Sunday, June 17, 2018

Skull - No Bones About It (1991)

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Dreadful Fate - Vengeance (2018)

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

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

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

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] 

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

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Auberon - Crossworld (2001)

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

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

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

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

http://auberonswe.blogspot.com/

Saturday, June 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

http://auberonswe.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Arcane - Cascade (1997)

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

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

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

Verdict: Indifference [5/10] 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Dead Reptile Shrine - Praise Cemetary (2013)

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

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

Friday, June 1, 2018

On Review Requests


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

-autothrall