Thursday, May 18, 2017

Bifröst - Schlachtklänge (2006)

Once the Spring arrives, and New England receives its inordinate amount of random, record-setting, deep summer temperature days, I find myself playing a game of 'beat the heat' within my listening habits, and thus I search for the most wintry, Nordic stuff lying around in the various plastic piles or on the dusty, forgotten drives on the periphery of my music collection. Having an insane May afternoon at 94 degrees Fahrenheit, I settled my ears on the debut from this relative unknown Austrian commodity, Bifröst, who certainly sound like an antidote for the sweating inferno outside and the two energetic children I spend so much of my time with. Or at least, it should seem that way on paper, but what I wound up with was only a means to amplify my discomfort...

Spoiler: having traveled to the future beyond 2006, and survived, I can assure you that once this group signed to Germany's Einheit Produktionen for their sophomore, they gradually improved to the point that I would call their fourth (and potentially final) record Mana Ewah a solid and entertaining entry into the burgeoning field of European pagan/folk metal, checking off all the right boxes for my ale binges and pretending I am from an Era I am not. For Schlachtklänge ('battle sounds?) that was just not the case, as it suffers from a number of 'rookie' shortcomings that render it ultimately forgettable, if not a complete heap of oxen leavings. Before even listening through the album, you can tell it doesn't look like much, with its muted tree photography, bland logo, but just enough of the right symbology and font to clue you in on what style of music this might be...or at least to point you in the right direction. Really, the middling production and values and appearance hint that this is more or less a demo in album-length, one which sets the ground game from which the band could later sprout some more competent and memorable ideas.

Listen to any record from Turisas and their ilk and you'll hear that they go with the bombastic, sweeping sort of intro which synthesized horns, a clarion call to the goofy warfare that ensues, but strangely the Austrians place a three-minute guitar instrumental, which is surprisingly the best produced piece on the record, but has a kind of bluesy, incidental feel that doesn't quite match up the rest of the material. But then it's off to some mediocre, shuffling, middle placed power chords that are dressed up with folk melodies, all of which would prove passable if the mix were a little more even. The vocal growls feel too muffled, and not even mic'd properly, as if the guy might be blaring the backing tracks and then recording it onto tape. In fact, I wouldn't be terribly surprised if this whole thing was done simultaneously live, it has that sort of boxy, jam-room aesthetic which just doesn't capture for me the frolicking brazenness of what this niche should be all about.

This process is repeated through much of the remainder, with the band struggling to shift up its pacing enough to give the album the variety it deserves. Certainly some of the harmonies, which pitch far over the dingy rhythm guitars, stick more than others, and they show a lot of influence from both the Finnish and Swedish ethnic and melodic death metal scenes, but the production and lack of deviation or risk truly fucks everything over from having a positive impact. To me it sounds like this debut was the product of some well-meaning blokes who heard a couple records by Amorphis and In Flames, but were really into their Finntroll, Ensiferum and Eluveite and felt like bridging these two paradigms into a whole, which they might have done under better studio conditions. Don't get me wrong, there are a half-dozen sailing guitar melodies over the 41 minutes which do take you that glorious inner castle, but the weak, slathering vocal mix and the pedestrian crunch of the rhythm guitar, paired with the submissive drumming and lack of interesting bass-lines, detract severely from its potential.

Again, I don't want to come across too harsh on Bifröst, because they took the right strides to become a better band on their subsequent releases and I'd count myself a fan of at least their last two (in 2013 and 2016). If you're new to the band or just looking for more of that festival folk metal you might enjoy off the European territories, I'd head straight to Mana Ewah and then trace their trajectory backwards for as far as you can stand it. The debut is no diamond in the rough, nor particularly majestic or wintry, desolate or mighty, but a rough template from which the group could throw out the scraps and then run with the strengths. Not totally awful, if you think of it as a demo, but nearly tragic in how some of its melodic components really nailed its vision more than everything supporting them.

Verdict: Fail [4.75/10]

https://www.facebook.com/bifroestaustria/

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Au-Dessus - End of Chapter (2017)

Au-Dessus is a Lithuanian band which is branded as post-black metal but only encapsulates such a sound in vaguely atmospheric terms, due to the bright, powerful emotions its chord patterns tend to evoke alongside the streaks of more conventional savagery that it often fires off into. The layout and packaging certainly seem to be left of center for the medium, with gorgeous imagery and 'class' in the vein of many recordings from the French label Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions; but they don't perform too heavily into either the shoegaze or post-rock styles, and keep the material routed very much in the parent genre, which might not feel hip or fresh enough to some listeners, but personally I found that they offered up just enough individuality and spin on the sound to really hit home.

It does take a couple tracks to really win me over, and with the songs labeled as Roman numerals, you can tell they were going for a sum experience rather than picking out individual highlights. But straight from the start of "VI" (the enumeration continues from a prior EP release), and its slower, biting rhythm and an ominous low choir tone rolling out in an almost meditative manner, you can tell that they're going for a little more of a fulfilling, dynamic range than your garden variety necrotic European black metal entity. This is really brought through in the production, which is huge and clear and bright without sacrificing the aggression the group is capable of ripping into when they explode into a blast beat sequence. The vocals, a familiar, enormous and often sustained rasp, might seem a little more traditional to the style than some of the riffing selections, but I loved how they anchored both the faster and slower progressions with this level of sickening angst that smoothly transitions the two. I think it's the rhythm guitar tone on End of Chapter, however, which exemplifies the record's balance of the jarring and fluid, with a slightly post-hardcore motif embedded in the dissonance of various chord selections.

First couple tunes are solid, no doubt, but once you get into that opening groove of "IX" you're starting to encounter the album's finer moments, where the riffs just cling to your memory with a bit more rock & roll charm. "XI" is also a favorite for its modest but driving, creepy potency. The production and moving nature of their songwriting also has the power to overcome track lengths that I might otherwise find too swollen, especially on the songs near the middle of the order. As with their labelmates Deluge, these guys are extremely consistent, but I find this record a lot catchier and more emotionally resonant. If you're looking for the next Deafheaven or Ghost Bath, you'd be better to seek them elsewhere; likewise, Au-Dessus doesn't get as spastic or grating as modern NYBM like Krallice, but if you'd be interested in what Blut Aus Nord's post-industrial material might have sounded like if it were more vocal-driven and packed a harder punch, track this down.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

https://www.facebook.com/audessusabove

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Rebel Souls - The Forces of Darkness (2017)

Rebel Souls is a project related to another little known German act called Dead Entities' Realm, whose sole 2009 disc To Reconciled Solitude was one I covered some years ago here at the site, a competent approach to progressive and melodic death metal which sort of angled off from the early 90s Death era with some other inspirations that made it better rounded and more robust. This new album, The Forces of Darkness heads off into a far more abrupt and aggressive terrain altogether, a vicious smattering of Polish and brutal death metal over a dependable framework of traditional death metal, with heavy emphasis on riff composition as well as a balance of flailing solos, relentless beats and churning chords patterns that explore a little more of the fret board than you might expect.

I bring up the 'Polish' angle again, because similar to bands like Vader, MasachistHate or Trauma, Rebel Souls are quite adept at giving you that balanced strain of death metal which doesn't veer off into the too wanky or showy area despite the obvious level of confidence and competence here. Loads of frenetic, pinpoint rhythmic chops delivered through the mute picking sequences, prominent and audible bass tones that move with an agility to rival the guitar, and beats that stick effortlessly to the furious level of energy the band generates across almost the entire 28 minutes of playtime. They do not entirely eschew the melody of their other project, but here it's used more like a subtext to just balance out the dizzying levels of punishment, and I'd point out that a number of the riffs here have a clear lineage to thrashing, neck jerking material from several decades ago, only clad in the brutality that the guttural growls and more intense drum patterns offer them. The only place this really lets up is in the album's intro, and the intro to "Doomsday", which are moody, glinting acoustic vignettes set to haunting storms or ambiance, setting up the ensuing onslaughts accordingly.

I don't know if The Forces of Darkness wins a lot of marks for originality, and the riffing choices aren't always going to resonate within your memory forever, but the level of proficiency here in both the performance and the production of the material easily rivals that of bands with decades more professional experience and exposure. For veterans who appreciate this sort of gestalt style which draws on several aspects or categories of its parent sub-genre, this record is the business, and I doubt you can spin it without reveling in its tight execution, never once threatening to overstay its welcome or stray from its clobbering course even when it gives you those few precious breaths of air. Discs like this are almost like the natural evolution of the whole Reign in Blood shtick; just a fast and furious exercise in violent aural art that understands itself all to well, and rather than trying to rock the boat, it sinks it with as much ordnance as the two band members can muster. Did I mention it was just two guys? Yeah, and many groups twice that size don't play this hard. Extra credit for name dropping the German counterpart to Thor.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (shorn of every virtue and passion)

https://www.facebook.com/rebelsouls.deathmetal/

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Damnation - Rebel Souls (1996)

While not an enormous shift in style, Rebel Souls was a clear step forward for this Polish underground act, a more atmospheric and savage application of their Floridian-bred sound to a level that hinges on the brutality of more technical acts of the 90s but does not shake that utterly old-school appeal that the debut generated. They still weren't on a level which could gain them the fame that countrymen Vader had begun to achieve around this same period, but this sophomore was a dependable second stringer on that scene and a record I'll still break out to this day when I'm picking through various obscura from that time period which probably could've garnered a greater cult following if it had the exposure.

In some ways this can come off as a more dense and confusing effort, as if you're being stuck within the flumes of magma on its cover and are being suffocated and immolated simultaneously. The riffs hit harder, a barrage of claustrophobic, almost grinding distortion that channel as much Napalm Death in spots as they do the Morbid Angel and Deicide influences that populated the first record. Bass tone is fatter, the tempos shift on the drop of the time but manage to pull off some stronger transitions even though the rhythm guitar tone can get a little clunky in the recording. The focus here is on more blasted material permeated with atmospheric/ambient passages; a contrast which works well as they set up "Son of Fire", for instance. Overall more intense and musically proficient than prior material, but most importantly I felt like the growling was mixed off better against the lava flows of dextrous percussion and carnal, writhing guitar chords.

They vary the pacing up just enough so that it doesn't become monotonous, and often accent the harder rhythm sequences with cleaner, ringing guitars that give it a more arching, massive feel to it, almost an early experimenter in spots with a style that bands like Ulcerate and Gorguts would take to a far broader, dissonant extreme. The atmosphere is constant without ever choking out the meat of the metallic undergrowth, and the drums are fast and mean and prominently featured. Occasionally they've got some riffs here which are stronger than the rest, redolent of old Death and Obituary and Malevolent Creation, but I'd warn that this is still not the catchiest material of its era...the rushes of leadwork and overwhelming aggression help create an 'overall package' sort of record which doesn't really age all that poorly, seeming just as sinister as it did in its day, especially on cuts like "From the Abyssland" where those eerie low piano keys and choir-like cheesy ambiance inaugurate the serious, punishing turbulence of the band's limbs. Arguably the peak of Damnation, and an album easy to recommend if you're chasing down unsung Polish gems or simply bands in the same wheelhouse as a Sinister, Vader, Morbid Angel, etc.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (let's soar to the sky in red)

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Desperadoz - Call of the Wild (2017)

One of the issues I've taken with most of the Desperadoz records beyond the debut is that I'm a pretty big fan of both the Western and Weird Western genres of film, comics, and so forth, and thus would really like to see bands deliver it unto heaviness...Western Death Metal, Doom Metal, Black Metal, Power Metal, whatever the niche it can burrow itself into, like rounds from a Colt. So I secretly root for bands like this one to take it to the next level and achieve that rare integration of lyrical and musical aesthetics. Yet, a lot of what I hear on their records seems more like worship of big arena hard rock and metal lite from those glorious 80s, as if the idea was inspired more by Bon Jovi's "Dead or Alive" than sticking spurs into something far more potent and aggressive.

Now, to be fair, I think these Germans at least touch upon that Western appeal superficially, as much of their discography feels like you're about to pop in your Silverado or Young Guns DVD, a clear lineage from the sort of big, bright, burly 80s entertainment some of us grew up on, along with Alex Kraft and company. Plenty of bluesy acoustic guitar sequences. Cliche-ridden lyrics that speak to you of the hard life on horseback. The rather obvious saloon fonts used for the rather effortless cover artwork. A solid, atmospheric intro piece that feels exactly like you're strolling into a town alongside some tumbleweeds... whistling, guns being cocked, and a natural swagger to it that simply belongs to this thematic genre. They even manage to draft a couple semi-heavy power/speed licks circa their German heritage mixed with a little late 80s Zakk Wylde-driven Ozzy ("Hell & Back"). Sadly, this level of energy is the exception rather than the rule, and most of the writing is cemented in safe, run of the mill hard rock rhythms that generate little more vitriol than Skid Row; both the riffs and the vocals, with some grooves, some slide guitars layered in there, and not a lot of surprises.

That doesn't make it bad, per se, and 80s MTV purists might revel in how it takes that throwback sound and mixes in a heavier dose of Western, but this and most of its predecessors just don't seem to have a lot of ambition, and I come away feeling as if it was just too snug and comfortable. It's not because Desperadoz bite off any particular band too much...no, even Alex's vocals mirror a little bit of Sebastian Bach attitude, only with a lower range edge akin to Peavy Wagner of Rage, a higher melodic sustain reminiscent of The Cult's Ian Astbury, and some harmonies that remind me of the mid or slow paced hits from the Alice in Chains lexicon. The drums and bass sound bright and clear, and the riffs do possess a degree of variation to round out the album from sounding too samey. The country ballad material ("All the Long Way Home") is a bit tacky, but fits the concept, and the instrumental pieces here actually spin a competent cinematic narrative which I'm sure several directors of 80s and 90s flicks would have loved in their soundtracks.

The thing is, I don't really want Silverado or Three Amigos! in hard rock form. I want The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, or Once Upon a Time in the West, set to some tunes that can thunder across the plains like a desperate gunman and his steed on the run from some pissed off outlaws. Not prim, proper, stadium anthems, but a gritty and grimy orchestra of bullets and knives. Not just 'one shot for the road', but stinking drunk and pissing itself with fear and tension. Call of the Wild has a modicum of spit and fire by hard rock standards, but it just doesn't take enough chances, and ends up with their last couple efforts as an example of good production standards and professionalism without the extra oomph that surpasses an average listen. Plenty of qualities, and thematic qualifications, but every time it spits a little tobacco, it feels like a janitor rushes in to clean it up all too conveniently. Far from a complete bust, but I feel like I'd enjoy these Desperadoz better if they were more pissed and trigger happy.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

http://www.dezperadoz.de/

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Damnation - Reborn... (1995)

It's easy to pore over the Polish death metal scene of the last decade and admit it's one of the very best in the world, with acts like Vader or Behemoth or upstarts Decapitated having vaulted well beyond any barriers to underground legend status, even to penetrate into the mainstream in some instances and territories. But I find it even more curious to dial back the years and observe how such a 'scene' developed, and for the region that birthed the aforementioned there seemed a pretty solid expansion in the 90s when the influential Floridian, Dutch, British, Finnish and Swedish sounds were being intensified or outright upstaged by the emergence of more technical, extreme or brutal strains of death. Damnation seems a band long overlooked, along with peers like Devilyn, Dead Infection, and Atrophia Red Sun; a band who gradually evolved into a potential contender but just never broke the surface membrane of that scene to grow a large audience throughout the rest of Europe and beyond.

Reborn... was the first of the three full-lengths they'd produce, and for my ears, the shabbiest, but not for a lack of trying. The clear inspiration here was early Florida, with a guitar tone and riffing style not unlike veterans Deicide, slightly muffled in the mix on the tremolo mutes, but not enough to hide it's frantic pacing. They branched out a little further than that, though, with a more atmospheric use of the strings in tracks like "Maldoror is Dead", and also possessed an explosive edge on some of the faster tracks which will no doubt bring to mind Morbid Angel or Malevolent Creation. Leads and transitions are often rough spots on this recording, with the former occasionally nailing a degree of evil resonance, but more often a little awkward and undeveloped. The latter sometimes just coming off more sloppy than intended as the drummer throws out some brutal fills, or perhaps it's just the production casting some untoward attention in the wrong places, creating a bit too broad a gulf between the percussion and the guitars. That isn't a complete detriment, however, since I'll grant that Reborn... does gain a boost to its atmosphere thanks to the combination of clarity and crudeness.

Vocals are a voluminous guttural, punctured only by a few sparse snarls, and they too help to round out the mean and murky feel they're going for, spitting forth lyrics about darkness, sorrow, and the occult which were all fairly comparable to other early European death metal acts, with a little of the overt Deicide/Slayer sacrilege for good measure. Some samples and ambient sections are used to decorate the record's playtime, and these feel a little uncouth and undercooked much like their metallic counterparts...cool for the cheesy, ominous horror they allude to, but could have been better implemented to rocket off into the metal segments. All told, for its production flaws and lack of really interesting or memorable riffs, I have to hand it to Reborn... for at least sounding like one of those 'genuine' retro death metal experiences that you can place to the year of its own conception. If you're only seeking to thrust yourself back into that earlier 90s mindset, to submerse yourself in the morbid humours of that decade, then you could probably do much worse...however, I would note that the busier sophomore Rebel Souls is a superior album in most every way, the real hidden gem of their catalog.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (I trample the cross of hypocrisy)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Horde Casket - Xenopocalypse (2017)

Horde Casket's fourth album Xenopocalypse proves to me a more unified, conceptual bludgeoning which pays homage to science fiction horror invasion scenarios in what must be the most direct and unforgiving manner ever...30+ minutes of ceaseless, staggering brutality that at the very least offers some oneupmanship of their prior full-lengths, even if it's not the heaviest and fastest act in the genre that you've ever experienced. One would hope that this might give it a little more of an edge in such a crowded niche of the death metal genre, but where I feel like this one is clearly superior to its predecessor Bloodfiends, and has superior production to their very solid sophomore Slab of Infinite Butchery, it still doesn't stand too far above the heads of its peers as far as songwriting or ambition.

That said, I would not be quick to write this off if you're a purist for the sort of brutality developed in lieu of groundbreaking acts like Suffocation and Cannibal Corpse, or in particular if you're a fan of Californian acts in the medium like Deeds of Flesh, Flesh Consumed or Inherit Disease, because if nothing more, it's well enough crafted stuff that keeps you entertained, if not guessing. I liked the use of the ambient instrumental parts and samples here, they help flesh out the atmosphere of the record, but I only wish they'd include a little more variety in the meat of the material, the death metal itself. Sure, you'll occasionally hear little guitar bits that veers off to the unknown in cuts like "Blood Scorched Earth", but this is all rooted in the blasting, chugging, tremolo picking you'd expect, and while the riffs are better executed and mildly more memorable than on the album previous, and the tempos a little more varied, so much of it treads on familiar ground as opposed to the alien or 'weird' that you'd really hope for when delving into subject matter with such potential as Xenopocalypse.

But it sticks enough landings to make it to the scoring round...the leads, while not catchy, flail around above the roiling, pounding, punishing low end of the riffs like eels or snakes cut in half. They rarely if ever settle for cheap slam grooves here, instead relying on constant brickwork and fret exercises to perk up the listener's attention and never let he or she get quite comfortable. Even were they do, as in the verse of "Planetary Obliteration", they thread enough in there so it feels like the groove isn't too cheap or effortless, more like an engine breaking down and then repairing itself as they thrust into another volatile blast. Small waves of arpeggios and such might seem a little passe for the style, but they keep the listener apprised of which side of the death metal spectrum Horde Casket strives for. The vocals are unrelentingly brutal gutturals, but they seem a little more empowering than in a lot of cases where it becomes monotonous and boring...these give me an Immolation feel which works well contrasted against the far more spry and energetic instrumentation. Along with Slab, this is one of their better albums, and where its so difficult to make a name for oneself in the sub-genre, these guys are another band who seem like they only need a fraction more of a distinction...certainly the raw materials are here through their ability to make the punishing performances seem easy.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

https://www.facebook.com/hordecasketdm/

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Airdash - Vengeance Through Violence EP (1989)

Having seen Finland thrive over the last 20 years in just about every niche of metal that exists, with a particular emphasis in the melodic death, old school death, Gothic and black sub-genres, it is quite difficult to imagine a time in which this was not one of the centers of all metaldom. And yet, the 80s were such a time, with only a handful of heavy and thrash metal bands gaining a reputation through the European underground and potentially whispered about here in the states. Don't get me wrong, there were some GREAT bands from this era, like the mighty Stone, or the classics Tarot and Oz, or A.R.G., or Antidote, but with the possible exception of those first 2-3, you just didn't hear much about this scene over here in the States, and even then only when you went looking. But since I'm occasionally in the habit of jerking some obscurity from the ether, I present to you a limited press EP by another Finnish thrash act known as Airdash, which definitely sounds like a move you'd throw down in an early Street Fighter clone, maybe King of Fighters, Fatal Fury, etc.

Vengeance Through Violence is a three-track vinyl EP released between their second and third records, Hospital Hallucinations Take One and Both Ends of the Path. Or, more accurately, it's a single for one of the tunes off the former album, the title track, packaged with a couple of tracks that are unique to to the 12", or at least one of them is, and another appears to be re-recorded from one of the band's demos. These guys played a style of thrash pretty typical for the time, with meaty riffs that kept busy while hinting only slightly at the technicality other acts from Europe were employing at this same time. I like the brash, raw but brutish tone of the guitars, the winding mute patterns of the title track that keep my head banging up to the chorus with it's excellent gang shouts. But I'll be honest in saying that it sounds a hell of a lot like Belladonna-fronted Anthrax, only with the rhythm guitars more firmly planted in the late 80s Exodus camp. There are plenty of minor differences, but the overall sound is very much an American, urban street thrash rather than the Teutonic brilliance or savagery, and that works for me, because "Vengeance Through Violence" is actually a solid cut.

"Blow Under Belt" is similar, but the guitars patterns here make it feel more like a party thrash version of something that might have been left on Master of Puppets' cutting room floor. Maybe a little Whiplash, Xentrix, or if you can remember the East Coast band I.N.C, it cultivates that sort of silly atmosphere with the way the guitars break up in the chorus. Not a terrible track, but less robust and effective than the first. Sadly, "Cable Terror" with its staggering verse riff progression isn't much of an improvement; despite a great gang shout in the chorus, it just doesn't hook me overall, and I'd even say the production on these two doesn't seem as good as "Vengeance...". In the end, we can figure out why this EP wasn't named after one of those, or why they didn't wind up on the full-length, but I can certainly say that if you're feeling the material, then it wouldn't be a bad idea to check out ANY of their three full-lengths, since it's not a far cry from even the debut Thank God It's Monday. These are hardly top tier, or even B-tier records, but if you're nostalgic for the purity of the scene's underground in the 80s they're nothing I'd scoff at...just make sure you head for whatever you can find from Stone or A.R.G. before bothering.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Lacrimas Profundere - Hope is Here (2016)

For their 11th full-length, Lacrimas Profundere seem to have emerged from the stagnancy of middle-of-the-road Gothic arena rock to produce a sound slightly more compelling, if not entirely vacating the safe zone in which they'd survived for many years. Rather than the predictable, driving guyliner chord progressions, I honestly had no idea what was coming around the bend at any point on this disc, not because it's wildly dissonant or unique, but because it just seems to open up and breathe, to let the band put its ideas to tape without forcing them into corners. Where prior records had offered a slight variation on the accessible Gothic metal common in the Euro countries like Germany and Finland, Hope is Here recalls a hybrid of modern Anathema and elegant British veterans The Mission, with a few flourishes of anything from prog rock percussion to edgy country/folk noir.

It works, and it works fairly well. While the band is still not writing the knockout choruses you'd really need to carry this style into a broad audience, the production is rich and vibrant, the tunes always possessing some interesting undercurrent, and despite how easy it might have been, you can still see a few glints of their heavier, more metallic, chugging roots shining through the emphasis on cleaner strings, pianos, scarce electronics, and subtle orchestration used as an ambient motif to backup the central rock fundamentals that hold up the tunes. Nothing is really off the table, with a track like "My Halo Ground" producing a Middle Eastern vibe through the instruments that steer it, or the title track which is very much a big acoustic/orchestra piece which really feels like you're that kid in antlers staring out over the horizon on the cover. The band knows when to lay into their big chords at precisely the right moment, and they tender those sequences with simple, added melodies. Rob Vitacca reminds me a lot of a mix between Wayne Hussey and Ville Vallo, limited in range but really expressing himself better here than on most of the Lacrimas records I've experienced. The beats are also pretty impressive, using interesting patterns to keep even, simpler, airier moments like the verse of "Aramis" a lot busier than you'd expect, and it pays off once the chorus arrives.

Hope is Here is more or less a modern, Gothic rock infusion of the Moody Blues, just right for those moments driving on an open road or lying under an expansive sky and seeking something that can encapsulate the experience with just the right, moderate level of pacing and depth. Production here is scintillating, thorough, and amazing, and goes a long way to creating compulsion for even the most vapid riffing they might add to it. Lacrimas Profundere have found a way to translate the emotions already present in much of their earlier material to something that is more refined and rewarding, and even if this puts them in a less traveled space where bands like Anathema have divided up their own followings, it takes a lot more guts and dedication than churning out yet another bland effort like Antiadore or Songs for the Last View...not that either of those was an expressly bad record, but they were too easily lost in a crowd of bands that focused in on a sound which was extremely hot for a few seasons and then sort of dispersed, still practiced but never really mastered by anyone who hasn't taken it into a heavier, dirtier Christian Death/Sisters of Mercy direction. This is a good album, and a good place to build from as we follow that balloon across the cloudscape.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (the past is consigned)

http://www.lacrimas.com/

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Lacrimas Profundere - Antiadore (2013)

Lacrimas Profundere is a band which has more or less followed the trajectory of legends Paradise Lost, originating with a Gothic doom aesthetic and then gradually transforming into a far more accessible brand of man-mascara rock which mirrors the sounds that Finnish acts like H.I.M., Entwine and Charon made pretty popular in the earlier 21st century. That's not to say it can't be done well, for instance I really enjoy the band To/Die/For, who brought a lot more of an 80s pop flair to the style with some catchy keyboard lines in amongst the head banging. But there's certainly a trend that a lot of these bands end up with their backs against a wall, using the same familiar chord patterns repeatedly since bands like Sisters of Mercy or Type O Negative made them redundant, and I feel that these Germans, despite having an unquestionable level of class and professionalism, don't really stick their toes outside the safe zone enough to leave much of an impact...and they haven't in a long time.

Antiadore is their 10th full-length record, and it more or less employs the tropes and conventions we've come to expect from this sort of watered down Gothic metal which lacks most of the frills and genuine darkness of the genres which inspired it. Safe verse/chorus song structures, choruses that are not too high in pitch but go for a clear level of radio appeal, solid fashion sense, marginal use of electronics which can add some nuance to the predictable chord patterns. Once you've heard a track or two on a record like this, you're pretty much heard them all, the only variations are in the minor details like subtle shifts in tempo or particular melodies used to layer over the chords. Rob Vitacca has a seasoned, graceful voice, but there is little range, and for that reason a lot of his lines feel rather samey with not only their neighbors here, but the last half dozen or so discs the band has released. The drums and bass are well mixed and appropriate, but never stand out on their own, leaving the full emphasis on the riff passages and vocals, which unfortunately do not deliver much beyond the usual four chords. When the band goes 'heavier', it's simply safe groove metal patterns which are used to get the blood flowing temporarily until another of these maudlin, mediocre choruses...

Occasionally you'll hear a harsh vocal, but it sounds really out of place, overwrought in an attempt to channel genuine pain and emotion, where proper Goth rock or Goth metal needs no such gimmick. The lyrics and song titles are generally just cliches or cultivate imagery you've already seen in this niche a million times, and in truth there is next to nothing which separates the songs on a record like Antiadore from commerial, mass appeal rock music, except maybe a little more guyliner or the clubs and crowds that this might be played at or adhere to the genre. Here in the US, this style had very little impact beyond H.I.M. or Sentenced; even when Paradise Lost was nailing this sound with a catchier and slightly 'edgier' record like One Second it wasn't being talked about. It seems like by about 2013 this would feel out of date, or the band would adapt once more into something new, or a blend of their older/later styles for variety, but Antiadore is about as bland and insipid as you can get...I kept waiting for one song to really hook me in, but most of them were simply the sort that might have been memorable if I had heard them 'first', 25-30 years ago. It's far from a bad album, since the band is so slick and confident at playing it safe, but they need to throw a lot more curve balls, atonality or dissonance or eeriness or haunted atmosphere to do their meta-genre justice.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]


http://www.lacrimas.com/

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Nocturnal Witch - Summoning Hell (2014)

Summoning Hell might not prove the Next Big Thing in terms of an ever broadening pool of blackened thrash and speed metal, but what it does represent is one of those rare cases where a band somehow manages to improve itself without broadening or diversifying its stylistic or aesthetic portfolios by even a few hairs' breadth. The debut full-length from Nocturnal Witch is simply better crafted, better produced, and better executed than the Into Dungeons EP, as if the members had some infernal flame lit within them that steered their hands, feet and lungs to better riff patterns, harder hammering beats and more grotesque, resonant guttural snarls. None of this is accomplished by reinventing its niche, this is as straightforward as the style gets, but it's fun enough to remind you of the first few records you heard of its type and why they can take such simple, established riffing tropes and a raw, unforgiving atmosphere and carve out some menacing black metal.

Guitar progressions are still mired completely in a hybrid of pure punk/speed metal chord patterns and tremolo picked, mid-paced black metal riffs which have a little of the fell melancholic to their melodies which was a very popular thing in Swedish black metal throughout the 90s. Leads and tinnier melodies are cast about the atmosphere to create an even more dire effect where they appear, and all the riffs just grind off Tyrant's vocals like a bunch of grave soil cascading off a smoldering animated corpse as it crawls out of the graveyard. The whole mix sounds brash and hellish, with simple bass lines and beats that don't offer much by way of interesting fills or technicality, but spur on the galloping hellishness of cuts like "Among the Ruins of the Dead" and "Black Death". The construction of the chords and the overall style owes a hell of a lot to the usual suspects, and you'll hear echoes of Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer, Slayer and early Kreator, but when played with some piss and fire this is simply not a style that I find myself tired of, it almost always engages the angry adolescent hesher spirit inside me unless it's meted out very boringly, which this is not.

Not to say that Summoning Hell is this riffing monstrosity, because it thrives wholly on pre-tested formulae and lacks some of the wilder, frilly intensity that a Deathhammer or Antichrist dishes out on a regular basis, but it's just damn solid and mean sounding and you sound like your rubbing spiked shoulder guards with the opposition at some Abyssal Super Bowl, and that feeling keeps up through the whole 36 minutes, which is a good length, some meat on its bones but never threatening to wear through its warlike welcome. The lyrics also don't bring anything new to the table, amalgamations of many other songs you've read through before, but the conventions and images they produce are once again staples that don't ever fail me provided they are delivered with some vitriol, as they are here. A good effort pays off, and anyone looking into the band, or simply another gem in the bowels of the blackened thrash movement of the last decade, probably shouldn't pass this one up, even if it's not an exemplar of its specific sound.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (burn this planet of sheep)

http://www.realmofthedead.de/

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Nocturnal Witch - Into Dungeons EP (2012)

Blackened speed and thrash metal is one of my favorite niches in all of the genre these last couple years, but it relies so heavily on the traditions of its medium that it can be tough to pull off, requiring a certain level of nastiness, personality and catchy riffing to properly pay tribute to its forebears like Venom. To get that influence across without sounding like some sodden, soulless derivative is no easy feat, so I have to say I feel spoiled by how much of it I've been enjoying lately, from Antichrist and Deathhammer to Satan's Wrath and Erazor. Germans Nocturnal Witch seem to have all the hookups for a success at this style. Some of the live lineup is drawn from bands like Nocturnal, Old, Division Speed and Cruel Force, who all have comparable sounds, and they certainly grab the style by its roots here and give it a good tug, the old Satanic collegiate try.

Unfortunately, it bears little fruit on this EP, because Into Dungeons has all the trappings and none of the charisma to spot its spiked gauntlet, bullet-belted figure among the crowd in which it surfs. Cover looks cool, old school, band name is cool, logo cool, songs sound exactly like they should, but its the riffing pattern and lack of any dynamic force which drags this down. There's no real lack of hellish energy being executed, just a dearth of inspired tremolo picking riffs, or at least those you haven't heard a thousand times. Here, they launch from that rapid fire blackened/speed metal sound into some clamorous, even faster bits, and gang shouts erupt everywhere to fuel the momentum, but while it all looks good on paper, they feel like they're just playing by-the-numbers chord progressions which never take you by surprise. There are no good leads or other distractions to steer you away from this fundamental flaw, and the cuts feel thematically 'appropriate' but dry unless you're just seeking out more of the same pseudo-Satanic swill others have peddled for decades.

Drums and bass are efficient, vocals raucous blackened barks that seem enthusiastic but never really evil enough to compensate that it all seems like sheer testosterone, with little to back it up except the right intentions. The recording itself is fairly level, slightly raw but not obnoxiously so. All in all, if this were something I heard off in the background outside at some hell kegger in the woods, where you weren't allowed without a denim jacket or something leather on some part of your anatomy, then this would probably make for passable background noise, whether live or on someone's beat up beat box in which they were spinning a tape recording. Upon closer examination, however, there is just so much out in this field which has more character, better licks, leads, nastiness, viciousness, etc. Having also heard this band's full-length, Summoning Hell, I can say with confidence that you should skip this and head straight for that, because while it's still not exemplary for this style, it both sounds superior and is written better, with some genuinely good riffs and decent songs in spots.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

http://www.realmofthedead.de/

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Horde Casket - Bloodfiends (2015)

I wish I could say there was some further dynamic growth for these Oklahoma/Texas brutes, but Bloodfiends doesn't deviate greatly from the formula the band sharpened on 2010 sophomore Slab of Infinite Butchery. Granted, for purists of that brutal death metal window of the mid to later 90s, in which bands like Suffocation, Cryptopsy and Cannibal Corpse had left an indelible impression upon the legions of would-be's and hopefuls in their wake, I don't know that that will prove much of an obstacle to enjoying what punishment they do mete out here. Horde Casket is not a band that defines or pushes at any real boundaries. They seem satisfied with a competent emulation of a style they love, and they keep it about as conventional to that form as they possibly can.

And that style is a midpoint between the traditional brutal death metal pioneered by acts like the ones I listed above, and playing catch-up with the more technical acts that have been saturating the 21st century. With an emphasis on the former. Lots of chugging stop/start patterns set-up bursts of quicker riffing progressions that capture the choppy, surgical and clinical feel of their peers, but they rarely unload any memorable or catchy patterns, and even where they do, that's usually on the first couple tracks on the disc, like opener "Back Country Meth Massacre", a re-recording from the band's 2008 debut Landscape of Cadavers. The vocals are a solid grunt inspired by someone like Chris Barnes, only faster and in syncopation with the rhythmic pacing being banged out on the drums and guitar tracks. Bass lines are punchy, solid and very apparent here, giving the mix an even, clear balance against the other instruments, and I would say with certainty that this is the best produced of their albums I've heard to date, a lot more polished and rich than Slab or the band's cruder debut. Competent, well executed brute-craft...

But it does come with a few flaws. For one, I don't really like the lead tone, which isn't used so often but feels like it stands out and stings the ears a little much against the pounding backdrop. There is very little difference between the tracks in terms of content...you'll get the constant chug/burst I noted above, a staple of the genre, and a few breakdown riffs which at best can give you some death/thrash neck jerking but don't feel much fresher than the hyperactive flurries that cede the songs to them. It's also a pretty short album, at least the new, original songs. Roughly 22 minutes, which is not unusual for this style of music, but not once does it take any chances...the weird, guttural glitching intro to "Cerebral Dissection" (another track redundant to the debut) is about the only time any sort of left turn is implicated, and that's over all too quickly. Bloodfiends is consistent, perhaps two consistent, and those looking for atmosphere or a deeper listening experience will be left dry.

The band does round the new and re-recorded material off with a selection of live cuts that swell the length up to around 39 minutes overall, but while these are enough to leave you with confidence that Horde Casket offer a comparable live experience to the studio offerings, they don't sound all that impressive, with the vocals a bit louder, the kick drums almost feeling like coherent static and the guitars, as busy as they are, rather washed out in the back ground. In sum, Bloodfiends feels like a well-meaning and corpulent statement that the band is still flailing its limbs about, but the quality of the material puts a halt to any sense of progression or improvement one might have hoped for after the leap that Slab had made over its predecessor. Not bad at all, but there are a lot of records super similar to this one, on their label Sevared and elsewhere; it isn't really crazy or distinct enough to stand out.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

https://www.facebook.com/hordecasketdm/

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Drug Honkey - Cloak of Skies (2017)

2012's Ghost in the Fire was such an overwhelming paean to human suffering that I doubted in advance there was any 'lower' plane onto which Chicago's Drug Honkey could drag its brand of drudging, urban, emotional doom. I wasn't necessarily wrong with that prediction, but where Cloak of Skies might not exceed its predecessor in some raw torture quotient, it more than compensates with a superior sense of direction, atmosphere and experimental minimalism that creates both a haunting and mesmerizing sonic trip that also had a surprisingly warm side to it, like that feel you get once an Oxycodone has finally hit peak plasma concentration and starts to spread over whatever ails or addiction forced you to pop it into your mouth in the first place.

On the surface, it seems simple, with monolithic, if familiar, slogging chord patterns that feel as if you're watching some rusted, moldering cityscape collapse in on itself, only the occasional flashes of melody created by higher-pitched droning guitars make it seem like the entire scene of decay is being bathed in a radiant, unforgiving sunlight that shines in through the shattered windows, missing bricks and girders on the building frames. Definitely some hints of acts like Godflesh and Jesu here, or on the heavier end of the spectrum the Australian Disembowelment and their highly regarded album Transcendence into the Peripheral. But these comparisons can offer only a starting point, because the specific noises and nuances Drug Honkey mixes into its aural amphetamine don't feel redundant to anything I've really encountered in the past, and I think the industrial, noise and drone influences only strengthen the overall package of this recording so that it crushes you like a hundred simultaneous dystopian nightmares, an album that anyone who survives deserves bragging rights to. There are even saxophones provided by Bruce Lamont which blend eerily well into the composition, as loose as that might seem, reinforcing its urban facade.

For all their minimalist structure and nature, the raw riff progressions here are quite excellent at how they tap into the primacy of the form, as in the depths of "Outlet of Hatred" where a few chords slice through the morass of guttural vocal sustains and other hallucinatory effects that drive the entire, ugly juggernaut forward. Ambiance and feedback are used as sweltering bookends to pieces like "(It's Not) The Way", where Head Honkey exchanges some of his wealth of snarls and gutturals for a clearer, deep, dreary vocal mantra that echoes over the spacious clamor. There are places at which the vocals completely steer and disgustingly define the stoic, sonic backdrop, as in "The Oblivion of an Opiate Nod" which is one of the most grueling and impressive pieces on the whole record. Guitars reach perfect levels of saturation on both the lower ends where they collide with the distorted bass scrawl, and the higher, dirty tones that waft out through the occasional smog-o-sphere. There is nothing clean about this album, it's like a warm bath in rank water, piss, and who knows what else, and yet's it's still a pretty comfortable use of your time.

I'm not completely convinced that the Justin Broadrick remix of "Pool of Failure" (the album's first track) is required to order to round it out as a complete experience, even if it serves as a sort of reprise. So you could cut Cloak of Skies off at at around 44 minutes and be none the worse. But that said, it's pretty fucking cool to have Broadrick himself hack away at one of your tracks, and he does succeed in making what is one of the record's more straightforward pieces a little weirder and more disheveled, while amping up the recognition of his own Godflesh aesthetics. In fact I might like this one slightly more than the original version, but I think it works better when you recognize it as a bonus track and not a core component. Otherwise, I think this is Drug Honkey's best material to date, already on par with Ghost in the Fire about midway through and then hitting that one-two knockout climax of "Opiate" and the title track and dialing it home. Also was impressed with Paolo Girardi's cover art, which seemed a little out of the ordinary for the Italian, but really captures the sounds on display very well. Then again, Drug Honkey is no ordinary client, and the weird, woeful atmosphere they create with just a sliver of ironic grace as well worth pursuing as the end of whatever substance binge you find yourself engulfed in.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

https://www.facebook.com/drughonkey

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Lantern II: Morphosis (2017)

Lantern's 2013 debut Below was one of those debut full-lengths so stacked with both subtle and overt qualities and flavors that it'd inevitably ramp up expectations for anything the Finns might follow it up with. An excellent permutation of the cavernous death metal that has been all the rage these last 5-10 years, it's application of both murk and melody into an unnerving but fulfilling whole set it apart from the lion's share of Incanta-clones who were becoming redundant despite their best intentions. II: Morphosis doesn't quite have the ability to take any listener by surprise the way its elder sibling did, so the duo of Cruciatus and Necrophilos just settled for concocting a damn fine, atmospheric death metal record which replicated most of the strengths of its predecessor but did not by any means clone it entirely. Thus you've got a sophomore which is almost guaranteed to satisfy listeners of records like last year's Blood Incantation full length, Starspawn, in fashioning reliable and well written death metal riff progressions into something of which the sum just feels greater than any individual parts.

Morphosis is not just some roiling, teething, subterranean sounding morass with guttural vocals and no ambition, but instead a sprawling and balanced offering which exceeds the maturity you'd expect after just a few years. The rhythm guitars are less ominous and far busier, the tone straightforward and dry but capable of translating the massive riff set splayed out across the 40 minutes. While they don't perform material which could technically be considered complex, the album nonetheless creates a labyrinthine intensity which never hinges on the predictable. While there are riff patterns in here which might straddle everything from prototype 90s melodic death metal to Scandinavian blackness, the bulk of the chord selections almost felt like a mash-up of the first three Morbid Angel records, with all the speed and hooks of the first and third, with the occasionally slogging malevolence that many associate with the second. Melodies aren't just employed as cheap gimmicks, but often these essential and ritualistic sequences of songs that are often left to their own while light percussion rattles off as accompaniment. They are also prone to a few abrupt stops and starts and occasionally fly off the handle into more chaotic, frenzied moments where there is just enough control that the record hasn't felt like it's gone over the edge into the abyss without a pilot.

The ability to soundscape an atmosphere through the conventional death metal milieu here is just astounding, as in the escalation in the shorter tune "Hosting Yellow Fungi", or the mournful maze of "Necrotic Epiphanies" with all its wailing excess and double kick mashing fury. Lantern take the familiar and reinvigorate by giving it greater breadth and dimension. The vocals aren't just some utterly deep gurgle, but more of a hacked, angry, atmospheric take on something like Barney Greenway meets Steve Tucker only with tons of shrieking and raving for variety. The flexibility of the drumming allows the material to thrive at any speed, whether it's verging on grind or just the more robust, melodic and measured passages. There's also this feeling I got that the record was gradually becoming more immersive and memorable as it progressed, so by the finale "Lucid Endlessness" I felt like I was really hearing the best stuff on the whole album, rapid riffing and dissonant waves spiraling into my ears, until it hits that great, slow and groovy bridge that just carried it off into the nether. Intentional or not, this is a rare reaction I get to an album where it starts off good but then just evolves into blockbuster territory.

All that praise aside, I found it marginally less compelling and resonant than Below, if only because I felt like I connected to that debut's eeriness and its particular melodies slightly more. I imagine for many listeners, it will easily compensate with its more substantial and urgent sense of ambition and its tighter pendulum of structure and chaos; yet I wasn't quite hypnotized as often in listening though. But really we're dealing with apples and oranges, because this band is still at the very summit of the Finnish death metal scene of the present, with so much to offer, a true torchbearer for their forebears like Demilich, Demigod, or Convulsed, only sounding very little like any of those, with a lot more of a US influence to their composition split between the genre's Florida and New York founders. The fact is that Lantern use that simply as a foundation. Where they go with it is anyone's guess, and two full-length records in, they show more practice and potential than a lot of bands with decades more experience, crafting great death metal worthy of the howling planes of Pandemonium.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

https://www.facebook.com/lantern666

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Overkill & Kreator - Man in Black/ Warrior Heart (2017)

You've got to love how the metal press, particularly the metal press in Europe, finds a way to keep its subscriptions afloat in the digital age, and I think a key element of that is the inclusion of special live or unreleased material from popular bands that attract collectors. Germans Kreator have taken advantage of this exposure numerous times, especially in their homeland, recently with their Violence Unleashed EP in Legacy, Live Antichrist album in Metal Hammer, and now another bonus vignette in Rock Hard, who they've teamed up with before for the Terror Prevails live album in 2010. This time, however, they've got New York's Overkill on board, and both are offering something we might not have heard before. Is that enough to pick up (or import) a copy of the Rock Hard #358?

Overkill are no stranger to paying homage to their influences, what with their decent 1999 release Coverkill and various tunes added to other releases, like their rendition of Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein" on Horrorscope, or more recently Thin Lizzy's "Emerald" on The Grinding Wheel. That said, I can't recall hearing them perform a country cover, and what's more, playing the song IN that style, rather than metalizing it. And so they have done here with Johnny Cash's "Man in Black", spun out with Bobby Ellsworth's unhinged screams in a duet with more a straightforward voice. The lyrics aside, this has never been one of my favorite Cash tracks, and so I can't say I was thoroughly impressed by the band playing it close to the original, when a heavier injection might have at least proven interesting, but overall it's a passable version and it's nice to hear Blitz at least try to apply his own distinctness to a pretty mundane musical exercise.

I was far more interested to hear "Warrior Heart", a new Kreator track with a driving melodic death metal feel to it that would not have been out of place on the recent Gods of Violence, or perhaps on some comparable excursions like 2001' Violent Revolution. Granted, there's nothing exceptional here either, and you feel like you've encountered the melodies before across a number of Swedish bands, but it's wholly competent and never a detriment to hear Mille's voice grating over the grace of those airier harmonies, or the straight heavy metal thrust of the bridge and its substantial leads. So this is the side of the split which ended up appealing to me a lot more, it's at least on par with some of the other recent tracks and one could get some value out of ripping an .mp3 of it and tossing it on his or her Gods of Violence playlist.

Overall, it's a decent gimmick that rewards the integral symbiosis of musicians and press, even if the content is rather scant and not all that great. Nothing on the level of Sabbat's brilliant "Blood for the Blood God" flexi in that old issue of White Dwarf, but Rock Hard isn't leaving you with nothing.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

http://wreckingcrew.com/Ironbound/
http://www.kreator-terrorzone.de/

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Overkill - The Grinding Wheel (2017)

New York wildmen Overkill have hit a late career stride that must be the envy of so many peers, with an endless reserve of energy that most younger bands seem unable to match, while keeping relatively loyal to the body of work they built up over the previous decades. To be truthful, you could trace a fairly straight path from their 1985 debut to this latest, 18th full-length album, and the only enormous differences would be the production and a few of the influences that crept into their songwriting, particularly in the 90s. Essentially, The Grinding Wheel serves as a paean to both their high-octane urban thrash and groove metal, proving they still have what it takes to write engaging, violent music that actually surpasses much of what they were putting out 20 years ago, even if it's not quite elevated to that benchmark set by beloved classics like Feel the Fire and Taking Over.

This is a band long driven by the restlessness and street wisdom of its front man, Blitz, and it's par for the course that his performance can make or break even a wholly average set of guitar riffs. And here he turns in an angry, confident, flailing effort right on the level of 2012's The Electric Age, with a lot of snarl and flexibility to his timbre that doesn't rely entirely on the higher range, and excels once the band hammers into some more anthemic, melodic chorus in a tune like "Our Finest Hour". I can't say there is anything here he hasn't hit on in the past, but he sounds great whether the band are meting out faster paced pavement justice or one of their fattened, predictable Sabbath grooves. The rhythm riffs, on the other hand, are really hit or miss, most seeming like they're just paraphrased from a grab bag of the band's prior ideas, and relying heavily on both the lyrical execution and the fat production, but once in awhile one or two will prove a little catchier and more unexpected than their surroundings, and that helps boost the structure and reliability of the songwriting, especially in some of the longer 6-7 minute cuts.

Drums and bass are bedrock here, especially D.D. Verni who's trademark, clean and huge tones are bouncing and twisting all over the mix. Leads have a very classic 70s rock feel to them, not only in the excellent bonus track cover of Thin Lizzy's "Emerald", but even in the original pieces. The range and the variation on the record is quite good, from pace pushers like "Goddamn Trouble" or "Red White and Blue" to leaden, bluesy groove like "Come Heavy" which recounts late 80s Trouble quite well, or the epic, measured mid-gait headbanging title track. The album dishes out just enough breakdowns to keep the tough guy crowds slamming while never becoming too trite or repetitious, and while the thrash here is more inspired by the band's 90s offerings than the clinical late 80s style, I think it's punishing enough to temporarily satisfy those who might have been seeking the latter. Even within Ellsworth's performance, he doesn't keep aping the same verbal patterns repeatedly, but offers seasons, explosive craftsmanship that makes every line seem like it's being taken dead seriously.

Will this stand out against the band's stacked backlog? Hard to say, since it lacks the insanely memorable choruses and riffs of the band's youth, or even that cross-generation appeal of 2010's Ironbound, which was a pivotal release that cemented their legacy as perhaps the U.S.A's hardest working band in the genre, whilst in the midst of the pizza thrashing craze of younglings who were getting into the stuff for the first time. I didn't like that disc quite as much as the rest of the crowd, but its sense of newfound inspiration has seemingly abated over these following three records, all of which have been varying shades of green, and varying shades of good. The Grinding Wheel is no exception, and it is not short on enthusiasm, spirit or craft. After a couple lukewarm listens, it's grown a little in my estimation so that I'd rank it firmly between its two predecessors.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (here's to the liberation)

http://wreckingcrew.com/Ironbound/

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Obituary - Obituary (2017)

Apart from the first two records, both excellent, I've been fairly ruthless with the Obituary catalog. There have been occasional tracks of note permeating the last 27 years of material, but so much of it felt phoned in, lazy and lacking in the menace and savagery of Slowly We Rot or its groovier, more minimalist and memorable follow up Cause of Death. The band experimented with a more hardcore, mosh oriented sound and audience at one point, which had mixed results, but have since come back around to exploring their roots in detail, trying to figure out what made those early records stick as classics. I'm surprised to say that the eponymous 10th album has done a better job of that than the last seven, by reaching right back to that wretchedness of their formative years and supplementing with something I just didn't expect, a more pure 'heavy metal' sense of melody and structure to several of the riffs, in particular the bridge and lead sections.

So rather than some dissonant, whipping frenzy of a solo, they'll break out something a little more blues based or accessible sounding, and stunningly, it works rather well. That's not to say it's the first time they've crossed that line, but here it actually complements the more ruthless and ripping rhythm guitar tracks throughout the verses, most of which are more or less paraphrased from the band's huge backlog with an emphasis on the earliest material. A few chords are tweaked here or there, but you'll pretty quickly identify where a lot of the note progressions or grooves are hailing from. Only, because I've felt so long parched for Obituary that I enjoy, I'm a little more forgiving here, especially with how angry and vicious John sounds with these vocals in cuts like "Kneel Before Me" or swaggering "Lesson in Vengeance". He's not belching out anything out of the ordinary, but there's a caustic and mean balance between how his voice is mixed here and the sheer might of the rhythm guitars which totally overpowered my speakers and had me rictus grinning from cheek to cheek.

Granted, it doesn't hurt that cuts like "It Lives" feel like they were taken from the Cause of Death sessions, my favorite record from the band, but this has never been a band that flaunted a lot of progression or originality once they had first made their mark with a more gruesome if simple brand of thrash-infused death metal that their statesmen like Death first created. You're still hearing a few of those meaty, Hellhammer-style groove breaks and fat, oozing bass lines, but a lot of the material here is just this wall of mortuary flesh strengthened by the double kick batteries and the cruel symbiosis of Tardy's grating growls and the murderous bent of his lyrics (love that sustained growl that opens "Turned to Stone"). Obituary isn't a total success for all its retread ground and a few tracks seeming staler than others, but it's for sure the first time in a great many years where I have been so thoroughly entertained by one of their releases, and I've already listened through the thing like a dozen times without getting tired of it. Beyond that, it's got enough of an internal variation that it should sate both fans of the more ripping, faster material or the gym-busting bro-groove. Cool.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


http://www.obituary.cc/

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Panikk - Discarded Existence (2017)

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to come up with the sound that Slovenia's Panikk are going for on their sophomore outing Discarded Existence. Those familiar with the second tier of Bay Area thrash from the 80s will remember a certain, violent debut album which also featured an individual being sucked into a swirling vortex, only this time it seems more like a tornado than a series of toothy maws. Sure enough, once you've actually given this a spin, you'll encounter a lot of the frenetic, high strung thrash metal which dominated that unsung masterwork of the genre, and I'm not going to sit here and tell you that's a bad thing, because there while it might take a few pointers from their predecessors, this is solid improvement over their 2013 debut Unbearable Conditions, and proof that putting a little effort and a fraction of complexity to the songwriting can vault you well over the shoulders of much of the useless and redundant pizza re-thrash of the last decade.

To be clear, while the primary propulsion here is a style akin to records like Eternal Nightmare or Oppressing the Masses, I'd actually draw a closer comparison to Japan thrashers Ritual Carnage who have a storied history of translated those same 80s influence into a more modern context. The vocals in particular have that higher pitch in which a lot of the lines spit out the same notes over and over to create a disaffected style first pioneered by Joey Belladonna of Anthrax. In this case, though, while the vocals are certainly well suited to this jerking, thrashing mix, it's really the riffs that take center stage and manifest the rich intensity of the experience, each track being loaded with a good share of variations and occasional subtleties which range from the viciousness of a Destruction or Vio-Lence to even the turbo fueled power/thrash of Artillery that I so admired coming up. It's not insanely technical or unique, but cuts a nice line between clinical neck-straining and familiar but not wholly bitten off riff progressions that you'll recount from both the German and US scenes, from primal S.O.D. mosh to the scalpel-thrash of the aforementioned Schmier and company.

Discarded Existence is carefully calculated to give you both that richer impression of thrash and its musicianship, with soaring, sailing and wailing leads as well as a whole slew of mid-paced pure head banging riffs that keep the experience a lot more grounded than the victim on its cover. Drums and bass provide an accurate level of support, but are never able to take the reins away from the axes for any length of time, which has never really been the point of this genre. Thankfully, that rhythm tone is just excellent, precise and full-bodied enough to satisfy the production gluttons who want a record which sounds 21st century. While I can't say it produces endless replay value or tunes that are likely to become classics, the whole thing is consistent and entertaining to listen through, with lyrics that stick to the social and political topics thrash has long touted, and a level of energy that never lets up, but leaves plenty of room for variation in tempo and lead-work. If you fondly recount the vitriol and testosterone of records like Signs of Life, Eternal Nightmare, Product of Society, Release from Agony and others of that critical 1986-1990 period, Panikk does a swell job of refreshing the formula.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

https://www.facebook.com/panikkofficial

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Bannerwar - Anthems of Blood & Soil 7" (2017)

Nestled deep into the Hellenic underground, Bannerwar is a band which must be almost forgotten after a decade plus absence in the wake of its solid if unheralded sophomore Centuries of Heathen Might. And while I can't quite claim that the two tracks present on this Anthems of Blood and Soil 7-inch are going to reverse that fate, it's certainly not because the band is lacking in the hellish energy required to perform the sort of orthodox, traditional and spiteful black metal they employ. But apart from the band's NSBM roots, which may or may not persist in their inspiration, there's just not much of a 'gimmick' to this style, or any single component which can separate them from so many others performing in such a similar, straightforward realm.

If you've never experienced them, it's more or less charging European black metal with a strong 90s feel to it, very basic riffing structures spat out at a faster pace or brought down to a might, barbaric charge. The chord progressions are quite predictable here, but that doesn't really diminish much of their savagery, with the guitars loud and frontal, the vocal rasps doing a good job of providing an evil impetus towards the uptempo blasted sequences. Definitely a classic Swedish or Norse black metal vibe here circa bands like Marduk and Satyricon, but occasionally with "For Blood and Soil" itself they hit a glorious stride reminiscent of vintage Rotting Christ off Thy Mighty Contract or Triarchy. The drums are rather on the tinny side in the mix, but nonetheless efficient, while the bass is good and think, but doesn't otherwise do a lot to carve its own existence from the solidarity of the rhythms.

The two songs are reined in at about 5 minutes each, so thankfully Bannerwar has no interest in beating the listener over the head with ceaseless repetitions of tired riff patterns, and I feel that for the length of the 7" there is enough variation represented, assuming on a hypothetical third full-length they'd have an even broader range (as they did on Centuries). But the question is, at the end of the day, when the onrush of the night is inevitable, do you want another pure atavistic black metal listening session which offers you little to nothing new? If the conventions continue to attract you, then these Greeks are an adequate vehicle for vengeance and ferocity, but although the material here is just as solid as the stuff on their albums, they still just don't stand out against the crowd.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Six Feet Under - Torment (2017)

Despite it's Bleeding-era, trilly little fakeout riff, "Sacrificial Kill" is hands down one of the dullest album openers I've had sitting on my review pile in quite some time, and although it tries to pick itself up with a hustling end section, the riffs being meted out are the kind of low caliber, Six Feet Under material that one would all too quickly delegate to the dustbin as soon as possible, the boredom that at least half this band's albums in the past have choked themselves to death on. Thankfully, elsewhere, Torment gets a little peppier, marginally more ambitious, in that it offers up some more energetic simpleton death metal infused with some groove and nu- metal sequences, but the songwriting overall is just not on the level that they hit with their rare gem Undead or the previous full-length, Crypt of the Devil, which was solid if only because of the temporary roster involved with it.

Speaking of interesting guests, I was interested to hear that ex-Brain Drill bassist was contributing more here than he did on the last one, and once more impressed that he was able to chill out and maintain such a level of restraint throughout the mind numbingly boring half of this disc which is comprised of about 3-4 songs where the idea is to contrast repetitive, barebones primal mugging death metal riffs with the slightly more tech side revealed on Crypt. He doesn't get nearly as flashy as he would in his alma mater, of course, this music couldn't support it, but unfortunately I felt like the content of Torment is just so dry and lacking in real inspiration that it's all for nothing. While a good chunk of this album is far from bumbling or incompetent, I could narrow it's finer moments down to just a couple tracks, like "Schizomaniac" which has some nice thrashing carved out through it's death acrobatics, or the straight neck-jerking base-level death/thrash in "Slaughtered As They Slept", which functions despite how 'heard before' the whole thing plays out. Other than that, there weren't many tracks I enjoyed through and through.

Chris sounds better here than on the previous year's Graveyard Classics IV compilation, where he did an abysmal job of covering Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson with his grunting. Here the battering, bludgeoning timbre of his voice cedes itself to the concussive drumming and viler riff selection a lot more than when he's trying to front such classic riffs; and there are more than a few stylistic nods here to The Bleeding, his finest moment in Cannibal Corpse, but infused with the stoned groove style of riffs that dominated early 6FU recordings like Haunted or Warpath. The mix of the album is quite straightforward, a little dry and doesn't really lend itself well to atmosphere unless Hughell is filling in the blanks with some busier bass lines, but this is par for the course for much of the band's career, and in the end you've got a product here which is the least composed or interesting of their post 2010- works, an era in which they finally seem to most closely have flirted with and even dated some level of quality. Undead, Crypt of the Devil or even Unborn would be more worth your time, but it's not a complete dropping of the ball, just a near-fumble.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

https://www.facebook.com/sixfeetunder

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Six Feet Under - Graveyard Classics IV: The Number of the Priest (2016)

Chris Barnes' mainstay has been on a strange trajectory these last five years, first stunning me with an album that was actually good, 2012's Undead, and then proceeding to not exactly follow that up with anything worthwhile (Crypt of the Devil was decent), playing some musical chairs with his band line-up, and ultimately deciding for whatever goddamn reason to release another entry in his band's abysmal 'cover tunes' album line, Graveyard Classics. Although this time, it doesn't appear that he's even bothered to come up with a halfway decent cover concept, not like the records predecessors had anything resembling eye candy. IV: The Number of the Beast is, as if you couldn't guess, exactly as lazy as it looks, and it's a collection of strictly Judas Priest and Iron Maiden covers...

...given the 6FU treatment, of course, and by that I mean transformed into bludgeoning low rent death metal lite where the only possible entertainment value is hearing Barnes' caveman grunts fart out the lines of scream-gods Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson. Musically the trio on this disc attempts to pair up to the originals as much as possible, only with a sluggish, chunkier rhythm guitar tone that is meant to construe some heavier aggression but winds up feeling rather dry, since the record as a whole lacks that reverb and atmosphere that helped immortalize the 70s and 80s material, which this album largely consists of. The bass and drums do their parts over the album, and I won't say it's the least competent of these Graveyard Classics offerings...the focusing on only two bands kind of helps tighten the experience, and the leads feel frilly and fun, but then you go and plaster them with these monotonous grunts, which feel poorly recorded like someone was playing the background music at a karaoke bar and Chris just grabbed up the microphone. It's a little funny to hear Ray Alder appear as a backup on the "Invader" cover, but one wonders why Chris didn't just hire Ray to sing the whole thing...that might have proven a more passable experience.

I'll give Barnes credit, though, he at least has a fairly good taste in songs by these legends, and does not simply offer up the most predicted or obvious choices in their catalogs. I normally wouldn't expect to hear someone's take on "Prowler", "Flash of the Blade", "Starbreaker" or "Genocide", and these are all included along with "Total Eclipse", "Night Crawler", and "The Evil That Men Do". I don't think there's any question the track list was carefully pored over, and without renditions of the bands' most popular tunes, it affords 6FU a little more breathing space for their interpretations. Alas, they are just not very good in the end, and it's largely the vocals and production of the rhythm guitars that don't do these versions a service. If Barnes had excused himself from this, then you might have an average album of its type, but this is just too laughable to take seriously, and the joke loses its humor about 2-3 tracks in when it just becomes sad and boring. Slightly more consistent than the first two such 6FU cover anthologies, but I would say this project 'peaked' with Graveyard Classics III. Granted, that's like saying my lunch peaked when I projectile vomited against the nearest wall, rather than just puking it into its normal porcelain receptacle. Enough already!

Verdict: Fail [3.25/10]

https://www.facebook.com/sixfeetunder

Friday, February 24, 2017

Vendetta - The 5th (2017)

Undoubtedly a promising second stringer during the Golden Age of German thrashing, Vendetta have sadly not had the best comeback streak among their countrymen, being heavily overshadowed in this last decade much as they were in the 80s, with bands like Kreator and Destruction still soaring fairly high over followings that have been cemented for decades to come, if they can keep on kicking out the same competent continuity. Their latest, creatively titled record The 5th does not do a hell of a lot to cultivate either the catchiness of Brain Damage nor the savage velocity of their debut, but that's not to say it's entirely rubbish, only that the band continues to let a little of that 90s groove/thrash influence inflect upon the dynamic riffing and mildly melodic intensity of their prime, and not to the betterment of the finished product.

There are certainly riffing phrases across the tracks here that recall some of the earlier material, and vocalist Mario Vogel once again tries to do his own spin on the original Vendetta style from decades before he joined the ranks, but in the case of the former, they're just not memorable or quirky at all, and the latter seems a little disheveled and sloppy, unable to really drive home a good chorus, not that the rest of the band have really provided him with much to go on there. The riffs in cuts like "Deadly Sin" exhibit a little of that uplifting thrust that you'd recognize from Brain Damage, Destruction or perhaps the power thrash of Danes Artillery, but too many of the progressions rely on rather boring payoffs that don't catch the ear. The production is rather solid, with a good bite to the rhythm tracks and a nice, over the top atmosphere created when the leads enter the fray, providing for some of the better moments on the albums. But then you layer in those vocals, and the lack of a real money shot riff anywhere in a 3-4 minute track and it's average at best, goofy at worst.

It's nice that the band still maintains a fraction of that adventurous spirit they held in their youth, and for instance the classical guitar interlude "The Search" is quite nice, and you can close your eyes and just imagine if they balance that out with vintage Vendetta or Deathrow-quality heavier material, but while this does in fact set up "The Prophecy", which owns 1-2 of the more agreeable riffs on the whole record (before devolving into some lamentable breaky groove thrash), it's buried too deep in the track list to leave much of an impression. There's also something up with the drum mix here, in particular the snares which popped and hissed out of the mix a little much to distract away from the nice, warm crunch of the guitar tone. The bass guitar also doesn't really stand out to me, curving along behind the other guitars but incapable of really standing forth unless it's hitting up the good old slap and pop sound (near the end of "The Prophecy").. All that said, this is a slight bump up from 2011's Feed the Extermination. You can hear some genuine character attempting to seep through the cracks, but it's just not enough, and combined with the relatively weak cover artwork I just think this is an album that's going to be easily overlooked with so much stiff competition. And rightly so.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

http://www.vendetta-band.de/

Friday, February 17, 2017

Witchery - In His Infernal Majesty's Service (2016)

If Witchery had put out much of any value over since the 90s, I might have felt slightly embarrassed to have ignored the existence of this latest album for the last 3-4 months. However, my interest in the band has just waned that much that any and all expectations or excitement over having any sort of relapse back to Restless & Dead era greatness lie smothered in the tombstones that they emerged from on the cover of that masterful, timeless debut. Efforts like Symphony for the Devil or Witchkrieg were mildly entertaining, or at least a couple tracks on each, but they've just failed to hit it out of the park and have thus sunk into near obscurity. Nobody seems to talk about the Swedes these days, being far more interested in the other projects of the band's constituents, and it's hard to argue with that reaction, because while they continue to set up really cool, varied cover aesthetics for each new album that pique my interest, the music contained on these discs has been inconsistent at best. I am sad to say that In His Infernal Majesty's Service doesn't instill confidence that this is a rut they can ever crawl forth from...

Now, let me back that up a step, because we're far, far from a disaster. This is without question a passable album, better than the last two, and possesses a certain rawness of structure to it that occasionally manifest some nostalgia for their earlier albums. The new vocalist Angus Norder has a fairly standard but efficient guttural rasp which, like his earlier predecessor Toxine, tends to bleed into the rhythm guitar but gives the material that same nasty feel as yesteryear. In truth, there were a number of riffs on the album that felt straight from the 1998-1999 playbook, with the caveat that they really aren't all that catchy or distinct if you span back over the catalogs of bands like The Haunted, Raise Hell and this one to compare or contrast. I.H.I.M.S. vomits forth a balance of 80s German and US thrash, ranging from Sodom to S.O.D., tempered with some clear nods to punk and speed metal. The bass tone is nice and springy, the leads are just about right, never too flashy or overextended, and the drums are crashing everywhere and on fire through much of the track list...but when you just lack those central, impressive riffs to hone in on, the rest of the attempt seems rather fruitless.

Tracks like "Nosferatu" aren't shy about their influence, a pretty direct bite on late 80s Slayer, but even then they can't rise up and compete with the original in any way, shape or form, and they seem like pretty safe tributes to the nostalgia of their remaining audience. "The Burning of Salem" does a similar deed for Dark Angel's ruthless athleticism, and I definitely took away an impression that the Swedes were consciously meting out their influences like they were a checklist written in marker on their sleeves, once again distracting me away from a band that was once in its own right pretty goddamn good. So if you just shut your mind off for a dose of unmitigated death/thrash with no aspirations to anything but survival, I think the tunes here are functional enough not to scoff too hard at. However, the elements that made the band so damn fun and memorable in the first place seem a bit exhausted and watered down to the point that in my review run-throughs I kept wanting to skip about half the songs because the Jensen/Corpse riffing choices were so banal and uninspired. Again, I found it a little superior (if less energetic) than Witchkrieg, but only by a slim margin; it's hardly an offensive experience, but another moderate letdown from a group capable of so much more.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

https://www.facebook.com/officialwitchery