Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Deceased - Behind the Mourner's Veil EP (2001)

King Fowley and Deceased are no strangers to paying tribute to the influences that got them where they are, and on numerous occasions released entire albums with a considerable number of cover tunes. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if, by this time, they had recorded more covers than origins...between Zombie Hymns (2002), Rotten to the Core (2004) and the most recent Rotten to the Core Part 2: The Nightmare Continues (2020). The earliest I had heard from them was probably the "Voivod" cover from The 13th Frightened Souls EP, and then this little EP Behind the Mourner's Veil which was cool as it mixed exclusive new tracks with a handful of covers from recognizable names like D.R.I., Tankard, and Anthrax, which wouldn't surprise anyone as sources of inspiration for the horror death/thrashers whose aesthetics have always been so mired in the rougher, filthier aggressive metal of the 80s.

The new tunes are ragers, although I can understand why the band felt they'd probably be better spent here than on one of the full-length records like Supernatural Addiction or As the Weird Travel On. "It's Alive" and "The Mausoleum" both contain many of the band's hallmarks, charging thrash/speed metal laden with traditional heavy metal melodies and an occasional foray into the faster elements of primordial death, in particular with King's vocals. They're well-developed headbanger tracks, not as righteously catchy as some of the material on the couple proper albums before them, but certainly enough to help tide one over for the next. More dynamic would be the 10 minute closer "Victims of the Masterplan" which is lyrically based on the West Memphis Three saga, and divided into a 4-part metallic narrative which for me had most of the best original riffs on the EP and a bit more of a dynamic spread than the openers. Especially I liked the moody breakdown with the samples which really kind of put this all into perspective, I mean that was a horrifying fucking situation for the victims and also for the accused, one that I don't think we've collectively shaken off as Americans. Child killings are traumatizing for me, but Deceased actually tackle this with an inquisitive respect, even at the risk of creating an unbalanced tone against the sillier originals and covers.

The covers themselves are decent, but a tune like Tankard's "Zombie Attack" is so great to begin with that it's difficult to live up to. King and crew make it even more murky sounding and throw on some more death metal growls, but otherwise play it fairly straightforward. "Reaganomics" is over in a flash of course so something like this pick is more to score a few points. On the other hand, I actually really dug their version of Anthrax' "Deathriders", in fact I might listen to it more than the original, this more aggressive style suits the riffing and lyrics well, although they still throw a few screams in there too. Same with their version of "New Age of Total Warfare" from British speed/thrashers Warfare, I'd probably reach for this before the original, it just sounds that awesome. All told though, you're getting almost a half-hour of material here, cool cover art, and really their best release while you waited it out in the 5-year stretch between Supernatural Addiction and As the Weird Travel On. Not as formidable as most of their full-length albums but some quality fan service nonetheless.

Verdict: Win [7/10]


Saturday, October 24, 2020

Ozzy Osbourne - Bark at the Moon (1983)

It's as much of a tradition for me to break out the first five Ozzy albums every Halloween season as it is to bust out my collection of King Diamond, Mercyful Fate, Deceased, Rob Zombie and other champions of the metal macabre. Not that Osbourne uses the horror genre as a particular focus in most of his lyrics, but clearly his feats of stage legend back in the prime of his solo career were focused around the shock-rock variety, and the cover art and aesthetics of a number of the songs clearly fit into the creepy category. Now, I'm a fan of the Randy Rhoads era just like the next guy. Like most of you, I thought he was a talent cut down well before his prime, and would have loved to hear what he could come up with through an extended career. But having said that, I've always been drawn more to the material Osbourne wrote with his next two guitarists, Jake E. Lee and Zakk Wylde, at least up until Zakk's debut on No Rest for the Wicked, which, perhaps heretically, is my favorite of his solo efforts. But if I were to hand out a silver medal it would be a tough choice between tidier, accessible The Ultimate Sin and this 1983 effort Bark at the Moon.

You really can't go wrong with any of his material during that 80s era, in which he firmly established that he'd be able to succeed outside of the Black Sabbath camp, bringing his familiar vocal style to a more contemporary set of metal and hard rock tracks which were arguably more arena-ready than his unshakeable alma mater. When I look at the lineup he had on this particular album, there was almost no chance I wasn't going to like it. Lee's six-stringing talent ranged from slick, explosive speed/heavy metal licks as in the title track or "Rock 'n' Roll Rebel" to the more caged, dramatic, bluesy feel he'd incorporate into a piece like "You're No Different" where he's almost playing second fiddle to Don Airey's keyboards. It doesn't hurt that Airey himself is a legend whose loaned out his talents to more memorable bands than you could count, or that Ozzy also had another rock god Tommy Aldridge on the drums, or Bob Daisley, formerly of fucking Rainbow (among others) on the bass. This record came armed and ready, and for my money, despite the tragedy of Rhoads' passing and the other troubles the band had gone through since the 1981 sophomore Diary of a Madman, it totally delivered on its promise.

The title track is probably in my top 3-5 of the Ozzy solo career, with ease, Lee's tasty playing leading the way for some of Osbourne's great verses. I mean once the Prince of Darkness cackles  after that first chorus, if you weren't into this well... Other highlights here included "You're No Different" with its woozy, epic pace and super 80s proggy key pads, or tunes like "Centre of Eternity" and "Rock 'n' Roll Rebel" which were just awesome as hell heavy metal for a 9 year old to experience on his dingy old record player. I absolutely LOVED Jake's tone, it was just such a  commanding and dominant force alongside Ozzy's voice, and you can clearly hear how it set up a lot of what Zakk would emulate a couple albums later, with the exciting, expressive squeals or flash put into every riff. "So Tired" is probably my least favorite cut on the disc, but even then it's definitely a catchy, dramatic big band style of ballad which channels Elton John or the Beatles and I can't say I ever feel I need to skip it when I'm playing through the album. And right after that he rights the ship immediately another cool pair of harder cuts, "Waiting for Darkness" a nice foreshadow for the sound on The Ultimate Sin.

Everything on this album sounds wonderful to me almost 40 years later, and I even appreciate some of the cheesier sounding synth lines which are unquestionably its most dated aspect. The lyrics are great, a few keyed in to the horror genre, but they were especially impressive to the younger me, and the cover photograph of the shaggy Ozz-wolf just perfectly captures this time and this content: we're going to be heavy, we're going to get dark, but we're going to have fun. And I did. And I'm still doing just that.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (living in a lunar spell)


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Burial Ground/Grave Wax/Severed Limbs/Crospy Maniac - Four Paths to Horror (2015)

Four Paths to Horror is a 12 track split CD featuring four bands, three of which are projects from prolific death metal gurus Kam Lee, Rogga Johansson and Patrick Bruss, who combined must make up a not insignificant portion of death metal releases these last two decades. The idea of course is that all of these groups have a heavy lyrical bent on the horror genre, something that can probably also be said for the wealth of that trio's constituent bands. That is truly the connecting ligament on this release, because individual, while there are comparable traits between the acts, they often approach their genre with different production values and songwriting quality, and while that's not always an unwelcome factor on a split recording, it sometimes works to the detriment here because the level of professionalism seems highly inconsistent.

First off you have Americans Cropsy Maniac blasting through four tracks and six minutes of Carcass spawned deathgrind, starting off with some samples to their namesake slasher and then just bludgeoning you at high capacity with only a few hints at tossing in some background guitar melody or something that could actually make the tunes mildly more interesting. It doesn't quite work, and though I could say these guys are the most energetic on the split, they also gave me the least return. Belgium's Burial Ground, a group that has existed almost entirely on the demo/split level thus far, dishes up some crude but evil old school death metal that I thought was quite cool, almost like a mix of Autopsy's raw and grotesque punk-death form and the more structural Germans Morgoth on their earlier recordings. The riffs didn't always stick with me so well, but I can at least say I experienced some fond flashbacks for that late 80s/early 90s era, they had some curious quirks like a loud bass tone and even some narrative on their paean to "Last House on the Left". Fans of old Autopsy, Asphyx, and the like might wanna track them down, I believe they've got a compilation out that might have all their split material.

Even uglier is Kam Lee's Grave Wax, who have an even cruder and uglier style than anyone else on the split, and though Lee's vocal effects are cranked up to almost caricature level, these tunes were also quite fun, almost as if you were listening to them live but Lee was too high on the mixing board thanks to some zealous dweeb sound guy that wanted to fuck with the knobs. However, just like Burial Ground, these are actually fun, especially "Transmuting Techno-Terror". Ugly, inspired, no fucks given death metal. And bringing up the tail end of the recording are two tracks from Rogga Johansson's Severed Limbs, a decent project with a chunkier Swedish sound, although not just an emulation of Entombed or Dismember, but a more American style to the riffs, simply dowsed in that familiar production. These are two of the stronger cuts on the whole thing, and like his album Sores Galore that I reviewed earlier in the year, if you dig his other groups like Paganizer or Revolting you are likely gonna enjoy this stuff also. It's not a project he puts much importance in but certainly a worthy one.

In all honesty, I would have dug the Grave Wax, Burial Ground and Severed Limbs contributions as their own individual mCD/EP releases, or at least maybe just a 2-way split from the first two. Cropsy Maniac's inclusion here felt a bit stylistically disparate from the others beyond also belonging to the death metal genre in some way or form, you might have more fun checking out one of their own recordings; and the production across the bands lends to an uneven sort of experience, which I'm not terribly fond of on split recordings, but if you love all the piling on of the retro death metal these last decades then I think there are certainly enough highlights that it just squeaks by on the quality meter.

Verdict: Win [7/10]


Sunday, October 18, 2020

Sulphur Aeon - Gateway to the Antisphere (2015)

As fond as I've grown for the older school death metal aesthetics that initially won me over to the genre in the 80s, and the acts that today continue to refine and redux those specific traits, there's something to be said for a band that doesn't strictly rest on the laurels of its genre. Sulphur Aeon is one such band, and within the span of a single decade has risen to stand alongside groups with three times the lifespan behind them; a new bastion of production, professionalism, and style which has become a thing unto itself. That's not to say you can't trace individual components of the Germans' sound back to some of the usual suspects, but it's how they intertwine elements of classic and brutal death metal, black metal, and even melodic death into a daunting, unified whole that gives them a near limitless arsenal of weaponry at their disposal.

Perhaps less distinct is that they tackle the popular subject of cosmic horror, the Lovecraft Mythos in particular, but they've definitely got a focus on the more post-apocalyptic approach vector. The Old Ones have already arrived, their cataclysmic destruction being wrought upon both mankind and nature itself, or at least this is what is captured in the songwriting. Their extraordinary debut Swallowed by the Ocean's Tide definitely had the aquatic/R'lyeh vibe going for it, but here, like the Ola Larsson cover artwork splendidly depicts, they're stretching their tentacles between sea and stars. Musically, it doesn't diverge a great deal from its predecessor, but Gateway to the Antisphere certainly plays around with a greater range of dynamics, from slower, roiling, rumbling atmospheric rhythms to thundering blast sequences which put them right on the same level of finesse as veteran groups like Behemoth, Septic Flesh, Morbid Angel, Nile and Vader which could all be considered peers in terms of skirting the sweeping, epic parameters of death metal's entire potential. Tracks like "Calls from Below" or "He is the Gate" lay it on thick, there is constantly something interesting going on...Daniel Dickmann's frenetic bricklaying, sheens of melodies in the guitars that contain both elements of Eastern influence and beyond, Martin's guttural dominance and sustained growls that mange to have just enough personality where he doesn't feel generic.

Gateway to the Antisphere feels like the aural accompaniment to a plane larger than this or any other, one of controlled primordial chaos machinated by minds older than the universe. A symphony of punishment and suffering. It's not the creeping dread and despair you might expect from a Lovecraft story, but the end-state of having the gates of reality blown apart and all humanity put to knee before its new masters that they cannot comprehend. It's not insanely complex when it comes to individual compositions, but once you weave this all together it's just a magnificent devastating force that maintains a fair degree of musicality amidst all of its violence. All told, I didn't think this one quite as catchy as the debut, but more balanced in tempo and presentation and thus nearly on the same level due to such well-roundedness. The lyrics are good, the packaging impressive, and there's really no expense spared to create a formidable sophomore that is worth every penny. Fans of the aforementioned bands, or others like Mithras and Heaving Earth, should make this one mandatory to at least check out, and really anyone into any mixed concentration of extreme metal and cosmic horror should follow suit.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (scolding summonings at night)


Thursday, October 15, 2020

Morgul - All Dead Here... (2005)

All Dead Here... might not turn out to be the final Morgul album, but it was the last before a 15-year absence that continues to the day that I'm writing this, and also an effort with furthered emphasized and explored the aesthetics that Jack D. Ripper had begun to incorporate around the time of his third (and best) effort The Horror Grandeur. This is more or less a Gothic/black metal hybrid, a fairly far cry from his earlier outings which were more true to their Scandinavian peers in sound. Morgul had developed into a band that ran more of a parallel with Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir, Hecate Enthroned or groups of that ilk, or if I'm going to be most specific, the Norse supergroup Kovenant, which I got a few flashbacks to as I was revisiting this one, especially in some of Jack's more impish, playful vocal lines in tunes like "The Need to Kill". Or the Finns Gloomy Grim, who for a number of albums had a style eerily similar to this one, to the point that I feel safe saying fans of one with almost assuredly get a kick out of the other.

Basically there's a bedrock of lush orchestration created with synthesizers, sometimes used, as in "Intro, The Mask of Sanity" to create a classic horror feel with some carnival-like keys and well timed strikes of percussion. The beats through the album are a mix of purely industrial/techno and then a few heavier ones more akin to its extreme metal origins. The rhythm guitars involve a lot of very simple, chugging and/or thrashing riff progressions which are semi-moshable, but not all that exciting if you were to take them out of the context that they're serving as anchors of aggression for the airier synth tones or Ripper's schizoid exchanges of black metal snarls, deeper gutturals and more acidic narrative cleans. This is often the most drugged out sounding album he's done, perhaps going a little overboard to the extent of self-caricature with the vocals alone, but then again some of the audience might have felt he'd been doing this since the two albums before. Every now and then you'll get this really fun overlap of these ideas, like the rolling chugs in the title track that are balanced off against the eerie strings, but the fact is that even by 2005's standards a lot of the lower end riffs on this album had been beaten to death.

The guitar tone is well produced though, and even though the vocals are often a little overbearing, most of the instrumentation is well balanced for the 21st century Gothic metal audience who will probably most appreciate this. The compositions are consistent to the point that you feel as if you could pluck a part out of one song, toss it into another and few would be the wiser. I personally enjoyed the guitars most when they were branching off into a harmony or some Eastern sounding passage, it made the album feel like it belonged in the soundtrack to some modern Mummy movie with all the lurching aggression. Tracks like "Shackled" and "Empty" have a great deal of potential that simply isn't realized when they devolve into some of the more rudimentary rhythm guitars. The lyrics here are focused more on generic concepts of death, pain and isolation, so it's not too detailed with horror theming. Although I'd hesitate to call All Dead Here... bad at all, it just doesn't really evolve or improve upon the style he had going on The Horror Grandeur or Sketch of Supposed Murder, it's not terribly inspired, and I can understand why he'd want to give the project a lengthy rest afterward. It's the least of the Morgul efforts, but there was an audience for this sort of sound if you were into stuff like the Napalm Records roster of that day and age.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]


Monday, October 12, 2020

Crépuscule d'Hiver - Par​-​delà noireglaces et brumes​-​sinistres (2020)

France has had a strong developing Medieval black metal undercurrent for several years now, perhaps not as popular or as its more avantgarde genre frontrunners like Deathspell Omega or Blut Aus Noir, but just as worthwhile to check out if you have any fancy for the atmospherics of earlier centuries, dark castles and idyllic landscapes. I've spoken on about groups like Aorlhac, Darkenhöld and Véhémence in the past, and now we've got the debut from an equally effective project called Crépuscule d'Hiver, which if my fading junior high knowledge of French isn't mistaken, translates to something like 'Winter Twilight'. A handful of you might be familiar with a dungeon synth act known as Gargoylium, and this is from the same individual, who carries over a lot of aesthetics from that and blends it rather seamlessly with his black metal influences to create an album I found just about perfect for this Autumn season and the Winter that awaits just beyond...

The aim here is create haunting, Romantic landscapes that evokes flashbacks to Gothic horror as well as the mid-90s European black metal that Stuurm no doubt listened to, and Par​-​delà noireglaces et brumes​-​sinistres is directly on target. Synthesizers are used to incorporate instrumental tones both Medieval and angelic, from brass and strings to organs and feminine choirs which are tastefully implemented to never drown out the darker visions being manifest through the beats, guitars and harsh raspy vocals. A lot of the more purely dungeon synth-like passages draw comparisons to the masters Summoning, but never to a degree of direct duplication, and where the flights of tremolo picked distorted passages and chords explode, they sound quite different than how the Austrian duo writes their own. Lots of melancholic harmonies and female vocals are mixed in to create this elegant sense of sadness and seduction, and the bass-lines churn wistfully below with just the right measure of thickness and groove. There's a good range of dynamic balance to most of the tracks, no endlessly cycling, dull repetitions but something fresh and new waiting around every corner of this antiquated, phantom-infested citadel that Stuurm conjures up in each of the lengthier tracks.

And let's face it, apart from the pair or shorter dungeon synth vignettes, these are some swollen tunes, ranging from about 8 and a half minutes to the 20+ minute title track. To the greatest credit of this album, I was never bored even for a moment: the musical arrangements perfectly mirror the excellent, spectral packaging of the CD and I felt as if I was lost for the full 70 minutes in this idealized nether-realm of cold stone, anguished spirits and elusive majesty. The riff-sets might not be perfectly unique in terms of this genre, but they felt as if they were trying something you simply don't hear on any newsprint necro record you encounter, and they're blissfully garbed in the more Gothic tones and instruments. For a group comprised of just one individual, I was extremely impressed, and while some listeners might find a couple flaws in the mix of the percussion or other nitpicks, the sum of Par​-​delà noireglaces et brumes​-​sinistres is nothing shy of magnificence that I'd readily recommend to anyone who enjoys either of the genres that birthed it.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]


Friday, October 9, 2020

Wooden Stake - A Feast of Virgin Souls (2015)

Another of many projects within the extended Razorback family to cross over members, Wooden Stake revolves around Vanessa Alucarda of Howling, Scaremaker, Orloff, and Surgikill, among many other acts. She was partnered up with the prolific Wayne 'Elektrokutioner' Sarantopoulos for the earlier album Dungeon Prayers & Tombyard Serenades and several other splits and EPs, but here is joined by her fellow Vaultwraith maniac William Warlaw for this sophomore effort, which somewhat steps away from the death/doom of previous outings for a focus leaning more on the latter half of that pairing. She still uses harsher snarls and growls fairly often, but the guitars themselves are written more with a mix of mournful traditional doom and heavy metal aesthetics in mind, a nice complement to the Gothic horror ritualism and occult themes within the lyrics.

If you couldn't tell by the lascivious cover artwork, A Feast of Virgin Souls kind of plays out like an X-rated alternate to a Hammer Horror flick: slow and steadily paced, not terribly action-oriented, with a lavish colorful palette for suffering. Atmosphere is established early on with the bass and synth-driven into "Dead Winter Resurrection" before you are introduced to the reverb-soaked, eerie doom riffing which traces its lineage back to stuff like Candlemass or Pentagram, with a few more Trouble-like groove riffs here or there. The beats are sufficient to create a genuine momentum along with a couple fills, but it's really Wardlaw's guitars and Vanessa's vocals that make this experience. I'm more accustomed to hearing her snarls or growls, which are here in abundance, but generally as a complement to her cleans, which are actually pretty good. In fact, they wouldn't be out of place in trendier groups like a Witch Mountain or Windhand, only Wooden Stake specializes far more in despair and lamentation than the more stoner-heavy vibes from those. In tracks like "Alzbeta: The Devil's Bitch", they actually sound quite effective being matched up with her sustained snarling.

Occasionally this record creates a hypnotic effect with a beat plodding along while William nails you with some of those good old bendy Sabbath notes (also in "Alzbeta") and Vanessa creates a sort of vampiric narration below. Quite evil and cool, but this record is also pretty effective when they veer a little more towards the group's death/doom origins on "Cross-Scalded Flesh". There are few songs that fall behind any others, with highlights coming in the title track, "Hanging from the Inverted Cross" and the finale "Curse of the Cauldron Countess", all stuff that would appeal to a lot of doom and horror fans if this band could ever get on their radars. The lyrics are likewise well written. The one weakness here is probably in the ability of the band to transition, they'll come in with a single pattern or tempo in mind, and offer you some variation, but it always feels uninteresting in its execution. They could also experiment a little more with the atmospherics, maybe some more organs, flutes and so forth could really help flesh this out. But A Feast of Virgin Souls is unquestionably catchy despite this roughness about its edges. I think with busier, organic drumming and maybe some more oversight and editing into how the tunes are structured, you could have a killer band.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Ghoul - Dungeon Bastards (2016)

It would be remiss of me to discuss Dungeon Bastards without first mentioning what fun packaging the CD comes with. Not only is the rear cover a mock-up of an old Dungeons & Dragons module, but the center of the fold-out is also a ridiculous roll & move board game complete with rules and everything, simultaneously helping flesh out some of the worldbuilding for their whole Creepsylvania schtick. The lyrics within are accompanied by an adventure narrative which ties the whole thing together as a concept album for all their Ghoulunatics to enjoy. As silly as it all might seem, few bands put such effort together for a product that can be appreciated well beyond just its listening capacity, and top that all off with some great comic-like artwork by Mark Richards of Heavy Hand Illustrations, and what is arguably the best of the band's album productions to date, and you've got the band's strongest attempt yet at breaking through into the wider metal audience...

On the other hand, despite all Ghoul has going for them this time, the songs themselves aren't quite so memorable as the packaging, or at least they don't start off the lineup of tracks here on the strongest of footing. This is still the same grab-bag of grind, thrash and death metal they've been serving up since the beginning of their mystery project, and it's more exciting than Transmission Zero before it, but the riffs don't always land with me, not because they're badly written or unfit, but just because a lot of the note patterns are just familiar to myself or others who have explored these sub-genres before. They still punch pretty hard thanks to the excellent, level production values that provide equal impact for the drums, guitars, and multiple vocal styles, but it isn't until "Dungeon Bastards" itself, or their fan anthem "Ghoulunatics" that I'm running into some riffs that really stick out to me, both well balanced attacks of their grinding guitars, fast-paced percussive battery, gang shouts and some really nice little metal leads, especially in the latter. I feel like these would have been better to kick off the whole album rather than "Bringer of War", not that it's bad but just suffers from some of the blander riff selections.

Thankfully, on the whole, the Ghoul personality shines through the whole affair, with the interchange of carnal rasps, thuggish gutturals and even some rhyming spoken bits that remind me a little of stuff like GWAR's manager in how they interplay with the rest of the chaos. The musicianship is on point, especially in how they balance out their tempo shifting and the pace of the album overall, and if you're down with this sort of 'funhouse' spin on the Carcass styles circa 1989-1993, or Ghoul's own sister acts Exhumed and Impaled, or Exodus or Vio-lence style thrashing on Fabulous Disaster or Eternal Nightmare and beyond, this is structurally on par with just about any of that. But apart from the actual mix of the album, with its wonderfully chunky guitars and effortlessly consistent rhythm section, there aren't really as many new ideas within the music itself as there are for the cover artwork. Superficially this exceeds its predecessors on all fronts, but it's the trifecta of We Came for the Dead, Maniaxe and Splatterthrash where they hit their peak charm, so I'm still more likely to pull those out of the cauldron whenever I need my fix of these four hooded freaks. Having said that, you can still have a blast with Dungeon Bastards cruising around with your bros on Halloween night, ganja and silly string in hand, aiming to misbehave.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (taking names, then stomping asses)


Saturday, October 3, 2020

Impaler - One Nation Under Ground (2000)

With all the rage over nasty speed metal acts like Midnight over the last decade, it's a little surprising that Minnesota's Impaler wallows in such relative obscurity. Not that they're entirely unknown or unapproachable, they've got a pretty decent internet presence and continue to record and play gigs even after decades; but their love of horror flicks, wrestling, their mesh of speed, heavy metal, and punk, and the cinematic gore and camp of their stage shows seems like it's a concoction that should have appealed to a far wider audience, especially as they've just been doing it for so long and never really turned from their path. Maybe they don't write the most impressive licks, but they've got the heart and sincerity in spades, a speed metal institution forever destined to sit below the radar.

One Nation Under Ground was their fifth full-length album released through the now-defunct Root of All Evil Records, and while the production had come a ways from their earlier efforts like If We Had Brains ...We'd Be Dangerous or Rise of the Mutants, the style is roughly the same. Simplistic rock & roll riffs played with metallic energy and slathered in Bill Lindsey's signature splatter-punk vocals, which can range from a more meaty bark to something more petulant and punky, with lots of gang shouts thrown in there for good measure. The way he exaggerates his style with that grimy, constipated edge almost reminds me of Alice Cooper, one of his biggest influences, as enforced by the presence of a "Teenage Frankenstein" cover which is second-to-last on the album. The drums have a great tone to them, the bass and rhythm guitar are fairly clean in the mix, but manage to catch a little bit of that infectious punk vibe you'll recall from a lot of your faves in the 80s. There are plenty of lead guitars, too, usually with more of a bluesy, reckless hard rock feel to them, fitting to the rhythm riffs but not too memorable on their own.

There are 15 tracks here, almost all weighing in at around 2-3 minutes, with just a couple that go longer, like the darker, doomier sounding "Under the Dirt". Occasionally they'll incorporate a spoken sample, or some special effects like the bell and howl you hear in the depths of "Dead as a Doornail", to keep you on the page with their horror influences. Once in awhile the riffs can get a little bit more thrashy as in "Call of the Wild", but the majority of them are more rooted in punk and straight hard rock; almost all of them do feel as if you've heard them elsewhere, even by the standards of 20 years ago. Thankfully, the production makes up for this a little, the instruments and vocals sound brash and bright and energized. I guess my other complaint would be one that I'd apply to a lot of horror-punk, psychobilly or horror-influenced metal in that the musical choices themselves rarely evoke the more evil and dark side of the genre. There's nothing creepy ever happening outside of those aforementioned samples, effects or Lindey's gruesome vocals, the tunes could use a little more dissonance, atmosphere or 'evil' note selections to make them stand out...

...but again, I've had this issue since the Misfits. It doesn't make the music bad at all, but it's more like attending a Halloween party with your family, bobbing for apples, carving a pumpkin and having a good cheer rather than getting chased through an abandoned, dilapidated asylum by a serial killer or supernatural entity. The lyrics are fun enough for what you get, tributes to old or campy horror flicks and they even have a nod to Bill's love of wrestling entertainment with "Cage Match Tragedy". The Alice Cooper cover is pretty decent, and the material is consistent over the 41 minutes, but it just doesn't stick with me for long after I'm finished. It seems mostly built to go along easily with their live shows with all the blood, guts and debauchery that ensues, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Beastmaker - Windows of Evil (2018)

If you thought Trevor William Church's output with the heavy metal throwback Haunt has become prolific, you haven't experienced his purely doom metal outlet Beastmaker, which has released over a dozen EPs and several full-length efforts in the last half-decade. To his credit, while I've always gotten the impression that slowing down the level of productivity might result in more memorable recordings, nothing has ever felt lazy or mediocre. Most of the Beastmaker EPs, simply titled with the number of their chronological release, have been digital releases with a limited cassette run, but lately the band has taken to putting out compilations, generally merging two of these short format efforts into an album length, and Windows of Evil represents the first two such numbered EPs from 2018. Not necessarily their formative material, since the full-lengths Lusus Naturae and Inside the Skull predate this, as well as a few other recordings, but certainly a preview of what this EP series was about.

The style here is Sabbath-driven, chunky traditional power trio doom metal with the guitars bold and up front, and a strong emphasis on lead placement and building up a cool chorus. Not cool as in you're going to remember it 20 years later, but certainly a payoff to the verses leading up to it all. The songs are quite taut for the genre, generally no more than 3-3/12 minutes long, and for that reason they tend to lose a little of their potential power and structure. Not that I'm expecting ten minutes or more per track, but here you're only getting a few requisite riffs, usually just one to set up the chorus, and Beastmaker is good enough to earn more of our attention. Granted, that might have been the point of the constant barrage of 2018 EPs, to go with brevity and consistency, but it does give the music a bit of a 'doom assembly line' vibe to it which makes it little better than competent and passable. In their defense, the riffs on exhibit here do show enough variation that they don't end up sounding too samey apart from some of Church's vocal payloads.

I guess you could sort of imagine this as a St. Vitus or Pentagram with a more contemporary production, a real love letter to the niche without ever eclipsing its influences. Church has a decent voice, clearly inspired by the usual suspects like Ozzy but with far less of an interesting range or distinctive personality. He's good enough at what he does, but never reaches for the sky, and that's alright, because by and large Windows of Evil is a fun listen if you're the type that enjoys this traditional 70s-based doom metal template. The bass sounds voluminous, the drums are decent, the lyrics are one of the strongest components, samples are well used, and it's quite clear that Church and friends are inspired by all manner of cool horror films from classic black & white/Gothic horror flicks to eerie Italian giallos. In fact, the music does just as much of a service to those as it does to its inherent style. Again, this is restrained, almost like a pop mentality approach but within the doom metal parameters, but Beastmaker knows how to entertain you by reaching deep into your nostalgia and pulling out a few old ghosts, and the material off these two EPs is streamlined together into a consistent-sounding album.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Sunday, September 27, 2020

Exhumed - Horror (2019)

Much like its simplified, stripped down title, Horror sees a stripped down version of Exhumed which is reaching back to its earlier turn-of-the-century roots as a proper post-Carcass death grind. In fact, it almost one-ups their debut Gore Metal in how it so rapidly executes the stylistic decision. That's not to say that all of the band's recordings in the interim lacked these aesthetics, in fact they were always present to an extent, but the band had focused on a lot of thrashier, even more melodic elements, and frankly it often ended up with some pretty great songwriting. Now, to be fair, this is no record of absolutes, there are some mid-paced thrash breakouts, and the same entertaining and frantic lead guitars they have been spewing forth the last decade or so, but it's certainly one of their fastest if not the single fastest album of their career.

For death & grind diehards who probably dropped the band after Slaughtercult, or staunch fanatics for earlier Carcass, Napalm Death and Repulsion, this is probably a godse....goresend?! They're getting all of that primal energy, short tracks that almost all fall between the 1-2 minute duration, the mix of snarls and gory guttural vocals that the band has always championed in the Carcass tradition, and if they're also gore/horror fans, a very sweet retro artstyle on the cover which is nearly as cool looking as the last album Death Revenge. The chainsaw guitars and buzzing bass lines come fast and furious, the drumming is intense, and the core of the group's sound is all present. The energy is palpable, Exhumed show no signs whatsoever of slowing down or experimenting beyond what is expected of them, and the lyrical topics are a pretty stock selection of paeans to horror tropes like slashers and zombie flicks. Horror checks off almost all the boxes that it should, but if I'm being honest, as much of a fan of this band as I've become through the years, I found this one solid, but also lacking...not in kills, but in thrills beyond a few select riffs and leads.

To me, lot of grind music falls into the trap of constructing a string of average, derivative punk, thrash or death metal guitar riffs and accelerating them to the degree that their momentum alone can seem to obfuscate the fact that they're quite dull when dissected. The better albums of the genre are the ones that rise to this challenge and manage to offer a new spin, a new sound into the pummeling velocity. Take bands like Antigama, or some of the recent Napalm Death albums, as examples of how this can be kept fresh and alive; but for every one of those, there are scores of others which simply exist like an echo chamber of aggression. Granted, you could say this same thing about any other metal sub-genre, sure, but with grind and deathgrind it always stood out more, since the music was just so spastic and frenzied that I felt I should be more engaged. A lot of the tunes go in one ear and out the other, with the only reaction being 'that was fast' or 'that was angry'. A very temporal visceral response. Horror suffers from this to an extent, but it maintains just enough of Exhumed's charm, production standards and competence over its 15 tracks that 26 minutes that it gets a pass. But there's simply no way I'd break this out over Death Revenge, Necrocacy, Anatomy is Destiny, or their first two, Gore Metal and Slaughtercult, which already gave me what I'd want out of this one, only with better songs.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Fulci - Tropical Sun (2019)

When you're taking on the mantle of one of the grand masters of Italian horror, and you yourselves ARE an Italian band, I think that shoots the expectations for your music through the roof. Thankfully, while they can hardly be deemed a unique voice among the death metal hordes, Fulci delivers on most fronts an entertaining sophomore effort which taps back into the birth-throes of the brutal death metal genre, when it was more about ugly, knuckle-dragging primitive aggression than technical flash and inhuman instrumental exercises. Not to say that Tropical Sun ignores all the little quirks of its medium that have arrived since the mid 90s, but this is definitely not some New Standard Elite or contemporary Unique Leader style of release, it sounds like it's directly influenced by earlier Cannibal Corpse and Suffocation with a couple add-ons like the occasional deeper pig-squeal variant on the vocals.

If it's not obvious, this album is based on the 1979 film Zombi 2, and the excellent cover artwork via Chris 'Misanthropic Art' Kiesling perfectly captures that feel, an island vibe with the old school rotters lurching about. Steady wins the race, steady feeds your face. I remember being freaked out by the film for any of its flaws, and really appreciated the atmosphere its setting created since it just felt so different than the Romero zombie flicks I was accustomed to. These days we've had stuff like the Dead Island video game franchise to honor it, and I'm positive it's been lauded by a number of other death metal or goregrind bands in the past, but to have it as a central theme is really cool and earns the record some extra flesh-stripes. The theme is really only present through the lyrics, samples and synth pieces like the intro "Voodoo Gore Ritual", but it dresses up the brutality just enough to create a more fulfilling type of experience than your average, insanely illustrated BDM effort, and the overall package just stands out.

Musically, this is pummeling, groove-reliant death metal which is almost wholly pit-ready, with a lot of evil little trill riffs and zipping leads redolent of the Cannibal Corpse era I hinted at above, the first four records with possibly a bit more Corpsegrinder to some of the vocal patterns than Barnes. Though the riff construction largely feels as if you've heard it before, they manage to string enough catchy chops together that you feel like your back in the early days of the style. Chugging, bludgeoning, and lumbering forward at a generally casual pace, with an occasional death/thrash or OSDM outbreak that reminds me again of that aforementioned act in their younger years. You'll get some sparse surprises like the eerie clean guitars they toss onto "Splatter Fatality", or a bleak yet melodic guitar harmony in something like "Legion of the Resurrected" which had me thinking of vintage Bolt Thrower, or some un-intrusive synths, but on the whole the style between the tracks doesn't deviate all that much from its crushing, confident formula.

Production here is quite clean, but still packs a lot of punch because of the guitar tone. The beats are programmed to be effective and workmanlike, but they don't try to bite off more than they can chew and just do their job. The bass has a good volume and adds a little chunkiness to the rich saturation on the rhythm guitars, while the vocals are all broad, burly and well mixed whether they're switching or matching up the growls and snarls or the borderline toilet bowl gutturals they use sparsely. None of the tracks ever wear out their welcomes, and although they don't really experiment that much, there's just enough variety provided as they trade off between more melodic chords and chugging. It's a fun album, it'll take you right back, the lyrics are solid, the packaging awesome. As I'm pretty sure these guys' debut was at least partly devoted to Lucio Fulci's "Gates of Hell" movies like City of the Living Dead, I actually hope these guys will continue the trend going forward. Can you imagine a cool death metal record based solely on The New York Ripper? The Cat in the Brain? Don't Torture a Duckling? Hell, they wouldn't even have to stick with Fulci, numerous other cult directors could be visited.

Verdict: Win [8/10]


Saturday, August 1, 2020

Ave Summer Satanas!

Back in hibernation until the Fall. I will return September 24th for my horror metal reviews leading up to Halloween. Stay safe, stay frosty, enjoy these remaining Summer months, and thank you as always for stopping by and reading my middle-aged metal screed!


Saturday, July 25, 2020

Horde Casket - Melted Together (2020)

I think brutal death metal has to be one of the most difficult, if not THE most difficult sub-genre from which to standout. There's such a mechanical demand for some of the musical tropes common to the niche, and bands like Horde Casket do their best to fill these in, and if I were judging simply by a checklist, then I'd stay they fill in or obliterate a whole lot of those boxes. Ridiculous blast beats are all over the place, as well as hyper chugging and dextrous little hand exercise riffs that must clearly tax the players' tendons after a rehearsal session or live set. The vocals are their normal mix of harsh guttural and harsher rasp, in the tradition of your Carcasses and Deicides, and the overall momentum of the album is utterly fucking relentless with a slightly noisy mix that is like to give you a headache if you're just not attuned to what you're normally going to get out of the genre.

The issue at hand is that, with all of the obvious physical temerity and extremity that they are pouring into this release, it almost entirely fails to stick. There might be a few tricks up their sleeves like the walls of wailing guitars they bleed over the thrust of "Nocturnal Transformation", or the broken chugs below the inhuman blasting of "Disease of the Deceased", but it's usually just business as usual from a band that has always hovered between average (Bloodfiends, Landscape of Cadavers) and decent (Xenopocalypse, Slab of Infinite Butchery). I like the frenzied pacing of the leads, they always give the music an added sense of death metal escapism, and if you like the choppy slamming rhythm guitars matched up against non-stop pounding drums, there will be moments for you to get your dance on. There are some really great growl placements here that resonate, but just not consistently, and across all departments, Horde Casket doesn't lag behind much of the competition, but this is assuming you only want the methodical brutal death metal...

I honestly think the band could slow down or de-escalate itself once in awhile to create a greater dynamic punch to it, maybe throw in a less discordant whipping lead guitar, or make a crunchy groove riff that is actually catchy, where the listeners will get hooked to the chord patterns. Like so much of the brutal death metal, this one looks so bad-ass with its cover art, song titles, the band's name has always been pretty cool, but I fear that this stuff has become so commonplace that it just lacks a genuinely evil punch due to its mathematical commitments. If you are mining the rosters of Sevared, Pathologically Explicit, New Standard Elite and Unique Leader and like most of what you hear, then Horde Casket is unquestionably worthy of your time, but this one didn't leave me with much to remember afterwards other than the bruises.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]


Thursday, July 23, 2020

Machine Head - Bloodstone & Diamonds (2014)

Bloodstone & Diamonds is not an album that abandons all the common sense, critical praise and good will that Machine Head had suddenly developed with The Blackening and Unto the Locust, but it's a solid step backwards in terms of quality, somewhat of a 'dumbing down' that shows the band for whatever reason missed what they were doing beforehand. You've still got a few outbreaks of the more agile, thrash-inspired riffing and some exciting lead sequences, but this one goes for grooves and accessibility a little more than the albums leading to it, and some of the aforementioned faster breaks aren't really interesting. I think if I were to condense it all down to about 3-4 tracks you'd have a worthwhile followup to Unto the Locust, but it's padded out with some songs that don't exactly leave any impression on me.

The catchier tracks like "Now We Do" and "Killers & Kings" are wisely staggered on the frontside of the album, the former a groover reminiscent of Through the Ashes of Empires era but with the add-on of some symphonic strings, and the latter a a thrashing 90s-style pounder with a couple frilly little riffs in there to keep it feeling busy. I also dug the melody at the beginning of "Ghosts Will Haunt My Bones", but that one kind lapses into the nu metal with rock chorus stuff that I was never a fan of in this band's hands, even if Robb's voice sounds half-decent on the more atmospheric, emo moments where he's festooned with little melodies. After that I find it hard to remember much of anything... "Sail Into the Black" is a pretty atmospheric track with some creepy little piano sounds and an epic length to it that eventually surges into giant rolling double bass grooves, but I feel like the harder hitting parts don't live up to the beginning; and "Beneath the Silt" is another track with some potential even though it's got a dirty chuggy nu groove beneath it, I kind of like the psychedelic filtering on the vocals, and again he's got some good singing parts on that and deserves a little credit.

The instrumentation is fine, with another of the band's stronger drum showings when they hit those grooves, and a lot of subtle percussive builds during a lot of the atmospheric parts of which there are probably more here than any other Machine Head record. Bass sounds good, production on the guitars is just the perfect contrast of heaviness and melody, and while Flynn is still doing a lot of the Phil Anselmo style tough guy grunts and growls, he's clearly improved all around. I also think that lyrically this might be the peak for the group, the lines seem fairly well thought out compared to some of the garbage on the disc to follow. The last third of the album is partly a waste of time, with the soft ballad "Damage Inside", the throwaway sample track "Imaginal Cells", and the other songs back there doing a mix of the Korn-like nu metal vocals with a few thrash parts to try and smooth them out, but all told Bloodstone & Diamonds isn't a complete dropping of the ball, it's still much better than anything the band had put out prior to 2007, and if you were a fan of the two previous albums then you might have breathed a collective sigh of relief. Maybe for the last time...

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]


Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Rabid Beast - Rabid Beast EP (2020)

Rabid Beast is the metal passion project defined, a pairing of longtime thrash fans who have made their way in other styles, but could not forever resist the siren call of a prime inspiration, and thus decided to do something about it. In this case, it's the duo of Paul Gillis and Eric Bauer, who have played together before in Chicago's brutal Morgue Supplier, which might explain how they work in such lockstep across four of the most intense thrash tunes you're going to hear in 2020, and a pretty nifty cover to boot. The Rabid Beast EP presents us with around 24 minutes of what is sadly lacking in most of the re-thrash of the last few decades, or even the releases of many of the genre stalwarts, that is, the ability to sound and act absolutely psychotic and capture it on tape.

The foundation here is very meaty, mute-heavy, forceful thrashing which has a richness to it that reminds me slightly of another Chicago thrash act, the legendary ZnöWhite, in particular their criminally underrated 1998 album Act of God. But there are also traces of Devastation's Idolatry; or Destruction's muscular riffing, old and new, with a little bit of a clinical melodic edge ingrained in there that you might trace back to Release from Agony or Pestilence's death/thrash debut Malleus Maleficarum. Though the focus is on momentum and heaviness, there are some dynamic, textural, dissonant patterns which emerge from the more straightforward riffing to even remind me a bit of some of Voivod's later 80s experimentation. A lot of my favorite things, of course, and the riff set here is truly devastating, lots to hook you in tunes like "Decline into Disorder", "First Among Equals" and "Green Room is Red". I found the lead guitars a little less consistent, they're fast and furious, spastic and crazy, but while they really stood out in "Green Room is Red" or the great shredding in Infernal Majesty's "Overlord", I found them a bit flimsier in "Decline into Disorder" where they couldn't really match the intensity beneath.

In addition to that chopping, powerful rhythm guitar tone, the other standout here would be the vocal style of Mr. Gillis. Like in Morgue Supplier, or his other group Drug Honkey, he goes above and beyond to create something that is at once familiar and over-the-top unnerving. He uses both the force and frailty of intonation to manifest a tormented hybrid of splatter-thrash and Germanic precision, one that you can never get too comfortable with because he might hurl some crazy ass, unpredictable lines at you that go further out than even that description. The benefit here is that this is something YOU WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER. Cookie cutter thrash vokills from bands like Evile or Warbringer are competent enough, sure, but the reason I'm always going to turn towards a Rabid Beast, or Sweden's Antichrist, or Germany's Vulture instead, is because they sound absolutely sick today, they'll sound sick tomorrow, and they will sound sick in 20 years. It's the same reason vintage Tom Araya, Bruce Corbitt and Jeff Becerra still stand out now, they capitalize on and weaponize the flaws and imperfections of the human voice to create a sense of genuine danger.

The rhythm section here is as tight as necessary, and the lyrics range from thoughtful and relevant ("First Among Equals" or "Decline into Disorder") to outright hilarious ("Green Room is Red"). The cover track here is performed with more intensity than the original while managing to seamlessly absorb it into the Rabid Beast sound. Very little to criticize here, this is easily one of the better new thrash EPs I've heard this year alongside Voices by Belgium's Schizophrenia, vicious and sincere, and I highly recommend getting in on the ground for the whirlwind it will inevitably kick up.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]


Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Machine Head - Unto the Locust (2011)

Unto the Locust takes the thrashing energy and ambition that the Machine Head crew resurrected from their earlier years as musicians onto The Blackening, and then ramps up it a notch by armoring it with a more modern sensibility and an obvious increase in overall heaviness. I wouldn't stay that there is as great a stylistic disparity here as between the two albums before it, or between Through the Ashes of Empires and Supercharger, but this is far from a repeat of their 2007 surprise. Tempos, dynamics, and riff patterns are explored more interestingly, and I'd say that the thrash riffs in particular, on tunes like "I Am Hell (Sonata in C#)" and "Be Still and Know", are more nuanced and memorable than those from the previous album, even if it set a sort of standard to follow.

Most improved for me on this album would be the vocals, which are more often given multi tracks or harmonies that strengthen them far more than just listening to Robb's delivery before. This is most felt in the chorus parts to tunes like "Be Still and Know" which are genuinely catchy, but you'll often hear this being done on various verses, so the distribution keeps an added intensity throughout the lion's share of the 49 minutes of material. Though you're still hearing a couple of grooves here or there, Unto the Locus really strives to maintain an air of respectability, and I could honestly say this one might impress fans into groups like Nevermore or Savage Messiah, even if they've had no interest in anything Machine Head had gotten up to before. It's not terribly technical, but it's hard hitting, half-intelligent and interesting. Other little nuances I heard hear were similar to bands like the French groove juggernaut Gojira, at least in some of the vocal delivery and picking patterns, or even Strapping Young Lad in how the vocals carry or the post-modern thrash atmosphere. You can also clearly hear a huge melodic Swedish death metal influence on tunes like "This is the End", and it's honestly not unwelcome because it's performed with the surging testosterone that fuels a lot of the better efforts from a Soilwork or Dark Tranquillity.

This was the best drumming Dave McClain (ex-Sacred Reich) had done on any of the Machine Head albums during his tenure, thundering and muscular and definitely making as much a statement as almost anything else on the record. The bass is solid and gives the heaviness much of its weight, and the lead guitar supply on this is simply inexhaustible, it's the most melodic album they've put out, but without losing the ballast it desperately needs to keep its groove-oriented audience in their seats, or out of their seats, kicking each other on the rump and flailing their inebriated limbs about. There are a few weirder progressive experiments like "Darkness Within", and you can get the impression that they were expanding themselves to see what would stick, not succeeding 100% of the time, but as an album emerging upon the popular metal landscape of 2011 I think this is probably the one most suited to its times, with the most weaponry to help the band compete with their often far younger peers in the groove, thrash and metalcore niches.

The lyrics are still a sore point, especially on tracks like "Who We Are" or "This is the End" which have all the artistry and cliche parades of angry teens, but let's face it, the overwhelming of majority is like this and those who accepted and enjoyed Machine Head's earlier material are not going to care one way or the other. Hardly embarrassing, just showing little to no thought as the lyricist just pulls the most obvious and basic images from the mind to the page. Otherwise, this is the best album in the Machine Head catalog, or the most 'worthy', still hovering below greatness, but a galaxy beyond some of the turds they've committed to tape before it. Not that this is in any way some mandatory band to experience, but if we reduced their career down to The Blackening, Unto the Locust and Machine F**king Head Live, it wouldn't belong in a dumpster. Of course, that's not the whole story, that's not reality, but 2007-2012 was clearly their peak and I can't formulate too much negative to say about it.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Monday, July 20, 2020

Machine Head - The Blackening (2007)

For all the ire I've cast upon Machine Head's recording history, there's no question that the band has been a successful venture, with plenty of profitable touring, media attention, and record sales, even well before Robb Flynn started letting a lot of sparks fly across his social media and interviews. Despite all the returns on investment, I'd like to pretend that, in the four years after Through the Ashes of Empires, when the band was throwing this album together, they came to realization that 'this was how it should always have been'. If The Blackening were the lead-in for the band's career, then it all might have made a lot more sense. I'm not saying this is a 'great' record, but it's certainly a decent one, brilliant by comparison to the long stretch of earsores the band had previously manifest. It's the first studio album that actually deserves even the hype wave they ever surfed in on.

It's evident immediately in "Clenching the Fists of Dissent" that a part of this turnaround is that Robb finally remembered he was a thrasher. In fact, he and Phil Demmel, who also plays here, were part of one of the greatest West Coast thrash albums ever crafted in Vio-lence's Eternal Nightmare, and you can clearly hear that sort of riffing influence being integrated up against the band's nu/groove stylings. Funny enough, when you throw in some neck-jerking, mid-to-fast paced thrash riffs before that moshpit focus group breakdown, it all feels more effective due to the powerful contrasts. I'm not saying that the band's lowbrow riffing fare suddenly becomes more interesting on its own, because there are plenty of effortless, lamentable grooves here, but The Blackening assaults you right up front with the competent upbeat thrash, walls of wailing leads and lots of other guitar atmospheres that dress up even its most mundane moments. That bridge riff feels a lot like something Metallica would have used on Master of Puppets if they were more into gang shouts, and there's just no questioning that this presentation is a more musically ambitious and rich experience regardless of what flaws it carries forward from their garbage daze.

Don't get me wrong here, this isn't a conscious fuck-you turnabout album which ignores the past; you're still getting a big chunk of Pantera worship, but I heard all manner of influences going into this one, from the Mike Muir-like 'emo' vocals of "Beautiful Morning", to the Tool-like structure of groove built into the verses of "Now I Lay Thee Down". You've still got a healthy heaping of those masculine radio rock chorus parts dominating the 'hard rock' channels since the mid-to-late 90s, but even there Flynn manages to string together some slightly more memorable lines and melodies than what you might expect from earlier records. His aggressive barks and roars are still heavily rooted in that whole Phil Anselmo/Skinlab/Pissing Razors style with a dash of generic metalcore angst, and they're for me one of the weaker parts of the album, outshined in almost every instance by the music itself, but I'd happily have this invade my earspace above nonsense like Supercharger or The Burning Red. The musicianship is by far the strongest they'd managed up to this point, and even though there are still a good percentage of pretty dull riffs that hold it back, you'll be surprised by some of the things that pop up.

A couple of the tracks are pretty long by their standards, such as "Clenching the Fists of Dissent" or "Wolves", but I'd say they actually offer enough dynamic range within these to pad them out without lapsing into boring repetition, and perhaps more importantly, that good old thrashing spirit just keeps rearing its head enough, as if its an anchor that's holding the entire process together, and at this point in their game they couldn't have chosen a better focus point. A lot of the lyrics are pretty weak, but at least they don't come off overly goofy in conjunction with terrible music. I also liked the cover art aesthetics, the stark simplicity of the logo font with some classic religious imagery, preferable to all of the choices they made prior to Through the Ashes of Empires at least. Now The Blackening is not an album I'd pick out of a lineup of other material in my thrash (or limited groove metal) library, but if someone were cranking this in the car I wouldn't cover my ears or make a stinky face, I can give some credit where it is due and if this was the sort of passion for the craft they had been meting out since 1994 then I'd never have had cause for complaint. But can they keep it up?

Verdict: Win [7/10]


Sunday, July 19, 2020

Machine Head - Catharsis (2018)

While on some level Catharsis pretended to continue the increased level of musical proficiency and effectiveness Machine Head had begun to achieve with a few of the albums before it, on almost every other level it's a dumpster fire. When I first put this record in, I got the impression that it was some group of 14 year old metalcore kids who had picked up a copy of The Blackening and decided to pay it tribute along with with a little Killswitch Engage and maybe a handful of their favorite melodeath bands. The cover art looks exactly like something they would think of. The lyrics are beyond dumb, puerile translations of whatever Robb could look up on the news to become outraged that morning, and the music, while fast and often fairly adept in technicality alone, rings hollow on almost all fronts and is immediately forgettable. Whatever steps towards maturity and memorability the Californians had taken with their material starting the previous decade seemed to have now been sidelined for what is worth little more than soulless dreck. I bet Nuclear Blast was pretty thrilled when their lucrative new contract shat this one on their second outing.

For whatever reason, Machine Head seemed to bring back a little too much of the pure nu metal nonsense on cuts like the titular "Catharsis"? No matter how much you try to dress it up with that emotional soft pop side, once that groove comes out I feel like I'm stuck in a room full of dead air and ideas that were never that interesting the first time this band failed at them. The Pantera influence is also here in full force once again, and it's even funnier when they mix in their rap metal stuff as with the track "California Bleeding", one of the dumbest fucking songs I've heard while writing this blog, which no dirty rock & roll chorus is going to save. Other songs like "Triple Beam" are just dumb pandering grooves with bad hip hoppy verses and then tasteless early 00s alt rock chorus parts which the band must think is going to help them sell records. And maybe that's what happened, and I'm a grumpy old dude who is out of the loop, but personally I've never met anyone with a single positive thing to say about Catharsis. One other irritant here is that the band clearly had a hard on for the pop-infused hardcore & metalcore we were hearing out of both the US & UK 5-10 years ago, and you can tell by the light synth touches they throw into cuts like "Catharsis" and "Kaleidoscope". Say what you will about those bands, they pulled it off better than this one can.

Of course, Robb had to spread his bleeding & beaten wings a little further here with "Behind a Mask" or "Bastards", which sound like some dopey acoustic track Aaron Lewis of Staind would right...but what the latter grows into, some weird anthemic fusion of The Dropkick Murphys and the Beatles, in which Robb tries to embrace minorities into the Machine Head fanbase while dropping sarcastic slurs at them, is the sappiest 'what the fuck' moment I've probably heard from any of these high profile nu metal bands. 'NO NO NO, NO NO FUCK NO, NO NO NO!' Do you want a Machine F**king Head High Five for your pedestrian protest anthem? 'GET YOUR MIDDLE FINGERS IN THE AIR AND SING, THEY CAN'T IGNORE US ANYMORE.' Reading these lyrics makes me feel like I'm in the midst of the rave scene in that Matrix sequel, only with worse music and surrounded by a bunch of edgy caricatures of cartoon PSAs with their capes flapping around in Robb's posterior wind. I'm all for people expressing social and political opinions that they feel strongly about, don't get me wrong, but try to do it with a little tact and nuance rather than overt cliches, condescension and reductionist stereotypes that do nobody any good.

To be fair there are other themes here being tackled with more personal, less obnoxious lyrics, but even then you're guaranteed to have some extremely weak musical idea fouling up whatever rare catchy bit they might have accidentally stumbled upon. There is approximately one song here, "Heavy Lies the Crown", which would actually be a half-decent mid-paced Swedish melodeath tune if it didn't have Robb's vocals or lyrics anywhere near it. The production is fine, the boys can still play, but ultimately, Catharsis is just one goofy, convoluted mess that feels half Midlife Crisis and half I Wrote These Songs in My Garage While Inhaling Carbon Monoxide Because I'm Too High to Realize That I Left the Engine Running. It is, for my wallet, the worst Machine Head studio album, and I'd rather have all my body hair peeled off with masking tape while being forced to endure The Burning Red and Supercharger before ever listening to it again.

Verdict: Epic Fail [1.25/10]


Saturday, July 18, 2020

Machine Head - Machine F**king Head live (2012)

Nearly a decade after Hellalive, and a not unreasonable amount of time to wait for a band thrust so far into the spotlight, Robb Flynn and his Machine Head released a slightly more elaborate follow-up live effort over 2 CDs. While its predecessor was no slouch at 80 minutes of content, this is over 100 and allows the band to draw upon a bigger pool of material, including some from the two albums before this, critical darlings in many circles, which had seriously increased the band's stock even among the disbelievers who justifiably loathed almost everything they had released up to that point. In fact this is quite up to date for the year it came out, devoting fully five of its 15 selections to tunes from 2011's Unto the Locust, an album that only had seven songs to begin with...

Add in the trifecta of "Beautiful Morning", "Aesthetics of Hate" and "Halo" from The Blackening and you have more than half of an experience which might skew well above the suck line. Burn My Eyes, the debut and least shitty of their first five albums, has a pair of tracks in "Old" and "Davidian" which grants a little more stabilization. I think Overkill kind of saturated the market on the ol' F-bomb emphasis with Fuck You and Then Some, but I'm sure some fraction of the Machine Head market does appreciate the stripped honesty of Machine F**king Head Live! Like if I'm getting off the late shift at the meatpacking plant the night before, sleeping in late and then starting my boozing early, you're damn right when Robb Flynn and friends enter the stage with pyrotechnical wizardry and lots of chugging I'm a holler "MACHINE FUCKING HEAD!" at the top of my lung capacity. To boot, this album was a slight surprise in how honestly it captured the group's sound, in a more raw form than I expected...without too much polish anywhere, lots of crowd noise that can occasionally even compete with the instruments, and a solid and substantial performance.

If you were at this performance and felt its energy and sincerity, you'd probably be aboard the train, at least for a couple hours, because they knock it out of the park. At least the UK fans at Manchester Central seemed to think so. The more metallic, musical material from the albums leading straight up to this glows in venue, with great dual harmonies, melodic chorus parts, thundering, precise drums, surging thrash breaks and a nice bass tone giving everything that much more punch. The leads as in "Be Still and Know" are a lot of fun here and the band sounds so much more on point than anything I've forced myself to endure through the 90s or earlier half of the 00s. Some form of professional and passionate equilibrium had been achieved through all its trials and tribulations and that reflects right back out through the product to the fans. As much as I don't like their bouncier nu metal material, just being in the presence of better tunes here almost makes it more tolerable, so I could listen through a jam like "The Blood, The Sweat, The Tears" or "Old" without needing to turn it off. Ultimately I think this is one of the top three Machine Head releases, and even though it's not one I'd ever personally break out with all of the gajillion options available to me by bands I tend to enjoy, I could fully understand why any would sing its praise. It crushes Hellalive both in the stronger selection of songs and the aural impact it leaves. They showed up, they gave a shit, they performed well, you got what you paid for, and for at least the couple years leading to this, they mattered.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Friday, July 17, 2020

Destruction - Born to Thrash (2020)

Destruction's live offerings have been a series of diminishing returns for me. The first, Live Without Sense, was excellent, one of my favorite live albums of the 80s, and one that I probably listened through just as much as any of their studio outings, at least for a few years after it came out. Later recordings like Alive Devastation and The Curse of the Antichrist - Live in Agony were nothing to necessarily scoff at, but comparatively didn't excite me enough to keep on revisiting them when I was instead in the grips of so much other new metal, or couldn't really be pulled away from their 2001 opus The Antichrist which to me is still marvelous. Born to Thrash is a pretty humble 10-tracker from a band that could just as easily produce a 2-3 disc set, but the idea I think is to get back to basics and so we've got material that was recorded at a single gig, the Party San 2019 fest from their home country, where I'd like to fantasize thrash metal is like the morning newspaper, only several Germans I've spoken to say that instead it's all bad techno and Volksmusik...you probably know more about that than I do, but please refrain from screaming with your keyboard until this review is done.

The track list is pretty well distributed between oldies that everyone in the audience will love ("Total Desaster", "Curse the Gods", "Mad Butcher", etc), a couple of their early 21st Century hard hitters, namely "Nailed to the Cross" and "Thrash Till Death" from my fave mentioned above, and then they give you some more current material in "Born to Perish" and "Betrayal" from their most recent studio album, Born to Perish, which was pretty good. It's a crowd pleaser set with just a few reminders that 'Hey we still exist and hit the studio fairly often!'; and when you're in front of a huge festival crowd you're going to go for maximum impact, which I think these choices pull off for the most part. Now, maybe coming at this record as a fan of 35 years who owns all the band's studio CDs other than the embarrassing Neo-Destruction years, I could make an argument that if I'm expected to plunk down $10-15 for this that I'd appreciate a more elaborate package, maybe getting the chance to hear a few discs worth of their lesser known tracks in the live setting would heat me up a little more, but that's not going to spin the wheels of commerce for most potential buyers or ping the label's green light.

This is the two-axe-attack Destruction with Mike and Damir delivering an appreciable crunch, and their dextrous playing and the spurious leads all sound pretty good, but perhaps not as beefy as I'd like, just a grade too low when sent up against the driving beats of skin veteran Randy Black. The bass thumps along well enough but I feel like it could also have come out in the mix just a little more for the perfect balance. Schmier's vocals still sound as uncouth and savage as he's always been known for, perhaps even a little wilder here than on some other performances I've heard, and that might or might not be the result of his aging pipes, but it still sounds like a thrash metal band ought ta be, and he has great stage presence even in audio-only form as he's introducing cuts like "Mad Butcher". The reverb and effects on his vocals are great, especially when he has to pitch out one of his screams, and they help it seem more psychotic and memorable. All in all, a very workmanlike, effortless set from guys that have been this so long that they should probably be able to juts plug amps into their veins and the songs would still play with no other instruments. It's a good live album, not trumping Live Without Sense, and not likely to draw me away from their studio work, but dependable.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Thursday, July 16, 2020

Machine Head - The Black Procession EP (2011)

The Black Procession is a special issue 10" vinyl with three live tracks taken from the two studio albums before it, recording during their 2010 tour of the same name. One could probably forgive the scantness of its content, since like many Record Day releases, Machine Head probably just wanted to have something packaged up fresh for fans; a lot of these things are directly meant for the collectors' market, and here they chose to just sift through a couple tapes of their recent performances and make it easy. I do like how the cover artwork is consistent with The Blackening's classic, minimalist style, and two of the tracks are taken from the first of their albums I'd actually consider decent, but that's really all that I can say positive about the EP.

Though they don't sound terrible, the live mix here is a bit raw and suppressed, I felt like I was hearing it muffled through a tent at a festival...maybe if I was standing BEHIND the tent and they were on the other sides moshing it up with the crowd. You can still make out most of the instruments, but a lot of them just don't sound good. The vocals are not the best, but the backing vocals sound absolutely horrible. The leads are also kind of cheesy sounding and don't have the same impact that they do on the studio releases. Of the three tracks, "Bite the Bullet" probably comes off the most even, but since I don't like that song it's hardly some saving grace. And to be honest, the others don't do much justice to their own studio incarnations, so this is literally just some EP you'd want to file away in your record bin if you solely value its existence as a product that you can throw money at and add to another pile of similar products just to say you did.

And then when you end up having to switch houses, apartments, dorm rooms this all becomes a big fat burden to load up onto grandma's truck with all your rare wax and DJ equipment. That may or may not be true for you and your situation, but what is definitely true is this is a complete waste of time, even if it's just 17 minutes and change.

Verdict: Fail [2.25/10]


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Autumn's Ashes - Eulogy EP (2020)

Autumn's Ashes is a collaboration between two New England musicians, Dan Saillant of Annihilus Mundi and Rick Lowell of Blacksoul Seraphim, backed by a host of guest musicians, and what I found most compelling about it is how it brings the strengths and versatility of those other projects into a broader sea of influence from which it draws its ideas. You've got a mix here of traditional, trudging Gothic metal riffing within some progressive death/doom structures, and then some graceful, mildly symphonic aesthetics which are created largely through the pianos. The band is not above incorporating some minimalist acoustics for atmosphere, shifting between a number of vocal styles, or adding in some proper lead guitars for yet another potential dimension to their sound.

Musically, I thought the material was consistent, with moody, driving guitars that gave me the impression I was living in these bleak, natural landscapes like the one depicted through the cover art;  maybe a gleam of sunlight off the frost or lake-ice surrounding me, in a way reminiscent of groups like the mighty Amorphis during their Elegy-and-beyond era, or Draconian, or perhaps Anathema during their sparser, acoustic moments. The pianos pile on a lot of melody to the steady guitars of "Vanished", which has a nice pickup pace for the lead and bridge, and "Reason" is a 9 minute progressive doom beast which had a few hints of Dutch death metallers Phlebotomized, where you couldn't exactly guess what was coming around any corner, and were once again treated with an eerie effect in how the spectral pianos interact with the low end guitars. The mix is fairly decent for something essentially demo-level, at the very least you can hear the bass, drums, guitars, keys and vocals distinctly from one another even if it overall comes across a little murky. I had mixed feelings on the instrumental pieces. "Down the Road" was pleasant with its pianos and synth pads, but I don't think it set up "Vanished" quite well enough, whereas the resilient organ piece "Up the Stream" was well done but perhaps a little too brazen for its placement on the EP.

Vocally, I think Eulogy has its share of ups and downs. The gutturals are fantastic, with a lot of punch and ugliness to them that sounds awesome when the guitars are chugging along below. Haydee Irizarry of Boston's Aversed provides some silky, cleaner vocals to the closing track "Shutter" and they created a hazy, compelling contrast to the heaviness. It's the clean male vocals on "Vanished" and "Reason" that I wasn't entirely sold on. I like the crooning, desolate style they're going for, reminiscent of groups like Yearning, and some lines are delivered better than others, but occasionally they felt like they lacked confidence. There were points in "Reason" where they got a little awkward, especially where the higher pitched screams came in behind them, or how some of the trailing off at the end of the verse lines wavered in fluidity. "Vanished" fares better overall, but considering that these two tracks were the first metallic one-two combo on the album, that might be an area to flesh out better for future releases, with more power and presence.

I've said it before, but Gothic doom and death is all too rare in my neck of the woods, so it's a treat to hear a band like this or Blacksoul Seraphim giving it a go. Autumn's Ashes has a lot of potential, especially as a conduit for the autumnal or wintry nostalgia I have for this place in a metal context. There's a strong arsenal of weaponry built in here with the drums, gutturals, guitars and pianos. The intro and interlude pieces are fine, but don't really add much to the proper heavy material, and the melodic vocals are something to work on, but otherwise this is some solid ground to build off.

Verdict: Win [7/10]