Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Ghastly - Death Velour (2018)

As interesting to the eye as Carrion of Time initially was, Ghastly's sophomore effort easily trumps it with that hypnotic cover art, using a rich color scheme I rarely encounter in this genre. Not to mention, Death Velour is a pretty classy title for a death metal record, a title that the album actually lives up to as a substantial evolution over its predecessor. Rather than approach their genre nostalgia like so many others in the field, treading down the expected paths of early Swede worship, cavernous claustrophobia, or even the nuances of their own Finnish forebears, Ghastly adopts its style into a more melodic, graceful presence which haunts while it soothes, chills while it comforts; an improvement over their more primitive debut in every category I can think of.

That isn't to say there aren't a few of those thundering, simplistic death metal grooves strewn about the rhythm guitar choices, but a large portion of the album is devoted to these melody or harmony driven sequences which are almost unanimously memorable, evoking a mournful sadness to the material which is loyal to how the album looks. By contrast, some of the tremolo picked throwback death metal riffs here sound even more evil by comparison, as in "Violence for the Hell of It". Due to this lighter, eerier, airier approach, the drums carry a lot more power, and even the bass lines thrive, since you can really hear them grooving off under both the heavier riffs and melodies. The vocals, while not changing up much from the style of the debut, have a little more potency and sustain to them which is a better fit for the often soaring, murkily majestic effect of the guitars. Other little atmospheric embellishments like clean guitars or the keys used in pieces like the intro further enhance its effects upon the listener as a bastion of Romanticized horror molded to death metal flesh.

Death Velour is certainly a throwback to an earlier age of the genre, when the melodies on records like North from Here or Tales from the Thousand Lakes were a new thing, but Ghastly handles them in its own way, wrenching the doom and gloom from the beauty of the guitars rather than from the constant drudgery of the band's bottom end. To that extent it feels quite unique in a crowded field where so many bands would rather foment the aggression and raw heaviness. This band has within a few years already evolved along the lines of groups like Tribulation, Morbus Chron, Horrendous, and their like, who used that late 80s death metal inspiration to lead them into new directions, rather than dwell too long in the past. The result is that this is by far one of the most promising bands on the Finnish scene right now, which does not lack for them, and I'm eager to see where they'll take this sound next, whether it's a more direct continuation of Death Velour or another sizeable ascension.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Monday, May 20, 2019

Ghastly - Carrion of Time (2015)

I was really curious about this record at first because somehow I had registered that the trippy cover aesthetics and 'death metal' branding might result in some quirky, psychedelic spin on the genre, and after listening through Carrion of Time a few spins I realized that was not exactly the case. Sure, you could make the argument that the Finns' debut was a death metal that leaned more on atmosphere than musicianship, and that's what it is, a hazy and truly old school death metal record, threaded with death/doom influences and reaches so far back into the genre that I'd almost label it a proto-death album due to the primordial production and simplicity of the riffing patterns. There might be a small fraction of influence from their fellow Finnish exports of the early 90s, but this comes off as even more ancient in its own way.

I'd probably liken it to a descendant of Hellhammer, with some additional influence from the first few Tiamat records when the Swedes were almost wholly death metal. The former is felt primarily through the vocals, which are like a more fleshy, dynamic Tom G. Warrior bark which weaves in a bit more of a grotesque guttural circa Killjoy or Chris Reifert. The guitar tone isn't quite as raw edged, but clearly they were going for a tone that felt like it would if it were spurting out of a cab in the same room as you. A lot of the riffs slog along at a workmanlike pace, with somewhat predictable chord patterns, but the magic is when they erupt into these truly evil sounding, slower tremolo picked riffs which will recall bands like Death and Obituary, along with some more spacious, open string or higher pitched riffing which creates an incense-whiff of archaic atmosphere that helps round out the experience. The bass doesn't do a whole lot of interest except hover like a smog behind the rhythm guitars, and when the leads or melodies burst forth they really deliver a needed dynamic charge to the experience.

Drums are quite appropriate, with lots of splashing and crashing, fills aplenty to once again help emphasize the riffs since they are so basic in structure for the style. And it's that minimalist style which both hinders and helps the album. I mean it can certainly evoke the vibe of a very basic demo level death metal act from the late 80s/early 90s, paraphrasing the riffs of others and not in the most intense or interesting of configurations, but at the same time when the guitars come across a truly eerie riff it stands out quite a lot and makes you appreciate the whole package. I also like some of the more subtle, creepy melodies which arrive in tunes like "White Flowers Abloom", there probably aren't enough of them scattered through the album, but they make it clear that Ghastly is quite focused on its composition, the patience to let these details elevate the material beyond the mere redundancy it would otherwise suffer. It's a solid, and somewhat intriguing debut for fans of seminal death and or death/doom, and a seat from which the superior ideas and craftsmanship of their second album were sprung.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Mystik - Mystik (2019)

I've received a lot of pretty damn cool promos from I Hate records out of Sweden, but Mystik's eponymous debut blew me back about 30 years into the past when I was a pimply, awkward teen weaned heavily on traditional European speed and heavy metal. It doesn't sound a day more modern than, let's say 1986, and all for the better. Not to be confused with the recently revived band of the same name from Ohio, this is a Swedish group featuring Beatrice Karlsson and Lo Wickman on guitars, Julia von Krusenstjerna on the bass and vocals, and drummer Sven Nilsson, also of Antichrist, who we all know is one of my favorite bands in the world right now. They dial back the calendar several decades to create infectious, authentic tunes that sound like they could have come out through the Noise Records, Roadracer or Steamhammer imprints back in the mid-80s, and not simply thriving off of that sort of nostalgia but composing some genuinely catchy, timeless tracks.

The key here is the washed out, reverb-heavy sound that lends the guitars a load of atmosphere, especially through the melodies and leads, and Julia's vocals, which shift between a more evil, mid range and some higher pitched, but humble shouts that resonate out over the frenzied undercurrent, which I just love. Any excess polish is eschewed for sincerity, and that means even the little flaws to her intonations work as boons on this album. I'd compare them to the first two Warlock albums, in style, but the music running off beneath them is much faster in nature and so the effect is different. The short-lived US project Original Sin is perhaps a better parallel, since the riffing styles are a bit closer, although Mystik's stuff is a little more glorious and less mean sounding in spots. The rhythm guitars stay busy with a riff-set that will thrill metallic Germanophiles, I could hear little spikes of everything from Iron Angel to Running Wild here, especially in how the melodies are constantly being integrated over the chords, but you'll also here a little of the vintage Canadian speed metal sound in their circa Exciter or Razor, as well as Overkill's debut Feel the Fire.

It all adds up to something totally awesome, and while I could understand the argument that the tunes could grow a little samey as they often speed along at the same clip, I was hooked for the whole 37 minutes, and bits like the organ intro to "Lake of Necrosis" or the slower sections to the, self-titled track "Mystik" help to pace it all and balance it out. The bass-lines are corpulent enough to notice, the drums sound great, with a lot of thunder and crash to them that emphasizes how this album sounds like you're experience it outdoors, with traffic racing past you. The actual construction of the riffs is wholly traditional, but they're just the sorts of the progressions that never get old for me, especially when paired up with this production style. And that's probably where my own nostalgia does step in, since I'm a huge advocate for these older studio sounds; you can only punch in and polish something so much until it become sterile, so I really dig that the band not only chose to play in a fundamental style but to fully occupy that style with nearly every aspect of the recording.

Mystik is an extremely appealing debut, and if like myself, you cherish records like Branded and Exiled, Violence and Force, Burning the Witches, Hellish Crossfire, Executioner's Song, Vibrations of Doom and their like then I cannot recommend this one highly enough. If this came out back in 1985 I would still listen to it today with the same fervor, and where it doesn't really bring anything new to the table, it's another glaring example of how something which isn't broken doesn't need to be fixed.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Gratzug - Gletscherklang EP (2017)

Gratzug is another underrated German black metal act which has been quite productive in its near decade of existence, with about five full length albums released and a good number of splits, EPs, and such under its belt. But even despite the positive response I've had for some of the prior efforts, I was not quite prepared for the euphoric, majestic escape offered me by the four tunes on this Gletscherklang EP. Limited to about 300 copies, it's understandable why this really hasn't been a 'thing', but considering the popularity of heavily atmospheric black metal these days I think it's a gem well worth tracking down in whatever format you can find, or at least talking about so that it's availability might one day flourish.

Just around 25 minutes, each of the tracks here complements one another and provides a fulfilling experience without the need to bog itself down in the swollen repetition that other, comparable acts might attempt with 9-11 minutes and less riffs. Gratzug generally plays blasted black metal entwined with a number of slow to mid-ranged breaks where the double bass is hammered on and these are often the most glorious moments throughout the material. The guitars are just raw and acidic enough to appeal to deep underground pundits, as are the suffocating rasps of frontman/multi-instrumentalist Mephistopheles. But this is all drowned out in just the perfect level of atmosphere which creates an important balance of both distance and immediacy, and a lot of the credit is given to the whooshing and windy symphonic elements placed to support the surging of the guitars. Tastefully implemented, they create a warmer, I daresay more positive feel than a lot of the more frightening bands to attempt this like the legendary Emperor on their classic In the Nightside Eclipse; but the result is no less impactful upon the spirit of the listener, and honestly I could listen to this exact same style for far longer than the 25 minutes this EP asks of me...

Combine this approach with some tremolo picked guitar lines that create an appropriately hypnotic melancholy, as well as small segues like the firelit ambiance awaiting in the depths of "Wandelt Wieder" and you've got an amazing outdoorsy black metal release which is about just that...the 'release' that is so vital to me when listening to this style. From the trappings of man, the follies of civilization. I went into this on a whim, not expecting much apart from the rather attractive cover art and got so much more out of it, a good half dozen listens already, with many more on the horizon.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Monday, May 13, 2019

Insanity Alert - Insanity Alert (2014)

You won't even need a second glance at the cover of this Austrian band's eponymous debut to know what they're all about. The D.R.I. shirt and vest, the bent up hat, the straightjacket, all of the violent moshing and tearing up the town... Clearly we've got a party thrash crossover band from overseas, forming at around the same time they'd be inspired just as much by other nostalgia-fueled acts like Municipal Waste as the originators of the style back in the 80s. Sure enough, Insanity Alert comes complete with goofy ass lyrics about zombies, weed, beer, skateboarding, and most importantly, THRASH ITSELF. Because honestly we wouldn't have had any idea otherwise that this is exactly the sort of music they intend to celebrate and rub your nose in repeatedly.

Now, to be fair, while I've often found this approach to thrash metal to be rather disposable and laconic whenever bands other than Tankard do it, Insanity Alert realizes the low bar of its thrash ambitions with a pretty hefty, exciting riff-set. Sure, if you've spent the last 30 years listening to groups like Nuclear Assault, Anthrax, Hirax, Exodus, Vio-Lence, Cryptic Slaughter, D.R.I. and so forth, or the more recent proxies of this sound like Iron Reagan, Gama Bomb and Municipal Waste, then this is nothing unexpected and a lot of the rhythm guitar patterns are predictable, but even with that in mind they are explosive enough with their hooks to have you smiling. The mix on the album is quite good, with clear, cutting guitars, peppy drums, and even some solid bass tones when that instrument is given some breath of its own, although generally it sits comfortably behind the rhythm guitars doing little to stand out. Vocally you know what to expect here, a bit of splatter thrash, some gang vocals, and a lot of lines that sound strikingly like John Connelly only with a little less of the genuine vitriol, but in general they move by so blazingly fast and frenzied that they get the job done and will satisfy what the diehards for this niche crave.

There's a little bit of an excess to the cheese here, literally on "Macaroni Maniac", not the first and not the last thrash anthem for the layman's comfort food (thanks Annihilator), and tunes about getting wasted and smoking up are a dime a dozen, but once in awhile they had a slightly more fun topic in there like "Arac Attack" about spiders, or "Flamethrower". I mean this is two topping pizza thrash and both of the toppings are cheese. The band make a good use of a few samples, especially as an intro to the album closer, their dorky cover of "Run to the Hills", which they have dubbed "Run to the Pit", because man you can't have thrash metal without talking about MOSHING, and THRASH METAL. M I Rite? Nevermind that the many of the greatest albums of the genre did neither and could be taken somewhat, or completely, we've gotta keep those keywords in there lest our audience forget somehow that's what we were on about. A little bit too self-aware for me.

Regardless, the only song here I thought was actually dumb musically was "Blunt In/Blunt Out" for its dumb Southern heavy rock grooves that sound pretty weak alongside the Austrians' more frenetic fare. The rest are perfectly passable for the style, with "The Claw (Of All That is Evil)" actually being quite awesome, and others like the hardcore-infused "Shit for Brains" and "Crucified by Zombies" passing muster. The lyrics are beyond stupid, at one point I think they even paraphrased Snoop Dogg or whatever he's called now, but if you're listening to pizza thrash like this to garner some sort of important social message or intellectual stimulation you've come to the wrong place. Or maybe the right place. Either way, while Insanity Alert doesn't quite distinguish itself from better records by Municipal Waste, Iron Reagan, or their like, it's actually fun enough to recommend about 13 of the 15 brief, fast-paced tracks to those who live lives full of bong hits and mosh pits, or those of us who wish we could. Assuming you don't have Zombie Attack, Survive or Hazardous Mutation at the ready.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, May 10, 2019

Desecresy - The Mortal Horizon (2017)

With five full-lengths since 2010, Desecresy has certainly proven to be one of the revitalizing forces in bringing ancient Finnish death metal back to the spotlight. Sure, their forebears like Convulsed and Demilich have still been touring, or putting out newer albums, but it's always cool to have some fresh new voices in the scene. Of course, by 'fresh', I mean a festering, guttural nightmare that sounds like it's been moldering away in some cavern alcove since that era in 1993-1995 when this country's death metal royalty was emerging onto the international market as an oblique, rotting overseas proxy to groups like Incantation, which were making strides in the sonic spelunking field here at home. Albums like Arches of Entropy and The Doom Skeptron were not among the most robust in their niche, their production values weren't quite on the level of Disma or Dead Congregation, but they were nonetheless charming for their commitment to subterranean creepiness and cover artwork which used simple dual-tone color schemes to create an almost demo look.

Those two albums and the subsequent Chasmic Transcendence were where my interest in the band reach its summit, whilst Stoic Death felt like more of the same, and to an extent so does The Mortal Horizon. The cover doesn't quite hold the same appeal to me, and neither does some of the music. Don't get me wrong, when Desecresy is working at that slow, drudging pace, gut rumbling chugs paired off against haunting or droning melodies, they certain relive a little of the magic of why I started listening to them in the first place, but when one really stops to dissect the rhythm guitars a little they all seem relatively bland or predictable and would have a hard time thriving without that higher pitched accompaniment. They've often had a very sincere, organic production on the drums, and that's very true of this album too, but I sensed that this often leeched away a little of the power that the music might otherwise seems such an inhuman, underworld sort of death metal that having beats that feel like they're playing next to you in a jam room on an off night countermands the potential atmosphere. The belly-busting bass grooves are quite good, as well as Tommi's growl, but you can tell a bit more here than on prior efforts that this is primarily one musician, and not all the instruments resonate equally through the recording.

In The Mortal Horizon's favor, it sets up these wonderful atmospheric intros to cuts like "Concealed Depths" or "Telekinetic Ignition", using guitars alone to invoke otherworldly escapism, but then once some of the full on heaviness arrives they often seem a little on the disappointing side. Also I felt that where the album sped up it became a little more bland, like some generic underdeveloped deathgrind. All that being said, I wouldn't consider this a bad album whatsoever when you add up its strengths, it's simply not that much of an interesting development over the prior releases. One could certainly still wrest some enjoyment out of this for those slogging, morbid melodic passages that populate a good percentage of the music, and it's loyal to its underground pedigree, but there have simply been a lot of similar efforts which bred more excitement and horror through their fleshy depths, and The Mortal Horizon's low end could have used some stronger support for its ghastly growls and ghostly melodies. Still solid, if my least favorite of the Desecresy outings so far.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Time Lurker/Cepheide - Lucide (2019)

I was first exposed to Time Lurker just a couple years ago through their eponymous debut album, a fine entry into the field of black metal atmospherics and yet another band of quality populating the French landscape. Here they've teamed up with countrymen Cepheide, who I had not heard, but have a few prior recordings under their belt, presumably of a similar style and disposition judging by what I'm hearing on this disc. There are but three tracks here, Time Lurker offering up two and then their counterparts closing out the release with a 19+ minute opus, and apart from the obvious difference in length, and to some degree the production, the two pair up rather well aesthetically, performing vistas of blasted black metal that contrast against ambient segments.

And the ambient pieces rather win the day here, because in particular for the Time Lurker tunes, I didn't find the more aggressive passages quite as memorable as those on their debut. Spacious and savage surges with monotonous drums, smothered in sustained vocal snarls that fill the firmament of the recording, but rarely do they hit strings of notes that titillate until you get well into the piece, like past the five-minute mark of "No One is Real" before it slows its pace, or the middle of "Unstable Night" when the double-bass battery collides with some uneasy picking progression and bludgeons you fully in the chest while the howling and atmospheric guitars float above. Cepheide's title track, on the other hand, is a little shinier and more compelling, the way the vocals evoke these numbing chants and howls over the ebullient soundscape bursting off beneath them. The ambient segues in this tune also help defend it against the monotony a nearly 20 minute track might invoke, and they are quite immersive, the parts of the disc in which I sank the most; but otherwise I think the writing is very much in the same mold as the Time Lurker material.

If you're familiar with these groups or this general style of black metal in which atmosphere is conjured largely through sheer force, and the blasted regions of the tracks being used as a sort of transcendent hypnosis, then Lucide is nothing really to scoff at. I simply feel that the latter half of the run time is superior to the former, and overall the guitars could be written to be a little more memorable than half to play second fiddle to the windy momentum and esoteric tortured howling that doesn't stand out too boldly from the mix. Where the album hits its calms, like the intro to the first tune or sections of "Lucide", I felt myself most drawn to it, but once this ceded to the harsher parts, the material didn't really offer up a highly rewarding counterattack. Ultimately's its got a meditative feel to it on both ends of its heaviness, and it's not really intended to go for cheap hooks or melodies, but even then I didn't find the experience as evenly engrossing as it is stylistically consistent.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Monday, May 6, 2019

Axeslasher - Anthology of Terror, Vol. 1 (2013)

My love for 80s schlock cinema, horror, gore and being eternally locked within the mindset of a 13-year-old pretty much ensure that something like Axeslasher is going to catch my attention, and I mean that in the best possible way. While I don't always get a lot of the results I'd like from throwback-looking bands whose members are also obsessed with similar cult horror and exploitation kitsch, I have to applaud the efforts to revive the cheesy sentiments of that era. With their thrash terrorist ski masks, great sci-fi drive in cover art and track titles like "Mark of the Pizzagram" and "Invasion of the Babesnatchers", this was either going to be entirely awesome or another retro-clone pizza-thrash piece of trash that fails to elevate itself from its puddle of audio-genetic influences.

Anthology of Terror is somewhere between these two extremes, an EP that rounds up some of the Colorado group's previous singles into a nearly 20 minute exhibition of slightly party-tinged death thrash that by no means feels cheap or played out, even if its not super impressive. You can certainly hear some of those primitive 80s West Coast thrash influences, like Exodus-paced jerking rhythm guitars, but I'm also reminded a lot of death/thrash outfits like Ghoul, Exhumed, Cardiac Arrest, Frightmare and their like due to the mix of snarled and growled vocals and the way they can occasionally weave in some melodic intensity and frenzied leads. The rhythm guitars have a firm, abrasive tone to them which is very mosh-ready while providing a seat for the sicker, often sustained vocals. The rhythm section is adequate for the task, with a lot of fills being thrown around everywhere, especially the double kick variety, and that certainly gives Anthology a bit of modernity rather than feeling like a pure 80s retro idolization.

The downside here is that for all the considerable energy and propulsion Axeslasher metes out across these five tracks and intro, very few of the riffs are actually that catchy, and the songs don't burrow themselves into your head as much as the band's image, moniker and artwork might. Lyrically they have some fun topics like aliens conquering humanity and feeding them to their pets, supernatural serial killers, and witch-hunting, and the band is musically competent without any doubt, but I just didn't find the note choices or vocal lines here really resonating with me beyond a fleeting initial fun factor. I do like the style they go for, and a number of established acts with comparable sounds, so being that this material is already six years old or more, I wouldn't be surprised if they land some full-length record with a lot of improved songwriting chops some time soon. But this isn't quite there yet.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Friday, May 3, 2019

Perverticon - Wounds of Divinity (2019)

2019 has been such a great year in black metal so far that an album like Wounds of Divinity almost seems second tier in quality. And I say that because, while the Perverticon sophomore does little to distinguish itself from a good many other offerings in its genre, it's still a rather enjoyable effort that throws a few interesting riffing configurations at you that don't quite lineup with a million others you've heard, leaving you just enough slack on the line that you'll keep circling the bait until some other album comes along and catches you on its hooks. This is a slightly anonymous band with the handles 'Uncleanest Invictus', 'Necrosadistic Elite' and my favorite of the bunch, 'Omnicremationist Supreme', and from the degree of competence on exhibition here I'll just assume they've probably been involved with other Swedish black metal outfits in the past.

I say that also because the sound here is certainly one you could relate back to Dark Funeral, earlier Watain, Marduk and Lord Belial, one that relies heavily on incessant blasting rhythms and then using its guitar patterns to capitalize on that velocity with hypnotic weavings of tremolo pickings. The form isn't at its most savage and nasty here, although the drums are effortlessly fast, but there's a certain unique subtext within the chords and melodic single-picked notes that elated by tracks like "An Absence of All But Ashes" that really pay off with this approach. That's not to say that the band is all blast all the time, in fact they have a number of slower passages here to break up the flow of the record, but to be honest I found that the faster the notes and drums here, the more the material had my ears perking up. They do a lot of good work feeling out their chord choices so they can create this dramatic, eloquently evil momentum, which often reminds you of the old days of the 90s when you were first hearing stuff like Old Man's Child, Dissection or even Borknagar in a few cases. Not quite as eerily mood-inducing as other Swedish bands like Ondskapt or Armagedda, but I think fans of those might indeed get something out of this too.

A few downsides. The vocals, which are carnal enough of a rasp to match the riffs, but not all that distinctive from far more pain-wracked snarlers and growlers, don't exactly live up to the guitars. I could say the same for the drumming, it's fast as shit and does what it needs to, but in terms of throwing interesting beats and fills your way it's a bust, erring on the side of monotonous efficiency. The album does have a good bass tone though, loud and swerving along the guitars to give it an atmosphere across more dimensions than just the tinny blasts and the rhythm guitar tone. In a way, some of the deficiencies do let you focus in on those interesting riff patterns, so it's not all a bust, but the album does lack some punch and power if not speed. All told, though, this is yet another black metal record I've heard in these last four months which certainly doesn't disappoint, it's got enough moments of captivation that I think the potential of Perverticon is obvious.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Bädr Vogu - Wroth (2016)

Wroth is a record that really strikes a balance between its crusted and doomed aesthetics, imbuing them even further with some elements of death metal, Southern blues-injected grooves, and an occasional direct window into those angry hardcore fundamentals from which its sludge and crust components are derived. Oakland's Bädr Vogu bind this mass of styles into a unified whole in which each of them seem to complement the others, and then drown the entire experience in loads of existential and depressing samples from sources like True Detective character Rustin Cohle. The whole package is rather brutal and consistent in its disposition, comprised of lengthier tracks ranger about 7-11 minutes that pretty evenly distribute the influences I mentioned above.

And for the most part, I was on board here, because the sound of the whole thing is quite good, the rhythm guitars effectively cycling between doomed grooves and crushing chord barrages, given a little more depth by the occasional use of dour melodies, brief tremolo-picked departures and other 'musical' contributions that help recede the record from the shore-lines of boredom that a lot of its contemporaries often get their toes a little too wet in. Certainly there's a core here of the old NOLA Eyehategod sound, as well as Boston's Grief, albeit less nasty and hopeless, just replete with the crashing, loping, striding guitar riffs that themselves are often fixed with percussive changes that you don't quite expect. This helps the album retain some degree of freshness since it never strangles itself with ceaseless, dull repetition, even though a lot of the rhythm guitar riffs throughout the album are hardly memorable, and will draw your mind back to the many times you've heard similar within the sub-genres that it draws from. Vocals vary between the snarl typical of the style to a broader guttural, and both work although neither of them are bringing anything new to the buffet either.

My favorite piece on the album was surprisingly the shorter closer "Of Misanthropy and Malaise", with beautiful downtrodden acoustic guitars that repeat beneath a shroud of samples, spoken word and eerie violins to create an amazing, slowly cresting atmosphere as the fat bass lines erupt to drive it ever forward. It's a little bit of a left turn from the rest of the material, but offers such a bluesy and swampy vibe that it's irresistible and almost makes me wish they had included more segues of a similar nature, more immersion than their heavier tunes gifted me. However, I won't get too down on the rest of the record, because I think it will certainly hold an appeal to fans of sludge, Southern-fried doom and slower, driving crust or even slower death/doom. Loved the logo and the cover art to this one, which I think the guitarist designed, and the anarchic lyrics which attack everything from the average daily grind to substance abuse to the American Dream seem to mesh well with the selected samples and pounding certainty of the riffage.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (actions glisten like gory daggers)

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]