Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Varathron - Patriarchs of Evil (2018)

It can't be any coincidence that, ever since Rotting Christ started to take a downward swerve in quality, their countrymen Varathron have really picked up their slack and gone on what must be the most consistent and memorable run of their career, first with the excellent Untrodden Corridors of Hades and following EP The Confessional of the Black Penitents. It's almost like they snuck into the Tolis brothers' minds one eve and devoured their dreams and aspirations, then converting it into their own creativity. I jest, but boy has this band translated this classic Greek black metal style into something truly splendid and fulfilling through the sorts of albums you want to listen to front to end repeatedly, picking out the details each time as they deliver nothing other than solid, worthwhile riffs.

Again, this is not super blasting black metal territory, they can pull that trick out of their collective hats if they need to, but this is more about the varied, slower riffing which draws a lot from thrash metal, but due to the exotic note and chord patterns, the raspy vocals, the choirs and synthesizers and the mighty drumming which feels like the advanced course to Celtic Frost or Therion's foundation. Considering the amount of musical satisfaction you get, they rein a lot of the tracks in around 5-6 minutes, with the exception of the finale, "Ouroboros Dweller (The Dweller of Barathrum)", that clocks in over 8. Within such a humble span they get a lot accomplished, each set of riffs feeling like it tells a complete, grandiose story, and it does, a saga of magic or mystery which transports your mind back several thousand years despite being conveyed to you with instruments that weren't used in this format until fairly late in the 20th century. While the great lyrics often delve into the 'evil' that the album title hints at, Varathron is musically pretty consonant and warm on this record, and I think it'd honestly make a great gateway for fans of epic heavy/doom metal looking to break into the black metal field but striving to avoid the cliches they might not like of lo-fi production and cold Nordic blasts (their loss!) It's just that universal of a sound, despite being part of such a tight regional style.

All the instruments sound clear and effective, and the band can seamlessly mix in acoustic passages to heavier riffs, while Stefan Necroabyssious' primitive grunts are far more effective than you'd think from his range, somehow managing to sound just as distinct and glorious as the brighter melodies of the instruments, only with that crude edge. I don't know that the riff level here is such that every pattern is insanely catchy by itself, but combined into the whole of Patriarchs of Evil, there are few notes here that I'd really want to change. It all serves the mystique of the band's occult explorations well enough that you can forgive an occasional dud, and I admit that this is one of those albums that has continued to grow on me since I first started listening. I'll rate this one even higher now than I would have one year ago, and I think it's very close to being on par with their last (and my favorite) full-length, missing only by a fraction which I'd attribute to just having a stronger connection to that mildly darker experience. But stylistically this is on point, and an essential Greek black metal disc for anyone into their past works or those of their better-known, ailing countrymen.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (storms and dead suns)

Monday, July 15, 2019

Varathron - The Confessional of the Black Penitents EP (2015)

As loved as Varathron's first two albums are in the Greek black metal canon, it was the band's decades-long transformation into the atmospheric, epic, dynamic juggernaut Untrodden Corridors of Hades which proved my favorite of their releases, and still quite loyal to the sound they helped develop on their national scene. So needless to say I was quite looking forward to the follow-up, and The Confessional of the Black Penitents EP isn't quite that in its scope, I was at least satisfied to hear that they were largely going to continue the sound from that underrated gem the year before. There isn't a ton of new material to pore over, even though it's 40 minutes of material, but the two 7+ minute new metal tracks are more than satisfactory and could have easily been tacked onto the end of the prior album and contributed even further to its greatness, with only minor tweaks in production.

Heavily varied, constantly interesting, majestic Hellenic black metal, with many know is performed out in a slower fashion than their Scandinavian counterparts, though Varathron can bust out a blast at any second they desire and maintain the same quality. It's all about the mystique, the representation of ancient Gods, temples, and the occult, cultivating nostalgia for fallen times while simultaneously resurrecting it forward to future generations. Grand melodies play out against thundering currents of drumming while a humble rasp leads it all like a tour guide through a violent midnight bacchanal. You can always tell that this crew is putting constant effort into how to piece together their tracks, and I can't imagine any diehard for the classic sounds of Rotting Christ and Varathron not falling for "Sinister Recollection" and "Utter Blackness" upon first listen, they are so well composed and such a dependable manifestation of that scene's cult sound. As for the titular intro piece, it's just some strumming strings with a few rasps above them that let you know the feast is about to begin, and I don't know that it stands on its own quite as much without what is to follow.

Now, if the EP were just this new material I'd rank it accordingly alongside the previous album, but the remaining tracks are from a live gig in Larisa, Greece...and they also sound pretty damn good. The mix is quite clean, permitting you access to the intricacies of the picking, the bass and drums and vocal slather without anything wresting dominance away from the rest. The material is also very level sounding even where it's drawn from such a big spread of their career. "Unholy Funeral", off His Majesty at the Swamp, sounds just as impressively potent as "Kabbalistic Invocation of Solomon" off the last record, and everything fits in so well to the performance, from the choirs and dark ambient back-scapes to the metallic core of the band. The result is that this whole damn EP is worth hearing and owning. You won't find the studio tunes or live cuts elsewhere, everything is quality checked and if you've been into any of their stuff ever (sans the lukewarm Crowsreign) then they've got you well covered.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Friday, July 12, 2019

Brutality - Antecedent Offerings EP (2018)

Antecedent Offerings is essentially a limited run, 500 copy 7" collectors' item in which 3/4ths of Brutality's 'classic' lineup revisiti a track each from their seminal offerings Screams of Anguish and When the Sky Turns Black and re-record them to see how they can be performed with over two decades' accrued experience and proficiency. Perhaps even a dash of contemporary studio 'wizardry', which has presumably also come some ways since the 90s (in either a positive or negative direction, depending who you might ask). As such, it's not like the band has fully committed to remaking a lot of their catalog, they just hand-picked two cuts which I'd assume are ones fans might want to hear in this context, and had at them.

Admittedly, I find both of these renditions a little dull, lacking the crushing potency of the original incarnations. The mix is quite consistent, the riffs performed well, perhaps even more 'balanced' across the speakers, but as soon as I go back to the brighter, album version of "Crushed", it just emotionally and sonically violates this new version, sounding like the genuine Florida death metal that put the band on the map in that 'second string' of bands beneath the legends like Morbid Angel or Death. The older version does feel a lot more youthful, maybe even disjointed in a few of the transition areas, and the remake is smoother in that area, I'll grant it, but the overall mix just has nowhere near the same level of energy for me. This is doubly the case for "Artistic Butchery" which also seems like a more lifeless version, and I get that it's 'death metal' haw haw haw but really there is no point to hearing the new over the original. The one thing that does remain very consistent between the two eras is the vocals, which sound almost identical on a good number of their lines.

So while this is only intended as a limited edition collectible and nothing to take so seriously, I have to say it doesn't do much for me whatsoever. The one positive is that it made me listen through those first two records again, which are slightly underappreciated gems from the 90s era, but I wouldn't go out of my way to hear either of these again. They don't suck in terms of production, but lack the personality in 2018 that their forebears had in 1993-1994. Skip it and listen to those albums, or even their last record Sea of Ignorance, which is much more exciting with its newer material.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Lizzy Borden - My Midnight Things (2018)

I've gotten so much enjoyment out of the first four Lizzy Borden albums throughout the 80s, that I could never begrudge if the band had just stopped there and never performed another note. Yet there is quite obviously a fire still lit beneath Mr. Borden and his troupe, and once they got back on the horse with 2000's Deal with the Devil, the only 'average' record in their catalog, there was a noticeable rebound in quality, the band staying very active on tours and doing what they love even if they've never quite hit the higher profile of other heavy metal legends from both sides of the pond. 2007's Appointment with Death was a good effort, almost as good as some of their seminal records, and I have to say that this newest disc, My Midnight Things, if not the most striking material they've ever released, sounds fairly capable as a band which heralds a lot of those 80s hard rock, glam and heavy metal aesthetics transplanted into the year 2018. It's not a total faceplant, but certainly a humbler and less ambitious project than its predecessor.

The core lineup here is down to just Lizzy and his brother Joey Scott Harges, with the former handling all the instruments other than a couple keyboard parts, and I think you can feel a little of the lack of intricacy or impressive guitar licks that defined career highs like Visual Lies and Master of Disguise, but what is performed here is at very least in line with what a modernized vision of the band might be. I'm occasionally reminded of the 90s Queensryche material, which devolved into a sort of progressive alt rock still carried by Tate's vocals, only Lizzy Borden keep things a little more metal and anthemic front and center, and just better. There are a lot of pretty obvious riff lines on the album, with predictable progressions to choruses, and the leads here are far too simplistic and don't do much to make an impact compared even to the chords surrounding them, but some of the stuff is still pretty sugary, catchy and dramatic. As for his voice, I'll once again make a comparison to Geoff Tate, since the two are quite similar in inflection, and also that Lizzy, like Geoff, isn't quite as screechy and wild as his youth, but remains very competent in rage, and there are certainly a lot of his self-harmonies here which could have appeared in the later 80s and nobody would be the wiser.

My Midnight Things clearly has a more 'rock operatic' approach to it that most resembles Master of Disguise, almost like a Part II to that record, with songs that aren't quite as impactful or resonant, and a tendency towards some redundancy as to how a lot of them progress. Despite that, I still felt myself getting drawn into a number of them, I only wish they had been trussed up with better lead guitars, and riffs that were a little more interesting individually, even if in a pop-like sense they do flow well as a whole. It seems like a lot more of the gaps between the simpler rhythmic components are just filled in with synthesizers, and while they're not unwelcome, they're not so compelling in most instances. Lyrically, it's about on par with Master of Disguise, hard rock lyrics with a larger than life feel to them which seems very personal to this character that is Harge's 'Lizzy Borden'. One thing I did truly hate on this one was the new version of "Waiting in the Wings", modern and poppy and more electronically infused than the original and it just does not work, even if he can still hit those notes in the chorus. Otherwise it's a passable record that suffers somewhat from lacking the full spread of weaponry that Lizzy Borden offered with a full roster in the 80s. Decent ideas for vocal hooks, solid drums, but the rest could really have been improved upon.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Monday, July 8, 2019

Acid Witch - Black Christmas Evil EP (2018)

Dave Slasher's last Acid Witch EP was this really great idea that involved covering four Halloween-worthy hard rock horror movie tracks, but unlike a lot of others, who lavished praise upon it, I was just not a fan of the actual execution, even though I I was a fan of some of the original fare it was based upon, and appreciated that such songs would get some attention. Hey, nobody can question the guys' taste. This newer Black Christmas Evil EP is a similar idea, only with another particular Holiday theme, and shorter at only two tracks. This time, the presented material is original, and like a lot of the band's full-lengths, much more to my liking. I rather dug how it felt like a continuation of their very solid, original 2017 album Evil Sound Screamers, only trussed up in a Santa outfit.

So yeah, hideous lo-fi death/doom drudging that sounds enormous despite those factors. I love the integration of the cheery keyboard lines which feel like they were taken off some incidental Xmas record, or some cheesy mid-90s black metal band like Ancient. The vocals are gruesome snarls that are heard well above the music itself, and the overall atmosphere is suitably fun and still heavy. I wouldn't call the riffs in this one their best, but they are dynamic and groovy enough in a succinct tune like this to keep you from growing bored. The second tune, "Christmas Evil (You Better Watch Out!)", was my preferred of the two, opening with a sample from the trailer of the 1980 film of the same name, but then going into this classier doom structure. Lyrically, yes, each of the tracks is based on the eponymous slasher films, which is really par for the Acid Witch course and one might even hope they do a lot more such 'theme' EPs since there's a lot of turf to cover in the horror genre.

There's not a lot of meat on the victims' bones here, but it's a two track EP for $2 on Bandcamp, so there's not much cause to complain, especially when they're well enough written that they could have appeared on Evil Sound Screamers. I think the love of these films shines through in just about everything Dave Slasher and friends put out, and since my own fondness for campy old horror flicks has only grown with age it's something I look forward to. I'd also take the opportunity here to plug his solo synth/score project, which is really well done.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, July 5, 2019

Death Angel - Humanicide (2019)

Upon first glance I admit I didn't find this latest Death Angel album to be all that appealing. The Humanicide title seems trite and cliche for a thrash disc, and even though the artwork for these three wolf mascots is on point, I thought it also felt a little generic that three of the last four albums they put out had nearly the same artwork, with slight shifts in color scheme and whatever part of the post-apocalypse they were pawing their way through. After popping in the disc, though, most of my worries disappeared, because it turns out this is just another example of the modern Death Angel doing its homework and getting it right. Maybe not as right as on the two albums before it, which it seems to be a hybrid of, but it was generally a good listen with a lot of dense, headbanging and yet another palette of powerful riffs by the Cavestany/Aguilar team that moves in a lockstep you rarely hear outside of bands like classic Artillery.

This record moves. And it is angry. West Coast thrash metal evolved to incorporate a wide array of influences, between technical thrash and groove metal. Flashy, well-written solos sputter out from the gapless network of energetic rhythm patterns, while the bass and drums keep really damn busy forcing it all into the same concrete lattice of impenetrable power. I will say this album has a higher ratio of forgettable riffs than the two before it, but not for lack of trying, it's just that its particular configurations didn't quite worm their way into my earholes as much. I mean, when you get down to it, while a lot of the material here is very well arranged, it's just not so catchy and feels like a lot of material you've heard from decades of thrash bands, only paraphrased into more punchy cuts. Mark Osegueda's vocals here feel a little more pinched than the last couple discs, and there were also some lines where I thought he sounded so much like Erik A.K. from Flotsam & Jetsam that I had to look up that he hadn't taken over those duties for this album. Weirdly, I think I was more into the drums on this than the last two albums with Will Carroll, perhaps just a dash more potent personality.

They bring in a few guest soloists like Alexi Laiho of Children of Bodom and Jason Suecof of Capharnaum (and recording engineer of many well known records), but I hardly noticed because the band's own guitarists could probably have done with them equal flair. I dug quite a few of the songs, but if I were to pick a few out of a lineup with the three albums before it, they'd have to be "The Pack" for its more interesting rhythms and well timed gang shouts, and "Revelation Song" because it very much took me by surprise with its huge heavy metal riffs and great, groovy rhythm bridges during the leads. Basically the tunes where they sort of break off from the dextrous clip most of this material is flying past at. But in the end, Humanicide is well in line with Relentless Retribution, The Dream Calls for Blood and The Evil Divide as the most consistent streak the band has ever had in its decades of existence. No, I'm not going to pull this off the rack over "Evil Priest" or "Voracious Souls", but any of these four albums would sound great through the car speakers when I just want a thrash album that cares about what the fuck it's doing. When this phoenix finally emerged from the creative ashes about a decade ago, it decided it would stay aloft.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Death Angel - The Evil Divide (2016)

What immediately struck me about The Evil Divide is that it was a more clear return to the direction Death Angel was headed on their Frolic Through the Park and Act III records, back during their prime when they were becoming a household name among the thrash fans at the turn of the decade (1990). It's certainly a more advanced and involved record in terms of composition, and it also has a stronger sense of dynamic range than the album before it (The Dream Calls for Blood). The production isn't nearly so harsh and concrete, it feels 'modern' but not overly so, which I think turned a lot of cult thrash fans off that one a little. Stylistically, it's a bit of the same and then takes a few risks, not to an experimental level of weirdness like Frolic Through the Park, more in just how clinical and technical they can pack their riffing style.

The fact is that this lineup really gels here, and the rhythm guitars are fucking intense and like the album before it, just flooring you with the sheer number of riff patterns that are strewn about the 45 minutes. Probably a higher count than any other Death Angel disc, or most thrash records for that matter. The bass tone is nice and fat and given some air to breathe in a few tunes. The leads are quite good and superior to the previous album, and unlike a lot of peers that are spewing out modern thrash records after 30+ year careers, The Evil Divide seems capable of putting in some genuine emotion without getting to cheesy, as on the riffy, memorable "Lost" where Mark lets his cleaner, more sustained vocals and harmonies reign. On a lot of the material, he actually gets a little more grit to his voice than on The Dream Calls for Blood, although that album might have felt heavier in sum because of its more abrasive, crunchy guitar tone. I find the instrumentation just in general seems as if its more practiced and effortless, but also more inventive and melodically imbued to stick to the listener's brains long after the death's head moth has fluttered away. Speaking of that, it was a little strange that they dropped the horn-crowned wolves which they had been using on the two albums prior and then also on the follow-up to this.

Death Angel got a lot of good buzz off this one, and for an understandable reason. Re-evaluating my own feelings on it, and getting back into it, I feel like it's even better than its predecessor, although there was a time when I might have told you differently. Mature, intelligently written, about as far from the run of the mill pizza thrash that these guys and their Californian peers inspired throughout the early '00s as you can get. The Evil Divide is still a catchier album when I'm listening to it than when I'm not, but that said I do keep a couple of its hooks stored in the grey matter when I'm thinking about the band on the whole. Had this album come out in about 1992, even with a slightly less professional production, I think it would have been the stuff of legend and blown peoples' heads off, it certainly eviscerates The Art of Dying and Killing Season, to me the nadir of their career, those early 'comeback' albums that didn't wholly justify the return. At any rate, folks looking for detailed, dynamic thrash metal which isn't afraid to stretch its wings out will very likely appreciate this one.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, July 1, 2019

Death Angel - The Dream Calls for Blood (2013)

There are quite a number of classic thrash bands, both in the States and Europe, who for me really haven't survived their transitions into a more modern style and brick housed production. Okay, maybe they've survived on touring and tuning in a younger audience, but simply haven't been putting out the same caliber of material they were capable of in their fiending youth. Essentially the stuff has become 'dad thrash', competent and mixed for the times but lacking the essential soul of the 80s. Acts like Exodus and Onslaught have fallen to such a fate, but a few others, like Death Angel, make it work for them. I could level a bunch of complaints at this band's body of work starting with Relentless Retribution, but the fact is they handle their modern body of work just as infectiously as they did their seminal efforts. Nope, they haven't ever released a rival for their debut The Ultra-Violence and I doubt they will, that was such a distinct, fevered and evil slab of West Coast thrash, but when I hear their modern efforts I don't feel even vaguely like I'm getting ripped off, or that they're anything less than genuine.

Part of this is Mark Osequeda's angsty, nasally vocal style, somewhere between Joey Belladonna and Russ Anderson in strain and tone, he just injects this edge to the material which aids even the less inspiration riffs here. And riffs there are a plenty, some of them memorable and nasty, and others just seem like they're going through the motions to play with their pretty distortion, but like a modern Artillery, they keep throwing them after you and never really running out of ideas, and I think there are far more winners here on The Dream Calls for Blood than there are losers. It's also a creative record, they'll bust off into some hard rock grooves, or some floatier atmospheric section without warning, helping to round-out the majority of the meaty thrashings, Cavestany and Aguilar are legion when it comes to the rhythmic syncopation and if you're looking for some neckbreaking I think this album really delivers. Leads flurry on by with bluesy abandon, all flash and testosterone and entirely suited to the massacre going on, while the combination of Will Carroll's seamless beats and those rhythm guitars create an appreciably intense lower end to the record. Granted, I think the drums do lack a little nuance and personality, but they're not really what I focus on here.

The lyrics are all about rage, revenge and other thrash-worthy feelings, perfect for the adolescents attracted to this subgenre, but not written cheaply or stupidly. There's a cover of Sabbath's "Heaven and Hell" which is played pretty close to the vest, but due to the mix it fits right in with their own original material, and Osequeda is up to the task although some of the oohs and aah lines have a cheesy delivery (not that they didn't in the first place). So when I think of veteran thrash acts who have thrived with a new, blockbuster sort of production fitting to the loudness levels of the 21st century, Destruction's The Antichrist always comes to mind as the exemplar, and there are no tracks here which are nearly on that level of me wanting to constantly hit replay until I've worn my finger to the bone (or the CD to slag). But I think much of Death Angel's modern material certainly passes a quality check, using its tools well and not just a overproduced, overinflated bore like these enduring bands often put out with their bigger studio budgets. The Dream Calls for Blood is frankly one of Californians' best albums period, a very well balanced attack. It's no Ultra-Violence, an anomaly borne from the members' then-youthful creativity and raw aggression, but it'll do in a pinch.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, June 28, 2019

Carnal Diafragma - Grind Restaurant Pana Septika (2017)

The impressions I once took away from the violence and spasticity of grindcore have long since abated for me, and these days I find myself searching far and wide for bands in this niche that can craft up creative riffing, interesting aesthetic themes, or successful cross pollination into other genres. The same old sped-up punk and core riffs don't really work for me, nor does the shock value or silliness of the vocals that I once got a laugh out of. Sure, the eccentricity and extremity of the lyrics might still get a tickle, or just the notion that there are so many bands out there still doing this and loving the fuck out of the style, but it's not often I reach for a record of this sort beyond the early goregrind staples already in my collection. So I've begun examining a little deeper into the European stuff, in particular the Czech scene which seems to have had a thriving grind scene for some time now.

Carnal Diafragma is fairly standard for the goregrind style, with effortless blasting, thick rhythm guitars spewing out riff patterns from the Carcass and Napalm Death playbooks of the later 80s and early 90s, and a mix of vomitous gutturals and gremlin snarls that are going for the gut laughs. They also pair these up with a couple churning, groovier slow sections where the riffs actually sound pretty solid, but you kind of get the drift in the first few tracks and there isn't much beyond that to surprise you. These guys aren't sample-heavy. There are a few, but usually they cut right to the chase and serve up a salacious menu of tunes that sort of stay on-theme with the album title, basically about disgusting delicacies. It's kind of a cute gimmick, but since I can't speak the language or even read the song titles without a translator, and there's nothing musically out of the ordinary to convey the vibe that you're in some grotesque bistro, the theme is only flesh-deep. Having said that, I don't think diehards for this style of grind would be too disappointed, because they capture as much excitement as possible into the tempo shifts, the cut-off riffs, the occasional breakdowns.

The production here is excellent, good and loud but not feeling like polished silverware. The utensils
Carnal Diafragma serves you with have been well washed in guts and goo, and the album will not lack for kicking your ass straight into the cauldron and then seasoning you up. The vocals blend together pretty well, again very voluminous but managing not to overshoot the guitars, and there is enough dynamic range within each of the 1-2 minute tracks that you'll never be bored, partly because they don't give you the time to, but mainly because with a 22-year history and numerous albums and splits already behind them, they know the ins and outs of this madness. I would even go so far as to say they can come up with a catchy riff about 1 out of 5 times, which is a good average in this style, but as many positives as I can lay upon Grind Restaurant Pana Septika, it's just not that addictive, a gruesome gourmet that you'll soon forget about once it vomits forth from your nethers.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Squash Bowels - Grindvirus (2009)

Poland is another heartland for grinders of the gorier persuasion, and Squash Bowels have proven one of the more enduring of their carnal connoisseurs, with 25 years experience and a long laundry list of pulverizing splits and albums. Plus they've just got one of those band names that sticks out to you, probably for all the bad reasons, because who hasn't felt this way about their digestive system after catching a stomach flu or eating some very, very wrong?! It's a bit of a surprise, considering their name, that a lot of their lyric focus in the past hasn't necessarily been all that gross, but their 2009 effort Grindvirus definitely has a slight waft of scatological violence about it, although not attaining the stench levels that many of their peers do on a regular basis.

It's hard not to label this Napalm Death worship, because really they just have so much in common with those British Godfathers of grind that you could interchange a lot of their riffs and vocal patterns and not know the difference, especially from the period around Death by Manipulation, Harmony Corruption or Utopia Banished. Perhaps not a direct clone, because there are a few differences, like the meatier production used by Squash Bowels, and a guttural vocal that has a little more personality than Barney's muffled roars. They also do some slower groove parts that almost sound like nu metal (as in the parts of "D.I."), primarily because of how those riffs are paced with the lower tuning. But when they're belting out one of those downtrodden, brutal fast riffs they sound exceedingly close to the source of their genre, and to me that was one of the limitations. I can't pick out a single riff on this entire album that was remotely interesting or unique, they're all par for the course, no matter how much of a thick, crushing production they are given as they repeatedly pummel the fuck out of your ears.

Maybe the issue is that my expectations are too high for this style? I mean I hear a group like fellow Poles Antigama, who keep their riffs quite compelling and establish a unique mood for the genre, or even Nasum, who succeeded by tossing a healthy heaping of catchy d-beat Swedish death metal into their grind-matrix...and I'm on board. But here on Grindvirus there just isn't anything a lot by which I can distinguish them. Don't mistake me, the production here is quite good, the energy is obvious, and they have a lot of the veteran hallmarks, even some pretty cool cover artwork. This is even put out here through Willowtip Records. I'm sure folks over at the Euro festivals can mosh the shit out of this material, but all I get here is 28 minutes of battery that doesn't really endure even in the midst of experiencing it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Monday, June 24, 2019

Morta Skuld - For All Eternity (1995)

While they've never been numbered among the most legendary US death metal acts, one can make a solid case for the earlier works of Wisconsin's Morta Skuld as minor Midwest 90s cult classics, in particular the debut Dying Remains, which at its best was almost capable of going toe to toe with some of its Floridian forebears of around the same period. With the four full-lengths they released from '93-'97, however, there was a fairly steady, if not immediate decline in them writing much of interest, which bottomed out on the album Surface, upon which mediocrity was finally achieved. For All Eternity, their third album, and their first with UK's Peaceville Records, shows that there was still a little bit of fight left, a number of riffs that were clearly winners wedged among some that weren't.

I liken their style on this one to a heavier take on Chuck Schuldiner's Death, primarily the sense of pacing; or perhaps a few pages torn from the Obituary sophomore Cause of Death, or the first few Gorguts discs. The focus is on slower, heavy grooves, but keeping them dynamic and interesting, with some nice tremolo picked patterns and no tendency whatsoever to dwell on anything that might border on boring. Once in awhile they break out into a faster pattern, but they are all about keeping this thing heavy and really fleshing out all those chugging palm mute patterns so that they're easy to distinguish from one another. There's also a bit of influence here from more clinical thrash sounds, used in bridges or breakaway sections before they barrel back into some Morbid Angel-like groove. There are clearly a lot of riffs here that don't quite pass muster, but they just keep those breakdowns and tempo shifts rolling along, so the overall bodies of the tracks are well arranged and keep you interested if you dig your death metal plodding and pugilistic without being interminably dull.

The vocals are a gruff growl redolent of the bands I mentioned above, and not the strongest point of the record since they don't vary it up all that much by the lyrical patterns, but still competent enough, and I can't imagine what other style would really match the rhythm guitars. They lack the psychotic edge of a John Tardy, and actually cross a bridge into the more brutal death vocal style that was becoming popular around the same time through groups like Suffocation and Malevolent Creation. The drums here are very tight and groovy, the guitar tune a bit muffled but not as much as some of Scott Burns' worse mixes, and I think it's better produced than As Humanity Fades was, although the riff quality is fairly even on both those records. The cover art is pretty cool, the lyrics are more personal and thoughtful (ala Death) rather than a gorefest, and I'd have to say that if you were out scouring the past for some well-constructed death metal, this one holds up fairly well to this day. If not game-changing or constantly memorable, it's at least capable of filling out its 48 minute length without putting anyone to sleep.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (innocence is over)

Friday, June 21, 2019

Outrage - Brutal Human Bastard (2013)

The simplistic sort of death metal advocated through bands like Austria's Outrage is honestly pretty brave these days, when you consider that it's not a style many fans of the broader genre really go for. Groups like Six Feet Under and Jungle Rot received mixed at best reactions from an audience divided between the nostalgic saturation of old school, atmospheric, evil death metal aesthetics and the more flashy, athletic scene honed in more for precision, technicality and clinical production standards. So efforts like Brutal Human Bastard don't cross my path very often, and while that might be a good thing in general, these guys actually attack the genre from a slightly different angle than I'd expected from the cover. I won't go on record to say I'm the biggest fan, but this sophomore outing gets a little credit for having a few refreshing ideas, hit or miss, which define it.

The bedrock of the songwriting is slower, churning, accessible death metal circa Bolt Thrower or Six Feet Under which is heavily mosh-flavored; in fact the large majority of the time the material is pit ready at the cost of creativity. That's not to say the riffs don't work, especially in the clarity of the production which allows you to feel the weight of those rhythm guitars straight in the belly, but you won't often be surprised by the notes they choose, it's more a vehicle for the front man's broad yet monotonous gutturals. Where the band really shifts it up is in how they obviously take a big influence from rock and thrash metal, and come up with these pro lead guitars sequences through most of the tunes that are quite catchy, and even more impressive in that their contrast with the bulkier, brawling undertow doesn't come at the cost of the music's overall potency. I'm not going to call it 'melodeath', although certainly there are a lot of faster paced melodic death metal groups that place a similar emphasis on the consonant lead-work, harmonies, etc, but it definitely creates a warmer vibe than what you'd expect on Realm of Chaos or War Master.

The drumming is quite good on the album, a lot of steady, tribal, warlike rhythms to keep those simpler mute patterns more bombastic than they'd be otherwise, and although I'm not always the biggest fan of 'clean' mixes for my death metal records, this one services the style well. I did not get much out of the riffs, mostly just blander death/thrash patterns I've heard before, but sometimes they bust into a cooler tremolo picked passage or something that stands out from its surroundings, and the album doesn't really experience any lulls, it's consistent stuff throughout, for good or ill. Though the growls are pretty bog standard to the genre, they do throw some snarls over the top to give it a more Deicide vibe, and he can shift the guttural up to a slightly higher pitch for variety. For me, the main highlight was always the leads and melodies and how they combined with the rhythm section to create something seasoned and dynamic. Song titles, lyrics, even the album title were just a 'meh'. I can't give Brutal Human Bastard a glaring recommendation, I was lukewarm with this stuff at best, but those looking for some intro level death metal (and I don't mean that insultingly) which is honestly the polar opposite of trendy right now might dig it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Varulv - Wolfszorn (2015)

Wolfszorn is not a record reared on subtlety or invention, it's what you'd call a 'textbook' example of the black metal genre which does not step outside the margins of that realm in any capacity. I was immediately taken by the rustic folk art, as I often am within this genre, especially because the werewolf central to the image appears to be carrying the Holy fucking Hand Grenade from Monty Python & the Holy Grail. And also whatever the hell else is going on in the image. Is the dude with the sword in the taking a piss? Are those witches strung from the gallows in the background? Is that laborer exhausted or did the lycanthrope push him or her to the ground. Does anyone even care that this man-beast is driving a pushcart of Papal corpses through their village? And what's with that thing in the background. Is that a building on fire or just a very unusual-shaped potted plant?

So many mysteries to unwind, except for Varulv's music itself, which pretty much just kicks you in the chin immediately for a swift takedown, and then spends the next 36 minutes eviscerating and playing around in your entrails with its direct, ghastly traditional black metal. This is not a record which dabbles around with nuance or atmosphere, the details are straight to the face and perfectly content with that attack plan. That's not to say they lack some degree of dynamic range...the riff patterns here swerve between glorious, melodically-engraved charges and slower, nastier grooves, both of which recalled the Darkthrone of the early 90s, but there is no ramp-up whatsoever. Do not expect acoustical, haunting segues, intros or interludes, synthesizer scapes cultivating the full moon light to catalyze the transformation of the Varulv. Nope, this thing is in full Crinos form, ripping down the village doors and dragging the women and children, or rather the clergymen, to their grisly feast by fang and claw.

Guitar tone is a major factor here, it's kind of huge and mid-range and has a solid texture in which you can hear every note of a chord shining along, but still vorpal sharp and hostile. The black metal rasp is super carnal, which suits the subject matter, but rather generic in its inflection and doesn't have much ability to catch could honestly use a little more flawed inconsistency which would lend it a little charisma. As it stands, the only deviation you get is when some ominous, broader growl is used to double it up. Bass doesn't really seep through this album at all; you can faintly trace it in the slower moments, but it's mostly all six-string testosterone and intense drum battery and that can grow a little dull, although the Austrians handle it with a professional competence. And truly, if you are in the mood for just black metal of the most obvious format, the most direct distillation, then I think there are some sections of Wolfszorn that wouldn't disappoint, but I didn't find the album to have much character beyond the obvious, much horror lurking beneath the surface carnage. The debut was creepier, if less forceful, and the third record Sagenlieder is more well-rounded without losing the teeth.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Monday, June 17, 2019

Dauþuz - Monvmentvm (2019)

If Monvmentvm has any flaw, it's that it comes after three records which defined the conceptual freshness Dauþuz brought to their genre, and doesn't really do a whole lot to further expand upon or innovate upon that theme. Not that these are necessities in the composition of a great album, and this third full-length is quite good for all that, but I felt that at this interval, the Germans might pursue a little more nuance, layer a little more aesthetic variation into their formulas, or just come up with a masterwork to cap off what has already been a formidable slew of recordings. Instead, they play it rather safe here, if an underground black metal record with German lyrics about mining could ever really be considered 'safe'. I'm sure we'll be hearing it on our local mainstream radio networks anytime now. Wouldn't that be a world?

At any rate, this is still a fine record, from the outside in. Luciana Nedelea's gorgeous black & white artwork might be the most aesthetically pleasing of their covers, although I had no problem with its predecessors. The production of Monvmentvm is probably their most level and balanced, and while that might leech away some of its dynamic punch, it creates their most mournful atmosphere yet, accompanied with some very sombering guitar lines, and probably the largest number of woeful clean vocals they used yet, which are somehow even more effective in how they don't stand out terribly much from the instruments. The acoustic guitars continue to glimmer sadly, whether they are used directly in a longer metal tune or in the instrumentals, of which there are three. There were also some well integrated acoustic pianos at the finale of the album, its 10-minute title track. The guitars have been slightly more prominent on past albums, to be sure, but you can still here them quite well roiling against the drum patterns with their huge, glorious, if somewhat predictable melodic passages, and there are occasionally breaks where they get to breathe by themselves and its rather euphoric.

This is probably the Dauþuz album where no individual component stands out far beyond any other, but it's also strangely the most laid back, 'epic' experience if you're simply seeking an escape from your daily grind and wish to journey back to the grinds of craftsmen and laborers centuries past in a black metal transfiguration. You'll still have some of the suicidal howling to create tension and no insignificant sum of horror, but you can also pop this on your headphones and doze off (in a good way). Another notch in a belt of well-cut gemstones, but one does hope a little that the Germans' inevitable follow-up offers a slightly more expansive or ambitious piece of jewelry to complement what they've already adorned themselves with. I'd place it roughly between the first two albums in quality, and once more recommend it to fans of Medieval or atmospheric black metal with the adage that it's still quite firmly rooted to the genre's conventions and offers more of a thematic departure than a musical one.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, June 14, 2019

Dauþuz - Des Zwerges Fluch EP (2018)

For a newer band, Dauþuz has kept itself very busy over the three years of its existence, dropping one new release annually, before most in the potential black metal market have heard any of them. But, damn it, for whatever limited audience pays attention to my ramblings, I aim to change that last bit, because they deliver on all counts to the traits I want out of well-rounded, fulfilling, effective underground black metal. Des Zwerges Fluch ('The Dwarf's Curse') is a less substantial offering than Die Grubenmähre, being an EP of around 35 minutes, but that's still quite a lot of bang for the buck, and it's a fluid continuation of the previous material which enacts a few tiny embellishments into its harsh and acoustic mining-scapes to easily justify its place on your shelf if you're into Medieval or antiquity-focused black metal escapism and not just looking for your next horn-throwing fix.

Certain of the tracks here, like "Unwerk - Des Zwerges Fluch I" and the 10-minute opening surge of "Steinhammer" are among my favorites in their whole catalog. The screams and growls have become even more crazy and intense, and the use of cleaner, chanted vocals has become more confident, they usually just follow a melodic guitar line with them but it really helps drive home the subterranean aesthetics they aim for, without all the claustrophobic, smothering stereotypes you'd find in cavern-core death metal. Some will probably find this approach a little cheesier, but I couldn't give much of a fuck since this is the sort of band where the mood itself is central to my appreciation and Dauþuz hasn't faltered from creating such an atmosphere, almost entirely through the riffing and keeping. The material here on the EP probably has the most even distribution of flooding faster rhythms and then the more gradual, melancholic bits where they make good use of harmonies. The acoustic parts are just as impressive as ever, gloomy and Medieval fireside vignettes that doesn't outstay their welcome, and are often paired up with some snarls or screams or samplings of the tools of the trade central to the theme.

Lyrically, this one stretches a little bit more into folklore territory on some tunes, which I think is welcome. In fact, while I love the historical mining theme, I wouldn't be put off if the Germans decided to do some fully fantastical concept albums in the future. An album about Moria? Sure, or pretty much any dwarven lore from any setting. They still don't incorporate dungeon synth elements, a request I had from back on my critique of their first album, but I think by now I've fully forgotten about that, because they've just become so solid at their sound, and it's not like I can't get that stuff from a thousand other places. Again, highly recommended from me, I think Die Grubenmähre is the best starting point to explore their sound, but this EP is entirely complementary to that.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Dauþuz - Die Grubenmähre (2017)

Dauþuz' second album, Die Grubenmähre ('The Mining Horse'), doesn't distinguish itself all that much from their debut, but for being just a year apart it does seem as if the duo were pursuing a slightly more dynamic range to their riff patterns and the result is a more foreboding and desperate effort than its predecessor. While it might lose a fraction of the first album's brightness, there are a number of minute shifts here which make it more of a soul scarring listen. Never mind the thematic implications of the title and cover, thinking back on these ancient work-beasts and their thankless and fatal toiling at the behest of their domesticators, automatically casting shadows of sadness and empathy across the recording, but the music itself carves into you like a pick into the stone.

First off, the vocals are far more intense, aiming for that more suicidal, screaming tone that you find in a lot of suicidal or Burzum-like black metal, sometimes to ghastly, delirious heights, but playing them off against the rasp of the debut, and some deeper groans and growls. This permeates the music with a more panicked appeal, as does the harsher flood of rhythm guitars. They still ingrain their chord selections with a lot of melody, but Die Grubenmähre at its heaviest does feel more brutal and unforgiving than the album before it. The mid-paced rhythms remind one of Blood Fire Death a lot, with different vocals, but just as much pomp and glory. Tempo and mood changes here often feel more abrupt than before, but also much more effective, such as when they'll let a single tremolo picked guitar start off into the distance and then trample it with the ferocious howling, blasting and some chant-like vocals which hover on the edge of perception. Some of the percussion here on the low end really thunders along, almost as if representing the thudding of the mining tools down in the depths of whatever doomed excavation the Germans are on about.

Bass does not play a very strong present in terms of sculpting and molding the songs, as it didn't on the first record, but the rest of the atmosphere is solid enough that you'll be following right along with the rest of the instruments and won't care a whole lot. When these guys hit a beautiful riffing passage as they do in "Dem Berg entrissen", it's instantly more memorable than the material off the prior outing, and almost all the non-acoustic songs across the 50 minute span of this disc have at least one such moment which will send thunder and shivers down the listeners' spine. Ultimately the album is better than its forebear in all categories, offering the same style but fleshed out into more dramatic upheavals, nastier vocal passages and songs that resonate well past their playtime. We have the evidence that Dauþuz is not just some one-off, but a promising new voice on the German scene which offers heavy immersion into its specific theme, very much worth experiencing whether or not you lie behind the language barrier as I do (though this is mostly fixed with an online translator).

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Monday, June 10, 2019

Dauþuz - In finstrer Teufe (2016)

As an individual whose atavistic tendencies are often triggered by the art he chooses to experience, I fully endorse using metal music to explore historical themes, persons, civilizations, and eras. Black metal, perhaps due to its inherent grandeur, atmosphere, mysticism, and instrumentation has long been the main sub-genre in which this transpires. Germans Dauþuz have chosen to hone in on the advent of European mining in particular, an excellent, interesting concept which immediately attracted me to the group's music, which as it turns out is also quite good. A bit on the conventional side, where I might have incorporated more directly ambient or cavernous sound to immerse further into the theme, or perhaps some overtly dungeon synth elements, but I think they at least succeed in transforming the roots of this critical industry into something suitably intense, oppressive, and melancholic.

My German is rather pathetic, and for this reason I wasn't able to translate everything perfectly, but I believe the album title here translates to something like 'In dark (or sullen) depths', and man do the lyrics to the tracks on this debut relay that through descriptions of not only the environment and process that these centuries-old diggers and spelunkers experienced, but also the tragedies which often befell them, a perfect topical choice for black metal which is at once desperate and angry. When Dauþuz is charging ahead with some sorrowful melodic stream of picking over a blast beat, and vocalist Grimwald is spitting out those tortured, sustained rasps, you can easily picture in your mind the desperation of some workers trying to escape a cavern collapse and grasp futilely at the last light they might ever see. On a broader spectrum, this stuff falls right in line with a lot of glorious European black metal through which the listener can fantasize over some grim, idealized landscapes. It's not quite as claustrophobic as its subject might imply, but instead rather spacious and majestic enough that it could find purchase in the audience of Medieval black metal particularly prevalent in France and England.

There are not a lot of tremendously catchy individual riffs, but the overall songwriting patterns here are quite consistent throughout the experience. Guitars are savagely loud but gloomy, while the drums and vocals are mixed just right to accommodate them. Acoustic segues and interludes give you the real feeling of a night at rest after some exhausting dig, by the flickering firelight with a waft of roasted meat to accompany the dirty countenances and strained muscles of the miners. Structurally they don't deviate much from other acts of their style, but they do inject enough of a dynamic balance so as not to come off totally monotonous here. There's little I can promise that you won't have heard before, but this is a really solid debut with good production, and if you've encountered either of the members' other projects like Idhafels, Schattenthron, or Isgalder, or have an interest in Germanic veterans like Falkenbach, Horn and Menhir, then this one is a pretty safe bet to check out.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, June 7, 2019

Darkthrone - Old Star (2019)

While Darkthrone's different 'phases' have cultivated individual audiences to themselves, some not too keen on the others, this is one band I've found enjoyable to follow wherever the wind would take them. From the frigid earnestness of their seminal death and black metal records through the nostalgia-tinged, often tongue-in-cheek side treks into punk, thrash, speed and heavy metal, they've always branded each album with their trademark personality, self awareness, and lyrics more clever than they might seem on the surface. I just don't feel as if they've ever failed me in this regard, and still get just as much pleasure listening through The Cult is Alive or Dark Thrones and Black Flags as I do A Blaze in the Northern Sky or Soulside Journey. In fact, I've long considered that they purposefully created their own counter-culture to the now-traditional necro black metal style they themselves were heavily influential upon, and I get a fat kick out of that.

Arctic Thunder stumbled for me a bit, not as a 'bad' record, but the first case in recorded memory where I felt some of the catchy nuances were missing, it didn't really string together the sort of personality that their earlier material thrived upon, with a lot of riffs that felt half-formed and just on the edge of catchiness without crossing it. Thankfully Old Star sets them right again, not a record bound for modern classic status, but a thoroughly consistent, enjoyable listen, especially at higher volumes, which sets out on a particular sonic path and then sticks the landing. While a lot of the initial reports and reactions I've read herald this as a 'return to form', meaning the band is back to its 90s black metal roots, I'm going to disagree there. Sure, you could place this back in around 1998 as a natural successor to Total Death and not sense that any major deviation to trajectory, but Old Star is heavily inspired by the classic heavy/doom metal riffing that they played around with on efforts like The Underground Resistance. Perhaps not quite so quirky or melodic, but it's given a more stolid and mighty countenance to create this huge, accessible sound. I'm not implying that you're about to hear Darkthrone cycling every half hour on your local corporate rock radio channel, but this one has a straight to the face, level production that many of its predecessors lack.

Everything sounds phenomenal, from Fenriz' simple, effective rock and roll beats and fills, through the dominant rhythm guitar tone, to Nocturno Culto's timeless, broad rasps and the lowly hovering bass lines, hardly adventurous but giving the rest of the mix just enough weight. I'd point out "The Hardship of the Scots" as a poster child for the aesthetic blend here, almost entirely a heavy/doom style track which busts back out into the Norwegians' Hellhammer-inspired churning and bending throughout the bridge. Others like "Duke of Gloat" go the opposite route, more or less a pure 90s throwback Darkthrone cut but with that same, formidable production pounding you in the skull. It's also astonishing how the band can still take a set of fairly stock, predictable riff patterns and then somehow refresh them just by putting their own touch, production and vocal style on them, and then whoosh, I don't feel like I've heard them all a hundred times before, even when I have. That's one hell of a skill for a band not renowned for anything bordering on technicality or complexity. It's also one of the reasons they've long been high up on the short list of my favorite bands ever, and if Old Star is any evidence, that status isn't going to change for a very long time.

Lyrically the album continues the pattern of simplistic verses containing clever little subversions, all wrapped up into song titles that you HAVEN'T heard a hundred times before, primarily in English, as usual these days, but with a handful of Norse lines. Granted, a lot of folks will probably never read them, but while they are far from poetic wizards, the grisly-yet-thoughtful layman's appeal to their words is among the best in the entire scene. If Chadwick St. John's cover artwork seems familiar, it's because he uses a similar, gruesome, detailed pencil-like style that you might recall from Grafvitnir's Obeisance to a Witch Moon or Arckanum's ÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞ. Great to see here and very fitting to the atmosphere of the six songs. Overall, Old Star is a step above Arctic Thunder and The Underground Resistance; the former because it left such a dry taste in my ears, and the latter because its handful of  genius tracks are counterbalanced by some of its more muddled ideas. This isn't the first Darkthrone CD I'm going to grab off the rack, but it's very well constructed, gets a little better with each of the initial listens, and if you're down for a mix of, let's say Total Death and Circle the Wagons, then I think you'll be more than satisfied.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]  (while Atlas cringes)

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Kafirun - Eschaton (2017)

Unlike a lot of their fellow Canadian acts, Kafirun eschews the rustic and naturalist black metal atmosphere for something more hypnotic, ritualistic and blunt. That's not say that there aren't some nuances to Eschaton, their proper full-length debut album, but rather than having raw guitars that emulate the sounds of streams, wilderness and history, these guys go for the throat with a heavily blast-centric songwriting style and then layer the more atmospheric embellishments on top of it all through gruesome vocals which are often sustained into low rumbling chants, which honestly feel as if you're experiencing them bouncing off the walls of some creepy cavern deep below the light of the sun. This is a claustrophobic, unforgiving descent into the occult and philosophical horror which should please pundits who prefer their black metal to remain evil at all times.

Now, while I maintain that it hones in heavily on its faster paced material, I didn't mean to infer that Eschaton lacked dynamic value. In fact there are quite a few spots here where the material will move at a slower or more glorious mid-paced gait (as in "Omega Serpent"), and here the drumming gets more interesting. Guitars throughout are either melodic-tinted, fell majestic chord patterns or some that become faster and more drone-like or insectoid, which is where they actually introduce an alien, mesmeric sort of experience. We're not talking Deathspell Omega levels of dissonant, labyrinthine, fascinating riff structures, but there's plenty going on to keep the imagination engaged without ever sinking to idea-less, vapid repetition. I wouldn't say all the guitars are compelling, and you'll know where a lot of them are going within a few notes, but they keep the notes and patterns flying and occasionally there are a couple that will stick with your brain once the smoke and ash of the whole album experience fade. For me though the favorite parts are when they're streaming some evil chords, the drums are going full frenzy and then they break out one of those groaning vocal lines.

They also know how to dress up a track with melancholic or cryptic guitars that seamlessly erupt into the more aggressive speeds, so there's a lot of musical value to each beast rather than some soul sucking blasted monotony. The bass lines are loud enough to keep the furious drumming and guitar lines grounded, and while some might find the mix of the record calamitous or confusing I think it all worked pretty well in conveying the determined and horrifying mood. There is no warmth and happiness to what is transpiring across the 42 minutes of material, it's an explosion of moldy subterranean spores and viscera that only lets up to attack you with different, more measured angles of obscurity. Worth tracking down if you're fond of the dissonant and unrelenting style used by groups like Antediluvian, Mitochondrion, Dodecahedron, Ulcerate, Auroch, Deathspell or Blut Aus Nord.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Monday, June 3, 2019

Morbid Art - The Cult of Flesh (2017)

If there's one thing I'll never grow tired of, it has to be the classic death metal cover art which goes overboard to evoke a cryptic sense of horror and wonder. Japan's one-man act Morbid Art gets some points for the sarcophagus being carried prostrate towards headless undead Baphomet, cultists flanked by seas of spectral skeletons and columns of twisted phantoms, cone-shaped torches burning cold flames which illuminate the scene. Perhaps a typical sort of image to find on any remotely old-school fashioned album of this genre, but fuck it if I don't get drowned in nostalgia for that one time my Dungeons & Dragons character barely escaped such a scene with a few precious hit points and a tale to scare fellow adventurers at the next tavern stop. Also gotta mention that I dig the logo.

As for the music, it's sort of what you'd expect, but with a few unusual elements that prevent it from feeling all too familiar or predictable. This is, in truth, crushing old school death metal which draws heavily on the Swedish tradition in terms of guitar tone. Rough, raw, flesh-ripping chords bombard the listen in either drudging chord patterns or tremolo-picked accelerations akin to old Entombed. Quite a number of groovier break-downs sure to please pit-hards, but none as catchy as what you'd find on a record like Clandestine. The vocals feel like Consuming Impulse-era Pestilence, early Asphyx Van Drunen-isms or maybe a bit of countrymen Intestine Baalism, only there's a little less of the gruesome pitch-dynamics which made those memorable...Infernal Demolisher definitely goes for the more guttural end and his voice is tucked a bit too neatly beneath the harsher edge of the distortion. Once in awhile a Deicide-like snarl pops in alongside them, but overall they are not too distinct, pretty much standard for the style, a little monotonous but not much of a detriment.

The beats here are a bit too clean and programmed, but mixed just right so that their mechanistic feel never burdens the songs or takes you out of their cavernous, hostile mood. Bass guitars are hovering in there but again, really get lost up against those guitars or even the vocals. The little edge of what makes The Cult of Flesh not a complete photocopy of its influence are some of the weirder, almost happy or silly chord patterns that occasionally invade the riffs or an almost proggy little fill part, or some wailing harmonies embedded into a song like "Summon the God of Plague", so you can't always tell what's about the happen around any given corner of the disc. By and large, though, this is intestine-gouging death metal which heralds the earlier 90s, just not with the most memorable set of riffs or ideas put into its composition. If you're dying for more of that feel you got when you first heard Left Hand Path, Clandestine, Dark Recollections, and Symphony of Sickness, or if you dig similar Japanese acts like Baalism or Deadly Spawn, or Rogga Johansson's groups like Revolting or Paganizer, this album is far from a dud. But it's also not super inspiring or memorable beyond the look of the thing.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Friday, May 31, 2019

Darkenhöld/Griffon - Atra Musica (2019)

Always a pleasure to hear something new from Darkenhöld, one of the more consistent and consistently unsung acts on the French black metal scene, and in Griffon they have been paired up with another band that share their fancy for integrating the Medieval and antiquated aesthetics into their music without ever losing the style's core, traditional identity. Each of the bands offers four tracks here on Atra Musica, with the Griffon material clocking in longer due to some heftier cuts. I'd have to say that stylistically the pair are a good match on the release in some ways, or at least they WOULD be if Darkenhöld were performing something more akin to what is on their full-length albums...but here they have taken on a curious, almost more experimental folk edge to their material.

Essentially they're using a lot of cleaner guitars to represent what would normally be their heavier electric riffs, but keeping the vocals just as harsh as ever. It evokes a strange contrast, but one that becomes quite fascinating as you progress through their contributions. It's almost as if they had decided to put out a pure folk/acoustic EP and decided it would be better to include it as part of this split, but I'm not at all let down by the material, as it's super atmospheric and the vocals really drift over the busy clean strings in a menacing, obscure way. A Medieval Peste Noire? If they went in this direction for a longer record I would certainly be on board for checking it out, because all of their other traits are still present and there's enough variation and fertility of ideas due to the acoustic choice while it doesn't actually lack for sounding as majestic as they have when they're more 'plugged in'. On the other hand, Griffon is fully plugged in, and I think there's a contrast between the two bands' productions which might have served the split release better had it been smoothed over a little...

So the first half of this release is much louder, brighter, harsher in nature, with walls of force blasted sequences graced over by Romantic, winding tremolo picked guitars and all manner of voices that range from a nasty black metal rasp to cleaner, more narrative chants that sound quite cool in French. The riffing is quite busy, not always catchy but changing up the moods enough that it feels rich in its textures, and the rhythm section also sounds quite good, with dreamy bass lines and effortless blasts or double-kick breakdowns with a lot of splash to support the well-woven melodies. I do think the lead rasp is a little bit overbearing at times and sounds a smidgeon too nihilistic for the music itself, but overall there's just enough going on that I kept paying attention, and I dug the 'Interlude' which is all orchestra/organ and makes an interesting transition into Darkenhöld's less aggressive but equally elaborate material. Apart from the differences in volume and approach, which don't make for the most flush or consistently appealing split recording, the music here is all quite good. I wouldn't go at this for your first Darkenhöld exposure, any of their first three full-lengths would be the better choice, but they take a risk here which ultimately pays off.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Stormheit - Chronicon Finlandiae (2011)

Folk metal records always make me nervous, as I've come across so many tacky and goofy examples in the genre that seem as if their entire exposure to the style is other tacky, goofy folk metal bands that they heard at a Renaissance Fair or from their LARPer friends. Predictable melodies, predictable instruments and metal ingredients that are reduced to boring chug rhythms, occasional leads and the tendency to clone the folksy melodies being played on the strings, horns or most often, the synthesizers. I'm not saying there won't be an occasional record of that type that hits it out of the park, sure, but so often it feels like bands are grasping to the notion of 'folk metal' than really digging their heads into the details of their own atavistic longings to create something really intriguing and not just a forgettable soundtrack for gallivanting about the dance-tent with a Pilsner.

Chronicon Finlandiae, the fourth record from Stormheit, may have a list of shortcomings attributed to it, but I can say that this isn't your average, shallow sort of folk metal effort. No, this is more like what would have happened had later era Bathory emerged from Finland instead of Sweden. This is laid back, airy, spacious mountainside rock which drifts at you with countless, tinny melodic guitar lines and some occasionally surges into a fraction more intensity with the drums picking up into a mid-paced beat. The drums sound as good as they need to, with some fills and grooves to help mediate the languid pacing of most of the tunes, and the bass lines, while nothing special, at least help to plug up some of the gaps left by the lack of a sturdy or voluminous rhythm guitar section in a lot of spots on the album. Acoustic guitars are spaced out across the album to give it more of a rustic charm, and keys are used liberally when further atmospheric escalation is required. Where they do break out some heavier riffs, like the picking progressions in the beginning of "Ukon Malja", they are actually pretty decent sounding, and I wished for a little more than this throughout.

On to the vocals...they are often a clear weakness here, as they possess a lot of those inherent flaws that you might remember Quorthon had, or some of Vintersorg's older solo stuff, only here it's another language and a different pitch. Once you accustom yourself to the more chanted phrasings, or the higher pitched, soaring inflections, or even the crowd shouted parts, they become quite pleasing, but it's when that layer of angst or harsher intonation is applied that they can become a little awkward, especially in the first track. The style should work on this really well, and in places it does, but I feel you have to go ever deeper into the record for them to really hit a confident stride. Almost all of the tracks are also quite substantial, from about 7-11 minutes in length, and while they aren't terribly boring in structure, a total playtime of 77 minute seems overwrought when the spectrum of actual ideas here might span about 50 minutes of worthwhile material. Don't get me wrong, the material doesn't suddenly take a nosedive in quality, it's just that you feel you've gotten it after about half the album and there aren't many surprised waiting deeper on.

I will say that Chronicon is on the verge of being a pretty solid album, turning out a lot better than I suspected after the first track. Tightening the tracks and improving the vocals would have gone a long way towards making a better impression, but if you're a real big pagan for Bathory albums like Twilight of the Gods, Hammerheart, Blood on Ice and the Northland two-parter, and want to hear a slightly different approach to that from across the Tornio River, this might be worth a listen.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Monday, May 27, 2019

Asomvel - Full Moon Dog EP (2007)

If England's Asomvel bears more than a passing resemblance to the late, great Motörhead, one can hardly blame them, as Lemmy and company had such a simple, badass, fun style and disposition that who in their right mind wouldn't want to? It's not like they just kicked this off in the 21st century, in fact the group formed back in the earlier 90s, but didn't even start releasing much until over a decade later. Despite being put out in 2007, the Full Moon Dog EP is actually one of their earlier recordings, and one to feature their late, original bassist/vocalist Jay-Jay Winter, the 'Lemmy' for this particular production. From my experience, there actually aren't a ton of groups who play it this close to the London lords of filthy 'eavy metal, and that provides both Asomvel's strengths and their limitations.

For all intensive purposes, this is a well-produced effort with clear, rocking guitars anchored by the tangible and fat-toned bass lines. The drums sound great, and the vocals are also pretty even in the mix. Winter had a gritty style not unlike Lemmy, but with a little bite and bark of his own that comes off with a bit more of an accent than his influence. Unfortunately it often sounds a bit looser in the verses, almost drunken-natured, and lends a lot to how they have an overall sound like a bar band, which is sort of the point, but not terribly memorable. They do really simplistic verse/choruses with some leads splashed in there and attitude all around, with a bit less of a speed, punk or even thrash metal influence that Motörhead often toyed around with in their 21st century recordings; this leans more on bluesy hard rock side of those efforts, which in my opinion can often turn into insipid songs that are impossible to pick out from too massive a crowd of bottoms-up blues rock.

If there were a little more grit, a little more danger, or would work a little better than it does, but musically Full Moon Dog is a bit generic and doesn't take any risks. I'm not saying that Motörhead broke away from its own formula all that often...there was some variation and evolution, but it was gradual over the decades. But the thing was THEIR formula. I'm all for bands taking on that influence, but I'd like to hear some interesting spins on it, like how Tank veered more into pure heavy metal territory, or how the younger Swedish band Bombus worked it into their own massive sounding style which I really enjoy. This Asomvel disc is just par for the course, and it doesn't do anything particularly well that I'd listen to it over even my least favorite's in Lemmy's backlogs. Werewolves are cool and all, but the leather was a little stretched here, the spikes dulled. I'd much rather recommend checking out their 2013 album Knuckle Duster or their brand new World Shaker, which kick a lot more ass in the same exact niche.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Friday, May 24, 2019

Kludde - In de kwelm (2019)

It's been a fair spell since the Kludde debut In den vergetelheid in 2008, but despite the many seasons the Belgian band has landed with a sophomore congruent with the sounds of the debut, a huge brick of black metal and sludge aesthetics with an even distribution across the album. When it comes to individual tracks, this doesn't always pan out in a 50/50 ratio, but the band is consistent when it smooths over the edges to make them fit. In fact, there's also a fraction of a death metal influence here, both in the vocals which feature more of a sustained hybrid of rasp and growl to their roar, and a few of the riff progressions which feed into or are fed by some of the album's grooves.

Now, if I were to favor one side of the band, it would probably be the faster, more black metal strain of riffing they create in tracks like "Schabouwelijke praktijken I - De rabauwen" or "Bloedkoesj", mildly engraved with melodies that help thunder it all forward. Once they go a little more mid-paced in that niche, the chord patterns become a little more predictable, and I find that also to be the case when they're laying out the sludgier sequences in tunes like "Schramoeille". That isn't to say that this is particularly weak material, it still hits you square in the gut thanks to the massive production values, and the other components like the vocals and lead guitars help flesh it out so it doesn't become too stagnant. In de kwelm is nothing if not forceful and consistent, while they might lack for some of the subtlety up front, they aren't really about that, but knocking you the hell over, which is exactly what this loud and potent mix will do, or what the material would do to you at a gig with Cerulean's massive growl digging your grave.

Some might actually find it too even of a beating, but thankfully Kludde mixes up the tempo and riffing throughout. For example, "Poesjkapelle" is like a punkier/crust piece that strikes just at the right time to brighten up the record, and the closer "De laatste reis" is a moody, murky doom piece that opens with tribal drumming, clean guitars and sparser electric riffs, before it gradually explodes and kicks you back into the bleachers. In de kwelm is a well-rounded, professional album that has no intention of boring its listeners, and could find itself a pretty broad audience between fans of crust and d-beat, harsher sludge, and the more rockin' black metal acts like Denmark's Horned Almighty. A little more nuance, originality to the chord choices, perhaps even a further integration of more dissonant, evil riff patterns, or extra instances of the atmospheric stuff which does occasionally appear, and this would drill itself into my memory a lot further. No question though that this is a step up from the debut, the decade between them been spent honing the chops.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

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]