Saturday, July 21, 2018

Summer Break 2018


I'm off on my Summer escapades, but will return September 22nd to kick off the annual Horror Metal Marathon leading up to Halloween. Got some strange, obscure stuff to cover this year so stay tuned, and as always, thanks so much for stopping by and checking out the reviews!

Best to you and yours,
Autothrall

Friday, July 20, 2018

Harlot's Grip - Harlot's Grip EP (2018)

Harlot's Grip is a new project involving Wayne Richards and Chris Dora of Ohio's perpetually underrated death/thrashing beast Soulless, as well as bassist Ed Stephens who has played in an eclectic range of groups, from metal/hardcore legends Ringworm to 80s heavy metal hopefuls Shok Paris. In fact, between the three musicians here, you've probably got at least 30 bands worth of experience, from numerous sub-genres, in and around Ohio, and it really shows in the finished project. Unlike Soulless, or Stephens' Shed the Skin, this material is leaning far more in a traditional heavy metal direction. It's not Wayne's first rodeo in that realm either, having put out the solid Mach II record back in 2009, but the content of this EP is far more intricate and defined than that, and ultimately more impressive.

I'd place the sound conjured up here between the ballsier NWOBHM bands of the mid 80s, such as Saxon and their ilk, and the more finesse-driven USPM to follow that era like Jag Panzer. The riffs are just as often to break out into conventional, mid-paced, blue collar fist-pumping chords patterns are to explore more gleaning, textured surges of melody, but the two are equally mitigated so that you're getting your fill of the former, with just as much of the latter as you'd need to prevent the tunes from becoming predictable. A small fraction of the aggression and melody also draws upon their Soulless alma mater, which is fine by me since that band is bananas. It also benefits a lot from not sounding painstakingly old school; this is clearly not a pure nostalgia trip by the band members, but an attempt to craft these influences into tunes that fit straight into 2018 and possess a little added nuance than just your average grab-bag British metal proxy. They're a bit more parallel to a Pharaoh, New Eden or Jag Panzer than an Eternal Champion, Cauldron or Visigoth, perhaps, but could be equally appealing to fans of all of these.

Big hooks. Audible bass lines grooving along with them. Big drums, cranked right along the guitars so you can hear every splash and thump. Clear emotional ramp-up between verses and choruses, with effective leads that disperse sorrow, melancholy and other feels over the bridge rhythms. Richards even employs a very mid-range, workmanlike vocal tone reminiscent of Biff Byford or Tank's Algy Ward, and that does bring me to one minor critique. As much as I'm cool with that approach, and how it best uses its available range, I did feel like some of the riffing and production tended to overpower them at times. Without needing a bunch of cliche shrieks and screams, a few more bells and whistles in the mix could bring them out more, whether that's just done in the mix or in the line composition. There was also a backing vocal or two which felt a little bland, muscle those up too. The only other quip might be that the four tunes here kind of covered a samey range of tempos and aesthetics, but this would easily be corrected by a full-length effort where they'll reach wider.

And I hope such an album is on the horizon, because Harlot's Grip is a refreshing entry into a niche I think is often neglected in these days of throwback tweaking...a band that looks backwards only for its foundation and then cements over it something a little more creative. Some classy riffing, some classy sword & sorcery artwork, well worth checking out if you're a fanatic for old heavy metal or UPSM with an emphasis on its songwriting groundwork rather than Harpy-like wailing eccentricity.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

https://harlotsgrip.bandcamp.com/releases

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Zombiefication - Below the Grief (2018)

If I received only middling returns from the band's 2014 album Procession Through Infestation, that only highlights even more how much of a surprise Below the Grief has proven. Trace elements of their Swedish-derived death metal sound might persist throughout this fourth Zombiefication full-length, but on the whole it's far enough removed from the roots of their sound that it's easy to count it as the most unique they've ever produced. A hammering helping of death metal fundamentals fueled by anger and towering walls of melodic force, helmed by passionate vocals which seem like the singer was just crawling and dragging home from some violent altercation in which he received a number of bruises and cuts. It's also exciting, and unlike its well-produced predecessor, far less of a predictable experience...simple but effective riffs would just burst out of the landscape everywhere and keep me glued to my earbuds as I awaited what would come next.

It's actually a little daunting to describe...like a jarring mesh of death metal, thrash and hardcore with an overall atmosphere birthed from the sheer savagery of its motion. The drumming is extremely loud and crashy, albeit not so much that you can't make out whatever else is happening. This was actually one slight little hangup for me, I think they could have turned those down just a fraction. The bass lines are propulsive and groovy, and the rhythm guitars create this sonic envelope which is aggressive but constantly oozing out desperate or sad, if not entirely creative melodies. To that extent it feels like a natural progression from the album before it, only the way the whole picture comes together here seems much more fresh. The vocals range a little higher before, bloodthirsty and raving grunts and howls which almost feel like he's being slapped in the midsection by 2 x 4 boards while he's in the studio booth barking them out. Lastly, they incorporate these little unexpected twists, like the cleaner breaks in "Deliverance from the Astral Sea", or the tribal, clanging, evil intro to the following track called "Echoes of Light". When that chug rolls in off the beat and then they hit those patterns of interchanging chords it feels like the group has turned over an incredible new musical leaf.

And at that point they're only a short way into the album, interesting ideas persist throughout all the tunes. Below the Grief has a really compelling contrast between thundering unrest and melancholy, and reaches a higher bar of craftsmanship and songwriting than any of their albums before it. The production might have a few flaws for a lot of listeners; it's not quite at the level of the album before it, for which of the mix was the forte, but the ingenuity and emotion manifest here is just so much cooler. I'm not saying it's the most memorable album you'll hear lately, but it's clearly inspired. An effort I could see myself recommending not only to classic death metal fans, or 'death 'n roll' addicts who enjoy records like Entombed's Uprising and Inferno, but also to fans of crushing sludge, or Chaos A.D.-like groove metal, or even metallic hardcore acts like Ringworm or Integrity. It cultivates a worthwhile cross-section of ideas, without ever playing them out cheap, and it also signifies a lot more risk than Zombiefication's backlog, which despite the novel geographical origin could have just fit in snugly with a lot of other old-school Swede-loving tributes. Sometimes you take the chance, you roll the dice and come out with a critical hit, and that's what Misters Hitchcock and Jacko have done here, and it's exciting. Well done.

Verdict: Win [8/10] 

https://www.facebook.com/zombiefication666

Friday, July 13, 2018

Dire Omen - Formless Fires Embodied EP (2018)

While they still might not register the same visibility as some of their Canadian counterparts also trailblazing the visceral crossroads of death and black metal aesthetics, Dire Omen has proven by this point that they're well worth the effort to check out if you're at all a fan of an Aurochs, Mitochondrion, or Antediluvian, or others worldwide who commingle the suffocating miasma of antiquated death metal with spastic, dissonant runs that often fall more into the camp of frenzied, blackened post-modern extremity. Formless Fires Embodies is a smaller dose of dizzying restlessness than their Dark Descent debut Wrestling the Revelation of Futility from 2014, but it's a great example of how just adding a little something extra can elevate a medium from stagnation to the death metal deli counter.

Fresh to order. What I mean by that 'little something' in the case of this EP is how each of the three tracks' harrowing, chaotic subterranean density is sliced through by some degree of middle or higher pitched, heavily dissonant guitars which immediately lends it a new layer of atmosphere. Obvious examples of this are in the creepy waning moment of "Malkuth", where bewitching harmonies create a haze of paranoia before the EP closes out. Or in "Null", an all-out assault on the senses, when the spikes of fragmented, Voivod-like guitars blanket a phrase over the blunt gutturals and lightly grooving bass lines, before they just erupt back into blasting your noggin off. Passages like these catapult Dire Omen beyond what might otherwise prove a more clinical exercise in the style, and while the bulk of the material here might tend towards the more straightforward and aggressive, it's that detailing which had me wanting to revisit the tracks rather than any of their brutality.

The production of the EP is definitely as dingy and claustrophobic as their past work, placed organically underground without ever shifting over towards vaulted, ominous inaugural Incantation worship. The vocals are used primarily like brute neolithic grunts that serve as an additional percussive weight alongside the drums, and to be honest I wouldn't mind if a bit of effects were placed on them just to have them stand out slightly more. They're intrinsic to the style, but perhaps a little dry and redundant when the music around them is so much more spastic. This is more about the mix than their syllabic placement, and in fact I think the tunes in general could benefit from a more brazen approach, where the guitars more boldly churn through your intestines and the drums cave in your skull. Beyond that lack of gloss, however, there is so little to complain about, and these tunes are equivalent in quality to that prior full-length. If you're seeking an experience bordering on Portal or Abyssal, only 'unmasked', or you're out tacking into the warping winds of chaos-born, dissonant death metal, Dire Omen should be at the other end of your spyglass, approaching with haste.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] 

https://www.facebook.com/direomen

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Zombiefication - Procession Through Infestation (2014)

Although they possess a whole ton of the elements that make for a Swedish death metal worship band, drowning in nostalgia for those early 90s classics ala Left Hand Path, Dark Recollections, Like an Everflowing Stream, and Clandestine, I thought it was interesting to watch the development of Zombiefication, being one of the rare Central American bands to adopt that sound, whereas so many of their peers are straight from Europe. And truth be hold, there was a sizable payoff when the band's 2013 sophomore full-length At the Caves of Eternal proved a notable improvement over their 2010 debut Midnight Stench in every category: the production, the musicianship, the songwriting potential. Fairly hot on the heels of that record, they released Procession Through Infestation, and it's an effort I'm rather split on, thinking they've once again made a formidable leap forward in one area while not exactly delivering in others...

I'll lead in with the production, which I found absolutely fantastic and the high point of this disc. As a band so thickly rooted in that old, raucous, heavy Entombed aesthetic, I loved how hugely it comes across on the recording. The rhythm guitars are potent and crashing, the bass corpulent with just the right amount of boom and buzz to stand out solidly in the mix. Drums are raw and snappy, cultivating a very live feel that works nicely with the sheer impact of those rhythms. 'Mr. Hitchcock''s vocals are likewise praiseworthy, massive and grotesque and never content to simply emulate themselves, the guy is always reaching deeply into his gut for another Petrov-ian howl or guttural sustain. The higher pitched melodic guitars here are also a nice touch, showing a clear influence not only from those most foremost Swedish legends, but also bands like At the Gates, Desultory and Edge of Sanity, and they never lay them on too thickly, affixing them to the meatier undercarriage of the rhythm in a perfectly bloody marriage. In fact, the way those melancholic or gloomy melodies interact with the other components reminds me a lot of the last two Tribulation albums, only more brute, less elegant.

Sadly, for all the glory of their carnal presentation, the songs and riff choices here really did not stick to me whatsoever. The chord patterns and melodies are all sort of average, without any standouts or climactic surprises waiting around any corner of the catacombs. The album is like wandering through a low-to-mid level dungeon and fighting the same monster in 8-10 different chambers, rather than slowly building towards that climactic boss battle. There were hooks I was invisibly hearing in my head that just never manifest, and while the sound of this record does do a lot to compensate when cranked out at high volumes, I just become too bored as I realize the musical progressions here are slightly bland. To be fair, there's occasionally a little clamor or unpredictable start/stop when they setup a track, but once you're out into the proper depths of the piece, it just becomes a little too repetitious; not that they're using the same chords or phrases over and over, just that it doesn't go through a series of emotional peaks and valleys, rather just stays on a level plane. It's an issue I take with a few of their European counterparts like Revel in Flesh (who they've done a split with) or a handful of Rogga's projects. Well-produced, well-intentioned, just not terribly memorable.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (we resurrect from tears)

https://www.facebook.com/zombiefication666

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Vultur - Entangled in the Webs of Fear (2018)

Don't let the fact that Vultur doesn't fit entirely snug into the general population of the Sevared roster throw you off, this is an immensely brutal band...only brutal by an earlier genre standard than a lot of the more tech Suffocation or Deicide-inspired acts you often hear from that camp. Entangled in the Webs of fear feels like a more muscled alternative to the Floridian death metal once spawned by Death in the 80s, only with a lot more blasting and bulk through the enormous production, and vocals that feel a lot more in the vein of an Incantation, Wombbath or Rottrevore. So they do 'old school', sure, but they do it like a bunch of heavyweights in a grudge match against a much smaller opponent, and that opponent is your fucking skull.

This album sounds huge, with an ominous airiness coming from the speakers that really lets those churning guitars, growls and beats settle in for punishment. No tricks or gimmicks, just a slab of the purest death metal you're like to hear this year, an album that could appeal across several generations of fans. The guitars are a mix of dense chugs and coiled, evil tremolo picked lines that actually make you feel somewhat creeped out in spots, especially when the light, eerie leads break out over the surface. It doesn't sound like it took a whole lot of effort to come up with these riffs, for when you're in the mindset of how to just make something sound evil and aged, a lot of them seem like they'd spring directly to the muscle memory of your palms and fingers, but that's quite alright here because they exude a pummeling, claustrophobic intensity that transcends time. The bass is thick and oozy, and doesn't stick out too much in terms of note choices but just an extra layer of syrup driving home the darkness. Beats are thick bottomed, with nice fills, double bass rolls and effortless blasts where those work.

It should be noted that several members of this group are in another comparable outfit known as Ectoplasma, which isn't terribly different in style, and also has a recent album out called Cavern of Foul Unbeings that you should probably check out if you're into this. I actually liked the Vultur disc a bit more, but it's certainly blunter. Straight to the gut, vile and colorful death metal which bends the imagination way back to when it all felt so fresh and new, even though there is literally nothing new or innovative about a single damn thing they do. Doesn't matter, when it's wrought with such brute sincerity and passion, and even though the songs do grow a little samey throughout, I've had a great time spinning this one on numerous occasions, and highly recommend it if you're a fan of some of the groups I listed above, Spanish bands like Avulsed and Putrevore, or Finns like Purtenance and Slugathor. The cover art by Raul 'Mortuus' Fuentes is also really noteworthy, had this album come out back in '87-88 it's the sort of image that would be considered iconic decades on.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (ghouls and manglers gathered to feast)

https://www.facebook.com/vulturathens/

Friday, July 6, 2018

Calvarium - Assaulting the Divine EP (2004)

Counter to the stereotype that black metal is best listened to in the wintry months, I find myself more enraptured through the deepest, hottest months of the summertime, for at least then in addition to the other qualities I find in the genre, it gives me an escape from the season I admittedly hate the fuck out of. July, in particular, is the worst offender of the lot, so in the midst of the Fahrenheit spikes which break down any semblance of civility and fortitude others might describe of me in lighter climes, I find myself once again rummaging through the blackened discs, files and other detritus that have accumulated in my office for something that can temporarily estivate me from the surrounding blaze. This time I've stumbled across an untouched EP from Finnish obscurity Calvarium.

Now, while this particular project might not be well known, releasing only one album and this shorter successor, its members also play in, or have previously played in a who's who of other, comparable acts like Baptism, Horna, Black Death Ritual, Anal Blasphemy, Behexen, or the arena-touring, kid friendly Black Priest of Satan. By the looks of Assaulting the Divine, one is in store for a battering of traditional, newsprint black metal with few twists or surprises, playing it safe within a genre that conventionally relied on being unsafe. And that is the EP in a nutshell, a scathing 20 minutes of tremolo-picked, mildly raw black metal with not a single idea that anyone would ever mistake for being unique. That's not to write off Calvarium entirely, since this is a competent and obscene occult style of black metal which never really grows old for me, even though a great many of its proponents seem incapable of writing the evil riffs, gnashing vocal lines and atmospheres that chill enough to crack the flesh off the bones. These Finns are versed well enough in how to provide such elements, but simply don't ever excel at them.

I'd liken Assaulting the Divine to mix of Bathory and Horna, the former in the storming swagger of the excellently titled opener "Wrathpainted Hammer Upon their Weakening", and the latter almost everywhere else, with sibilant streams of submerged melodies and tinny blast beats driving much of the action. The production on the guitars reminds me of earlier Marduk albums, perhaps Enthroned off their first couple albums. I actually prefer the opening tune to the others, with its hoarse, bloodied rasp that escalates into a broader growl later in the verses, and the fact that I want to ride into battle just like it's Blood Fire Death all over again. "Through the Scars of Selfmutilation", despite its really excellent opening sample (which I couldn't quite pin down to a source), just felt like pretty typical charging glorious material without any standout riffs or truly abrasive feeling. The other highlight might be the black thrashing surge of "The Dark Blessed Elite", but if I were being honest I'd keep the first and last tunes, cut the two in the middle and then maybe find a place to keep that sample. It's just not all that interesting and half of the content is more sinister and memorable than the other, so it's essentially a solid single with some filler tunes.

That said, if you love this genre to a fault, it's really all here and issued with a relentless tenacity that will manifest some admiration. Clearly with this and the previous Skull of Golgotha we caught a glimpse of a group with the chops and experience to make some unsettling waves, but the roster instead decided to do that elsewhere with a myriad of other projects to keep them busy, and some that have borne superior, rotten fruit to this one.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Six Feet Under - Unburied (2018)

Six Feet Under doesn't have the best track record when it comes to the compilation format. Barnes and his various crews have hardly spammed the market with label-born 'best of' nonsense, to their credit, other than a shitty iTunes comp and the elaborate box set A Decade in the Grave, which, while not worthwhile, at least gives the fans a massive amount of content, some new to it. But they have have continued to push the long-suffering Graveyard Classics cover series, which to this day has yet to produce anything that justifies its existence and seems like a no-win situation unless there is some massive, hidden legion of 6FU fans out there I am unaware of that snap the things off the record store shelves like piranha assaulting some bloody, meaty haunch thrown into the river.

If you've been following this band at all, you'll recognize the cover here as a sort of amalgamation of the albums Undead and Unborn...mostly the latter; and as the title implies, this is a compilation of 'rare' or unreleased tunes that were recorded during the sessions for those albums and scrapped due to...wait for it...probably not being good enough for those albums. Now, 'good enough' is a relative phrase with regards to Barne's enduring, uneven career, but I was at least a little bit interested in this due to Undead's status as being the sole Six Feet Under full-length that I hold on to, a shocker that seemed to come out of left field with a volley of catchy riffing, slightly less simplicity than on the many albums before it, and an excellent balance of intensity and grooves. They haven't exactly recaptured the quality there with its successors (including Unborn), but 2012 was clearly a sea change in the band's potential to kick ass with the write mix of songwriting and band members, and in fact Unborn and Crypt of the Devil were competent follow-ups until they once again started to slump with last year's forgettable Torment (and a few of the unreleased cuts here are also from that one).

Unfortunately, since these tunes were drawn from a couple different album sessions, there's straight up an unevenness in the production values and style. Half of the nine tracks are incredibly dull and straightforward groove offs in the vein of much of the tripe they were emitting in the 90s and earlier 'oughts. Something like "Violent Blood Eruption" had potential as a 'lost track' from those better albums, but even then the production is pretty weak and it would have to be mastered and mixed better to even consider it. Same goes for something like "Re-Animated", which is brute and minimal like a lot of their weaker albums, but seems constructed well enough otherwise to get your blood flowing and head banging at its adorable simplicity...even the lead here would be excited if you could hear it, but it just doesn't feel throughout Unburied like there was a concern to master all the material so it would level off with itself and feel like an album unto itself. I get that the intent is to present a bunch of rough cuts largely as they were, but some further care and attention could have transformed this selection into an album on par with or at least more formidable than a bunch of the past stinkers.

As it stands, Unburied is an inconsistent mess trading off some truly middling tunes with a few that could have proven worthwhile if allowed to gestate in Barnes' imagination, or on the mixing board. Die hards will discover a couple hooks hidden here or there, but as they weren't really 'good enough' for the albums they were originally written for, it's hard to think they've somehow snowballed into better Six Feet Under songs in the interim. Hard pass for me.

Verdict: Fail [4.25/10]

https://www.facebook.com/sixfeetunder

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Mutilate - Tormentium (2018)

While the majority of throwback death metal bands attempt to emulate their favorite acts of the 80s and 90s as closely as possible, there are others who seek to strip back the years to the point where that style was just lifting off, and then attempt to create a primal and even intentionally pedestrian sound as if the rest of it never existed. The strength of New York's Mutilate is that they manage to pull that off by hooking you with the most simplistic riffs, riffs you've probably heard before, a thousand times, and yet for some reason feel timeless in the hands of these brutes. One can tell just by the band's name, and half the song titles here ("Severed Limbs", "Life in Pain", "Sadistic Butchery", etc) that there's literally nothing new going on here. Creativity wouldn't come anywhere near this album, for fear of contracting some infectious disease...

And yet...YET, Tormentium is a fairly charming, bludgeoning way to pass 40 minutes when you're seeking out the sort of escapism you would turn towards death metal for when albums like Scream Bloody Gore, Eyes of Horror, To the Gory End, Master and Fuckin' Death were novelties. Heavily rooted in pummeling thrash riffs, driven towards the grave by the blunt and (admittedly) monotonous, muffled vocal growls. Drums that give you a mechanistic beating beneath the efficient, predictable rhythm guitar progressions. That said, because the material seems so formulaic, the album does offer up a surprise or two, like how the morbid, Death-like guitar at the opening of "Splattered Remains" is slathered with this raucous, wailing, super-minimal lead. Or those evil, neolithic grooves in the belly of "Sadistic Butchery" which are inescapable. Mutilate knows the boundaries within which it works, and never stretches them to any appreciable degree, but between those lines they give you about as much punch as you would desire, without sounding too much like a copy.

Does this have a lot of lasting value, when you could go back and listen to the other albums from the era to which it aesthetically strives? Probably not. There are only a scant few catchy guitar parts, and there aren't quite enough atmospherics to bind it all together. The vocals could use a little more of a dynamic, evil range to them, and a few compelling bass lines would have gone a long way to help with that dingy, subterranean atmosphere which the material dwells upon the fringe of. It's a murky mix, but more like something from a sewer or back alley than an abandoned catacomb or a swamp. The themes go for the violent imagery and proto-brutality that the Death debut and its ilk carved out for the coming kingdom of death metal, but offer up nothing new in that sphere. But for all of its flaws and irritations, Tormentium is still an album which achieves that bare minimum of enjoyment, a thuggish approach to death-metal-that-was-and-will-be, a clubbing of the senses; so if you wish your extreme metal was forever stuck in a cycling time-loop of 1987, give it a listen.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

https://mutilatedeathmetal.bandcamp.com/

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Moonreich - Fugue (2018)

The phrase 'criminally underrated' is a cliche all too fit for Paris' Moonreich, a black metal band with such a capacity for delivering a 'total package' of well-written, well-produced, interesting, and re-listenable music, that is simultaneously capable of actually sending a shiver up your spine with a particular riff, or surprising you with a choice they make somewhere in one of their generally 6-10 minute compositions. As a slightly jaded, 40-something listener of the genre as a whole, I can tell you that this is not something which happens on a regular basis, and as much as I sang the praises of the group's prior effort Pillar of Detest back in 2015, these shadowy individuals have struck yet again with what is handily one of the better black metal efforts I've yet heard this year.

They waste absolutely no time proving themselves, with a delicious, driven, riff-packed opener in "Fugue Part 1: Every Time She Passes Away" which should satisfy a modernist black metal audience's craving for blasting footwork, volatile guitar progressions and tempo shifts between the traditional charging melodies and a more mid-paced, dissonant groove. The song even breaks into a near-tranquil passage of cleaner guitars near its mid-point, and proves a good qualifier for the range you're going to get throughout the album as a whole. It's also an exhibition of what is the most huge and 'accessible' studio production the group has yet achieved...perhaps not quite as absorbing for me as the more haunted Pillar of Detest, but certainly the most likely to pique the interest of those into modern black/death metal mixes liked you'd find on records by bands like Behemoth. The rhythm section is a virtual storm of energy, the bleeding tremolo picked guitar lines bright and sharp, and the vocals front and center, as they rasp and growl over the aggressive tectonics below.

While this album is stylistically consistent, it retains the band's general unpredictability. Overall, it seems like there is a lot of progressive rock or metal influence through some of the guitars, constantly merged to the faster drums or fits of intensity that break out all over the track list. But the two are so neatly intertwined together that they lack any sort of disparity or unpleasant contrast, it simply feels like these things have always been intrinsically linked. Atmospheres throughout are achieved solely through the guitars, without need for flighty orchestration or synthesized bombast...walls of spacious noise provide a backdrop when the band isn't bulldozing forward, and while the blackened extremity at the core of this experience is a constant, there's just no guessing exactly what is going to happen. I thought Moonreich really excelled here with the monolithic, middle-paced, lurching, dissonant rhythms in tracks like "With Open Throat for Way Too Long", or the thrilling "Heart Symbolism", melded seamlessly to the unforgiving blast beats, and with atonal, interesting notes flung all over the grooves to keep them compelling and not just banal mosh material.

But if you want something a little more patient, there's the incredible "Rarefaction" with its thick bass lines, hideous and evil harmonies, perhaps my single favorite cut on the whole disc, although it's hard to choose when they're just so on-fire. At points this album even has the potential to appeal beyond the black metal crowd into fans of progressive, heavier sludge, or dissonant metallic post-hardcore, sort of in the way Mörk Gryning's excellent, underrated, eponymous 2005 'swan song' came across; the riff selections are just that massive and open-minded, without betraying the band's blacker roots. Not every string of notes here is very memorable, but in terms of structure and balance this is just an expert exercise, with some killer lyrics to boot, and very cool Digibook packaging through Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions. Mildly less atmospheric than Pillar of Detest, and I might rate that album just a small fraction ahead of this one, but so much of that has to do with the production, which will appeal to some more than others. Fugue is straight to the face, high level French black metal that is well deserving of a nod alongside contemporaries Merrimack or Blut Aus Nord, and surely superior to a lot of the bigger name genre bands releasing records this year.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (inhale the vapor of lie)

https://www.facebook.com/Moonreich/

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Hyrgal - Serpentine (2017)

Hyrgal really sets up its full-length debut with a pleasant but brooding intro piece, featuring a steady thrum of percussion slathered in organs that casts a long, depressive shadow. And then the trio just lets you have it with a floodgate of emotionally-driven, melodically endowed black metal. The blasting drums are set at a dull thunder while the raw, airy rhythm guitars flurry through a set of dim, gray, atmospheric hues of chord selections and a sustained, deeper rasp that grates both against and alongside the surging tides beneath. You can even envision sitting in the wooden chair in front of this archaic dwelling on the black & white cover art, gazing out at the horizon, where a storm settles into your vision, and creates a wave of nostalgia for desperation, longing and fallen grace.

Now, 36+ minutes of just that might become mildly featureless and redundant, so the Frenchmen are wise enough to continuously shift back to atmospherics, whether of pure ambiance (like those buried in "Mouroir"), cleaner guitars (as those heralding "Till"), the ritualistic pulse of the "Rite" Intelrude, or the slower, post-rock/metal vibe that you get in places like the finale of "Aux diktats de l'instinct". For a band capable of unleashing such a storm of majestic savagery, they are heavily focused on bringing balance to the listening experience, giving the audience a chance to breath before the next eruption, and it's that dual nature which kept me entranced with Serpentine longer than many other albums of its niche. They don't exactly delve into a more 'evil' sound in terms of their overall note patterns, but the great, epic harshness of the vocals, and the steady blasting, serve as reminders that life is not peachy in the Hyrgal camp, that the passions behind this music lunge at you from the shadows even if it's not attempting to sound like it was written in the dingy basement of an ancient castle out in the woodlands. There's a rustic, spacious, yet dim quality which makes me rather listen to this when I'm out of doors rather than in my office cubicle.

This is not a band which goes for big, identifiable riffs, rather the guitars writhe past you in a sheen of melancholic glory which prefers you process them in sum rather than individually. So there are a few moments which might come across monotonous or interchangeable between songs, but thankfully Hyrgal have kept this one at a rather short duration, rather than wandering aimlessly through 60 or 70 minutes of over-swollen song structures. Another strength is their ability to communicate their ideas through a dingy, lo-fi production without sounding raw or painful to the ear. This creates a sort of timelessness about their material...while it's firmly rooted in the mid-90s style of Northern European drumming and guitars, Serpentine is not something which would sound young or old to me if I put it on in another 25 years...it is competent, distinguished, and assured of its identity. A very easy one to recommend for folks into other French acts like Aurvandil and Aorlhac, and I'd also pass this on to friends who enjoy the Quebecois strain of black metal championed by Forteresse and their ilk. A worthwhile debut, a worthwhile escape from the oppressive summer colors bearing down on you.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

https://www.facebook.com/Hyrgal/

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Skull - No Bones About It (1991)

No Bones About It suffered as a misplaced artifact for around when it came out, largely because the hard music landscape was in such a state of transformation. Death metal bursting forth angrily from the belly of thrash, grunge taking over the airwaves from hard rock, glam struggling to hang onto to its largely miserable and laughable existence. Things were in such a state of transition that signing on a band like Skull must have been a risk, despite the pedigree of its seasoned roster. Granted, there were a lot of similar groups who straddled the line between traditional heavy metal and the more radio friendly hard rock of Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Quiet Riot and the like, so this could hardly be considered an anomaly, but it's a stretch to imagine any record executive with his/her hands on a magic 8-ball would have risked rolling these particular bones. And I could not have blamed them.

The main selling point here is that Skull was as a vehicle for ex-Kiss guitarist Bob Kulick, who had played uncredited on a number of tracks on a number of their albums, and also alongside acts like Meat Loaf, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed and Michael fucking Bolton to name a few. The other bigger name in this lineup was drummer Bobby Rock of Alcatrazz, Nitro and Lita Ford fame. Had this very same album drummed a few years prior, maybe 1987-1988, I can see it having had the potential for some limited rotation on channels like MTV or you local hard rock broadcaster. It's not as sickly sweet at sucky bands like the US Warrant, Poison or Slaughter, but the band has a lot of flair, hits hard enough for their genre that even metal purists might find something to like, and singer Dennis St. James had an expressive enough presence somewhere in the midst of David Coverdale, Ian Gillan, David Lee Roth and Don Dokken. Lots of rock & roll oohs and aahs that you'd expect from someone likely willing to grab his crotch and ricochet his hips around as much as it takes to put on a memorable show. That the lyrics here are so lame, trivial and cliche-ridden is rather moot, this was not a niche within rock music with a ton of thought or depth behind it, but rather a feel good sedative for the every man who just wanted to rock out with his lady or buds. I mean there's literally a lyrical line 'so we'll meet a few girls, drink a few beers' to which the backup vocals respond 'who's buyin'?'

Pedestrian party rock for bars and strip joints looking for something else when they'd spun all their Mötley Crüe and Britney Fox albums until the grooves wore down. I admit I wanted to tear this record apart when I was first listening through it, such insipid tripe as it is, but as I grow older myself I've gained a sort of strange, masochistic fondness for some cheesy metal which I would have thrown my devil horns at as a teenage and then hissed at is if I was some vampire struck by a bulb of garlic from a Stryper fan's slingshot. No Bones About It is entirely harmless and formulaic, with a slight divide between the more groovy, bluesy boogie metal cuts like "Little Black Book" and "Eyes of a Stranger", power ballad lameness like "This Side of Paradise", and then a series of mildly more serious, moody, engine burners like "Breaking the Chains" and "Loser's Game". And if the titles of some of these tracks look identical to other song or album titles that were popular at the time, just move right along. As redundant as the album really was for its day, I do admit to nodding my head along to some of the riffs and vocal lines, appreciating the strong guitar tone, and the lead work of a guy who was only passed over for Ace Frehley (and, eventually, ironically, his own little brother). The drums are pounding and effective, really the band had the 'whole package' that was just cut off by being beaten to the punch many times, and lacking a promotional push and touring itinerary that would have taken them to the next level.

Is this sole Skull album a curiosity for anyone outside a diminished audience of omni-rockers who like their hard rock as much as their heavier metal? Not really, so I'd advise checking out a band like Fifth Angel or Banshee who were exponentially superior at straddling that divide, but if you've a penchant for cheesy rarities and failed dreams, or a passion for big arena cock rock, then this Skull might be in session. Bob Kulick once lent Jimi Hendrix a guitar string, so the least you can do is lend this justifiable obscurity an ear for a few minutes.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Dreadful Fate - Vengeance (2018)

When a band is coming in off a demo called The Sin of Sodom, has a cover character similar to the old executioner from Sodom's In the Sign of Evil EP, and is listed as playing roughly the same form of disgusting, aggressive proto blackened/death thrash as Sodom, then it's only natural that my expectations for this debut Dreadful Fate full-length involved some extent of throwback Teutonic worship from the early to mid 80s era, when a particular trio of bands made a name for themselves out of a more carnal, extreme brand of the thrash happenings overseas. Sure enough, these Swedes tear more than a couple of pages from the In the Sign of Evil/Obsessed by Cruelty manual, and steal them home from the library, but there were certainly some points here where I was feeling more of a Mille Petrozza spin on the vocals than Tom Angelripper, and even a handful of riffs I'd attribute to a formative Destruction inspiration (Sentence of Death, etc).

You could see Vengeance as capturing that old, hellish energy circa Obsessed by Cruelty or Endless Pain, maybe even a little Rrröööaaarrr; that unrepentant rawness, and then building something slightly more structured out of it. This is delivered through loads of faster-paced, vicious riffs which don't exactly come off creative at any stage, but at the same time aren't mindless...there is a clear effort and fury being placed into their execution. The solos in particular are ridiculously well placed, energetic, and flinging themselves around in the true frantic fashion that thrash solos once excelled in...not to the point that they are memorable, but always a good way to round out or cap off a track and give you just that added level of intensity and abandon. The drumming is lightning quick and muscular, with a strong slap to the snare that keeps this engine chugging along even if you get a little underwhelmed with some of the riffs themselves. A number of these show some degree of sophistication and lead to a few notes you wouldn't expect, especially in a cut like "Hour of Reprisal" which I thought was bloody great. They don't stick entirely to the faster stuff, there are a few slower, Celtic Frost-like chug stretches which bring a little more balance to the overall album.

Vocals are rapacious barks highly redolent of two thirds of the German Big Three in their youth, with perhaps a few, gnarly nods to later throwback bands like Raise Hell. The whole sound is washed out in a slightly sibilant, unkempt mix, which sadly didn't do a lot for me. I understand entirely that sort of retro sincerity they were targeting, but I feel like the music itself would have been delivered more lethally in a richer recording, slightly cleaner and punchier for the rhythm guitars. When you look at the actual collective resumee of these guys...Merciless, Thorium, Nominon, Interment, In Aeternum, Hypnosia...that's quite a lot of background, so I'm sure they could have managed a better production, only chose to do it this way intentionally to capture that underground appeal. But it just didn't light enough of a fire under the album for me, and so the experience was a little dry, the riffs and songwriting just wasn't at the level of scene peers like Antichrist or Entrench who excel within this very same niche. Still, Vengeance is a debut which exhibits plenty of capability on the part of the musicians involved...a little more polish, a mildly different sonic envelope, and a few central riffs that stick to the ears better, and Dreadful Fate could be a formidable thrash act indeed.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] 

https://www.facebook.com/DreadfulFate/

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Auberon - Crossworld (2001)

The titular intro track to Auberon's sophomore outing Crossworld was a little bit off putting...a chugging, boring, simplistic riff glazed in mystical, spacey synthesizers and with the vocalist piling on a bit of distorted, spoken word narrative. From the onset it seemed that the fantasy-tinged melodeath of their debut had gone off into outer space, and the band was aesthetically pairing that up with a more tangibly 'modern', chugressive style. However, once "Vanities Fall" explodes forth with its little nod to "Carmina Burana", it becomes clear that they're still performing within the same wheelhouse as A Tale of Black..., only with a futuristic spin on it that might have been more thematically engaging for them than just repeating what they had already released three years earlier.

I'd liken this to At the Gates, Darkane or Soilwork if it were infested with the sorts of chords and octave patterns that thrashers like Testament and Vicious Rumors used a lot on their later 80s and early 90s material. It's quite a cool match with the Lindberg-like snarls and punishing riffs that kick off cuts like "The Beast Within", one of the best songs here which perfectly executes what they are going for. They still implement the cleaner vocals to contrast against the savage rasping, but even there you get a slightly more affected, post-modern vibe. Truth to be told, I thought the aggressive vocals on this were actually much better than the debut...they seem better welded to these slightly less complex riffing patterns, to the point that you can make out more of their tortured imperfections and that enables them with a lot more staying power. The album also goes for bigger, simpler, rocking rhythms that are checks in the bank for an audience interested in banging heads and bodies against one another. The drums are thundering, especially on the low end, and the album possesses an almost tireless energy about it which reminded me a lot of 'go for the throat' entries to this subgenre like Soilwork's Steelbath Suicide, Darkane's Rusted Angel or Sins of Omission's Flesh On Your Bones.

Considering when this album actually dropped, and that level of intensity they pull off, I was really surprised that this one didn't take in a much larger audience, but I think like a lot of the second or third tier Black Mark releases it lacked any amount of perceivable promotion. There are also a few issues I had with the production...for all the sleeker, bruising aesthetics it was intended for, some of the guitars seem a little too boxy and uneven, and the mix levels have actually given me more than one headache throughout the years. Not a deal breaker when you're searching for something to scratch this specific itch, or spent the six years before this blaring Slaughter of the Soul to all your DM-curious nu metal and metalcore friends, but I felt that A Tale of Black..., albeit more controlled, was the easier of the two albums to ingest. That said, if it were a fist fight, Crossworld would beat its elder sibling to a pasty red pulp; it's far more wild and testosterone driven, and even if the riffs are a little more pedestrian it just puts more punch behind them. So I like both albums, the debut just a fraction more, but if you're a fan of others I've listened in this review then it's worth tracking down.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (the ugly trifles of our existence)

http://auberonswe.blogspot.com/

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Auberon - The Tale of Black... (1998)

The idea of a fantastical melodic death metal band promoted a form of promising escapism that was uncommon within its niche in the 90s, although a number of bands in the ensuing two decades have merged that Swedish influence with folk metal, video gaming and other mythological and fairytale concepts. Bands like At the Gates, In Flames and Dark Tranquillity tackled more personal, social or political topics. But Auberon's debut had that look about it, with a wizard standing against some wondrous, alien landscape, which was an immediate draw for me, because I was heavily enamored of their label mates Lake of Tears, who used a similar but more psychedelic imagery for their brand of trudging Gothic doom. So I was pretty surprised, upon first hearing the music itself, that these Swedes had put together a competent melodic death act balancing the gnarled aggression of their countrymen with some solid songwriting that explored harsher and calmer passages, progressive (or at least mildly progressive) song structures, and consistent, non-flashy musical instrumentation.

Dark Tranquillity's first three albums would be the natural comparison, with The Tale of Black... coming off darker, possessing more intense bursts of riffing. The melodies are usually ingrained more into or alongside the chord structures themselves here, whereas on The Gallery they were a more overt, standout feature drawing more directly upon the lineage of groups like Iron Maiden. The leads on this record are pretty good, always moody and adventurous, without ever knowing quite where their bridge is about to come to an end; and the rhythm guitars are riffing off everywhere. Like a lot of similar bands at the time, it was like a mix of thrash and 80s power metal transported into the 'death' metal end of the spectrum through the density, guitar tone and vocals. These had a raucous rasp about them, far more carnal and Lindberg (or Laiho) than hoarse and Stanne. Occasionally, they seem to layer up and bounce off one another to the point that they're a little too raspy and hideous, which can be an amusing contrast once they surge into some part of the record where it feels more like a progressive rock guitar instrumental. Interestingly enough, these are balanced off against sections of cleaner, accented vocals that actually imbue the album with some of its more fantastic narrative feel...

In fact, these vocals are much better than the harsh style, as you can hear in a song like "The Dance" where they are more prominently on display and really bind it all together. Had The Tale of Black... actually used this style exclusively, it might even be a superior effort overall. That's not to say that the rasping sucks, far from it, but they do feel a little too 'Beauty & the Beast' contrasted with the more studied, serious and memorable cleans. The drumming is also pretty good here, double bass rolls and fills everywhere that ramp up the aggression level at least a few degrees, and helping give the tunes that air of power and desperation which made records like Slaughter of the Soul legendary. I won't say the production here is absolutely top shelf, since it seems somewhat washed out in spots, but it was a damn sight better than a lot of other bands choking along on the exhaust of this style, and all in all I was pretty happy with the debut. Not as memorable or exciting as a number of their peers, but a firm recommendation for those seeking out more in the vein of The Fifth Season, Terminal Spirit Disease, Thunderbeast, The Mind's I or The Gallery.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (so many legends waiting to be born)

http://auberonswe.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Arcane - Cascade (1997)

Nothing says 'death metal' to me quite like a couple dim mountains covered in flowing waterfalls, and these...delicious...logo and title fonts chosen by Dutch unknowns Arcane upon their sole full length recording, fittingly entitled Cascade. 1997 was hardly the dawn for the genre, hundreds if not thousands of death metal bands had logos that took the effort of actually designing a logo, Displeased records was not exactly a newcomer and had released or licensed a good number of albums from better known bands. So, superficially, whatever other qualities Cascade might possess are immediately muted by its outward appearance, its amateurish presentation. That is not ultimately the sole criteria by which I judge an album, mind you, and I've got a number of classics in my collection which are externally hideous, and artistically ill-conceived, but when I'm out combing the dark back alleys and moldy sub dungeons of the underground for hidden gems to cover, something that looks like this hardly breeds confidence...

After listening to the actual music, those low expectations are unfortunately never exceeded. I will admit that the production Arcane achieve here was a little more solid than I suspected. This was basically an early 90s-style death/thrash band, ala Sepultura, trapped in the latter part of a decade in which the genre's evolving brutality and innovation had taken center stage. Wouldn't be much of a problem, if this group wasn't so bloody boring at that style. There's a little atmosphere generated in some of the bridge and lead sections, and the guitar tone is adequate and appreciable, but the structure of the chord progressions and chugging selections are exceedingly familiar, in some sections (like the end of "Open Minds") where it feels like the most banal, dawn-of-S.O.D. level mosh action was a goal to keep any perceived gig audiences moving along, rubbing muscles and bone with another to neglect the fact that what they were dancing off to was so mundane and typical. The drumming is tight without ever becoming too extreme, the bass lines are fluid and flabby enough to thrive at times when you can catch them below the guitars. The vocals have a sort of soulless gruff Cavalera feel to them, though in tracks like "The Hatred in My Confused Mind" they'll throw on some distortion and effects to create something a little more interesting.

Whenever the band picks up the pace to engage the more flightly, thrashing styled riffs, the music is instantly given a small burst of life that leads me to believe they would have been far better off just recording an entire record in that style. There's enough of a clinical sense of melody to give that aesthetic a good balance, but another issue with the record is that it just doesn't stay put long enough in some niche of sound to develop it. For instance, "Welfarestate; Slavestate" moves on to a grooving chord-driven style which seems like a mix of early Green-era Sepultura with Suicidal Tendencies, while "Threatening Me" sounds like pure thrash with the dingier, dirtier vocals and a crossover vibe. For an album that feels like it should have best been marketed for its Sepultura-meets-Creepmime style, it feels inconsistent and noncommittal. Not exactly incompetent, or awful, but the dumbed down rhythm guitar riffing and the lack of really interesting surprises around any corner just make it too easy to overlook in a scene that spawned acts like Sinister, Asphyx, Creepmine, or the godly Pestilence. It seemed dated even for 20 years ago, but not in any memorable or cool 'retro' fashion.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10] 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Dead Reptile Shrine - Praise Cemetary (2013)

I remember my first exposure to Dead Reptile Shrine, probably about a decade ago, and being quite disappointed that a band with such an amazing name wasn't really delivering an appealing mesh of noise and black metal. Perhaps I wasn't listening to it with the appropriate mindset, since their approach was such an unusual, raw sound that placed them well out on the experimental fringes of Finnish black, well past Oranssi Pazuzu or Jumalhämärä and out where only enigmas like Circle of Ouroborus dare to dwell. Or perhaps the project just hadn't borne out the most interesting of eclectic, musical fruits it was capable of producing. I can promise you that ten years later, as I've gone back to discover their later, more recent efforts, that Dead Reptile Shrine has gotten no less strange than their formative recordings. If anything, Praise Cemetary is an even more anomalous concoction than those I've heard before it, but I have to say, despite the fact that this sort of album is only going to grok with a niche within a niche of gonzo extreme metal fans, there's a bizarre form of hypnosis that overtook me as I was listening through, which allowed me to bypass some of its flaws and focus in occasionally on its mesmeric abstractions.

The biggest factor working against this album is its lack of consistency, as it sort of warps all over a landscape of ideas, without any overarching cohesion, no method to its madness. To that extent it feels like a group of random recordings pasted together to form a full-length, and that can hurt the experience of listening to it. However, when I look at it as a collection of individual tracks and not so much as a structured, aesthetic exercise, the little hooks begin to sink in. On the surface, it's a raw as fuck bedroom black metal recording, with buzzing, droning or distorted guitars, wretched rasping vocals, and a slight penchant for dipping into a few more traditional BM riffs in spots. But as the track list gets deeper in, there's a transformation towards more of a pure, sparse ambient style that is occasionally littered with guitar or vocal effects. This is where the album really started to earn its keep for me, since I found pieces like the 12 minute "Death of a Sorcerer King" trance-inducing and eerie, like a rustic Lustmord tracking an indie horror film out in some woodland. The experimental edge of this doesn't always work, like in "Dimension of Mirrors" where some similar ritualistic ambient music and weird, distant spoken words are crapped on by a distorted, low guitar or bass tone that does them absolutely no service except to sound like its trolling the rest of the song.

Perhaps most interesting are the cuts that dwell between these two polarities of ambient noise and black metal, like "Unicursal Hex" or "Inside the Marble Polyandrium", which are truly unique, capturing the pure rawness of rehearsal-level demo black metal but playing out in such clamorous, often grooving, deconstructed forms that I couldn't tear my ears off of them. Weird, swaying guitars that occasionally bite off some disjointed Eastern melodies, as bass lines swerve through unapologetic patterns that seem entirely sporadic since they never land on a single damn note you want or expect. Meanwhile the vocals are being splayed out in tormented, husky groans, or cleaning wails to create a cacophony of unrest. The percussion is very unkempt, crashing snares and almost random thuds which make the whole thing lurch along with a drunken pacing. I'm sure there must be some improvisational components to Dead Reptile Shrine here, or rather an illusion of such, because to write this way intentionally would be sadism of a high order, but that's not to say that I wasn't fascinated by trying to figure out what in blazes was happening.

Don't get me wrong, it's disharmonious, dissonant, atonal, often painful and directionless, to the point that I can't imagine more than a small handful of listeners would be able to tolerate it for more than a short period. Not every track is equally grating, but just the fact that some of the more sensible pieces are wedged up against such counter-rational nightmares can manifest a degree of frustration. I can't say Dead Reptile Shrine is quite 'there' yet, because often what they do is just so far afield of the consonants or familiars of the metal genre, and this album doesn't have an answer to pulling it all together. So it's not a recommendation from me, but there is a compelling pulse beating somewhere within the black heart of this serpent, its just too irregular at this time to promote long term survival.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

http://www.neuroscan.org/drs/

Friday, June 1, 2018

On Review Requests


I've received an increasing amount of direct review requests lately. I'm assuming these are from folks who have not seen my notices on Metal-Archives or RYM, so I will reiterate here: I do not have the time to field such requests, and am unlikely to anytime in the near future. It's nothing personal on any level. I wish you the best, but between parenthood, work, other hobbies, and covering the new and old albums I select from my collection, or from the promo mailings of the labels I've worked with for years, I just don't have the time anymore. So if your messages don't get a response, or end up straight to the spam folders, this is why.

-autothrall

Friday, May 25, 2018

Amorphis - Queen of Time (2018)

Queen of Time might not ingratiate itself upon listeners who tuned out to Amorphis after their death and doom roots, but if you've been following the band ever since the mid-90s with enthusiasm, or had a later entry point into their catalog, then I can't imagine you'll be disappointed by how absolutely massive this thing sounds. Like it's damn fine predecessor, Under the Red Cloud, this is another album that calls upon various eras of the bands musical growth and fuses them all into a vessel worthy of sailing off into the future. The growling of their earliest years; the soaring, serious cleans of their prior vocalist Pasi Koskinen; the progressive rock influences that are cultivated through the keyboard tones; the spritely, atmospheric guitars patterns that dominated efforts like Am Universum or its predecessor Tuonela; and the sheer balancing act of grafting all those disparate ingredients into a seamless, unified structure, which they've been doing all throughout the Tomi Joutsen era to much success...

But Queen of Time offers even more than that, with lush passages of orchestration, grand pianos, church organs, dual-sex vocal choirs, saxophone, whistles, and male strippers. Perhaps these are not all entirely novel ideas for Amorphis, certainly not among the symphonic, folk or Gothic metal throngs at large; but there are clearly moments littered throughout this album when I feel like I've entered some slightly new territory, whether it's just the sound design and production values or the fact that they're testing out some new hooks here, or drugs there, or arrangements everywhere. In truth, this is possibly the most accessible of the band's albums...a truth that could likely turn out some longtime subscribers and turn in a broader audience, but that's not to say the Finns have stepped far outside of their normal comfort zone. No, most of the embellishments here, whether you'd equate them with some other big Euro symphonic Goth metal brand or not, are actually delivered with taste and elegance, molding themselves fluidly into the band's contrasts between emotional chorus swells and the divide between stomping and ethereal verse rhythms and lyrics. So the end result is really only to ADD to that formula they've been refining for the last 20+ years, and it's appreciated.

Every single song on this album is great, from the powered-up Tuonela flexing of "The Bee", through the funereal, chugging, growling drama of "Pyres on the Coast", and on into the bonus tracks, which as usual for Amorphis are just about as good as all the content on the album proper, to the point that they really seem like they're just fucking with us by even calling them 'bonus tracks'. It's hard to even choose favorites...."Golden Edge" and "Heart of the Giant" might get a slight edge, especially when Santeri and Esa trade off those synth and axe leads in the latter. Or that intro to "We Accursed", when it briefly feels like the Kalevala meets the Wild West. The lyrics rule. Tomi Joutsen is at the top of his game throughout, capable of delivering a sincere enough guttural or rasp that you can take it seriously alongside the much airier, brighter music, or those unanimously captivating cleaner lines...these guys have their 'Beauty & the Beast' down so pat that it's almost unthinkable to imagine that there are so many bands out their who make it all sound so goofy. The drums sound fantastic, even at their calmest they thunder off across the album's horizon with determination, and along with so many of the moody if traditional chord progressions, there is just never a moment on Queen of Time in which I feel that I haven't been carried off somewhere. And not dropped, thankfully. Because that would hurt.

Now, it might not attain perfection. It might not resonate with me over the next few decades like a Tales from the Thousand Lakes or an Elegy has. I might not incorporate its singles into my own pole-dancing routine (weekends in the city). But judging by the fact I've already spun this thing ten times this past week, when I've got so many life priorities in the way, or other records to check out, I have no problem hailing this as my favorite Amorphis release since that highly formative, evolutionary era. Color me absorbed.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10] (when moments became eternity)

http://www.amorphis.net/

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Amorphis - Under the Red Cloud (2015)

A band that has granted me such listening pleasure over the past few decades can surely be forgiven the occasional dud, and thus it wasn't that big of a deal to me when Amorphis dropped 2013's Circle, one of the few such dips I felt in their entire, extensive discography. Not because it was utter shit, nor did it stray outside the envelope of the band's now-traditional sound, but it was simply insipid, uninspired when matched against such a wealth of quality recordings they've summoned forth across the eras of all vocalists. It's not that they knock it out of the park on every album, but the only other time I can remember being that disappointed was a decade prior on Far from the Sun, which remains to me the worst thing they've ever released, bare and boring and drained free of all the creativity that defined its predecessors across their fascinating transformations away from pure death/doom. Circle was kind of like that, but for that next generation of Amorphis content.

While Under the Red Cloud suffers very sparsely from a couple of the same issues, namely a scant handful of blander chugging patterns or a few melodies that at this point felt fully aimless and rehashed, it was easily a more interesting, varied, glorious effort which reversed any delusion of shark jumping. Rhythmically and emotionally this was a more dynamic, memorable effort which balanced off the escapist folk and prog tinged melodic death metal developed through their mid-90s escalation. Even when they're going for those steadier grooves to support the synthesizer melodies, as in the intro to "Bad Blood", it's all constructed with a more textured determination, more ear candy happening on all levels of instrumentation, and a very shift between the grows and Tomi's cleans, which are as distinct and catchy as they've ever been throughout his tenure with the band, spewing a damn fine set of lyrics. Santeri Kallio's keyboards are by far the centerpiece of this entire effort, shining everywhere with pads both atmospheric and retro, but the lead guitars definitely do their vivid best to manifest those amazing melodies from the brilliant Elegy era (my favorite).

In fact, every instrument shines throughout this, from the clean and simple but compelling bass lines to the shimmery acoustics, there is just enough going on that it feels like one of their best attempts at managing all these atmospheres under one awning of atavist lyrics. Moments of relative calm are contrasted against some of the heavier, intense, percussive builds, and the leads feel carefully and tastefully implemented against the roiling keys and vocals. Some of the individual tracks here are among the best they've released in the 21st century, like "Dark Path" and "Tree of Ages", and the two bonuses "Come the Spring" and "Winter's Sleep" were well worthy of inclusion, the former giving me flashbacks to the Tuonela/Am Universum era. In fact, Amorphis doesn't really leave any of its fanbase out in the cold with the exception of those who wrote them off after Karelian Isthmus, or possibly Tales from the Thousand Lakes...you won't find any drudging death metal here with only a faint hint of melody, but rather the inverse...a brick wall of melodies with none of the old riffing to be found anywhere...only Tomi's impassioned growls vaguely, call back to that era, and in the context they are used here, probably not even those. This has long become the norm for the Finns, and it could be a lot worse, because this is glorious stuff with only a few moments which fail to live up to those surrounding them.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (and I bared them my heart of hearts)

http://www.amorphis.net/

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Headstone - Excalibur (1985)

Headstone might not have ended up winning the German metal lottery in the 80s, but credit must be given that their second album Excalibur crushed their debut in every conceivable way, addressing many of its predecessors shortcomings while offering an effort that still sounds somewhat captivating over 30 years later. Part of that will be the pure nostalgia I feel for this period, so important to me when I was developing my metal tastes, when the bands still had stars in their eyes and the wave was far from collapsing; but it's also just a natural timelessness which I doubt will disappear even 100 years from now. I'm not saying Headstone had a classic on their hands with this sophomore, far from it, and there are many better albums in its class, but had the group continued to strive towards a stronger sound, incrementally improving themselves as they did in just the one year between 1984 and 1985, we might have had a contender eventually...

It does not hurt that Excalibur opens with an epic synth piece in that cinematic, cheesy but reverent Tangerine Dream fashion which immediately tempers expectations towards full-on escapism. You are suddenly in a land where 'some moistened bint lobs a scimitar at you', ready to clash against foul witchery and steel-clad traitors. Now, I won't promise you that the metal content of the album lives up to this intro, but it definitely doesn't disappoint all that much in terms of power and volume. I will note that the rhythm section here is so dramatically improved over Burning Ambition...the bass lines are pumping and actually important to many of the tunes, especially when "Burnt in Ice" erupts from the synthesizer intro. The drums sound far more forceful, potent, and provide a bedrock of electric energy over which the rhythm guitars can charge alone. Granted, while the riffs themselves are more mighty than those of the debut...thicker and delivered with authority, they are still rather generic even by the standards of their day, and not often catchy or interesting unto themselves. But as a part of the 'whole package' deal of Excalibur, they are for sure functional and will get your head banging. The vocals also sound better because they are mixed at a better level against the guitars, where you can make out their pitch and strength but not some of their flaws.

Still getting a higher pitched Klaus Meine impression, but also they reminded me a lot of the Dave King performance on the Trick of Treat soundtrack by Fastway, which is a good thing because I rather enjoy much of that album. He also pulls off some really shrill screams in parts that give you the impression he could achieve a Halford-ish range if he put some work in...although his voice is not quite that unique or impressive in general. What's even better is that the songs here are fluid and consistent, mostly paced at the same fist-bumping and stadium bench-stomping speed, and dowsed in that same washed-out atmosphere which I thought was one of the strong points of the debut. But this is just such a mightier representation of Headstone that one should simply ignore Burning Ambition and head straight for this if you're able to find one of the reissues and have an interest in this scene and period of trad metal. Even the ballad here, "Well of Love", with its slightly medieval feel, is a boost over its counterpart on the debut. It's not without a few flaws and a lot of predictable riffs, and doesn't quite place with German's top tier metal acts of its day, but if you're into the archaeological quest for atmospheric obscurities that can transport you back to that nostalgia beating at the strings of your heart, or you're younger and pine for that feel you get from the 80s records and films, this one is a satisfactory swan song for an act that nobody ever seems to have been listening to.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Headstone - Burning Ambition (1984)

Headstone is a band I automatically want to root for because they possessed all those 80s heavy meal aesthetics I so adored and still find myself turning back towards. Skulls and fire on the cover, a cool logo and album title, and, well, being, German, which was a seal of quality for roughly 25% of the metal I grew up with. That said, they made almost no waves whatsoever when they originally dropped their two albums, and a few listens through their debut Burning Ambition gives you a good idea why. Not because it's a poor showing by any means, but because they never really seem to stick to a tone or mood quite enough to come across coherent, and thus it doesn't give itself much of a chance to generate the catchy tracks or 'hit power' so important during those formative times.

The better cuts here are where they develop a drearier, atmospheric, plodding brand of metal falling somewhere between your garden variety NWOBHM band and the Scorpions. Straightforward, safe chord patterns augmented by sparse, more atmospheric little licks and groovy little fills during the chorus. The vocals are really the highlight though, a higher pitched, dramatic style with a lot of vibration to the more sustained notes, like a hybrid of Klaus Meine, Dio and Biff Byford, but he's unique enough that had Headstone garnered a following he might have gained traction as a pretty distinct B-list classic metal vocalist. He'll eventually burst into wicked laughter to sound like an Ozzy maniac impression, but I do like the emphasis put on the harmonies in the chorus to a tune like "Nightmare" which make it feel larger than life, there's definitely a theatrical bent to parts like that which reveals an influence from a band like Queen. On the flip side, the instruments are just not generated enough energy to really support the vocal style, so by comparison they often feel laconic or too laid back to really flatten you with the emotional impact a tune could have used.

Also, there are a lot of riffs here which feel like bland punk progressions, or bluesier hard rock that feels so mediocre it wouldn't have even been considered at a Van Halen jam session in the decade before this. "Still on the Race" sounds like an attempt to create a "Cold Gin" or something for the band, there's a nice atmosphere created by how the vocal mix cascades over the rest, but the riffs and structure are just so clunky and bland. There are some acoustic parts, which are fine, but the original tracks list (before the lukewarm bonus songs on the CD) is capped off by a piano-driven ballad called "Queen of Dreams" which is entirely too vapid and forgettable. There's not a lot of finesse on any of the instruments, which could have helped fill in a lot of the more threadbare, uninspired riffs, and the production is sort of boxy and uneven, to manage even these super simplistic patterns. In short, wherever Headstone focuses on sounding more mean, or mystical, they really start to earn some momentum, and certainly the handful of tunes that cling to this angle are ones I would happily include with a listening playlist of Teutonic obscurities from the mid-80s...but there just aren't enough of these moments to give Burning Ambition any staying power, and the title ends up seeming like a bad case of irony.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10] 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Exhorder - The Law (1992)

If nothing else, Exhorder's sophomore effort The Law is a study in how an album can be both simultaneously more interesting and less interesting than its predecessor. Wrought of the same thrashing cloth as Slaughter in the Vatican, there are nonetheless several components to this that mark an evolutionary process towards a thrash band that might have eventually resonated with me. The basic ingredients are much the same, but there's a slightly more clinical cut to the riffing. They were always fairly taut and semi technical in the guitar patterns, but here they seem to be going for a slightly more technical 'sound', if that makes any sense. Many of the progressions had parallels to West Coast thrash bands like the great Testament, Forbidden, Dark Angel or even the Heathen sophomore, but placed within the tougher context of their very grounded, constant barrage of aggression. The Law is a more 'musical' effort, with greater contrasts and dynamics and maybe about 2% more risk...

...it's not enough, unfortunately. While they've gotten away from the Scott Burns production I wasn't too fond of on the debut, the guitars here sound even more processed and tingy. This was not an unusual practice for this side of thrash, but the real issue is that as a whole the album feels so dry and boxy and completely lacks an atmosphere. Take something like Believer's Sanity Obscure, and place it next to this, and you see just how much better that album is due to the dark mood conjured up by its musical choices. Here it fees like Exhorder came into the studio with another set of decent riffs and got the bare minimum out of them. More reverb, more layers, more textures, I don't know what combination of these it would take to make this sound like more than an unfinished demo reel in places. When the whole band is firing on all cylinders and hitting some momentum, as in the earlier stages of "Unborn Again", it's a little easier to ignore, but even then I'm a little bothered. There are other issues, like the fact that the clean guitar intros and other segues on the album just don't really match up to the aggressive material, and some of the little experiments like the funky bass parts (also in "Unborn Again") seem like cheesy, ill-fitting ideas. Granted, the bass gets a little more distinct there than on the debut, but not in the way I would have liked...

This is an album which doesn't seem all too confident of what it wants. The traditional, woozy dark blues of the Black Sabbath cover seem incongruent with the faster thrashing, although hearing Kyle sing this one definitely sounds like a prequel to Phil Anselmo's band Down. A lot of the chuggier thrash parts throughout are terribly boring, where the more rabid neck-jerkers like "The Truth" seemed half-way to decent if they could only have stuck a few more memorable riffs amid the very surgical mute picking parts. There is plenty to please the mosh fanatic, but they simply had no capacity to churn out thrash 'hits' like a lot of their comparable West Coast brethren like Exodus and Testament were doing years earlier. Kyle's style still fits the mold of the music, but for some reason the mix makes him seem a little more isolated, separate from the instruments. Half the lyrics on this are pedestrian straight talking rubbish, the other half are better, but I guess I should just be happy there is no anthem to anally raping an individual until she's dead, which would have been as awkward and out of place here as on Slaughter.

In the end, there really just isn't all that much to recommend about The Law. We're not exactly dealing with some bumbling abomination of a sophomore. I've heard far worse...but I feel like the more consistent Slaughter in the Vatican will rightly retain the higher cult status as the years roll on. Not that I'm fond of that one, but this is a slight step down and sideways. It's just not one for the memorybooks, and the competition was simply too large, especially in terms of the songwriting on something like A Vulgar Display of Power. Love or hate Pantera, I often find myself doing both, but I'd rather listen to "A New Level" or "Regular People (Conceit)" individually than this entire album. Some proper thug jams, bro.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10] (I hear an ego bleeding)

https://www.facebook.com/ExhorderNOLA/

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Exhorder - Slaughter in the Vatican (1990)

Exhorder is one of those bands which has benefited greatly from both the internet and the wayback machine of a modern thrash audience craving for genuine sounds from the genre's Golden Age of explosion and expansion, circa about 1985-1991. I remember picking up this tape at the local mall when it came out, largely because of its logo, artwork, and R/C records association, and giving it a few spins before setting it aside and not bothering with it except for the occasional relisten to figure out what it was that did not quite grab me in the first place. The name was mentioned in passing by a few friends, articles, radio shows, but 1990 was right on the threshold of thrash metal's popularity waning; not that it would go down without a few masterpieces that year, or ever truly vanish, but even the better records coming out were often ignored by a mainstream hesher populace that seemed satisfied with 1-4 of their 'Big Four', and at most a handful of others, before tuning over to their glam metal, or Ozzy and Dio and Sabbath, Maiden and Priest. But fast forward 15-25 years, and groups like Exhorder, Demolition and Morbid Saint find themselves with an entire new fan base mixed in with a lot of those 'oh yeah, I remember them' sorts and remaining diehards.

I am not among these, because frankly, try as I might, I don't feel any stronger about this album now than I did back when it initially dropped. There are certainly some technical aspects to Slaughter in the Vatican that I admire. This was forceful, energetic thrash, much heavier than what the more popular bands were pulling off, very much in league with a Dark Angel or Sadus. There are loads of riffs, and enough variety to pad out substantial 5-6 minute tracks without resort to banal repetition. And then of course there's the 'charismatic' and unique vocal style which Kyle Thomas brought to the table, known as a massive influence upon Pantera's Phil Anselmo who, when shifting away from his 80s power metal screaming, really popularized this style of Southern swagger and tough guy oomph. And while I've seen this debated often, I think it's rather obvious...listen to Pantera while Exhorder were releasing their demos. Listen to Pantera once they made the shift to Cowboys from Hell, and got the drop on this debut. He's absolutely been 'touched' by what he heard from his Nola friends. Not to the point where it's a complete copy, and in fact I thought Anselmo did a better job wrenching some attitude and emotion from the style, as the band's success would attest, but there it is. I'd also say that some of the thicker grooves used by the Texans were inspired by particular Exhorder riffs, but ultimately Dimebag was a more dynamic and distinct player than Labella or Ceravolo here.

And about those riffs...well, they're one of the primary reasons I've never been feeling this. All the guitar parts in general, as hammering and proficient as they are played, sounded like a rather generic hodgepodge of material that bands like Exodus, Dark Angel, Sacred Reich, Sepultura and Devastation had already unleashed upon the populace. Don't get me wrong, they are dextrous and intricate enough to exhibit that more thought had been placed into them than your garden variety Metallica clones gigging at high school talent shows, but I'll be damned if not a single one of the considerably huge array of guitar riffs on Slaughter in the Vatican stick with me for even five minutes. Whether bursting out into faster material or the denser, groove/thrash in verses to tunes like "Desecrator" (a song Pantera was clearly fond of), I just get bored hearing it again. Even when some small pattern of notes begins to align with the aural pleasure centers of my being, they'll switch it off into something else less interesting. Add to that the relative lack of good bass lines, since the very notion of that instrument seemed like an afterthought that the guitarists just played themselves, and not an independent voice that might add a little swerve and meat to the propulsive palm muting. It's frustrating, because these gentlemen could. fucking. play. Just nothing that memorable, and all the leads also feel pretty skimpy or throwaway.

The drums anchor down the belligerent pacing and muscle of the rhythm guitars rather well, but they lead me to another of my issues here...even as a teen, I could tell this was a Scott Burns mix without needing to read it in the booklet. And Burns is a guy I found very inconsistent. He's done some albums I truly love, and others which almost feel muffled and neutered by his presence (Sepultura's Arise and the first couple Deicide discs come to mind). I get that he was sort of the 'house engineer' for a lot of the Roadrunner/RC classics, and he absolutely knocked a few of them out of the park, but I just don't like some of the mix or the guitar tones he gets on albums like this one. They feel too subdued and compressed. Slaughter is not an egregiously bad example of this, but it's enough of a factor that my old cassette gathered a lot of dust until. Lastly, as much as I can appreciate Kyle's style and influence, I just wan't too into the inflection of the vocals here. Their delivery was not unfamiliar to me (I owned Cowboys from Hell already), and there's a charisma to them that a lot of run of the mill thrashers lacked, but they're about 50/50 in effectiveness for me, whereas his protegee was superior at making them seem enormous and angry, like a school bully about to pop you one on the nose. Some of the lyrics are passable, like "The Tragic Period" about Edgar Allen Poe... EXCEPT for the stupid "Anal Slut", which is beyond awful, and it creates a bit of an obnoxious aesthetic disparity to be leaping back and forth between the two on the same album.

Ultimately, going back to Slaughter in the Vatican for another round didn't yield to me the sort of cult classic that I've seen so much fawning over. It's just nothing I'd queue up when I've got so many other options I prefer. That said, it's also not an album I can find a lot to mock or complain about...apart from lyrics like "Fuck your brains out/squeeze your tits/blood on your thighs/virginity dies" which seem like a budding bucktoothed parallel to Cannibal Corpse, but unwilling to go the brutal distance. "Lust/anal lust/up the butt/lousy slut". Oh, the BUTT. I thought yous guys was referring to that other kind of anal. Sodomy overture aside, this is a competent debut, with no effort spared, that simply doesn't click with me. Accomplished, practiced mediocrity which doesn't yield even a single song I need to hear again.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10] (consumed by overconfident assumptions)

https://www.facebook.com/ExhorderNOLA/