and then a great full-length followup in Desolate Unknown, largely manage to avoid that pitfall by offering a slab of more matured and consistent sounding material. This is at once a more evil sounding effort in spots, with some spacious and cavernous sequences that contrast against the blasting surge, and a seasoned songwriting exhibition in which a band fully capable of flying off the handle exercise quite a lot of restraint and balance between the interlocking instruments and the pacing of various tracks.

The mid range clean vocals that helped round out the previous album are returned here, with arguably even more personality, even though they're still in the minority; if you're into the similar approach taken by bands like Enslaved, Arcturus and Borknagar, you're going to feel right at home since they so seamlessly switch lanes with the snarl, not feeling forced or intrusive. There's also an increased use of more jangly, interesting guitar passages which interspersed with the metric ton of traditional, melodic tremolo picking that dominates a huge chunk of the material. In Conjuration is replete with peaks and valleys of aggression, often steering away from its black metal busyness for simpler chord patterns that are splayed out and 'felt out' over more spacious percussion. These pace changes are timed well enough across the 47 minutes that it helps a lot to ground some of the longer tunes and give them a real sense of consistency rather than growing ennui that a lot of black metal bands can suffer from due to pretentious bloat. The bass and drums here are also the best mixed yet alongside the guitars, subdued enough to allow the riffs the razor edge they so often crave.

The raw speed and technicality of the rhythm guitars is about the same level as the influences, which for me really seemed to hover in that Norse camp like Immortal or Satyricon in their primes. An emphasis is not on pure catchiness so much as a cutting finesse and lots of interesting detail that the listener can discern with future spins of the disc. Again, I don't know if it's just the pure production capabilities of the underground these days via technology, but Infera Bruo sounds as confident and sophisticated, if not more so than many European bands with 20-25 years behind them. The choices in notation are not always obvious, and steer slightly further away from accessibility than either of the earlier works. Ironically, I came away from this slightly less blown away, but we're talking a mere sliver below Desolate Unknown, and I would still struggle to come up with a New England band in this style that I enjoy more right now; Vattnet Viskar has achieved more popularity, but I'm not a big fan...this is just so much more dynamic, vicious and memorable. Good on Bindrune for picking them up, they are building quite a roster. Can't recommend it enough, and it's all here: the chops, the intensity, the artistry. Attention paid, now paying forward. Check them out.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Infera Bruo - Desolate Unknown (2013)

How to follow up what was possibly the best New England black metal demo/album I've heard since some point in the 90s? Carry on, and that is precisely what Boston's Infera Bruo have accomplished upon Desolate Unknown. A proficient paean to both the Norse and Swedish roots of its genre, which compares favorably to the more modern works of its enduring progenitors. Not quite so progressive in nature as what Enslaved, Ihsahn or Arcturus have written in recent years, but more of a balance of the style's primal precision and intensity as translated from late 90s Immortal or Emperor, and then further enriched by the inclusion of cleaner, mid ranged vocals which provide several of the record's catchier phrases. Beyond that, their writing style is such that you never exactly know what's around each corner on the record...will they drop off the blasting to focus on something more scarce and atmospheric? Will they soften the blows where appropriate?

Yes to all of that. Swelling dark ambient/ritualistic 'Segues' are placed at strategic points on the album to break up the duration of its lengthier tracks (9-13 minutes). Not merely noise, they also involve elements like eerie vocal looping or distorted voice samples. Acoustic guitars are brought out briefly, and the band will often just cede the structure and riffing to pure feedback which also ironically helps to smooth out those mammoth songs. But more vital here is the instrumentation. The bass lines often have a rough, distorted thrust to them which generates an excellent balance to the more pinpoint and polished tone of the guitars. Chord progressions, if not unanimously catchy, manage between just the right levels of dissonance and glory, and while they often occupy the same general terrain, few of them sound exactly alike, nor do they ever wear out their welcome through exhausting repetition which could turn a tune like "Ritual Within" or "Invoking Collapse" into a monotonous nightmare if mismanaged. The beats wander everywhere from the rock grooves necessary to fuel the mid paced Bathory rhythms, to the seamless blasts and double bass sequences; always pretty pronounced so that you can make out all the individual toms, snares and crashes, yet not overly loud.

Most of the vocals are dual black rasps which create a pretty effective gravitas against the energy of the drums and guitars, with loads of little flaws and deviations to keep the ears glued, and the cleans which are understated but excellent. If one were to strip out and analyze specific elements, I'm sure they wouldn't find Infera Bruo's material to be the most distinct or unique in the field, but they operate as a 'package deal', where every component of their creative process is well executed. Had Desolate Unknown been released by some second or third tier Norwegian band, they'd probably find themselves on a label like Candlelight or Indie Recordings in no time flat, that is the level of polish here. Along with Spaniards Foscor, these gentlemen seem like natural successors to the early 21st century evolutions of their Scandinavian forebears, a pretty big sandbox to play around in, and one that I am eager to see shaped further.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Monday, November 16, 2015

Cosmic Church - Vigilia EP (2015)

So often when faced with solo black metal projects like Cosmic Church I expect a very isolate, tortured tone to everything. But whilst that might hold true for the vocals of Luxixul Sumering Auter, the Finn behind this and several other outfits, the music on exhibition here is far more outward and expansive, so much so that it seems to course and stream across such landscapes as the robed cover figure (presumably Luxixul himself) roves across. That's not to say this album-length EP of material doesn't maintain a personal touch, but it's certainly louder and more bombastic than you think you're investing in by its appearance alone.

Which is not a bad thing, because Cosmic Church more or less drowns the listener in a slew of bright, melodic chords configured into stern patterns that resonate in much the same way the earlier records of a Borknagar might, circa something like The Olden Domain. DNA is also shared with a lot of his Finnish peers, from Blood Red Fog to Sargeist, in their mutual ability to inhabit the raw savagery or roots black metal with extra layers of weeping texture and melancholic phrasing. But beyond that, I was often taken aback here by the changing up of riff patterns that kept the 30+ minutes of content compelling...from the ability to step back for a simpler, meaty melodic palm driven pattern (intro to "Vigilia II") to the myriad unexpected lead melodies that crop up where many other bands might just bore to death with incessant onslaughts of predictable chords. The album also has a swooning, swerving bass presence which doesn't always stand out but creates a robust support for the rhythm guitar, creating a depth and subliminal groove alongside their drive and desperation.

The drums are also pretty functional, though on occasion some of the double bass beats and crashes can feel either hollow or hissy where they exist on their own sub-level to the riffs. Synth sounds are very tastefully delegated to the backdrop, so you always feel like you're coming up through some dewy valley at sunrise, but they're never quite in your face or obscuring the tremolo picked guitars or clanging, semi-dissonant chords. The vocals definitely come from the raving, painful rasp tradition that bands like Burzum once kicked off, and they're not unlike what you've experienced on some of Horna's more melodic material, but they fit the rustic surges and passionate atmosphere like a glove, and Vigilia ultimately comes across as both fell and majestic in even quantities. Having had only a minimum of exposure to the earlier records, I was pretty impressed with just how easily my psyche was able to plug into this music and escape into Luxixul's universe, even if I can't understand a word of the lyrics. A reliable companion for the ranging of meadow, mountain and wood.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Queensrÿche - Condition Hüman (2015)

And now for some good news: I haven't liked a Queensrÿche album as much as Condition Hüman since they release Promised Land in 1994, which itself was probably the sole exception to the middling legacy they left behind in those times. Actually, strike that, because this is superior to even that. Whatever moons and planets in the universe required alignment have come together and shined fortune upon these gentlemen, and they've written the record that I really wished the eponymous 2013 title had been, with some aural pleasure to spare. Not only does it sound like the proper 21st century Queensrÿche so many of us have likely awaited, but it plays like new life for the band. Perhaps even breathing new life into a niche genre that so many have likely written off by now as nerdy detritus for musical theory students of a bygone era. And in the process, sandblasting Geoff Tate's Operation: Mindcrime debut as if it were a soup cracker.

Let me clarify...this is not EXACTLY the Queensrÿche of old, at least not in terms of how the music itself is structured. There are traces of that, with a more muscular sculpt to the guitars and a recognition of the groove and hard rock influences which informed much of their material over the last few decades. Todd La Torre maintains his best Geoff Tate impersonation while simultaneously shoveling in his own higher range by the truckload. In fact, he's the shining beacon of this affair, with a number of memorable chorus hooks that rival the best that bands like Fates Warning, Ivanhoe, Angra and their peers have produced in a very long time. The music is a hybrid of their 80s style and a few more modernized, groovy prog metal elements that characterize the verse hooks in cuts like "Guardian" and "Toxic Remedy". Atmospheric dual harmonies and gleaming leads are cautiously applied where they are most useful, and there are even moody moments prog metal moments in cuts like "Arrow of Time" which hearken back to stuff like Fates Warning's Perfect Symmetry. But holding it all together is La Torre's propensity to just soar across the skyline of the rhythm guitar and capture the ear every time.

Scott Rockenfield might not seem the most technical drummer by today's standards, but he charges what might otherwise be some standard hard rock riffing with a lot of genuine momentum and energy that strips away the listener's immunity. Love his fills here even if they're nothing new, and I'd say his performance plays second fiddle only to La Torre, as much as I like the guitars. The bass lines were probably never the forte of the band, yet Jackson's tone here is just perfect for placing such a simple low end to the busier melodies constantly frothing off the imaginations of Wilton and Lundgren. But what's even more impressive is just how damn well paced this album remains fairly weighted throughout, if not with the meat of the riffs than with the emotional impact of choruses in slower, more measured tunes like "Selfish Lives" and the beautiful "Bulletproof". No cheesy or weak ballads, included, even the record's softest cut "Just Us" is firm and memorable. Production is pristine, even elegant. Musicianship restrained to peak effectiveness. A few rungs below perfection, perhaps, but this is just such a joy to listen through, and for a good number of spins it was improving with each successive exposure. Pure class, and with this record, they can finally take back their seats near the head. Hell, they could teach it.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (welcome to a generation)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Operation: Mindcrime - The Key (2015)

It wasn't too long ago, during the Great Unraveling of The Man, that Geoff Tate himself was downplaying the importance of his alma mater's classic material, including Operation: Mindcrime, an album I happen to find just as timeless and entertaining now as it was when I was 14. Yet, after the smoke cleared and the last shots faded from the partitioning of the Queensrÿche brand, we catch him back at the proverbial well with another stab at recognition. I suppose it makes sense from a marketing standpoint that having two bands with the same name floating around hurts everyone involved, so I can't fault Tate for that. But using the name of his arguably most famous record, one that many Queensrÿche fans, who are coincidentally not very keen on Geoff Tate, still hold dear, seems like a pretty cheap grab for recognition by someone whose star, in any just civilization, is not exactly rising...not to mention it is going to be really fucking confusing for newer fans or those who might not have kept up on all the drama these past several years...

Of course, this is not the first time that he and his former co-conspirators have gone back to the conceptual/thematic pseudo-universe of Mindcrime, since we got the abortion of a sequel already in 2006. Could The Key possibly be that bad? Surprisingly, it isn't. It's not as weak as American Soldier, either, or Tate's previous band album with the his own appropriation of the Queensrÿche name. If we were to pretend that none of the clusterfuck of recent times had ever happened, it would seem like a somewhat subdued version of the mediocrity he was churning out with his old band through most of the 90s and beyond. Progressive rock, largely, with a few of those same tendencies towards alt rock which seems no less irrelevant now than when they thought it would be cool for an album like Q2K or Hear in the Now Frontier. Bland, noncommittal, and severely lacking in the level of vocal hooks Tate and friends banked heavily on during an age when Operation: Mindcrime and Empire were such inescapable success stories. Aside from a few acceptable leads and nerdy synthesizer flights, the other musicians here have been roped into such an underwhelming set of compositions that one wonders if they're suffering from some kind of collective suspended animation. To say there is not a single lick on this album heavier than the Stone Temple Pilots is one thing, but what crushes me is that a little more speed aggression could have really rounded this thing out to a tolerable level.

Because as it stands, The Key is not actually not complete shit. Just a half-shit. A safe, sedate selection of half formed riffs and ideas that occasionally jive with the pleasure receptors of the ear when they rely on their most unusual, brief melodic phrasings or grooves. Little ventured, littler gained, weaving a conceptual narrative that nobody is honestly going to care about using voice clips, and then attempting to emotionally drive those points home. You wouldn't be able to tell these were a seasoned array of musicians, because the music is just not deserving of their best effort, nor the huge slew of guest musicians ranging from Chris Poland and K. K. Downing to Ty Tabor and Paul Bostaph. It never matters, because they all sink into these simple songs like so much boring wallpaper. The heaviest the record gets is when it grooves out a little with a slightly dreary, doomed feel as in the closer "The Fall", but even then there is a heavy reliance on the atmosphere provided by synths, so when it cuts into those threadbare chugging rhythms, the most 'prog metal' point throughout the entire experience, it is far too little and way too late.

I could forgive some of this if Geoff goddamn Tate would strain himself a little harder in the higher pitch...but he rarely ever escapes his middle range and frankly that's been the case for so long that I'd have my doubts if I hadn't seen him pull off some older material live. It seems a crying shame to have such an iconic register and then fail to use it to its fullest, but The Key is all about rainy day escapes and dramatic, predictable chord progressions that stir an almost cinematic quality, only for a really boring movie. You'll get streaks of world music and echoes of prog rock from 30 years ago, a 'maturity' that betrays any possibility for genuine excitement, but seems serviceable for background music if you've run out of Rush albums and your co-workers are exhausted with Geddy Lee anyway, so you'd spin this and nobody would pay attention whatsoever but they also wouldn't call Security. The mix is fine, and none of the tunes are truly offensive except for the broken grooves of "The Stranger", which seem like a lame callback to Geoff Tate's laughable 'streetness' on some of the prior albums. It doesn't work any better here, but this is the sorest thumb on The Key. In the end, while this record is a step up from its predecessor, it lurks just below banality, and it still seems such a long distance from mattering.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]