Friday, October 19, 2018

Deathless Legacy - Rituals of Black Magic (2018)

For a band that essentially started off as a loving paean to Italian countrymen Death SS, the similarly dubbed Deathless Legacy has certainly come a long way unto its own with this fourth album, an incredibly professional sounding effort which seamlessly integrates orchestration with simplistic, heavy guitars and a vocalist with a lot of character to drive home the occult horror themes which inspire them. It might be a little hard to pin down an exact style for this five-piece, it's a sleek, polished, modern approach which could service a cross-section of Gothic, heavy/power, shock rock and possibly even some groove metal audiences, and all the power to them for managing to land a firm identity, keeping their horizons open without ever coming off like some 'please everyone' hybrid that you find a lot in contemporary metal.

You'll instantly notice, upon first spinning the disc, how well the symphonics and choirs have been produced here, impressive since they're largely the work of a single keyboardist. Whether on their own or being used to decorate the straightforward, brutish rhythm guitars that populate most of the album, they feel so well-tuned and well-constructed that you really feel like you've spent a night at an opera which was crashed by some Ozzfest rejects, and I don't say that as an insult. As for the riffs themselves, they don't quite hit nu-metal levels of generic bounce, but there's not much to them other than serving as a foundation for all of those synthesizers, synth leads and the vocals, lower string chords most of the time with a few grooves and fills. Occasionally they'll infuse some higher pitched speed picking stuff that gives an impression of anthemic 21st century European power metal, but the majority of the time they are the element of the record that's striking the listener in the gut while the other trappings are more evocative of the imagination. Some slightly rave-like electronics are also incorporated into the harder riffs, so this isn't just some Gothic horror act living entirely in the past, even if the lyrics and overall imagery seem to point that way.

The real star of this morbid musical cinema, however, is Eleonora Steva Vaiana, who has a lower pitched, evil, wavering vocal style which so fluidly suits the punch of the music. At the cleanest of times she sounds like some sultry which summoning a hex, but she can also get even nastier with a near-rasp tone to accent a few of the lines, and kick in some power and sustain to the chorus lines. I'd liken her to an Agnete Kirkevaag of Madder Mortem, or perhaps Italy's occult scream queen herself, Cadaveria, but she totally makes this album, leveling out whatever elements you might find too overproduced or cheesy with a passionate and shadowy delivery that makes it difficult not to take seriously. Elsewhere, the band shines, with great drums, solid bass-lines, and a bevy of other instrumentation like the acoustics of "Vigor Mortis" that sound crystalline in execution. All of these are mixed in a beautiful balance that can go toe to toe with most 'modern' metal recordings in the fields of Gothic and power metal, without sounding too shallow or commercial.

It's not perfect, as some of the predictable guitars and symphonic melodies don't leave much in the way of a surprise lurking around any surface of this haunted opera. The music in general, while so painstakingly well produced, would not often be that memorable save for Steva's presence, but as an entire package it sounds great, and it casts such a potentially wide net that I could recommend it to fans of bands as varied as Nightwish, Benedictum, Ghost, Powerwolf, Cradle of Filth, Devilment, and of course their spiritual precursors Death SS. A good, solid album to pump out the speakers, not so much for metal seeking filthy, raw, flawed evil sounding material, but certainly could impress a lot of the squares and commercial metal receptacles who are more likely to let it find them than go out hunting themselves.

Horror-meter: Seven out of ten spectral orchestra pits.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Grave Digger - The Living Dead (2018)

I have to admit that when I first saw the title and cover for this new Grave Digger record my pulse started to quicken, as my single favorite of all their extensive catalog was one of their prior 'horror themed' efforts, The Grave Digger from 2001, devoted to the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Thinking this might be the Germans' opus to George Romero, I wound up slightly disappointed at the actual content, not because it isn't a solid effort in terms of the music, but because it didn't have quite the same sort of coherent concept. There are tunes here about zombies, sure, and a few other themes that verge on the horrific, but roughly half the album is dedicated to pretty standard heavy metal fare, like "The Power of Metal" which is about the musical medium itself.

So a bit of a letdown thematically, but beyond that The Living Dead is yet another in a long line of competent, professional, Grave Digger records. Their 18th studio full-length overall, if I did my math right and am skipping the re-recordings album they dropped a couple years back. Like a lot of its predecessors, stretching back to around 1993 (The Reaper) when they truly solidified the German power metal sound they are most known for, the record does feel like its carved out of a lot of typical riffing progressions that the band have used time and time again, 'paraphrasing' them slightly on each iteration. You could honestly jump back 25 years to that and not notice a great degree of difference, other than what Axel 'Ironfinger' Ritt has brought to the table during his tenure, which is a little more Rhoads-like flash and flair to the guitar work that helps shepherd it away from redundancy or from the dire predictability it might otherwise have grown into. He brings a fraction of uniqueness to the decisions here, like the speed picked battery that inaugurates "What War Left Behind", and lots of anthemic little melodies all over the tracks that give it somewhat of a distinct personality.

But similar to their countrymen Primal Fear, Blind Guardian or most directly Running Wild, they really don't require a lot of variation to kick your ass. You know what you're getting into when you pick up a Grave Digger effort, and there's some comfort in that, and some comfort in the fact that they are so committed, over such a long career to keep up the power level. The rhythm section here hits hard, an imbreachable foundation for Ritt's playing and Chris Boltendahl's gritty, unapologetic, accented timbre. The mix is quite good, putting the guitar right up front but not losing the swerving bass lines, the beats or the atmosphere brought in by the vocals. Speaking of Running Wild, you'll hear a number of cuts like "Fist in Your Face" which bring to mind the more layman's style of muscular hard rock Rolf & crew brought on certain songs on their first three discs, or the earliest Grave Digger albums like Heavy Metal Breakdown and Witch Hunt. But for my money there is this large chunk in the middle of the record, stretching towards the end, where its best tracks like "Hymn of the Damned", "What War Left Behind" and "Insane Pain" had me most pumped, the latter of which has a melodic guitar line nestled in there which sounded to me like "The Time Warp".

As for the album's single "Zombie Dance", while it's one of the few cuts that actually service the undead theme I was hoping for, it's more of a party polka folk tune that warps into chugging metal verses, and it's a little on the goofy side, which is obviously the point of it if you've seen the video (in which Chris plays a newscaster who looks like he's about to break down at any moment). I think if you've got a drunk or warm enough audience at some large European festival and break that out, people are going to have a blast swinging around to it, but it's just not the most serious tune here, even though it's far from awful, and develops a decent bridge-chorus. As the flagship for this album though, I might have made another choice, and there are several of them, because The Living Dead is yet another testament to why this band has the longevity it has. They rock the rotten soil off of your self-inflicted domestic coffin, crack it open and then kick your butt back to the land of the living. This is hardly their best album, even in recent memory, but apart from 1-2 tracks it's damn dependable.

Horror-meter: Four out of ten unnecessary sequels.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Warfare - Hammer Horror (1991)

Warfare's fifth proper full-length was such a bloody good idea at the time, or really, at any time: a British metal band paying tribute to an institute of British horror films. Beyond that, Evo and crew were not about stretching their sound a little, hamming it up with some synthesizers and atmospheres that took their street level thuggery into the funeral parlors, the haunted castles, and sundry other environments in which you'd usually place a Hammer Horror flick. Now, I want to disclose here that I am covering the 1991 reissue of the album, which featured more tracks to it as well as a better production than the original Hammer Horror from the year before. It's likely you've seen that one with its original cover that featured doppelgangers of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing against a moonlit castle backdrop, kind of a cheesy but cool image, but don't be fooled...this newer version sounds superior and has a lot more to offer, the one exception might be if you're a die hard puritan for original versions only and are willing to take the bad with the good.

At any rate, Warfare perform a grimy form of speed metal that builds off a similar momentum to a Venom, Motörhead or Tank, but here on Hammer Horror you can tell they were aiming for a more structured thrash nervous system on which to apply all the bells and whistles of the concept. The riffs in tunes like "Baron Frankenstein" almost have a simplistic S.O.D. or Sacred Reich mosh style to them, interspersed with some darker pure old heavy metal progressions. To contrast against this, they use a lot of lavish intros that feel like they're plucked straight from imaginary cult horror films, the organ tones or the acoustics used briefly to frame up the next track, although they'll also throw you a big curveball like "Phantom of the Opera" which is almost all this spacious, atmospheric, theatrical sounding tune which is only borderline metal, features male/female dual vocals and other things you just wouldn't expect if you'd come at this band from their older albums. Normally, the vox are a dirty style which at times reminds me of Cronos or even Ron's garbled barking in Coroner, but he also uses a lot of straight talking, blander narrative lines or others that sound like someone with a tummy ache being tossed out of the local pub by bouncers. It's charmingly pedestrian in places, but also fairly scatterbrained and inconsistent.

This also goes for the's a little difficult to really get involved with the better, harder hitting guitars when they're rubbing elbows with super cheesy, slower punk picking parts as in the verses to the "Scream of the Vampire" tracks here, which are strangely divvied up. The album seems to be split into three chunks: the large amount of intros and interludes, the harder headbanging cuts and then the broad epics like "Hammer Horror" itself which actually do a good job at capturing a guitar-driven sort of soundscape to a perceived film from that time and scene. There are a number of good tunes throughout, like "Plague of the Zombies" which is just some mid-paced, ballsy metal; or the title track I mentioned, or the brief "Ballad of the Dead", but others like the woozy slow dance number "A Solo of Shadows" are almost entirely laughable, though I get the feeling the band was right there laughing along with us when they were laying them out in the studio. As far as its pure metal content, I think the stuff is pretty good, some of their best in fact, with strong licks and cool atmosphere.

The issue is just that it feels a little bit TOO corny and inconsistent to really squeak out more than a barely passing grade. You have to think, at this time we already had an act like King Diamond or his Mercyful Fate putting out one masterful record after another, with more coherent narratives, more complex and interesting and memorable music, so Warfare's approach felt a little too blue collar or primitive; nor is it even as interesting or unusual as something like The Exploited's Horror Epics, and its weird punk industrial metal death rock fusion. That aside, this is a delightfully goofy romp with some genuine good metal moments...just not enough to terrorize its way into greatness. And at the very least, we know Warfare had some ace taste in movies.

Horror-meter: Six sexy Sarumans out of ten.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Autothrall Anno X

It was 10 years ago today that I decided to start up my first metal 'zine' since the late 90s, when I had published several issues of a short-lived, self-published, stapled and photocopied fan rag during my university years. With the help of several fellow forumers over at Penny Arcade, I launched a site to hopefully sharpen our critique on metal and other music, taking the name from my favorite novel (and title) by the late Ray Bradbury. I had at that point stepped away from performing in metal bands for a few years, but wanted to still contribute to the music that had always been there to strengthen and uplift me since early in my childhood. A decade and several thousand reviews later, I've come to learn a lot more about this medium, what makes a write-up work for me, and what doesn't. The response has always been overwhelmingly positive, so to my readers, and the bands and labels that have submitted material for me to cover, I owe you a tremendous amount of gratitude! To receive a message that someone really connected with an album through a list or review here, to experience that trust, has always been the highest reward to me, and the reason I press forward. To those friends who also posted reviews back in the earlier years of the site, I am grateful. Of course, there was no way I was going to post such a volume of reviews without attracting some degree of heat and hate, and while I've happily ignored a scant amount of childish, homophobic keyboard warriors and useless 'metal' trolls since the site's creation, I would absolutely like to thank those critics that have kept it constructive, or folks who have mailed me errata on band line-ups, grammar and so forth, which I've always been happy to correct.

Thank you so much for stopping by, and let's share a toast to ten more years, and all the great sounds, new and old, that we'll discover in that time. Marriage and children might have slowed down my output since the glory days, but...2028? Hold my mead horn.


Friday, October 12, 2018

Créatures - Le noir village (2016)

Le noir village is an album which appeals to me even on its most surface levels. Its obscurity, rarely being spoken of amidst the wave of avant-garde French black metal acts; while it's not quite as exotic or dissonant as a Blut Aus Nord or Deathspell Omega, or organic and homegrown to the degree of a Peste Noire, this is clearly well beyond the pale of another 'safe' black metal act, with risks aplenty, and risks that actually pay off for the listener embedded into its atmosphere. The artwork is also exactly what I like to see, some natural looking rustic village scene, a bloody and bleak wood stretching off towards some foreboding castle under grey skies. While it might not leap out at you as frightening, there's so much mystery that could be hiding under those wooded eaves, so much tragedy that could lurk in any of the quaint buildings, or the fields beyond, or approaching along one of the roadways...

Thankfully, this debut album sounds just as interesting and mysterious as it looks. For a one-man project (that of one Sparda), the amount of effort put into Créatures arrangements and ideas is tangible behind each of its epic-length tunes. That's not to say that all of them are equally brilliant or distinct, but no matter what shadows you're playing in here, you're bound to come across some quirk or surprise that separates it from the chaff of pure, monotonous, trad black metal. At its core, the harsher elements here morph between a mid-paced, somber melodic black metal and a more savage, blasted variety. The rhythm guitars aren't mixed too raw, but neither are they too sterile, and many of the riffs are affixed with tinny little melodies that create a particular, treacherous charm. Bass lines are often splayed out into curious creepshow grooves, while the beats seamlessly stray between the mandatory metallic intensity and the sparser backbone needed for the album's more orchestrated, atmospheric components. The rasps here are protacted and tortured to the level of sickening, often bursting into Burzum-like screams over the more frenzied musical moments. There are a variety of vocals used, ambitiously, to represent different characters relating the ominous story.

This would be all well and good, but it's the further details that truly flesh out the experience. Flights of crazy jamming pianos hover at the edge of perception, or eerie little synth lines that sound as if they were penned from classic haunted house film scores. Where acoustic guitars appear, as in the first track "L'horreur des lunes pleines", they are wonderfully sad and evocative, especially joined to the animal and nature samples. Sparda very often shifts into a more garbled, narrative, clean and deep voice in place of the rasping, which might be one small nick on the album's quality, as these lines can become a bit jumbled; but even then, I can appreciate the versatility he's trying to reward to listeners. Minor flaws like these are also easy to forgive when you are beholden to the brilliance of the bridge of "Martyre d'un tanneur", the true highlight of this album, when he evokes this amazingly catchy string section and haunted vocal accompaniment of whispers, rasps and howls that is well worthy of its inspirations, much less other avant-garde horror metal bands like Sigh or Hail Spirit Noir. When the horns erupt deeper into that bridge, and then the blasting and choir-like chants, you feel like some sun of genius has just shined upon the dark woodland border in which the music dwells.

Really, it's almost criminal that Le noir village is not a better known album. While that deep underground status is certainly an attraction for scum like myself, this is top flight stuff with only a few cracks marring its surface. Not only would I recommend it to fans of horror-themed black metal in general, or Sparda's compelling countrymen (early Blut Aus Nord, Aorhlac, etc), but also as a 'spookier' alternative for fans of Quebecois black metal acts such as Forteresse and Neige et Noirceur. The French lyrics and vocals might be a turnoff for some imbeciles, but I found the album intriguing enough that I'd sit there trying to translate through them and better embrace the concept. One of the better albums I've interfaced with this Halloween season, and a great introduction to an act that I hope we hear more from in the near future.

Horror-meter: Eight spine-tinglings out of ten.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Gorgeous Frankenstein - Gorgeous Frankenstein (2007)

Misfits alumnus Doyle has a solid history of attempting to mesh together the horror swagger of that infamous punk entity with a more metallic edge. The best example of this was probably Kryst the Conqueror's Deliver Us from Evil EP in 1990, which had a bit of a Christian streak running through it and was surprisingly not all that bad; I can remember a few friends and I listening to it back in the middle of our high school days. Granted, that material never really turned into anything long term, and if the quality of this eponymous Gorgeous Frankenstein album is anything to judge by, perhaps the sealing off of that particular punk/metal path is really for the better; because this is quite bad.

The core here is a slightly more muscular Danzig style of simplistic hard rock and metal with a bit of Glenn's vocal antics being delivered through the performance of Landon Blood. The riffs are a sort of amalgam of very basic thrash, heavy metal, stoner doom and swaggering bluesy bar metal possessing the banality of a Black Label Society, only far less of the guitar proficiency. The riffs progressions are extremely mediocre across the whole album, with some predictable chugging and groove riffs meant only to work up the manliness of the vocals and the gang shouted chorus parts. It doesn't help that the tone of the rhythms sounds like crap, going for a noticeably more live feel but ending up rather annoying and amateur, especially when being used to perform some of the most insipidly boring chugs and squeals you've ever heard. There are some decent attempts by some backing synths and other atmospherics to try and dress this all up in a more appealing package, but it's really just a clutter of stuff that Pantera would have laughed out of their recording sessions back in 1989.

As mentioned, the vocals are real similar to Glenn Danzig, although once they pick up into a more howled, angry timber as in the depths of "Man or Monster", there's also a clear Rob Zombie style, strained growling influence, only nowhere near as harsh, memorable and charismatic. The drums are loud and clappy, while some of the bass lines seem a little too buzzy and filtered, used often to anchor the really bland bluesy swinging riffs in cuts like "Devilgirl". The lyrics are also very basic, but I wouldn't say they were one of the weak points, occasionally offering out some engrossing or titillating horror lines. Gorgeous Frankenstein is essentially a flesh golem stitched together by numerous other bands before it which have carved out excellent careers imbuing their hard rock, punk or industrial metal with the macabre, Gothic and kitschy traces of horror...but take away the life-giving lightning of catchy songs, or the distinction of those bands, for a fairly lazy and easygoing impersonation. It's not completely awful or incompetent, as there are a couple ideas here or there which make good sense, but I forgot it entirely in less time than the 35 minutes it took to get through the songs. You've got a lot better options out there, including some of the other albums members of this band have been involved with.

Horror-meter: Five gestalt corpse-things out of ten.

Verdict: Fail [4.75/10]

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Energy Vampires - Energy Vampires (1991)

Energy Vampires are an interesting little obscurity from the Midwest who published an album-length demo back in 1991, to little or no fanfare. But knowing what vultures we have all become for such antiquities, Shadow Kingdom snapped this up for an 2008 reissue on CD and vinyl, and I think it's one that might have limited appeal to fans of classic US heavy metal or USPM of the variety you'd hear in the mid-80s from the Metal Blade roster. The band's frontman, John Stewart, who also fronted the heavier, comparable act Slauter Xstroyes, sadly passed away this summer, so I thought it was a good time to shine a little sunlight on these blood sucking hairspray addicts that might have damn well made bigger ripples than they did had the market not been so oversaturated by the time they arrived in it.

I'm assuming the band drew its name from the LaVeyan concept of a 'psychic' or 'energy' vampire, or perhaps the film Lifeforce or some other source I'm forgetting, but regardless, they played the sort of heavy/power metal with excessive vocals characteristic of the 80s US scene, which makes a lot of sense as a followup to Stewart's alma mater. From the 'official' pics of the band, they definitely had a glam look to them, and there's also a bit of a nasty hard rock feel coursing through the music, most reminding me of Mötley Crüe if they'd stuck to their guns and gone more pure heavy metal through the remainder of their career. However, this is largely the sort of driving, anthemic riffing you'd equate with other bands of that region like Shok Paris, Breaker or Destructor, predictable in terms of the chord patterns, but always just messy and unhinged enough due to the way Stewart threw his vocals up over the metal. This s/t can be a bit of a clamor, especially where it gets the most ambitious in a track like "Pull the Stake Out" where they slather in some organs and unruly leads while John is just pouring it on. I mean, if 'overacting' were a musical concept then I feel he'd a clear candidate, but that's not to take away that he has some angry damn pipes, shrieking howls and would have been an enormous star if he just had a great set of tunes to use them over.

You could also compare this to Lizzy Borden, not quite as shrill or consistent, in the vocals, but the music is far less eloquent, technical or effective. Energy Vampires throw you for a few loops, like the Meatloaf-ish opera "Rock 'N' Roll", over which Stewart STILL throws up some of those insane screams, creating an outlandish but amusing contrast, but I get the feeling that even for a demo, this stuff was in good need of a proper edit or a producer who knew how to take these ideas and ground them into phenomenal songs. The riffs are alright, but a little too standard for their style, and I don't know that I heard a catchy lead throughout, even though they are competent and atmospheric. The production is airy and era-appropriate, giving John a lot of space amid its vaunted ceilings to go ballistic, but every time I feel I get into a particular riff section it just sort of teeters out, almost like there's a drunken sheen to the whole affair, the undead authors tapping a few inebriated veins before heading into the studio. Tracks like "Different from the Rest" and the wailing bonus "On the Run" come pretty close to the quality I'd want, but overall it feels like it's all a VERY NEAR miss.

That said, I think if you want another example of what a potential weapon this guy was, Energy Vampires is no less of an exhibition than either of the Slauter XStroyes outings. I'm not saying in a world of Halfords, Udos, Dickinsons, Bordens, Danes, Dios or other screamers that Stewart brought a lot of novelty to the field, since there are a number of others with very similar characteristics to him, but this was a guy feeling around that upper air raid atmosphere, a caged animal that just isn't done service enough by the music, choruses, or lyrical line choices. With further development, meatier riffs, and hooks that got into the skin rather than deflected off of it, this could have been formidable.

Horror-meter: Four crouching banshees out of ten.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Friday, October 5, 2018

Abysmal Grief - The Samhain Feast EP (2009)

Abysmal Grief is one of those perfect bands to break out this time of year; its brand of horror occult doom metal generally satisfies on two levels, the genuine darkness and gloom you'd expect from its genre, and the slightlier campier vibe coming through the visuals and some of the sounds and samples they spruce up the guitar-driven doom with. From the onset you might expect a funereal vibe, which you do get through some of their costumes, all of the lyrical subject matter, and the consistent use of organs, but the music often has much more of a rocking nature to it which wouldn't be out of place for some US stoner metal bands. Italy actually has long had quite a thorough horror metal scene, so it's to Grief's credit that it manages to remain distinct from show-metallers Death SS, giallo fiends Mortuary Drape and Paul Chain's extensive repertoire of psychedelic purple excellence.

Having said that, The Samhain Feast is hardly the golden apple in this band's orchard of rotting sadness. With just two tracks that largely pursue the same style, it doesn't really offer up enough room for the band to really absorb you into its aesthetics. The thick riffs, cruising along with an almost Hellhammer-meets-Nebula guitar tone, are very bare-boned and predictable, in particular for the title track which has a chord progression similar to a dozen or so desert rock tracks you've already heard. Drums shuffle along at a simple pace, with just enough fire in them to support the heavier guitars, and the listener really has to lean on the haunted house organ lead aesthetics and the deep, wavering creep-out vocals of Labes C. Necrothytus to win the day. To give an accurate description of his style, think somewhere between Jari of Root and Lee Dorrian from Cathedral, those flawed but unforgettable lower cleans which care nothing for being perfect, but accurately casting the audience into its world of wraiths, specters, catacombs and coffins left slightly ajar.

Some riffs are better than others, and I'd say that "Grimorium Verum" is the superior of the offerings here, especially where the guitars hit that late bridge riff and the lead breaks out over it. That one also sounds a little more Hellhammer due to the riff makeup, thus automatically more evil! Production on the EP is appropriate, with a very dark, molasses-like consistency to the guitars, and a shadowy murk through which no light penetrates, even with the female near-whispered narrative and the brightness that the organ usually brings as an instrument. Both the tunes are acceptable rockers, without being particularly interesting or inventive, but I definitely don't think this is the sort of format in which these guys can really bring their inner pallbearers to bear upon the audience. Instead I'd make a recommendation that new listeners head straight over to one of their first two full-lengths, the s/t and Misfortune to get a better portrait of what this Italian underground staple is really all about.

Horror-meter: Five out of ten tarnished vestments.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Nailgun Massacre - Boned, Boxed and Buried (2015)

Going by the name and appearance of this album alone, you'd think Dutchmen Nailgun Massacre were probably a goregrind band, or at least a Cannibal Corpse-styled brutal death band. So when I spun their sophomore album Boned, Boxed and Buried, I was a little surprised to find that they play a very pure strain of late 80s death metal with primarily American influences. Slow to moderate  paced, using a voluminous production style and simpler riffing patterns that go straight for your jugular. While there's little to be said for any sort of originality here I'll have to give them some credit at taking something so familiar and them putting a fresh, bloodied stamp on it as if they could have released this back in 1989 and it would receive consideration among some classics.

Obituary is the closest reference I can make, simpler and grooving rhythm patterns that are potent nonetheless when splattered with the vocals. A little bit of a punkish attitude. Thread that influence with a little Swedish death & roll, and some well-crafted leads and evil melodies which recount classic Chuck Schuldiner. I'd also compare this to Six Feet Under, or rather, a Six Feet Under that didn't generally suck so much, because of that emphasis on rock-like rhythms, as well as one half of the vocals, which sound a lot like Chris Barnes grunts. The others that are often paired up with these are like a poor man's John Tardy of Obituary, and it's often quite hilarious what the two sound like in unison, an added layer of silliness that occasionally drags the album down a notch; especially when the Tardy-a-like seems to almost crack up at the end of a few lines. There's also a notable Autopsy influence, just in the massive, raw tones, the abrasion and ugliness that the record balls up like a cleaver-clenching fist and then beats on you before making some choice cuts.

The drums thunder along here, adding a lot of power to the simpler chugging rhythms, and the bass is also really enormous sounding and gives the whole affair a bowel-rumbling effect that is made even more fucking awesome when they cast out some simple, evil melody over the top as in the depths of "I Bury the Hatchet In Your Face". There are some screams and samples and narrations to further emphasize the themes in the lyrics, though once again they can feel a little too goofy if you just want your face flayed off by the great music, but not to the point they become a dealbreaker. Production is really great across the instruments, but I think perhaps the vocals are just a little too loud in general, and highlight some of those imperfections which in this case don't offer much positive charm.

As you can tell by the collage cover artwork these guys are huge on cult horror and exploitation flicks, so murderers and cannibals abound in the lyrics of Nailgun Massacre and that fits the mold well. Those who scoff at the simpler death metal of olde might not get much out of this, the leads and atmospheres created by the melodies are all very good, but otherwise the rhythms are so simplistic and bare-bones that they don't really offer any flashy surprises. Boned, Boxed and Buried channels film inspirations from the 70s and 80s through the death metal of the 80s and earlier 90s, and does a pretty cracking good job of it, with a handful of over the top moments that might have been snipped from the slasher reel.

Horror-meter: Seven out of...does your mom know you're up this late?

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Orloff - Apparitions Among the Graveyard Skies (2012)

Orloff is one of numerous projects involving Vanessa Nocera of Razorback Records, known here as 'Alucarda Bellows', and right up front there looked to be so much I was going to dig about this sole full-length, Apparitions Among the Graveyard Skies. The cover artwork is excellent, comic-book style and eerily evocative. The band's logo is great. Even reading through the lyrics, I'd have to say almost all of them are decently written, fully entrenched in the cult horror that is explored throughout much of the Razorback roster. I will even go so far as to say that the initial listening impressions had me hopeful...haunting organs cede to dingy death metal just slathered in dire melodies and even some shredding lead in the first metal tune "Cobwebbed and Decayed".

Unfortunately, Orloff really puts its best foot...fang? forward, because Apparitions feels like a whole slew of ideas programmed together into a 50 minute horror-trip, with little regard for whether they really fit or not, or to any consistency of quality. The transitions are almost universally weak. A lead or an organ section will arrive and depart with haste, like miniature interludes, only badly edited so they don't really deliver much of an impact, and just feel like they've been cobbled together from a bunch of riff ideas that were stored on a hard drive. The shredding parts are a mix of coherent and too short, or sloppy and uninteresting, where the rhythm guitars are also a mixed bag...ranging from evil, inspired vintage death/doom metal ("Nine Eternities in Doom") to the offensively banal chugging of "House Where the Beast Dwells", to "The Needful Revenge of Arthur Grimdsyke" which sounds like a pure, derivative heavy metal song with growling attached to it.

Some of the beats and fills are incredible, where in other places they feel like they're going to collapse in on themselves. Bass lines don't seem to serve much of a purpose to the music, apart from just a bulkier bottom end for the other guitars. In addition to the aforementioned organs, there are some more acidic synthesizer lines which sound like they could come from a giallo flick, only they're not very well implemented in the places they show up. Orloff also uses a few acoustic, classically styled guitar parts, which actually work out well on the instrumental title track, but feel a little jarring and wedged in elsewhere. The majority vocals are brutish and deeply guttural, while some higher pitched snarls are added in for contrast, but in either case, while they're a good fit for this style, they don't always bark out the most interesting syllabic patterns over the riffs churning out beneath them.

I'm not fully aware of the seriousness of the project, since after one demo and this album it seems to have vanished, but Apparitions Among the Graveyard Skies ultimately suffers from shoving together too many ideas which needed further gestation. Take out some of the dumber riffs that spoil it for the rest, align some of those beats and vocals a little better, and spend a long time fixing transitions, and you'd have yourself a pretty kick-ass Halloween/horror record. But as it stands, once you hit the waning moments of the album, it almost feels like the band is just as through with it as you are. Not a terrible album, just a lot of missed potential.

Horror-meter: Eight cemetery encounters out of ten.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Vampyric Blood - Howling by Candlelight (2017)

I'm a pretty big fan of the gloriously cheesy cover art on this album. Graves. Trees. Bats. Candles. Dragons. Ye olde title and logo fonts. And imposed like a ghostly image against the red-tinted photograph, the Lord of Shadow himself, corpse-painted and slung with a hefty pentagram, for all to understand that this gentleman is absolutely the Real Fucking Deal. And he IS, because Howling by Candlelight is a record that sounds exactly as it should when you're looking at it, a relic of 90s raw black metal aesthetics infused with the Romanticism of bloodsucking, wampyric aspirations laid fertile in the hearts and imaginations of Goths and black metal freaks decades over...and by that I mean it features keyboards, prominently but not tastelessly, as an atmospheric backdrop for the bitter riffing.

The synthesizers are hit or miss. Not because they're obnoxious or happy at any point. Not because the the pads and tones chosen aren't wholly appropriate to this recording. A few of the notes just seem to drag and drone a bit, as in the intro "Lighting the Candles in Storming Darkness", which doesn't turn out quite as promising as it starts. But in general, when working alongside the instruments, or the Lord's huge, fulfilling rasp, they blend in rather well to give the listener the impression of haunted Eastern European landscapes through which witches frolic, dark rites are cast and the shadows of ruined castles promise eloquent terrors hidden behind and beneath their walls. Guitars are a mish mash of early Norse black metal influences, heavy on the Darkthrone during slower rhythms but also a lot of De Mysteriis-era Mayhem when the pace picks up, and doing a pretty decent job in both cases although there are only a small handful of actual riffs on the album which I'd call truly evil and effective. In fact, there were some here that were rather dull and melancholic and couldn't contribute fully to the utter damnation that every second of this record should evince.

Bass-lines are pretty mundane, but at least they're audible and offer some nice ballast for the guitars rather than just cloning them 100%. Beats are exactly what they need to be, distant and crashing and effective without getting in the way of the other instruments. I had mentioned the Lord's rasping vocals are massive, and indeed they are, with some great sustain and snarl, fitting perfectly to the riffing and atmosphere. At the same time, they are completely generic for the style, meaning they don't distinguish themselves from a few thousand other bands; there are no real nuances or quirks that mark them as particularly memorable. Simply well done for what they are, and he'll occasionally throw in some murky chants or other bits to offer some degree of ritualistic variation. There are also a number of spots throughout Howling in which one instrument, a riff perhaps is just given a bunch of space to resonate on its own, an effect that isn't often very interesting but enforces the commitment that the Lord has to placing atmosphere right at the forefront of his work along the riffs themselves.

This is another of many obscure BM albums which I don't think has the chops to stand out from the ceaseless crowds, yet it's worthwhile enough that when listening to it I'd never turn it off in sheer frustration. The issue here is simply that the individual songs don't all deliver good riffs, no matter how purely indebted to the genre they sound; nor are the atmospheric components fascinating enough to distract one away from the fact that a lot of the guitars are grist for the mill. Provided that you're a listener who doesn't mind the presence of keys for the theatrical nightmare-scape they can provide, and you're looking for some pure genre fare circa 1993-1994, spacious and diabolical, lyrically focused on black magick, wampyrism, horror and death, without flashy musicianship or any pretense beyond its own swollen darkness, then this one won't probably won't let you down. Personally, while I dug everything the Lord was aiming for, the music itself just wasn't often strong enough that I would keep hearing it in my conscience once the clouds of bats had dissipated.

Horror-meter: Six blood-dripping candles out of ten.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Monday, September 24, 2018

Rostok Vampires - Transylvanian Disease (1989)

I had encountered the name Rostok Vampires a handful of times through the 80s and early 90s, probably referenced in some zines, or perhaps the 'thank you' list in some album's liner notes, and I thought whoever they are, they sound kind of cool, as we often would think scouring the metal underground before being faced with the reality. It would be around a decade before I'd tracked down any of their music, which happened to be their first full length album, Transylvanian Disease. Cool band name. Cool album title. My expectations were that this was going to be some sort of horror crossover/thrash band, but in reality that's more what they evolved towards on later efforts, like their sophomore Misery, which had a lot more metallic riffing across its tracks than this debut, which is more or less a straight horror-punk record with only a few brief guitar parts one might classify as thrash or heavy metal of any sort.

Transylvanian Disease is essentially a hardcore punk album, very heavily influenced by the Misfits, as you can tell by the happy, predictable punk riffs wed to the pained, howling, Glen Danzig-a-like vocals and gang shouts. The difference is that, contrary to what the cool cover artwork implies, the lyrics and song themes don't seem terribly rooted in horror. Perhaps a little of the imagery conjured in the lyrics of a few tracks, but largely this is a mix of the personal non-conformist punk shtick with some social and political lyrics, such as "Faith" which covers Islamic extremism, or "Gun" which might be a criticism of firearm ownership, though the lyrics are fairly minimalist. So right away we've got this huge thematic disconnect which only breeds some degree of disappointment, after seeing that illuminated graveyard, dark trees, and thinking this was somehow going to be some creepy crossover. Just know this in advance, it looks a lot cooler than it sounds. Now, having said that, the Rostok Vampires debut is actually not all that terrible of an album, if you're into the punk and hardcore sounds of the early to mid 80s and seek out records that followed along that path.

The album opens with a screaming sample and then breaks down into a drum-driven, groove which frames some stock rock chords and weird, atonal leads, all before the inevitable circle pit thrust with the raving vocals that places itself somewhere between the Misfits and Minor Threat. The guitar tone, drums and general atmosphere are actually quite good, it sounds snug with its times and that automatically lends itself to a sincerity a lot of genre fans really crave. The songs don't seem like they required a whole lot of thought to conceive, split between some energetic muted hardcore riffs and punk 101 chord progressions, but there's at least a little bit of fire lit beneath these Germans, a little more anger and rawness, rather than the kitschy drive-thru horror vibe of Danzig, Doyle and crew. Bass and drums are about as frantic as this genre got back them, and you certainly get the impression that if this were played on a stage in front of you there would be a whole lot of mohawk-slinging shit kickers whipping their leather jackets and spikes around. Although once the lead guitars break out, and there are several whipping around, a few of the true might have gotten confused.

The Vampires seemed comfortable in this sound, but apart from a few slightly darker riffs or breakdowns where the tunes seem to mutate towards more 'core or metal, it's just not a set of songs that have really stuck with me whatsoever. I would never pick this one out of a lineup against the Misfits, Ramones, Black Flag, Seven Seconds, The Exploited, Agent Orange, or any of the other early punk and hardcore that I often find myself spinning through the decades. They offer a little more than some shallow impersonation of the American and British scenes, to be fair, but really didn't seem to have hit their stride at this point. Coupled with the missed opportunity for some creepy, atmospheric, unique Euro punk or hardcore that really embraced the horror theme that their moniker and album title imply, it was quite a disappointment when I at last got around to listening to it. I'd easily recommend heading straight for their heavier, thrashier albums like Torment of Transformation and Misery, but if you're super invested in that 80s heavier punk sound then you could do worse than Transylvanian Disease. Just keep the fangs and fake blood in storage, because this album does.

Horror-meter: Two out of ten pretty gravestones.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Bloodfiend - Dead Blood Madness (2014)

Bloodfiend is an Argentinian metal act doing its part to channel the death metal deities of yesteryear, only from a slightly fresher angle due to what I can only assume might be a more localized regional listening influence. Judging by the cover artwork alone I wasn't sure whether I would be faced with some indistinct, brutal death via the mid-90s style. The zombie-strewn cover art looked cool, but as a subject matter many would argue that they've long outworn their welcome as vehicles for horror. So it was a positive surprise to hear a group reaching even further backwards to the 80s roots of their genre and twisting them just enough that they've manifest a sound which is conventional and predictable, perhaps, but also authentic enough that you never get the impression they were just setting out to copy any one of their forebears in particular, but rather calling upon a whole host of inspirations.

To be more specific, I'd liken Dead Blood Madness to a Scream Bloody Gore, or Cause of Death, only infused with the South American blood of a vintage Sepultura or Sarcófago. Primitive riffing patterns splayed out in familiar patterns that juggle between evil tremolo picked open notes and a more chugging, meaty substrate. When they erupt into the faster tempos, they walk...or shamble, along a fine line between Chuck Schuldiner's earlier rhythm progressions and those you'd equate with Schizophrenia and Beneath the Remains, but the larger percentage of slower, grooving riffs are rife with the DNA of bands like Obituary, Cianide ("Rage War" is covered at the end of this album), even a little Bolt Thrower for good measure. I really enjoyed the guitar tone, just fat enough for the palm mutes and lower chords, but really slicing through you like a surgical knife though suture and flesh; just about perfect for their style. They also include some higher pitched, simplistic melodies that also recount sepultural atmospherics, but seem to shy away from the unkempt, explosions of lead guitar, which does seem to create a vacancy here that those melodies can't entire fill, especially on the instrumental tune "Decaying Madness", which would have been truly excellent with more lead work, or at least some vocals.

Gabriel Rotten's vocals possess a natural, nihilistic growl which really anchors the old school riffing into the graveyard, with just enough sustain and resonance, and he'll occasionally pitch a higher or louder guttural into the vaulted ceiling of the album's sonic envelope to curb the monotony that this style often faces. The drums offer up some concrete death/thrashing aesthetics, occasionally burst out into controlled blasting but never going too extreme that the album is turned loose from its decidedly throwback feel. The bass guitar really got lost for me behind the rhythm riffs, and doesn't seem to do much of anything interesting throughout the 33 minute playtime, but to be fair I can't imagine that fattening up the tone or wandering off into disparate, distinct lines would have done much to strengthen the overall presentation Bloodfiend was reaching for, which is more like a spade full of clumped cemetery soil being tossed into your face. The band really knows what it's trying to capture here and I think the production choices are seamless towards that vision, the riffs and beats are placed at complementary levels and the vocals are loud enough to dominate without stealing your attention away from those ravenous rhythm guitars.

Ultimately, Dead Blood Madness is a sort of record that I might not reach for above classics of its genre, or even the better retro bands of the current day, but it definitely engages the imagination and nostalgia once you've gotten caught up in it. I could have spun this record in 1989-90 and gotten the same chills as I did some of its peers back in that era, though whether it would have held up as much is unlikely. The horror themes course through its veins like dried up, blood, and for a good chunk of this you can feel the hopeless claustrophobic press of lumbering, mobile corpses as they prepare to chew the life out of you. Pairs well with a can of cheap beer while you ingest an afternoon of B or C-grade zombie flicks, and if you think that's anything but a compliment, then you and I are just never going to work out, so we'd best see other people.

Horror-meter: Seven out of ten decaying neighbors.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Summer Break 2018

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

Best to you and yours,

Friday, July 20, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Zombiefication - Below the Grief (2018)

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

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

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

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, July 13, 2018

Dire Omen - Formless Fires Embodied EP (2018)

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

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

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

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Zombiefication - Procession Through Infestation (2014)

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Vultur - Entangled in the Webs of Fear (2018)

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 6, 2018

Calvarium - Assaulting the Divine EP (2004)

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Six Feet Under - Unburied (2018)

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Fail [4.25/10]

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Mutilate - Tormentium (2018)

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

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

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

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Moonreich - Fugue (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Hyrgal - Serpentine (2017)

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

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

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

Verdict: Win [8/10]