Monday, January 20, 2020

Destruction/Tankard EP (2014)

The Pitch: Dude, two of your favorite German thrash bands have decided to release a split 7" together. It's totally limited, under a thousand copies, available in three vinyl colors and with some pretty cool cover art for each side that...looks a little much like cover art that both bands have released before, but try not to let that get in the way!

The Response: How many tracks? Are they exclusive? Is this one of those deals where each band is covering the other? Are they collaborations?

The Pitch: Well the Tankard track is also being released today on a full-length album called R.I.B., you know like Reign in Blood only its Reign in Beer! Surprised they never did that before. But the Destruction song, "Wildstyle/Immortality" is unique to this 7" as far as I know!

The Response: Well, that's somewhat less exciting, but let's check out this Destruction track. Hey, it's not so bad...sounds like a bunch of riffs that could have been patched together from anything they've put out from 2000-2014, but it's got that vicious energy they excel at, gnarly Schmier vocals, and a decent breakdown with lead guitar accompanying it. Nothing to scoff at.

The Pitch: I am so happy to hear you say that. So you want a copy? How about one of each color? Oh wait, you're not a Bronze Status Customer. I can only offer you the Red and White...

The Response: Nah, I'll just buy the Tankard album instead, and hope Destruction drops this on another album as a bonus track somewhere down the road. Thanks for nearly nothin'.

Verdict: Skimpy Fail [2/10]

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Destruction/Rage - The Devil Strikes Again/Second to None EP (2016)

Here is the sort of wasteful musical product that I'm honestly surprised can still exist in modern times, a split 7" commercial double-single that gives the fanbase nothing it's not going to acquire elsewhere in a more substantial form. What you've got here is basically the title/lead-in track to Rage's The Devil Strikes Again album, and one cut off Destruction's Under Attack, both of which were being promoted around the spring and summer of 2016. Print them up on limited edition 7" vinyl, 1000 copies, a couple different colors to bilk collectors with serious acquisition disorder, and turn just the tiniest bit of profit...not nearly enough to justify a product's reason for being.

Now I love both of these bands...they've each been in my life for over thirty years. Had some effort been put into this to create some exclusive tracks, maybe have the bands covering each other, or creating more of a joint effort, you could have had a nice little fan package. I thought that the art for the Destruction side was really cool, possibly the only positive thing I have to say about this. As for the two songs, they match up well enough, as it's one of Rage's angrier modern style tracks which has just enough power behind it to hang in there with the more complex thrash of their countrymen. But each is far better experienced in the context of the other material written to be released along with it. There's simply no justification for this product independent of that. It's just as worthless as any old single which is cut & pasted from its respective album release, with no unique bonus content, not even any live or rehearsal cuts, cover songs, nothing.

Why bother in 2016 when the anxious audiences of the bands can just sample the tunes on their phones, their PCs, or whatever other devices and then go and grab a digital or physical version of the album? This shit is just useless. Any and ALL points I give to this are simply for the artwork of Gyula Havancsák, the Hungarian musician/artists who did the Destruction side. The rest is just needless Nuclear Blast excess from a label that has kept up with the times and thus I would assume should know better.

Verdict: Epic Frailty [0.5/10]

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Sodom - Out of the Frontline Trench EP (2019)

Out of the Frontline is the third Sodom EP to release after the surprisingly great Decision Day in 2016, and one wonders if the momentum of the band's legendary aura after almost 40 years of thrashing has become such that they could exist on these sorts of releases indefinitely, or if they're just lazily hashing out a bunch of pieces to their next full-length album. Which, to be honest, would not be such a bad thing, because most of the newer material I've heard on discs like this one, Partisan, etc is fairly worthwhile, keeping up the traditions and maybe occasionally hurling a new riff or too your way when they can come up with one. I mean none of these short-form releases have been the equal of 1987's Expurse of Sodomy EP, but I'm in no rush to throw them out the window.

This time out you get abused with a trio of new tracks before any of the tomfoolery begins. "Genesis XIX", "Down on Your Knees" and "Out of the Frontline Trench" are all nasty, dirty thrashers which I can't deny enjoying...there's a clear beeline back to Agent Orange and Persecution Mania in how they are composed, with choppy riffs being sauced in wicked sounding Angelripper vocal lines, material that seems it was conceived in the 80s with little tremolo picked parts, brief effective leads and just a vicious overall tone to it that leads me to believe the next time we get a full-length album it's going to be one that clearly looks backwards to the same era. In other words, I could argue that these three cuts are better than almost anything the band has put out in the last 25-30 years just by virtue of the style they were conceived in. To enforce the point, they've also included a re-recording of "Agent Orange", which doesn't sound's extremely loyal but has that slightly more modern sort of production which is present on the new originals, and I'd be lying if I told you I ever got tired of hearing this of my faves.

Lastly you get a live rendition of "Bombenhagel". Again, living up the past...what you hinting at here, Tom? It sounds fairly good too, fresh and violent as the day it was birthed to the stage, and the contrasts between the blitzing thrash assault and the more anthemic bridge with its melody are fully present on the stage. While that could have been left off here, and I would have accepted just the new tunes and the new "Agent Orange", it doesn't kill the cohesive feel all that much. But yeah, this is a pretty good EP, nothing too original but I think those of us who have been waiting most of our lives to hear Sodom give it that real mid-to-late 80s Teutonic thrash appeal again will be satisfied. I know it's still remained there in fragments of their sound on every album since then, some more than others, but this stuff is really shaping up to be what might have happened before or after Better Off Dead if the band hadn't gone for the more bruising sound on Tapping the Vein (nothing wrong with that album, mind you).

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, January 17, 2020

Sodom - Chosen by the Grace of God EP (2019)

Chosen by the Grace of God is another of the many limited run CDs included with European metal magazines as an exclusive, which, to be fair, is pretty strong marketing for the dwindling print industry these days. Sometimes these are splits, sometimes live sets that aren't available officially elsewhere, and if you're really lucky, it's a bunch of material from one band that might include a few things you don't already own elsewhere. These are often longtime metal veterans, in particular thrash, and Sodom's Chosen by the Grace of God is absolutely an EP that is targeted towards collectors based on the exclusivity of some of its content, and those will be the persons who get the most value out of throwing a few Euro at the German Legacy magazine with which it comes, although there is a little bit of redundancy here with other products.

That redundancy is "Down On Your Knees", a track that serves as a preview for the band's latest 'official' EP Out of the Frontline Trench, which is out through Steamhammer in several formats. As I'm also going to cover that release, I'll focus here on the more exclusive content. There's a live cut of "One Step Over the Line", a track that has appeared on numerous Sodom releases in the past, and it sounds loud and chunky, punchy and effective even if it's not among their better material. "Predatory Instinct" is a great number, invoking the energy of albums like Agent Orange, and a good bonus if you don't have one of the versions of Decision Day where this belonged as a bonus track. Like that album, and several of the band's myriad EP tracks in the last decade, this one shows the band is still on a roll and just as energetic as ever, even if not's the catchiest song in their canon. "Lifeline" is a very cool cover of an earlier tune from England's Sacrilege, back when they were more of a punk grind band before their mutation into atmospheric heavy/doom. Sounds just as natural in the hands of these Germans as its originators, and they put an angry, pulsing spin on it.

The last little perk you're getting here is the track "Inside My Crosshairs", which was originally from the split 7" they did with fellow Teutons Running Wild, for yet another magazine exclusive in Rock Hard a couple years ago. Another solid thrasher with a few cool parts to it, possibly my favorite that is actually on this release. So when it comes to value, this one will really depend on if you're a big collector and own a lot of these more obscure recordings which also featured most of its content. If not, and you're just a Sodom fan who subscribes to professional print zines, then I'd say this is fairly neat, the live and cross-EP tracks aside. The material is consistent and engaging enough that I have confidence Sodom's win streak should continue beyond just Decision Day. I just hope we don't have to wade through another half dozen EPs before we find out! As an added note, the same issue also has a compilation CD with some more underground bands on it, a few recognizable, so it's clear the magazine wants to supply its readership with substantial bonus content and that is to be lauded.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Belenos - Argoat (2019)

Another stalwart of French darkness, Loïc Cellier, aka Belenos, has been serving from the black metal cauldron for going on almost 25 years, with a number of records like 2002's Spicilège which have generated their fair share of underground buzz. That particular disc is also my favorite of his catalog, but I've often had mixed feelings about some of the other material. Clearly for a one-man band this guy goes all out, he's talented on all the instruments, and to that extent I have to give him the utmost respect. His vocals are also quite good, between the rasping, deeper throat singing, and broad  chants that grace a lot of the album, giving it a strong sense of contrast and dynamics while the instruments surge along. But when it comes to memorable songwriting I've felt mixed results.

The production here on Argoat, his 7th full-length (excluding the 2009 re-recording of Errances oniriques) is like bottled thunder, with a forceful-low end feel that is even carried through the more melodic guitars, distributed in a dense but clear tone that amply reveals every passionate progression of notes. There is constantly a lot happening in a Belenos track, consistently strewn between faster blasted passages and glorious mid-paced segments which seem to me like a more complex parallel you might hear from a Franco-Bathory of the late 80s-Viking metal era. Lots of places where the individual riffs or instruments are allowed to shine, such as breaks where some strong new guitar melody will be woven into the affair, or some calmer acoustic parts where the drums will still barrel right along for yet another interesting contrast. Despite the overall package, he also manages to keep the tunes rather confined to 5-7 minute song lengths here, so no real chance to get bored with all that he is packing into each of them.

That said, there is a degree of formulaic sameness to a lot of the individual riff patterns as well as the aesthetic impact of the tracks, all very solid when listened to as a whole, but I don't know that many of the tunes really stand out from one another. Maybe "Dishualder" with its atmospheric, folksy intro, which frankly is so good that I wish he had included more such material on the album; or the briefer closing piece "Arvestal" which has a decent Medieval swagger and some of the more overt chanted clean vocals on the whole disc. But it does feel like some of the highlights I'd pick out in one tune are also present in other tunes, and at 53 minutes it goes a little past the point where it feels resonant or fresh. Still, I won't deny that you can lose yourself to the style Cellier manifests, in particular if you are fond of Celtic black metal like Morrigan, or the wave of French Medieval black metallers like Véhémence and Aorlhac which might have a bit of Belenos influence in their musical DNA. Argoat is competent and confident, just not extraordinary.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Virus - Oblivion Clock EP (2012)

At 30 minutes duration, Oblivion Clock is fairly substantial for an EP, it's also a treat because it gathers not only a quartet of new tracks hot off the exhaust of their masterful 2011 album The Agent That Shapes the Desert, but also has a few added tracks that were only available through the double-vinyl release of that record, one of which is a cover tune, as well as an unreleased song from back on the Carheart recordings. What's more, the material here is almost all album quality, tracks that would have been just as worthwhile had they been released with Agent or Memento Collider. There are a couple exceptions, where the band experiments a little further out to left field than normal, but at least four of the seven tracks are superb...

And in most of those cases, they're tunes that drudge along a little slower, but with the familiar, groovy bass lines, and a little more of a wall of discord to the guitars. New tricks are keyboards are implemented to great effect, almost choir-like in their swells, and as is normal for Virus, the combination of those intricate, flowing bass parts, morose almost spoken-world vocals and eerie guitars is unnerving and unforgettable. "Inverted Escape" moves along at a pretty quick pace, but it's so dense with ideas in the guitar lines and grooves that it demands repeated listened to really ingest it all. "The Pull of the Crater" is really creepy with those warped, almost orchestrated effects creeping along to the jangling rhythm guitar and wailing ambiance, possibly my fave through the EP. The other tune I dig (from the Agent double-vinyl) is "Saturday Night Virus", a pumping, playful tune that stays true to its title with a disco-like momentum dowsed in all the Norwegians' strangeness...this one could be like some trippy answer to Primus or Mr. Bungle, but despite its upbeat perkiness it's just as compelling as the more serious fare.

The one that didn't quite succeed for me would be "Gaslight Exit", sort of droning, raw, guitar track, the most experimental anywhere here, but while the bevy of daunting tones is itself interesting, they don't do much of note with it until the end when it begins to resemble Virus proper. The cover of the Walker Bros' "Shutout" is kind of fun, like Virus getting all bluesy and proggy in a dimly-lit, smoky dive bar in the wee hours of the morning to an appreciative but half-drunk audience. One wonders what these guys could have come up with if they dug through a broader array of covers and gave them the same sort of treatment, bending them ever so slightly into their own sound palette. Oblivion Clock might not have been meaty on its own enough to fill the 4-year gap before Memento Collider would arrive, and its not completely consistent, but paired up with Agent it was more than enough to believe that they still had some distance in them, and its highly recommendable to anyone who dug the full-length albums leading up to it.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Virus - Carheart (2003)

I first encountered this album in early 2004 after finding it in a stack in the basement jam room of a drummer i was playing with, and had no idea what it was, thinking that it looked like some sort of alternative rock or post-hardcore record. When inquiring about it, he told me it was the new project of Ved Buens Ende, who I had already been exposed to, and thus I was intrigued enough to take it home, check it out, and then never really look back. The band's unusual stylistic interpretation of groovy, maudlin post-metal was one of a kind, aesthetically informed by everything from jazz to noise rock to a heavy smattering of Voivod in the bass, guitar and vocal departments, and being that that was one of if not my fave band in the world at that time, I was delighted to hear something new take any kind of related approach...

Carheart is the record I've had the most time to gel with, and fascinatingly, while there have been small evolutions in the band's sound over the four albums and two EPs, it's surprising how early they sort of found their niche and rarely ever wandered away from it. Not that I'm complaining, because this was such an unusual concoction in the first place, and the song quality itself would improve for their last two full-lengths, but they could put together a playlist or live set of anything in their output and it would flow pretty smoothly together. Thick, barreling bass grooves serve as alchemic constant, from which just about everything else flows, unless they're taking a pause to let the guitars' jangly, hazy dissonant note patterns. The drums are very rock & jazz oriented, a nice construct in which to settle the endless curving low end note patterns and their haunted, unnerving upper strings, and they will occasionally cycle in some additional percussion to clap and snap along. To top that all off, you have Czral switching between two vocal patterns, one very haughty sounding and the other more drugged, monotonous and subliminal, which creates this dope-addled atmosphere which sounds like you're hearing this in a dazed state after having your tonsils removed.

Within that range, I will say there's a good degree of versatility. Maybe not as much as something like a Primus album, but some tunes will go a little more moody and eerie, like "Road", letting the guitar and it's drizzly, slightly-twanged out tone take the fore. Others like "Gum, Meet, Mother", go for a more technical and proficient pacing which is sure to keep you glued to its subtleties as that almost numbing, fat bass tone collides with all the little distorted intricacies. In fact, Carheart is arguably the Norwegians' most varied effort just in terms of its rhythm and weird vocals, even lapsing for a pure ambient piece like "Dogs With Wheels" to break up the successions of vertigo-inducing rhythm. Once upon a time, I considered this my least favorite of their output, but I think through the years it has grown on me as one of the more monumental progressions of a formerly black metal or black metal adjacent act from this scene, and nowadays I like it more than the sophomore, The Black Flux, although that's also quite good. I would easily recommend this stuff to fans of Solefald, Ihsahn, Dodheimsgard, Ulver, Arcturus and the like, just as much as I'd offer it to a fan of Voivod or their fellow Canadians NoMeansNo. Exceptional, creative, deconstructive, timeless music seeped in evocative lyrical minimalism.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (As we whip ourselves to sleep)

Monday, January 13, 2020

Moonreich - Wormgod EP (2019)

Moonreich might not stand out like some of their trendsetting French peers, and they don't pursue quite the same level of avant garde in their compositions, but they've been on a tear with their last few albums Pillars of Detest and Fugue, rich and roiling exemplars of aggression, evil, and atmosphere that would sate not only fans of higher end European black metal but I think also a lot of black/death fans, of say, Behemoth or Belfegor. The Wormgod EP is not as robust an effort as those two annihilations, but it does a serviceable job at sweeping up the ashes with some largely blasting, blitzing material that highlights the extremity that beats at the heart of main-man Weddir's soul like a crack-addled drum.

Basically a way to think of tracks like "The Swinging Noose" is as hyper Euro blasting circa Marduk or earlier Enthroned, but with a bedrock of faster Morbid Angel-like riff patterns, shifts into slower and dense groove riffs, atmospheric bits like samples, dissonant higher guitars ringing off into the vaulted darkness beyond the blasts and rhythm tracks. But then they'll throw on a slower, more melodic and somber cut like "They Burn Without Wings" and change up the formula, where you can hear the bass-lines and the incandescence of the higher strings a lot. They definitely tease a little dark ambient/industrial around the corners and shadows of such material, but the bulk of this EP does consist of the faster material, performed with neck-breaking certainty. I was most surprised by their cover of Depeche Mode's "Broken" to close out the release, where the vocals are switched towards a more loyal, lower pitch clean, but they still include little periods where the drums are blasting away to make it feel like a more original rendition of the tune, and it's quite wonderful, my favorite part of this alongside "They Burn Without Wings".

I do feel like the French scene is still dominated by its mysterious or outspoken, controversial luminaries like Peste Noire, Blut Aus Nord, Glorior Belli or Deathspell Omega, but really there is this substrata of bands who are all extremely talented and ready to burst forth from the crust at any moment if the world would just give them a listen. A number of these are focused more in recreating a Medieval, atavistic feel, but others like Moonreich are just exceptionally good at marrying just enough of an obscure gloom to blasting extremity, while possessing an aptitude at the broader range of dynamics when desired. If you're new to the band, then I'd probably nudge you over towards one of the prior two albums for a fully immersive, destructive experience, but the new material here will certainly serve as a good balance if they were to mix it into set lists, and the cover tune is sweet.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Virus - Investigator EP (2017)

I was somewhat disappointed when Virus announced they were going to break up in 2018, and when I heard the year after that their alma mater Ved Buens Ende was reforming, I continued to be bummed out. While I do enjoy that older band, I felt that Virus took some of the same sonic concepts and further extrapolated them into more interesting material, groovy and dissonant, progressive melancholia that was honestly one of the best examples I can think of when you throw out the idea of 'modern' metal. It's not that the band had no precedent, there's a healthy heaping of Voivod's guitar style in the mix, as well as in the groovy, driving bass lines, but they had this really introspective, almost laid back, urban vibe to them that was truly refreshing. In the end, they did give us four great full-length records, and I'm excited enough to hear what future Ved Buens Ende recordings might sound like, so it's hardly the apocalypse.

Their final recording as Virus was this two-track EP which felt like a marginally more roughly produced extension of Memento Collider. "Investigator" itself was one of their bassiest tunes yet, with loads of thick lines cruising along as the primary instrument while the drums splashed along in the background, fused with cleaner-toned guitar tones that create that ever-weird atmosphere the band is so well regarded for. Czral's vocals continue in that monotonous, wastoid timbre but take a clear back seat to the instrumentation. "The Blue Flags of the Dead" is a slower paced track, where the guitars stand out a little more but the bass is just as thick. There are a few organs and harps in there which mesh rather well with the atmosphere, and I loved the churny, choppy bass lines playing out under the vocal passages near the center of the track. Both tunes are pretty good, if not the best stuff the band had released. They certainly in a way felt just as complex, if not more complex than the material on Memento Collider and Oblivion Clock.

I've only heard this digitally, and assume the 7" is quite hard to find, and so as a swan song it's kind of underwhelming, and I've heard almost nobody ever talking about it. However, if you enjoyed their run from Agents through Memento Collider then it doesn't hurt to have a little more of the same, and these tunes are at least close to worthy of that magnificent output.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, January 10, 2020

Ghost - Prequelle (2018)

Prequelle did not woo me quite as mightily as its predecessor, but over the year of 2018 it did grow on me to a point that I listened to it in regular rotation (ergo, the stuff I'm constantly spinning that is not queued for reviews). Part of this is probably that of all the full length Ghost releases, this one shows the least amount of growth or change from the last, a trait I had really come to expect from them; but nah, this is largely Meliora Part II. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since there are plenty of small details here which strike out on their own, and there's no problem with a band dwelling in its comfort zone for spell...hell, there are major metal bands that, in retrospect, I wish had spent MORE time in their comfort zones, rather than teetering off into an oblivion of mediocrity, or trying to keep scoring with the times and instead getting dunked on.

The "Rats" single was the first I heard of this, like anyone else, it was a fun tune, lot of energy, like a livelier "Square Hammer", and I really dug how they refrain that evil melody at the end from the instrumental on the previous album (it's also used in Prequelle's choral intro "Ashes"). I think it was also a pretty good choice to front-load the more metallic material here, letting us know that Tobias still considers it an important component of their sound, before they traipse off into the more varied territory. "Faith" is probably the hardest tune on the album, which surprisingly drew some parallels to Chastain of all things, with that neo-classical shred line reminding me of David's playing, and the verse groove highly reminiscent of some of the stuff on For Those Who Dare. Coincidental, most likely, but I found that amusing, and the song pretty kickass with a great groove to it and a really awesome, memorable chorus, once again using their trademark organs to supplement a killer vocal hook. If you've got a version containing it, they also do a heavy cover of the Pet Shop Boys' "It's a Sin", a natural fit to the Ghost style, although I thought the Gamma Ray cover off Power Plant was a far cooler, more metallic transformation of the pop gem.

Not to take away from the mellower material here, because a lot of it is quite catchy, like the folksy piano-driven ballad "Pro Memoria", which picks up quite nicely even though a couple of Forge's vocal lines sound a little goofy in the bridge. "Witch Image" is a nice, driving rock track that I'm surprised didn't turn into a radio single, although the dramatic butt-rocker "Dance Macabre" accomplished exactly that. "Miasma" is another standout, a steady, proggy instrumental that is satisfying throughout its escalation, leads, and tons of ear-worm synthesizer lines. It's not the only instrumental present, but the calmer "Helvetesfönster" didn't impact me quite as much, despite the nice Medieval melodies buried in there. And that's rather an interesting decision, to have about 11 minutes of the album, a full quarter of its playtime (excluding covers) devoted to instrumental journeys, which are mostly successful. Perhaps Tobias could score a film, is all I'm saying, I can certainly imagine some lush, 80s-like young adult fantasy with this sort of music all over it.

There's another cover of Leonard Cohen's "Avalanche" on the deluxe edition, but as well produced as it is, I just didn't enjoy Tobias' rambling vocal style over it, he seems a little weak when he's in that mid-range, spoken word inflection, and the ascending power of the instruments in this one could have used a little more brawn over it. Other than this and a few of the other, slightly less impressive tracks, there are few complaints to be had. The production is excellent, and I'd argue even more dynamic than on Meliora. The lyrics are still pretty good, even if they're not quite as emotionally relevant to me as they were on the prior album. There some cool guest spots nestled in here, like the esteemed Steve Moore on synthesizer, or Mikael from Opeth contributing some acoustics. The Cardinal Copia persona, which I envision to be more of a laid back Papa Emeritus, is fun...let's say Papa Emeritus if he was guest starring on Three's Company. Papa Emeritus if he watched women's prison exploitation flicks while smoking fat cigars. Papa Emeritus if he could tear up a disco floor, which he basically does, only in a city street with a lot of carnage strewn about him. And Zbigniew Bielak's cover art, despite clearly being referenced from a certain old Sepultura record, is just awesome looking. Prequelle's another win to me.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (what you've sold you cannot unsell)