Thursday, January 29, 2015
I find the first few minutes of this record slightly obnoxious, if only because they seem to have put all this effort into layering these disparate elements into a unified whole but along the way forgot to make it catchy. Thankfully, as soon as the digital dust clears, and the band remember that they can sound like they're scoring a large budget German computer RPG by just being themselves and not TRYING to sound that way, Beyond the Red Mirror is actually a pretty damned solid outing which embodies much of what the band represented over the last 25 years, albeit with that slightly more fulfilling stereo production which supplants a little of that processed, heavily layered tone which they have been gradually distancing themselves from since that 1992-2002 creative pinnacle. Don't get me wrong, Olbrich's rhythm guitars still pop a lot here, and he's not bringing many new tricks to the kennel, but everything about this album sounds much 'richer' than the last few, immersive and fully modernized to the detriment of only those fans who wish they still sounded like Follow the Blind or Somewhere Far Beyond...only, they kind of do. Behind the sweltering studio facade, the Germans still beat with the dorky power metal heart that has pumped from the start, with a substantial selection of those flighty, simmering speed metal licks that put them on the map.
Apart from the intro, the orchestral arrangements through the album actually do it justice. Strings and other instrumentation used to great effect in "At the Edge of the Time", which evolves into a pure triumph that wouldn't have felt out of place on Nightfall in Middle-Earth or A Night at the Opera, only with far more bombastic horns leading the charge of the palm muted, constantly shifting rhythm guitar patterns; not the fastest Blind Guardian material, but quite complex in how they structured that all out, constantly attempting to one-up their inspirations Queen if not quite succeeding when it comes to the raw ability to deliver an unforgettable melody or chorus. "The Throne" is another great implementation, which almost has a spy-like aesthetic that felt like they were writing some metal for a future installment of the James Bond franchise. "Miracle Machine", a non-metal tune, is probably the closest they come to Queen or Journey with all those pianos and vocal arrangements, but I don't find it essential whatsoever (would have been a better bonus track/B-side). That said, the entire album has this enormous, worldly sense of momentum which is felt in both the neoclassical harmonies gleaming from within the meaty, punching rhythms and the occasional flare for a more exotic, Eastern note progression. Hansi is as always the central focus of the band, but while he delivers as always, it's Olbrich and Siepen who seem to be having the best time, and it's their frolicking little nuances in tracks like "Sacred Mind" that make, rather than break, the album.
I would like a Blind Guardian record with better bass guitars. Most of Barend Courbois' lines (on loan from Vengeance) are scantly noticeable, and this is a region in which the band has long suffered from a deficit that would better support all those booming symphonic swells, eclectic riffs and leads. I notice the instrument is there once in awhile, but it becomes too easy to forget about amidst the constant piling on of dramatic orchestration and Hansi reaching for the vaulted ceilings of whatever cathedral he imagines himself singing in when he records one of these things. Frederik Ehmke, on the other hand, manages all of the band's vivid eccentricities with firm planning, loads of potent fills and a lot of attention paid across his entire kit. The choirs, strings and other instruments thrown in here all sound high end, though they don't always consistently add much beyond breadth to the riffing. It's a vast, airy, state of the art record, which is going to titillate the modern metal audience while further alienating those who covet their copies of Tales from a Twilight World and cringe at change, which let's face it, already happened a very long time ago once the band decided to put out a concept album about The Silmarillion.
I flounder about in both camps, really, but considering this band even wrote a song about Peter Pan that could find emotional resonance with me, I have no aversion to the scope of what they were trying to accomplish here. With the caveat that the intro and "Miracle Machine" are things I could very easily skip, I find that the guitar work and the song arrangements here are marginally better than the last full-length. Is it on par with that decade of excellence now removed by another 13 years? Not on your life, but it's aspiring, dramatic. Far more functional than it isn't. Pompous. Elegant. As goofy as ever. Still Blind Guardian, still plucking at the heartstrings of men. Halflings. And elves. And that hot chick at the LARP. You know the one.
Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (Gods will come and gods will go)
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Herbie Langhans continues to voice his slightly silky, slightly acidic timbre to a refined set of riffs that at points through Shadows presented me with the hypothetical union of what it might sound like had Andi Deris been chosen to front the first few HammerFall records in place of Joacim Cans. He does get a little more grit in there than Deris, especially when he's barking out in an edgier mid range, but lacks the truly sticky melodies so consistently delivered by the other. In other spots, the texture and layering of his delivery manifests a lot of Piet Sielck and Jens Carlsson comparisons, which is a given considering this band runs in pretty much the same circles as Iron Savior, Savage Circus and Persuader. Firm and driving rhythm guitar components dominate the songs, seasoning up a handful of rather bland chugging patterns with sleeker, melodic chord progressions in tunes like "Bleed", but even though they cater to a crowd very likely to also enjoy anything from U.D.O. to Stormwarrior, I still felt like there was a distinct lack of memorable individual riffs; for all the professionalism and variation on parade, the album is still conjured from a set of German power/heavy metal tropes that feel a little on the safe side, already delivered with far more bravado on those first two Iron Savior discs, far more balls on Primal Fear's better efforts.
But of course, if decades of power/speed charge licks worked on you then, cuts like "Far Too Long" are very likely to work on you today, and I'm not entirely immune to their charm. The album is mixed clean and bright, perhaps clean to the extent that it feels a little forced or processed in its struggle to deliver just the right amount of 'punch' to those rhythm guitars, but consider the peers these folks run with, I don't think that's going to prove much of an issue. Leads are uniformly well tended, with a few classical hints in construction, never outlasting their usefulness. The choruses are generally pretty standard for this German power anthem style, most built from fragments of better songs to come before, but there really wasn't a weak one among the bunch, even though they don't do much to rival the classics in the field. All told, Shadows is a little more exciting than their debut, and marginally superior, but they're just not the most interesting band in this scene. I liked the slightly thrashier, angrier touches, the few touches of choir-like vocals ("Broken Wings"), and the polished razor atmosphere of their approach, but the songs are just north of standard fare. Unless you're heavily invested in the sub-genre, there are far better albums to turn to for the same thrills.
Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (by a thousand tongues I swear)
Thursday, January 22, 2015
The power of the guitars alone is enough to thrust this past the debut in terms of quality, where they had seemed a little too punchy and processed on Thrashumancy, they're really cleaned up here and there is a better mix of the rhythms and occasional lead flights. The structure of the riffs carries a slightly less surgical feel to it, and more of a bright, 'feel good' style with lots of bluesy little tails and fills in between the Stützer Brothers-like finesse. There is no shortage of variation here, the songs are each stuffed with a good number of progressions, and while they're not always so memorable, they at least rock consistently and the choices feel pretty sound. This is not going to live up to the technical European thrash masterpieces of the later 80s, not by any stretch, but the amount of effort these Spaniards have put into this is at least vastly superior to most of their pizza thrash peers who are more or less cloning the crossover and denim & leather thrash of years past without the level of charm and songwriting needed to pull it off...no, I'd put this more in a class with modern bands like After All and Vektor who really took the spirit of the old school and plugged it into contemporary recording standards which don't sound entirely too derivative to even bother about.
Props to the level of production they added to Eduardo Moreno's vocals, taking that blunt and ugly charisma he exhibited on the debut and then throwing in reverbs and echos here or there which highly his higher pitched screams, reminiscent of Schmier...maybe Schmier's deformed cousin who'd clout you over the head, stuff you in the trash can out back of the high school cafeteria and then go and spend your lunch money on dope. Something like this never happened to me, I promise. The drums and bass sound more flavorful and peppy because they've got something to actually celebrate here, a few riffing progressions that are worth a damn surrounded by others that are at least on the winning side of average. The leads aren't exactly substantial, but they're far better than they were on the first album and actually imbue a little fire and emotion into the tracks. It's not perfect, and there is plenty of room to grow yet, but Return to Pangea is basically exactly how you want to re-assess your band's trajectory and come out the better for it. The cover art may seem a little too death metal and chaotic for the music itself (reminded me of Danes Invocator), but really if you're into bands like Headhunter, Destruction, and Artillery in their 21st century forms, or Greek acts like Suicidal Angels and Angelus Apatrida, then this is worth your time.
Verdict: Win [7.5/10]
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
To be fair, I'm sure Breathless 'means something' with a lot of the messages besides their songs, and I'm not ready to write it off as just some senseless party thrash entirely. But it just doesn't help that they all feel as if they were drawn from a lottery of their influences. On the musical side of things, they've write in a mold that straddles the border between mid-paced, West Coast American headbanging variety ala Exodus, Forbidden, and Vio-Lence, and the much closer to home German scene, in particular Destruction, whose clinical picking progressions from both the 80s and later Antichrist era seem to provide a major influence to more than half the cuts here, and generally the better individual riffs, because a lot of the slower neck-break parts seem really forgettable and they just don't possess that innate meanness of something off Pleasures of the Flesh or Reign in Blood or Eternal Nightmare, something timeless and violent and raw. Riff construction definitely falls in a space between the more serious, regimental thrash of the longhairs and then the crossover crowd of the 80s, I heard little nods to bands like Crumbsuckers in their prime but these Spaniards go more for the palm mutes than the open chord barrage of most bands in that early NY wave.
The vocals have character, burly and messy and prone to lean into outrageous snarls and sound pretty goofy somewhere between Ron Royce (Coroner), Schmier (Destruction) and Roger Martinez of Vengeance Rising, but I never felt like they were used to full effect, getting more hectic on the verses than the choruses, where they really might have been refined into a sticking point. Bass lines are good and thick, a good fit for the rhythm guitars, which I thought had a punchy but regrettable tone that might have worked better with a lot more edge to them. The drumming is fine but doesn't really catch my ear, especially without high quality riffs that keep me focused. A lot of the album is spent by the veteran thrasher playing 'guess where I've heard that before', and there overt nods, whether conscious or unconscious to anything from Xentrix to The Antichrist to Coroner's No More Color. Lead guitars seem few and far between, rather noncommittal where dissonant frenzies might have been better suited to the more surgical guitar phrases that represent the best on the disc, but even that I could forgive if the songs were good...
And that's simply not the case here. 'Shockingly average' would be a better descriptor. The album is by no means as lamentable as its title had me dreading, and I didn't feel like I had just had a couple of slices of extra cheese and pepperonis smeared across my cheeks, but it's another pretty picture among a sea of them that have been released over the last 5-10 years by bands trying to tap into that nostalgia. The Spaniards don't draw directly from any one source on the whole (just in certain parts), but that would not be a bad thing either if they were so damn good at it that they could properly resurrect nostalgia or even contend with their very inspirations. As it stands, just another walk in the nuclear theme park, potentially impressive to supplicants who were just getting into the music in the 21st century and have exposed themselves only a small amount of the niche, but for experienced thrashers this just isn't going to plug anywhere into the collection that isn't already occupied by some release that is light years ahead of this, and was so even decades back...
Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]
Thursday, January 15, 2015
Well, The Architect of Extinction has plenty of them, whether the band is firing ahead into a burst of tremolo picked artillery or laying out the slower, but slightly more complex grooves than one would have found on the debut album. There's quite a lot happening on this record which we've all heard before, especially the palm mutes that dwell on the bottom 5-6 frets of the guitar, but what makes the material stand out to me is just that clean, punchy production of the rhythm tracks, and the fact that they do end up, despite themselves, stumbling onto a few interesting patterns which don't seem to strictly rely on rehashing the blueprints of the past, even when they do. I'm not often forgiving of bands that use the mosh/slam subcultural motivation in a lot of their writing, but this UK quintet just has some strange ability to make it feel fresh to me once more. By 2015 standards there is nothing even hinging on innovation or nuance, but had this dropped in like 1994-1996 people would have gone absolutely ballistic and they'd belong to some unspoken hall of brutal fame alongside obvious idols like Suffocation, Cannibal Corpse and Cryptopsy.
By no means am I intimating that The Architect of Extinction is going to sit well with the detractor of the modern brutal or tech or deathcore aesthetics. The chugged pit rhythms and tremolo pickings are so robotic that it feels like the humans playing them plugged into some shared thought stream, and the riffs rarely border on the 'classics' of the late 80s and 90s which inspired the generations of bands who kept it all alive. There is nothing 'old school' here by comparison to lot of the death metal that is trending, but clearly the band has done some of its homework in taking the care to balance out their material with just the right degree of variation. Tunes like "Endless Despondency" and "I, Despoiler" even weave in a little of the atmospheric, slower miasma which bands like Pestilence and Morbid Angel mastered in their heydays. The gutturals hover just about the toilet-bowl level, but feel efficaciously brutal and entertaining, especially when they hit a little sustain or reverb.
It is greatness? Nah, not quite yet, but I'd listen to this any day over most of the output from bands like Job for a Cowboy or Whitechapel who have left a larger footprint within the medium. I do feel like the leads could be explored more, they thrive where they do exist and aren't just frivilous fret runs, rather used to add a little more contrast and balance. That said, there's enough concussive conviction to The Architect that brutal death fans who don't shun a couple haircuts and a clean studio mix might get something out of it, and many who enjoyed Surpassing the Boundaries of Human Suffering should find this the proper evolution from that point, hinted at through the 2013 EP, but fully formed and hungry here.
Verdict: Win [7.75/10]
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
This is meaty, chugging insanity which seamlessly shifts between its grooves, heavily laden with big double bass jackhammer force; and these instant flights of blasted death metal with more clinically constructed tremolo note patterns which are, if still not quite unique, at least a lot more effective than similar progressions on the sophomore disc. Though the production on the rhythm guitar still has that clean, crunchy, visceral effect, this album somehow seems darker and deeper and there were places in which the churning brought back memories of a lot of treasured, influential death metal of the late 80s and early 90s (Pestilence and Suffocation both represented, among others). The vocals are still the standard array of snarls and growls, but they feel far more bloodthirsty and they make you want to flip your shit and introduce all those people mocking you behind your back to your butcher knife. Or something psychotic in that ballpark, at least, which is really how I want an album upon which a large heap of naked impaled corpses to sound...I don't know about you, but I'm...just...sayin'.
All four songs are pretty evenly balanced when it comes to punishment, with the first "Titanomachy" likely my favorite, but it all holds up, and at around 15 minutes there's not much possibility to get bored. Some will likely brand this as deathcore due to the structure of the breakdowns, the vocal variation and general image of the band, but I think once we've started to go too far down that road we'll have to retroactively brand a lot of the shit that came out in the 90s and 00s since the dynamics and riff composition is almost exactly the same. In the end, even if it's not perfect, I thought this was really a solid bounce back from the slumping Surreption and the guys should be proud that they managed to lay on the suffering to a degree many fans of Surpassing would find admirable.
Verdict: Win [7/10]
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
As it turns out, not so much. One area in which this differed from the debut was that the 'hardcore' elements, the cleaner gang shout vocals used in tunes like "Crowning the Abomination", took on a more prominent role, but never to the music's benefit. The Surreption has more of an asphalt street mentality that its predecessor, and that manifests not only through this element but the structure of several breakdowns and also the sort of strange division in the song titles and lyrics, which seem pretty evenly distributed between brutal death tropes ("Manifesting Obscenity", "Crowning the Abomination") and stuff which seems more straight up hardcore... ("Decline", "The Consequence", "Kingmaker", etc). Whether or not this was a conscious decision or the band just didn't deign to concern itself with how its aesthetics were discerned at large, it's definitely a little strange and I did feel like this record felt more like a mild identity crisis than countrymen like Dyscarnate who might cultivate a cleaner appearance than the standard cemetery hesher, but are for the most part playing exclusively within the Floridian death metal wheelhouse of inspiration.
There are still a number of moments framed within this album that give me exactly the same sort of fist-balling, pummeling thrill as I found on Surpassing the Boundaries of Human Suffering, and yet as a whole this album felt largely inconsistent, with any decent tune separated from its qualitative peers. A lot of the faster, tremolo picked riffing patterns are lifted directly from your usual sources like a Cannibal Corpse or Suffocation, and even when they get something going they often throw in those gang shouts which completely took me out of the carnage. Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to that sort of vocal approach in a lot of classic hardcore, even some thrash metal songs, possibly even outside the normal sphere of where it belongs, but I just didn't feel like in these particular tracks, the tactic was really adding as much of an eclectic departure as Ingested might have hoped. A few other distractions like the predictable squealing breaks ("The Digusting Revelation") often felt like they were just sort of incorporating the death metal playbook rather than improving on it or writing their own combinations. And many of the rhythm guitars just feel like the first thing someone lacking inspiration would mete out when first lifting an instrument...
Production is still crystal clear here, with an appreciable processed crunch to the guitars and a lot of volume to the vocals. Some of the drums sound fairly mechanized due to the mix, especially the tom tones, but this is par for the course when we're talking about most modern death metal so I don't think that would detract from younger listeners or fresher ears who aren't overburdened with nostalgia for 'the way it used to be' to the point that they'd challenge the decent level of skill and energy here in the performance. All told, though, The Surreption never hits that almost hypnotic, battering stride that the debut did on 4-5 of the tracks of its run time. I won't argue that there is more variation to this, but that variation does not translate into quality and the few bits where they adhere to what made the prior disc a solid, forceful experience are mundane by comparison. Lyrics are also pretty obvious and bland in most cases, fiery but vague and cliche.
Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10] (my time is almost near)
Thursday, January 8, 2015
Still a lot of standard blasting mechanics here, with an interchange between growls and higher scraping rasps circa the legends of Carcass, albeit with nowhere near as much carnal character (not even as much as Deicide, who would spit them out in conjunction to create their signature sound). One new thing I noticed was that in a tune like "Sower of Discord" or "Antithesis", they've incorporated a slight black metal approach with some of the dissonance chords they affix to the blasting segments, and these even extend further into some of the airier, atmospheric sequences (as in the same track). Note for note, I felt that there was just a lot more variety to what the band from the weirder pauses in the action that they include in "Rapture Through Bondage" and "Forging the Sanctuary" itself. The leads are far better designed than On the Frontline, to the point that some of them are even compelling, and the other melodic touches offer a little balance to the robust butchery they tend towards.
The death/thrash breakdowns are more explosive and exciting, and though the production of the guitars isn't much different than the first album, it just feels more incendiary and razor-sharp, capable of bleeding more from the listener's attention span. I also have to give props for the Dan Seagrave cover artwork, a good choice and a striking image that is one of the better he has created in years, with that elongated papal figure on its throne of gold and wretchedness. Granted, like so many death metal albums, the image is evocative and exotic and then the music is far less inventive or capable of manifesting aural escapism with the audience, but then Defaced doesn't really have the convenience of doing 'a new thing' like a lot of the bands were doing in the late 80s or 90s. As it stands, though, Forging the Sanctuary is superior to its predecessor in categories, and marks a young band making its ascent...how far is anyone's guess, but if they can continue to extricate more interesting melodies or atmospheric breaks from the banal punishment of their roots, they'll be on to something.
Verdict: Win [7/10]
Tuesday, January 6, 2015
To be fair, these guys (not to be confused with The Defaced of Sweden who performed a more groove/thrash metal style) draw upon some older influences than most arpeggio freaks and tech wankers eschew for their Suffocation/Necrophagist-born songwriting chops. I was hearing quite a lot of British death/grind influence, particularly the battering force of Napalm Death and the sort of everyman growling and presence of 90s Benediction, with some of the brickwork no-frills applied punishment of Danish veterans Panzerchrist or Dutchmen Houwitser. Very precise blast work balanced off against slower, Morbid Angel-chugging miasma with double bass. Cookie monster gutturals delivered against the snarling contrast of death and grind pioneers. A rich, churning guitar tone which doesn't ascribe to the Swedening and gives the album a production value well beyond your average unsigned act.
They vary up their pretty standard tremolo-picked phrases/blast progressions with a couple of leaden grooves circa Sepultura's style (without going anywhere near nu-land), but often lay into a pure grinding headache, or some slower death/thrash patterns that feel like meatier Slayer chugs. Not averse to leads, they often rely on bluesier basics gone wild than anything more caustic, atmospheric and unnerving which a lot of their influences thrived on. And this all sort of contributed to a mere lukewarm reaction I had to the tunes here. Once in a while you've got a tune like "Departure to Hell" where they focus on a few peppier death/thrash riffs which lean more towards the melodic death structures of mid-era At the Gates, or some truly punctual palm-muted breaks of a Fear Factory caliber, but as you can sort of tell reading through this, the band just never develops a distinct style of their own, molded strictly upon the trodden grounds of their forebears without making it feeling fresh, vibrant or even really nostalgic.
There are other bands like Coldworker that have done a better job of integrating all these old school pummeling death and grind inspirations into better riff fixtures, where On the Frontline simply seems substandard in its construction. By no means is it a bad album, and the members apply themselves to their instruments with concussive integrity, but there are few if any guitar riffs which stand out among the legions here and even the song titles feel a little blase and unoriginal. I mean..."Pleasure to Kill"? I'm not saying old bands have some inviolable right to the use of these words, but do a little homework at least. You probably don't want to name tunes after verified classics, especially when they don't even have a shadow of a prayer of living up to them.
Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]