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]

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)

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)

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]

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.


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)

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 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)

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...'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)

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)

Friday, May 4, 2018

W.A.I.L. - Wisdom Through Agony Into Illumination and Lunacy Vol. II (2018)

It's been for quite some time that Finland's W.A.I.L. have been putting together the follow-up to their impressive 2009 debut Wisdom Through Agony into Illumination and Lunacy, their acronym writ to its fullest, but the band has not gone forgotten as another example from this scene of a quality act just below the surface of the scene's thriving roster. For Volume II of their legacy, they've honed in on just two extensive tracks clocking in at around 24 and 34 minutes respectively, even longer than those populating their debut. Normally this could prove the kiss of death for an album, breeding repetitious monotony, but rather than pen a few tracks with scant ideas, these are both epic pieces that transcend through a good number of riffing shifts and atmospherics that absolutely string the listener along on a journey into shadowed rituals and vile philosophies.

As with the earlier material, W.A.I.L. spin a web of black and death metal which on occasion breaks into a slower, doom-laden groove, and they actually balance out these styles rather evenly. The vox, while not intensely guttural, are clearly representative of the death metal genre, while a lot of the mesmeric, faster riffing is tremolo picked black metal crested by dissonant, glinting notes which offer just enough variety to keep things interesting. The slower sequences are choppy and seismic, almost like a bridge between traditional doom/death and atonal black metal atmosphere, and the material spans a satisfactory range of tempos so the attention is never being dulled. Near the end of "Through Will to Exaltation Whence Descent Into a Bottomless Black Abyss", they cede into some cleaner strings that are joined by lower, steadily plodding percussion and other instruments which create a compelling and calming transition. This nicely sets up the following track, "Reawakening Through Anguish Into Gestalt of Absolute", in which the calm continues, some chanted, droning cleaner vocals accompanying the plucked, folksy strings and substrate of ambiance until they again erupt into the more aggressive craft, another segue with rolling, dire classical pianos, and back once more.

Again, I have to reiterate that while this is technically two tracks, there are enough riffs here to populate a normal black or death metal album, and for that reason the swollen lengths and conceptual riffing arcs are more easily digested. There is a consistent flow to this sophomore which shows careful plotting, and the idea to wrench the listener back and forth between searing savagery and meditation casts an emotional spell. I also liked the inquisitive, personal nature to some of the lyrics balanced against the poetic cascading imagery of others; especially for how many there are, they make the album feel like even more of a journey that the listener is putting himself or herself through. Production is just raw enough to satisfy the cellar ghouls, but clear enough to distinguish all the instrumentation, important when you're incorporating items like a kentele or didgeridoo, which W.A.I.L. does smoothly along with the gorgeous pianos and cleaner string progressions. Certainly this is on par with the band's debut, and while theirs isn't a name instantly recognized among their more prolific countrymen, they are certainly another example of a Finnish act which understands the wedding of darkness to instruments, and well worth checking out if you enjoy hybrids of traditional black and death metal into a memorable union.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (it's all starting to creep to my awareness)

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]