Friday, December 8, 2017

Tongues - Hreilia (2017)

I listen to and enjoy droves of metal records each years, across a wide spread of the subgenres, but few and far between are those that can even for a few minutes deliver me some sort of a genuine creep factor. The full-length debut of Denmark's Tongues is one such case, a highly atmospheric black metal experience which effectively weaves in elements of doom and death metal to create an experience which alternates between haunting, paranoid and frenzied. While there are a lot of bands experimenting with hybrids of these stylistic niches, Hreilia succeeds where so many others falter or plane out because these gentlemen are masters of scripting simplistic but hypnotic guitars and bass grooves that bore down through your temples into your memory box.

I could tell you that I picked up fragments of Canadian alienists Antediluvian or Mitochondrion here, or perhaps scraps of the dissonant French masters Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega, and all of that would be true; but the psychedelic submission and trauma of Finland's Oranssi Pazuzu is perhaps the closest equivalent, though Tongues don't rely strictly on such exotic walls of atonal sheen in terms of songwriting. Hreilia is intelligently set up by the slow, evil, subliminal grooving of the track "Perennial Waves", behind which you can make out all manner of scaling and falling ambiance that gives the impression you're in the wake of some midnight atrocity, the victims' remains cooling around you, bathing in the lunar rays, much like the cover. The album can grow much more savage, with faster blasted parts that rely on busier progressions of chords, but it's generally the rule that the material remains slower or mid-pace, extremely bewitching and atmospheric, and they play around more with the riffing structures and bass lines that actually matter, while using a guttural lead vocal as a constant that helps rein in and bind the material to a sense of bleak oppression.

Synthesizers are used tastefully throughout, whether in some of the shorter instrumental pieces or to accent the metal components with heightened, fell grace. They also use a saranji, an incredibly atmospheric Eastern stringed instrument which by itself can create all manner of depth and drama, and it balances off against the harsher sections of the albums smoothly. The mix is a fraction oblique, sacrificing polish for a more dingy and alien feel that better serves the blend of instruments, but this all works really well as a package alongside the crude, creepy colors of the artwork and the arcane symmetry of the band's logo, or the imagery of cosmic/weird horror and dread which permeates the lyrics. One of the strongest and most sinister new voices I've heard on both the Danish scene and the I, Voidhanger roster in some time, Hreilia is a record which is not immediately impenetrable, but still picks up accumulative value the more you listen through it, with its spooky and subduing licks that massage and violate your mind in equal measure. Euthanasia for happiness.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (seraphs become larvae)

https://www.facebook.com/tungerne

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Bloodway - A Fragile Riddle Crypting Clues (2017)

The elephant always in the room with a Bloodway record is that the band is an auditory vehicle for one of the most unique, compelling visual artists in the entire metal medium, Costin Chioreanu. Hell, even on a bad day, this man's cover and graphic design work is more fascinating, abstract and eye-catching than nearly anyone else out there, so when A Fragile Riddle Crypting Clues arrived, or its predecessor Mapping the Moment with the Logic of Dreams, I must have spent ten minutes just looking at the things before even daring to explore the music itself. No pressure. Thankfully, ever since the first EP back in 2014, the Romanian three-piece has delivered an experience aurally that can rival its imagery, a hybrid of progression and extremity that circles the drain of its black metal ancestry but then runs off in rivulets in a myriad of directions without sacrificing a coherent musical narrative.

Hypnotic, atonal ambiance and poetry inaugurate this sophomore full-length before the tumultous chords erupt, coiled and dissonant but with a subtext of melody that creates a warmer feel than your garden variety newsprint black metal. Costin proscribes to the tortured soul, huffing style of snarled vocal which is slightly higher pitched than many of his peers, suicidal in shape, and very likely to drive half the potential audience mad within moments of hearing it. I am not in that half, because I appreciate the strange contrast it creates against the busier, roiling mold into which the riffs are formed. Organic rhythm guitars teeming with melancholic chords, whether configured into pure black metal chords or flights of thrashier picking, often with an alien feel reminiscent of a band like the mighty Voivod, though that is not always the rule. Nicely balanced bass lines that often hum just below the frenzied fretwork, but occasionally swell up to a more distinct, popping fervor with a few curious lines of their own. The drums are splashy, constantly attentive, and laced with the fills and footwork requisite to fulfill the demands of the eclectic riffing progressions.

I want to say I'm reminded of high-brow progressive metal acts like Opeth or Cormorant, only with a lot more natural, less processed, less 'safe' tone and structure to the guitars and presentation, and capped off by vocals that are far more in the vein of bands like Weakling, Bethlehem or Burzum, but not copies. The album is super well rounded in terms of how harsher passages are countered off by gentler moments and then swung back around to a passionate, frenzied crescendo. You'll find differently structure riffs and harmonies in all the metal tracks, revealing that Chironeau is well-versed in a lot of metal beyond just the blackness at the core of the project, occasionally glazed with gloomy pure heavy-metal or progressive rock. The guy has been in a large number of other bands in the past, and you can tell he doesn't cast any of those aesthetics aside, instead inserting them whenever they flow a track in an interesting direction. There's a real treat, a novelty in listening to a Bloodway album that puts them easily into recommendation territory, especially if you're into eclectic stuff like Blut Aus Nord, Deathspell Omega, Enslaved, or other entrepreneurs in the medium. Never less than impressive, if you're willing to decode the nuances.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (a tongue for sonic leaks)

https://www.facebook.com/bloodways

Monday, December 4, 2017

Drug Honkey - Hail Satan (2005)

It's important to note that I'm coming at Hail Satan in reverse, having already been smitten with both of Drug Honkey's latest albums Cloak of Skies and Ghost in the Fire, and also digging the record Death Dub prior to those, though that one took me several spins to really start to appreciate. This is actually the sophomore for the Chicago narco-doom fiends, and naturally a lot more raw than the aesthetics they'll continue to develop as they progress. That's not to say this doesn't share traits in common, or that the later efforts lose the sense of repulsive primacy established on the earlier pieces, but here it's not simply a disparity in composition but also in the more primitive production being exhibited. With an impending re-release through Hohlraum records, however, it was actually cool to travel back and experience this with the knowledge of how it would develop.

Hail Satan might have an overt, provocative title, but in truth is not thematically abstracted from other Drug Honkey efforts. Subjects like drug abuse, depression, and institutional rebellion are legion, and often represented with extremely minimalist lyrical patterns that care about little more than getting their point across (i.e. "Reject Religion"). These actually work to the benefit of the songs, because Honkey Head's performance here is positively manic, the true driving force of the disc, and these succinct and straightforward lines becomes mantras that he can repeat over the dissonant mire of the instruments, altering his pitch between barks, growls,  nasally cleans, and other tones that head even further out into the deeps, stretching at the outer membranes of sanity. Slathered in reverb and other effects, they definitely become the most pronounced feature on the disc, possibly a little loud in the mix on some sequences, but critical to narrating the tempest of emotional turmoil that the album is created to deal with. I stress this because for some listeners, they'll prove the make or break factor for immersion into the album as a whole, never shying away from an overload of eccentricity.

Musically, the album is also really simple, with dingy and distorted guitars splayed out in largely patterns of open notes, thinner and buzzing rather than dense and choking, and sometimes striking some hideous and disturbing dissonance, which creates a contrast against the more predictable notes ringing out. Bass-lines are leaden, almost industrial grooves, and the drums limp along in a drugged, hypnotic certainty that allows all these conflicts to crash above them and alongside them. Add to this a bevy of electronics, ambiance and mix effects, and depth is created even where there is an utter lack of complexity. Some tunes are less structured than others, or creep along at a funereal doom pace not unlike an Esoteric, where others revel in an archaic industrial metal framework redolent of Godflesh or Treponem Pal. The deeper into the album, when you hit on a tune like "Silver Lining", affairs become even stranger, like layers of thick and angry skin have been peeled back and you're entering another level of confusion. The whole experience has a live, improvisational backbone, perhaps with a few initial directions that are then left to mutate into bedlam.

It's cool. It's not Cloak of Skies cool, nor Ghost in the Fire cool, because there are added layers of exhilaration and texture on those records. But, being forewarned about what sorts of ugly and hallucinogenic aural hues the Chicago quarter tend to choose to paint with, I certainly connected with the aggravation and despair that swells up in every single track here. The album feels like you're being slowly dragged, at some heightened level of intoxication, through the streets of a filthy urban sprawl, possibly by someone who just mugged or drugged you, listening to the sounds of abuse, addiction and anxiety being shouted from the higher story windows of dank alleys, occasionally being nudged by street refuse, manhole covers half-ajar, or splashed through the piss and rain and whatever the fuck else has mixed in with them. Exhausting, entropic and effective.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (I found them down in flames)

https://www.facebook.com/drughonkey

Friday, December 1, 2017

Hooded Priest - The Hour Be None (2017)

In fairness, I'm going to state up front that doom metal is one of the subgenres in which I find it the most difficult to be impressed by a new record. This is partly because it operates on a slower and more limited riff palette, harder to innovate in, and party because a lot of bands seem to proxy tone and heaviness for actually composing good tunes that, you know, make you feel doomed. There are at least two ways around this. One is delving into a more progressive side of doom and sludge which uses a lot more instrumentation, a higher riff count and a more interesting sense of melody. Another, when you're going the straight, trad doom route, is that you've just got to be better than almost everyone else, and this is the much harder path to walk, the one that the Netherlands' Hooded Priest is walking for their sophomore effort The Hour Be None.

And while they certainly arrive at the end of that path, they unfortunately don't do so in such a timely matter. Perhaps the great intro this album, 'Dolen - Exiting the Real' raised my expectations a bit too high. It's a swelling, droning ambient piece that has little in common with the rest of the album, but damn is it ominous and really sets the anticipation level to have your soul crushed. Once the metal proper actually arrives, though, it's rather dry and predictable, which is not a great combination when you're moving along at this pace. That's not to say they pick the most generic riffs available, but when you're putting together 8-10 minute tracks as a rule, even having a few moments where the energy is lacking or the doom riffs don't sound that sad and evil can cripple the rest. Hoodest Priest are not a band lacking in dynamics, between mid-era Cathedral hustle of "These Skies May Break" or "Herod Within", to the more lurching mechanics which land somewhere between Candlemass and My Dying Bride, you get a good range here...they're not trying to endlessly repeat themselves or bore you at all, but once in awhile, like when faced with the intro riff to "Call for the Hearse", excitement was hard to come by.

Also not a huge fan of the vocals. They've got a wavering edginess to them, but sometimes this is obscured by a goofier, more conversational tone that he flexes between the mid and higher range, and it doesn't really live up to the music beneath it, even where that itself is mundane. I'm all for these sorts of 'honest' doom singers who use natural tones in the Ozzy tradition rather than just growling the whole time, but where it works in some cases (Blizarro, Reverend Bizarre, etc), it's a little inconsistent, also the more glaring when you've got such a long tune to cover. Nothing awful, mind you, but just awkward enough that it detracts from the overall quality. Now, with all this said, you might think I hated The Hour Be None, and that's not the case. It's competent enough, and even fairly cool throughout "These Skies May Break", my fave among these cuts, but there were points during tunes like "Call of the Hearse" and especially the 10 and a half minute "Locust Reaper" where I was phasing out completely from what was happening. If you're a true addict for the style, and dig a good cross-section of the bands I've name-dropped, or a few others like Solitude Aeternus, Dread Sovereign, Cardinal's Folly or Memory Garden, then check it out; you might get more from it than I did.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

http://hoodedpriest.org/

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Inconcessus Lux Lucis - The Crowning Quietus (2017)

Inconcessus Lux Lucis has been steadily developing a sort of black metal savant status in England the likes of which we've seen from bands in the French scene, which overreach the bounds of that particular genre by threading in other styles that distinguish and enrich the traditional underpinnings. Similar to how a band like Deathspell Omega developed; the riffing and level of sheer dissonance being used by this band is not quite the same, and there is slightly less spastic, controlled chaos over this record, but the multitude of riffs, the willingness to embrace a bit of a death metal aesthetic and some melodic heavy metal riffing alongside its more technical blackened core. I had been highly impressed with their 2014 EP Crux Lupus Corona, and this follow-up by and large thrives on that same level of song-weaving potential.

The only real piece of 'tranquility' you'll find on The Crowning Quietus is its nightmarish intro piece "With Leaden Hooks and Chains", occult voices barking off against a background thud of drums and hellish, developing ambiance. After that it's off to the races, with a black metal rampage of passages which often resemble hyper-black/thrash note structures from the 90s, only with an almost carnival effect, or a mocking sensibility in how the frenzied higher note passages fly across the frets. As you might have guessed, these guys go with a deeper growl than most black metal vocalists, but it's not to the point of being truly guttural, just a deeper, full-bodied rasp. There are always new progressions of riffs being layered in through any given track, so while there aren't many which really stuck to my brain over the long term, they are definitely exciting and interesting to follow, never taking any safe or exceedingly predictable routes, instead more like a representation of madness, fits of which claim the listener as he's exposed to the shitstorm of the rhythm guitars. The rhythm section is likewise damned competent, with busy beats across the spectrum and a nice, throbbing, distorted bass tone which also helps capture a little of the nuclear thrash mood you can feel from some of the riffs.

Three of the songs are longer pieces, but they represent the back half of the album, which is smart because you'll be tossed into the sinister labyrinth like mice, but given a few simpler mazes to navigate before they just lay it all on in the more advanced levels. That said, they help flush out those 7-8 minute tunes with a broader array of atmospherics and varied guitars that avert needless repetition or redundancy. I'm not trying to misidentify Inconcessus Lux Lucis as some cheesy, overly technical outfit, they simply put a lot of effort into the songs, a lot of pattern memorization and make sure there is more to greet the ear than the same old chords and melodies you expect from a lot of midlist black metal even to this day. Song for song, I don't know that this beats the previous EP, but it's more than evident that they can maintain that style of hectic, energetic composition for about twice the length, since The Crowning Quietus is overall a merciful 35 minutes, knowing when to call it off and leave its audience frothing for more. More potential here than almost any other black metal outfit from the UK that I could name without having to think long and hard about it.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

https://www.facebook.com/inconcessusluxlucis358

Monday, November 27, 2017

Redemptor - Arthaneum (2017)

Though I've glossed over their material in the past, Poland's Redemptor really knew how to make an impression with this third full-length, and to distance themselves aesthetically from a good number of their countrymen. Technical and dynamic, theirs is a sound which is not easy to predict or pigeonhole, although the broader strokes are of a semi-brutal brand of death metal which relies on extreme drumming, guttural vocals, and churning guitars that focus on a lot of spatial chugging, lower octave chords and jangling, dissonant upper strings for atmospheric embellishment. Arthaneum might not thrive entirely on independence from the tenets of its genres, but there's no question this was one of the more adventurous death metal records in 2017 and one that should perk a lot of ears if they can divert themselves away from the trending nostalgia-driven bands.

The first track alone was enough to hook me, "Éminence Grise" a swell of strings and synthesizers that rolled into these brick-work double bass batteries and vile guitars before dropping back into these more airy, ambient instruments. When Redemptor get heavy, there are some clear parallels to bands like Morbid Angel, in how they can so effortless shift between these alien, slower sections and then explode into brief blasting spasms, but there's also a choppy sense of clinical death/thrash which they implement to bind the two other temporal poles into one, and then they permeate all this with bends, wails, and whatever tricks they can to keep the ear performing acrobatics to keep up. Riff-wise, they are quite fulfilling, bouncing between sinister note progressions and warmer, melodic phrasings, but I also have to say here that I don't know if there was another record of this type I've heard lately which tested out so many tempos, rhythmic syncopations and riff styles while somehow managing to rein it all in to a cohesive, single-band experience. Every bridge throughout the album, every 'chorus', and every verse is exploring the border parameters they've established, rather than just sitting in the center of the fucking box.

The proficiency is staggering, not because they show off but because they transition so smoothly between all these insane passages, molding a dystopic atmospheric wasteland. Leads are boundless in potential but kept in check with bluesy melodies or tonal shifts into prog shredding that don't wreck the songs surrounding them. It's a band that can not only sate fans of tech gods like Decrepit Birth, Gorguts, and Gorod, but those who really just want interesting, well rounded death metal which doesn't come across as remotely cliche. The lyrics are intelligent, philosophic and might come off as some mumbo-jumbo, but certainly meaningful to the band which wrote them, and a tune like "Semantic Incoherence" lacks nothing for poetic imagery and phrases. The production is clean and rich but pummeling to the gut at the same time, so much flying around but it's all easy to ingest and distinguish from the other instruments and growls. The sum Arthaneum experience might not be the most memorable in the entire death metal lexicon, but it should certainly make some fucking waves if there's an ounce of justice in the death metal underground. Killer album.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (fragile and wicked acts)

https://www.facebook.com/RedemptorPL

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Jag Panzer - The Deviant Chord (2017)

If you remove the classic, excellent Ample Destruction and its sad successor, the miserable Dissident Alliance from the equation, Jag Panzer must have the longest streak of 'good but not great' albums in my entire collection of heavy/power metal. Always something to look forward to, even if you can't expect genius or timelessness, a bastion of consummate USPM professionalism for twenty whole years since they cleaned up their act and dropped The Fourth Judgement through Century Media. The Deviant Chord is just another example...a record with a great title, very cool cover art, and performances so reliable and polished that they seem like we're at the point they could crank them out like treadmill exercises while watching the morning news and drinking freshly squeezed juice.

On every technical level, The Deviant Chord is a success. Between Conklin's nuanced, Dickinson influenced wailing and howling, to Tafolla's controlled shredding, to a rhythm section anyone would be happy to have at their backs. Soaring, anthemic power metal which is busy and majestic enough to capture the European audience, with huge chorus sequences, backing harmonies, and a nice mixture of rhythmic variation between hard-hitting mutes, triplets, open atmospheric chords, and other standard but seasoned techniques to permit these songs to feel distinct from one another, even if they're all barking up the same tree. The Tyrant's sustained howls still sound comparable to a couple decades ago, with perhaps a small measure of understandable strain, but even at his mid range he knows how to let that voice get a wingspan over the workmanlike hustle and bustle beneath. When the band needs to slow it down, and get a little meaner, they do so, as with the title track. When they want a chance to flex their 'sensitive side', they do so, also in the intro to the title track, or during their metallic transformation of the traditional English folk song "Foggy Dew", which is seamless.

But if this album lacks anything, it's just having killer cuts that are going to ricochet back and forth through your subconscious until you can satisfy a craving by listening again. The Deviant Chord is a pleasure to experience while in the act, and proof positive that the Panzer hasn't skipped a beat despite its six-year hiatus since The Scourge of the Light (itself coming after a seven year period), but it doesn't really stick around for long after the listening. They simply haven't stumbled upon the level of hooks that their genre gods like Maiden, Priest or even Helloween have, but there's no way you can write that off as any 'lack of trying'...this is some carefully constructed, dramatic, graceful, melodic, occasionally fist raising metal by a bunch of elder statesmen whose proficiency levels simply exceed the songsmithing by a small order of magnitude. But you know what? It's enough. I'll listen to it again, and I'll listen to their next one, because Jag Panzer doesn't fuck around, and doesn't waste your time, and if you enjoyed records like The Scourge of the Light or Thane to the Throne then I'd be shocked if you didn't also get something out of this one too.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (each note rings out a glimpse of truth)

http://www.jagpanzer.com/

Monday, November 20, 2017

Witchery - I Am Legion (2017)

Witchery is not a band to really ever have 'bottomed out', or resorted to releasing pure shit into their legacy, but I'd be lying to say I've really connected to anything they've put out since the first few Toxine years. Many of the intermittent albums seem like pure, soulless riffing exercises which occasionally capture the thrills and styles of Restless & Dead or its successor, but never rival them in sheer thrill-a-minute songwriting prowess. This is a band with an enormous level of talent spread across its roster, and there are no real technical issues or laziness on exhibition, or even that feel of exhaustion you'll come across when visiting acts that might be considered 'side bands' for their members. A lot of the cover art, lyrics and aesthetics have been solid, but for going on two whole decades now they've just never really climbed that hill to its fullest to produce the sorts of timeless blackened thrash metal that they once exploded onto the scene with.

I Am Legion continues with the prior album's lineup, the veteran trio of Jensen, Corpse and D'Angelo joined by Angus Norder on vocals and Christofer Barkensjö on the drums, and they give an earnest attempt to mix a little of their late 90s style with some more varied, ranging, dynamic, bombastic songwriting, which often results in simpler, more warlike riff patterns and a little bit of dissonance through the black metal chords they apply to the more straightforward chords. The album has a few strange choices in pacing, like opening with the titular, drab instrumental Slayer-thon of "Legion" and then lapsing into the horror-theme organs which anoint "True North", which in truth should have been the opener since it just makes more aesthetic sense, and sounds brasher and brighter with its flowing mid-paced gait and potent if predictable riff-set. There's a real 90s groove/thrash feel to a lot of the material, generally derived from that era of Slayer, with a few flourishes of Swedish blackness to create a more suffocating, evil atmosphere, and a hell of a lot is reliant on the loud rasped delivery of Norder, who sounds like a loyal mix of his two predecessors Toxine and (ironically) Legion, but lacks a bit of distinction on his own.

For the most part, the riffs seem like an average grab-bag of Jensen and/or Corpse's vast arsenals which hadn't wound up on any other album, taking but a few minutes to string together into other like-minded sections, but that's not to say they entirely lack energy on a primordial level, which is really the way to approach this. The choruses aren't going to be as infectious as something like "The Reaper", so they compensate with a little more diversity in how the tunes are timed out and placed up against one another. There's also no lack for some atmosphere in cuts like "Welcome, Night", "A Faustian Deal" or "Dry Bones", and some of the hammering, harder hitting fare like "Seraphic Terror" hits you with a few tasteful licks like the trilly guitars between the verses, but overall I'd say the riff patterns fire off at a rate of 2-3 forgettable, and then one with some genuine force to bore into your brain. The drums and bass sound good, the rhythms thick and muscular compared to some prior albums, especially where they rely on slower stuff in the vein of Celtic Frost, Darkthrone or the black & roll Satyricon records, which a lot of riffs here resemble.

The cover art is a little generic, obvious and boring, but to be fair this album is the closest I've come to truly enjoying one since Dead, Hot and Ready, and superior to Symphony for the Devil; so I have to give Witchery some props, even though it feels a little contractual and phoned in on the instrumental side. Lyrically, however, I think it's pretty solid, if not clever or intellectual, with a measure of effort placed into their prose, imagery, and general flow. As a side note, I also dug the video for "True North", which doesn't seem like what you'd typically expect from the band due to the themes they usually toil around with, and that reflects in the music itself a little. Despite my issues, I Am Legion is an effort that would likely please a lot of listeners up front, and does give a little hope that the band is starting to get back on the rails that it, after all, never left for any great distance.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

https://www.facebook.com/officialwitchery

Friday, November 17, 2017

Samael - Hegemony (2017)

It's evident that the members of Samael and myself seem to agree on the Passage-era being the one most inspiring and interesting to revisit, and Hegemony is perhaps the greatest example of that since that 1996 opus dropped through Century Media. That's not to say I don't also enjoy their earlier, more primitive black metal records or the transitional Ceremony of Opposites, in fact I think those are the more influential by far; yet those machine-driven, poetic paeans to the cosmic which dominated their fourth album are forever my siren call when reaching over to their section of my CD rack. So I cannot at all blame them for attempting to rekindle that particular  style, which they've already done a few times, in particular on the more aggressive Above and its successor Lux Mundi, which for my money was the best Samael album of the 21st century...until now, although I'd argue that Hegemony is far more directly an homage to Passage than its predecessor was.

That's both a good and bad thing, because while Vorphalack and crew are clearly intent on dressing up and expanding those aesthetics, there are numerous moments here where you'll feel as if you're getting deja-vu for a synthesizer or guitar progression, drum pattern or fill that you've already heard two decades ago. For the most part, they're coming up with new chord patterns, which works out really well in a tune like "Red Planet" which is a new take on the warlike space opera of a "Jupiterian Vibe" which will have you marching in similar step. Most of the melody in modern Samael music is provided solely by the synthesizers, which have the same martial, striking, sweeping feel to them here as they cultivate both a militaristic and Eastern sheen. It's up to the beats, lower end guitars and Vorph's distinct, eternally accented snarls to provide the metallic bedrock, and they do so well, with a lore more cutting, kinetic passion to them than you'd hear out of comparable hybrids of industrial and metal aesthetics such as those of the Neue Deutsche Härte persuasion. I also have to praise the bass playing here, from new member Drop, who lays out these awesome, fat, rolling lines that support the clamorous, choppy majesty in tunes like "This World". While the drum programming has long been a point of contention for some fans, I think Xytras does another great job layering in thick enough and 'real enough' percussion pads without abandoning the martial and mechanical coldness.

The lyrics these days continue the themes of social consciousness and social unity that they first embarked on with Eternal, but they're also willing to spark up a little pseudo-controversy with a cut like "Black Supremacy", and if you've seen the video there you'll probably have seen a lot of the responses. Hint: it's not really about what you think it is. There are also some self-referential pieces like their namesake "Samael", or "Angel of Wrath", the former of which is like a giant socialist shout out to celebrate the band's following, and their message. It's a little heavy handed, but not as corny as, say, Reign of Light; and it wouldn't be the first time, since it does fit the band's modernist, corporate or empirical vision and minimalist visual branding which manifests in both the sleek packaging and fattened new logo variant (which I think is an improvement). Samael is just one of a kind, and while I can promise that those who have shunned everything they've released since 1994 will find no end here to pulling out their own hair and seeking sanctuary in the shadow of some inverted cross where no keyboard dares to tread, I readily admit to having enjoyed the hell out of this.

A couple nicks and dents here or there, a few songs not pulling their weight quite as much as others, but they even manage to transform "Helter Skelter" into something of their own, and the bonus track "Storm of Fire" is one of the coolest on the album. They also don't pull back too far on the heavy spectrum, for example "Black Supremacy" would have felt right at home on AboveHegemony might not ultimately emit the level of timeless material that Passage was built from, but it certain does a fantastic job of capturing its ebullient, storming magnificence.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]
(light and force have a name)

https://www.samael.info/

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Heir - Au peuple de l'abîme (2017)

From reviewing their split with In Cauda Venenum and Spectrale last year, I was already prepared for the sort of onslaught Heir was going to manifest. Now, after surviving their full-length debut Au peuple de l'abîme I can attest to the fact that there are no surprises here, the experience is quite consistent with the previous material, an ungodly amalgam of blasted, rasping black metal and sludgier aesthetics that generally dominate the slower passages throughout the record. Granted, at either of these styles alone, the band proves competent, but where this album goes a little further is to vary up the material even more than that, with slower, atmospheric passes in which the drums die down to a din, and some cleaner guitars and bass lines are allowed to conjure up a realm of graceful contrast.

And I'll say it, if NOT for those particular passages, and where they're strung out about the rather lengthy tracks (all around 7-9 minutes), I might have taken away a lot less from the band. When they are launching into their utmost momentum, you're getting a very stripped, noisy, filthy take on traditional black metal which often errs on the side of pure aggression, with little distinct note variation, like the opening to "Au siècle des siècles"; occasionally with a better, more melodic note selection as you'll hear in "L'heure d'Hélios". The mid-paced or slow parts center in on a lot of jangly dissonant notes picked over steady, simple beats and crashing chugs and chords, sometimes letting the nihilistic barks of the frontman sneer out over a very simple, eerie backdrop. This latter portion of the album is almost unanimously my favorite, a lot more evocative of fear and uncertainty than when they're off into a full froth frenzy, but then again those moments of the album also create a strange psychological give and take, as if you were being lulled with drugs and then jolted back into a heart pounding state of conscious awareness.

Don't get me wrong, there are places where these two aesthetic poles collide down the middle, and Au peuple de l'abîme transforms into a truly well-rounded outing, especially where they bust out some unexpected, warmer feeling, glorious element like the bridge to "Meltem". While not a technical or complex record by any means, there are plenty of ideas here, and the band is cautious to implement them without overwhelming the fundamental sounds of the genres in which they meddle and mash. I don't know that I always felt the patience to enjoy the entirety of these tracks, but at the very least Heir does enough to deviate from excessive repetition and there are more than enough moments of elation through the 40 that they've written. Perhaps this is not quite a band at the level of eclectic aural stimulation as peers like Blut Aus Nord, but they are certainly worthy of reaching more ears than they currently do, and Au peuple de l'abîme is a substantial first album with enough replay value to leave its mark, and enough potential to build off.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

https://www.facebook.com/heirbm/

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Arkhon Infaustus - Passing the Nekromanteion EP (2017)

It would have been enough, after an entire decade, to just have any new release from one of the filthiest, most intense French acts I've ever encountered and enjoyed. But beyond that, this latest Arkhon Infaustus EP, Passing the Nekromanteion hits a greater level of maturity and musicianship, without sacrificing the nightmarescapes of blackened death that the Frenchmen had cultivated with killer records like Perdition Insanablis, Filth Catalyst and Orthodoxyn. Though one could trace their own sound to sources like Morbid Angel or Angelcorpse, I've always found that this band's hybrid of extremity was actually ahead of its time, a huge number of popular acts from North America adopting similar styles about a decade after they first hit the scene with material like In Sperma Infernum or Hell Injection, and while they might be slightly overlooked by comparison to countrymen like Deathspell Omega or Blut Aus Nord, I found them just as distinct and formidable an enterprise.

This is a heavily textured, roiling, wall of sound, which paces itself a little less frantically than some of their older albums, but serves as an ideal example of controlled chaos. I'm reminded of Steve Tucker-era Morbid Angel via Gateways to Annihilation, only even more muscular and apocalyptic, as if it had some dystopian industrial sheen to it, with snarls alternated against the guttural vocals and a good breadth of variation. Riffs don't seem terribly stunning individually, but once embedded into the overwhelming force of the tracks, they transform into tightly wound coils of destruction ready to spring into attention with a seconds' notice, lurching and crawling and slithering below the vocals while faint hazes of dissonant atmosphere are created through the interaction of the instruments themselves, with few other adornments needed. When the band hits its faster tempos, the riffing is like a heavier broth of melodic Swedish death and black metal, and the three leading tracks all manage their 7-8 minute durations without lagging into sullen ennui or repetitive boredom, though most of any 'experimentation' is reserved almost exclusively to the 10 minute closer, "Corrupted
Épignosis"...

This is probably the one 'take it or leave it' track here, but I found myself aligning with the former compulsion. It opens with vaulted, droning guitars that are strummed in different distances from the listeners' ears, and then moves forward with a sluggish, doomed pace, lots of feedback or excess notes ringing off into a solemn, bleak environment that eventually erupts with this glaze of melodic doom/death which feels like a bucket of innocents' tears has just been dumped over your head, only to run down over your sinful flesh and evaporate. A really absorbing, intense finale in its own way, even if the audience might not find it balanced off with the other three tracks in terms of excitement that it generates. All around though, the rich, dense production qualities of this EP and the skilled, seasoned aggression of DK Deviant, the original member who handles all the instruments besides the drums (provided by Sylvain 'Skvm' Butet of Temple of Baal and The Order of Apollyon), really drive home the truth that this was one missed band for the last decade, and let's hope they stick around for a few albums longer. Potent stuff well suited to fans who like their black and death metal boiled and hardened into a seamless genre median of depth.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

https://www.facebook.com/ArkhonInfaustus666/

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Wakedead Gathering/Ecferus split EP (2017)

I, Voidhanger records had already impressed me with a split release earlier this year, between the enigmatic Howls of Ebb and Germans Khtoniik Cerviiks, so when I saw the pairing for this next one, two of the label's talents from the Midwest US, I automatically assumed it would be another tasteful, complementary match-up which could very likely cross-over fans who hadn't been exposed to one or the other sides. Aesthetically, The Wakedead Gathering, one of the best American death metal acts to emerge over the last decade, might not seem a fit for the evolutionary black metal of Ecferus, but having been exposed to the minds of these creators on several occasions in the past, I knew they'd find a way to make it work.

I didn't know they'd make it work THIS well.

Now, to be clear, the two bands maintain their stylistic distinctions, so there's a clear divide in its presentation; one is death metal, the other black metal. It's obvious; not one of those instances where they blend the styles together in pure collaboration. But I soon got past that, because the tunes here are just SO freaking good that I almost feel sad that the tracks might not gain the same exposure they would otherwise, since in my experience splits don't always get an audience as large as full-lengths. At the same time, it offers a chance for the artists to experiment a little further, which I felt was the case for Wakedead's "The Blind Abyss", a sprawling, 11 minute sequence of roiling, hypnotic death metal patterns contrasted against bleak, minimalistic clean guitars which segment off some of the separate, Cyclopean riffing sequences. Andrew Lampe's gutturals narrate the rhythm guitar swells like text being dictated off twisted flesh, and the riffing selections vary from a crescendo of more mystical, open chords, to churning old school Floridian tremolo-picked morbidity, and some evil grooves that force the head to slowly start banging as it succumbs to the aural oblivion.

Ecferus, on the other hand, deliver three tunes, which in conjunction, amount to roughly the same length as "The Blind Abyss", and Alp does what he does best, scathing traditional black metal threaded with a more introspective and interesting lyrical inclination, not to mention the great balance of melody and savagery that he compels by keeping the riff progressions varied enough that they never lapse into endless, dull repetition. The leads are great, with an Eastern feel as in "Author of Destruction". As I mentioned on reviewing his prior full-length Pangaea, he can really tap into the primal nature of the cosmic and terrestrial themes he navigates, through that noted variation, even though a lot of the actual guitars themselves are inspired by bands like Darkthrone, Satyricon or the mighty Emperor, which some might consider fairly conventional influences. Nonetheless, he adds just enough spark of atmosphere and creativity, topped off with his raving rasps, that I think fans of thorough, elaborate black metal which hasn't flown off into total avant-garde territory should track his records down. Of the three tunes, I couldn't even pick a favorite. All well done.

And the same could be said for the split as a whole. Clearly you'll have no issue here telling the two apart, but I do feel like the material they chose works together on a listen-through, as they both tend to tap into the same visceral, primal forces for their genres and extrapolate similar shadows of the ancient, the mythological, the obscure, the cataclysmic. Production is tight all around, but never so polished that it would turn off underground extremity vultures. Another feather in the prodigious and eclectic cap that is the I, Voidhanger lexicon. Two US bands that continue to deserve your attention and support, who have great things behind and ahead of them. So why are you still here reading my flowery, meaningless scrawl? Go fetch.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

https://www.facebook.com/thewakedeadgathering
https://www.facebook.com/ecferus/timeline

Monday, November 13, 2017

Antigama - Depressant EP (2017)

Antigama have always been one of European grind's strongest advocates and ambassadors towards the future, applying slightly more technicality and modernity to a style that often feels as if it's simply composed of too few tricks and variations. Experimenting with chords, atmospheres, and note progressions that aren't so easy to predict in their frenetic presentation, the Polish band manages to somehow find a style to themselves but rarely repeat a lot of the minute details that go into each composition, while never coming close to abandoning the fundamentals that so many listeners will recognize from their early exposure to Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror, Terrorizer, Agathocles, and the like.

The Depressant EP hits you straight up with a concept on its cover, a RELEVANT concept, which isn't just mindless political shillery, and then frames it with the sample opening to "Empty Paths", a labyrinthine assault of dissonant guitars and head-spinning blast work adorned in snarls, protracted screams, and yeah guys I gotta mention the drumming a second time in this sentence because it's utterly fucking sick. For a 2-ish minute tune, the band's specialty here on anything but the title cut, they certainly pack in a lot of beating, a lot to think about, and ultimately something more worth revisiting than your average sped-up 4-chord hardcore/punk configuration which has to depend all too much on a charismatic barker. Antigama has the vocals AND everything else in check, with a musical delivery that is for all purposes flawless across the instruments, but never wanky, showy or unapproachable beyond the sheer intensity that this genre unleashes upon your ears.

They also know how to thrive in these post-modern or industrial-feeling elements, through the voice effects or samples or just the odd chords that embellish cuts like the opening of "Room 7" with a loose, jazzy guitar feel. The ambient passages constructed here, like the first minute of "Depressant" itself, or the interesting way they launch the percussion in the finale "Shut Up", make you feel like you're wandering these cold-lit passages of modern living, where each of your steps is guided by debt, family and societal pressures, regrets, guilts. In fact they do such a good job on this element that I wouldn't be opposed to hearing them put out a purely contemporary industrial/ambient record with even smaller flourishes of grinding where they would do the most impact. They've really been on an incline with their prior full-lengths, Meteor nudging past Warning, and The Insolent hitting a new summit, and the material here is no exception, standing roughly even with that latest full-length in breadth and quality, just a slick, interesting and effective 19 minutes of 21st century grind. The blue pill is not even an option here.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

https://www.facebook.com/Antigama

Friday, November 10, 2017

Deviser - Howling Flames EP (2017)

Deviser is a lesser known but long-lived entity on the Hellenic black metal scene which has survived nearly as long as its far more popular peer Rotting Christ, if less prolific and a lot less distinct. Their first two full-lengths were pretty good, in particular the sophomore Transmission to Chaos (1998), but the subsequent and scarce recordings showed some growing pains and the band were not able to really define or register themselves against such an exploding European scene. The Howling Flames EP comes six years after their last album, Seasons of Darkness, and does well enough to rekindle my interest in the potential these guys once exhibited, to the extent that if they could pull off a full-length of quality comparable to these tunes I'd honestly be excited.

It's not because Deviser are coming up with anything really unique here, not in style or in actual riffing progressions or overall songwriting. These are just very well-rounded, catchy melodic and symphonic black metal tracks which fluidly balance proficiency and atmosphere. From the guitars you'll definitely notice that Greek streak of majestic, mid-paced riffing you'll recognize from their rotting messianic countrymen, but try and imagine if that were layered up with massive swells of operatic instrumentation. A technique employed by Greece's premiere black metal export on their more recent recordings, to be sure, but this is more like Triarchy of the Lost Lovers or Thy Mighty Contract with that extra layer of orchestra pit paint, and it results in some glorious, solemn shifts in tone over the 12 minutes of material that held up a cool contrast and fulfilling stereo experience. The music is never complex, just robust with how the various strings and keys resonate alongside the meat of the rhythm guitars, while Matt Hnaras barks off with a nihilistic, Sakis Tolis-like growl that blends in very well with the melodies and the thundering of the drums and peels of effects.

These guys don't get very fast, but there's a feel of momentum through most of the EP like you're gliding along the moonlit battlements of some fell castle in a Castlevania game and about to engage some aristocratic undead or Satanic adversary, and so it truly nails what it's going for. Mileage is going to vary as to whether or not you like having such hugely textured, orchestrated accompaniment to a simple black metal core, but Deviser due wonders to never let it overwhelm the basics, and the two cuts here both complement one another and vary it up enough to make a difference. It's short, but right up there with any of the highlights off Transmission, and a lot more tasteful and well integrated than other modern bands who over-employ the symphonics (Fleshgod Apocalypse, recent Dimmu Borgir, etc).

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

https://www.facebook.com/Deviser-135734023147260/

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Destruction - Thrash Anthems II (2017)

The original Thrash Anthems collection was hardly a popular item among purists for the band and style, nor am I myself normally a proponent for such re-recording packages. But I was so enamored with The Antichrist era of Destruction's reunion that I was actually pretty interested in hearing so many of the Germans' classics given a more modern, muscular, iron-clad treatment, about what you'd hear them sound like live in the 'oughts, and thus was not at all disappointed in the results. Granted, the newer versions of "Mad Butcher", "Curse the Gods", "Reject Emotions" and other staples in my listening diet don't serve to replace or upstage the earlier ones,  but they're a fun alternative that I might still mix in with a playlist culled from 21st century Destruction for tonal consistency.

One decade later, we've got another collection in the series, which specifically features re-workings of other older tunes that didn't make the cut the first time. Thrash Anthems 2007 got all of the more obvious choices out of the way, but its follow-up reaches way back to cover material like "Black Mass" and "Satan's Vengeance" off the Sentence of Death album, "The Ritual" from Infernal Overkill, "Confound Games", "Confused Mind" and "United by Hatred" from Eternal Devastation. Twelve tracks in total, so a little less than its predecessor, but I have to admit that this still sounds really fucking great, the punchier, more robust mix of guitars and drums melding together in a thrashing union which doesn't obfuscate the impact of the original riffs or the nuances found on the older recordings. Perhaps they're a fraction more sterile sounding, if you're someone like me who actually loves the little flaws and different production style of the 80s, but that doesn't mean they're not still a blast to listen through, and like the first collection this is not something I'll always shelf indefinitely. When I'm going for full 80s immersion I'll take the full, original albums, but if I just want to score an evening of drunken headbanging with friends not so versed in thrash beyond Metallica and Slayer, I think Thrash Anthems is a damn good option...

Schmier sounds as virile and nasty today as he did back then, still capable of complementing his harsh barking with the higher pitched screams you'll remember from his youth. Mike is a tireless, incendiary riffing machine who maintains the explosive level of excitement that put the band on the map in the first place, to some extent playing it safe, but why fix what isn't broken? Vaaver is by now the de facto backbone of the trio, with three studio albums already under his belt he's just as hard hitting and skilled as any to come before him. The production is cleaner, sure, but you simply cannot cage the violence that this band's songwriting manifests. As for song selection, obviously this is not entirely the band's A-Game. "Rippin' You Off Blind" and "Front Beast" were never favorites of mine, and I don't know that these new versions really up their ante, but I definitely spun through "Black Mass" and "Dissatisfied Existence" a bunch. Ultimately not as entertaining as the first Thrash Anthems, but still damn solid, and I think Destruction has done a far better job of modernizing its material while 'keeping it real', where a lot of their peers have faltered on similar re-recordings.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

http://www.destruction.de/

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Blind Guardian - Live Beyond the Spheres (2017)

I had already heaped quite a lot of praise upon Blind Guardian's 2003 Live double-album, and experienced the band's performance for myself enough to know that I didn't really require another live product from their camp. But Live Beyond the Spheres, culled from a long stretch of European gigs in 2015, is yet another impressive feat in this arena, spanning three discs and close to three hours of material both obvious and less so. It also prompts me to ask the question: are these sorts of 'compilation' live discs 'cheats'? Is it swaying the odds in such an album's favor if it's simply preened from a bunch of gigs, where you know the band have only really been 'on' for a handful of tracks? I realize that's unlikely in the case of these beloved Germans, who rarely half-ass anything, and I also realize I've responded both positively and negatively to such efforts in the past, because ultimately I think the final product and how it sounds coming from your speakers is ultimately the measure of its value. But it still seems less impressive than it might have if the band pulled it off on a single night.

Otherwise, Live Beyond the Spheres is another gem in the band's crown, a large amount of material which successfully captures the magic of their instrumentation, songwriting and in general the fun factor that their music inspires in their audiences. That's not to say Blind Guardian clown around, the themes in their music tend to the serious, but head out to one of their gigs and you're very likely to see thousands of folks singing along to almost every word through most of the sets. And I feel that warmth and community oozing through every pore of these selections, which have been chosen to represent a wide range of the band's discography, with newer pieces like "The Ninth Wave" and "Twilight of the Gods" bumping uglies with classics like "Valhalla", "Mirror Mirror" and "Bright Eyes". The guitars, drums and vocals all sound great here, with Hansi clearly at the forefront, domineering the performance and complemented with Olbrich's perky, popping and intricate melodies, just the right amount of crowd response in between tunes, and a good variety of material that ranges from the more frenetic and technically impressive to the good old, simpler sing-a-long.

The mix is so balanced that you won't really pick out incongruities between songs performed at different shows. I did notice a slight lack in energy between the tunes from the latest album at the time, Beyond the Red Mirror, and their predecessors, even as recent as "Tanelorn" from At the Edge of Time, but this is more the substance of the compositions themselves than any laziness on the band's part...the material is simply not as distinct or explosive as that found on earlier albums. There's also the problem of how you approach the listening experience...do you really want to sit back in your recliner and listen to three entire discs of Blind Guardian live? There are worse things you could be doing, surely, like the taxes or inflating your sex dolls...strike that, you can do some of these things simultaneously with this album, and it's no less depressing...but the point stands that it's a lot to take in, and I'm not sure that breaking it up into little chunks serves the purpose of the release. I guess if you just want to hear your favorite band perform favorite songs that sound pristine despite the little imperfections and flaws that mar nearly any live performance, and you're waiting for more original material, of you've never gotten to see them for yourself, then this works pretty well. Not as taken with it as I was their prior live album, but there's no debating that they deliver.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

http://www.blind-guardian.com/

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Desolation - Decapited (2017)

Desolation were another of many Swedish death metal acts to form in the early 90s, perhaps riding the gravesoil-stained coattails of the 'big 5' of that scene, or maybe just simultaneously erupting into a cacophony of growls and blasphemy from their jam space. At any rate, they only issued one demo to my knowledge back then, and subsequently disappeared for nearly two decades, forming back up around 2012, and having since proven much more productive than in their youths. Two demos later, they've got a first proper full-length out through I Hate records, and while it's a relatively blunt and straightforward approach to their genre, it's not at all bad nor is it irrevocably derivative of their better known peers like Grave, Entombed, Dismember, Unleashed or At the Gates.

Granted, they get a little bit of that churning, brash guitar tone from their peers, but not to the point that we're hearing another of a million Left Hand Path idolators. The riffs here have a far more brash and bruising, atonal feel to them which might be a bit more similar to Seance or Grave, with a deep and dark vibe to the rhythm guitars much of the playtime, except where they'll bust out into a simple melody redolent of classic Desultory. There are plenty of riffs that could equate with a d-beat, and also a number of blasted patterns which border on deathgrind, so you can hear a wide array of influences coming from not only their neighborhood, but the old English death metal scene. One really distinct element in Desolation's sound is bassist/vocalist Mattias Lilja, who has this truly huge and hoarse guttural that sits right atop the music, brutal and abrasive if occasionally a little more overbearing than the mix supports. Never a deal breaker, though, and he benefits from not sounding too close to any one of his Swedish peers, pairing up nicely when they break off into a more searing, melodic passage with the drums throttling away ("Night of the Antichrist", for example).

The disc just thunders from my speakers, and while it's really not anything new under the sun, I think this is one which would certainly trigger the nostalgia of anyone seeking primitive 90s-style death that they haven't already heard. You won't get a lot of memorable tracks, but a genuine experience which will dial back the decades and have you banging your head at the swell of the production and the utter darkness established by the hybridization of ancient Swedish and Floridian ideals. They do have a slight degree of variation here, not only in the tempos but some of the smaller interludes or cleaner sequences they use to dress up the tracks, and overall Decapitated is just a well rounded death metal record, arguably about 15 years past its prime, but that's really the point of this sound after all! Going forward, it would be cool to focus in on more intricate hooks, unexpected note patterns, and a few less 'Death Metal 101' song titles and lyrics, but for the audience that would seek it out, I think Desolation is successful enough, ditch-digging authenticity.

Verdict: Win [7/10]


https://www.facebook.com/desolationsweden/

Monday, November 6, 2017

Enslaved - Roadburn Live (2017)

It occurred to me when listening through this that I'd never actually covered an Enslaved live record in the past. I think I remember a bonus disc that came with Vertebrae, and a couple longer format video releases, but not a proper album. Considering that they have toured relentlessly for so many years now, and had countless opportunities to pitch such releases to their labels, I can imagine that it's partly because they, as a band of highly respectable fellas, just don't want to be a nuisance to their fans by putting out a bunch of narcissistic commercial pap. But it's probably also because they were waiting for the right moment, to present a stage recording that sounds immaculate, which this does, and why not from one of the most prodigious and respectable heavy rock fests in all of Europe, the Roadburn Festival out of the Netherlands?

By the time "Building With Fire" had reached its climax, I realized that this was probably one of the best live efforts I'd heard. Granted, it comes with some restrictions...a roughly hour-long set list from a band who could fill a dozen such performances with killer material and not exhaust the highlights of their discography. Enslaved had to be picky and choosy here, and they focus heavily on material that was newer to the 2015 era when this was recorded. So you've got three tracks from In Times, one each from RIITIIR, Isa, Below the Lights and Monumension. Not a problem for me, since this is one of my favorite bands on Earth, and I happen to be more partial to the now-predominant, proggy era of their career, but if you're grognardin' for some Hordanes Land, Vikingligr veldi or Frost then you're not going to be terribly satisfied with this. Which would be a shame, because Roadburn Live sounds fantastic, everything from its atmospheric guitars, organs, drums, and bass grooves resonating at excellent levels over the audience, slightly more raw than the studio recordings but still having all of the minutiae and nuances available across the instruments.

Occasionally the harsher growls get drowned off against the other sounds, but they're still readily audible, and the cleans even more distinct. The track selection is not void of heavier breaks, but the overall intention of the set choices here are to let the audience bask in the atmospheric swells and clarity of the riffing, and it does quite a grand job of that, allowing the sort of engagement and escapism you'd probably experience at pure prog gigs, just dowsed in some snarls and distortion. All the tracks form a seamless set, but I was quite surprised to hear that the finale was a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song", which plays it somewhat straight but adds on a lot more of the same fulfilling atmosphere as their own cuts, so it sounds nearly as much as an Enslaved tune as it does the original piece. Not as kickass, no of course not, but at the very least an interesting interpretation of a track that I think we've all heard plenty enough. I especially dug the bridge there, and it really rounds out a highly focused, smooth performance which is a great representation of where the Norwegians have been traveling lately and where they're headed.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

http://enslaved.no/

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Cannibal Corpse - Red Before Black (2017)

How much is too much of a good thing? For years I've wondered when Cannibal Corpse would finally strike my threshold for redundancy, since they don't exactly offer a lot of variation between studio releases in terms of production, presentation or songwriting. For many, I'd imagine they've already collided into such a barrier years ago, with people still touting their nostalgia for the 'classic' Chris Barnes era recordings, and very little chatter about much that they've put out over the last couple decades, despite a string of consistency and excellence that encompasses works like Gallery of Suicide, Bloodthirst, and several more recent efforts. After hearing the first advance track, "Code of the Slashers", watching the cheesy video and then catching a glimpse of the rather mediocre Vincent Locke artwork here, Corpse's most uninspired cover outside of Kill and Evisceration Plague (both of which I enjoyed a great deal anyway), I did not have high expectations for full-length #14.

As it turns out, I shouldn't have doubted them, because just about every song on this disc is another brutal and energetic exercise in what the band does best. Mid to fast-paced barbarity rooted firmly in the death/thrash of the group's origins, piled on with tireless proficiency by one of the most seasoned acts in the genre. That's not to say there's anything truly fresh or exciting anywhere to be had on Red Before Black, it's hardly an encyclopedia of their most memorable riffs, but once in awhile they'll pull off a few note progressions I can't recall them using before ("Shedding My Human Skin", etc) which fuse perfectly to the alternations between chugging grooves, sinister tremolo picked patterns and the roiling lead and bridge riff pairings that offer up all the album's most atmospheric and engrossing moments, which is how it should be since the mauling momentum of the verses builds up so well towards them. You've heard all these performance levels before from these five individuals, and they never exactly surpass themselves on any of the 12 tunes here, but for a band to be this far along in their career, limb advancing in natural atrophy, it's a marvel that they still hit so fucking hard, the thrashier rhythm guitars like punches to the mid-section, the quicker material evoking sheer carnage.

Nary a chink in the armor, with the exception of the aforementioned "Code of the Slashers", a rather dull piece until its own mid-section, and even some of the most simplistic progressions like the bite of the guitars that open "Firestorm Vengeance" just make you want to punt someone's head clean off their neck-stump. Red Before Black is every bit as pit-ready as their classics, without eschewing the slightly clinical technicality that musicians like Webster, Barrett and O'Brien seamlessly integrate so as not to bore themselves with too much repetition. Corpesgrinder's Target shopping excursions have certainly given him some focus and relaxation, so when it comes time to belch out the latest round of lyrics he still has the same level of flailing, ogreish presence that he's brought to the group since Vile. The violence invoked through the prose isn't highly distinct from a lot of Corpse past, but tunes like "Heads Shoveled Off" still conjure up some grisly amusement as they yet again expand their lexicon of serial killers, body horrors and other outcomes that are not exactly optimistic. In short, you know what this sounds like, and while it's hardly one of their best studio efforts, you are getting what you pay for, a pound for pound visceral onslaught by a guild of veteran executioners.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (dead beyond dead)

http://www.cannibalcorpse.net/

Monday, October 30, 2017

Acid Witch - Evil Sound Screamers (2017)

The Midnight Movies EP was an interesting distraction, but not one I really got into much more than just its novelty, instead pining for the next of Acid Witch's original full-lengths, since they had been on an incline from Witchtanic Hellucinations through Stoned to the Spooky split they put out with Nunslaughter. With Evil Sound Screamers, Slasher Dave and company retain a chunk of their original doom style and then dress it up with a lot more silly horror/Halloween influences than ever before, to the point of utter absurdity. And you know what? If you're in the proper mindset, with a couple dripping candles, a pipe or bong, and a stack of the cheesy yet unforgettable horror VHS tapes, I don't know how you listen through this without at least smirking, if not just having an outright blast as it lurches along with goofy confidence.

The focus here is on a hybrid of Sabbathian stoner-doom with the slightly more refined, melodic strains of riffs that hail from European Gothic doom bands who were themselves inspired by those forebears, but took it to another level of atmosphere. Trad metal and rock influences abound, but these are woven into the measured, patient pace of the album's deep, raw grooves. But that's really just the bedrock of the recording, because they proceed to smother it with synths and organs and all manner of growls and higher pitched, witchy vocals to the point that it almost would seem as if it were cluttering up the mix if it weren't so damned, ironically alluring. I wouldn't say that any of the individual guitar lines were all that remarkable, and in fact a number of them are really predictable, but the sum of this album is just one that feels unique to Acid Witch, because it doesn't take itself so seriously and instead smears you with a face full of over-the-top atmosphere, and a riff set that at least tries to diversify itself so you can discern individual tracks from one another and not just have some overlong, samey slog which is not uncommon in the subgenre.

I really enjoyed the use of the samples here; when combined with some acoustic or keyboard they seem to manifest this strange meta-commentary on cult horror, while ceding the album completely to the heavy metal elements. The synths really are a dominant force, generally used to convey the mood of campy haunted houses, theme parks or the sorts of pads and pitches you'd expect from b-grade horror scores of decades past, like thick distorted runs that will often be matched up with Dave's growling (as in "Cheap Gore"). Or sometimes, they'll ramp up the fuzz on the guitars as they do in "Nain Rouge (The Red Dwarf)" to a super-desert-stoner-rock degree just to keep the listener from roiling over in any form of redundancy. Evil Sound Screams is far from complex, but the panoply of sounds it manages to sneak in there keep it fresh and compelling and in their strange way present a band on the precipice of some form of progression, no matter how crude its core.

That's not to say it's without its annoyances, since some of the harsher growls can fall a little flat, or some of the shrieked vocals just make it feel like the band is fooling around too much. "Enter At Your Own Risk" is almost a pure crone-like narrative piece, for example, where each word evoked might have you keel over laughing, but even here it's really flush with the theme of the album, the tongue-in-cheek sorcery the band as always clad itself in. It's not going to be for everyone, because it's a dense, sloppy mess at points, and some might not get its sense of humor. But by the time the album bursts into "Hardrock Halloween", which opens with the album's sleaziest upbeat metal number, drizzled in bluesy lead syrup, I couldn't stop smiling...by the time it hit the titular closing track, its best and most epic, I just didn't want the damn thing to end. That proggy horror bridge is amazing, and it gets super doomed out at the end before ending in some cinematic ambiance and PSA funk. After which, I go on and spin the whole thing again, because it's an album that embodies so much of my generation's nostalgia for Halloween...the night before Halloween...and the most fun I've had with Acid Witch yet.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

https://www.facebook.com/Acid-Witch-146053698843172/

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Van Helsing's Curse - Oculum Infernum: A Halloween Tale (2004)

Large-cast rock opera records have been quite the rage in metal for years now, popularized by acts like Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Ayreon and Avantasia just to name a handful. For the considerable repertoire of its constituents, Van Helsing's Curse seems to be one that was highly overlooked, the brainchild of Twisted Sister and Widowmaker frontman and American icon Dee Snider, to pay tribute to his love for Halloween and horror classics. A so-called 'soundtrack' to the holiday, metalized and populated with a roster that I hesitate to call a 'supergroup' beyond Dee himself, Al Pitrelli, and a couple unsung veterans like bassist Greg Smith who has performed with everyone from Alice Cooper and Vinnie Moore to Hellion and the Plasmatics. Much of the lineup here is instead comprised of ensemble musicians, with trombones, trumpets, french horns, strings and a slew of backing vocalists to further its operatic nature and narrative.

Speaking of the 'narrative', it's dictated by Snider himself, and one of the components of the album I found the most cheesy and imbalanced with the more swollen seriousness of the orchestration. To be frank, this sounds about as basic as a Trans-Siberian Orchestra album in terms of how uninspired and straightforward the guitars are, and how obvious the rest of the instrumentation plays out, only its got that wannabe John Carpenter feel to it that is often nigh indistinguishable from a lot of films that would bite off the Halloween score long ago (I think there's even a bonus track for a later edition of this which covers that very piece). That's not to say it doesn't hit some original notes, in particular the vocal arrangements and a few Al's guitar fills that you might not expect going in, but they're all washed out by the terribly boring use of plodding guitar mutes or chord progressions that require literally no effort except plugging in a guitar. The production of the record is expansive, often giving it the feel as if its being bounced off the ceiling of some epic cathedral, but most of my issues came with the fact that it's an extremely consonant, uplifting, never appreciably dark or creepy, and just how many times do I need to hear re-interpretations of the Halloween tune or the opera staple "Carmin Burana"? Oculum Infernum just does not go far enough into the thematic territory it so wishes to capitulate towards, and settles for far too many generic thrills.

It gets a little more exciting when you get Al jamming in the bridges of pieces like "The Child", but even then it sounds awfully familiar...like you've heard some other rock opera bands he plays with. Some of the horns blare out in an appreciably moody fashion, as in the swooning "Tortured Soul". The Van Helsing family theme throughout is flimsy at best, a kind of generic 'good vs' evil' scheme, pitting off the monster hunters with vampires and other beings reduced to 'darkness'. A whole lot of the lyrics are presented in Latin to adhere to the album's operatic nature and the ancient struggle it presumes to represent. And, sadly, the most evil sounding part of the whole affair is the "Black Sabbath" cover near the end, threaded with lots of little proggy and symphonic touches, and operatic vocals that don't exactly expand upon its inherent darkness, but still manage to transform the piece as most worthwhile cover do. Apart from the corny voices Dee is doing, in true horror-circus fashion, I actually think most of the instruments sound pretty clear and full, but apart from an occasional bass groove or pick-up in the drumming, some of them don't have much to do.

Now, I like Dee Snider, not only as a singer but as an outstanding human being. I still spin a lot of Twisted Sister stuff and I like a few tunes from his other projects. But this one was clearly a miss, not of gargantuan proportions, but the effort in putting it together just doesn't justify the results on the disc itself. You could take almost any random Therion record from the mid-90s or beyond and get a more effective experience in the same vein, and those can often feel genuinely gloomy and evil, where Oculum Infernum struggles. Heck, Music from 'The Elder' crushes this. I can't say it's a great soundtrack for Halloween when there are just so many others available, either quality horror scores, goofy dance songs, or King Diamond and Alice Cooper albums you could rock out to. So who is this for? I guess if you're a HUGE fan of Dead Winter De...I mean Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and you want a fractionally more 'dark' version of the same, or perhaps TSO to swap holidays, then this might scratch your itch. I just found the whole thing too obvious and uninteresting, and thus I'm not too shocked that the project had such a brief shelf life.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

http://www.vanhelsingscurse.com/site/

Monday, October 23, 2017

White Zombie - La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 (1992)

La Sexorcisto was a pretty interesting turn of events for the New York based White Zombie, trading in a lot of the grit and grime of their asphalt and trash-soaked Soul Crusher and Make Them Die Slowly for something more notably upbeat and accessible, which drew upon influences like groove metal, stoner rock and probably a lot of Slayer riffing of around that early 90s period which I hear a lot of tonal nods towards. Where the older material was more like a driving, dirty heavy/doom, and distinct in its own rite due to Rob's unmistakable, grating roadkill vocal style, it didn't have a lot of potential in terms of giving the band its breakthrough, which this record did in spades. While Devil Music Vol. 1 wasn't my own first rodeo with the band (I had picked up Make Them Die Slowly since Rob Cummings grew up in the town next to mine), but I can imagine for a lot of folks this was the initial exposure to their sound, specifically "Thunder Kiss '65" and its video which were popular and fairly well-rotated on the radio and MTV.

I had enjoyed the sophomore to an extent, despite its flaws, but for me the real attraction to Devil Music Vol. 1 was how it created this entire universe of horror, exploitation, smut and schlock and then seamlessly fused it to the riffing and vocal styles. It was like Zombie and crew created their own dialect out of Hollywood sleaze, creature features, pornographic kitsch, slasher flicks, Halloween parties, acid trips, and well-placed cussing, which was then offered up as an hour long language lesson you could bang your dreads to...or for the sellouts like myself, your freshly-cut High School graduation hair. There really was very little like this at the time...you can hear some clear inferences to the aforementioned Slayer, Texas' Pantera, who were also blowing up at this time, and perhaps a metal counterpart to My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult's seedy dance club aesthetics. There are samples and atmospherics splattered all over the record, expertly placed to give maximum impact to the themes imparted through the lyrics, and also a foreshadowing of the more industrial direction they'd take with their fourth and final album Astro-Creep 2000 in 1995.

More importantly, it all works so well together here that this quickly became a shoe-in for one of the most entertaining metal records of 1992, a rather barren year in many scenes, as thrash was on its way out to be replaced by grunge, rap-rock, and the ever increasing brutality of death metal. In fact it's STILL fun, a quarter century later. White Zombie were one of the band's that managed to ride out that transition, by honing in on simplistic, catchy rhythms, chugs that were often laden with bluesy wailing, Southern rock personality circa Clutch, and an image that looked like apocalyptic voodoo hippies had gone on a shoplifting spree through Vegas and the Sunset Strip. The music might seem a little basic these days, but it's also timeless, hitting climaxes like the wah-wah smothered lead bridge of "Thunder Kiss '65" over that unforgettable, evil groove. Sean Yseult's bass lines were nothing too special, but they have a good flow to them, and their audible presence in the recording helps to fatten up Jay Yuenger's rhythms which aren't all that leaden or heavy by themselves, ranging between slow to mid-paced heavy/thrashing to a semi-sludge sensibility with a slightly neutered production.

Ivan de Prume's also play an enormous role, steady rock beats pepped up with lots of cymbals and a feel like he's smacking his kit on the back of a pickup truck rolling down a highway, but if there's any real star here it has to be Zombie, truly establishing the syllabic and thematic blueprints he would stick to all through his successive solo career, a voice that feels like a posse of enraged bayou hunters on the trail of a runaway drug addicts. Harsh and goofy in equal measures, howling with sustain where a verse or chorus calls for it, but delivered with an almost funky pace and inflection, as if he were a reincarnation of James Brown that had watched too many John Carpenter flicks as a child and abused every substance available. His range is admittedly limited to a few notes and verse patterns that he uses over, and over, and over, but there are so few front men I can think of who leave who could leave such an immediate impression (for better or worse). Maybe Jet from Boston thrash hardcore locals SamBlackChurch, who was even more schizo in delivery, but on the world stage?

This really felt like something new had shown up. Even the way the lyrics channel these old racing films and horror concepts (like Richard Matheson's I Am Legend which is paid tribute by a tune of the same name), it seems so stream-of-conscious and lovably absurd, barked out beat poetry, heavily threaded with Zombie's timely uses of 'fucker' and 'motherfucker' and 'YEAH!' The lyrics in tunes like "Cosmic Monsters, Inc." and "Starface" are just incredible. The tough part is deciding whether I like this album or Astro-Creep 2000 better. That feels like a heavier and more existential experience, with some really surprising moments, where this is the more low-down, cheesy and amusing, the real catalyst for Rob's career in both music and as a film director. I can't be the only person who was getting psychic flashbacks to the songs on this record the first time I watched The Devil's Rejects, and even when screening the more recent, mixed-bag that is 31, I was mentally referencing this shit. I don't listen to this in full as much anymore, but it was a good time then, it's a good time now. La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 is just one of those metal anomalies whose shadow I am fortunate to get to stand in from time to time, especially around Halloween.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (you shook the devil's dig deep hand today)

http://whitezombieofficial.com/

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)

https://www.facebook.com/TempleOfVoid