Thursday, March 4, 2021

Rage - Soundchaser (2003)

With albums as ranged and excellent as Ghosts and Unity, Rage had REALLY started to shift back onto my radar in those early 'oughts, in a way they hadn't since the beloved 80s. Sure, I had never abandoned the band, and there are efforts they've produced every decade since their arrival that I enjoy, but against the surging scenes of melodic death metal, metalcore and Gothic drear that permeated that pivotal turning of the century, it was great to hear a great veteran band like that bark back, and bark back hard. Soundchaser, named for the band's biomechanical mascot, was the third album with the Peavy Wagner, Mike Terrana and Victor Smolski lineup, which had clearly shaken out any of the kinks before even the previous album had been released, and where Unity could have been seen as the band putting its foot in the ground, and re-affirming the band's long-held strengths, Soundchaser could be heard as the press forward across the battlefield.

It could certainly be seen as a Unity Part II, because stylistically it falls very close, with a lot of the bulky, grooving, chugging guitars, and if I'm being honest, there are transitions or individual riffs here which I often confuse with its predecessor, or might even be interchangeable in particular songs. However, I think they were trying to go a little more aggressive, and create a slightly more evil theme overall, with some lyrics that were a little more inspired by science fiction and horror, like in the title track, or "Great Old Ones", or maybe even the post-intro slammer "War of Worlds" which in at least title only recalls the great H.G. Wells but then applies that to the context of modern geopolitics. A lot of Victor's nastiest riffs are present through the album, seeded with his spurious, showy little leads and melodies, although it's only rare that Rage actually sounds 'evil'; I mean they've generally been a thundering, anthemic, uplifting sort of band, so you have to take that with a grain of salt, but certainly there's always been a darker influence to some of the lyrics, and the mascot, while awesome, was always a bit of a creepy enigma.

There are a few corny bits on the album like the filtered growl vocals in the verse of the title track, but then again it's all playing into this more futuristic Rage, and yet they can shift between the choppier and heavier parts to smoother, melodic passages where Peavy issues some mellower vocals and the overall tone goes for a more decidedly prog/power leaning. What's most important is that I don't think there is even a single track that goes by here without some excellent part, "Defenders of the Ancient Life" is just choked with these awesome Smolski riffs and a nice rhythmic shift for the chorus, whereas "Human Metal" has possibly the coolest lyrical sentiments you could hope for from the already-aged band...and a breakdown in the bridge that should have you flailing your arms around the room and fists into the nearest available poseur. It's almost pointless to repeat just how good these three musicians are...Mike and Victor are icons on their respective instruments, and Peavy deftly balances the bass and vocals like few others...he may not have the shrieking capabilities of his youth, sure, but just about every line on the album is delivered with character, grit and passion.

Along with Unity, this represents my favorite material from the band in the 21st century, and like so much other work in their catalog, it really holds up, the further evolution and refinement of a band that absolutely belongs in the top tier of any German metal conversation. Blow for blow, album for album, Rage might not be as historically important as bands like Accept or the Scorpions, nor do they have the same sorts of accessible hit singles, but they are clearly a lot more consistent, more engaging and just overall superior, and they're given us more great music than we can ever repay. They're just one of those long-enduring Euro power metal bands which has hardly ever taken a misstep while keeping its own identity about it, in the same class as a Helloween or Running Wild or Blind Guardian. I am all the richer for having ever discovered them and witnessed their transformations through the decades.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (now the beast has come)

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

MP - Get It Now (1987)

MP was another casualty of the 80s European metal surge, a band that might have stood out a little more against its flourishing scene if there were simple a few less sharks swimming in the pool. For all intensive purposes, they have a sound extremely similar to other German acts like Faithful Breath, Samain and the mighty Accept, but as a card carrying fan of all three, I don't know if I can quite get enough of that particular niche, so an album like MP's Bursting Out or their second, Get It Now is something I consider a treat. As a full re-release of this LP approaches through Dying Victims' sub-label 'Relics from the Crypt', perhaps its time to give a glimpse back at what I'd honestly consider the best disc of the group's four full-lengths between 1986-1992, one that cleans up well and certainly scratches my itch for well-written if slightly indistinct traditional heavy/speed metal from the middle of that decade.

Their debut Bursting Out (The Beast Became Human) was similar in structure, but suffered from a more brash, uneven production. Part of that gave it a nastier charisma, but as it turns out, the smoothed over sophomore exceeds it with better hooks, stronger choruses, quality lead guitars and, let's face, it a much cooler cover art that seems to be channeling Valeria from Conan the Barbarian. We're talking total traditional Teutonic steel here, they've got a bit of more energetic pep than Samain's Vibrations of Doom, with a similar, raunchy vocal style from Thomas Zeller, but then again he's not so explosive as his countryman Udo, and I think that's probably the reason a band like this got raked across the coals, there was just a much huger presence in that niche from Accept, Running Wild or Warlock, or the emergent power metal of Helloween in their earlier incarnation. But that's not to take away how damn consistent Get It Now is, firing off some catchy, pumping openers like "Not for the Innocent" or "Claws from the Night" that make for instant heavy metal magic, provided you can get behind that melodic but sleazy strain in his delivery, one of my favorite characteristics of this album.

The rhythm section here is likewise strong, with Zeller's throbbing if 'stock' bass lines driving a lot of the songs' momentum, and Michael Link giving a moderately-paced, tireless hammering. I really love the guitar tone too, shifting between the agile, often palm-muted patterns and leads, the latter of which have a bit of flair to them not unlike Rage's Manni Schmidt, only MP isn't overall near that band's level of intensity and innovation. The band does seem like another of the countless groups in the 80s that were still flirting with the idea of the hard rock roots, and this translates into cuts like the brilliantly titled "Rocktober Blood" (and I say that with no irony), or the strangely subdued instrumental closer "Slow Down", which is like a mellow rock thing just over a minute which seems like it was a fragment of some other song that could have used vocals. Thankfully the band never goes all out power ballad, "Cruel to the Heart" seems to tease that for a few seconds before rocking its face off.

I don't think there's a single track other than that instrumental outro which I find weak, but my faves here are probably "Not for the Innocent", "Claws from the Night", "Hawk of May", and "Never Trust a Woman" which is one of a couple tracks here that sound straight from the Wolf Hoffman playbook. If you don't care about pretention or requiring anything stunningly original in your metal, and you often find yourself leaning back on albums like Breaker, Vibrations of Doom, Gold 'n' Glory, Burning the Witches, and Gates to Purgatory, then I think you'll hear a natural affinity in this album and find it worth the time. It's definitely one of those albums where I can lead in by dating it or defining it as a chronological relic, but to these ears it really hasn't aged a day. It sounds because metal is indeed eternal and anyone trying to convince you otherwise is still your enemy.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Rage - Invisible Horizons EP (1989)

"Invisible Horizons" is hands down one of my favorite Rage tunes ever, and in a just world it would have been one of the hugest metal hits of 1989, so it makes a lot of sense to me that it would see some sort of single release. I found the side-angled, solar sailing version of the Soundchaser here on the cover to be a curious choice, but I was in love with this mascot since Perfect Man before it, and again that steampunk/sci-fi aesthetic really jogged my teenage imagination, although it probably didn't have to do with a lot of their music (a couple lyrics, sure). Now this is another of those limited, short releases which history has now rendered entirely redundant; you can get the two tracks that weren't on the original Secrets in a Weird World on later versions of that album, but I'm kind of/sort of going through these Rage releases in the formats I originally encountered them so I get a little extra space here to speak of those B-sides.

I could go more into the title track when I cover its full-length album, but this is just a glorious cut with some low-down, mean and intense riffs that escalate into Peavy's climactic, anthem-like chorus lines. He was in full form back then and could hit every note necessary, and by the time this dropped he had even managed to shape his pitch to something a little less uncouth and shrieky (although I was a fan of that too). I remember first hearing this track on the local University radio show in advance of getting my own cassette copy of Secrets and I was utterly fucking blown away, and the song still rules today. This lived up to all the mastery they displayed on Perfect Man, but in a way that I found would be even more accessible to those who thought that album was over the top. And not to mention that breakdown groove at around 2:20 which sets up the killer lead. Again, as I'm visiting this I just can't believe that music like this didn't catapult Rage into the top echelons of heavy/power metal fame at the close of the 80s. The band was every bit as infectious as Iron Maiden, Helloween, and Judas Priest of the time, and in terms of the musicianship you could argue they had even more finesse.

The other tunes have no chance to live up to that, but they're still quite decent, "Lost Side of the World" being the one that I believe was tacked onto the original CD release as a bonus track. It's a moody, sweeping piece with some nice leads, maybe too many leads, but I feel like some of the progressions in the tune had sort of been done better on other Rage tracks and you can see why the band and/or producer found it to be filler. "Law and Order" is the more fun of the B-sides, definitely giving off more of an Execution Guaranteed or Perfect Man vibe with the frilly shrieking vocals and gang shouts, especially when he breaks deeper into that wild chorus. Still not a top flight track in their discography, but I'll crave listening to it once in awhile, lots of fast bass lines in there and some nice, slicing riffs and another cool solo from Manni. On the whole, though, despite the amazingness of the title track, this is just another glorified maxi-single without too much to recommend. You just don't need it these days as you can hear the extras on a more substantial product for your dollar. For a year or so it scratched a bit of an itch for more Rage, but today it just seems like another record label attempt to scrap together a couple more bucks for a vinyl and CD.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Friday, February 26, 2021

Rage - Live from the Vault EP (1997)

The third in my series of Victor Records import EPs from Rage, Live from the Vault is a fairly early example of a commercial performance gone to retail (in Japan), and it's honestly not so shabby despite the fact that it's a mere 30 minutes in length. This one's not going to give you the comprehensive experience that From the Cradle to the Stage would give years later, but as an example of them being able to put their fans' money where their mouths are, it will suffice. For a lot of Rage fans, these mid-90s were the peak of the band's powers, as they had strong support from records like Black in Mind and End of All Days, so it's not too surprising that this is the era of material which they are largely catering to, a bit of a bummer for me since I'm more into their 80s run, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

The energy is definitely there, the band chugging along through tracks like "Sent by the Devil" and "The Price of War", favorites of the era, but all of the melody and rock & roll pizazz is also clear through the guitars. It's not some perfect soundboard recording, so you might hear a lead being a bit subdued, or Peavy a little too loud here or there, but it does its job as a genuine performance, and the crowd really seems into it, jumping in on the chorus parts for "Higher Than the Sky". The bass and drums are fine, and Wagner's vocals are decent although we're already entering that phase in which he's only rarely screaming or pitching high, but he still sounds like that rough around the edges blue collar metal god that we all love.

I think it helps that they're in their native Germany in front of an audience that is most knowing of their material, but clearly their Japanese fans must be wild about them too considering all these collectible sorts of releases that hit the market, par for the course for 90s power metal. I do like all these songs, and the cover of "Motorbreath" is fun enough to close this set, although I can imagine this might have only been a partial set or something and you'd think they would close on one of their classic originals like "Don't Fear the Winter", "Waiting for the Moon" or "Time Waits for No One." Sometimes the band doesn't always put its best feet forward but again this is all a matter of opinion, and if you were desperate for a live recording after their first decade, this one is acceptable, if not necessarily worth the price of admission.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Rage - Higher Than the Sky EP (1996)

Another of the Japanese-only Rage rarities put out through Victor Records was this Higher Than the Sky EP, which was similar to Refuge in that it contained a pretty popular album track and then a couple of cover tunes. In this case, the covers were taken from a pair of tribute albums that the Germans contributed to for the respective artists, but they've also fattened this one up with a couple cuts that their fans in Japan might not have heard from other version of the Black in Mind album overseas. So there's an attempt at putting together some value here, like with a lot of Japanese releases, but as usual since this time there's been some other, massive remastered version where you can get all this material and a lot more, really dating this EP as a product. In this case it's the very recent Dr. Bones Lethal Recordings reissue of End of All Days with a TON of content added to it across two discs. I simply cover some of these EPs or maxis in their earlier incarnations because 1) I'm a scrub and only own the original full-length album without all the bells and whistles and 2) when I get to covering End of All Days I'll focus on that core album.

As natural as it is for a group like this one to tackle Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, it's almost too much of an obvious choice, especially for "The Trooper". When Rage is covering The Troggs or The Police they're making some level of transformation to those tunes which brings them more into the metal fold, and it's a little more interesting to hear. Their rendition of "The Trooper" is played very straight, and while entirely competent it's just as forgettable as so many other attempts at the original. On the other hand, the slightly beefier "Jawbreaker" has a real nice production to it, and it's cool to hear this one taken on with the rougher vocals....but everything here is awesome...the guitar tone, etc. Again, super loyal but quite well done for what it is...I'd actually listen to this version occasionally even if craving the Priest one. My first time hearing this EP was also my first exposure to the originals "Forgive But Don't Forget" and "Tie the Rope", the former a pretty plodding but dynamic track with a nice pre-chorus hook and riff that lead into an equally memorable chugged out chorus; the latter more energetic and pretty much thrashing along throughout, but somewhat mediocre.

The production on those bonus tracks isn't all that great, but it works, and certain instruments like when the wah wah comes in on the lead in "Tie the Rope" are pretty ace. Overall I can see why they wouldn't make the cut for a final album although they could compete with some of the weaker cuts on those mid 90s Rage efforts. All told though, Higher in the Sky is these days a collectors-only affair which the rest of us can just experience on a better product, but if you needed to pad out the years with the already prolific 90s Rage and throw more money then, like Refuge, this one used its space wisely. Apart from the "Jawbreaker" cover though there is nothing here I care that much to revisit.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Monday, February 22, 2021

Rage - Refuge EP (1994)

The song "Refuge" is a bit of a foreshadowing since that's the name Peavy Wagner would take on later to reunite with Manni Schmidt and Chris Efthimiadas, playing music which assumedly is in the direction of where they would have gone if Rage itself hadn't shifted its lineup. The title track is one of the finer pieces on The Missing Link, a riffy, perky and memorable update to their 80s style, although produced a bit dryly as I felt a number of their 90s albums were. However, that sterility doesn't bleed into the actual music so much, it's a track that at the time would be worthy of a single, which is more or less what this Japan-only EP represents. The remainder of the content on this is a trio of cover tracks; and if we're being real, that's the only reason anyone would have been tracking it down...with the remastered 2002 Noise reissue of the full-length Missing Link album, this is essentially useless, since the covers are ported over there.

But not so back in 1994, and what we're dealing with are serviceable if not trailblazing renditions that do their best to adapt the originals into the Rage canon. The Police's "Truth Hits Everybody" is turned into a punkier, driving force which is kept metal by Peavy's pitch, and though it's exceedingly simplistic I do dig the little lead flourishes Manni throws onto it. With "I Can't Control Myself", you get one of your favorite (or my favorite) Troggs' tunes beefed up, and I swear I'd heard this done before in a metal context but I'm not sure who by or if I'm just remembering this particular cover. Lastly, they offer up a classy choice of The Mission's "Beyond the Pale", something a lot more unexpected as it hails from one of my favorite English Gothic rock bands, a painfully underrated one. The German trio doesn't quite sink this one into the net quite as well, perhaps because it just isn't one they can crank up to their style and pace so much, but it does still convey a measure of the original's mood and at the very least I can appreciate their good taste. The bass sounds good, the soothing vocal harmonies, it's certainly a competent paean to The Mission's Children album, just wouldn't seem to be as fun to insert into a live set as the other two here.

Basically, here the Japanese fans and metal importers of the 90s were getting a bit of a treat that the rest of us plebeians wouldn't enjoy for a good chunk of the following decade, but if you did then it was probably pleasant enough to have, and it does add a little more value to the Missing Link remaster.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Blurr Thrower - Les voûtes (2021)

If you had told me 25 years ago that black metal album covers would be simple pictures of flowers like you'd see in any home/gardening rag, I'd probably have laughed at you. But it's a testament to the genre's ability to adapt itself into new aesthetic spaces which has helped it endure for me, and once we hit the pink-scape of Sunbather or the blooming fields of Bloem, there is really no turning back, and I'm alright with this. Now, don't get me wrong, I might not be a gatekeeper or purist of the form, but I love my spikes, leather and snow-capped mountains and pines as much as the next ice-demon, yet I love following the fundamentals of the music: haunting, melancholy, desperation, extremity and evil into new environments and a band like Blurr Thrower does just that.

On disc, they're picking up right where their 2018 EP Les avatars du vide left off, with some spacious, atmospheric black metal that hinges on both the traditional and post- fields. While the four tracks here have been truncated from the sprawling lengths of that release's two cuts, you're still looking at some largely swollen pieces, two of which cap the 12-minute mark. The actual style is unsurprisingly similar, with floods of fast-paced savagery that are dominated with sustained rasping and dissonant waves of higher-pitched melodic guitars that often captivate with a sort of post-punk, nearly droning mentality, although the overall effect here is one of warm light permeating your being, and doesn't come off as particularly hostile despite the genre in which the band plays. There isn't a large degree of variation in some of the riffs, they're sort of just flitting along on the same strings and tones, and unfortunately that makes the longer tracks here like "Cachot" a bit monotonous, with only occasional breaks in the action before the surging begins again.

That most of the tracks take on a similar pacing doesn't help, but to their credit, a few of the tunes manage to out-riff the others...for example, "Germes Vermeils" is a more passionate, hooky piece than "Cachot", and the wholly ambient short tune "Fanes" is a calming and welcoming interlude that does manage to get itself grimy in the final few moments where the sinister guitars and snarl break out. The vocals through the whole album are definitely of the suicidal old Varg variety, and that won't be to the taste of all, but I think they certainly fit to the music well enough. The drums are tinny and have a nice hiss to them which also matches the guitar tone, but really this is first and foremost about those guitar streams, the screams, and the atmosphere of the spaces between them, and that's the only trick to what Blurr Thrower are putting to tape. This is a decent follow-up when I'm in the mood, and if you do appreciate ambient/black metal shifts then it holds some appeal, but I think even in this limited, airy space the French project has risen to, there is some room for more variety in the future.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Rage - In Vain - Rage in Acoustic EP (1998)

And because the three relatively useless versions of the In Vain EP were not enough, there was this fourth version, Rage in Acoustic, which was put out almost simultaneously through another imprint. This one does probably stand out if only because it does feature some genuine acoustic interpretations of the Germans' tracks, but I have to ask...was there really an audience who requested this, or was it just another component of Peavy spreading the band's wings as he did with the Lingua Mortis orchestra material? There was clearly an audience witnessing these live acoustic performances, I can assume by the clapping, and that's because these tracks are actually quite well done. In fact, I like the material here a little more than the live bonuses on the other In Vain EPs and perhaps even more than the Lingua Mortis album, but it's unfortunately scant.

The sound quality here is quite good, with the acoustic guitars and pianos just glittering in the mix...if it's really live, it was captured exquisitely. They'll add in a few swelling strings and such for drama, but the real treat here is how Wagner actually sounds great singing these. I know I've been critical of some of his performances on the older Lingua Mortis, but here he sounds like a minstrel plying his trade over a pretty sweet band of troubadours, and the trio of "Turn the Page", "Incomplete" and "Immortal Sin" definitely deliver on the promise of what a Rage acoustic outing should be. The cover of The Beatles' yesterday fits in well enough with the originals, but I don't know that I needed it and I think it's on one of the other In Vain EPs already, as is the title track. Far better would it have been had they just stretched this one out into a full-length of adaptations like the three in the middle, and then this would have been an excellent and surprising effort. As it stands, Rage in Acoustic certainly has more value than the other trilogy of releases in this series, and its proof positive they can pull this off, but it's too short to recommend hunting down.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Rage - In Vain EP (1998)

The In Vain EP is part follow-up to the 1996 Lingua Mortis album, which featured the Germans playing alongside the Symphonic Orchestra Prague, and it features for my money a slightly better integration of the metal instruments and the sweeping bombast and dark overtures that come with that territory. There are actually three different editions of this one featuring three track-lists, starting with this "In Vain" orchestra version, and then usually a couple of live originals complemented by a cover tune. Personally I found this a bit foolish when you consider that you could have compressed them all down for a release that was under an hour, but I guess they were trying to push some sort of collectivity, and when you consider how prolific Rage had been through the 80s and 90s I guess such collectors might've existed.

At any rate, the vocals are still a bit disappointing here...he's better in the mix against the strings, drums and horns, but he still seems to strain a little with the longer notes, and he's doing it at higher registers here which can get a little awkward. The orchestra itself simmers, turning a lot of the subtleties of the metal originals into these harsher, Wagnerian swell-ups, and even in the calmer moments of "In Vain" itself it does sound quite lovely. Similar to Lingua Mortis, this has somewhat more of a live feeling to it and it's not your super polished studio attempt, but that actually gives it an organic feel that I quite liked. The live material on some of these EPs actually sounds half-decent, with the band having fun as it storms through "Higher than the Sky" and its cover of Metallica's "Motorbreath". That said, none of this is really a draw unto itself on such a short-form release.

I didn't even care for some of the covers like the Stones' "Paint it, Black" which I'd just heard too many times by that point in the mid-90s to really care when it wasn't the original. Ultimately this entire idea and release were drivel...from the kind of dull picture of the wolf's face which is then filtered to a different color for the various versions of the EP, and the really limited content. If you just took this version of the title track, through on the rest of the live songs and covers into one recording, I'd still find it mediocre and there is little chance in hell I'd have paid to import all the copies. It seems like a lazy way to cop a couple bucks from the band's audience which were all far better spent on the Rage studio albums or much of the rest of the burgeoning European power/heavy metal scene of the 90s. Skip it.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Rage - Lingua Mortis (1996)

Though trips to the symphonic well would become more common in the band's later years, Lingua Mortis was kind of a novelty at its release in the 90s and marked a potential new direction for a band that was likely already looking for some new tricks. In fact, the very idea of hiring some orchestra musicians for a heavy metal studio recording alongside a band that was hardly a household name was pretty new in general. You had a handful of acts like Therion who were already exploring this ground, but for a longstanding power/speed metal act like this one it was fresh territory. However, considering that Rage already incorporated some violins, contrabass and cello on certain Black in Mind tracks the year prior, one would hardly consider it a surprise, more of a statement that 'this is happening' and the band wanted to explore this side of their influences without being dragged down by the 'metal first' component...

...and yet, the metal is still present, in a somewhat slovenly and subdued way, meaning that the bulk of it is just used to prop up some of the darkness and moodiness within these converted tracks. Lingua Mortis is somewhat of a raw recording, in that the band's core rock instruments and Wagner's vocals don't sound so seamless alongside the orchestration. The guitars for "In a Nameless Time", for example, are a bit rough if you're going into this with some expectation of high studio gloss, but if you're more interested in how it all comes across live, they're adequate. Wagner's vocals, while largely on point with the 90s studio output, can also get a little too grimy, especially when he's sustaining a lower, angrier tone, and there a couple lines where he almost seems to fall on his face. It's almost a shame that they didn't just keep the whole affair instrumental, maybe keep the guitars, bass and rock drums and have more of Peavy's vocals be interpreted by a choir, because where this works best is as an atmospheric, eerie overture of cuts like the aforementioned "In a Nameless Time" or "Alive but Dead", the latter of which just doesn't sound that great with him adding in the singing alongside the pianos and almost sounds like someone is playing the music on a tape recorder while the conductor does his thing.

One of the other centerpieces here is a "Medley" which includes snippets of tracks like "Black in Mind" and "Sent by the Devil", recorded similar to the previous tracks with the orchestra and band in check, and then around these are arranged little vignettes like a purely symphonic moment of "Don't Fear the Winter" or "Firestorm". This is a giant mess, I can understand the idea being that with a limited amount of budget they can't really get a lot of hits onto this, but I'd have rather they let one or two of those smaller bits be played out in full. Again, the idea of MERGING these two forms here just hasn't hit its peak potential and that really drags down the effort as a whole. I actually like the orchestra side of this one quite a lot, but then the quartet of Peavy, Seven, Spiros and Chris sort of steps in its own ambition and gets its boots muddied. Not a total write-off, of course, because this is a learning step for how they'd work rather well within the medium in the future, and eventually and briefly spin it off into its own entity, but this one remains a curiosity for me more than anything else.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]