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]