Thursday, October 19, 2017

Temple of Void - Of Terror and the Supernatural (2014)

Death/doom of the variety played by Temple of Void always seems to be a highly lauded niche in the wider metal medium, but I'd be lying to say that I'd heard many bands coming along over this last decade who do anything truly unique or interesting with the style. As cool as it looks, Of Terror and the Supernatural is not quite an exception to that cycle of aesthetic repetition, but that's really one of the only complaints I could launch against it, because this is a confident, consistent debut with enormous production that should resonate off the walls and vaulted ceilings of whatever ancient ruined structure it transports you to. What might have turned out to be another dreary, dull and redundant collection of growls and vapid chord progressions is instead something measurably more.

You'll pick up a whiff of the early British forebears of this style, particular a Paradise Lost or My Dying Bride circa the earlier 90s, especially in how the use of simple melodies serves as bleak lamentations over the rhythms beneath, but at the same time I felt like this band was traveling in a more purely old school, slower paced death metal direction akin to Bolt Thrower or Asphyx. The popular band Hooded Menace would be a more direct comparison, but Temple of Void seems a lot more solemn and serious than those Finns were, at least on their first few albums. They also seem to sidestep the more cavernous equations of so many of their peers today; you can draw a few lines to an Incantation, but these guys aren't quite so churning and dynamic. You could play the shit out of this in some underground warren, but it's far more about patience and developing each track to sound so huge, and it needs to be played out to some dark, brooding sky.

Simple, open chord or chugging sequences are accented by glazes of dour melodies, and a guttural vocal perfection that is mixed to perfection. Sure, the delivery can grow a little monotonous, but the levels of reverb against the other instruments are simply amazing, and once it cedes into a pair of gloomy harmonies you really get nailed with the full, doomed potency of the performance. That Temple of Void are so unafraid to use leads, or other melodic details like the organs and synths, is a huge part of why I was engaged throughout the entire 50 minutes of the experience, and in some instances, like the instrumental "To Carry This Corpse Evermore", they'll go even further, with an acoustic folk piece that feels, in its own way, just as massive as the heavier chunks of the material. Bass is kept at a solid level, and while the drums mete out the simpler beats you usually come to associate with the death/doom or funeral doom styles, they're another well produced component that adds a good level of power, splash and gravity to the procession.

Musically, it doesn't feel quite as creepy as the excellent Bruce Pennington cover art or the album title would suggest, but certainly morbid and sorrow-spun in the wake of its growl-doom ancestors. By giving the riffs and melodies space to breathe, and not stocking up too highly on dissonance, they help crack open the imagination to those dank, shadowy corners it might have not visited since those formative 90s. Most of the chills will come through the lyrics, which are well penned to cover their classic scare subjects, like lycanthropy, undeath, and hopeless isolation, with maybe a little cosmic horror lurking through the eaves. Of Terror and the Supernatural took me a few listens to really digest and appreciate, not because it isn't immediately accessible, but just because it's not the easiest mood for me to attain in my increasingly hectic family and social life. Once I did, it was like a cold win blew out the sun like a candle, and I felt like I were experiencing it from the vantage point of a stone coffin. A strong, if not highly original debut here, and I'm eager to check out the follow-up.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (you too have died)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Exhumed - Death Revenge (2017)

Innovation is an unlikely event at this point in the trajectory of California's Carcass-inspired death-grinders Exhumed, but I'm not sure if it's even needed. If they can consistently deliver the goods like they have with their 6th full-length (discounting the comps and re-recording of Gore Metal), and sound like they're having a whole lot of fucking fun doing so, then I just don't see myself growing the least bit bored listening to it. This is not a band which has ever let me down, not to say that all their records have been equivalent with one another in quality, but there isn't one among them that I'd put on and not enjoy to some extent. Having said that, Death Revenge is the most entertainment I've had since Anatomy is Destiny in 2003, and it wisely carries forward a lot of the little permutations they first made on that album to glorious results...

In fact, I think Death Revenge serves as a sort of retrospective of all their output, perhaps never going quite as visceral or heavy as Gore Metal or Slaughtercult, but certainly putting the pedal to the deathgrind and keeping pace with some of their faster canon when it needs to. Much of the writing here is of a mid paced, clinical death/thrashing variety, consistent with Necrocacy and All Guts, No Glory before it, very heavily focused on eking out memorable riff patterns and then splattering them with all manner of wailing, amusing heavy metal leads. Exhumed started to take on a more melodic quality on that third album which they've maintained, and it simply adds so much more variety then had they just kept channeling Symphonies of Sickness or Necroticism. They never quite go full on heavy metal or rock & roll like their inspirations did as the 90s wore on, but keep the progressions punchy and intricate, with lots of flash and flair, as in cuts like "Defenders of the Grave" and "Dead End", busy and kinetic enough to mask the fact that you've probably heard most of these riffs before, and not afraid to splay you out with the meatsaw blasting when it fits.

The mix is clean and balanced, maybe a little too dry or polished in places, but to make up for that it delivers clarity between the rhythms, leads, percussion, snarls and gutturals, even the bass as it pops and plunks and thunders along, often using a lot of simpler, sustained notes under the kinetic guitars to give the sound a nice roundedness. The leads here are every bit as precise and competent as on a Surgical Steel or At the Gates' At War With Reality; a component of the band that has become so important in that it precludes them just endlessly aping their first two albums, which were much more unhinged in that department. The blasting is furious enough to balance off against the headbanging mid-speeds and breakdowns. What's more, there are lots of subtle little nods here to thrash and death metal icons of past and present, specifically a few evil Slayer-like progressions or moments where you feel like you've been submerged in some long lost Death track from the late 80s. Lots of details for something that is essentially as straightforward as past outings.

Furthermore, this is just aesthetically satisfying, with an orchestrated, cinematic piano/synth/string intro well worthy of horror classics in the 70s and 80s, reaching a huge crescendo before the bands kicks up the grave dirt and twists your head off in its zombified arms. The artwork choice is really fucking awesome, a folded up poster look from some cult US or Italian cinema which is more than likely gonna involve mobile corpses or some psycho you're not going to want (or get) a second date with. The lyrics are genuinely excellent, with a lot of effort put into them and a lot more elaborate prose than your typical gore mavens, a really cool grave robbing theme and narrative set in early 19th century Scotland! All the pieces are in place here, perhaps not for a true classic of the decade, or even a year's end contender, but just an extremely competent, seasoned record that seems rather timeless in its appeal despite the fact that it doesn't have all the best riffs and vocals exactly where you'd want to shove them. I even kind dug the cover of Exodus "A Lesson in Violence", if only because it was cool to hear them try some blasting and Schuldiner-like growls in it, instead of copying it straight up.

Just a great album for applying your Halloween prosthetics, or kicking back some drinks while you wait for your buds to show up for a slasher marathon. Easily recommended to fans of Impaled, early 90s Carcass, Ghoul, Ex Dementia or the last three records by this very band, Death Revenge proves yet again that Exhumed is one of our very best, dependable American death metal acts, where so many of its peers and precursors flicker, falter and occasionally fuck right off.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (Child of the grave in name and fact)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Force of Evil - Black Empire (2005)

Force of Evil was a project I had pretty high hopes for back when it was active, largely because I hadn't been truly satisfied with a lot of the later Mercyful Fate and King Diamond material, save for 9 and the Abigail sequel, so hearing a 'supergroup' that would bark up that same, twisted tree was promising. That the project was almost entirely comprised of alumni from those two Danish greats was an even greater reason to be excited...Denner. Shermann. Patino, and Holm. Three of those names I'd follow off a cliff, even with the possibility of impending disaster. Well, Black Empire is not quite a disaster, and superior to the eponymous record from 2003, but it does have one obstacle in vocalist Martin Steene that it can never seem to shake...

I'm not saying Martin Steene performs poorly here, this is a guy with more than capable lungs who simply seems to lack focus. When he's on point, as he is occasionally in his mainstay Iron Fire, he delivers a kinetic, frilly, unique pitch that might have distinguished him among the crowded Euro power field. I just think he goofs off too much, or he goes overboard, attempt to ape a lot of different vocal styles and exhibit his range, and some times the screams get a little try-hard when he's going full King Diamond or Ripper Owens mode, which is unnecessary over a lot of this music. I get that he's got the Mercyful Fate guys in the band, and maybe there was a particular set of expectations that this was some sort of proxy for them, but Black Empire only really comes together when he's just absorbing the music and complementing it with his mid-range and pacing, whereas on tunes like the titular opening he's just all over the place trying to develop a more orchestrated, schizophrenic performance that just loses me entirely. This happens on roughly 50% of the album.

Vocals aside, the music here is generally consistent, varied and interesting enough that the listener's attention won't lapse too long. There is a good deal of straight-ahead, mid-paced Germanic power metal rocking, mixed with a lot of the dingier, haunted grooves of the Shermann/Denner team that one would have come to expect from 90s Mercyful Fate fare like In the Shadows or Time. A lot of cool, cleaner guitars and audible bass hooks (like in "Days of Damien") help to round off the metal edge, and you can tell the band put a lot of thought into their choices, attempting to find a common ground between that reunion Fate era, and Steene's own band. However, while the music is well enough written, I often found that the grooves lacked the atmosphere and memorable chords that were so important on much of In the Shadows, replacing those traits with a more modern polish that doesn't do much for me. When they pick up the pacing towards power metal, the riffs also just seem to fly by without sticking to me.

The production sounds great, even when Steene is performing his theatrics, the tone of the rhythm guitars has a nice, clear cut to it that beautifully sets up the leads, and allows the drumming and the bass to hover through. The songs are all paeans to various horror stories or films, and they don't just stick with the safer choices either...Damien and Texas Chainsaw Massacre are paid tribute, but there are also tracks here devoted to movies like Candyman or In the Mouth of Madness, to name a few. "Disciples of the King" is just dedicated to Stephen King in general. Heavy metal and horror movies have had a relationship for all the decades they've existed together, but I often find that the music just feels too bright and glorious to truly convey the themes expressed in the lyrics. Like those other Danish legends which supplied the band's lineup, Force of Evil does focus a little on getting this right, with mixed results...the moodier sequences with the cleaner guitars are quite well done, but often erupt into lackluster melodies and riffs.

The cover art also looks pretty hot, but I'm not sure that it has much to do with the music. A pretty package, all told, but not really living up to its potential. With all the great Fate albums between Denner and Shermann, this one doesn't hold a lot of appeal, not even against the middling Dead Again. Or if you'd like to see more hard hitting material from the duo, their latest collaboration for the album Masters of Evil has better riffing than what you'll find on the two Force full-lengths. This is far more than a trainwreck, committed to its subject matter, and competently executed, it just doesn't add up to something I've ever wanted to listen to repeatedly.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (it's a long walk in the dark)

Monday, October 9, 2017

Mystic Circle - Damien (2002)

Mystic Circle had a fairly substantial career, starting in 1992, as one of Germany's earlier black metal acts, and dropping a number of albums on fairly visible labels like Last Episode, Massacre and eventually Dockyard 1 for their swan song. Through this period, their progress ran parallel to the rise of black metal to its mid-90s popularity, but they were often critiqued of having a lot of vapid and unmemorable records that were lost in the shuffle of the genre's explosion and subsequent over-saturation during that era. That said, as you'll hear on this or a number of their other albums, it was not for lack of trying, because these guys hit fairly hard and maintain a level of consistency that suffers only through its lack of any real distinction; nothing that really stood out against their peers from the Scandinavian countries; nothing unique like what you'd hear from the Greeks, Czechs, French, etc.

Damien, it should be said, is one of their stronger, more intense efforts, and like on a number of their other albums, they're quite capable of grabbing a concept from either horror or the occult and then committing to painting it into a tempestuous landscape. This record features a lot of traits which you would expect from any album celebrating our favorite Satanic love-child, from the organs and synths that lend it a sacrilegious shade, to some evil, thundering black metal which makes you feel as if you're being torn apart by demon-driven attack dogs. Mystic Circle were a band often heralded as a Teutonic alternative to a Cradle of Filth or Dimmu Borgir, and this comparison does hold for this particular album, which threads a lot of leads and keys in with its rhythm guitar riffing, and a heavily symphonic structure and bombast, though they don't layer that on too thick, and permit the intensity of the blasting, chugging and chord patterns control the tempo, which ultimately gives this disc a slightly different feel than those more popular acts.

This album really has a pummeling, forceful low end to it created by the grimy tone of the rhythm guitar, which seems to hone in on the bottom strings rather than the cold, razor-tinted chords that thrive among the many traditional black metal acts. It's almost like a death metal battery at points, but glazed over with the snarled vocals, thickly embedded synthesizers and slightly audible spurts of shredding guitars that give it a nice, frantic effect. A great example of this is "God is Dead, Satan Arise" which beat me to a pulp, even if it doesn't escalate into anything truly unforgettable. There is a slight monotony to the album in that so much of it seems to consist of the same, tirelessly thundering pace with only small variations in the note pickings, synth lines and vocal patterns, but when it gels together it really is something you can feel in your gut. A more visceral and brutal aesthetic than you might expect from the climbing, almost operatic evil of The Omen itself, but lyrically this album is more of a direct invocation to some Satanic apocalypse, and uses the film as an inspiration towards that end rather than a strict narrative outline.

The intro and interlude pieces are brooding, and lovingly cheesy, with deeper string sounds and then flurries of chiming dissonance. They merge pretty well with the bulkier disposition of the guitars. I doubt there are even a half dozen riffs throughout the album that stick to my memory, and some are painfully generic and predictable, but many others are at least smooth and sinister enough that they are engaging for the ears to follow. It's a textbook 'solid' sort of album, which I can still listen through 15 years later and enjoy to an extent, but would rarely choose it over those examples of its genre which I find preferably inspired or original. If anything, it's evidence enough that these Germans could perform, and in better times might have spread greater ripples were there just not so much competition overshadowing them. A moot point, now that they've been broken up for nearly a decade, but in some alternate universe I wouldn't be surprised to see Mystic Circle clinging on to some esteemed veteran status, having survived the backlash against the more mainstream side of the black metal spectrum and garnered respect from even the lowliest heckling cellar trolls.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (even now he's in the world)

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Ex Dementia - Crack the Coffin (2017)

Crack the Coffin is a record that honestly surprised me, not that I had any doubt as to Ex Dementia's musical ability, but because it's just so well written, accessible and fun for its style that I'm shocked it isn't being spoken about more, or at least being released officially through a label. Whether or not you're into its style is a matter of personal taste, but this is an album that can easily insert itself into a cross-section of metal audiences who will appreciate it for the level of clarity, catchy riffs and leads, and adherence to the themes offered through its colorful comic book artwork that will instantly draw your attention if you're into classic horror graphics ranging from the Marvel and DC magazines of decades gone, Rob Zombie animations or even the Mignola-verse of Hellboy and company.

Yet the music is even better. Some will brand this melodic death metal, and that's not an invalid label at all, but unlike a lot of music of that medium its components are more clearly extricable from the typical morass of genre-smash ups. The rhythm guitars are almost entirely thrash metal based, and smothered in tasteful, rock star lead work that constantly ramps up the excitement level while not leeching away from any perceived punch of heaviness. The exceptions are tremolo picked passages or chord selections more reminiscent of thrash's evolution into the formative, Floridian style of death metal, in particular the first few Death records, only the production here isn't quite so abrasive or raw. You'll get a pretty wide variety of riffs, from straight up Exodus neck-bangers, to faster palm muted thrusts and eerie melodies that were highly redolent of the pair-up of Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick over the classic Testament discography. Where it gets grimier and more intense it can verge of the Carcass-fed death metal style that bands like Ghoul, Impaled and Exhumed worship, but the mix is just so clean that it doesn't aesthetically feel too much like any of those.

The majority of its death metal element centers on the vocals, an entertaining guttural which is often slathered in snarled or growled 'harmonizing', again in that age-old grind-borne Carcass camp, or akin to Deicide in places. However, while sustained in spots, the vocal patterns are more punctuated, coming off like a mix of David Vincent, Max Cavalera and the front men to the thrash acts I had previously mentioned. At any rate, they never feel lazy or sloppy, but precisely plotted to give the riffs a maximum of amusing impact and to balance off against the slew of leads. Speaking of which, these are almost to the point of transforming Crack the Coffin into a 'guitar hero' sort of record, not because they're glaringly original or innovative, but because they clearly show an influence from bands like Megadeth, or again, Testament, who always emphasized the importance of this to their own classic compositions. At no point do they feel wanky and excessive, but they're obviously a huge part of this record, even more so than when bands like Carcass or Impaled would use them.

The drums sound great, mixed for adept heaviness, and the bass guitar is fat and audible plodding alongside the neck straining guitars on tunes like "Splattervision Channel 3". The introduction to the album, "Trials and Exhumations", opens with a great horror-style intro that's obviously a play on the classic like Carpenter's Halloween theme, only enriched once it transforms into melodic guitars, not unlike something the Swedish band Raise Hell would do. The cover of the Misfits' "Skulls" is a bit bland, but only because it's much the same as the original, with the vocals changed to growls, but little other metalization, something I'm always fond of hearing on these sorts of tributes. Thankfully that's just the end of the record, and the 22 short and sweet moments leading up to it are incredibly consistent, engaging and well worth your time if you're into the sort of stuff I've compared it to, or you just want a fun Halloween thrashing with death metal tendencies. Prior albums were far from slouches, but this kicks The Red Mass in the pants, indicative that the eight years since that time were put to great use as these Jersey boys honed their chops.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Monday, October 2, 2017

Cardiac Arrest - Cadaverous Presence (2008)

Cardiac Arrest is another of those hard working Midwestern acts which never seems to quite catch a break or generate a ton of buzz despite being capable at its craft. While they've never really put out anything that blew me away, records like Haven for the Insane and Vortex of Violence have been serviceable, competent and entertaining old school death metal platters that stand out to me mostly because they pursue a style that is simply not heard too often in the realm of brutastic boor-wankers, Dismember addicts, cavern core drillers and Floridian acolytes. Instead, they've got a sound strikingly reminiscent of English death and grind circa early Carcass and Bolt Thrower, perhaps with a little Repulsion in there and a whole lot of horror influence rather than songs about medical processes or Warhammer.

When I say 'reminiscent', I don't mean that they completely ape those bands' tones, but rather feel like a parallel, North American development to them, with some similarities in riff construction, chord choices, and pacing. For example, the instrumental intro, "The Inevitable" sounds a hell of a lot like something you'd hear Karl Willetts growling over, a slow and churning piece with groovier drums that almost can't support the fuzzed out rhythm guitar tone. The title track definitely has a couple of roiling riffs, as in the bridge breakdown, which would have fit right in on Symphonies of Sickness, though they also break out into a lot less distinct grinding and blasting, faster patterns that are in the Morbid Angel camp, and then some leads whipping their tendrils about that feel a bit aimless but not out of place. You can hear traces of a few other influences in here, like old Pestilence or maybe even the first Entombed record, but that constant grinding to grooving ratio evokes a whole lot of the Earache camp circa the late 80s or early 90s, which is surely a nostalgia trigger.

As for production standards, this is naturally a little weaker than the records to come after it, with the drums a little weak in the mix to support that excessively fuzzy guitar tone. Combined with the distortion levels on the bass, this is where part of the Repulsion comparison comes in, and you could make an argument that Cadaverous Presence is a more dynamic alternative to Horrified, those dynamics taking the form of the riffs and progressions which sound like the other bands I've brought up. This is ugly, hostile and ultimately punishing, with just barely enough polish to place it beyond the live or rehearsal category of recording. But, at the same time, that actually lends it some character and forces the listener into a more terrifying, grotesque dimension in which they've got to earn their appreciation a little more. The range of riffs, which aren't terribly catchy on an individual basis, is another strong point, since it's interesting and varied enough to prevent this from being some slog saved only by its disgusting tones.

Alas, that's not to say I think this is an album as good as those to follow it. The gutturals are rather monotonous and sound more like your average brutal death frontman, both in tone and the patterns of syllables being belched out. Half the riffs are exciting, the others are entirely forgettable, while the balance of the guitars and drums doesn't exactly allow them to properly complement one another. Apart from the sheer visceral nature of the music, the titles and artwork, there is very little here that rises above the horror level of your average slasher. That said, its truly fuzzy and abusive nature will certainly appeal to some that miss when death and grind bands reveled in raw production, and there are least the inklings and intentions of cool songwriting ideas buried across its twisted, fleshy canvas.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Friday, September 29, 2017

Horrific - Your Worst Nightmare (2009)

Many will recognize Slasher Dave immediately from his more visible band Acid Witch, a cool mash-up of death, doom and marijuana haze with a heavy lyrical emphasis on the horror genre. However, that wasn't Dave's only ticket to the creature feature, as he put together this very short-lived pet project called Horrific, which dropped an album on Razorback just a little after Witchtanic Hellucinations was unleashed. Your Worst Nightmare is a perfectly appropriate album to populate the basement of that label, a love letter to the camp and sleeze and nostalgia of the horror genre, for folks who loved flicks with really bad monsters, serial killers using signature items like guitars with drills on them, or whatever kept you up late at night watching cable TV throughout the 80s.

The style here is a departure from his mainstay, fueled heavily by rock & roll and barebones late 80s death metal, and yet rarely at all sounding like the Swedish 'death & roll' scene spearheaded by acts like Entombed or Desultory. The death metal element comes directly through the raunchy growls, carrion snarls and a few of the riffing selections that might burst into a tremolo picked passage, a few evil chords or a wailing, unhinged lead, whereas the rest of the material is purely 3-5 chord driven punk or rock rendered a little heavier just by nature of the vocal style and the genre Slasher is used to playing in. Guitars and straightforward, with a functional, sometimes boxy tone to the rhythms. The bass is a bit of a nonentity in the mix, and the drums are your basic rock and roll pace with perhaps a little added splash to support the weight of the vocals, which are overall the most prominent force across the album, matched only by the leads. A little bit of reverb on the growling so it occupies a cavernous plane slightly above the mix of the instruments, and Dave will apply snarls or weirder growling sustains just to give their presence more character.

This record has a lot of spunk to it and it's fairly fun to listen to, but most of the riff construction is entirely too generic. There are exceptions, tunes like "The Ultimate Sacrifyx" and "Orgy of the Bloody Parasites" which had moments that rocked my face off, but I feel like a little more creativity would have gone a long way towards what is otherwise an inoffensive, charming, nostalgic effort. The production seems a little dry, perhaps not due to the isolated instrument tones but just how they're all brought together, and a little more variation and dynamic range to the drums and bass guitar would make it feel more like a raucous stereo attack. The album has a few less riotous moments where the guitars are used to build more mood as in "Metal Cemetary", one of the other better tunes, so it does do the service of avoiding monotony, and the shit kicking punked out parts, as predictable as they seem, don't lack for energy, especially where the leads are applied.

Slasher Dave's head was in the right place here...with cool titles that pay tribute to some great horror cheese, and lyrics that, while almost painfully simple, really stick to the graveyard partying and a paean to playing metal and horror itself, with colorful poetry like 'Zombie fuck freaks attack!' He doesn't dress it all up with a bunch of samples or incidental horror music bits, or tackier synthesizers, not that these are things that couldn't work in conjunction with the stripped down rocking, but this is Guitar Driven 101 metal devoted to partying, killing, and spooking. It's not as good as Acid Witch, and so it makes sense that this project would evaporate while the other persisted, but if you're in the mood for stuff like Ghoul or Frightmare but simpler, it might fit the bill.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (absorb the carnage collages)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Nightshade - Autumnal Equinox (2008)

The biggest crime committed by Autumnal Equinox is that it's just so aesthetically scatterbrained, where from appearances alone it looks like it could have been a fun, campy Halloween metal romp which capitalized on the cheesiness of its themes. Essentially a one-off project by Rick Scythe, who you might know from the Midwest black death metal legends Usurper, and more recently the decent black thrash outfit of his namesake, Scythe; with a couple of his friends, and a drum machine, Nightshade seems like a primitive array of beats programmed to support over-saturated guitars and a mix of vocals that range from his nastier, familiar snarls to a deep Gothic timbre reminiscent of Andrew Eldritch and Peter Steele.

Stylistically it ranges from thrash to heavy metal, to punk riffs that recall The Misfits only clad in a heavier level of distortion and feeling too inorganic because of the drums. Although they lack the distinction that a few threads of Goth rock melody or unpredictable dissonance would give them, the rhythm guitars aren't written all that poorly, only configured into patterns you've heard before that aren't really enhanced or complemented by what's happening around them. The deep, clean vocals are effective enough for that style, but in several of the verse lines or choruses it almost seems like the band is letting us in on the joke, as they become increasingly goofy. Granted, there is no possibility a listener is bound to take Autumnal Equinox seriously. It's meant as a fun recording, but the lyrical content, samples, titles and so forth aren't actually that amusing or even sarcastically humorous, and the cleaner vocals come off like barely intelligible mumbling across half the songs.

It's a strange mix, and frankly if I didn't look at the date it was released out through Sempiternal Productions, I'd have thought it was some bizarre drunken bedroom reel from sometime in the 90s I had stumbled across, so it seems a little displaced from an era where it might actually feel like a lovably bad, sarcastic success. The song titles with subjects like "Midnight, Down in the Lab", "13 Spiders", "It Lives in the Lake" and "October's Scarecrow" all sound like they could be pretty entertaining if they adorned some fun horror punk songs, or even campy death metal like the sort put out by bands like Crypticus and Ghoul, but there's just not enough 'theme' dripping through them, despite the limited use of samples, haunted house keys, etc. The metal aspect of the record seems to be its driving force, but at best the riffs and drum machine make it sound like scraps from the cutting room floor of a Ministry or Rob Zombie record from nearly 20 years ago.

I can't hate on it all that much. It doesn't seem to be intended as anything more than an oddity, I've heard worse, and Rick Scythe seems like a genuine guy with some great material in Usurper and Scythe, just kind of screwing around here. Much of the disappointment for me comes by the aforementioned lack of focus, and because...just look at it. The crones on the cover with the dorky fonts look pretty entertaining, and the music that ends up on the album just isn't anywhere near that...imagine it were a fun Goth metal record with a huge kitschy influence from old punk and rockabilly, or just a really cheesy, awesome horror speed metal record from when they took cover photos like this.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Hexx - Wrath of the Reaper (2017)

When it was announced that Hexx would be returning with a full length after so many years, I admit to some elation that we might be hearing the long-desired follow-up to their 1986 epic, Under the Spell, a mean and lean slab of heavy/power metal from the West Coat that to this day eludes the appreciation it deserves. I was never quite a fan of the band's death/thrash years up into the 90s, despite the competent, frenetic style they attained on Morbid Reality, which I would imagine was many fans' introduction to them. No, I truly hoped that whatever nostalgia or midlife crisis provoked the group into reformation would be one for their burning early years, and hearing the track "Burn or Boil", from last year's split with another veteran Californian act, Ruthless, with vocals similar to Dan Bryant's on the aforementioned 1986 sophomore, was everything I had hoped for. Fast, potent, memorable power/speed metal with only a few hints at the thrashier edge they spiraled off into right before their initial heat death. Even better: there was a version WITH Dan singing too, in their 2016 box set.

Fast forward, and to see the cover art to Wrath of the Reaper, and the heavily horror-emphasized themes and titles for the songs, I thought this was going to be one of those no-brainer comeback records, a strong showing akin to what comparable bands like Vicious Rumors and Attacker have mustered in their later years. While this is far from disappointing, and gets a few kicks in here or there, it's sadly a bit less consistent and memorable than I was anticipating. They've largely gone back to their roots, of that there is no question, but the bulk of the power metal material is slightly offset by a few thrashier moments like on the pounding, excellently-titled, opener "Macabre Procession of Spirits", which is simply not even close to one of the album's better tunes, and has little business being where it is. To be fair, though, a lot of what I'm hearing on the album is what I would have expected, workmanlike USPM, and the band plays around with dynamics, between anthemic, arena fist pumpers, speedy blitzes, and slower, more atmospheric mid paced pieces that erupt with manly power chord theater.

Cuts like "A Slave in Hell" and "Exhumed for the Reaping" are certainly worthy of that 1984 - 1986 era, and I think overall the production packs in plenty of nostalgia with the right level of gain on the guitars, elegantly threaded lead work that hits just at the right moments, and plenty of force in the drumming to give it the heaviness it needs for the 21st century. The riff structures range from the primacy of old Bay Area thrash and speed, to Maiden-esque triplets and most of what you'd find in between those two poles. Bass lines don't stand out very far in the mix, but you can hear them thudding and bounding along in step to the rhythm guitars, and overall when cranked up I thought the album sounded fulfilling enough through my speakers, and like the choice to avoid going too overly polished or neutered as you'll hear with a lot of modern power metal.

I guess the big question is, what do I think of new vocalist Eddy Vega? For a good chunk of the album, he maintains that harrowing, slicing, near-melodic style that Dan Bryant reigned with on the Under the Spell record, although it's slightly less beefy and catchy. Range is about right, but I was much more often reminded of Rob Halford getting nasty on Painkiller. In fact, there are places where his syllabic delivery and enunciation sounds EXACTLY like it belonged on that album, as with the second track "Screaming Sacrifice". He can also scream high coherently, as on the title track, another of the record's highlights, but in doing so he tends to feel a little more like any generic power metal singer and loses some of that edge and distinction that his predecessor possessed. Considering he's a new singer, Vega does a decent job, if not enough to truly distinguish himself among the field, but I hope he'll move forward by eking out a more unique, nuanced presence.

Overall, Wrath of the Reaper is a functional comeback album that positions Hexx back where, in my opinion at least, they were the strongest. Psycho-death/thrasher Hexx fans will undoubtedly appreciate this less than had they chosen instead to progress the Morbid Reality style, but there are means to find that fix elsewhere, like Sadus or Vektor. The horror themes are really cool, even if the music itself doesn't always lend itself to spookiness or 'evil' melodies as much as its manifests into an iron gauntlet to the face. I liked the album, even if I was hoping for more, and some songs are clearly stronger than others. It's also cool to hear vets like guitarist Dan Watson and drummer John Shafer pulling this off today. A natural fit for folks into Vicious Rumors, Liege Lord, Agent Steel, and Marshall Law, but I can't say it'll hit rotation for me as often as Under the Spell, or peer efforts like Giants of Canaan, Razorhead or Warball.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, September 22, 2017

Witch - Salem's Rise (1985)

There are obscurities and then there are OBSCURITIES, and being printed in a limited run of a hundred copies on a US imprint that, so far as I can tell, existed only to promote this band and a solo release from one of its members, Salem's Rise is unlikely to exist in its corporeal form for a few friends, family members, and perhaps a tiny pool of hardcore collectors and heavy metal fans that dug it up somewhere. No, it's far more probable that to experience this sole work of Ohio's Witch, not to be confused with California's Witch, or the Dinosaur Jr. spin-off Witch, you'll have had to run across it online like the rest of us schlubs. Now, whether or not this debut even deserves a cursory listen via the intertrons is debatable...

In fairness, this record is a lot less crude than I thought it would be from looking at it. That's not to say that I hate its cover artwork, as it exudes a certain type of base nostalgia and charm around this time of year; but there's no denying that it looks like a high school project; the wispier hair of its subject almost at odds with the finer detail of its eyes and eyebrows, I am almost reminded of DC's Klarion the Witch Boy character if he were a little older, high and paranoid off a fat spliff, and having a disagreeable hair day. But it's got the pentagram straight in the bottom center, the primitive logo and title which look like they were some attempt at stenciling an old English font, and perhaps its most important detail, the Eargasm Productions iconography in its bottom left corner. Ugly as sin, indeed, but all things considered, transports me back to a time in which I'd scribble and color witches and warlocks from my 1st edition AD&D adventures into my notebooks, which, coincidentally, was around the same time this album dropped.

Musically, I was fairly impressed by how polished Salem's Rise is sounding, especially when you consider the limited resources and distribution, and lower budget that must have gone into this. The guitar tone is clear and workmanlike, the bass-lines throbbing and evident, and the percussion has a nice, old school sound to it which pops along with the rhythm guitars. Leads are simple but chosen well, and just bright enough to remain distinct from the backdrop. Vocals are well represented in the mix, and in strict adherence to the practices of their era, placed much in the forefront of the album, especially when you consider that they are hands down the weakest component of the recording. At best, you're getting blue collar, bar-band level quality which wouldn't have stood a chance in hell against the charismatic greats of the 80s, but even prove lackluster in terms of honest hometown, homegrown heavy metal, a mid-range, ambition-less delivery which becomes all the goofier when the singer 'Ace' tries to pitch out a few screams. He's not particularly terrible, and certainly knows how to frame a chorus, but he's just never interesting enough to remember here.

Another flaw on the recording is in its mild stylistic consistencies. Much of the music is a laid back heavy metal or hard rock style redolent of Judas Priest, Steppenwolf and Accept, if lacking the punch and power of the band's precursors. Occasionally, though, some sleazier, lame duck rock groove pollutes the tracks as in "Beckon", which is also one of the tunes where the vocals are experimented with a lot more and sound corny as hell, especially where he seems a little unable to finish hitting the pitch while belting out the song title in the chorus. They also experiment with a little of the proggy synths circa early Ozzy, as on "Will I See You Tonight", but once again the music is spoiled by the higher pitched vocals whose reach cannot exceed their grasp. Salem's Rise is the sound of a band just getting its feet wet, not quite positive where it's going to end up, and there's a lack of confidence and delivery that drag it well below the hidden gem category, not to mention that, even at their most functional, the riffs are just nothing special whatsoever in a year which produced works like Metal Heart, Branded & Exiled, Walls of Jericho and The Specter Within.

I was drawn to check out the record years ago by its potential theme, however, since I'm a huge fan of cult horror, and the band definitely seems to share this passion with anthems of monsters, mythology, and black magic, with subjects ranging from "Loki" and "Lady Medusa" to "Teen of Darkness" and the title track. The bad new is that, beyond the titles and lyrics and the fact that it's heavy metal in the first place, it just doesn't cultivate these topics well enough, or the vocals are just so vapid in their delivery that they ruin the rest, such as the peppy doom grooves of "Salem's Rise" itself, or the pitch issues in closer "Something Evil", which otherwise is perhaps the strongest song on the album. It's never capable of cashing in on its nostalgia with creepy melodies or atmospheres, or evil sounding lyrical lines, and ultimately there's just so little point to listening to when I could just spin Fatal Portrait or Love You to Pieces for the millionth time each and be infinitely more engaged.

Witch was not complete garbage, though, and there are clearly dreams, ideas, and riffs here which with further molding and a better front man might have developed into something cult. There are thousands of such records out there by bands who met for a couple years, in a garage, in a basement, in an attic loft, a studio space, and riffed out some heavy fucking metal, smoked and drinked, played for their friends, their ladies, their dudes, and lived it...if just for a little while, during the Golden Age of the medium. And, whatever their flaws, whatever hurdle they couldn't leap, you can't ever take that away from them. Why would you?

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Entrench - Through the Walls of Flesh (2017)

The first Entrench record, Inevitable Decay, was this awesome slab of Teutonic-infused thrashing nastiness out of Sweden that really impressed me across a score or more of spins, but sort of fell out of my rotation for whatever reason as I was exploring a lot more throwbacks into the whole blackened speed/thrash style, which one might argue they were bordering on the periphery of, including the amazing Antichrist and their debut stunner Forbidden World. Its follow-up Violent Procreation was likewise pretty solid, but didn't seem to get much buzz, and I didn't listen to it quite as much as its predecessor. Forward to 2017, and now Entrench are on the same label as Antichrist (I Hate records), and still spitting out some of the more vitriolic, sincere, atmospheric stuff in this category.

It's hardly novel, it's not without  its flaws, but Through the Walls of Flesh is very enjoyable, hearkening back to that European proto-thrash that developed in both response and accordance with the West Coast US emergence of Slayer and Possessed. We're not talking a shallow knockoff of Pleasure to Kill or Sentence of Death here. There is a degree of that, but Entrench do a damn good job of giving it a fulfilling treatment so that it's something you might not IGNORE in lieu of its influences, but actually want to experience alongside them. Barbaric, fast paced tremolo picking is the go-to, but they keep these rhythm guitars interesting enough, bloodied and fresh even when the style itself seems highly redundant to a hundred tracks you've already heard. Fredrick Pellbrink also has this really caustic, nihilistic bark to him that works extremely well as it navigators the dirtnap inducing speed and volatile instrumentation, like an evil Swedish Razor. He's like an unholy amalgamation of Ron Rineheart (Dark Angel), Ron Royce (Coroner) and Tom Araya, and without him the music might lose some of its sense of immediacy and anger, which is impressive since he's also the guitarist...

I also like the little touches of proto-death metal that rear their primal, ugly heads here in tunes like "Enter the Fray" or "Iron Coffin", channeling a little of the early Death circa "Pull the Plug". The drums are just a raging force throughout the record, driving and blasting with ample thunder, while the bass guitar peals along pretty well so you can hear it right along the rhythm tracks. There's a whole lot of hellish 'hustle' when the pacing picks up, like you're being trampled by a herd of abyssal bulls being driven away from their demonic wranglers, for fear of their damned afterlives. Lots of flavorful, evil little licks here that will thrill fans of Antichrist or Deathhammer, and the leads are well-structured to complement the rhythm guitar riffs while adding just the proper level of escape and atmosphere that elevate the music into a total package. I'm not saying that everything here is equally memorable, but Entrench is another band who seem like they're really on the level, cognizant of where they come from, and translating their influences into something that is still vile, resonant and worthwhile even in 2017, rather than the vapid indistinct pizza thrashing of lesser scum. Good stuff here; I think Inevitable Decay remains my favorite, but this one certainly lives up to its legacy.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Darkthrone - Arctic Thunder (2016)

I've gotten at least a half dozen queries over the last nine months as to why I hadn't reviewed Darkthrone's Arctic Thunder, as I've always been so adamant on covering the rest of the Norwegians' output in the past. The answer to that is I just haven't wanted to admit to myself, or in any kind of official capacity to the public, that one of my favorite bands in the world, who I've consistently lauded for decades, from the traditional sound they are best known for, to the constant subgenre-hopping of their more recent work, had finally released a record...that, well...I didn't really like. Now, previous to this, I would have touted their prior full-length The Underground Resistance as my least favorite of their studio efforts, but at least with that one, I can say I love half the songs entirely, and the other half just had a few flaws which marred them. Arctic Thunder, on the other hand, doesn't inspire me in the slightest...and it's taken me this long to really hash out why, to go back and give it those many chances to prove itself, to find out what I'd been 'missing', which is something rare in my listening. Oh, it happens, just not terribly often.

Now, let me qualify that this is by no means a trainwreck of an album, and it possesses most of the hallmarks of what we come to expect from their sound. Simplistic songwriting, with 4-5 minute long songs, only a few riffs in each. Slightly more introspective interesting lyrics than you'd be expecting from your garden variety trad black metal, though nowhere near the band's most poignant, strange or whimsical. The production, while clean, is kept fairly raw, with the trashy but effective driving rock drums, the sincere but sinister guitar tones, and Nocturno Culto's unmistakable, potent rasping bark that is as fit as you've ever heard it, whether in short syllabic bursts or the more sustained growls that drift over the primacy of the riffing. Style-wise, we're no longer hearing some exploration into a new segment of traditional metal. No novelty speed, punk, thrash, doom, heavy metal, with the exception of how those niches' already intersect instrumentally or thematically, or how they've already appeared in the band's canon (the title track being a great example of this, with a heavy/black metal feel). This seems most intensively like a retrospective of the black and death roots the band was tugging at back in the early 90s, both as a warmup for their debut Soulside Journey and the raw, rustic black of their first few forays into that genre, then CHANNELED into the newer styles. The very narrow and minimalist range of chord progressions is highly reminiscent of stuff like Hellhammer, which so informed their earlier songwriting.

It looks inviting, with the dark woodland and sky, the fire crackling away, the logo displayed much as it was on Total Death, which once stood out for having the color artwork rather than the newsprint grimness. But this Arctic feels like it's populated by only the driest ice, the songs seem put together in the safest and least adventurous ways possible. It's not the first time I might have described one of their albums that way, mind you, but there was a particular darkness, novelty, and menace to older discs like Panzerfaust or Ravishing Grimness which immortalized them to my brain. Here, it seems like a couple of guys sitting around a campfire, dredging up memories of cutting room floor tunes that were a little too dull to incorporate on prior full-lengths, and then deciding to assemble them into one retrospective of work. All the pieces are functional, operate fluidly through the course of the disc, but just never manifest into truly worthwhile tracks. I often felt a little 'faked out', too, like in the tune "Throw Me Through the Marshes" where you get that cool, simple groove of the verse, but then it just never seemed as if it was capitalized on...the song doesn't effectively escalate beyond that point.

I probably liked the style on "Arctic Thunder" and "The Wyoming Distance" the most, if mainly because I liked how that blackened epic heavy metal chugging bore the bulk of NC's vocals, giving it the sickest, coolest contrast, but even there it seemed like the bridge sections needed something more to them to make them more compelling. Most of the eight tracks seem like earnest attempts at 'one hook' wonders, but those solitary hooks are simply not memorable enough themselves to unlock that achievement. To me, it really did feel like these were all just sort of assembled from scraps of ideas that weren't strong enough to appear elsewhere, and rather than 40 minutes of killer, we get about 30 minutes of filler surrounding the few passable guitars, and the solid vocal performance. Granted, this is still Darkthrone, and that half-hour of median material is something I'd probably listen to over a whole range of other, lesser bands.

Again, this is no disaster. No Diabolicus in Musica. No Load. No Risk. I wouldn't describe it as weak or, even painfully average, but after a dozen attempts to go back and re-invest myself, I can't deny that it's my least favorite of their full-lengths, and unlikely to get a lot of playtime here even compared to Underground Resistance, Plaguewielder, or Goatlord, the albums I would have previously considered on the lower rungs of their studio catalog, which only goes to enforce how summarily smitten I am with the band, because I dig all of those. Arctic Thunder is probably just a fluke for me, a one-off, a record whose specifics just didn't gel with the entertainment center of my brain. Here's hoping...

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (again the moon expires)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Natrium - Vertigo of Abjection (2017)

This is only my first exposure to Italy's Natrium, but they strike me as the sort of medium weight brutal death which more accurately reflects where the sub-genre was headed in the late 90s or earlier 21st century, rather than where it's all ended up now with its clinical wank fests, mechanical deathcore breakdowns, etc. To be more specific, I was feeling some heavy influence from Suffocation and Cannibal Corpse, almost a median between Pierced from Within and Gore Obsessed, with a lot of faster barrages reminiscent of the heavier Floridian hitters, and an exercise in technicality that never sounds like it's simply being flashy or overly indulgent, just a group of guys that know how to play, know how to play hard, and will show you their chops when the writing warrants it.

Don't get me wrong, you can tell by the frenetic picking patterns implicit in tracks like "Vertigo of Abjection" itself that they're capable of some complexity, and they definitely have a lot of stop/start elements and clamorous riffing and percussion patterns that slightly break the formula of their influences, but you're not going to find cheap knuckle-dragging chug-offs, flamboyant and empty arpeggios flitting everywhere, or any cheap tricks whatsoever...this record is about as straightforward a beating as you're like to receive in its style, all punishment going straight through the punctuality and punch of the palm muted guitars, the truly intense dexterity of the drummer, and the deep and functional growls which reminds me quite a lot of Corpsegrinder's lower grunts in how he spits out syllables, as well as Frank Mullen's guttural depth and breadth. Bass is present at some moments more than others, especially when they go for a poppier, funky tone that stands out the most. I also noticed a little more of an interesting dissonance in the rhythm guitars than usual, not so much that it's in the majority of riffs, but enough to keep it a fraction more compelling.

The drawbacks here are few. Sometimes the vocals get monotonous. The riffs, while choppy, busy and varied enough across the eight tracks to keep you from getting bored, are rarely the sort that feel truly evil or threatening, more just a hyperactive, muscular flexing. The only atmosphere here is that of repeatedly taking a piledriver to your cranium, so you're dependent heavily on the tempos at which the guitars are pummeling along, or the busywork behind the kit which almost had my head spinning off, or the sample of Ripley from Alien Resurrection, which you'll find nestled deep at the end of "Inhuman Commodification". It's a truly blue collar, practical sort of brutal death which might lack some of the spastic, relentless, noodling ambition of a Brain Drill, or the jazzy cosmic escapism of a Decrepit Birth, but should pass muster if you've got a lot of fondness for bands like Severe Torture, Gorgasm, Deeds of Flesh, Prostitute Disfigurement, Horde Casket, and so on. Effective if not exemplary, Vertigo could certainly have gained from more leads or dissonant, higher pitched guitars, and some other means to create a creepier atmosphere, with more surprises waiting in ambush, but it's competent enough in terms of sheer concussive capacity.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Vietah - Czornaja ćviĺ (2015)

I've really dug the rural minimalism used on the Vietah covers, and this one, Czornaja ćviĺ ("Black Mold"), might be the strongest of all, with its central figure disintegrating into the titular substance between the graying sky and bleak vegetation surrounding it. I think it truly captures the earnest sadness on exhibition throughout the music, and provides a window into proper melancholic escapism, which is precisely why I turn towards a record like this. It's a little hard to make such a dreary appearance appealing, but I feel this is a case where that works well. As for the rest of the album, it doesn't quite deviate much from its predecessor, but does so with a few key ingredients that actually worked out in its favor.

The structure here is laid out a lot like the previous album, with four lengthy tracks, immediately throwing up the red flags that it's going to be an uphill battle to succeed. The sound is a fairly stock atmospheric black metal, with slower, drawn own chord patterns that speak more of fell majesty and lost longing than they hell and viciousness and savagery, and this has been a hallmark of Vietah for years. Black metal for wanderers. Hermits. Erudites. You don't come here for 666 posturing and photo bombing horns over your friends' heads on social media...this is for psychic sponges that soak up the decay around them and channel it into diabolic grandeur. Antarctis takes his damn time with you and draws you slowly into each invocation, and this time out he does so with a rawer sheen on the guitars than the clarity of the last, an improvement that I acknowledge, even though I wouldn't say that the actual riff quality is far above its predecessor. It's simply a more potent, primeval feel here without sacrificing the other instruments.

Speaking of which, there are more light flourishes of keys here than on the third record, and in mid 90s Burzum way, or Lifelover on Konkurs; they help to add a strange sense of grace to the slogging epic-Bathory pace of the 10+ minute cuts. In fact, Czornaja ćviĺ attains a lot more atmosphere all around. The drums splash a little harder, which fits this rhythm guitar tone better, and the whole mix seems more resonant and resilient, like its crashing off the sides of valleys and peaks before arriving in your ears. The snarled vocals, although still very sparse and minimal, also seem more fluid with their surroundings. The record does have a tendency to focus on very slow, churning, roiling riff patterns, with some of the higher strings struck for ambiance over the chords, and also a little more of that primeval Hellhammer of their older material returns with some of the straight chugged sections. Overall, though, I think it rewards this patience more than on Tajemstvy noczy. Not enough to really justify the longer compositions, but we at least end up with a slightly superior, solid and dependable experience through the murk and fog and depression.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, July 14, 2017

Vietah - Tajemstvy Noczy (2014)

Tajemstvy noczy ('Sacraments of Night') is the third Vietah full-length seeing a vinyl reissue through I Hate records of Sweden, and it continues the Belarusian's solidification into a professional and consistent one-man black metal force, without adding any sort of dramatic mutations or progressions to the style he honed over the earlier albums. Surely, this is the crispest, cleanest of recordings he had released to its point, with a great rhythm guitar mix, audible if subversive bass lines that cling loyally to the procession of chords, and a more subtle but effective use of drums which don't seek to supplant the melodies with brutality, but to remain a driving background element to support them, thus allowing for a more hypnotic, rustic sense to the repetition rather than a thundering blast furnace you expect out of a lot of traditional North European black metal.

Vietah is no stranger to longer tracks, with a handful populating the previous releases, but for this record it's the rule and not the exception...four tunes, 41 minutes, each ranging from 9-12 minutes individually. Now, I've gone over this many times before, that bloating up a song structure is by no means any sort of guarantee for success, and I'll say up front that Tajemstvy noczy suffers a little from this, since the riff composition isn't always so fresh or inventive that it sticks to you, and there are not nearly enough dynamics happening within the bounds of each of these behemoths, nor any sort of meandering randomness, epic ascension/descension, or any other distraction. They remain all too consistent in pacing and in being purely riff-driven works that exist on a dry, level plane, without creating a lot of tension or emotional impact. That's not to say they're all scrap-worthy, since a lot of the guitar patterns are of the caliber you might have expected on an earlier 21st century Satyricon disc, but there's no real escalation here, or any surprise lurking anywhere.

But that's not in itself a massive flaw, since there are points where the album really does work, in particular the closer "Kałyhanka dlja njabožczyka", which is no more complex than the other tunes, but has a much warmer, more addictive flavor to the melodies that most effectively captured the melancholic intentions of the material, and didn't seem to have any sort of lull in my enjoyment. I do feel that Antarctis could work a little more on the range and rasp of his vocals, here they are sparse and workmanlike, not unlike Satyr but less venomous or vibrant; but the songs might be better suited to a protracted sort of scream, or echoed effects that create a greater sense of urgency, suffering or poignancy. As it stands, everything is a little safe and dependable, and that's ultimately the reason I didn't feel like this one was as cold and affecting as its predecessor Smalisty žah. Still, it's a solid effort, and if Vietah can dial up its atmosphere, take a whetstone to its guitar lines, and maintain this level of production, then the next level could really be attained.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Darkthrone - The Wind of 666 Black Hearts (2016)

Do you long for those old tapes of yourself jamming in the garage or basement and laying it all down with a cassette or perhaps even a poorly-implemented 4-track recorder? Are you such a purist that only the rehearsals will do, that every band has officially sold out after its first demo or album? Do you like to hear the roots of black metal with none of the frills, none of the polish, none of the studio wizardry it took to pull off some of the genre's most successful records? The Wind of 666 Black Hearts has a lot of this in mind, and Peaceville Records is banking that enough of you will find at least a collector's item out of these Darkthrone rehearsals over two 12" records, priced reasonably enough as far as these bound-to-be collectibles are vomited out onto the market.

This is the majority of A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Under a Funeral Moon, or at least 10 of their 14 tracks, but in a cruder rehearsal form that lacks some of the frostbitten force you will have come to know from the studio incarnations. Raw, Hellhammer-spawned guitar lines moving at a moderate clip, back when that was their thing, back when they had switched out of death metal mode into a style that was quite new and fresh for the time, the same style that they would become royalty for over the ensuing decades. The guitars lack some of the coldness of the LPs, and the drums are even more tinny and crashy and amateurish, the vocals a paint-peeling rasp that appear less than you'll expect them to. Leads are an unwholesome mess. I did like that you could hear the bass, it gives the jamming a nice low end anchor and some contrast with the rawer rhythm tones, but on the whole I'd say that, at much as I love these songs on the albums, they seem a little less potent and atmospheric in this format, and I say that even as someone who is constantly dragging out such old demos and gladly ignoring their flaws in the name of nostalgia.

Only collectors and purists need apply here, especially if you want to hear the band with the lineup that included Dag and Zephyrous. This isn't just some dumpy compilation of pre-released album tracks being plucked at random and sold back to you, I'll grant it that, so there is some nostalgia in that it shows the band in the buff, at its most 'vulnerable' if these corpse-painted Scandinavian deviants could give a fuck about vulnerability. That said, I can think of no honest reason why I'd ever spin this over the 15+ good to great to perfect Darkthrone discs I've already got in my collection, all of which benefit from a better production and atmosphere. This is just such a sincere, raw band to begin with that an even more primal package like The Wind of 666 Black Hearts can't do it much justice, the songs lack that haunting and impressively defiant feel that I experienced when listening to them back in the dawn of the 90s, and it offers little more than history.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Monday, July 10, 2017

Darkthrone - Burial Bliss/Visual Aggression 7" (2017)

This 7" should prove a tempting little collector's item for those interested in it's B-side in particular, a cover of Celtic Frost's "Visual Aggression" which was recorded with the former Darkthrone members Dag Nilsen and Ivar Enger, before the band was rendered down to the two-piece formation we've so come to know and love. To my knowledge I don't think this has been released on anything before, not as a bonus track on any of the full-lengths, not even on the myriad of compilations, worthless or worthwhile, that the band's labels have ground out through the years. It's paired up here with a mildly rawer take on "Burial Bliss", a track from their latest full-length Arctic Thunder, which I have surprisingly not yet reviewed, though that will be remedied soon.

So I'll cover this in reverse..."Visual Aggression" is a rough track, but far more potent than you'd expect from the era in which it was released, more formidable than your average lost rehearsal track or cutting floor demo, and probably wouldn't have been out of place on their death metal-oriented debut Soulside Journey. Now, it's no secret that Hellhammer and early Celtic Frost were a huge influence upon the Norwegians, both their formative death metal era and A Blaze in the Northern Sky, which could be described as a frostbitten Hellhammer taken to extremes, so to that extent this version of it is played almost too closely to the original, with the only mild disparity coming through the vocals and the bulkier mix of the guitars; but it's a nifty little piece of history regardless of whether one is going to listen to it much with the original available, and nearly any of Darkthrone's more interesting and awesome original tunes.

As for "Burial Bliss", I have to admit that it's possible this is my preferred mix for the song, a pure barbaric mid-paced crusher which is aesthetically flush with "Visual Aggression", just a little more bloody and rough-edged than the one they settled on for the full-length. It's not an amazing piece in of itself, but travels at a workmanlike pace that likely pleased a lot of fans of the old Panzerfaust or Total Death era Darkthrone, grim as fuck with no surprise twists anywhere in its five minutes. In terms of being consistent, it's actually one of the better songs they could muster to partner up with the cover, so as a result the 7" makes a lot of sense. That said, it's really not worth much if you're not in the market to collect...the cover doesn't justify itself beyond pure tribute, and the original, while a little harsher than on Arctic Thunder, is also not unique enough to go out of your way for. But if you collect everything they release, and yearn for those old, primitive days, it's borderline satisfactory.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Selcouth - Heart is the Star of Chaos (2017)

There are few real instances of originality left in metal music, to the extent that even when you hear that band that sounds 'original', you can attribute that to an unconscious smattering of influences from half a dozen other weirdo bands that you knew from a decade ago. To a degree, I could say that about Finland's Selcouth, the eclectic construct of several members of another band called Khanus (who put out a pretty nifty EP last year called Rites of Fire, which I have also reviewed on these pages). Sure, if you're familiar with the Norse post-black metal/progressive outlets like Arcturus, Virus, Ulver, and especially Solefald, there will be a few aesthetics carried forward, and yet even beyond that I would say there is plenty about Heart is the Star of Chaos that feels strikingly unique within the envelope of bizarro left-of-center metal hybridization into which this debut will be signed, sealed and delivered.

Imagine if you will a bevy of grooving bass lines, distorted or smooth, jazzy lounge-lizard pianos and nuances, carefully threaded and mute-picked electric guitars, and a percussionist who can seamlessly cultivate all these various strains into a cohesive, tribal, rhythmic whole. Now atop this sundae of sonic eccentricity, place a vocalist who is both burly and fragile, clear and crackling, expressive and emotive and oftentimes hypnotic, like an unconscious amalgamation of Czral and David Bowie, but don't stop there...harmonize him with all manner of breathy intonations, add in an equally intriguing female singer who has a nice, modern acid jazzy nightclub vibe about her but can curve all that into a snarl when the talons come out, slightly reminiscent of Monika from the underrated Atrox. Mix the results so that no two songs quite sound alike, but all of them weave together like dyes onto a lucid canvas upon which dreamy, haze-like states are being translated directly from musical brain patterns into actual, audible sounds. I know of no real other way to accurately describe this Selcouth record, it's essentially an reverse explosion of shattered fragments back into an introspective mirror, a chaos made congenial by its weavers' ability to reign it all into a drugged warmth.

It's bloody fucking awesome...

and it's all about the details haunting almost every moment of the recording. Those frenetic little guitar licks driving the 'verses' of "Querencia", or the pluggy, bemused but strangely threatening bass-lines crawling and scaling along beneath the lush keys and strings "Of Hopes and Lost Treasures". Or even when the band lets its 'extreme metal' (ooooo) roots through in "Below Hope" and then STILL manages to weird them out to oblivion and back. I can't say that every single lick or vocal line is equally poignant or impressive, but considering what a wide span of influences they bring forth, from the old and cheesy operatic Gothic auras to the nuanced, almost improvisational jazz beats and textures, this debut is nothing less than a monster of creativity, a Frankenstein of mind-fucking experiments in rock, rampaging across its cosmos, yet never so out-of-control that the mad scientists which created it lose their leash on the lightning that gave it life. Certifiable, and certifiably cool at the same time.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Antichrist - Sinful Birth (2017)

Being that the Antichrist debut album was one of my favorite metal recordings of the last decade, I was naturally chomping at the bit for its inevitable followup, slavering over the tracks I could scope out in advance of the actual release, and feeling entirely too satisfied by what I was sampling. Now that Sinful Birth is in my paws, and I've gotten past the whole 'it's probably not going to be as good as the first one' hurdle, I can honestly tell you that I've spun this sophomore a dozen full times in only a handful of weeks, and I'm happy to report that it takes the aesthetics of its predecessor and splays them out into an even more dynamic, threatening form with enormous replay value without sacrificing even a fraction of the intensity and entertainment meted out through Forbidden World.

This is essentially a pure, undiluted window into what an alternate timeline brand of blackened, sickening speed/thrash would have sounded like were it released back in the mid 80s. That's not to say it couldn't have existed in our own continuum, because the influences are worn upon its bloody sleeves like so many dripping spike-bracers. Slayer, Venom, Possessed, Kreator, Bathory, and Kill 'Em All era Metallica all stroll into a bar together to watch a band called Dark Angel performing Darkness Descend, and then some unholy, drunken amalgamation of those bands' rosters go back to a nearby jam space and try to replicate and record what they the process managing to one-up just about everything I loved about their individual sounds. If I hadn't already been exposed to hard rock and heavy metal since an age shortly after I could potty, a record like Sinful Birth would have made a convert out of me every. damn. time. Vicious, unforgiving, like trying to balance on the edge of a razorblade through almost its entire playtime, and possessed of an absolute disregard for just about anything that is currently cool, polished, or comfortable.

That's not to say it's the heaviest fucking metal you're going to hear anytime soon, but Antichrist, more than any other throwback thrash band, really feel like it belongs to the era it draws upon for its inspiration. These guys aren't trite, or trendy, nor are they sloppy. Buzzing guitars flurry past at a rate of nearly ZERO forgettable riffing progressions, with something even more exciting than the verses always waiting within their eaves, and leads that perfectly match the unhinged, frenetic pacing. A drumming performance that is arguably the MVP here...stacked to the roof with bruising beats, crazy fills, and militant cadences often used to escalate something like "The Entity", which is almost like a John Carpenter composition filtered through electric guitars and savagery. The bass lines might seem like the rear-guard to this formation, and they do their support duty well, but you can constantly hear them pounding and thumping away right up front in the mix and it just generates even more of a hellish, pugilistic atmosphere to a record that only lets up when it wants to surprise you, like in the melodic bridge of "Black Pharaoh" which sounds worthy of top shelf Deceased and would probably do even King Fowley a proud.

The one contentious element I've seen thrown about the intertronz are Steken's vocals, which seem to spoil the experience for some listeners...but not this one. The guy sounds absolutely volatile, oozing sinister and awesome serial killer lyrics all over the guitars, with a timbre that I could really only compare to vintage Don Doty excesses vomited out over Tom Araya's syllabic structures. Raving, barking mad, the antithesis of most thrash and death metal bands that place it safe with overbearing, overproduced gutturals and barks that sound like they're practically automated. No, Anton Sunesson is the real goddamn deal, a front man that I can instantly distinguish from the herd, and even though he doesn't exactly have the widest array of tricks in his repertoire, he doesn't need them, because this violence sounds sincere, and that ultimately lends Sinful Birth its timeless quality of dirtnap speed/thrash godliness, and if you don't agree I will gladly tear your patches off your sleeves and throw you in front of a train. Okay, I wouldn't do that, in reality I'm a pussycat, but listening to Antichrist MAKES ME WANT TO, and that counts for something. A lot.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (the hunger is too strong)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Damnation - Resist (2000)

By the later 90s, death metal had been inundated with so many more accessible traits via heavy and thrash metal that it might have made a lot of sense for an underground group like Damnation to boost their signal, but to their credit the only thing they really cleaned up here at all was arguably the production values. More than any of their albums prior, Resist feels like a gestalt of the Floridian extreme death that went into the band's older albums, primarily of the Morbid Angel or Malevolent Creation variety, with a few Deicide rhythms, but it also maintains that mild sense of atmosphere and experimentation they had used before with the admission of a few scant ambient/instrumental passages to flesh out the faster, harsher fundamentals employed.

The record is essentially a lot of jerky, tremolo picked rhythms with a lot of stop/start patterns that are capitalized on by the drumming, which is likely the most intense and audible across their career. The vocals follow the David Vincent style of intonation, harsh and guttural, nihilistic barks, but with the advantage of being a good decade later than our inauguration to that style, so they're a little more muscular in nature, though the patterns are often quite as sloppy, vaguely following the rhythmic patterns beneath them, giving their implementation a little more of an unhinged, asylum aesthetic which actually suits the music well. Never before have I heard the Damnation guitars this clearly, and while the wealth of the progressions they write are nothing terribly nuanced or special, they really dig into those strings here, with some of their most involved and rapid fire patterns, not to mention some of the best, wild lead lines they'd used to this point. The bass guitar also keeps a pretty solid presence in the mix, though it does get buried beneath the snare, fills, vocals and rhythm guitar whenever they are all firing off together into one of the more intense sequences.

Resist does lack some of the suffocating atmosphere of the sophomore Rebel Souls, and I also feel it comes up slightly short of that album in overall memorability, but note for note they are pretty close, with this, the band's swan song depicting their most intricate guitar work with a carnal clarity. The riffs do possess a variety I had not heard before, with a little bit of a clinical thrash element there in the intro to "Absence in Humanity", and some other tracks which reach slightly outside the comfort zone. Dark, ambient passages like "Voices of an Unknown Dimension" help lend a sense of evil and gravity to the track list, though the electronic and sounds used seem a little claptrap and cheesy, and most of them are embedded into the metal tracks without much of a strong purpose. The simple fact of the matter is that Damnation were a band reaching for something, and while they arguably got there in the 90s, they had more to their material than the already dulling proto brutal death and gore being pimped; a fusion of old school aesthetics with a slight regional spin. No, they weren't writing on the level of Vader or Behemoth or other countrymen, and it makes some sense that they got lost in the shuffle, but overall they had a good run as a solid second tier act which can still evoke a little darkness if you listen to them in the proper mindset. Rebel Souls and Resist were a pretty convincing one-two punch combo for such an unknown.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Spellbound - Nothing But the Truth (2015)

While their first two records could hardly be dubbed impressive, Germans Spellbound have consistently proven to be purveyors of a fairly rare, lost art among the thrash crowd. That is to say, the full-package, dynamic songwriting style that birthed some of the largest names in the genre, Metallica at the foremost, but this was a skill often mirrored by other West Coast acts like Testament and at the very least attempted by bands worldwide, from Australia's Mortal Sin to England's Xentrix, to several of the Germans' countrymen, even if the faster, nastier Trinity of Teutonic Thrash held sway in that particular court. To be more specific, the composition's goals consist of big hooks, verse/chorus interplay, meticulously crafted leads that could hold their own with the rhythm riffing, enough of a neck jerking energy to keep them well within the genre's parameters, and approachable standards which held more of a mass appeal than the dirtnap speed and thrash existing on the niche's edge.

Nothing But the Truth accomplishes all of these to an extent, while rarely cocking up the formula that structures its more successful songs, a trait that sadly eluded the older efforts, which had only a scant handful of memorable cuts at best. The riffing is powerful, albeit familiar enough that a lot of the individual progressions will remind you of this or that and then twist it slightly away from the pure predictability a lot of us dread when listening to today's latest wave of pizza-thrashers. The leads here are very well balanced to offer an emotional payoff without completely outdistancing the blue collar, 'mellow' or melodic, mid-paced thrash rhythms that make up the bulk of the play length. When they pick up the thrust, you're remind purely of the picking patterns made famous by bands like Exodus, Testament or Metallica, but the overall mood here is 'steady wins the race', and that can often give this a laid back feel, sort of similar to New England's own Meliah Rage, only I feel like the writing here is a little more optimistic and immediately sticky on the ear. Reinforcing that comparison are the vocals of David Maier, melodic and edgy in the Hetfield vein which front men like Mike Munro, Chuck Billy and Mat Maurer ran off with.

The guitars sound great on this album, clear for the various leads, melodies and excess rock hero squeals while potent and punchy enough for a pit of intoxicated 40-somethings reliving their glory days, which I'd imagine might be the primary audience for this band, or those younglings who are trying to emulate that demographic. I happen to be among that first crowd, only somewhat less intoxicated on an average day, so I felt the pangs of nostalgia. Bass isn't a strong point here, but enough else is going on that you'll be distracted away from noticing, especially when the dozen or so really strong guitar riffs set off, forcing more replay value than I would have expected from my experience with either Nemesis 2665 or Incoming Destiny. There are a few slight misfires here, like the obligatory power-thrash ballad "Dying in the Dirt" which doesn't quite hit the payoff it wants to, however they aren't quite awful, and easily forgiven by the wealth of improvements they've made elsewhere. If you're into the more accessible spectrum of trad metal-tinted thrash I've mentioned above, or younger bands like Evile and After All, then this one is worth a listen.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Damnation - Coronation EP (1997)

Keeping themselves busy through the latter half of the 90s, Poland's Damnation capitalized on their very solid sophomore Rebel Souls with a four-track EP that sounds a lot like it looks, which is to say that it's blasphemous, savage occult death metal with a Baphomet cover image nearly indistinguishable from many others in its class. That's not to pass judgement too heavily on the music, but it does not seem that the band was aesthetically interested at the moment on building up further momentum from the prior album, which had shown a good degree of growth from their 1995 debut. I suppose I can give it a pass here, but only because they saw fit to record a tune called "Spell Master", and because the material itself does exhibit the ferocity and fortitude of Rebel Souls.

The mix is set at about the same level of epic murk as its predecessor, with the roiling guitars that just seethe along beneath the broader, guttural growls that crown the experience. The drums are tinny and on the lower side of the audibility range here, but it comes together like decent underground Euro death from its day and age, and one can't expect so much more. As for the riff structures, they are generally fast-paced and give off a similar Morbid Angel vibe that they'd done on the full-lengths, only some of the chord progressions used on these tunes most remind me of the Altars of Madness era, which happens to be my favorite from Trey and company. Atmospherics are still used with some sparse use of organ-like synth tones ("Spell Master") or a turbulent ambiance (intro to the title cut), so in that way they keep in line with their vision on the earlier records, and I also found that the lead work and melodic accompaniment here was kept at just the right ratio to keep the material from growing dull, because honestly not a lot of these riffs are that amazing to begin with.

The compositions do feel a fraction cluttered, especially (and sadly) on "Spell Master", but I feel that there's enough going on through the tracks, enough of a vibrant, hellish energy that it doesn't mar the quality terribly. Also, there's a big contrast between the business of the guitars and the vocals, which are almost all delivered with those broader phrasings. The bass tone has a good distortion on it but still seems to bury itself once the writhing guitars are on full thrust, and ultimately I think this EP exhibits the consistency of Rebel Souls, while slightly suffering from the clamor of Reborn... I also can't say I'd listen to it over either of those albums, but like the debut it does a moderate job of putting you into that 90s headspace, before production values were heavily polished and when death metal still maintained a natural, evil vibe to it that wasn't nostalgia-borne, but carried the genuine, black pulse of that formative age. Damnation is no Vader, but they'll do in a pinch if you want to dance on tombstones while you're sloshing your brain with vodka.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]