Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Heading to Summerisle!

Off on my usual summer vacation, stay tuned for October when I'll be back with some spooky metal reviews! OoOoOoOoO or whatever the spirits do. - autothrall

Monday, July 31, 2023

Embracing - Dreams Left Behind (1997)

Ironically, the sophomore Embracing album Dreams Left Behind had slightly superior production to the debut, and in addition I thought that the artwork was also a little better...the band (or label) really likes its purple tones but, hey, that can look flashy with its razor-hone digital logo. That's the thing with a lot of these old Invasion Records releases, there was just this fantastical, dreamy quality to them, even some of the bad ones, which sparks my nostalgia. That said, the mix of this disc is still really weak when compared against many of the other Swedish bands performing in this style, in full froth as it was breaking out all over the world during this period, and while the music here is nothing to really scoff at, it just made me crave a better sounding version of the debut instead...

The volume's a little better with the instruments, from the cleaner strings to the clean vocals which aren't all that good performance-wise, but sound pretty smooth. Piano, synthesizer and other accoutrements are used liberally to contrast against the melodeath moments, which by this point all feel fairly standard and don't have a ton of payoff. In fact, some of the guitar tones in cuts like "Stolen Memories" still feel as if they haven't been mixed so well, a little thicker than on the debut, and not so disturbingly tinny, but neither are they exception. And in other places, like "Killers Nature", they mete out this great winding melody which probably deserved a better song overall. The harsh vocals here still seem a little on the loud side, and it makes it that much more awkward when they alternate into some of the cleans, but this wasn't really a band you listen to for that as much as the guitar-work.

And the guitars are pretty friendly here, perhaps too much in some places, as they almost flirt with a bit of softer rock on their attempts to create acoustic sequences worthy of "Moonshield" on In Flame's masterwork The Jester Race. There are certainly some decent moments spread throughout this one, with a lot of mood or melancholy, but they're almost always botched up by a clean vocal that just doesn't quite reach where it wants to be, or an issue with the mix. Embracing was just throttled by this problem throughout its brief sting, and while it's not as big of an issue with Dreams Left Behind, and this is pleasant enough, I simply liked the songs from the debut much more.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Embracing - I Bear the Burden of Time (1996)

I Bear the Burden of Time is the textbook example of an album that could have likely succeeded if not for a crippling production that rendered it little more than long demo. Embracing clearly had the chops to reach the next level with a lot of their Swedish peers, and even came up with a few riffing configurations or ideas that felt fresh to me as I was exploring all this stuff in the 90s, but damn does this album just sound rather weak in the execution of its mix. Now I say that as a fan, this is my favorite of their two offerings, and I think it's worth a listen even despite this major shortcoming, but to think what an AAA+ studio production would have done for all these catchy tunes. I'm vaguely aware of a digital reissue for this that came out like a decade afterwards, which may or may not have a remaster, but even worse cover artwork, so I can't really speak if that solves the problem or if it's even just too late to matter...

Early At the Gates or Dark Tranquillity would be your reference point here, with thin and melodic rhythm guitars as the rule rather than constant barrages of thicker chords. Sure, the latter are present when it matters, but this is a band that simply THRIVES on those old classic metal melodies coursing across the verses and chorus sections. Even with this tinny mix, the mood being created by those lines and the chords and bass beneath is ample evidence enough that this was some choice stuff neutered by the low-impact recording. The vocals are actually fairy standard for the style, a protracted rasp that falls more in line with black metal, but it's just too loud in the mix and that sort of grinds against the more beautiful performance of the instruments. You do get some other vocals here, distant shouts of torment as in "Shades Embrace", and those are automatically more atmospheric and interesting, but it's again not that the vocals are bad, they are spot on for the style, just given a little too much heft against the true gifts that the album has to offer.

Clean guitar parts, leads, synths, I Bear the Burden of Time had a lot to offer, total 90s escapism that feels like melodeath flirting with a bit of proggy/Goth atmosphere, but sounding like a bad demo tape that your friends recorded in your basement one soggy afternoon with the early version of some dated digital recording software. If you could bulk this one up like a Whoracle, a Rusted Angel, or even to the level of a Steel Bath Suicide (which was itself a little rougher than normal, but a masterpiece by comparison to this), Embracing would have had their feet in the door towards that upper echelon of Swedish melodic death metal royalty, or at least this debut would enjoy a cult status greater than just a handful of curmudgeons who complain about what might have been...

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Non Serviam - The Witches Sabbath (2000)

Necrotical was obviously not meant to be the end of Non Serviam's trajectory, as they released another single around the turn of the century, and there was enough interest to get their demos out through Nocturnal after Invasion Records had pretty much folded. Having only a middling opinion of their 1997 debut Between Light and Darkness, I wasn't too excited by what The Witches Sabbath would represent, a re-issue of the two demos the band released leading up to that debut. Also, like the two albums, the band just never had good cover art, it was always a little bland or obscured, and this twisty digitally tooled image of some chicks lusting with the devil or a demon is just another prime example of how this style wouldn't age well whatsoever...

The demos sound fine, however, in fact they probably sound a little more engaging than the debut album, and most of the same tracks appear on both, so it's understandable why the band might want these put out there for the public to consume. That doesn't really improve the musical quality, they were gunning for that nexus between the Swedish black metal and melodic death all along, but I would say that the sounds here, perhaps being slightly cruder, favor the former genre just a smidgeon. A couple of cuts like the title track from that second demo sound pretty decent in this incarnation, wistful and erotic black metal with enough atmosphere to carry you back to that vital 90s era when so much of this was breaking new ground for us crusty old heshers. In fact, I'd say that if you could just track this collection down, and then head straight over to Necrotical, or the Hellspell album; that would be in your best interest, the tunes just seem a little more authentic in this format. But then again, it's not that inspiring when there were so many better choices during these years.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Miasmes - Répugnance (2023)

Although I have no experience with the band's prior EP from last year, I can say without hesitation that Répugnance is, as its title implies, an all out black metal assault with no fucks given. The very look of the album seems almost ambiguous as per genre, it could resemble anything from a grind or death metal, crossover or even an Assück record, but it does actually do justice to the music content itself, which is ripping, raw, and unforgiving violence. One can infer that Miasmes had a (leather-)vested interested in stripping back the genre to its most violent and primitive roots and then building a sound up from there, so it does bear very little resemblance to the more dissonant, atmospheric or Medieval strains of black metal that generally hail from their national scene.

That is NOT to say the music here is dumb in any way, in fact it's fairly well structured with solid riffing patterns, brutal drumming and most importantly, the blazing leads like in the title track "Délivrance" which add a much needed higher, wilder dimension to the ruthlessness. I would trace the lineage here back to savage, belligerent records from bands like Bathory or Marduk, or perhaps Gorgoroth's Destroyer, but it's also a very well balanced record rhythmically, there is little of the endless blasting patterns, they are instead interspersed with cutting middle-paced rhythms that allow the listener to feel the surge once those higher tempos break out. They also do a lot of great stop/start riffing framework which carries a bit of a blackened thrash feel and makes everything that much more exciting and fueled up. The vocals aren't exactly unique, but they've got a nihilistic, raucous thick rasp that splatters itself right up against the bombardment of instruments so that they can be properly noticed.

I can't say that the riffing selections are all that unique, but they certainly through enough of them at you and they almost all serve the songs, you'll clearly hear an old Germanic thrash influence circa Sodom or Kreator of the mid 80s, only clad in the more muscular rhythm section and black metal intensity. The bass lines are good and thick and clobber you alongside the kick drums and rhythm guitars, and there are a number of opportunities where they plod along solo and it's another great technique to keep the feel of the material brash and potent. This is a fun, ugly, barbaric and competent full-length debut, and another gem for the Les Acteurs de l'Ombre imprint which doesn't necessarily emulate any of its other acts.

Verdict: Win [8/10]


Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Non Serviam - Necrotical (1998)

If Necrotical surpasses the Non Serviam debut in any way, it's that it just remembers to rock your face off much harder; the way they've taken the same elements they were championing on Between Light and Darkness and translated those into punishingly fun tracks. Perhaps they cranked up the death metal influence here a little bit, as you'll feel in a tune like "Hatred Unleashed" in the verses, but you've got still got plenty of that vintage Swedish melodeath, and some surges of obvious black metal. The sophomore doesn't really settle down for any one style more than its predecessor, but it doesn't actually need to, because this time the chords and vocals fit together in more memorable patterns, and they really lose nothing of the wider net they were casting just a year before.

Don't get too excited, because this one can't exactly rub elbows with any of the A- or B-tier successes from that Swedish scene, but if you were into albums like Night in Gales' Thunderbeast or either of the Gandalf full-lengths from Finland, you might appreciate how this is just a simpler and rocking distillation of the black and melodic death metal ingredients. The harsh vocals are more sustained and carnal, and the scarce cleans sound better placed, though still a little awkward. The drums just sound like a thunder sustaining the rest of the instruments, and they'll tear out these brief leads like in "Which Eternal Lie" that soar over the remainder. When the band gets mellow, too, they actually do well to set up the transitions back into the crushing force, but my favorite bits here are tunes like "Haunted Domains" which are just catchy as fuck headbangers which balance off the evil and the melody.

Now two of the members of this band also released Hellspell's Devil's Might, which was clearly a better produced and higher quality extension of the black metal aesthetics from Non Serviam, and I would recommend that album before either of these, despite its ugly cover. But Necrotical is one I can listen to from time to time and won't switch off once it starts, it's very straightforward in catching your attention, and while its own production isn't much better than the debut, it's just denser and darker and effective.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Non Serviam - Between Light and Darkness (1997)

Non Serviam was another Invasion Records act which was attempting to service a number of the dominant Scandinavian metal trends of the time, without falling too much into a single category. Certainly there is a giant amount of Dark Tranquillity or At the Gates going into this debut, from the melodic riffing heavily reminiscent of the former, to the main rasped vocal that resembles Lindberg. At the same time, they were obviously immersed in the melodic black metal of peers like Dissection, Dawn and Dissection, so you have these two represented in about equal measure through Between Light and Darkness, without either one ever winning out, and both performed competently enough that anyone who was seeking out some of the same on either end might have have a go at this for a couple weeks when it was new.

As for myself, I don't particularly enjoy the production throughout this debut, it's snarly and does the job enough to make out all the riffs and instruments, but feels a little dry and depthless. The keys and bass guitars sound decent, the drums a little too splashy, and the vocals feel a bit plain when they are supposed to be spitting such vitriol. Non Serviam was not a band that lacked competence in the riffs, and the selections here were passable for either of the main styles wound through this, but often they come off as bland and predictable. There are quite a few that feel like pure heavy metal progressions (as in the title track), but these have just been done before elsewhere and better. The synthesizers were wisely just used for some emphasis on atmosphere, but even then they seem a little dull, they border on transforming the album into pure symphonic black metal in places but never quite arrive.

There are also some obnoxious clean vocals that pop up ("Satan's Spree") which aren't necessarily a bad idea on paper, but come off a little rough. However, once can't really deny some of the positives to this one, like the excellent bass playing or the kind of dark, dingy mood to which they twine these styles together. Between Light and Darkness has lots of potential, and they'll have another chance to manifest that, but I usually only listen to this one in small bursts, it's just not an album I wanna visit from one end to the other. Still, if you're basically a living encyclopedia for all these Swedish sounds of yore, this is one you might want to at least sample since it forms like a nexus of so much of what was happening in that scene in the mid 90s.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Friday, July 21, 2023

Golem - Dreamweaver (2004)

Although I can't say for sure whether the band has ever really broken up, Dreamweaver was their third and most recent offering, now almost two decades old, and while it certainly shares some fundamental influences with its predecessors, the first time I spun this one I almost thought I was listening to a different band. It's got a similar sense of melodic acumen, but it's as if somewhere along the way, Golem started listening to a lot more brutal death metal in the early 00s, which translates into a more propulsive, ear-rupturing experience, and coincidentally takes them even further away from that Carcass comparison which dominated much of the debut and some of the sophomore. Dreamweaver is tense, clinical German death metal, and like the rest of their catalog, underrated.

The riffs here really churn along with syncopated, punchy rhythms, full of weighty melodies that aren't so obvious as their earlier writing. The new drummer obliterates the performance on those old albums, blasting effortless when necessary, and they basically possess all the weaponry of your standard issue brutal/tech death metal band, though where so many of those struggle to find a soul for their music, Golem is just left of center incorporating enough progressive and melodic components to keep you coming back. No, it's not Cynic or Atheist, but if you're into groups like Lykathea Aflame that can balance off that exoticism and atmosphere with the brutality, then this is certainly an album you will want to track down. It might even be a little forward thinking when you imagine bands like Fallujah or Rivers of Nihil were still coming down the road about a half-decade after this came out.

The vocals still consist of guttural and snarls, but they only superficially resemble their original influence, and feel more like a blunt object being dispensed over your head alongside those choppy rhythms. Leads are good, often emitting jazz/fusion or bluesy vibes, but even more interesting are the points where they'll just throw out these simpler, atmospheric guitars over the more complex battery ("Breeder"). The bass playing here is the best of the three albums, grooving and compelling on its own without always copying the guitars at a 1:1, and like the title demonstrates, this is perhaps the easiest of their albums to get lost in. I enjoy this one nearly as much as The 2nd Moon, and if they had kept putting out material along this path and evolving it further, they'd be one of our hugest death metal acts of this sort today. I guess there's still a chance!

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]


Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Vargavinter - Frostfödd (1996)

Back in the 90s there was a bit of an explosion in popularity around the AD&D campaigns I was running, and we somehow ended up with a few dozen players (some at my University, some in my hometown), and I bring this up because for some reason long lost to my memory, this particular black metal album became like a 'mascot' for our play group. Perhaps we were just being ironic because those of us who were also metalheads had become so inundated with the black metal genre that we found it a bit silly or cliched, but we were constantly lavishing praise upon this as some sort of gag. In the end, though, the joke was really on us, because Frostfödd is actually a solid, unsung Swedish black metal effort and one of the Invasion Records releases that I pull out most often when I'm in the mood.

It has all the staples: the purply-frost artwork mirrored photography, the glowing digital logo and title, and a sound which nobody would ever accuse of any sort of originality. There are times when I get this one mixed up with other Swedish -vinter bands, like Midvinter, or Vinterland, but in truth this is defined by a strictly straightforward, blasting black metal aesthetic which doesn't often attempt to leap out at you with severely catchy riffing, but will throw in a few surprises like the flute in the title track, or an oboe, or some spoken word pieces. When it comes to the majority metal ingredients, it's quite akin to a Marduk or Dark Funeral, blasting away with abandon, simple migrations of chords that get you fully in the mood for this old Swedish stuff, slathered with strong, impish rasping, intense drums that never need to let up, and a pretty swarthy low end with some audible bass, although it too often mimics the rhythm guitar patterns and doesn't quite stand out.

There can also be a folksy swagger as with the great initial riff on "Den lybska örn", but even that one cedes to the incorruptible blasting purity. However, where a Marduk might use such a constrained and aggressive style to convey imagery of warfare or Hell, you can subtly feel a more nature-oriented warmth coming through the chord choices on Frostfödd, and it simultaneously feels like the writing was not terribly original, but also a head of its time, since there are floods of notes here that feel like precursors to so much of the nature black metal or post-black metal of later years. Vargavinter had nothing on much more memorable, interesting bands like Dissection or Mörk Gryning in the same scene, but it's solidly produced, purist black metal that with just a little something extra for when I'm combing the shelves for a good frosty face-blasting...perhaps a poor choice of words.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Monday, July 17, 2023

Golem - The 2nd Horizon (1998)

The artwork for the second Golem, while equally as cheesy as the first, seems a lot more innocuous, and its cosmic orientation gives off the impression that the Germans might be taking their slightly technical Carcass-like death metal into a more progressive direction. In fact, that is more or less the truth, although it's not yet as atmospheric, jazzy or new age as it might look, this sophomore does steer them a little further away from the worship that defined their debut. In fairness, there is still a lot of that influence gleaming through, largely through the vocals but also in a few of the spikes or more melodic riffing, but they definitely seem headed down their own path, and it's a good choice because this is probably my favorite album they've put out.

Part of that is the improved production, which is less punchy and digital feeling as their first album which went more for that Necroticism vibe. This is more balanced and organic, and works well with the denser melodic chord patterns. I don't think the lead tone on this album is that great, especially for the spacey harmonies they're infusing, but it's good enough to get the gist of their ideas, and there are a LOT of them, because Golem is easily one of the riffiest death metal bands to never ascend the throne, possibly because of that derivative factor which hovered over them for a few years. And it still does pop up from time to time, like the chugging breaks in "Departure" which might remind you of a certain tune from Heartwork, or the raucous vocal delivery, but where the Germans excel here is when they go full on with some of the most melodic material like "The Shortening of the Way" or "Heretics", the sorts of tunes that instantly embed into my memory.

There were definitely other great bands that took the Carcass stylings and ran with them, Exhumed and Impaled from here in the States come to mind, but Golem almost represented a potential strain of melodic death metal that might have thrived if more bands had gone that route rather than aping the In Flames, At the Gates and Dark Tranquillity. The 2nd Horizon is a really great example of that potential development, and strong enough to get this band to the next level, but somehow that just wasn't about to happen...maybe it's the cover art, maybe groups like Soilwork and Darkane were just doing more exciting material (they were), but this one definitely holds up even more than the debut.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]