Sunday, March 24, 2019

Spring Break 2019

Taking my annual Spring vacation from the blog, but I will return May 1st to regale you with all the latest tales of sex, drugs and debauchery! Or maybe just some more reviews. Either way, thanks so much for reading.



Saturday, March 23, 2019

Usurper - Lords of the Permafrost (2019)

If you had seen or experienced some of the crazy low temperatures these Chicagoans had experienced during the cold snap of 2018-19, then you'd be reassured they can lay claim to the title they chose for this reunion record. Of course, you could also translate it as a clever homage tracing back to that legendary Swiss band which influenced these guys since their inception, so it works on a number of levels. In any case, Usurper has produced its first new studio album in 14 years, and since the simplistic, iron pulsing blackened thrash style they perform in is not one that ever really goes out of style, Lords of the Permafrost doesn't sound like it's missed a single beat. In fact, I'll go beyond that to say that within just a few spins I've decided that I like this more than anything these dudes have put out since Skeletal Season back in 1999.

Without reinventing their formula, or really any formula, Usurper succeeds in sounding refreshed at what they've offered us all along, steady treading, fist pumping thrash metal with riffing progressions that don't sound advanced whatsoever from an 80s mentality, but remain convincing, entertaining and by their own measure, rather brutal. Hellhammer and Celtic Frost are the obvious starting point, but the band hits a lot harder in terms of percussion, and they shift into faster paced, moderate blasted parts which balance out the grooving, mosh-worthy ballast. The rhythm guitar tone on this record is fucking awesome, chunky and voluptuous and repeatedly fisting you in the abdomen while the thick bass lines reinforce it. A couple of riffs where this is most evident have an almost slower-paced vibe similar to Slayer in the late 80s, and the chord selections also have that same sort of chilling, evil feel, with maybe a little vintage Sepultura chucked in there. The leads are likewise great through the album, appearing exactly where they need to be, sounding frivolous and wild enough yet structured, and really round out the whole experience.

I think it's the vocals though that truly bind the album together, gut-fed, hostile paeans to the Tom G. Warrior syllabic crudeness but with more of a death metal, grumbling sustain to them, and then they are often backed up with some other growls or shouts, even some somber Goth-like cleans in the tune "Beyond the Walls of Ice" which honestly got me up out my chair circle pitting around my office/game room table like a denim & leather neanderthal, regardless of the fact that I'd heard these riffing patterns before probably a million times. Lords of the Permafrost is exactly that fun, it never tries to be anything more than an added spike in Usurper's blood-spattered epaulet, and there is just enough variety between the slower and faster sequences in the tracks to keep it engaging and not fall into some sodden, repetitive wreck. Nothing new for this band, sure, but I actually thought that, at least as far as the production quality, this was their best and most immediate sounding album, and I'll happily reach for this off the shelf as often as my previous favorites in their discography, Skeletal Season and Diabolosis... Ice crushing hesher mayhem.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, March 18, 2019

Carthaun - Einheit (2005)

I'm a sucker for a distinct logo, and Germans Carthaun have one that instantly stood out to me, a little hard to make out at first, but I really dig the symmetry and symbolism. The stark imperialism of the logo imposed over the reflection of the trees on the lake (and itself) was a nice touch, and it also looks pretty cool on some of their late album covers. Now I wish I could say the same for the music on this debut album, that it somehow stood out among the flock of European (or specifically German) black metal acts, but alas that isn't the case, at least not for Einheit, which ends up a pretty bog standard recording that, while not particularly terrible, might be interchangeable with hundreds of lesser tier bands from the same era and geographical location.

This is largely blasted black metal with a sound not unlike an Endstille, only around the same time they were doing this, that band was coming up with more hypnotic note patterns to fuel albums like Navigator and Endstilles Reich. Carthaun executes a mix of predictable, straightforward chord selections that feel banal even looking back at 2005, with a few more atmospheric, melodic guitar lines that instantly feel like they elevate the record beyond the former. I especially liked how this latter category of riffs blends in with the swerve of the bass lines, and this is definitely the direction I wished this album pursued a lot more of, but it just doesn't go there quite enough. I do dig the bass playing on the record, it's nothing too technical, but a little more involved than your average four string strummer who might follow too closely to the guitars. The drums have a jamroom feel to them, not too thunderous or powerful or overproduced, but kind of bland in terms of beats and fills, so they never transcend the mere adequacy that this sub-genre demands."

Vocals, on the other hand, are the flat-out worst part of the album, a raucous rasp that sounds like Salacious Crumb from Return of the Jedi choking on one of Jabba's concubine's chains. They sound too flat and mid-range in the mix and kind of smother the simpler, less burdensome guitars alongside them. I'm not convinced that they'd be all that bad if they didn't have such a blunt and uninteresting way that they were mixed into the recording, the more atmospheric guitars and certainly the bass have a mood to them which just isn't served well by all the barking tones. Very amateur sounding, and I found myself desirous of any part of the music that did not contain them, just to escape. Not a great start for Carthaun. It looks cool, but fails to impress to deliver even a raw, paint-by-numbers, traditional sort of black metal. To be fair, what I've heard of later albums like Brachland or Staub und Schatten is quite a bit better than this material, so if you stumble across that sweet looking logo and determine to check them out, head straight for their 2012 and 2015 offerings.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

I.N.C. - Terrible Things (2019)

While Black Hearse Serenade was a sizable improvement over the first 'reunion' era album from I.N.C., Terrible Things is a bit more of a baby step forward in quality, and an album that sounds like a quintessential slice of New York thrash, an evolution of the style that bands like Anthrax and Overkill laid out throughout the 80s. In fact, it's an album that is very likely to appeal to fans of those two bands, especially if you were keen on their material through the 90s when they were trying to explore their sound envelopes a bit more with some groove metal, but not limited to that. This album also drops off a bit of the Pantera sound I felt had infested the two albums prior to it...perhaps not entirely, but it's been replaced here by some good gang shouts and a lot more fast, thrashing energy, threaded with some classical, memorable leads like in "Identifier".

This album hits hard and it hits quick, packing a lot of punch into 3-4 minute tracks, and almost always having a nice surprise tucked in there like the harmonized, higher pitch shouts at the climax of the aforementioned "Identifier". They use some catchy, descending harmonies akin to stuff that you'd hear from Slayer or Testament in their classic phases, and the selection of riffs through the album is an even balance of the powerful-but-predictable sort and others that are just plain neat. Not only is the music the best they've written in the 21st century, but the vocals are really on point here, with a kind of blend of shouts, barks and melodic chorus parts that almost seems like a mix of modern Anthrax and Germany's Paradox (check the chorus for "Declaration"). Power/thrash metal would not be a bad tag for this stuff. The bass tone is better, the drumming is exactly what it needs, and like the prior album they incorporate plenty of dynamics from outright frenzied thrashing to some brief and appreciable breakdowns that don't ever teeter on cheese. It's also a consistent disc, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, like there'd be 3-4 good songs and then the rest might be rubbish, but the quality is evenly distributed throughout, and I think some of the better chorus parts and riffs are even backloaded on the thing.

A few of the lyrics are a bit too plebeian and mediocre, and as I said only about half the riffs are really sticky, but Terrible Things thwarts its own namesake to easily take the crown of anything I.N.C. has accomplished since its reformation. The effort and resilience here really shine through, and this is one I'd have no problem recommending to fans of modern 21st century thrash which doesn't take too many bites of the retro pizza, but attempts to enhance or re-imagine a band's primal 80s style into a modern context. I think there's just as much an appeal to Euro thrash or power/thrash fans of Destruction, Artillery, Accuser, After All, and Paradox as I.N.C.'s own New York peers. It doesn't have the quirky personality that their first two albums had 30 years ago, and if I were in the mood for I.N.C. those are what I'd still reach for, but if you think of this last decade's releases as a different band, this abolishes its predecessors, and hints at even greater potential going forward. It's also pretty satisfying to hear a veteran band bounce back like this after splashing around in the stagnant puddle that was Heaven Sent...Hellbound. I.N.C. is now worthy of your radar again.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

I.N.C. - Black Hearse Serenade (2014)

While they were never in contention as being one of the better East Coast thrash bands in the 80s, the Indestructible Noise Command was still a silly, fun group which clearly put some effort into their riff-sets. In fact, they actually had come up with a pretty unique sound that I found easily identifiable, separate from their humorous peers in Ludichrist or M.O.D. So it was sort of a bummer that over two decades later they'd release an EP and third album which felt as if they'd been corroded by banal 90s groove metal influences to the extent that they really didn't sound much like the same group. Oh, you could still tell they were thrash at the core, but the personality of those Giant Records releases was all but scraped off the bone and we were presented with something that didn't really have much to offer anyone who actually had nostalgia for I.N.C. in their formative years, or really any fan looking for a decent thrashing in 2010-2011, whether contemporary or retro.

However, while Heaven Sent...Hellbound could have just been a one and done (or one and a half and done with the Bleed the Line EP) midlife crisis attempt to tug at their roots, it turned out these dudes were serious about being back, and a few years later release Black Hearse Serenade. Right from the onset, this is an album that certainly doesn't look like it's fooling around, and probably not endowed with the comical elements that made their first two that endearing. Indeed, this album sounds like a hybrid of Pantera, Pissing Razors and Anthrax, still moored in some 90s groove influences but to be honest, there's quite a lot of honest thrashing material here which is far superior to the material they dropped in 2011. Busy, hard-hitting riff patterns that constantly keep you guessing, even when they burst out into some pretty vapid grooves, and some decent guitar leads, speed picked harmonies, and so forth. They certainly sound like they were technically proficient enough to compete along the groove/thrash hybrids we heard a lot of through the mid to late 90s, but with a production that suits this past decade snugly. You can tell there is quite a lot of effort placed into the composition and the execution throughout the entire album, and the riffs often border the technical, with a lot of punchy muted patterns devoted to making an audience's necks sore, potentially other body parts.

Now, don't let me deceive you into thinking I liked this one all that much, because for all that work put into the instruments, they almost all fly in one ear and out the other. The note selections are just not all that catchy, and while it's busy stuff, and unpredictable, it's not ultimately interesting. I also didn't care so much for the vocals...unlike the early years of I.N.C., Dennis' style here is like a schizoid combination of Phil Anselmo's tough guy drawl and Belladonna's soaring New York clean vocal style, perhaps even dusted with a little of the John Bush style in the chorus parts. Once again, plenty of effort when into building these vocal lines, they never feel cheap or ill-conceived, but I think it's just that I'm not really into the style other than some of the songs from its originators. If you put this side to side with Razorback or The Visitor, it really doesn't sound like the same band at all, and about a decade too late for when it could have made its maximum impact. That said, this one is far better than Heaven Sent...Hellbound, it's much better than stuff like Damageplan, and I found myself appreciating at least that this band took the style it was using a few years earlier, sharpened it up and went all out here. I think if you're looking for something like a more 'purely thrash' Pantera then this one might be worth your time to at least check out, but I'll stick with the early stuff.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Heaume Mortal - Solstices (2019)

There was a little disconnect for me between the packaging and musical contents of Solstices; where the lavish, beautiful cover artwork seems to hint at a highly naturalistic, atmospheric brand of black metal, the music itself is like a blunt weapon, a wall of force anchored in huge, doomed grooves slathered in the dissonant pickings and harsh vocals more associated with black metal. That isn't to say that this Heaume Mortal debut is bad, not whatsoever, but to me there was a slight contrast in aesthetics which trumped my expectations. Fortunately, both sides of that divide are quite good...the artwork is euphoric to look upon, and to dream of its broad vistas of glaciers, roaring falls, and autumn foliage; a few of the lyrics also reflect this imagery.

The music, much more crushing, urban and personal, but no less effective. Like a number of other acts on this label (Les Acteurs de 'Ombre Productions), there's a focus here on longer tracks, from about 10-14 minutes, and they fill those with this robust blend of black metal, sludge and doom with a lot of belly-felt force and a rumbling lower end. The guitars drudge along with potent chords, slathered in dissonance and horrifying vocals drowned with enough effects that they seem to be shouting at you from a sewer or abandoned building that is crumbling from the very intonations. The groove is highly central to their sound, but they can even pull off such swollen tunes since they are never too repetitive, tossing in chugged sequences, or emergent melodies that constantly shift the turbulent landscape. The bass sound is fat and wholesome, with just enough buzz on it that you can feel it down in your bowels as those grooves lope along. The drums are more rock oriented, which works at the slower pace of the style, but can power up when necessary.

It was curious that they had one furious, shorter 2 minute track in here called "South of No North", which spoke to me that their style could easily fit more digestible, bite-sized material, but even more interesting that they plopped a cover of "Erblicket die Tochter des Firmament" smack dab in the middle of the album, and not only that...but adapted it much to their own style. It captures the longing and helplessness of the original, but with that fattened up bass and those disgusting vocals, really making it into a piece that fits themselves...which to me is the hallmark of a good cover song, doing it that honor without just copying it. It's quite a good addition to an already solid album from a band that I think will have a huge appeal not only to French black metal fans into Glorior Belli or certain Blut Aus Nord albums, but also sludge maniacs into stuff like Eyehategod. In fact they really fit in with some of their labelmates like Heir. It's a cool mash-up style with a lot of potential, much of which has already been realized by this trio. So check them out.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, March 8, 2019

Triste Terre - Grand œuvre (2019)

Grand œuvre takes almost no time enveloping the listener in swaths of mysterious atmospherics, the haunting, melancholic guitars that introduce "Œuvre au noir" standing on their own, dowsed in effects and creating an immediate allure that is satisfied once the drums and rhythm guitar drudgery arrive. But really the joy in this album is in how it constantly offers up thrills that the listener isn't expecting, like the creepy organs, winding little riff-lings or full-bore bursts into a blasted black metal format which is illuminated by faint, eerie higher pitched guitars that constantly lend it this sparkling, vaulted ceiling.

I hadn't heard any of Triste Terre's previous EP offerings, but the six tracks of this debut full-length have made me an immediate believer in the potential of the duo to stand among their better-known peers in an ever-broadening pool of black metal talent. Aesthetically I'd place them closer to bands like Blut Aus Nord or Deathspell Omega, they have that same focus on dissonance and sparseness that populates some of the former's more industrial offerings, and some resemblance to the slower material of the latter, though they never hit those same strides of frenzy (not for lack of trying). Grand œuvre might not be the most challenging record in this scene, but it's very much sprawling, oblique and ambitious without ever becoming too confusing for the ear to follow, 9-12 minute long tracks each offering compelling passages throughout their girth.

Though they do offer up some more tortured, raving vocals on occasion, I would say that if this album had a weaker element it would probably be the primary rasp used over most of the material; it's not bad but it's a little less engrossing sonically than the instrumentation, which is absolutely legion here, from the morbid, shuffling little bass lines to the spacious, grim guitar lines that operate on several levels of saturation. The beats are pretty well implemented to complement the contrast between busier sections and the tinnier, minimalistic areas in which the guitars or organs are left to their cult, cinematic graces, and the whole package is very ably produced for what they're trying to achieve.

This is no warm, vibrant journey, but one of shadows and bleakness, chills and obscurity, and thanks to the excellent packaging, it's just as spooky to page through as it is to listen to. Les Acteurs de l'Ombre has steadily transformed itself into a premium label with a talented roster, and this is just another wilted feather in their cap, a patient and penitent escape into majestic negativity.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Queensrÿche - The Verdict (2019)

I suppose after the triumphant Condition Hüman three years ago, my favorite Queensrÿche record in the 27 years leading up to it, I was bound to feel some level of disappointment for its inevitable successor. After all, to aim in the other direction, they'd have to come up with a masterpiece unheard of since the 80s. With The Verdict now in my hands, I have to say that even my tempered expectations for the third Todd La Torre-fronted album would turn out to be too high, because this one partially returns to the relative mediocrity of the eponymous 2013 effort, an album that was very well intentioned but just didn't have the hooks or vocal lines to really impress me. That's not to say this one is bad, and in truth it's stylistically in line with its excellent predecessor, but I kept waiting for those sky high hooks and melodies to engrave themselves into my memory like a "Guardian" or "Bulletproof" did, and it just wasn't meant to be...these just pop right out the opposite ear and life goes on as if I'd never even listened to the thing.

I'd like this to an update of 1994's Promised Land, with that same concoction of progressive and groove metal, driving a little harder than the commercially colossal Empire, but just lacking the great hooks they could come up with back then, or the overall atmosphere and majesty of that album. This one feels as fat and modernly produced as their last album, only that clarity isn't being used to push their best material. Lots of those Eastern-flavored, Tate-like vocal lines populate tunes like "Light Years" or "Propaganda Fashion", driven by Rockenfield's loud drums, but I feel a lot of the groovier rhythm guitar riffs on this album are entirely too bland and predictable, not as thoughtful as what this band has been capable of in the past. The ballads are likewise forgettable, with glimmering acoustics that hearken back to "Silent Lucidity" but no potential at all to be that radio ready. "Dark Reverie" was one of the more solid tunes here, starting off soft and picking up into something enormous, but this too is plagued by a lack of strong ear-worm vocal lines. There are in truth a few choppy metal riffs throughout, but the guitars just don't pan out into interesting progressions except maybe on the track "Launder the Conscience" with its perky melody. Too many are banal, and the leads, while fittingly placed and appreciably emotional and gleaming, aren't enough to elevate the total tracks.

I feel that too much of this disc is left upon the shoulders of la Torre, and while the guy still sounds like the perfect replacement for his infamous predecessor, he's just not working alongside good enough riffs on this one to sell it. The production is massive, but too modernized and polished to feel natural at all, which is not the first time, but harder to overlook when you're not having fun with the tracks. Don't get me wrong, it's slightly better than the self-titled, and far superior to later Tate-era albums like Dedicated to Chaos, Operation: Mindcrime II or Q2K, but with so many other prog metal bands out there exploring such wide swaths of their styles and instruments, elder statesmen like these heavily depend on writing those enduring songs. While lightning struck for me unexpectedly in 2015, this one barely gets beyond a slight, static discharge. I'd honestly go a lot more towards the mid 80s metal direction, which dates you in a positive way, and ditch all the tidy 90s alt-rock groove licks that date you to your detriment, as they have almost all the Queensrÿche albums that so tediously employed them. They hit the target once in awhile, but too often fire off like blanks.

The Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Overkill - The Wings of War (2019)

The last decade of Overkill studio albums have suffered a little bit from an interchangeability issue, in that you could lift a few tracks from this or that one and plant them on another with only minimal production tweaks and few would notice the distance. But that's not necessarily a bad thing in Chaly's case, because the band maintains a high level of energy and consistency so far into its career that you have to wonder what nutritional supplements the members are all taking. As a guy who hasn't truly been 'blown away' by anything during this Ironbound era, and yet enjoyed pretty much all of it for a few spins, I'm hard-pressed to think of individual tracks that I had much disdain for. At the worst, 19 full-lengths in, you could say that they suffer from a little bit of bloat. A bunch of tunes could only ever serve as backups for similar, more exciting tunes that have already carved out the band's legacy, and the only real dynamic power you're going to experience is in just how Bobby 'Blitz' Ellsworth decides to lay out all that lyrical bravado...where will he scream, where will he shout, where will he sound like an imp nagging you from the sub-cellars of Hell?

That's not to suggest that the musicianship here is anything short of what it needs to be. All of the group's thrashing trademarks are present. The meat-chopping guitar tones pregnant with palm mute power that gives them a little more pit cred than other genre acts. The bounding bass lines from one of the most dependable anchor-men in the entire metal business. Shadows Fall drummer Jason Bittner succeeds in his debut with the band, giving a performance which never steps far beyond what you would expect to hear, but does so with thunderous precision. And Blitz is still the guy that can dress up a pretty average thrash riff, even by decades old standards, by spitting so much hard luck tough guy wisdom and charisma with those cringey, psychotic tones that you'll hardly care what else is going on as long as continues to hammer into you brain like endorphins. He does sound a little more processed here than normal, but so do some of the instruments, and it balances out rather well even though I think I much preferred them in the context of those more organic mixes on the first couple LPs. But Overkill has always risen to the times in terms of its the 80s, the 90s, the oughts, and these new teens, they sound like a band staying current, clapping some newly forged steel girders onto the songwriting aesthetics they've ever-so-slowly refined since '84.

The Wings of War is a dynamic album too, balancing off the more muscular thrash momentum with the a few big Sabbath grooves they've so long admired, or slower, structured moments that give the listener the right amount of relief before reintroducing him/her to the manhole-cover moshing force that the band has so long championed. They still know how to balance out these two sides without ever becoming too annoyingly groove like a shoddy nu-metal act; rather if you're looking for that NY fix of a Madball, Biohazard, Cro-Mags or early Life of Agony, Overkill remains one of those rare groups of longhairs you can trust to give you the goods. If you were thrilled by their recent crop of records like The Electric Age, White Devil Armory and The Grinding Wheel, then I think they're sticking quite closely to that territory without abandoning a little inspiration from the earlier decades that have stretched out behind them. Superficially, I think the album is really rock solid in its balance of riffs and vocals, constantly supported by that rumbling ruckuss of Verni and Bittner and sure to remind any passersby of your car stereo that you're a person who means freakin' business.

In terms of its staying power, though, I don't think it's quite there at the modern classic level. A few of the tunes like "Believe in the Fight", "Where Few Dare to Walk" and "Out on the Road-Kill" absolutely make my modern Overkill playlist along with the choice cuts off the last four discs, but others, including the two from the Last Man Standing EP, are in one ear and out the other. Again, there is nothing particularly 'bad' about anything on the album, but the individual riffs just don't score that much for me. "Welcome to the Garden State" is kind of endearing in that they created this pure punk metal homage to their home turf, and the lyrics are no doubt funny, but musically it's just not my bag since it feels a little predictable, only more metalized than the dull punk anthems we were forced to endure on the radio 15-20 years ago when that Orange County sound became cool again. Some of the elements in "Batshitcrazy", from the grooves to the leads all rub against one another a bit too much, although the title is a great little paean to the band's mascot when you think about it.

Ultimately, it's a reliable hour of power with a band you've experienced so often before that the colors begin to run together with other recordings in recent history. But there are only two and black, and they've now been swirled together in so many familiar auditory images that there is not a lot of creative space left to dabble with on the canvas. Saying it's 'another good Overkill' album is just like compromising with your significant other and ordering a pizza from that place that isn't quite your favorite but you'll happily eat for the sustenance and to avoid an argument. I'm not going to turn it's got the meat, the cheese, the bread that my tummy needs. A filling 60 minute meal, but it's not some masterpiece ratio of toppings that will have me salivating for years to come.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Overkill - Live in Overhausen (2018)

The Live in Overhausen double-live record is a fairly interesting concept...while a lot of veteran bands have been touring off performances of their seminal albums in their entirety, it's a rare thing to see one take on TWO at once. But that is exactly what Overkill has done with this release, pairing up Horrorscape and their debut Feel the Fire into a double album that must have been a big thrill to fans of their first decade of material over in Germany. The material is presented as a live Blu Ray with the full spread of the performance, and then two audio CDs for each of the albums in case you want to play them in your car or at work if you don't want your wife or boss recoiling from the sweaty East Coast thrashing.

Now, full disclosure here: I'm on record as not being the biggest fan of Horrorscope. It's got some strong moments, for sure, and is far from any sort of career nadir, but I felt this was the point where the band started to evade my interests. It's part of my 'curse of 1991', a year in which a lot of bands I enjoyed put out some records I thought were 'just okay', but a swell in the metal audience made them all successful regardless. There's no question that the band had been building up quite a following through its first four albums, and I've met fans who honestly think it's their very best work. I don't get it, I mean there are single songs on Taking Over I prize more than the whole affair, but what can you say? I'm a far bigger proponent for Feel the Fire, which remains my second favorite of their offerings ever after the 30+ years I've been listening to them, still an exciting debut that gets some spins here, so we all know which disc (or half of the gig) I was anticipating more.

Having said that, the Horrorscape material sounds pretty faithful and well-performed, considering they probably had to really do some digging and prep-work in the rehearsals to summon this all back up. The guitars are chunky and forceful, the drums and bass adequately mixed, the vocals sound good and the crowd response, chanting and pounding away really works well in tunes like "Coma". There are a few elements which sound a little dry, like the lead guitars, but really if you want that meaty moshing thrash stuff like in "Infectious" the rhythm guitar and bass tone got you covered, and the audience clearly appreciated it. All in all, even for someone who's not a huge fan of that record I would say they do it justice, and it's a dynamic record which translates well into a set. However, Feel the Fire is just so much like "Rotten to the Core" and "Hammerhead" retain all of their ages-old frenetic energy, Blitz sounding like he's coming unhinged, a quality that is actually drained a little with the backing vocal or crowd interaction. It's cool to hear it all performed out like this, from the aforementioned thrashers to the eponymous, eerie "Overkill" to their legendary cover of "Fuck You" by The Subhumans, which closes out the set in all its vulgar grandeur.

The video looks pretty good too, lots of lights flashing everywhere, the musicians performing their parts effortlessly. There's not a ton of motion here, I mean I've seen the band when they (and I) were much younger and they put on more of a crowd pleasing, savage physical presence, but considering the age these gentlemen are at they come off as consummate professionals, especially Verni and Linsk. I appreciate metal DVDs and Blu Rays as proxies for actually being there, and this one is worth a view, but there's not a huge level of dynamic change happening throughout the two sets, it can grow a little samey to watch, so I'd recommend it in smaller chunks or just forward to your fave tunes. Altogether a good package for Overkill fans, I liked it more than Wrecking Your Neck Live or Wrecking Everything Live, and I say that's without being crazy for half the material they're playing.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, March 1, 2019

Overkill - Last Man Standing EP (2018)

The Last Man Standing EP is another of those limited edition CDs packaged in with a metal magazine from Europe; this seems to be a pretty big practice over there, and very often for long-enduring thrash acts. At any rate, we have to take it for what it is, a two song sampler of their then-upcoming full-length The Wings of War, with a few goodies thrown in to make it somewhat a potential collector's item. While these sorts of magazine exclusives don't get me all that jazzed up as they might have been when [b]Sabbat[/b]'s "Blood for the Blood God" came packaged as a flexi-disc in an issue of [i]White Dwarf[/i], I can see their value as a way for the declining print publications to offer something more to their readers, and for the bands that benefited from such press for decades to help out without going far out of their way.

The two new songs, while not the catchiest of their career, continue along the same track as what you'd have heard on White Devil Armory or The Grinding Wheel; modernized thrashers that draw from all the band's eras of growth from the mid 80s through the 90s, catering to audiences that might have plugged into the band's fanbase through any of that time. "Last Man Standing" itself is a broad, fast thrasher with a passable riff thrusting it forward and 'Blitz' sounding just as vitriolic and ready to smash up a stage (or bar) as you can imagine he'd ever be. Decent leads, palpable energy, and big production truss up what is otherwise a pretty stock sounding tune for their Ironbound-to-the-current phase. "Head of a Pin" focuses briefly on one of their big, loping Sabbath groove riffs that the band had strongly integrate by the time of Horrorscope, but then picks up into another thrasher with a riff that is again, somewhat catchy, but plays second fiddle to Bobby's manic screams. That said, I liked it better of these two for the structure and the bridge sections.

After that comes the 'bonus content', a pair of tunes taken from two Rock Hard Festival gigs in 2015 and 2018, "Hello from the Gutter" and their cover of the Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer". The latter is a little more even across the instruments, whereas "Gutter" is a bit loud on the guitars, but either way they are solid if unremarkable recordings which convey what they need to. Lastly they've included a cover of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" by The Animals, which was previously available as a bonus track on the Japanese issue of Bloodletting. It's little more than some banal chugging and chords, but the vocals once again carry it, transforming it into a punchy, mildly entertaining piece despite the shortcomings of the guitars that don't satisfy much in a metal context. I would guess a hardcore Overkill collector already had this in his or her collection, but if not then your prayers have been answered.

As I said above, Last Man Standing is not exactly a retail product and shouldn't be held to the same standards as a maxi-single, or a compilation, etc. Were this an EP out in shops then I'd probably look further down upon it since it doesn't offer up anything much that you'll not find elsewhere. But if I'm flipping through Legacy magazine and come across this, it's a moderate bonus that might entertain me for 20 minutes if this is a genre or band I enjoy, and while it doesn't perk me up all that much for The Wings of War blowing my speakers, it's not the shittiest promotional effort I've come across, but there is nothing essential here whatsoever as the best tunes are the new originals and both would be coming on the full-length.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Friday, February 22, 2019

Svirnath - Dalle rive del Curone (2019)

It would be dishonest to claim that Dalle rive del Curone entirely fixes the one glaring issue I had with the Svirnath debut, but I think to some extent the drums here have been dialed back just enough so they don't become some distracting focus of what's on the disc, and the whole package benefits from just this minor tweaking. There are a few other tangible differences from that prior work which also lend to this becoming the stronger of the two works, although stylistically it barks up the same general tree of naturalist, atmospheric black metal which goes for a broad and picturesque sense of glory and melancholy rather than the sinister and dissonant ethics of the earlier black metal tradition.

Acoustic guitars here are pretty much on the level of the first album, perhaps slightly richer, where the electrics are definitely more streamlined with higher production than the tinnier tones you'd have heard there. Riff-wise, I think this album focuses in more on stronger rhythm guitars with cooler inherent melodies rather than saucing over everything with the thinner little note-streams that were dominant on the debut. Not that they don't exist here, but there's a better balance. Another change is that the vocals sound less trebly and a little more tortured and verminous, partly because they are mixed in a little better among the instruments. The synths are still produced very well as a backdrop, often fully complementary to the guitars without stealing any of their sadness and grace. He uses some cleaner choir-like vocals, often in conjunction with the rasps, and I thought they worked out better than the few cleans from before, although still not perfect.

A lot of tempo stop/starts here with the rhythm guitars getting to set up the momentum, and it works well since the guy just makes likable chord progressions...not highly original, perhaps, but certainly evoking that sense of wonder the project strives for. And as I mentioned earlier, the drum beats are mixed in far more here, with more hi hats and splashes to offset the thundering lower impacts. Often he'll really take you by surprise with some harmonic thrust of guitars that erupts in the middle regions of a particular tune, and these tunes seem generally longer on the debut, there are less of them but they fill up that bulk quite well. Svirnath has plenty of room to still grow into, and Dalle rive del Curone is likely not the breakout album, but I found it superior to its predecessor on many fronts, kept me dreaming of foreign woodlands, streams and the long span of natural history that led to my own being, and I quite look forward to what Frans comes up with next.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Svirnath - Il regno della natura (2016)

"Natura", the intro piece to Il regno della natura, is so quaint and inspiring that I almost felt bad for whatever Svirnath was going to hit us with afterwards. A lush, concise escalation of clean guitars, atmospheric synths and tinny electric melodies, it immediately casts the listener into the vast outdoorscapes that this one-man Italian act will be exploring through its black metal. Thankfully, for the most part the rest of the record evokes that same of wonder, but in doing so it has to make a few concessions that might turn off some of the potential listeners who might otherwise really enjoy this. I even found myself distracted by 1-2 of the elements as I found the rest of the effort quite excellent.

To paint this project in broader strokes, it dwells within that same, airy realm that groups like Horn, Summoning, Eldamar and Fen have made their abode. Granted, those are quite varied acts in of themselves, and Svirnath doesn't sound too close to any of them, but certainly the aspiration is the same: to cut its black metal into expansive, glorious swaths of expression that capture the sadness, isolation and majesty of the environment. This is performed through gnarled, harsh rasping and a flood of melodic, raw guitars, not raw in the sense that he's aiming for bad production, but more in the fact that they sound like they might be recorded with a slightly more amateur/bedroom set of gear than a band with a bigger budget. The acoustics are actually quite well produced, along with some of the synth pads, but the distorted guitars definitely don't sound quite so professional...a detriment to some of the album's audience, but I actually found this component to create an authentic level of charm that helps it stand out sonically from a lot of its more balanced, brickwalled peers.

What I wasn't so down with were the robotic drumming, which just sound far too mechanical to really complement the synths, vocals and guitars. It's not that the beats aren't fit to the various blasts or other tempos explored, but they just break up the naturalistic intentions of the piece. While it's true that keyboards don't feel like a natural product of some windy hillside forest, the sustained melodies being performed with them come at you like whirls of wind from above. The drums just sound like desperation to create a percussive skeleton to the rest, and they leech away from its more organic dreaminess. Sometimes this works, with bands who have a more nihilistic/industrial slant or go for something more otherwordly, but I think they could have been mixed a little better so they would have been less intrusive to what is actually a very promising album, with glinting melodies and a sincere longing for its subject matter. The clean vocals also sound mildly goofy, but this is far less annoying since they are scarce and well-meaning, just rough around the edges.

Ultimately, Il regno della natura is a good debut, pretty heavily marred by this invasive contrast of aesthetics, but still worth hearing for its strong sense of composure between calms and storms, and a great use of melodies that I never found too dragging or predictable. A solid signing for Naturmacht Productions.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, February 15, 2019

Deathcore - Spontaneous Underground (1990)

Long before becoming the classification for guyliner-drenched moshing metrosexual angst, Deathcore was a relatively unknown German band performing a splattering of punk and grindcore which felt almost as spontaneous as they hinted at with the title of their Nuclear Blast debut. Looking and often sounding like a lost Sore Throat or Lawnmower Deth recording that never made it out through Earache the same year, Spontaneous Underground does nonetheless manifest a small sense of personality in juts how ugly and un-fucking-caring it sounds, the epitome of a bunch of dudes in jeans, high top sneakers and whatever hand-me-down metal attire they could scrounge up writing a bunch of violent, energetic music that cares little about subtlety or intelligence.

Deathcore actually draws on a number of influences, from the grinding Earache outlets up north of them in Britain, to the crossover thrash endemic to the US West Coat circa D.R.I., Cryptic Slaughter, and The Accused; you might even hear a little S.O.D. in a particular breakdown or two where the band pulls on its splattery reins for a couple bars. Loads of rehashed punk riffs sped up to a junkie pace, and then splayed out with other sections into longer-than-expected tracks. Spontaneous Underground is a long, long damn album for its style, clocking in at over 52 minutes, with tracks ranging from five seconds to over seven minutes in length, a few clicks of a beat and some chords to 'epics' that are constantly shifting around all over the entire riffing and tempo palette of the band. To be honest, that's not saying a lot, because I swear there are a hell of a lot of riffs on this album and almost all of them are the most insipid, forgettable sort that don't seem as if they took more than actually applying your palm and fingers to your guitar to create.

Looking for any sort of interesting progression of chords? Seek elsewhere, the only time you might be surprised at all here is when the guitarist throws out a noisy little spontaneous noodle or weird indie rock riff ("Dolphin Instinct") which feels more like a mistake than anything else. The vocals and lo-fi nature of the recording definitely save it some punk cred, since they have that timeless, earnest, amateur quality about them which we venerate on a lot of early punk and hardcore recordings. But man, when you consider just how much material this band is tossing your way, it's a damn shame that so little of it actually sticks. The loose fills and cadence of the drums, the splatter-style vocals set at various levels of shouts, screams and saturation, and the unfortunately-rebranded band moniker are all things that widely outlived the actual guitars and songs, and that's sadly just not what I seek out in a record like this. That said, it's mildly interesting in its obscurity for being on a label that would go on to explode as much as this one; and not terrible if you dig the DIY mentality usually associated with its style.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Atrament - Scum Sect (2018)

A lot of the bands performing in the crust/D-beat medium these days all carry a particularly Swedish tone to their guitars, often injecting a little dissonant post-hardcore personality, but sticking quite closely to that scene in terms of production values and how the flow of the riffs hit you over the head. Scum Sect was a little refreshing for me in how it handled this approach with a little more ugliness and vitriol. Sure, you're going to hear those punk rhythms that get traced right back to the Discharge lineage, fueling this procession of punishment; but these Californians wrap that up in an envelope of black and death metal aesthetics and even toss in some dissonant, Voivod-like riffing sequences which manage to keep the material atmospheric and interesting.

The backbone of D-beat riffs here also does a lot to trump your expectations...sure a number of the chord patterns will seem familiar at first, but they often veer into an unexpected note selection or get interspersed with tremolo picked death metal fills. It's still accessible and fulfilling enough for those who adhere to more typical acts in the style, but there's just enough gloom and obliqueness to offer a more sinister depth. The vocals are also a little beyond the pale, where normally you get the raving political hardcore barking, here is a rather sustained blackened death inflection which sounds like this shadow hovering over the instruments, with just a enough effects-driven finesse that it doesn't come across as dull or cheap. A broad guttural which often trails off into a bloodier rasp. The bass is a pretty thick, bombastic presence alongside the rhythm guitars which fattens them up rather than trying to stick its nose out elsewhere, and this works well enough here although it wouldn't kill them to drift off on their own for a few bars. The drums have the perky reliability usually associated with this style, nothing too complex but he'll toss a lot of timely, thundering fills to keep the pulse.

I do like that they often break out into the tremolo picked sections, that instantly adds a lot more of a replay value to the usually chord-centered style, and I feel Atrament usually gets enough variation to cover what they're crafting into a typically 2-3 minute track. I also liked the use of a breakout mid paced thrash riff s in "War Seed", just these smaller little dynamics go a long way to keeping the album from getting too samey...and it does on occasion, don't get me wrong, but even then you'll have a few subtle highlights to help you map out one track from the next. Pitch black, driving, menacing stuff here, instantly standing out from the flock of bands that approach this more from the hardcore perspective, which is sometimes pretty damn awesome, but others too predictable. I don't know that Scum Sect is quite the peak for this band, there's plenty of direction to grow into, broadening their higher pitched picking and atmosphere, but it exceeded the baseline expectations.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, February 8, 2019

Morthus - Over the Dying Stars (2016)

Over the Dying Stars is an album with a lot going for it that just doesn't seem to resonate with me for long. I think it has something to do with how the record divides its time pretty evenly between both the melodic black and death metal genres, but rarely does it seem to excel in either category. From the outset, it's an appealing looking album with good cover art, and hails from a scene that has long produced triumphant extremities in both of these extreme metal categories. It's also out through Witching Hour Productions, local to the band in Poland, a label which has produced quite a lot of killer material over the years, often surprisingly so. But when I actually sit through the music here it just comes off rather standard.

Not that this has anything to do with the band's skill level. They can blast away at the kit and offer up barrages of chords and streaming tremolo picked notes satisfying enough to the purist, while also taking a few chances to alternate into slower, spacious sections where you'll feel more of the bass fill and can set up something dramatic. Occasionally the riffs get a bit more grimy and groovy, simplified to a near-crust level, and in others it almost feels like primitive melodic death circa the early 90s. I also found they were able to generate some excitement with transitions and breaks, but these are too often neutered when there aren't any great riffs to follow. The drums are heavy as hell, and the bass is pretty audible in the mix, but they don't add a lot to the constantly driving, predictable personality of some of the material, although if you want consistency I can promise they bring that.

The vocals are decidedly death metal, shifting between a couple different guttural timbres, some of which are fleshy and gruesome, or placed at a point where the  others being a lot more bland, blunt instruments. Other voices are often employed for backup shouts so there's a bit of variation there that helps compensate from how that main brute growl leaves you underwhelmed. All told, I don't want to leave too much of a negative impression, Morthus are certainly proficient at what they're playing, they simply don't offer up much for me here by way of interesting note progressions, savage or evil fare that makes me want to keep listening though the disc. It would really only take a few tweaks to more interesting tremolo guitar line, or atmospheric contrasts that transform them from a decent act to something with a lot more impact. Over the Dying Stars just seems to stand somewhere in the middle of a very long line of similar groups (from both genres) who have done it better.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Possessor - City Built With Skulls (2012)

If beauty were really only skin deep, then I'd want to slip a ring on the finger of this full-length Possessor debut. The artwork is more or less a re-thrashers dream. Undead heshers, some with spiked shoulder guards, others topless, emerging from the sewers and alleys of some decadent urban sprawl, the streets practically paved with skulls, while rats scurry about. In the near distance, an emo guy is getting choked out by two of these ghouls before he gets beaten on with an axe and a spiked bat...or maybe a fucking flail! To top all that off, there's a concert bill stuck to the wall just off to the right side of the cover which looks like it is implied that in this strange reality, Possessor themselves would be headlining over the 'Big Four' of US thrash metal.

Like a good 75% of the other pizza bandwagon thrash stuff that has come along in the last decade, I fully expected that I'd hate the garden variety Exodus, Slayer and Anthrax riffs I would find on the album itself, and in retrospect that was probably a little pessimistic. While I can't deny that these Virginians are in fact influence by a lot of the usual suspects in both the thrash and crossover scenes of the 80s, they actually bite into a nasty, fast-paced style that more often than not hits some degree of paydirt. Nothing about the album is overproduced...the rhythm section is pretty much on par with the mix of the rhythm guitar, which is punchy and saturated without being too raw or polished. The bass guitars pump along while the drums have a lot of rumbling fills, I'm not saying every detail sounds super clear but I kind of like the vicious honesty of how it all sounds, it almost sounds like how a recording would feel during the early 90s when thrash was giving up its ghost to other styles, but bands were coming along with slightly more modernized, 'personal' productions.

The real thrill here is the vocalist, Robbie Rainey, who has a ton of charisma as he cycles through the higher pitched, brief screams, the more extended operatic sustains and then the more aggressive mid range stuff he's barking out. He approaches it from a power/thrash vector. It might seem a weighty comparison, but he kinds of reminds me of a mix of Michael Coons (Lääz Rockit), David Wayne (Metal Church, Reverend), Tony Portaro (Whiplash) and Nasty Ronnie (Nasty Savage). He's quite entertaining, even when he's raving over some of the less interesting riffs on the record, and to be honest...there are quite a few. They always possess a sporadic energy to them that is appreciable, but very few progressions that will actually stick out to you once the dust clears. A reasonable balance of faster parts and then some moshier, mid-speed sections that don't feel too excessively dumb or cheap. The leads are fitting to the style although they often lack anything memorable about them apart from the usual bleeding spontaneity they create over the bridge rhythms. The lyrics aren't all that great but I've read far lazier from this generation of thrash acts, and while City Built With Skulls is not the sort of disc you're going to spin over the actual classics, it's definitely more fun than I thought it would be.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Ondfødt - Dödsrikets kallelse (2019)

Occasionally, there is something to be said for an album that 'just gets it right', regardless of any lack of innovation, subtlety or nuance that one might often associate with the top shelf recordings which define and shape their genres. For 2019, Finland's Ondfødt has crafted one such effort which succeeds entirely on its sheer power and production, a record that, played at high volumes, seems like it's just gotten everything right that it wanted to, and is thus a pleasure to listen to. One of those rarities I can sit through a number of times, not really pick out any spectacular riffs or highly catchy melodies, and still come away from thinking I've just had my soul crushed in a memorable fashion. Not a sound on Dödsrikets kallelse sounds like it belongs in a post-1996 black metal universe, and yet it's one of the better albums in this style I've heard in the last couple months.

Now, I don't wish to infer that, by their adherence to very traditional riffing, that this album lacks for dynamics, because it shifts pretty evenly between mid-tempo, late 80s Bathory bravado, faster breaks and a few atmospheric flourishes with acoustic guitars or sublime melodic passages that give this whole affair a very complete, rounded polish. The parallels to other Scandinavian masters such as Darkthrone and Immortal exist, to the point that Ondfødt at no point even flirts with originality, but when you hear the bold, bruising rhythms they're churning out, you're easily swept away to the aesthetic imagery that categorizes such black metal: cruel hearts and cold wastes. This isn't an album with a lot of evil note progressions, or one that uses the smokescreen of rawness to masque its lack of competence and devotion...Dödsrikets kallelse sounds enormous, whether its battering you with a wall of chords that sound like weaponized glaciers rolling around on tank treads, or picking up the pace for a blasted windswept melody. Drummer/vocalist hammers away like a winter battalion chopping wood for its campfires, while his huge rasp hovers just above the rhythm guitars, raving over the musical blizard with just the right depth and sustain.

It's the sort of album where, even when you know where the guitar line is going the first time, you want to take the journey anyways. They help break up the steadier riffing with some thunderous breaks, where the chords are reduced to just bludgeons over the beats, reminiscent of fellow Finns like Barathrum, Ajattara or Horna, so in summary they seem to channel influences from all over Northern Europe. The aforementioned atmospheric parts, like the ritualistic intro to "Den sista färden" or the glistening, sad acoustics that permeate instrumental "Dödens dröm", are perfectly placed pauses in the action that help amplify the emotional resonance of the whole disc. It's one that rewards you for sitting through the beginning, middle, and end, even if the latter is a cover of another obscure Finnish act known as Hämys using a cluster of gang vocal rasps. At around 35 minutes, this album never even comes close to wearing out it welcome, there isn't a riff on it which lasts longer than it needs to and the shorter duration is a good fit to the simplicity and straightforwardness. Just a great sophomore effort, and a fine fit for this time of year.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Friday, February 1, 2019

Eld - Krieg: An Odyssey in Misery (2011)

Krieg: An Odyssey in Misery brings absolutely nothing new to the butcher's block, but it's an album fairly well made in particular for a niche of Norwegian black metal fans who might want little more than to return to the days of yore and think entirely inside the box. Essentially an amalgamation of the earlier works of Satyricon, Mayhem, Darkthrone and Immortal, the duo that performs much of this record does so with sinister precision, and a genuine loyalty to their countrymen and influences; but apart from a few moments of atmosphere and nostalgia that elevate the experience above the din of average songwriting, it's black-metal-by-numbers that can often seem as featureless and indistinct as its unfortunate choice for cover artwork.

The full-length Eld debut spends an even amount of time between predictable blasted sequences, mid paced pounders (like "Delxot", one of the catchier tracks), and a slightly slower caste of rhythms that often accrue a little more atmosphere due to the faint hints of melody they incorporate. The vocals are dirty and savage, but don't develop a lot of character to themselves if you're already familiar with a Satyr or Nocturno Culto. They often do double up the vocals to include a cleaner tone, which I found interesting, but the practice is scarce enough that it's never a true feature of the record. The beats are brick-solid and fast as hell when needed, but in terms of fills or good grooving drums behind the slower parts of the album they don't quite stand out. Despite that, it's the rhythm guitars that for me were the weak point...saturated in nasty enough distortion, and pure enough that they could compare to other acts from the early 90s, but almost always what you've heard before and can be celebrated for no other reason beyond that.

To be fair, the two musicians S. Winter and Laeturnus are each handling multiple duties here, with a couple guests contributing other guitars, pianos or keys (including Ivar Bjørnson of Enslaved on the track "Rebirth"). But compared to another duo like Fenriz and Nocturno Culto, there is very little of nuance to how they put together their songs. The organs, the scant clean vocals, a sample, and little touches like a techno pulse ("Rebirth"), or the more spacious raw guitars used i the outro, are really the only times this one deviates from the standard, and while that's honestly enough that I'd consider Krieg a 'well-rounded' record, there are just too few inspiring or memorable measures here that I'd ever grab it from the overstuffed line-up of Norse black metal albums available to me. I don't want to sell Eld too short...they are competent, and if you're just in the mood for an inoffensive, Satanic slab of convention, you could do worse, but they drop enough hints here that they're capable of superior mood and structure that I'd prefer to wait until they expand those concepts outwards.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Todesstoß - Würmer zu weinen (2008)

I haven't decided yet whether to believe Martin Lang, longstanding proprietor of Germany's Todesstoß, is a mad genius, or just very far off his rocker. For nearly 20 years now his black metal vehicle has been churning out a large body of demos, splits and albums with not a whole lot of fanfare, and it's plain to hear why: this shit is terrifying. From the surreal, disturbing or just weird cover imagery that graces a lot of his releases, to the hideously primitive nature of the songwriting, this is not a musician driven by the latest, glossiest sort of black metal progression, but instead by contorting new patterns from its elemental ingredients, and not always the same way on each successive recording. Würmer zu weinen, the second proper full-length of the project, is a great example of how he can twist the quirks and flaws of his sound into strengths that haunt the listener far after the audio.

Think of this as slow to mid-paced black metal, entirely driven by a drum machine set to sound more like an industrial backline than a proper metal drummer. The guitars are extremely raw, with a very cheesy saturation to them that sounds a lot like (and probably is) a practice amp, and these are set out into very simple chord patterns, often smothered with a second, dissonant guitar line. At numerous points throughout the album, he'll let the beats and rhythms die down and then just concoct some eerie guitar that plays out in solitude with a nearly hypnotic string of notes. Above all of this is his lunatic, raving vocal style, which seems like little more than some psychopath making a mockery of the form with entirely unfiltered rants and rasps that channel a schizophrenic rainbow of goofy but unsettling personalities. We're all accustomed to the high pitched, painful vocals of luminaries like Varg Vikernes, but Todesstoß is next level, almost like a trolling or deconstruction of depressive black metal in general, with no fucks given. It gets even more bizarre when he'll drop out of the music and just use these as a tortured spoken word all on its own.

Here is an album which is accessible in its simplicity, but almost inaccessible in terms of many fans of this genre taking it seriously. Uncouth, unprofessional, and unconcerned. For all that, though, it's quite artsy and appealing, and if you can stretch your mind and tastes enough to appreciate its eccentricity, it can prove rewarding, although not the most interesting of the albums he's put out. The songs are generally long, between 9-14 minutes here, and while this sort of primeval bedroom black metal could throw that all away by becoming overly repetitive, there are usually some twists or unexpected, fuzzy melodies or synthesized sounds emerging through each landscape which keep it an adventure. An ugly adventure, without a happy ending, but a few passages of gloom and grace that will remind the audience of the roots from which this sprung. Depressive BM with a dash of death rock, industrial beats and maybe late 90s Bethlehem is an apt comparison, but even then I don't feel like that covers it. If you're on the hunt for well-produced, catchy or savage black metal, Todesstoß is one to stay wide of, but if your tastes permit for raw-boned production, genre deformity and plebeian experimentalism then this one might lose you in its minimalist maze.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, January 25, 2019

Flotsam & Jetsam - The End of Chaos (2019)

It is truly euphoric when a band you so idolized as a youth seems to have come back swinging in full. Flotsam & Jetsam recorded two seminal teen thrash albums for me, but then as early as their third full-length seemed to proceed into a slump that would last several decades. A handful of catchy tunes stood out here or there, but not anything with the attitude and catchiness of their 1988 pinnacle No Place for Disgrace, or even their debut Doomsday for the Deceiver, which was never a favorite, but far better than what they would be phoning in throughout the 90s and 00s. When 2016's eponymous 12th studio album came along, and we were back to good songs again, I was ecstatic...and here I am, even more so, since The End of Chaos is the best material the Phoenix mainstays have produced in over 30 years...

The production on this album is a marvel, crystal clear but perfectly potent for each of the players, which is important on an effort in which every minute detail is formidable. I mean, with the possible exception of some plebeian, ambiguous 'resistance' style lyrics and cheesy cover art, there is nothing at all cringeworthy across the 50 minutes of this disc. Michael Spencer's bass lines are throbbing, interesting and take on a life of their own at nearly every point on the album. Ex-Fifth Angel basher Ken Mary, in  his debut with the band, delivers an excellent set of beats, grooves and fills which are often fun enough that I could listen to them independent of the other instruments. The riff-set is nothing out of the ordinary for Flotsam & Jetsam, you've been hearing sprinkles of this bright, engaging power/thrash style for much of their career, but here they take familiar frames and sequences and then pair them up with nuanced melodies and genuine passion which engages in the intros, the verses, the choruses, and below the competent leads. I especially like it when they get a few layers of picking going, the album gains a lot of depth and is sure to thrill fans of either of the constituent sub-genres which feed this material. Accessible and straight to the face, but also intricate and detailed.

Most importantly, Erik A. K. is once again on point here, sounding even more youthful perhaps than he did on their 80s albums. Granted, he doesn't really go for a lot of higher shrieks, but he gets so much personality out of that manic, shaky mid-to-high range he excels in, and bullrushes into each chorus part with gusto. There are times when he's singing along over a particularly melodic, more trad/power metal element in the guitars where The End of Chaos almost feels like a high intensity 'thrash' answer to Iron Maiden...not the first time I've felt that way, but really polished off here because the tunes deliver. I'm not lying to say when I say that I cranked this sucker and just found myself repeatedly focusing in on each little's not something I often do when so many albums go more for the sum than the parts, but this one just had me at attention for every single measure, churning out a pure neck-frenzy moment after moment, and never predictable to the point that I could guess what exactly would happen next.

It's a little hard to choose favorites, but some of the cuts on the first half, like "Control", "Recover" and "Slowly Insane" really kicked ass. But even the bonus tunes work, and they mess around with the songwriting dynamics enough that it never grows remotely dull. If you've been avoiding the band since the Cuatros, Drifts and My Gods let you down, then it's probably safe to get back on the wagon now; or if you're a fan for power/thrash ala Artillery and Heathen, and somehow missed out, this could very well be your thing. This is one of those albums that had me smiling from beginning to end, after having only scant expectations for it. These guys are in their 50s now...when I'm in my 50s, I'll be lucky if I've got the strength of limb left to drag my fluid bags around whatever hospice my wife and kids toss me into, trying to sneak a pudding cup after Bingo. So to hear The End of Chaos is nothing short of inspiring. It's got to be that dry, desert air or something.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Carnal Forge - Gun to Mouth Salvation (2019)

Always competent, if not always memorable, Carnal Forge struck when the irons were hot in the late 90s, playing a brand of death and thrash that easily fit in with the melodeath outbreak of that era, and managing to land some decent record deals and exposure in the process. Alas, they were inevitably lost in the shuffle, and by the time their least known, 'last', and in my humble opinion best album, Testify for My Victims came along, they already seemed to have become a footnote in the Swedish crop of bands which produced touring juggernauts like In Flames, Soilwork, Dark Tranquillity, and their ilk. They've had a couple single releases in the interim, but since that previous, underrated album had just proven such a riff rich environment, I'm not actually all that surprised that they have returned 12 years later, firing on most (if not all) cylinders.

Carnal Forge hearkens back to that age old tradition of keeping the heavy 'thrash' element of their songwriting so entrenched in tense, exciting guitar progressions, and it really shows, since it is by far the guitars which are the most engaging and impressive components of Gun to Mouth Salvation. With patterns that recall anything from the Teutonic and West Coast US thrash scenes of the 80s, to the Danish veterans Artillery, to melodic death pioneers At the Gates and Carcass, I'm always finding something to admire in just about every track on this record. Perhaps not always a strikingly unique riff, and occasionally erring on the side of cheesy groove-like rhythms, but there is such a punchy and genuine energy being packed into every tune that it's infectious. The rhythm section is more than capable of giving the guitars the right level of thrust, but apart form matching the excitement factor they don't exactly stand out against the choppier, melodically-engraved thrashing. The whole force of the band is absolutely loyal to that modern, clinical, industrial strength sort of death/thrash...don't expect raw production, lot of reverb, or other charming hallmarks of the Golden Age; this is firmly planted in the 21st century as most of their albums have been...

...whether that's a positive or negative, that sort of punchy, contemporary production and style, is really up to the listener's preferences. If you're a fan of The Haunted, Darkane, and so forth then I think these guys remain firmly in that camp. However, one aspect of Gun to Mouth Salvation I was not totally sold on was the new vocalist Tommie Wahlberg. He has a 'carnal', mealy-mouthed style which, while not inherently bad or lacking in personality, seems a little too rough-edged for the actual production of the instruments. It almost sounds like they were recorded separately with different ideas in mind. Take that other famous Tomas with the -berg suffix in his name, and approach that style of raving and barking with a more gut-felt, almost splattered timbre, but unfortunately not in a positive way. That said, if you enjoy the more eccentric, harsh lines spat out by frontmen like Lindberg or Friden, I don't think this guy will really get in the way of your enjoyment, and the music is just so solid, from the switch between neck jerking speed, mid-paced atmospheric rhythms and the ability to deliver a good old, epic Swedish melo-death style chorus. This one isn't quite as strong for me as Testify for My Victims, but the riffs are very good, and I like it more than any of the albums that came out before 2007. Their hiatus has certainly not rusted them whatsoever.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, January 18, 2019

Malevolent Creation - The 13th Beast (2019)

I can only imagine the amount of  hard work Malevolent Creation mainstay and guitarist Phil Fasciana had to put into The 13th Beast to make it manifest. Not only did original growler Brett Hoffman pass away tragically to cancer, but the rest of the lineup had also changed since 2015's well executed effort Dead Man's Path. So as I'm sitting here listening to this record it's a real testament to the Fort Lauderdale band's professionalism and resolve. I say that as one who has always followed the band for their importance as one of the Florida scene's enduring, guttural voices in the death metal medium, but also one that's never been terribly taken with a lot of their material, which falls into the 'passable' zone a lot more than the 'memorable' one. With the exception of the weird Joe Black EP back in 1996, Malevolent Creation has never failed at kicking you firmly in the posterior, even if they don't always do it with sticky, timeless songwriting and dynamic range.

The 13th Beast is a bit more brutal and monotonous than its predecessor, bouncing between their usual bootstrapped blast beatings and roiling Bolt Thrower/Brutality-like mid-tempo material. The footwork is intense as usual, the guitars fast and true to the form, or moodier when they slow down and feel reminiscent of stuff you might hear off an album like The IVth Crusade. Leads warp in and out with ease, often adding some genuine thrill to what can otherwise be a duller rhythm riff set, and the bass and drums sound like they need to for an intense battery such as this. Unfortunately, while there are a good number of riffing progressions flying around, too many of theme seem run of the mill and forgettable when assimilated into Malevolent's body of work as a whole. I mean a tune like "Mandatory Butchery" really goes for the throat, giving the listener the entire range of their style, but even then the guitars feel sort of familiar and unsurprising. The rhythm section performance feels slightly more of a mechanical thing, competent and in lockstep but not adding much personality.

As for the new vocalist/guitarist, South African-born Lee Wollenschlaeger, he's got some pretty huge shoes to fill. While his straight brutal vocal is competent and not unlike Hoffman's, there is likewise a bit less charisma in how he delivers it, with far less variety. Gone are a lot of the shifts between snarls and gutturals, here you just feel like you're being beaten repeatedly with a dull hammer. Not that his predecessor was the most unique in the genre, but these feel as if they could have been replaced by any number of other 90s-style death metal vocalists and there wouldn't be a huge difference; whereas experience had really sharpened Hoffman's delivery. Still, Lee's a competent player and growler, fits right into the mold here and with after settling a bit more into the material, should turn out fine. I'll ultimately liken this record to Cannibal Corpse's Vile, a new album from a heavily entrenched death metal band with a new vocalist, which doesn't quite live up to the material just before it, but is not at all much of a dip from the stuff Malevolent Creation has been consistently churning out for nearly three decades. If you're a big fan of Invidious Dominion or Doomsday X then I don't think you'll be too disappointed with this, but I'm unlikely to return to it much.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Malevolent Creation - Dead Man's Path (2015)

Dead Man's Path is likely to go down as a fond remembrance as the last Malevolent Creation record fronted by the band's late growler adept Brett Hoffman, but it should also go down as being one of their better offerings, reaching far into the past for the pummeling death thrash of The Ten Commandments, but also taking a few chances on something a little outside their typical wheelhouse. In full disclosure, while this a band I've long respected since their inception on the burgeoning Florida scene decades past, they've never quite been a favorite. I largely consider the 1991 debut to be their best, but then again they've put out a pretty long string of albums that turn out 'decently' if not really inspiring beyond the violent moshing primacy that they espouse.

Dead Man's Path is that and a fraction more. You're still getting the same, machine gun battery driven blend of roiling blasts and breakdowns, smothered in Hoffman's sustained snarls and growls, but I find something mildly more atmospheric than their norm. Perhaps this is anchored by the opening title track, a slow, doomed build which uses strange narrated vocals which almost sound like the guy has some sort of strange accent...ascending into these atonal, but memorable guitar harmonies. But it's also through the confidence and certainty with which they execute the heavier shit through the rest of the proceedings. Few if any of these riffs are of the variety you've never heard before, and they're just as predictable as you might believe, but the production and balance of speed and groove here are very well managed, and it remains pretty exciting throughout. Tracks like "Corporate Weaponry" are able to develop strong lead guitars, melodies in the verse and chorus riffing as well as a nihilistic, warlike atmosphere somewhere between Bolt Thrower and their own Warkult.

Hoffman effortlessly shifts between a number of different harsh vocal timbres, without ever coming off as too overbearing or jarring in their transitions. It sounds exactly like a bunch of psychos having a board meeting over the apocalypse should sound, and he dials it back often to let those guitars breathe their necrotic tremolo picked nightmares. The bass has just the right level of bombast and swerve to it to carry the rhythms, and Justin DiPinto puts on an almost untouchable performance behind the kit, one that would probably still be fun to listen to if you muted the other instruments. It's almost a pinnacle of Malevolent Creation professionalism, an exhibition of their better qualities across a quarter century of writing, recording and touring. Don't get me wrong, this album is still pit ready enough to sate the barbaric lusts of the hardcore and 2nd tier death metal fanatics looking for a fight, but as the closure to such a massive chapter of the band's history, it's worthwhile, and their best material in at least the decade leading up to it.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (dark souls shuffle by)

Monday, January 14, 2019

Sytry - Hunger of Cold Nights (2008)

Hunger of Cold Nights is an album with so many characteristics I admire that it's been hard to bring myself to the painful realization that it's only a hair above average in its impact. From the grim, hand drawn cover artwork all in shades of black and white, to the band's simple but memorable logo, the perfect packaging for newsprint toned black metal, eloquent if familiar lyrics, and an even-keeled, powerful, clear studio production that sounds fantastic bursting forth from my speakers. Sytry had all the ingredients here for a breakout underground black metal debut (or sophomore if you count the re-issue of the eponymous demo as an album), but it's hampered by the endless sameness of its composition style and for never truly embracing the sinister DNA from which its sprung.

Seriously, this thing 'sounds' great, but utterly fails to produce anything but repetitive, unmemorable midlist black metal which is competently crafted in execution, but lacking imagination. Streaming, semi-melancholic riffs play out in predictable, cyclic patterns, with nary a chord progression that can stand out on its own anywhere. The drums are flawlessly beaten, but so many of the tracks thunder along at the exact same speeds that the beats become mechanistic and indistinct. There's a decent swell of bass to support the airier production of the guitars, but it doesn't carve out creepy enough lines of its own to really add the depth and atmosphere the album could use. Lastly, the vocalist has a fairly sincere snarl going on here, broadcast loudly enough to stand at the fore of the instruments without ever weakening or drowning them out, but his own syllabic patterns just aren't tortured or passionate enough to enhance the riffing beyond its standard state. Creativity was just not a virtue for Sytry here, but rather adding yet another album to the endless canon of early 21st century black metal bands aping their predecessors and peers.

It's difficult to pinpoint the precise 'scene' where this Italian act fits in, because they don't particularly sound like their own countrymen, but more like a mashup of Swedish and Teutonic styles, or a kinship with the Greek bands that also went for a Scandinavian aesthetic to their writing, rather than the more regional, mid-paced melodic pacing. I'd liken them to some of Endstille's output, only they lack the ability to conjure up riffs nearly as hypnotic as those Germans, nor are they as violent. But they possess that same aim to throw those higher pitched chord-flows at you repeatedly. Hunger of Cold Nights is not an album I'll immediately boot from my collection, since I've got a soft spot for traditional black metal and really like how the thing looks, but it's just never one I'd reach for with so many proven options available to me. Recommended only to those most strict, non-picky adherents of the black metal genre who will appreciate anything with the right drums, vocals and guitar tone, but demand little more than that to sate their night-lust.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Pensées Nocturnes - Grand Guignol Orchestra (2019)

Frenchmen Pensées Nocturnes have long been thinking beyond the bounds of traditional black metal, but their latest, 6th album Grand Guignol Orchestra trades in a bit of the Romantic flourish of prior efforts for a more intense, abrasive experience which certainly rises up to the packaging displayed before you. Yes, this is essentially a circus-like black metal record, digging up a middle ground between Peste Noire and Mr. Bungle, and every bit as disturbing as that idea implies. The freakish cover clowns and the excellent graphic design put together between the band and Les Acteurs de L'ombre is an excellent vehicle for the themes explored, and I feel as if the album is far more committed to this warped, canvased sound than prior effort like Arcturus' Las Masquerade Infernale.

Now, to be clear, this is not an album I heavily enjoyed, but rather one I appreciated for its aesthetic aspirations. This is truly calamitous, unapologetic black metal that has been thoroughly kneaded with horns and other instrumentation that casts a mid-20th century, back alley carnival shadow...a place that would allure you with its glowing lights and euphoric festivities, but not one you'd want to bring your kids to for fear they would be devoured by its attractions. Trumpets, bass lines, organs, various levels of distorted guitars, tuba tones, all manner of whirring and whizzing percussion and a vocal range that is cast through morbid rasps and howls, and cleaner, boisterous tones much like a circus caller or a ringleader attempting to stir up his audience. There is so much flying at you through these tracks that they can become a whirling labyrinth of confusion, a magic mirror-house of torture. And it takes a particular level of skill to arrange all this, to be able to successfully supplant the traditional instrumentation of this metal niche so evenly with the other instruments, above a constant rhythmic battery that is very impressive with the strutting, grooving bass guitars and drum kit.

No, there is no lack of effort herein, and in general I very much dug the carnival parts like the thumping segues in "Comptine à boire" or the frightening freakshow nostalgia evinced through the opening crawl of "Triste sade", but when it comes to the metal content, it almost loses itself to the rest of the experience. Which is sort of the point, I'll grant you, but it wouldn't have hurt to have a few really catchy guitar lines vomited forth that could compete with the great horns and the unwavering, schizophrenic vocal performance. Occasionally the album becomes just too calamitous and 'extreme', like a Naked City record on a post-black, spazzcore bender, and while the intensity is cool, I wish the music itself stuck to the memory a little more. However, Grand Guignol Orchestra is such a damn cool, visionary sort of album, so conceptually successful that I'd be remiss not to recommend it highly to those seeking something on the outside, a bevy of childhood nightmares given flesh through an abusive, murderous adult musical palette. Something wicked this way fucking comes, with a painted smile and a bloody, spiked bludgeon. A ticket could be your last.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]