Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Darkenhöld - Echoes from the Stone Keeper (2012)

While not advancing the band's purview far beyond it's debut, Echoes from the Stone Keeper was a fine sophomore effort which continued to channel the mythistorical Dark Age consciousness into the 90s European black metal medium, fantasy and folklore into gnarled, atmospheric black metal that holds firmly to both its cultural and musical traditions. It might not dazzle as much as its predecessor in terms of 'surprise', hearing this great idea for the very first time as I did with A Passage to the Towers, but the necessary steps are taken to cement the band's style and penchant for solid, well-laid-out compositions which transport the listener, preferably the atavistic European individual or someone across the sea who wishes he or she were such, into grim landscapes of stone, forest and steel, where there was no cellphone onto which you could scream during your inevitable beheading by some errant knight or highwayman en route to some plague-infested berg.

It's a thicker sounding, blockier album than the first, as if levels were being tweaked between the instruments to try and even them out, and some slight calamity occurred as a result. Don't get me wrong here, Echoes is still quite listenable, but the dynamic range of its Passage was superior to my ears, and remains so, since I went back and listened to it before tackling the rest of their catalog. On a stylistic standpoint, this is very much that mid-90s style of black metal pioneered largely by bands out of Norway who early on applied symphonic elements as complements to the guitars. You could trace it back to Emperor, Limbonic Art, Old Man's Child, and their ilk, good influenced to have as they permit Darkenhöld to truly manifest the archaic, haunted majesty of their lyrical themes. The riffing here is quite solid, perhaps not always so unique but shifting about often enough that there is no real boredom anywhere, with tight-cropped tracks that don't their heads to spawn mediocre 'epics' that lack the ideas to fill them. Drums sound tight and appropriately crashy, while the guitar tone itself is good, the synths are laid out just right behind it all and the vocalist's rasp slithers right thru to coil itself around the listener's bewitched ears.

It's only when it all fires off at once that I sensed a little bit of clip or excessive evenness which robbed some of the individual components of their power potential. Sometimes the keys would shine forward a little much for the strength of the guitars, and so forth, but I'm such an admirer of this style and where it takes me mentally that it's not a great obstacle. The 'dungeon synth' like intro pieces, "Subterranean Corridor" and "Interlude" are well enough made, but perhaps not as catchy as the keys used in some of the proper metal tunes, and not as good as those Darkenhöld has used on some of its other albums. For this album, the more the band takes risk and provides evil riffing, the better the tunes seem to be, as in "Chasm of Asylake", but they hit a lot of mid-paced Blood Fire Death style sequences adorned with eerie symphonics or pianos that I also found quite agreeable. The lyrics are also worthwhile, whether you're into fantastical creatures ("Wyvern Solitude Chant") or alchemy ("Under the Sign of Arcanum"). All told, I'd say this ranked as their third best album, quite good but not as impressive as the debut or the album that would follow it in 2014.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Ossuaire/Ysengrin/Aorlhac/Darkenhöld - La Maisniee du Maufe - A Tribute to the Dark Ages (2011)

I'm years late checking out this four-way split, but as a fan of three of the four French bands participating on my way into it, I figured it was just about mandatory. The common thread running through the creators here, apart from the shared nationality, is that they all have some devotion among their own projects to atavism, diving into the distant past for lyrical and musical inspiration, and I feel this micro scene, more prevalent in Europe than my own USA, offers a cool counterbalance to the more modernized strains of black or death metal which head off towards more progressive ideals. I also thought the layout for the split album was interesting: at about 31 minutes, three of the four bands all feature an instrumental intro or outro along with a harder, metallic track.

All three of these instrumentals consist of a clean guitar component, with Aorlhac's album opener being the most purely rustic and folksy, pure acoustic bliss. Darkenhöld's is a little more dingy and tribal, with some ambient sounds hovering just at the crest of the guitars. The finale of the split, Ysengrin's "Herege", features some electric guitar along with the acoustic, and cedes into a more funereal synth as it comes to its close. All three of these pieces were very well done, highlights of the recording, and for their small differences flow together rather well with one another and the slightly divergent styles of the bands. Fortunately, just about everything else on offer is also worthwhile, from Aorlhac's savage, riffy "Les charognards et la Catin", to Darkenhöld's mid-paced, evil piece and fittlingly titled "Eerie Plain at Dawn", to Ysengrin's morbid amalgamation of death, doom, heavy and black metal "La Procession Noire" with its more atmospheric, guttural vocals and weird, snaking riffs and leads. Each of these tunes is quite fluid with what the band was releasing individually at the time, and like a lot of their material easy for the Dark Age headbanger trapped in the 21st century to lose oneself in.

Ossuaire was new to me, but their sole track also seems like a microcosm of what their peers had on exhibition, with some acoustic guitars that transmute into some chunky, dissonant black/death metal with, yet again, guttural vocals rather than the black rasps that you'll hear from the first two bands on the split. I did think this tune was okay, but perhaps my own issue was the dingy, dissonant tones and overall production once the heavier sections kicked in stood out a little much from the rest. Some of the style here reminded me a lot of another French band, Suppuration, which is cool, and I did like this enough that I'll track down their 2010 full-length Mortes Fables at some point to check it out, but I'd say of any of the selections for this release, it was probably the one I would have cut out to make the rest flow a little more smoothly. That aside, and its a minor gripe at best, La Maisniee du Maufe is a very cool release which delights for much of its runtime. France has by far one of the best scenes in all black metal these years, and even though the bands included on this would be considered second or third 'tier', they are all well worth hearing, following and supporting.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, November 12, 2018

Darkenhöld - Memoria Sylvarum (2017)

I've been drawn into Darkenhöld's brand of glorious, melancholic Medieval black metal since the very debut, and for years now they have been cementing themselves as a paragon of escapism. Though they play in a far more traditional vein than the 'Big Three' of the French scene (or at least my own 'Big Three'), they are with ease one of the more consistent in the 'second tier', and like their countrymen Belenos and Aorlhac there's a historical spin to the chosen themes, although this particular band dresses it up in a fantastical element. Essentially they're one of those black metal acts which would find appeal for dungeon synth fans, and vice versa, although their own exploration of that divergent style is limited to a very small fraction of their albums. Still, if you dream of castle walls, long rides across cold moors, or any other idyllic Middle Age aesthetics to permeate your black metal, then it's hard to imagine you wouldn't at least get something from their albums.

Musically the focus is on mid-90s black metal riffing, an admixture of scathing rhythms, dim chord choices and occasional swings into full-on, ale-pounding majesty that come out of left field. The mix of the album is very even, with the guitars, bass, drums, synths and nasty snarling of the frontman 'Cervantes' complementing rather than fighting with one another in the speakers. It's a firm medium between the rawer elements of the genre, and the more overly produced, big budged offerings of the Scandinavian luminaries and mainstays. The atmosphere is created through the graying moods of the guitars, adorned with organs and other synthesizer effects which fit them perfectly. There is one brief interlude piece called "La Grotte de la Chêvre d'Or" which you could consider full-on dungeon style synth, but otherwise the band is heavily guitar driven, with a heavy use of acoustic guitars that are seamlessly integrated along with distorted lines when they're not appearing alone. Some of the riffs are quite good, with occasional drifts into leads or melodies that stand independently of the rhythm section, but to be honest there are a number of forgettable or overly familiar patterns that would not stand out whatsoever if not for the sum atmosphere created on the album.

The snarl is quite good, but also akin to many you've heard before, so I'm thankful that they also do include some soaring, background choral vocals that make it sound like it's being broadcast at you from some mountain monastery. Memoria Sylvarum also keeps most of its tunes reined in at around 4-5 minutes, so they aren't so headstrong to think they can cycle endless waves of repetitive riffing at you in a vainglorious attempt to seem epic or profound. With a couple exceptions, Darkenhöld just charges into battle, as a convocation of black knights attending a joust, and then doesn't wear out its welcome, providing the listener an atavistic portal into his or her own fantasy. It's almost elegant apart from how it does occasionally deliver the savagery of the earlier albums by acts like Midvinter or Old Man's Child. While it's not my favorite of the albums they've put out to date, this does not disappoint, it's only marginally less engaging to me than A Passage to the Towers or Castellum, and yet again secures a catalog of consistency for a band that, Franc-ly, is not spoken of nearly as often as they deserve. Sorry for the terrible pun, it appears my jestering skills need some dusting off.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Bâ'a/Verfallen/Hyrgal - Split LP (2018)

The only of the French black metal bands to feature on this 3-way split that I've previously encountered was Hyrgal, who released the very solid album Serpentine last year, also through local label and bastion of consistency Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions. The others here, Verfallen and Bâ'a, are actually making their debuts with this very release, and from the level of competency being exhibited here, I hardly think it will be the last we hear of either of them. What's more, the three bands all match up rather well in terms of overall stylistic intent, not to the point that they could be mistaken for clones, but it helps give the hour-long experience a very seamless transition between them, so at times I forgot I was even listening to a split and felt it was more of a concerted, complementary effort.

Bâ'a opens with a volley of fast-paced, highly melodic and sorrow-stoking black metal complete with some great bass-lines and added layers of orchestration at just the right moments for just enough of a transcendence. There are some breaks in the momentum, where the material becomes more longing and pensive, but overall they are just a well-rounded project with a multi-faceted attack that worked for me at any pacing. Verfallen feature some of the longer tracks on the disc, each over 9 minutes long and giving me some nostalgia for 90s melodic black or death metal with an intense blast beat battery and some harsh, nasty vocals. They too will throw in some segues where they move onto a more mid-paced, charging style or some softer guitars, but when they're firing on all cylinders I got the impression of a French Dark Funeral or Marduk, maybe some shades of Merrimack. They're probably the most monotonous of the three bands here, but I don't mean that in a bad way, the songs are just more grandiose in weight, there is still plenty going on to keep the listener's ear trained and not lapsing into boredom.

Hyrgal, the 'veterans' of this release, take things down a notch with a very somber, morose piece that moves at one of the slowest crawls, but packed with harrowing emotion and driving chords. A few parts of their album closer, "Sicaire", ramp up the pacing to flow more fluidly with some of the offerings of their compatriots earlier on, before then breaking down again into a soul-sucking climax with some multi-layered vocals, and lastly a wonderful ambient ending that trails off for the last 4 minutes, spacious and heavily distorted guitars ringing out before a torrential downpour cedes to some stormy swells of cleaner, sparsely strung notes. All quite breathtaking, especially after the near hour of time you spent building up to this, it's as if all the tension of the bands' material breaks at long last, drenching the listener in a chance to reflect back upon the journey. All thoughtfully constructed, and while these particular bands might not have the same level of distinction or creativity as some of  their better known countrymen, they're all quite good at what they do. Passion, savagery, escapism, such crucial components for black metal. France has a very rich scene in this genre, and here are three freshly blooming examples of why.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, November 5, 2018

VCID - Jettatura (2018)

You might not see a metric ton of bands labeling themselves 'black n' roll' out there, but in truth the two mediums work well in tandem, and it's hardly a novel concept. A quick listen through first wavers like Hellhammer or Venom will reveal quite a few pure rock-ims; sure, they might be saturated in raw production that sounds alien to anyone looking for radio-friendly classic rock, but the simplicity and intent is laid bare. VCID is a French band which pretty much attempts to serve as a poster child for what that hybrid would sound like in 2018, and if you can set some expectation for that in advance you will find unfortunately find no surprises on their first full-length Jettatura. That's not to say this album is a bad one per se, because its clear production and thick guitars hold an estimable level of potency, but where even Satyricon were able to pull of a few evil, addictive grooves on their own 'black'n' roll' era records like Now, Diabolical and The Age of Nero, this one is all surface level, all straightforward and doesn't have much in the way of subtle tact or memorable riffing.

Jettatura is primarily mid-paced, driving rock-punk rhythms with a few slightly faster, dissonant chord patterns woven in and out for good measure. It shows a sort of parallel development to how crustier metal/hardcore bands of the D-generation write at moderate speeds, only with a brighter production level. Think Nails playing a Darkthrone cover, mitigating their anger a bit for a more bruising, cruising effect. It's not so sunny, rocky and punky as something like Turbonegro or  Kvelertak, but take that style and integrate some more mug-swilling, atmospheric and melodic disposition and you're in the right ballpark. In fact I'd say they sound most to me like the Danish band Horned Almighty, although I didn't enjoy this quite so much as that band's catalog which has a more cruel, abusive streak to it. The riffs here are just slightly north of 'stock', occasionally dressed up with a jangly little minor note fill so it's not just all meaty chords, or some occasionally chugging which will break off into a faster tremolo picked sequence.

A lot relies on the vocalist 'C' (they all use initials here), who has this very level, consistent and nasty rasp which is capable of some sustain to match up with the general mid speed of the instruments. C sounds loud and central to the mix, and about as professional as you're going to get, but at times I also though the vox were a bit too obvious and overbearing, without the little flaws and personality quirks that would make them stand out. Essentially it's a rock solid delivery over a rock solid base, with the drums and bass and rhythm guitars all adequate for a style of black metal that is the very opposite of flash. I think they do a fairly decent job of balancing out their two 'sides', but the issue I had for much of this was just that the black metal riffs are never evil enough, nor haunting, even when they clearly try to be. Some more experimentation, higher pitched guitars, perhaps some more unpredictable rhythm guitar patterns could really turn this around because VOID clearly knows how to achieve a high level studio sound. The album packaging looks cool, and they also have a really cool lyrical style which seems to flow like beat poetry when you read them outside of the music.

A lot of potential here, I just wish the band would go further out into the unknown. I think in the end, if you're really into that early Darkthrone black metal style but want it cleaned up a bit, Jettatura would hardly be a waste of your time, but the whole experience felt a little too stable and samey for what I'm looking for in this particular niche.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Friday, November 2, 2018

Necronomicon - Unleashed Bastards (2018)

Unlike a few of their thrashing peers in the German underground, Necronomicon never really took some huge break from the music. Sure, there was a decade of general inactivity between Screams in 1994 and 2004's Construction of Evil, but otherwise the band has been somewhat consistent in productivity, dropping a new disc every 3-4 years. Never really among the forefront of the Teutonic titans, possibly due to the constant comparisons to Schmier and Destruction, they've actually held up pretty evenly in the quality of what they release, with a lot of average-to-decent tier albums, the best of which have been Revenge of the Beast and Pathfinder... Between Heaven and Hell, at least among their 21st century offerings. Unleashed Bastards continues the legacy of those works, another of their more elaborately written albums, which certainly sounds like no effort was spared in putting it together despite any lack of expectations that the thrash audience might have.

There are a couple flaws...for instance, the cover art is really shitty, some aberration of their Chaly like winged skull mascot superimposed with half an evil woman face, and completed by the tacky album title font. Doesn't bode well for what you're about to hear, and that's too bad, because this album delivers on many fronts. The other setback here is that, for all the detail and extravagance on exhibition throughout Unleashed Bastards, a lot of the tunes center around some really generic riffs that you've heard a thousand times before. Does Necromonicon offer enough relish on top of this fundamentally predictable core to help offset that fact? I'd say they do, because the album has a great flow to it, with plenty of variation in the riff-sets, lots of good leads and melodies applied to the duller rhythm guitars to help spice them up and keep the ears fixed. Tracks like "Forbid Me from Living" and "Imperial Hunger" really soar through the roof, not only because of these guitars but also the resonant, Schmier-like vocal quality of the band's long time axeman-singer Freddy.

He has that ability to pitch that nasty Germanic mid-range bite into the stratosphere with some great chorus-work that patches up many misgivings I'd have for some of the verse riffs. The lead guitars if a little forgettable, are all thrown in at the right times and places, and combined with the heavy use of melody there is easily an appeal here for fans of bands like Heathen, Forbidden, Paradox, Deathrow,etc. The rhythm section is rock tight with some great drum tone throughout, and busy bass-work in spots that really help lend the tunes some replay value. They'll also throw out a couple tunes with unexpected structures like "Malevolent", which takes its time ramping up to the neckbreaking. All told, this is some pro stuff here, with a production that I can't find any complaints about. The packaging might suck, but Unleashed Bastards has vaulted itself to my favorite album of their post-2000 catalog, and  second favorite only to Escalation among their entire discography. Perhaps not among my thrash picks for the year, but these guys prove why they've remained in the game for so long.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Darkness - First Class Violence (2018)

Say what you will about the fluxing quality of the various Teutonic second string thrashers' reunion era records, but there's no question that bands such as Vendetta, Accuser, Assassin, Necronomicon, Exumer and Darkness are committed to the cause. Not just taking one shot at kicking their midlife crises in the jimmies to reclaim their hopeful youths, but attempting to forge a genuine secondary career out of returning to the metals. As for Essen's Darkness, the 2016 comeback The Gasoline Solution was a competent and well executed thrash album that, to me at least, was right on par with their 1987 cult debut Death Squad, possibly the only album that many would remember from the band. With First Class Violence, they return for more of their no-nonsense, urban thrash which eschews any and all gimmicks, bells or whistles for the pure headbanging roots of the medium.

The results here were mixed for me. I find the album very well produced with appreciable nastiness, and lots of cool flourishes in the lead work and the atmosphere that takes me right back to a lot of US underground thrashers in the 80s, from Atrophy to Indestroy, not to mention the overt parallels to their own legendary countrymen Sodom and Kreator. However, about half of the tunes here suffer from some really banal rhythm guitar progressions that are entirely too dull and predictable. "Low Velocity Blood Spatter" is a good example, because it starts with some nice, dim harmonies and seems like it's about to explode like a mix of Artillery's By Inheritance and Kreator's Coma of Souls, but then devolves into some lame moshy parts. These are saved by the fiery energy of the band, in particular the lead guitars wailing out all over the place, or the meaty drum performance. In general, they just perform far better when they're moving along at either a faster paced with speedier picking redolent of Agent Orange, or a few of the peppier mid-paced riffs which recall Exodus.

There's also a similar mood or feel to a number of the tracks here where a lot of the guitar seem to blend together; don't mistake me, they all feel flush to the artwork and atmosphere that the album is trying to present, but a few more guitar parts out of left field would have rounded it out better. The band's newer vocalist Lee does an adequate job of delivering a nasty, sincere, splattering tone, but sometimes a bit too polished and punctual. As I mentioned before, the leads are fired up and inspiring throughout, when they erupt in tunes like "See You on the Bodyfarm" they almost always elevate their surroundings, and without any need to be overly wanky or technical. It's largely thanks to these that First Class Violence is still an album I'd recommend to pure thrashing fans who are looking for proficiently implemented throwbacks to that 80s Golden Age, which Darkness themselves were a small part of. The Gasoline Solution was slightly better, but a tune like "Born Dead" works for me in any decade, these gentlemen don't sleep on the execution.

Verdict: Win [7/10]