Saturday, May 23, 2015

Light Force - Mystical Thieves (1988)

I hadn't listened to Mystical Thieves in approximately 25 years, since I discovered the cassette haunting a discount bin at a record store at the local mall, and thought the cover artwork was cool enough to take it home for a few bucks. Pure Metal Records had a bit of a reputation as a Christian metal label, sure, but at the time I was around 15-16 and religiously independent (having walked out on confirmation at my parents' church), I was never one to really hold this as a sole reason to avoid a band. In fact, I had a number of pretty decent Christian thrash and heavy metal tapes in my stash, with names like Vengeance Rising, Deliverance, and so forth, and for all external purposes the Light Force sophomore seemed like it might join them...

...which, of course, was wishful thinking, because Mystical Thieves sucks. The few among you who might even be aware of this band probably recognize it as Australian Steve Rowe's previous band before he launched Mortification, a heavier thrash/death metal outfit which has gone on to produce a rather long and prolific career which even had some material licensed to labels like Nuclear Blast. I am not a big fan of that band, never have been... a few of the earlier CDs like Scrolls of the Megilloth had some potential there, but although the lyrics were fairly Christian all along, the band seemed to dumb itself down on subsequent releases through the 90s. Love them or hate them, though, this man soldiers on; irregardless of what the extreme metal audience thinks, there is no question he is pretty serious and unshakeable in his commitment to both his faith and his bog standard death metal. All the power to him, or Power to get the point. But speaking of 'power', Light Force is considered one of those earlier examples of power metal which was difficult to distinguish from the later phase NWOBHM of the time...certainly it has little of the fire and fury of the USPM in the 80s, or little fire and fury AT ALL.

Rowe was the bassist here, and he's perhaps the album's most overt culprit of Steve Harris' playing in Iron Maiden, with loads of pluggy, driving triplets that combine with the melodic guitar harmonies to produce an atmosphere highly redolent of things like Number of the Beast, Powerslave, Piece of Mind and Somewhere in Time; whether trudging along or erupting in an anthem speed much like they do in the album's titular opener. The problem here is that the riffs are just so bloody uninspired, that even as a teen I found them mind numbingly boring and predictable in an era that was producing works like Thundersteel, Master Control, No Exit or even Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, which is more or less everything some of these songs attempt, but exponentially superior. The beginnings, middles and ends of these cuts are quite uninspiring while a little TOO inspired, and there are lots of choices that don't really make much sense, seemingly amateur like when Rowe starts frenzying on the bass at the end of the opening cut, only to have it all just...whisked away.

Even worse, the singer here is just so painfully average that it feels as if he's extremely hung-over and just trying to make anything stick. Not the worst intonation I've heard, but he hangs out too much in that upper mid-range, sounding sloshed and entirely incapable of tackling a proper chorus. Hell, if you're going to be doing a Maiden-ish thing, wouldn't you want a singer who can dominate the material with some range and power? There are particular tracks where he gets more potent to the degree that it doesn't come off offensively lazy, but generally these are also tunes where the rhythm guitars  also come together in a more powerful, if not any more memorable combination like in "Crossfire" or the more forceful, speed-metal approach of "City Streets", which is a style I wish they would have adopted on far more of the album, since it shows a meaner edge and kind of abandons the aimless airiness of the title track. But then, there is very little consistency on the record for which they could capitalize on such momentum..."Metal Missionaries" feels like so much tired mid paced Judas Priest worship, while "Searching" had a few insipid callbacks to Sabbath stuff.

If the music is weak, the production is weaker, with Rowe's bass level set just about the same as the rhythm guitar, stealing some of its bite without supplementing enough low end thunder. It all feels thin and wimpy, and the drums sound like they're being played half the time by banging on tin cans and bicycle chains. Very little force or muscle. Perhaps the only part of the music that felt slightly invigorating were when the leads broke out over some of the rhythms in the bridges, they definitely have that feel of wild abandon so precious to traditional 80s speed, heavy and power metal, but it's such a chore to get around to them that who even cares? In the end, Mystical Thieves is just dull and third rate Australian metal with nothing going for it when you could just put on the Hobbs' Angel of Death and hear how it really needed to be done. Rowe would move on to bigger and better things, because Mortification was certainly a step up from this, but the Light Force sophomore seems in retrospect just a waste of decent artwork with an evocative 70s/80s Michael Whelan feel.

Verdict: Fail [3.5/10] (No, no, no mind control, it's a Satanic craze!)

Monday, May 18, 2015

Six Feet Under - Crypt of the Devil (2015)

For Chris Barnes and Steve Swanson to 'arm' themselves with a trio of Cannabis Corpse members on this 11th (original) studio album turns out not only to have been an interesting ploy, but one that more or less pays off, giving the long mediocre act a fresher sound that complements the veteran vocalist's gruff delivery with some more elaborate and intricate musicianship. That's not to imply that Crypt of the Devil is somehow flirting with technical or brutal death metal territory, but the riffs themselves here have a  more insistent, consistent, compelling quality to them which offered me a lot more mileage and unpredictability than the lion's share of garbage mock tough guy Obituary grooves that populate the 6FU canon. In fact, in a different world, where the band's career had ignited with the shockingly memorable Undead, my raining favorite of their catalog and the only one I own, and then suffered a few growing pains with the less impressive Unborn, and at last ended up here, I don't think this band would have ever had such a frustrating, divisive response from the casuals and haters.

Crypt of the Devil is not exactly the second coming of The Bleeding, and I've already hinted that it does not surpass the catchy Undead, but it's interesting how it partially mirrors recent Cannibal Corpse fare like Torture in its construction. The riffing progressions here are corpulent, adventurous in a semi-clinical death metal fashion, often akin to records like Bloodthirst which rank among Barnes' alma mater at their prime. Though some of the punch to the patterns does exude a Cannabis feel, the guitars are more muscular in the Six Feet Under fashion, the bass lines oozing like a leaky whiskey still into the swamp water, and a few bridges accelerate into some tense patterns where a few more melodic, trilling hooks offer aural callbacks to Barnes' most famous appearances. Some of the harmonic guitars splayed out over meatier rhythm tracks in lead hooks feel similar to what Carcass did on their reunion record, and even though there's a general sameness between a number of the cuts, you can often expect the unexpected, with a great lead sequence or riff break coming out of nowhere which is suddenly more adept and memorable than the rest of the disc. The drumming and bass often ceded to the density of the riffs, and Barnes growls a little too monotonous for what is happening around them, but that was occasionally the case on Undead and it did not dull my reaction to the songwriting whatsoever.

Coupled with the classic death metal cover artwork, Crypt of the Devil is really just what these guys have been capable of delivering to us all along, when they weren't too busy being lazy with lopsided, meat head groove death. It feels like both a self-tribute to those final years of Barnes' run with his old band, and a more involved and musical direction for the band to progress towards in the future, even if these particular player were only along for the studio album itself. It's not going to be a popular opinion to take the guy seriously after so many years of keyboard crusader mockery through the metal underground, but it very clearly sounds like that more legitimate Six Feet Under, akin to what we heard three years ago that turned at least my reality upside down. This is unquestionably the death metal that these men was always meant for, almost entirely eschewing the dumbed down formulae that filled out so many of those first 15 Metal Blade years, and while Crypt of the Devil is hardly the stuff of legend or even the stuff you'll be humming along to in your head six months from now, I am enjoying an age in which I'll see this band's logo somewhere and not take the easy reaction to write it off. Just Death Metal 101, straight from one of the campus alumni and assisted by a number of ace grad students who want to make him sound as good as possible.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, May 11, 2015

Throes - Dissasociation (2015)

It's instantly obvious, even without hearing the music itself, that England's Throes are going for a different angle within the black and death metal spectrum, starting with a simplistic cover image redolent of hardcore records from about 10-20 years ago, and then following through with a lyrical concept that deals more heavily in substance addiction and personal trauma than the occult, winter, or ancient civilizations. I'd hesitate to dub them 'urban black metal', but clearly Disassociation is a record aesthetically cast in the vein of December Wolves' streetwise black/thrashing epic Completely Dehumanized, or several of the works by their own countrymen Anaal Nathrakh, who have a more brick-in-the-face sound than this, but also dabble in a mix of the extreme metal medium with flourishes of electronics, ambient and industrial nihilism. You won't find such a massive level of diversity on this particular record, but even within the tighter constraints this duo has manifest I heard anything from Godflesh to Ulcerate to some of the most ceaselessly intense and blasted black metal the Scandinavian territories have ever produced.

Legions of razor-edged tremolo pickings fluctuate against higher-pitched, dissonant atmospherics to produce an unsettling but persistently forceful experience, while the drumming is more or less an engine of madness firing up every nauseating narcotic fit of the rhythm guitar. Bass lines are crud coated, sparse grime like what you'd find on the hull of some filthy cargo liner left in a polluted port too long, and then the resulting mass of writhing, blasting. It's not punishing to the point of monotony or irritation, because the duo knows precisely when to let an atmospheric passage take over the proceedings, where simpler guitars will simmer off a more minimal beat and the caustic growls are spent with a little more tortured sustain. A lot of rhythm guitars in tunes like "Narcoanalysis" are used as an additional layer of percussion, creating this whirlwind of syringes and despair that escalates into thicker, monster double kick batteries that leave you so bruised that any release from their racket becomes a relief...and this will come in the form of creepy, cleaner guitars, samples and other embellishments which serve the discomfiture of the theme they're exploring. Sometimes this takes on an almost surreal abstract, dissonant fusion quality which feels like you're being rushed through an Emergency Room through various flows of time...faster...slower...

Sanity waxing and waning, life mistakes flashing before your eyes in a heartbeat. And to boot, the disc is fairly short, not overstaying its welcome. Neither does it tax the listener to the point where he or she becomes too exhausted to ever want to ride the coaster again. Throes stays in character for the full five cuts and 34 minutes, but there is just enough unpredictability to each individual piece that you won't ever quite work out exactly where it's going until the storm is already knocking on your door and by then it's usually too late to find shelter. There are certainly some riff progressions which are stronger than others, the latter usually being those that are used as chugs and 'emphasis' for a more strenuous, muscular production, but even if this is one area that lacks a little nuance, the guitars are not all mindless and meandering, but rather focused and functional, flossing your brain with callous barbwire at their most active, lulling you into a cruel insecurity when not. As extreme as it gets, the album is not about showing off, but about contrasting the experiences of flailing anxiety, vertigo, nightmare and self-annihilation with sedation. Only a coma can cure it, just hope you'll wake up from this one.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, May 8, 2015

Morbid Angel - Juvenilia (2015)

One has to wonder: is the title of this retro live album released for Record Store Day 2015 simply a nod to the fact that its date of recording (November 1989) being a moment in Morbid Angel's formative, 'juvenile' (aka important) history, or is there something potentially backhanded going on as some sort of meta reference to the overwhelmingly negative response to the band's last full length album where they suddenly thought they were Nine Inch Nails and Ice T? Obviously it's the former, right? At any rate, at least they got the wretched 'J' out of the way in their alphabetic catalog titling, and this is a limited release 12" record which some people will feel really lucky to have picked up, and the rest will just have to borrow it from one of said lucky individuals or listen to a rip online. Like its cover artwork and title imply, this is all material from a single gig, in Nottingham, in the late 80s, which means it involves Altars of Madness and little else...fine for me, since that happens to remain my favorite Morbid Angel disc.

In fact, it's pretty much that entire album, only performed in the live setting and not a particularly good recording, so I'm willing to bet the album ends up as a collectors' trophy, perhaps hanging on a bedroom or basement wall for cred, and not listened through very much. That's not because the band does a poor job of it, in fact the music hits here just like the wall of force it provided in its studio incarnation, only being a relatively primitive gig recording I feel like the bass and rhythm guitar levels kind of blend into this monotonous murk slightly upstaged by the clap of the snares and cymbals and the roiling bark of David Vincent. You can make out the gist of the notes on parade, and sure they sound just as fresh and evil structurally as they should have in '89, especially during the percussion breaks in tunes like "Immortal Rites" where the tremolo picked guitars break out on their own. As a whole, the recording is rather clean, the pacing of the set non-stop and furious, but it all just feels rather dry due to the restraints of the equipment used to capture it, and there is just no situation in which I'd ever want to listen to this over Altars of Madness itself, where you get all that depth and vivid, extradimensional carnage. I mean, Earache and the band know this, thus the limited number of copies...more confidence would mean more in circulation, in more formats.

So it's visceral, and the band were ablaze at the dawn (and arguably summit) of their career, but the reels here just don't do the songs as much justice as you'd hope. Which is, let's be honest, not going to bother a lot of underground death metal fans who seek out demos and rarities and thrive off the very primacy that the older recordings espouse. It's still a thrill to hear "Chapel of Ghouls" and "Lord of All Fevers and Plagues", and if you're a huge Trey fan, he starts sporadically showboating for a few moments after "Chapel...", which is frankly irritating and unnecessary in any context, at any time.  I guess my one takeaway here is that it just reminds me again of how great Altars was, and I hope the band sit there with this on a stereo, laugh at the shoddy recording quality (not the worst I've heard, but not very good), and then suddenly get swept up in reminiscence of when they were on top of the freaking world. After which, I sincerely hope they channel the nostalgia into their next studio recording, because I feel like they've been firing blanks since good old Y2K and I'm all about redemption. This is certainly a band capable of reining in the chaos of their roller coaster existence, and I want to believe they shall once again. But no matter what happens, we'll always have Altars of Madness, and at the very least this live recording reminds us (or reveals to us) how incendiary they were in front of a crowd. The band on this vinyl was a great one, regardless of any auditory deficiency.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Skyforger - Senprūsija (2015)

While a large percentage of the pagan/folk metal crowd seems to have reduced itself to a band of lively, gallivanting minstrels who have watched Lord of the Rings and Braveheart to the point they can recite them line for line, there are particular bands among the lot which have long stood head and shoulders above their stylistic peers. Latvia's Skyforger is one such name, a group that has always taken itself and its devotion to craft quite seriously, and perhaps more importantly, offered us an historical view of a particular culture and region of the world that many of us Westerners might not be so well versed in. Granted, not all of us are necessarily going to understand the lyrics until we have translations available, but I personally don't enjoy the aural ingestion of these records nearly as much as when they are offered in the native tongue, and judging by the relative popularity of records in Norse and/or Finnish, I do not feel the language barrier is much of an obstruction at all to anyone seeking sincerity.

Though several of their earlier albums were cut more directly from a black metal cloth, the band had taken a turn for the slightly more accessible with their prior record Kurbads, which was among their best material to date, and sixth album Senprūsija ('Old Prussia') is a loyal followup to that with grimmer artwork and a lot more aural callbacks to older discs like Kauja pie saules (1998) and the Latvian Riflemen (2000), meshing together lattices of inspired, memorable Scandinavian-style black metal riffing with some overt heavy metal and blackened thrash influences. It's not that they constantly innovate the chord progressions, but they take great care to ensure that almost every guitar pattern on the record sticks to the ears, and there is this constant variation in the rhythms which is a mix of lethal intensity and more celebratory pomp we generally equate with the folk metal medium. The guitar tone is rich but cutting, anchored by just the perfect level of buzz on the bass and constantly punctuated with tasteful leads that honor a hard rock tradition without ever becoming exceedingly flashy or frivolous. Curious harmonies and an excellent balance of the drum kit round out the production to what is possibly their best ever, and I found there is nearly no means by which I could predict what exactly was about around most corners in the songwriting, though they never break their character.

Character. That's so important here, and rather than some bunch of misplaced teen angst troubadours diddling their fiddles in the Renaissance Faire restrooms, Skyforger wins on personality over just the novelty of mixing heavy guitars in with traditionally inspired ballads and chords. Peter's vocals continue to serve as a Latvian analog to the great Martin Walkyier (Sabbat, Skyclad), gruff and growled and appropriately ugly alongside the deeper, clean backups; this approach happens to function fluently with the language, and the lack of anything remotely silly going on in the background enforces its efficacy. At the same time, I don't want to make this seem like its overly misanthropic or spiteful sounding music. Aggressive and well balanced, but there's a hearth-like quality, a warmth and pride that resonates through the structure of the songs, and the rawness of the bass and bleeding of some of the tremolo picked guitar lines never completely jump ship on that underground black metal aesthetic which permeated the first few records. This is a good band. The near hour of material they've assembled is extremely consistent, with many of my favorite tracks ("Melnas buras", "Nekas nav aizmirsts") coming even in the latter half when most albums' fire has already died down, just ceaseless successful recipes of traditional heavy/speed, black and thrash licks dowsed in the cauldron of history. Take the ladle and drink.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]