Saturday, March 31, 2018

Spring Break

Taking the month of April off from the blog, to shelter myself from the freshly emerging sunlight, flowers and happiness, all of which burn my flesh on contact. As always, I'm honored by those of you who stop by to peruse the reviews, and I'll return to these pages in May. A mystery post or two might pop up in the meantime, but who can say for sure?


Friday, March 30, 2018

Vio-Lence - Eternal Nightmare (1988)

Eternal Nightmare is one of a rare breed of classic thrash albums which managed to remain super focused, concise, and energetic throughout its entire playtime, partly because that length itself was used as a boon. Reign in Blood would be the prime example of the form, and rightly so, but here Vio-lence offers less, and longer tracks. There is no fluff, no excessive padding here, no attempts to dramatically shake the listener's mood back and forth throughout, and its brevity was always a virtue on car rides, daily jogs with my Walkman, or executing the types of whacks hinted at through some of the lyrics. I'm kidding on that last one. Well, I assume I'm kidding, it might have been true for some person or persons out there, but the point still stands...there is a hell of a lot of awesome packed into this 35 minutes, more so than most albums in this genre 15-25 minutes longer, and it was truly impressive for a debut album, so it's no wonder it drew the attraction of MCA/Mechanic right out of the starting gates.

Speaking of 'starting gates', the opening to the titular "Eternal Nightmare" might just win the award for metal tune which most puts me in the mindset that I'm about to participate in a bull fight, or to stroll out into some gladiatorial match, the sun just starting to rise above the upper levels of some colosseum onto the jeering crowds, and the sands beneath. It's only about 30 seconds until the faster licks arrive, but just with those opening, clashing chords and the belligerent melody that rides in on them, you know you're in for a massive melee, and that the band is already living up to its moniker. Then the frenzied winds whip up the dust, and it hits that :42 second mark riff and HOLY FUCK. It's as if equal parts testosterone and kerosene have been translated into pure audio form, the envy of six trillion pizza-thrashers 20-25 years later that would try to emulate this along with their favorites from Exodus, Suicidal Tendencies, Forbidden, Nuclear Assault and D.R.I....failing miserably. Because when I was a teenager myself, still rusty with the six strings, Eternal Nightmare is the exact sort of album I'd sit around trying to pattern out with the limited education I had on that instrument. The very essence of thrash's evolution from its punk and trad metal roots into something distinctly more keen edged and abusive. A whirling, whipping cloud of razors that haven't gathered any rust even as I sit listening so many years after its introduction.

The album places its mid-paced or 'breakdown' sections perfectly, like around 2:20 in "Calling in the Coroner", Sean Killian spouting out his post-vehicular-homicidal narratives over a total moshing of a riff. You want to jerk your neck around so much to parts like this that you'd end up on the back of the ambulance with the other remains. The brighter, more melodic picking progressions sprawled across the album in places like the intro to "Phobophobia" were always fresh and memorable, well in line with the better material from their Bay Area peers but recognizable to Vio-lence alone. There's also not a lot of dissonance over this album, it's all bright and sharp and bloody. Atmosphere is delegated more to the combative nature of the riffing and the imagery manifest through the lyrical themes of murder, injustice and mental instability. Killian's voice, which has long been the band's most divisive factor, took a higher pitched, malicious and manic approach that you'd rarely have heard outside of Bobby Blitz. He'd often raise the pitch, over and over, through individual verse lines, like a preacher in heat to his sermon. Somewhat nasal delivery, but unlike say a Joey Belladonna, there was a lot more aggression and unrest packed into it. An 'I'm on the edge of flipping my shit' aesthetic. When you contrast that style against the gang shouts or the meatier rhythm guitars, it definitely stands out, so I'm firmly planted in the camp that enjoys him.

The rhythm section here is also incredibly impactful, with kinetic and pumping drums, plenty of fills to clutter up the performance so that it teeters on the verge of the more extreme styles being put forth by several of his Californian peers. Bass lines do largely conform to the rhythm notes a lot but at least the tone is strong and not subdued, capable of striking off on its own when there is less business on the strings above it. There are some blistering guitar lines in tunes like "T.D.S. (Take It As You Will)" which wouldn't have been out of place on an emergent death/thrash record, and the leads across the album are uniformly wild and explosive, throttled off into abandon. Even if not entirely memorable or technically impressive, this is arguably the best way to write them...or NOT write them. Just let those man-chemicals well on up from the vital organs and drip out through the fingers and joints to the frets. Production is honed, metallic, and suits the band's energy level perfectly, giving all the guitars and vocals just that much more of an edge...a danger that simply isn't inherent to a lot of the watered down disciples of this style that would arrive later on. This album is a killer through and through, there might be 2-3 riffs throughout that sink it just a fraction below perfection, but it is thrashing royalty nonetheless, mandatory for both 80s enthusiasts and anyone else who values the idea of a fire lit under their ass when listening to metal, the feel of shit about to throw down.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.75/10] (Now to you I come a calling)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Vio-Lence - Oppressing the Masses (1990)

Oppressing the Masses is a record which really had its work cut out for it after such a frenzied, excellent debut, so it's a real testament to its quality that it managed to pull that off. I'm not insinuating that it is the measure of an Eternal Nightmare, but it's a well written and energetic follow-up that stays true to its 'brand', while marginally expanding the band's riffing horizons. Released through Atlantic Records, and with the black & white video support for "World in a World", which featured moshing and stage diving via some first person cameras, as well as vocalist Sean Killian looking intense alongside a swaying light bulb, one could argue that this effort was the apex of the band's visibility. Make it or break it. An album that would either increase the Californians' stock in the second tier of the US thrashing elite, or bury them among the rest of the rubble as the majority of the genre fell out of style in the 90s, obfuscated by grunge, nu metal, alt rock and the insurgence of greater extremity in metal itself. We all know now how it turned out for Vio-lence, they would never end up accruing the sort of promotion or following that could purchase them a private island in the Pacific, but if Masses isn't exactly top-shelf among sophomore albums like Ride the Lightning, Peace Sells or Hell Awaits, it's at least a worthwhile one which proved they were no fluke. Not yet, anyway.

I had long harbored the memory that this was a very front-loaded record in terms of where its most memorable tracks lie, and I think that remained the case when revisiting it, with two of my favorite tracks ("I Profit" and "Officer Nice") heading it off, while only "World in a World" was on the latter half of the track list, but in truth this is quite a consistent 40-ish minutes of psychotic, pummeling thrash which doesn't have a lot of fat to trim, even if a few tunes like "Mentally Afflicted" or "Liquid Courage" get a little harder for me to recall when I'm not actively listening. The production here, both visual and auditory, reminds me a bit of another Bay Area thrash icon signed to Atlantic; Testament, in particular their third effort Practice What You Preach. Simple but effective cover image with a bunch of similar figures, a pronounced (and welcome) bass tone that popped right out of the mix, and a slightly comparable feel to the guitars. Of course, both of these albums were produced and recorded by Alex Perialas, also involved with Overkill's Under the Influence. which I would put in the same category due to the vocals and bass. Perialas definitely had a particular approach to thrash albums of this era which could draw out clarity and musicianship without sacrificing intensity, and while I myself prefer the guitars tones and energy of Eternal Nightmare, this definitely felt like a natural pairing which served to the strengths of its successor.

Perry Strickland's drumming in particular seemed more ballistic here than on the debut, with some techniques in there that could nearly place him in the company of a Lombardo or Hoglan. Crazy, muscular fills machine gunned all over the place, but never too invasive to the guitars, and some speed and footwork that left the impression that Vio-lence was well aware of the death metal emergence with which it would have to compete. Dean Dell's bass sounds great, bobbing and weaving a framework for the rhythms and leads, but remaining subdued when necessary. The actual riffs themselves compare favorably to the debut, perhaps not as catchy on an individual basis, but molded from a similar vision, getting a fraction more melodic, clinical and technical but not to the extent that this felt like a large progression from Eternal Nightmare. No, it's a natural follow-up with just enough ideas to encompass a two-year gulf in which the band was gigging and making a name for itself in a crowd of so many others. The leads are well implemented in an era where the bridge riffs were just as important, and they are. Killian's vocals here are not too reined in from the debut, still populating that higher, unhinged range and anger, still capable of a catchy verse line or chorus.

Whether you were in the market for the faster, rabid sounding thrash or a set of mid-paced moshing riffs which would have also done Exodus or Sacred Reich proud, Oppressing the Masses was  definitely one album that went into my teenage rotation and remained there for quite some time, for me the last valuable effort this band released. Not quite as concise or marvelous as its older sibling, but an album I can still spin today to generate the same level of excitement for a period in which one of my favorite genres was heavily saturated with great material on a normal basis. Coincidentally, it is also the last genuinely good album Robb Flynn has ever been a part of. Almost 30 years, dude, maybe step it up a little.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (watch as I devour you!)

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Vio-Lence - Torture Tactics EP (1991)

If the Torture Tactics EP had just stopped with the first track, then it would have sufficed, since the titular lead-in is a brash, energetic piece that feels like it was swept up off the floor of the Eternal Nightmare sessions. Everything from the riffs to the inevitable bridge and leads is exciting, the gang shouts complement the ballistic energy, and it belongs entirely within the positive canon I hold for Vio-Lence. Had it been a 8th track on the 1988 debut then it would by no means have dragged down that work overall. Once this first five minutes has passed, however, there is little left but a series of diminishing returns that disappointed me even when I was a teenager and first picked it up on cassette. Perhaps I was just too lazy then to want to pop in and rewind a tape for just the one tune, but I very swiftly relegated this one to that pile of musical acquisitions that you own because you're a completionist for a band, even if you know in your heart it's just taking up space.

So, as I've established, "Torture Tactics" is a good time, keeping in line with the band's excellent output to that point, but what lies beyond? You get a 'live' offering of "Officer Nice" off Oppressing the Masses, and by 'live' I mean probably not, but a song intro from a gig, followed up by some wishy washy live mix of the track in which the vocals are more cavernous and echoing, and the guitars just a little less clear than the proper version off the sophomore album. This is followed by what two of the stupidest Vio-Lence songs in history, not because the music is terrible or unfit to bear the brand, but because the lyrics are so utterly fucking awful that even a sexually repressed 17 year old was embarrassed by them. "Gutterslut" is a lewd testament to some imaginary 'loose woman', or in other words just some degenerate, wishful thinking; "Dicks of Death" provides even more fantasy as they ruminate over having some gigantic schlong. There is a line in that last song, 'And if my dick gets stuck we'll just call Roto Rooter'. Charming, guys! Let's wave those flags of misogyny from our cocks a little higher and mightier as they stiffen.

Now, I GET it...I do. I was there. This was the wake of the 80s, people weren't so easily offended, and for a crime and murder inspired, testosterone-driven thrash band, these topics might even have seemed lighter by comparison to what you'd read on Eternal Nightmare. They probably weren't being remotely serious. But they just seemed so trite and juvenile, even then, and the fact they were wedged on the back half of an EP release seems to support the reasoning that nobody else felt very confident about their inclusion either, just Oppressing the Masses outtakes which were too awkward to include on the sophomore's initial release. "Gutterslut" is only half-bad, because the music is clinical, violent, frantic precision similar to "Torture Tactics", but "Dicks of Death" sounds like they were trying to write a tune for GWAR circa Scumdogs of the Universe, only without the gimmick and without the catchy's pedestrian, useless, and even if were in the most meathead, drunken mentality possibility I wouldn't find it just a trace funny. The vocals are delivered with a more brutish tone, and it simply doesn't not fit, even with its neighbors here. Even Machine Head sounds good next to this tune...okay, maybe I won't go that far. In the end, the Torture Tactics EP has one good tune and half another one, so it's not entirely trash-worthy, but don't waste a dime on it...if you haven't yet picked up a copy of Oppressing the Masses, the 2005 Megaforce reissue has these as a bonus.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10] (open nerves deliver)

Monday, March 19, 2018

Vio-Lence - Nothing to Gain (1993)

While Vio-Lence largely managed to avoid a number of the 90s pitfalls that many of their thrash peers faced in that decade, their third full-length Nothing to Gain was clearly the portent of a doomed band. A portent that turned out true, once Rob Flynn's other band Machine Head started to take off, with a sound far trendier and more relevant to the times, leaving any real hopes of the Bay Area's wildest second tier thrash band in the dust. And dust there was aplenty as I dug this disappointment out from whatever deep storage it would soon return to. Now, to be clear, this is not an abomination-tier letdown record the likes of which most of the 'Big Four' releases throughout the same decade. It's no Diabolus in Musica, Risk or Load. In fact, it's vaguely recognizable as the sort of thrash metal that Sean Killian and crew erupted with on their demos and debut album. But damn if this isn't one of the most exhausted sounding affairs to ever emerge from a West Coast thrash act of the golden age.

Oppressing the Masses,
despite its video rotation for "World in a World" and a high visibility through Atlantic Records, might not have lived up to everyone's expectations of its predecessor, but at least that was still a fun record with a half-dozen quality tracks, and in some instances, the same kinetic intensity I can recall from my first exposure in 1988. This can not be said of Nothing to Gain, an album which all too rarely delivers anything resembling an interesting riff or an exciting vocal line. Killian could still hit some of those higher range, frantic lines that put him in a similar category as legends like Bobby Blitz or Joey Belladonna, and he does so over tracks like "Colour of Life", but there is definitely a more morose side to him, exploring a lower and mid range, attempting to splice in that same edgy feeling he gets in his upper register, but coming up dry, even lazy. The riffs are an assembly of dullards which only seem to electrify when a lead is rifling off over a faster bridge, so there was no real amount of Killian that was going to save anything outside of maybe "Colour". I am more often reminded of mediocre tunes by Exodus and Sacred Reich than Eternal Nightmare, all of which might share similar structures and chord choices, but feel like the differential between a drunk with erectile dysfunction and a Viagra addict with a Bowflex collection.

The mix is deeper, darker and meatier than the previous albums, which compensates slightly for the general lack of virility. The drums sound fine, thunderous and reverberating, and I do like the punch  on the rhythm guitars, especially when they breakaway from the band and churn out into some riff that seems like it might get good...until it just doesn't. The bass also has a good tone, and it's given a few chances to thrum along on its own, but none of this matters when the songs seem so second...strike that, fourth or fifth rate compared to Bay Area classics that were circulating just a few years prior. Nothing to Gain does not sound like a lot of effort was exerted in its creation, maybe more like a wrapping up of a couple lackluster tunes the band still had lying around for a few years after they gave it their go on the first two. We were sort of warned to this, since the 1991 EP before it was forgettable at best, but let's face it...for those of us who were adolescent thrashers through all that brilliance the decade before, it was never a fun thing to watch a band with such potential put out to pasture. This holds itself just above disaster level, but even its few passable tracks aren't even fit as B-sides for an "I Profit" or "Officer Nice", and it's just something I would left in the vault, especially in looking back at what an achievement that debut was.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Esoctrilihum - Pandaemorthium (Forbidden Formulas to Awaken the Blind Sovereigns of Nothingness) (2018)

Sure, try saying all that three times quickly. Esoctrilihum is an esoteric French act wedged pretty firmly between the black and death metal mediums, with pronounced elements of both that tend to dominate different sequences of their songwriting. The first time through this album I was so blown away by the intro piece...a harrowing, mesmerizing swell of dark ambiance, rumbling percussion and almost a martial/industrial feel that I was actually disappointed when they busted out into the metal material. As I let the dust settle, however, it became apparent that they were capable of just as hypnotic material when they're battering away at the harsher end, if not quite so eloquent or enchanting to the ear. Pandaemorthium, whatever the heck that means, is a record so steeped in its atmospherics that it seems the remainder of the content is only quite so good as it lives up to that goal.

Although I've largely seen the band labeled as black metal, this to me feels like an expansive, subterranean brand of death which is interspersed with more dissonant, higher pitched tremolo picking streams that steer it more into the aforementioned genre. The vocals are gigantic, rumbled gutturals which dominate the mix as if there were seismic activity and each lyric was a stalactite being dislodged from the vaulted roofs of the underdark. The guitars exist on two planes, the first being a percussive, ceaseless tirade of chugging riffs which served as a substrate for all the soily, haunting musical components above them. Almost as if they were being used as a backup to the already intense volleys of blasting and double bass drums. Higher strings on the guitar are used more like these droning, insectile flurries that draw the ears from the pummeling subtext, and then above that you've got the wish and wash of ambient atmospheres created by the vocals and effects. Every now and then they'll burst into some murky, mid-paced blackish riff where a melody will thread below the growls and in a few spots, almost creates an early 90s, raw and cathartic Hellenic black metal feel to it which might have appeared on the earlier Rotting Christ full-lengths.

But in truth, while they mostly stick to the styles I've described, Esoctrilihum are anything but predictable, since the album is suffused with these ugly, evil segues. The structure of a lot of the rhythm guitars resembles archaic death/thrash with a rubble-strewn mix to them, an oblique tone which feels both primordial and ugly until the more fulfilling vocals are splayed across it. You don't know exactly what is going to lie beyond each dark, twisted corridor of the band's imagination, even though when you take a few steps back and see the album as a whole, it's rather consistent. When they bust out a lush, tranquil piece like "Breath of the Silent Shape", with its half-yawned and half chanted vocals (also appearing elsewhere), I am taken aback at how all this grotesqueness suddenly channels itself to something beautiful, like discovering some rare strain of lotus that grows only deep beneath the surface crust of the world...poisonous but entrancing. An eclectic, interesting band, yet another on the ever-expanding roster of I, Voidhanger, which manages to distinguish itself from a lot of its own avant-garde French peers and offer something on its own. I'd certainly recommend this one to fans of morbid Canadian bands like Mitochondrion or Antediluvian, or other filthy black/death hybrids who put their atmosphere at the forefront of priorities. Nearly 70 minutes of grumbling, oozing submergence into the depths of occult, earthen horror.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Monday, March 12, 2018

Judas Priest - Firepower (2018)

It'd been clear to me for well over a quarter century now that one of my favorite childhood bands had long jumped any shark of possible progression or creative stimulus. So I apprehensively bounced back and forth between the frustrations of the tryhard Ripper years, or the overly 'ambitious' dullard Nostradamus, which was anything but, to the slight disappointments like Angel of Retribution which teased at having some redeeming qualities until I realized that I had no compulsion whatsoever to revisit them as years dragged on and I could just listen to the extensive backlog that I already owned and adored. With 40 years behind them, they were no longer just in contention with themselves and their post-midlife metal crises anyway, but with generations of bands that had fostered their inspiration into magnificence and already produced extensive careers unto themselves. So it's with no small degree of surprise that I sit here in 2018, entirely absorbed by a Judas fucking Priest album that I held little to no expectations for whatsoever, an easy favorite for me since the mighty (and apparently divisive) Painkiller back in 1990.

The cliche is that when veteran bands with gaping holes in their discographies drag themselves out of the dregs, and crawl back on the quality wagon, they tend to start by releasing an effort that sounds like the next natural step after some breakthrough or popular recording of their studious past; often playing it safe with material that sounds like it could have just fit on a prior album. I'm not sure that Firepower eludes that trap, since so much of it feels like an extension of where the band was at through the 80s, culminating in their hardest hitting material at the dawn of the next decade. From the very cover art, of which the symmetry and design channels Defenders of the Faith or Screaming with Vengeance, to the ridiculously strange, over the top imagery paraded through the lyrics in the heavier tunes circa Painkiller, this is well-trodden terrain. But here it's being crossed with such a high level of dignity, care and professional pageantry that I can excuse any and all redundancies, because it doesn't just exceeds its five predecessors in one or two categories that give it an edge. No, it clobbers them in every conceivable department. Not merely a Painkiller II, that a teenage me would have slavered over had it arrived around 1992-3, but a more mature, dynamic offering packed with 14 tracks, not all of which are equally memorable, but any of which I'd take over the entirety of a Demolition or Redeemer of Souls.

The production is excellent. Smooth, streamlined, consistent from fore to aft, whereas the last album from 2014 sounded like someone dicking around a little with ProTools for the first time, or some other software and unevenly distributing the punch of the riffs and the overall tones. Scott Travis' drums thunder along seamlessly to the rhythm guitars, while the leads and vocals are placed at just the right level to stand on the shoulders of the workmanlike riffings and beatings. The leads here are wonderful, volcanic little explosions that punctuate strong bridge sequences, memorable to listen through on their own despite their brevity. The rhythms sound excellent without any big studio gimmicks, just a vibrant and fluid tone that flawlessly delivers that balance of aggression and majesty which the double guitar attack has conjured up on all their better material. As for Rob, while he is clearly and understandably not offering up screams on par with his youth, he otherwise doesn't sound like his voice has aged a day past 1990, and the verses and choruses here are well arranged even if they aren't going to come off as highly original to anyone who's been kicking around heavy or power metal these last several decades. Not much to say about the's there, just as relevant as on any of their older material, but not a major feature.

Synths and acoustics are tasteful and sparse, the band never relies too much on pure balladry, as with the closer "Sea of Red" which proves to be a better rock opera than anything on Nostradamus by several orders of magnitude. A good portion of the album is devoted to Screaming With Vengeance or Painkiller styled ragers, which you can usually spot from miles away by titles like "Lightning Strike", "Flame Thrower" or "Firepower" itself, but as much as I dug these, and the fact that they weren't too intensely cloned from earlier songs, it was really the mid-paced, epic stuff like a "Rising from Ruins" or a "Spectre" which really drove this one home for me, a lot of which happens after the halfway point of the album. Still, this is not something I plan on listening to in pieces, I really wouldn't want to skip any of it as it establishes a great momentum and continues meting out pleasurable if not unpredictable riffs and vocal lines which, thankfully, don't always mimic others they've done, even if there is a good deal of familiarity. All in all, I'm just beside myself at how much I dig this, and my appreciation has only increased as I've listened to it repeatedly since it arrived in the mail. Doesn't quite ascend into the starting lineup of my 'Big Five' Priest albums (Sad Wings, Stained Class, Defenders, Screaming and Painkiller), but it might just be first off the bench if I need to swap out a center or power forward. At the rate they're going, I'm not sure whether I'll die before this band disappears into the annals of time, but if this was the very last Judas Priest album I ever heard, I could go off satisfied. Well done, gentlemen, and because I could never say it enough in all the years you've entertained me, thank you.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (we are terrible in truth)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Aorlhac - L'esprit des vents (2018)

Had L'esprit des vents been released during the heights of the second wave boom in the mid-90s, it would no doubt be heralded as one of the all time classics of the black metal genre, riding high on its superb production, incredible musicianship, contrasts of savage aggression and melody, glorious/Medieval atmosphere and the absolute sense of pride and desperation created by the vocalist known here as Spellbound. As atmospheric as it is traditional in terms of how it implements the riffing structures of its medium, this is a case of 7-8 years absence being put to great use, an extremely well rounded recording that rarely if ever falters across its robust hour of material, and provides just enough glinting acoustic segues and variation to smooth the edges of redundancy that might have otherwise crept in had it been on full blast for the sum of its playlength.

I had actually heard both of Aorhlac's prior albums, and come away with a positive impression of the 2010 sophomore La cite des vents, but when this new album arrived through Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions, I was immediately taken in by the beautiful, gloomy cover art and packaging. Once I had actually cranked the sucker I was just stunned by how much the group had improved during its years away from being a blip on the underground radar. Unlike their more avantgarde, unusual countrymen like Blut Aus Nord or Peste Noire, this trio approaches the style with a conventional aesthetic...effortless, furious blasting comprises a great deal of the bedrock, and built upon that are flurries of chords and tremolo picked melodies, that while not unique, breathe some fresh air into a practice once perfected by Scandinavian acts, particularly the Swedish upstarts of that 90s period. These are not legion, however, since they'll weave in more evil sounding patterns, some licks even bordering on a blackened thrash. At the same time, they'll go even further down the melodic path than many of their forebears, with some blazing harmonies reminiscent of classic Maiden or Omen, paired up really well with the harsher sequences so that they never really cross into the blackened heavy metal category; they just extract this one technique and work wonders with it.

The rhythm tones are superb, with just enough grain to prevent the record from studio sterility, while the melodies bleed well and clear into their respective speakers. But rising above all that is the vocal performance, which just howls, rasps and soars off across the battlements of instrumentation like a bird of prey closing in on its kill. If you're familiar with French and Quebecois acts, Forteresse for example, you'll know there's a lot of passion inherent to how the lyrics are delivered in the native tongue, but here they are working overtime, perfectly placed, barked and bleated out over every single measure of the music on which they appear. The drums are frenzied, splashy, pregnant with fills wherever they can be inserted to thwart any chance of the errant ear becoming bored with what it's hearing...truly second nature when the record is ripping away, but just as formidable when they lapse into some mid-paced, majestic sweep where the album transforms into this atavistic mead hall drink-off, sans all the fruity, dweeby 21st Century Renaissance horseshit that half the bands wielding the 'pagan metal' brand step in half the time they step in a recording booth.

What a rush. A rush that makes me feel like I should be standing in a field five to fifteen centuries ago, a peasant smeared with blood and dirt, whether from killing or farming, not knowing if I'll starve by the next morning or be stabbed to death by a roadside campfire. But damn proud to be there either way.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Monday, March 5, 2018

Naer Mataron - Lucitherion "Temple of the Radiant Sun" (2017)

Naer Mataron has long been one of the most intense, aggressive of the Hellenic black metal acts, but even with that knowledge in mind I couldn't have prepared myself properly for the beating that was Lucitherion. The band has long nurtured traces of death metal in its punishing delivery, but this is the first album where I can say that it's actually not just balanced off against the group's black metal fundamentals, but actually dominant through the mix. From the guttural vocals implemented by veteran Kaiadas, to the way a lot of the more dissonant riff progressions are phrased, to the sheer force and speed of the drumming, I detected more than a few traces of both the Brazilian blast mavens Krisiun and Rebaelliun or the more local European hybrids, specifically Behemoth at their most propulsive as they too were crossing over from blacker roots into frenetic, brutal death metal territory. While this all adds up to a clear departure from 2013's more atmospheric Και ο λόγος σάρξ εγένετο, my favorite of their offerings, it's performed with obvious consistency and proficiency.

A good portion of the record is devoted to blasted tempos lathered with guitar patterns that carry an Eastern or Middle Eastern feel through their note selections, creating a ritualistic framework that occasionally reminds one of a Melechesh or Nile, but also not cast too far from a lot of this band's previous albums like Praetorians or River at Dash Scalding. However, rather than the monotony of using this technique like a one trick pony, Naer Mataron punctuate the tracks with slower to mid paced breaks that help flesh out the compositions. Not every track is equally memorable, and they often tend to bleed in with one another, but not entirely, and I found Lucitherion was back loaded with a lot of the better pieces, like "Uprooting of the Shepherd King Hyksos" or "Ra-Horakhty-ATEN", each packed with some of the more distinct riffing palettes and dynamic impact. You never get a sense that Naer Mataron are attempting to simply flaunt their extremity, they don't wank off with a lot of lead guitars or have the audience repeatedly banging itself against a brick wall of boring material, this is strictly songwriting to which the frenzied, demanding pace is best suited.

Lyrics involve occult, ritualistic, mythological matters spun out with titles in Latin, Greek, Egyptian and other tongues, which is in fashion with the band's interests from previous albums, and draws a parallel with some of its countrymen ala Acherontas or Rotting Christ. To that effect, they don't involve a lot of ritual atmosphere or haunted phrasings, which are not necessarily missed, but might have helped at least round out the first 4-5 tunes. This also isn't the first time they've gone so over the top, but in terms of production it's their most punchy and polished, and the structure of the riffs, plastered with all the guttural grunting. It's a deeper, meatier effort than something like River at Dash Scalding, which also featured insane blasting but had thinner, sharper guitars and vocals that were set at more of a howl and rasp which didn't stand out much from the instruments. Here it all sounds fluid and falls into place, a different experience but one that marks a successful reinvention of their style which doesn't abolish their 20+ years of history. One of their best, though I wasn't as absorbed quite as much as its predecessor.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Tribulation - Lady Death EP (2017)

I've already gone on at length about Tribulation's latest album, Down Below, the first case in my opinion in which they've decided to stick around on one particular style and refine it. The results were roughly even with Children of the Night for me, but I've enjoyed both the albums quite a lot when I'm in the mood for an overcast but beautiful admixture of traditional, melodic heavy metal, death metal and the Gothic overtones the band has been obsessed with in both sound and image the last couple outings. "Lady Death" is the third cut on that full-length, opening with an ambient escalation into a downtrodden, mid-paced mope-rocker glazed in great, classic melodic lines that merge very well with the harsher bite of Johannes vocals and the sparser, steady lower chords...a treat for fans of melodic death, Euro-Goth metal, or even Trouble-esque doom metal since a lot of the note choices just put me in a similar mood to much of their material from around 1985-1990.

But, as with the first two entries in this triptych of Tribulation singles I'm reviewing, I had already heard half in advance. The "Lady Death" half. What truly drew me to this short player was the second song, "Skärselden", which I had not been acquainted with. To my surprise, it is not at all a cover or another rock-oriented piece, but instead a 4 minute swell of haunted dark ambiance which feels gloomily cinematic in its scope, cresting at about a minute in, and then again later in the song. Now, as a dark ambient fan in general, I was fairly satisfied with this. Usually I'd like a longer time to get these vibes festering in the shadows of my imagination, but if nothing else its proof Tribulation could have a career on a Cold Meat Industries or some other comparable label, alongside one of their talented ambient countrymen like Raison d'être. That being said, I could see how this would throw off some fans...I mean we don't have much context for this in terms of Tribulation's body of work, and I'm sure a lot of people anticipating Down Below would have preferred a more representative example of their music to whet their appetites alongside the lavish "Lady Death". Mileage is going to vary on this one, but it's probably not the wisest career decision. Nonetheless, in hindsight, the title track is about on par with the rest of their fourth full-length, and the ambient piece is fine for what it is. As to the value of this single? Or this 'EP', as semantics would have it? Not much at all, though the cover of the 7" is eerie, minimalist and classy.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10] (Beautiful and severe)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Tribulation - Waiting for the Death Blow (2015)

Identical to my approach towards Tribulation's prior single, The Death & Rebirth of..., released in early 2015 before Children of the Night dropped, I was only interested in Waiting for the Death Blow for one reason alone...the Swedes' cover of "One Hundred Years" by Gothic heads of state The Cure. Now, this single is actually comprised of TWO covers, the other being "Pay the Man" by the pop punk sensations The Offspring, but I had already heard that from the Melancholic EP in 2016, on which it was repressed. It was a strange choice, to be sure, but probably one of the Californians' least obnoxious tunes, and I'd say that its transformation into moody, melodic deathpunk metal probably raised its stock with me, but if I compare it to any of the original Tribulation material, in ANY of their stylistic eras, then it falls short of the mark.

On the other hand, "One Hundred Years" is closer to a stunner, capturing the mood of the original but also twisting it into something more appropriate for the cult, black & white horror nightscapes that the Swedes have become known for these last several years. This is Jack the Ripper and Vlad Dracula taking tea in some dingy corner pub while gleefully swapping tales of victimization. The vocals are a little overloud, moreso even than the complaints I occasionally read about their growling in general, and the bass guitar doesn't quite have the same presence as in The Cure version on Pornography. But the atmospherics conjured up by the guitars and steady shuffle of the kit are wonderful, and the lyrics, which contribute the title of the single, still haunt as they did coming out of Robert Smith's quivering wails. So this one is well worth a listen, and guess what...if you're smart, and not me, you can pick this up alongside "Laudanum Dreams" from the last single I covered, on the digipak version of Children of the Night through Century Media. Waiting for the Death Blow itself is unnecessary unless you've committed to collecting just about everything. Cool cover pic though.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10] (Ambition in the back of a black car)

Monday, February 26, 2018

Tribulation - The Death & Rebirth of... (2015)

I'm actually coming at this single in reverse order here, having already been exposed to the demo version of "Holy Libations" as it appeared on the band's Melancholia EP one year later. To briefly reiterate, I found it and the other demo recordings there to be roughly on par with the versions on Children of the Night, slightly less polished and fractionally more passionate due to the mix, but not enough that I'd switch over to them rather than just run through the entire album. For this single though, it definitely seems as if it would be hurried out the door just to have something ready for the band's installed audience, perhaps even a 'shot across the bow' for those who might not have been anticipating their transformation from the progressive death of Formulas to the more sultry and melancholic Children. To that extent, it serves its purpose, with this memorable, morose tune the vanguard, and the bonus that it's a limited press 7" collector's item.

But for those not interested in such baubles, fear not, because the B-side, the reason I was actually interested in checking this single out, is also available on several of the full-length presses, only somehow not on the one I originally covered, because fuck my life. "Laudanum Dreams" was the real attraction for me, and I was not in the slight bit disappointed, since it's a driving, solemn and vicious piece rife with thundering fills, walls of chords, and threads of melodic tremolo picked lines which almost create a mid-90s, mid-paced melodic black metal feel, and the brazen, shining 'chorus' of the guitars is well worth the investment, along with its overall triumphant aesthetic blow the torn throat roar of Johannes Andersson. Cool band pic, too, in coffin shapes on the cover, a Gothic noir sort of 'teaser' in the title as to their style change. Ultimately, you just want to track down a version of the full-length that includes "Laudanum Dreams", and if you need experience the demo mixes then go for Melancholia upon which there are more than them. So I can't stack praise on this, only that it's got a good B-side which is album worthy.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10] (Precedence is given to the dreamer)

Friday, February 23, 2018

Asenblut - Legenden EP (2018)

It was always inevitable that the success of a band like Amon Amarth would inspire some imitation, and listening through this German band Asenblut's latest EP, I think we've come across one of the more clear-cut cases, a hurdle that its musical content can't quite seem to leap with enough clearance that you could ignore the forest for the trees. That's not to say that the original material here is incompetent...far from it. If anything, Legenden takes what its Swedish forebears lays out and ramps up the drumming with just a fraction more intensity, but the shifting between those glorious, moody riffs, roiling tremolo picked melodies and verses which are escalated towards a majestic climax sound almost EXACTLY like half the output of their better known influences over the last 15 years. I can't say that there is enough by way of memorable writing that it can stand alongside or even surpass the original article, but at least when it comes to constructing a track with a variety of riffs, leads, and such, tracks like "Die Legende" and their namesake "Asenblut" aren't exactly lazy, in particular if you're a fan of records like Twilight of the Thunder God or With Oden On Our Side.

Now, to be fair, Asenblut have been at it for awhile now, and four of the five tracks here are new recordings lifted from their 2009 debut Aufbruch, which I covered many years ago. Certainly these sound mightier and clearer than those, albeit lacking in novelty as all reworkings of pre-existent material tend to do. But the fifth tune, "God or Man", is a cover of a rarer Manowar track off the Thunder in the Sky EP, and I actually feel that Asenblut did a fantastic job of translating that over directly into their own style. In fact it gives the original a run for its money, and is hands down the catchiest tune on this release, the only one I kept wanting to come back to. Love the melodies, the lead, the grunting and rasping vocals contrasted against the soaring riffs, and it just keeps getting better as it goes along. While it's no surprise that a Manowar cover would be chosen, it was not expected to be the highlight of this release, and adds a bit of value. Otherwise, Legenden would not be a mandatory listen unless you really want newer versions of the Germans' songs from a debut album that they probably think needed the most studio tweaking.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Tortharry - Sinister Species (2018)

One of the longest surviving European death metal acts to receive what seems like absolutely no attention whatsoever, the Czech Republic's Tortharry have been nonetheless thundering and growling away for well over a quarter century and nine full length albums. Having come across a few of their works in the past, I can understand how they might get lost in the shuffle of far more overt and attention-grabbing brutes, but I certainly enjoyed their 1994 debut When the Memories Are Free as an example of an unsung, classic death metal gem, and efforts like Reborn (2006) or Round Table of Suicide (2008) clearly place them in that camp of beyond competent, aggressive death metal which evolved as a parallel to other acts like Cannibal Corpse, Severe TortureMalevolent Creation, Deicide, Krabathor, Blood Red Throne, Hate Eternal and Suffocation.

Sinister Species is another check in that box, a balanced attack of blasting mid-90s style death metal with churning and chugging breakdowns which they thankfully keep blisteringly intense and even interesting in some songs, rather than constantly devolving into redundant meathead palm mute patterns. Some of them will no doubt breed familiarity, but Dan Pavlik's Vader-like grunting always maintains a brutal tension that helps almost all the material feel fresher than you having heard it a hundred times. I mean this shit is half meant for you to mosh your fanny off, but it's busy enough that you might actually stop for a few seconds and try to make sense of your bludgeoning environs. They keep a thrashing edge on some of the mid-paced riff progressions, whereas the faster ones will alternate between the chug-and-go patterns so traditional to this niche, and tremolo picked rhythms that hinge on being evil or threatening melodies. The drumming is about as destructive as you want, with good levels across the kit so that the fills are as distinct as the double-bass rolls and blast kick patterns.

One aspect of this band I've long enjoyed are the bass lines of Martin 'Lemy' Vacek, which throb between a big, fat, deep groove and then some higher pitched fills or lines that twist away from just pure rhythm guitar emulation. His presence continues to contribute character to what might otherwise border on run of the mill material, and thus Sinister Species feels as if its been fleshed out far more than other, average entries into this category. That's not to say the record is incredibly memorable, but they put a lot of effort into the verses and bridges so that you'll sometimes be dealt a card you didn't expect around some of the blasting, pummeling corners, without ever stretching credibility. There is definitely a sense that Tortharry stays stuck in a time when this particular strain of death metal was considered an apex of the medium, and a lot of the audience have turned towards its more deeply retro or atmospheric mutations, but these guys are totally solid in their execution, and had Sinister Species dropped around 1996 it might even be considered a minor cult classic. Brutal Truth's Kill Trend Suicide had a cooler version of this cover concept, though.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, February 16, 2018

Atomwinter - Catacombs (2018)

I have to give credit where credit is due, and the cover to the third Atomwinter album, Catacombs, is a total classic, one of my faves thus far in 2018...with its creepy vagina dentata, loads of visceral details, squirming things every where, and some of the longest forked tongues I've ever seen. I mean as disgusting as this place looks, it's one i want to explore, one I want to send my 9th level RPG character to experience, and my hats off to the band for choosing it to represent them. Now it's almost impossible that any death metal record is going to live up to the imagery and mood established by such a cover, and Catacombs assuredly does not, but if this one were released in the mid-90s it would certainly be rated among the classic images we relate to the medium, even with its black & white format. And rightly so.

As for Atomwinter's actual music, they've been around for some years now, helping add Germany to the roster of national scenes that support throwback death metal, and while I've never been terribly impressed by their output, it's archetypal and competent. The same can be said here, for an album that offers no surprises whatsoever, but has quality production, a true old school veneer and still packs enough of a punch that genre diehards looking for their fix probably won't regret checking this one out, even moreso than either 2012's Atomic Death Metal or 2015's Iron Flesh. The clear reference point for me is mid or moderate paced death via the UK or Netherlands scenes, more specifically a mix of Asphyx and Bolt Thrower, with a doomier finale in "Funeral of Flesh" that reminded me a bunch of vintage Autopsy, only more polished. So in general you're dealing with churning guitars, recorded in a tone redolent of the classic Swedish camp, but not quite so overdriven as some. A lot of the riffs border on grind in the same way their influences do, but on the other end they'll splay out some super simplified, sparser chord segments which remind me of the slower Obituary material back in that band's earlier era.

Olle Holzschneider's vocals don't often belt out interesting or nuanced lines, but he does a fair job of keeping them grisly and charismatic, just not to the level of a Martin van Drunen. But they do work really well with this extremely straightforward brand of death. A loud, firm growl over music that is basically built to be cranked. The drumming is tight, the energy hellish, and there were a few points through the album where some genuinely dark, evil riff erupted. They don't work with a tone of leads or melodies, but where they do spit out the former, you'll get something frilly and vibrant that works well above the pummeling undercurrents. The cello intro was also a pretty cool touch, though I would have been thrilled if they actually incorporated this through the meatier tracks, would have made this album instantly something different. And that's kind of where this album falters, as it's just so obvious and familiar throughout the entire run that it gets lost in the memory with so many other midlisters. Just a few less overt choices in chords, a little more dissonance, some stranger chord structures, all would contribute to making a better album than this; but as it stands, Catacombs is not something to scoff at, and if you had a vinyl of this lying around, I'm sure it would draw attention from your creepy (and therefore awesome) friends.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Blooming Carrions - Necrosis Twilight [demo] (2018)

Necrosis Twilight is a promising if marginally flawed entry into the realms of caustic and cavernous Finnish death metal, not entirely reliant upon mimicking its influences, but close enough in countenance that many will lump it in a lot of its peers. I was drawn to this by the creepy band name, the even creepier black & white cover artwork and just the fact that I've been a fan of this stuff going on back to the Demilich, Convulse, Demigod and ancient Sentenced years, and ultimately impressed that this was all put together by a single musician covering all the instruments. The two tracks are admittedly a little bit fattened at a respective 9 and 7 minutes long, and don't possess a gulf of internal variety that really deserves that amount of corpulence, but as an EP it wasn't a case where I really found myself bored, and there isn't an insane amount of repetition, I simply felt that more ambiance or atmospheric breaks would have rounded out the existing, suffocating riff set to make for a more memorable demo.

The vocals are a massive, sustained, often howled guttural in the Craig Pillard vein, where they themselves transmogrify into mostly an atmospheric effect rather than a syllabic labyrinth. The guitars morph between old school, 80s Death-like Floridian evil fluidity, only rawer, and then higher, more melodic sheen tremolo picked breaks that I found were the most interesting. Bass guitars are turbid in the mix, but don't break away from the rhythm guitar patterns all that commonly; where as the drums are a bit of a complaint...functional and frenzied, but often just provide a clamorous backbone to the weight of the riffs, and don't really deviate or impress by themselves. Altogether, though, Blooming Carrions achieves its goal of fearful, morbid, asphyxiating, subterranean escapism. Murk and deep earth and dancing shadows and apparitions. Not so much that it can stick its neck out far from the pack of death metal bands this last decade, who all pursue similar aesthetics, but if you're a big fan of the darker, roiling acts on the Dark Descent roster, or you scour the mortal realm for obscure cassette-death, then I think this is an act to keep an eye on. Or rather an ear, to the muddy convulsions below, which might one day belch this forth like a visceral geyser from the deep underground if a bit more balance and nuance is attained.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Monolithe - Nebula Septem (2018)

Seven minstrels. Seven tracks. Seven minutes a piece. Seven tones. Seven letters of the alphabet to start the song titles. Nebula Septem. One might ascertain that there was something unusual and 'celestial' about the structure that doom mavens Monolithe have adopted for their... seventh album (of course), but that's not the only quirk that went into this piece. Nebula is quite likely their most dynamic and musical expression in terms of how much effort went into the riff building and melodic execution, and a lot of that has to do with how they've gradually evolved away from their excessively long in the tooth roots. A quartet of 50+ minute uni-track albums gave way to more digestible, but still chunky 15-minute triads on their last pair of albums Epsilon Aurigae and Zeta Reticuli, and now they've cut even those down in half. The consistency of mathematical patterns in their output almost seems to be building some cosmic convergence, some formula that might be hidden to us all until its two late and their deathly Franco doom cracks the heavens and replaces the oxygen of our atmosphere with pure chemical despair.

In the meantime, they've written a damn fine record, which I don't have a hell of a lot to compare to; busily shifting tectonic chord patterns glazed over with immediate and often desperate harmonies, with some fundamental rhythmic variations in cuts like "Anechoic Aberration" that leave me with a prog death impression not unlike the one Dan Swanö put together for his solo album Moontower, only not so busy, nor heavily reliant on the Moog organ sounds. Here the synthesizers peel off into the atmospherics created by the guitar melodies, to give an almost aurora-like counterbalance to the drudgery below, Rémi Brochard's guttural bellows creating just the right amount of sustain to emulate what must be the ultimate 'death metal vocalist floating through space...only you can hear him' sort of ambiance, straight to your ears, splattered well on the peak of the instruments without displacing or drowning them off in the vacuum. There's a constant sense of interplanetary tension that courses through the album, which is aesthetically consistent even through the mutation of the chords and the plodding, passionate fills and beats being strewn out terrestrial-like before them. But it's not always the frightening feel like you're not only seeing celestial bodies contract and collapse, but burst into existence like bright sonorous beacons that dance off across impossible distances.

It's really interesting to me how, even though they're not always paced equally or assembled in the precise same manner, how having each track at the same length creates a cerebral uniformity. I'm sure there is some scientific term for this, but I'm simply not used to it when 99.99% of all the music I absorb is broken up into longer/shorter pieces across albums, interludes and intros and outros and all that jazz. In a way, you could look at this simply as one of their first four records if it were just divided into seven, because the material itself is unquestionably fluid in stylistic decisions and instrumentation. There are only brief segways, usually in track intros like the Tangerine Dream-esque set-ups for "Fathom the Deep" and "Gravity Flood", but even these can be relied upon to rupture into splendorous misery through the growling and power chords. If you're at all enamored with the 'cosmic' in your musical purchases, or you like doom to be accessible and multi-faceted without transplanting its slow-beating, elegaic heart, then I'd say this band has long been a must for your attentions. Nebula Septem is no exception...lavish, professional, exploratory but stable. Perhaps not exceedingly memorable when broken down into its seven constituent parts, but taken as a whole it hits 'experience' level. So check that your suit is sealed, that your water and primary oxygen tanks are filled, that your battery is at full power. All life support go. And climb aboard for a glimpse of the formidable, beautiful beyond. You won't have to keep your arms and legs in the vehicle, there's plenty of room out there to shake them around.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Monday, February 5, 2018

Spite - Antimoshiach (2018)

It seems like any and all bands associated in any way, past, present or future with the great Negative Plane infer some sort of inherent quality, even being as stylistically widespread as they are. From Occultation to Funereal Presence, you're getting some damned compelling material. New York's Spite might only share a brief, live connection with the above, but having also heard Salpsan's other project Horns & Hooves I was already aware the guy could brew some nasty black metal extract, and I am not at all let down by this slightly older project, seeing its first full-length through the esteemed Invictus Productions. Like Horns & Hooves, this carries a heavy influence from traditional black metal, but where that outlet little more frilly and speed-metal laced, Antimoshiac is perhaps a more direct line to the wretched sounds of forebears like Mayhem and Bathory in their 80s youth, with just the one musician rasping and playing all the instruments.

Not a lot of material here could be described as unique or nuanced in structure, but the surprise to me is that we've still got guys who can make such familiar patterns feel so cruel and fresh again, and that's really where this album works so well. The range is between mid and slightly faster black metal, driven heavily by dire tremolo picked melody, occasionally slathered in atmosphere from the higher strings being strung above the thundering drum kit. There's not a tune on the album that does not at some point sound exceedingly evil, and that's quite a feat in an age where we've heard it all so many bloody times that it's become almost mundane. Spite songs have vile verses that manage to escalate into more heightened 'chorus' like sequences where they just ramp up the majestic, melodic progressions that seem to climax alongside the snarling. Another key here is the sheer variety of what he's meting out, with no two songs that sound quite the same...the intricate little muted melodies that slink over the hammering bass-line depths of "The Shield of Abraham" sound little like the straight, venom spitting "Vision of the Merkabah" or the slower, steadily storming "False Magic" which could have been right at home in late 80s Bathory. No boredom through repetition whatsoever.

The production helps a lot, which I would consider perfect to go along with this very specific sound that Salpsan has devised. It's not your average necro-rawness, which many bands who chase this style thrive on. Instead, this is richer; fulfilling but not heavily processed or over-polished, never detracting from the constant vibe you get that a serpent is writhing up your shoulder and whispering ideas in your ear. Bass is sufficiently corpulent to support the rhythm guitars, which very often break away from thicker wall-of-sound chords and focus instead on classic, evil lines. I'd say these tremolo picked parts also draw some of their inspiration from ancient death metal circa the late 80s, they just have that ominous confidence to them, and some of the vocals get a little more gruesome to help accommodate this. This is ultimately a well constructed effort that reminds me so often of why I got into this style of music in the first place, and while you're not going to hear an evolution for the form, such could easily be achieved with a few dissonant tweaks, a few unexpected chords woven into the more conventional choices, a fraction more atmosphere. As it stands, though, Antimoshiac is a sinister delight on its own, and Salpsan's finest studio blasphemy to date.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Tribulation - Down Below (2018)

Tribulation has been one of the few bands out there lately which can make such huge tectonic shifts in style between albums and still pique my interest, exploring every continent on Planet Death from the kinetic thrashing Swedish death/thrashing intensity of The Horror, through the psychedelic augmentations of The Formulas of Death, and then subsequently into a melancholic style of Gothic-tinted heavy growl metal which seems a lot more laid back yet no less effective than the earlier incarnations. This is why Down Below strikes me as an anomaly, because for the first time the Swedes seemed to have staked their claim on a terrain and hung around for awhile. It wouldn't be a stretch to call this Children of the Night Part Deux; there are some minor variations in production and songwriting, as this seems a bit louder, mildly more energetic and straight to the face, but it does lack some of that surprise factor you might have experienced when first listening to the two full-lengths before it. Which might be a turn-off, if the style just weren't so attractive in and amidst all my other listening.

The riffing remains simple, sad, and beautiful, owing to its atmospheric adornments as much as any internal nuance. I'm not saying it's entirely predictable the first time through, but the band is relying a lot more on traditional senses of harmony and rhythm chords and not so much the death metal roots. When I listened to its predecessor, and when I also hear this, I feel like I'm hearing what shape a 'melodeath' sound might have taken if the amplification technology and rock music existed back in the Victorian era. The tunes all evoke cult horror imagery, and are unquestionably inspired by both the black & white cinema of those early Hammer and Universal flicks, or the Gothic literature of writers like Poe, Shelly, Stoker and Radcliffe. I realize this creates a strange anachronism, and even more so when Johannes Andersson's nihilistic gutturals stretch out over the gloomier but warmer rhythm guitar passages, but it's just one of those melodic death sounds that feels instantly distinct when compared to the more frantic, showy Scandinavian bands that have dominated that style for well over a decade. In fact, I could draw parallels between this album and Sentenced's underrated Amok in 1995which also had a moody, Romantic heavy metal foundation contrasted by the grueling and charismatic growls of Taneli Jarva. Or maybe even their countrymen Raise Hell on the 2nd and 3rd albums, where they'd weave in similar horror-inspired melodies; only this is far less brash and not at all thrashy.

At any rate, Down Below is extremely catchy, with a lot of focus on leads and melodies that glaze its moderate rock beats like synth lines from classic horror films. Voluminous percussion. Grand, grating growls that, while monotonous, are strangely subduing. Well-developed bridges, breaks in the rain, exhalations across the dark smokestacks or gargoyle-laden skylines. Solos that are never overly indulgent, but fit the moods of their individual tracks and overall consistency of the album just fine. Even the few moments where this record devolves into sheer ambiance are wonderful. I would say that it does often seem a little too samey in its riffing structures and pacing, perhaps even more than Children of the Night, but that's only a problem so long as I don't enjoy what I'm experiencing, and for me Down Below and their last albums are emblematic of extravagant, ghoulish productions that I really enjoy sitting down to watch, or read. What a fucking great band this is, whether they stick around in this same sphere or once again forge ahead into the unknown, I'm on board, shivering in the full moon, checking out the windows for any black wings that might fly past.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (And the long night comes with grace)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Pestilence - Hadeon (2018)

If it weren't painfully obvious from the cover artwork, Hadeon is a clear homage to Pestilence's early 90s output, namely Testimony of the Ancients and its jazzier, stranger successor Spheres. In this it draws some comparisons also to their divisive 2009 reunion effort Resurrection Macabre, on which there were clearly some stylistic parallels to Testimony, albeit handled in a more methodical, brutal and explosive way that I happened to really enjoy. Unlike that album, however, Mameli and company have done away with the idiosyncratic barkings of the song titles within the fore and aft of each track. Unlike its true 1991 precursor, you also won't a whole roster of experimental vignettes to distract you from the meat of the metal, and that actually ramps up the album's effectiveness.

That's not to say that some experimentation doesn't the intro, or the instrumental interlude "Sudivisions", upon which bassist Tilen Hudrap flies all over his frets until we become dizzied by his absolute mastery of that instrument. The first moment of "Astral Projection" is a strange robotic sort of proggy narrative which wouldn't have been out of place on Spheres, without the production gaffes that many complained about on that album. For most of its playtime, however, Hadeon is a relatively straightforward affair that plays it safe for fans of the aforementioned albums, but occasionally rips out a riffing progression, melody or technique that hasn't been beaten to death already. To those who abhorred their previous, mechanical groove-laden records Doctrine and Obsideo, I think this might prove a welcome relief, for while it does often feel like its paraphrased from songs they've already written, that dark, overall jazzy vibe to the sliding chords combined with the brute vocals and leads that hearken back to the fusion elements the band was so beholden in the 90s still feels fresh and unique enough to stand out against a wide landscape of bands that never quite took the carrot.

The production is punchy and polished, akin to its direct predecessors, which pairs up well with the busy but clean bass-lines which are a joy to hear throughout. Mameli still might not have the same bloodsoaked charisma as van Drunen during the band's fantastic, formative phase, but he is more than adequate to the task, adding a nice little grueling sustain to many of the lines that provides a cool counterbalance to the much tidier tension of the riffs. Septimiu Hărşan's drums are likewise up to par, an intense but controlled performance that loads in just enough fills for propulsion to what are a generally mid-paced set of rhythms, yet he could fly off the handle at will, and the double kick is sounding as effortless as you could want it on any modern death metal recording. But most important for me, is that Hadeon grew on me across successive listens, easing me out of the whole 'well this just sounds derivative' category and into genuine enjoyment. There hasn't been a Pestilence studio album that I've actually disliked, but this is far more in the direction of where I think they 'need to be' than the last two, with more fluid and intricate musicianship that they had eschewed to attempt that more pounding, grooving, hypnotic effect. The songs aren't unanimously memorable, but I think if they use this as the groundwork to launch this particular style onto an even more insane, intense plain, then I'm looking forward to the flight.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, January 26, 2018

Accu§er - The Mastery (2018)

Accu§er's second full-length for Metal Blade records dials back a little of that groove/thrash influence which had survived by a thread since their 90s era, and instead seems like a block of structured, pure Bay Area thrash tempered with a few fragments of the staple Germanic go-to's. In particular it's the vocals which continue to remind me of a less grating, charming Tom Angelripper which cause me to make that comparison, but I think some of the more clinical mute picked harmonies here also possess some faint similarities to late 80s Destruction, Vendetta and Deathrow, and they use these as points of interest in a number of the tracks here which might seem blander without them, although the overall impression of The Mastery is that it's not truth in advertising.

It's a solid effort, unquestionable, and belongs in a career cluster with the three preceding it, but while this isn't technically a samey, unanimous record in terms of riff construction, a lot of the tunes seemed to bleed together for me, and it grow a little dull despite the energy on exhibit. The vocals rarely spit out anything of interest, lack a real sense of grit and anger even compared to The Forlorn Divide, and sometimes they even seem an afterthought to the riffing rather than a complement to it. The mix of the instruments is admittedly more level than on the last album, but I feel that it lacks the dynamic range, especially the bass and the depth of the palm muted parts. The bridges and leads here are still quite competent, but they seem a little less emotionally resonant, or drier than those from 2016. A couple epic moments, in tunes like "My Skin" and "Time for Silence", keep this one far above the slag heap that represented their career from Double Talk to Agitation, but it's not as formidable as Diabolic or The Forlorn Divide and grinds the band's upward momentum to a halt, without spilling them off the side of the highway overpass. Not the best of their resurgence era, but competent, and void of any truly jarring flaws. Folks into later Testament, Defiance, Warbringer, or Exodus could find enough meat to gnaw on here.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Accu§er - The Forlorn Divide (2016)

Accu§er was never a band I cared to follow too closely until I had gone into my extensive German thrash review cycle some years ago, largely because in the 80s they were vaguely decent at best, never really appealing to me as much as their peers. Like a lot of other thrash acts, they struggled a little to redefine themselves in the muddled 90s, when grunge and groove were taking over and the more traditional strains of metal were temporarily sunk alongside emergent black and death underground. It wasn't until 2013's Diabolic that I came away really impressed; they had managed to draft forward all of their strengths from the first decade into the modern production standards, ramp up the technicality a fraction and come away with a damn solid 21st century thrash album that shunned neither its roots nor its contemporaries. I can't be the only one who noticed, since they inked a deal with Metal Blade soon after.

I'm happy to report that The Forlorn Divide continues this path, with what is arguably the band's most thorough and involved record to date, a bruising nowadays thrash album which manages to even up its groove'll hear some comparisons to the 'busier' bands of this ilk, maybe a Devildriver, but they are fully fused into Accu§er's longstanding thrash backbone and don't seem to be grabbing for any low-hanging fruit. I mean if you're truly averse to chugging and moderate speed breakdowns, this album is not likely to draw you in, but I think they handle it without lowering themselves to any pedestrian meathead standards, and so much of the album is fixed in that Bay Area thrash circa a Testament or Defiance, which was almost always the case here; Accu§er never had that much in common with the Teutonic 'Big Three' in terms of how they structured their music, beyond just the thrash tag itself. A more bricklaying, blue collar, brute style was applied and then splashed with the frenzied leads and other flair that represented the traditional, non-punk dimension of thrash...

I mention that, because this is an area in which I feel The Forlorn Divide excels. The leads and bridge rhythms in tracks like "Lust for Vengeance" are catchy, interesting, and satisfying, the product of great care when composing. This does create a little imbalance with the verse riffing, which is a little more of that simplicity, heard-before, groove thrash style, although to their credit it's more complex than what you'd expect of a band that makes it their entire medium. They do have some faster pieces, like "Unreal Perception", which actually does sound like a fusion of late 80s Sepultura or Slayer with their countrymen Sodom, especially in the vocal department. Frank Thoms uses a blunt and bloody vocal tone, which admittedly isn't my favorite among the German veterans, but he's also multi tasking with the rhythm guitars, so I can be a little more forgiving, especially because he sounds sincere, angry and effective. The bass sounds fat, pummeling and excellent on this disc, not only where it's allowed to breathe on its own (intro to "Tribulation") but even along the rhythms.

Plenty of variation between faster and mid-paced tracks. A little bit of filler, like the dull but brief intro of clean guitars, and maybe about 25% of the riffs don't really land anywhere interesting, but I don't have any doubts that Accu§er put a lot of effort into coming up with something that sounded true to itself, but was able to lock horns with whatever ephemeral concept of 'contemporary' thrash is present in the 'teens. Note for note, track for track I did not enjoy this as much as its predecessor Diabolic, but I think Frank Thoms and company are putting out the strongest material of their careers, and I'm happy to acknowledge it after so many middling or negative reactions I had to so many items in their discography.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (determined to persist)

Friday, January 19, 2018

Revolting - Monolith of Madness (2018)

I wish I could numerate Rogga's death metal records so that when reviewing them I could mumble about how this was the *****th iteration of his career, but let's just settle with the fact that whether or not you dig his projects, this Swede is an utter institution unto himself and shows no signs of slowing down. Revolting is one of his bands, similar to a Paganizer or Ribspreader, which represents the 'core' of his sound, that is to say traditional Swedish death of the early to mid 90s laden with melodies and then slight variations from project to might be more brutal, another a little more thrashing, another doomy, and so forth. It's also one of his myriad bands that I've found most successful at delivering a consistent quality, even if that comes at the expense of originality, innovation, etc. I'm not implying that Revolting is exceptional or unique in any way, nor have they produced any death metal masterworks, but if you're seeking another album to remind you of those glorious years when Entombed and Dismember were first breaking out into international audiences, you could do a lot worse than randomly shuffle through this particular discography.

The 6th album, Monolith of Madness, while not the best of this project, is entirely competent death metal driven by d-beats and Floridian tremolo picking runs sodden with the downcast melodies that his forebears first manifest in the later 80s when they were spitting out demo material. It's never quite as evil as it looks like on the cover with its Cthulhu kraken and accompanying...witches on brooms...but you get a fair balance of forward propulsion, churning grooves and proficient leads that favor mood and atmosphere over flash and flair. I do feel like the bulk of the songs here can lapse into samey passages, almost all of which involve the same damn beat at some point, so more work could be done on intros, bridges and so forth to really round them out and distinguish them better from their neighbors, but I think at this point you know exactly what you're getting on a Rogga album, and if you've come this far listening to the guy then you might not even be interested in him varying up the formula much, at least not internally to one band, since he does this form project to project to mirror varying influences or 'eras' in death metal that he wishes to pay tribute.

You know what to expect. That's both the strength and weakness, because while this is written and performed at no less a level as a couple dozen other Swedish throwback bands that populate the F.D.A. Records imprint and its peers, there is probably not a single riff on the entire album that had me thinking 'cool', and wanting to spin it again immediately. The overall effect of Monolith of Madness in the background, while I'm reading through or playing my many Lovecraftian board games or role playing games, is not terribly worthy of its subject matter, because it's just never creepy or haunting, atmospheric or lingering, but Rogga has long directed this brand at a very straight shooting, 'fun' take on the horror genre which does effectively breed some nostalgia. Taken as it is, I think it's yet another solid effort in a long string of solid efforts that perhaps focus too much on being 'solid' and nothing more than that, and I wouldn't mind a higher ratio of ambition > frequency of musical output, but that doesn't completely detract from the moderate level of abusive darkness you're getting from this. Admittedly, my enjoyment of Revolting peaked with the first two albums, Dreadful Pleasures and The Terror Threshold, but this one won't disappoint much if you're looking for another In Grisly Rapture or Visages of the Unspeakable.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Anvil - Pounding the Pavement (2018)

Anvil has honestly put together a pretty decent run since the release of their documentary, with This is Thirteen and Juggernaut of Justice being arguably their best albums since the 80s, and Anvil is Anvil a few years ago also ably delivering the goods. However, I can't say that it's been a consistent effort, with the sagging Hope in Hell in 2013 and now, unfortunately, their 17th full-length, which as its cover implies, is hammering away at the pavement, but not dredging up much of any interest. That's not to say Pounding is a total wash, but it takes far too long to start getting anywhere, relies a little more on goofy and highly diverse lyrical subjects, and musically plays it too bloody safe, with a smattering of been there, done that riffs which catalog not only their own past but hard rock/metal in general.

Between the lumbering, mastodon metal attempts to produce a new "Metal on Metal" or "Forged in Fire", the more bluesy, party-rock anthems, or the energetically sincere but barebacked poundings that actually reach some level of engagement, this material just doesn't inspire. I'll admit, I laughed my arse off that the opener "Bitch in the Box" was a tribute to a GPS, but even there the music left so much to be desired; run of the mill, predictable riffing patterns, functional melodies or leads that are simply clones of so many you've heard before. They do shoot for a number of those slower, grooving and mighty heavy metal epics and almost always come up short of anything compelling, and often when tackling the more interesting subjects here ("Nanook of the North") the narrative structure of the vocals can come off a little tackier than intended. Sure, I actually do admire Anvil's dedication to taking on uncommon themes, whether silly or serious, but so often the execution just isn't there to match the inspiration. While they've always been a very traditional band in terms of construction of their rhythm guitars, there was usually some darker mood or twist, some epic chorus, or some cool lead to lend a little nuance or distinction.

Not so much here, as tracks like "Doing What I Want" feature such by-the-numbers structure, bland verse and chorus lines that are not worthy of one of Canada's most unique metal frontmen. The last chunk of album, starting with the relentless "Black Smoke", measured "World of Tomorrow" and frantic, bluesy "Warming Up", was actually passable stuff, I found my neck starting to twitch, but that's all about 30 minutes into the album, and even that material is fairly generic, it just seems a little more natural and the product of sharper decisions. The production of Pounding the Pavement is clearly not a flaw, not that I'd mind if the band recorded dirtier, but the rhythm guitars have a nice cut to them, the bass lines sound perfect in the mix, Robb's drumming is fired up as usual, and the vocals and leads are also very well balanced. But this is just not a selection of tunes I think you'll hear much in their live rotation, or at least not for very long since they just don't live up to the classics this band has penned in the past, even the recent past. Juggernaut of Justice is, for instance, a far better album and there's just no point at which I'd ever listen to this over that. A little more solid than Hope in Hell, but pretty unflattering overall.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Friday, January 12, 2018

Panphage - Jord (2018)

Sweden has had a glut of rustic, pagan black metal bands over the last few years, a lot of which approach the aesthetic from varying musical perspectives. Nordvis has been a label representing many of the notable entries into this particular field, and Panphage is no exception to that, having generated a good deal of buzz among the crowd that favors the themes he explores. Despite a long history of demo recordings, Fjällbrandt only started producing 'official' full length albums a couple years back, with the debut Storm and its successor Drengskapr only recently put in circulation; and Jord arrives as a someone bittersweet swan song, since I've already seen mention that this project has been put to rest. But if rest it must, at least it's creator has left it on a high note, because this disc soars above its predecessors, perhaps not attaining the next level of the Earth's atmosphere, but providing a broad and convincing introduction and/or retrospective to the sounds Panphage was gleaned on.

Jord shifts between two climes; the first being a highly melodic, majestic brand of black metal driven by programmed blasting, which can be traced to a lot of the band's Swedish peers of the past, only with less cooks in the kitchen. Another comparison I'd draw is Quebec's Forteresse, only with less organic percussion, less repetition and monotony, and a lot more breadth to its glorious guitar lines. The second shines through in the more simplified, churning lower chord-driven cuts like "Som man sår får man skörda" which have a more overt, late 80s Bathory vibe to them, and even a bit of a primal punk nature. I'd say these two halves are evenly balanced throughout this track list, and thankfully blend together well due to the omnipresence of the harsh, barked vocals which hit a great level of resonance and reverb as they rave over the chord constructions. These aren't isolated here, because there is also a droning clean or chanted vocal provided in places, or even some angelic, higher pitched cleans in one of the best tracks ("Skadinawjo"), but Fjällbrandt always sounds engaging and genuine no matter what timbre he's taking, and it helps balance out the more methodic impression left by the drumming and allows Jord to hurdle its own flaws nicely...

Perhaps the largest of which is the abrupt way some of the tunes seem to fade out. Not exactly some jarring dealbreaker for the album as a whole, but it had me wondering if there were some flaw with the promo version I was listening to. Otherwise, there's not a lot bad I can say about this album... perhaps it's not stuffed with the most unique riffing, but the patterns are almost always good enough to create a symbiosis with the listener, and escape over shining pastures towards a waning dawn. I like how the beautiful guitars are still coated with a layer of rawness and grime, and how the overall atmosphere of this disc truly feels like you're experiencing it outdoors where only the sky can contain its magnificence. The riff progressions also create emotions of melancholy and desperation, the folksy segues tearing atavistic portals in the atmosphere with the best of 'em. Even if at first Jord seems samey with a lot of other albums of its ilk, I can without hesitation guarantee that there are particular moments where the listener will be moved by its convictions, especially if you're a heavy advocate for the earlier 90s black metal attempts to blend these similar aesthetics of harshness and centuries-old majesty. There are some GREAT riffs throughout. Not a flawless sendoff for Panphage, if indeed that is its fate, but unquestionably a formidable one.

Verdict: Win [8/10]