Friday, February 15, 2019

Deathcore - Spontaneous Underground (1990)

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

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

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

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Atrament - Scum Sect (2018)

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

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

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

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, February 8, 2019

Morthus - Over the Dying Stars (2016)

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

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

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

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Possessor - City Built With Skulls (2012)

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

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

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

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Ondfødt - Dödsrikets kallelse (2019)

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

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

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

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Friday, February 1, 2019

Eld - Krieg: An Odyssey in Misery (2011)

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

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

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

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]