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 song...it'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 bass...it's there, just as relevant as on any of their older material, but not a major feature.

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

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


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Aorlhac - L'esprit des vents (2018)

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]


Monday, March 5, 2018

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]