Friday, February 26, 2016

Omnium Gatherum - Grey Heavens (2016)

My biggest complaint with Grey Heavens is that it's almost entirely the product of a band resting on its laurels, having evolved very little from Omnium Gatherum's roots during the onset of Finland joining the melodic death metal boom of the earlier 21st century. It risks almost nothing, simply attempting to tidy up on elements of studio production and the balance between those slightly prog metal licks and ideas that have saturated the band's sound through their seven album journey. So many of the riffing structures here sound as if they've been inspired wholesale by bands like Insomnium, Kalmah, Children of Bodom, Soilwork and Dark Tranquillity that I had a problem trying to discern any genuine identity, but at the same time it's quite true to the initial stakes planted with Spirits and August Light, a disc that was honestly pretty good for its there is the potential that some portion of its audience will find fulfillment that those roots have been exhumed and exonerated, even if the Finns rarely strayed too far from the proverbial litter.

Otherwise, this is functional, highly melodic death with the same deep guttural presence that they've more or less always used, in the lineage of the growls used by bands like Sentenced and Amorphis during their primes, and really similar to Insomnium. Occasional vocal clean passages are present, sounding relatively smooth and soothing, while not coming off terribly trite or hokey. The primary ingredient to this is the guitars, though, and how they weave off with the synthesizer to provide that same contemporary, sleek cubicle feel the band has been courting for several records now. Almost too clean for its own good, but I get the feeling this is due to a lot of exposure to progressive rock and metal bands like Dream Theater and such and attempting to genuinely intersperse them with the death growls and Sweden-like harder rhythmic guitar passages. Most of the note progressions and constantly erupting melodies and harmonies attempt to spread a 'warm feeling' through the listener. This has never been a dissonant, 'evil' sounding act in the slightest, and I feel like a handful of tunes here do accomplish their goal rather well. In particular, tracks like "Frontiers" which start off hitting quite hard and then cede to some of the most memorable, developed calm sequences where those airy, polished vocals are most welcome.

In fact, there's probably an EP's worth in here which would stand alongside Omnium Gatherum's strongest material, but that largely inhabits the middle and end of the album, and you've got to make it through a couple less inspired openers to get there. Much of the melodic component is simple, pop oriented and predictable, but that doesn't diminish its catchy nature once it arrives. The drums and guitars sound about as up front as you'd want for such a mainstream friendly mix, but there's still a little dynamic range in how some of the lighter guitar leads stand out against their supports. I do think there's an issue of relevance with this style in the current age, a bygone proposition, but then I'm also someone who enjoyed it about 12-15 years ago, so I can't fault a band for sticking to what it knows best. That doesn't exempt Grey Heavens from the notion that a little more risk taking could go a long way to helping refine and reform the style, but I don't think fans of their last few albums would find this a disappointment once they get into the meat of the track list. There's enough going on here that I enjoyed it a little more than Beyond, and fans of catch-all 'extreme' progressive/death metal bands like a Ne Obliviscaris might give it some new life, but I still can't help feel that a course has been run and the niche is in dire need of a creative defibrillation.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Friday, February 19, 2016

Rotting Christ - Rituals (2016)

Rituals is on one hand a monument of Rotting Christ's trajectory towards a near-complete saturation of the mythic and mystical in their compositions. It might feel uncanny to label this as 'folk', but a lot of the charging, galloping charioteer rhythms so pervasive in their last 10-15 years of work are out in full force, to the extent that they, along with the multiple layers of chorus vocals shouted with maximum amplitude and testosterone, have become the primary component in the Greeks' music. It's not out of the question to consider what the band has become the aural, metallic equivalent to the Trojan War, only somewhat less long-winded and intricate in its details and designs. Lyrically, this is an album dealing with the dark occult, and that has little to no bearing on the particular imagery it conjured in my skull, but about 50% of the percussive, blitzing, tribal music here feels fit for a duel between Ajax, Paris, Achilles, and Hector in any combination you can dream up. 'Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?'

On the other hand, it's just another slight case of returns diminishing, a half or full rung down the ladder of quality which its Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού began to descend. Glorious, but empty. If I can say one thing that is truly in Rituals' favor, it is the production level. Massive, polished, precise, the low degree of intricacy and complexity here translates into a good fit for the bombastic volume of the somber and rasped vocals, the snares, kicks, overall momentum. Rituals 'sounds' so good that I am almost driven to grant clemency to the fact that there's just not that much here by way of those infectious, 'classic' Rotting Christ guitars that I've been smitten with for over 20 years. When and where they do appear, they instantly shine, like the gleam of a Hoplite's sword after a morning of carnage in the sun. But too much of the writing here focuses on a predictable slog of chords and syncopated rhythms that are meant more as an added layer of percussion than having any melodic capacity. It's as if the band is using two or three drummers, only they had one kit so made the others bang on other instruments, and everything serves as a vehicle for the vocal arrangements; which are acceptable, and bridge the band's obsession between extremity and antiquity, but not enough to inter this album deep within the memory fields.

It wouldn't be a stretch to compare Rituals to a record like Chaos A.D., another example in which a band simplified its approach in lieu of adopting native cultural aesthetics to some of its metal core, only that one really stuck with me (and I know it did not for a great many listeners). Rituals is instead about as exciting as its cover art, another example of the band shunning its great logo for something plain and uninspired, much like its predecessor. I understand this is all to 'let the music speak for itself', but apart from the cultural feel and immersive mix of this album, it didn't end up resonating with me or making much of any statement. A few good licks exist here or there, and in truth a lot of the tunes are well enough structured, but would have been better served with a few extra riffs that deviated into more memorable and unexpected patterns alongside the warlike veneer of the drums and vocals. Like the figure on the cover, it feels like there was initially some life or inspiration here which succumbed to the petrifying gaze of a gorgon. There's a surface pulse, but it could have gone so much further if it had felt fully alive, capable of bleeding. Not an awful effort at all, especially if you're in the business of sacking cities for a member of the fairer sex, but once again I found myself pining away for the elegance of A Dead Poem, Triarchy, or at least some of their more eager experimentation in the earlier 00s.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Monday, February 15, 2016

Rotting Christ - Lucifer Over Athens (2015)

Lucifer over Athens is nothing if not substantial, the live album a format which Rotting Christ has hardly inundated us with through their decades of existence. Recorded on the band's 'home court' over two days of performances, one would suspect all advantages to be pressed with a rousing level of crowd participation and banter, but they really just get down to business, with a staggering 31 tracks and two discs that draw upon nearly every full-length the Greeks have released to the public. The omissions are few and not terribly noticeable or important, even to pundits for the group who have generally obsessed over the band, but might find a few of their studio works to seam together a little too much over the last 10-15 years. There is something here that will align to most of their audiences' tastes, even fans who had dropped off the wagon after their steep ascent in the 90s, a streak of material which in my own estimation they've simply not rivaled or exceeded in many attempts now.

Having seen the band Stateside a number of times, I can actually vouch for the band's live capacity as it appears on these discs. Even when their performance might have been marred by small, dingy port city club sound systems, they were enthusiastic and personable to a fault, excited for the opportunity, and did not lack an emotional presence even when certain instruments wouldn't translate as well to the stage. With Lucifer Over Athens, everything has been smoothed over, balanced. Earlier tunes like "King of a Stellar War" and "The Sign of Evil Existence", or others even older, sound flush with the newer, more percussive, rhythmic, and tribal material they'd been releasing up to this point. Though the disparities in style and structure, the contrasts actually strengthen the performance as it's splayed out across the two hours and 15 minutes of content. Leads and melodies are really clear, the drums are clean, the vocals as blunt and tortured and characteristic as Sakis appears on record, and with the synthesizers and choirs and other elements inherent to the music it gives off a grandiose, vaulting impression in the live environment with just the right level of occasional audience ambiance. Van's bass lines don't always rumble through the mix, but in sparser moments where the melodies are set to soar in, say, a "Demonon Vrosis", it's presence is ramped up considerably.

There are few if any Rotting Christ records I dislike to begin with, so I was predisposed not to take issue with much of the set selection, but even the couple cuts from Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού, which did not resonate with me, come across fairly fresh in the context of this performance, and it's the sort of live experience which made me want to pull out some of the studio albums again and listen through. There is still life left to the band, ideas that can be enmeshed to the unique, simpler broth of black and other metals, and Lucifer Over Athens reminds us of this fact. It might not go down as one of the most poignant and memorable live experiences on a collectors' shelf, and there's a notion in this generation of the increasing irrelevance of such products, but they remain a badge of honor for the older artists involved, and I'd say the Tolis brothers and Season of Mist can pat each others' backs on a job well done. The rest of us can muse over whether we'll another quarter century of Christ to collect into yet another such live package. I'll also add that it was nice to see them display the logo again, prominently; their most recent studio material, marred by some of the dullest artwork choices they've made in decades, has felt tainted for excluding that on the front.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Suspiral - Delve into the Mysteries of Transcendence (2016)

There are certainly a lot of appreciable 'parts' to Suspiral's debut full-length, but the sum does tend to suffer from overwrought compositions which occasionally feel like they just let the tape roll as they crash and crush through every idea in linear succession. The issue is that the songs here never really established themselves for me; they could have probably chopped and lifted a number of the more interesting and explosive riff progressions here into a half dozen less exhausting and more coherent tracks which didn't sound like a demonic lector rattling off tomes of blasphemies to an ever diminishing parish. No prevalent or hypnotic motif ever seems to manifest and cycle back through the errant procession of violence, and as it stands, the three tracks, ranging from around 11-15 minutes each, suffer severe bloat.

That's not to say the Spaniards are incompetent or bad by any stretch; they have quite a penchant for writing these writhing, raw rhythms which they douse in loads of unrestrained leads that seem to create the greatest atmospheric instances on the album (as you'll discover in the bowels of "The Art of Death"). The style exhibited is a fairly evenly distributed blackened/death, with the former coming through in a lot of the bursted tempos, redolent of Mayhem and Darkthrone, or a few of the simpler, slower riffing elements that come from that Celtic Frost/Darkthrone school of thought. The death metal portion of this is largely produced in the growled vocals, but also in a number of roiling rhythm guitars that straddle a primitive death/thrash fence, and the aforementioned wild leads which have that archaic, improvisational feeling of opening up a fretboard without little care or concern for the inevitable destination, as long as the journey itself sounds truly fucking sick. There are also some crunchier, dissonant death/doom sequences to even out the momentum, and a dark ambient passage bridging the first two tracks which was quite cool.

The drums are fairly loose and lethal, but capable of fulfilling any blistering speed necessary. Bass is evident, a quivering canvas of flesh beneath the rhythm guitar razors, but they seem to cut into it before it can discharge a memorable line. The vocals howl and growl appropriately with some windy sustain to them, and give Delve some of that claustrophobic caverncore presence without ever really embracing that niche. Definitely felt like a lot of ruthless, raw early 2nd wave black metal circulating through a death metal anatomy, and I think neither side of the balance wins out. On the other hand, a lot of transitions throughout these tracks feel half-formed, layering one pattern into the next without much of a thought to how they can interact and strengthen each other. As exhilarating as the record can become, not all the riffs are equally resonant and compelling, and there are a whole lot of them in succession, so too few times does something stick and even then it might just disappear. Grimy and insidious, for sure, and the cover art is excellent, but somehow I just couldn't connect with these tunes often enough.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Friday, February 5, 2016

Ecferus - Pangaea (2016)

The way I see it, there are really two ways one could approach a conceptual album about the sprawling Pangaea. One could use the music to represent the seismic aspect, shifting and rifting of land masses in either the formation or dissolution of the supercontinent. Or perhaps one might be more privy to a fantastical interpretation, built upon mythic civilizations, prehistoric creatures and feats of derring do by primitive demigods, the glories attributed to heroes of distant legends that span millions of years. Either would entertain me, but Alp of Indiana's Ecferus sides pretty heavily on the more accurate historical and scientific details, not only of the physical place but the evolution of life and civilization. Akin to what the Canadian thrashers DBC once evoked with their sophomore album Universe, only applied on a more directly terrestrial scale, with more poignant and elegant lyrics, against a black metal background.

The most notable trait of this disc, however, is its rich and textured guitar playing across several levels, which actually conjures a balance of both aesthetics I mentioned earlier. The instability and frenzied component is delivered with the constant rhythmic transformation, between the more traditional tremolo picked passages, dissonant and neurotic chord progressions, and willingness to explore a substantial swath of moods and tempos. But there is that sense of lost majesty and glory too, that 'legendary' element, which is serviced by Alp's commitment to writing chord patterns and tremolo lines that don't constantly conform to a thousand you've heard before. There are always subtleties, ebbs and swells happening across all the tracks that keep the ears affixed, especially when you add over these his multi-tiered snarling and rasping toned which give the impression of some primordial corpse painted shamans watching the world take shape. Enough direct lineage here to the Scandinavian masters of the past, but he's just not copying their notes verbatim, so Pangaea has a sense of freshness to it which has held up through a number of repeated plays.

Melodies and leads are fragile, atmospheric and constantly elevating the riffing subtext, while the beats place an appropriate emphasis on thundering bass that might shake the walls of creation if you could loudspeaker the whole planet; but also cognizant of interesting grooves at points where the aggression cedes to a more jazzy, progressive post-black panorama. Alp is also not immune to the lure of further experimentation, with some dark and throbbing synthesizer driving "The Human Transition", a fascinating opener to what is by far my favorite tune on the album, "Reciprocity of Despair", an onslaught of excellent guitar lines and turbulent, tectonic structures which carries all the best hallmarks of melodic black metal and Morbid Angel-like Cyclopean rhythmic tumult in roughly equal measure. The metal tracks are substantial, ranging from about 8 minutes on up, but there are only four of them, so I never felt like I was becoming exhausted or having my patience beaten out of me. Pangaea is perhaps not universally consistent, and some might not appreciate the vignette pieces as much as the wealthier full-bore compositions, but for just one musicians this proved a formidable introduction, and I look and listen forward (or backwards) to more.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (the animals do grow and change)