Monday, May 23, 2022

Cauldron - Undercover of Moonlight (2020)

You've seen me use the 'D' word many times in my Cauldron reviews, so it's gratifying that the first track on the Canadians' cover compilation is none other than Dokken's "Paris is Burning", and the cover art itself is a sendup to the Los Angeles legends. Not that I've ever made the comparison out of spite, I really enjoy that Cauldron helps resurrect the vibes I used to feel for bands like that, and Jason Decay's vocals manifest enough of a difference for them to really stand on their own. This is a pretty damn good cover, too, and the production here sounds just right, much like they pulled off with their In Ruin album. It's also, thankfully, one of the most obvious, because the 15 tracks they've selected for this collection show a VAST range of influence, and it's fun to hear how they will tackle each of them...

Speed metal classics like "Take This Torch" from Razor, or "Die Hard" from Venom, are cool in that they let the band go a little dirtier than the heavy metal anthems they usually slap us with, and I think the band actually excels in this territory, with the rawer guitar tones, although they do seem to lose a bit of themselves in trying to emulate the originals. Same with "Necropolis" from Manilla Road, I would have been much more interested in that with Jason's normal vocals, but he's doing a little Mark the Shark impression instead. When they jump into Witchfinder General's "Free Country", it fits wonderfully in the Cauldron style, and the same could be said of "Making Noise and Drinking Beer" from the German Tyrant. The latter is not one I would have expected anybody to remember, and its one of the best and most bang-up covers on this comp. As for the covers of Triumph and Bryan Adams, they kind of suck, largely because the production, which is very uneven across the whole affair because these are mostly snagged individually or in batches from various sessions or recordings. For example, "Lay it on the Line" sounds cheesy and raw and the vocals are too far over the top, where "Run to You" is a super crude live recording and sounds like garbage.

It's funny that they also cover their own alma mater Goat Horn with "Fortress Doomed", a cool song but again the mix flubs it up and doesn't reach its full potential. The cover of Canadian rock and pop hero Gowan's "Moonlight Desires" also took me by surprise, but as much as I like the original, and appreciate that these guys also dig him, there's something slightly off about the production, otherwise this would have been one of the best tracks here. So yeah, an extremely eclectic, interesting and even goofy collection of covers here that would have come across far better with a uniform studio mix, the differences are just too distracting, but not enough so that we can deny the good taste they showed in their choices. Not a lot of generic picks that you'd just expect on a million other metal bands' 'cover albums', the flaws here are all in the presentation.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Au-Dessus - Mend EP (2022)

2017's End of Chapter was novel for coming out of Lithuania with a bright, post-black feel, but for me the Au-Dessus full-length debut something short of greatness despite its earnest, impassioned attempt. The band has taken some time to put together its successor, a more concise, 25 minute EP recording which cover only five tracks but covers about the same range of atmospherics and intensity. This is still a band which goes for that wall of force mentality, when they are firing on all cylinders there is not a lot of space left between the riffing volleys for the listener to use his/her imagination. Mend is more about going along for the ride with the roiling riffs, scathing rasped vocals, and the clash of violence and warmth within the surging tides of the songwriting.

The "Negation" duology is the one-two punch that inaugurates this release, first with several minutes of excellent ambiance, then lurching into some steady, textured, dissonant, bright and doomy chords, all to set up the writhing speed of "Negation II". The variation continues a little with "Lethargy", one of the most turbulent tracks with a mixture of snarls and gutturals and some volatile chord patterns broken up with percussive fills and moody ambience created at the top of the guitar chords. Despite the strengths early on, though, I felt like some of the later material like "Epiphany" was its most formidable, with the seismic, dissonant shifting groove patterns that crash into the post-hysterics like irritated waves against a rusted steel beach. There's a bit of sameness sometimes to the riffs, although I do like the textures and chord-forms they play about it, and I wish they could throw a few more left hooks in this area, but I think overall the material here with slightly more satisfying than on End of Chapter, without alienating those who enjoyed what they heard that half-decade ago.

An interesting band lyrically, in how they package their releases with iconic, simple imagery (here as on End of Chapter), but not necessarily the most unique in sound. I rather liked their ambient intro and wish they could have incorporated sections like that, perhaps more directly balanced with the heavy parts, but all told Au-Dessus remains a solid band to check out if you dig a bit of the modern or 'alternative' into your black metal without tossing away the building blocks.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Simulacre/Archvile King - Split (2022)

This was a pretty promising split for me, as I was highly impressed with the Archvile King full-length debut À la ruine from earlier this year, but had not heard their original 2020 EP Vile, which is included here in its entirety. Much like that album, their style is a sinister melodic black metal which does have its tendencies towards some black/thrashing elements, although those would be in the minority. The four tracks on this one are pretty good, especially in the riff department for "Bastards of the Sea" and the more patient, eerie "The Feast of the Worm King" which is one of the best songs musically I've heard from them. I will say that I didn't like the vocals quite as much here, the deliver just feels a bit too passive or casually in how its laid out over the much superior music, but we all know that has been fixed now with the full-length and its a small complaint for some pretty damn fine tunes, it's not like they don't fit or are bad. Also, there's a cut titled "Gwyneth Paltrow is a Lich", which had me in stitches, but musically at least it fits with the rest around it.

But I'm kind of covering this in reverse, because the band that fronts this split, Simulacre from Bourdeaux, is also really good, and it is their contributions that I liked a little more due just to the vocal mix. I feel that the styles pair up enough to make the split function, they both play French black metal with a heavy nod to the 90s Scandinavian classics, but where Archvile was in their early stages and having a little more 'fun' with it, Simulacre is more wanton, dreary, perhaps even a dash elegant or Romantic in its delivery, with searing rasps, and wonderfully textured guitars both distorted and acoustic. When these guys pop out a tremolo picked riff, its quite evil, as in "Les Voix du Sang", but also has a richness and warmth to it which was unexpected and really stands out. The drums and bass have a busy vibe to them, almost as if there's a subtle influence from anything from Latin to prog rock, and there's an interesting tendency not to try and flood the listener with walls of chords, but more delicate and intricate melodies, leads, and giving it all a little more of an organic space to of Seth's newest album, or maybe the more Medieval styles of Aorhlac and Vehemence should dig it.

Remarkable, another great pickup for this label and a band I'm looking forward to hearing more from, since they've yet to unleash a full-length themselves. As for Archvile King, the material here is solid as a set-up for the much superior À la ruine, and certainly enhances the split's value, but if you are new to them then I'd head STRAIGHT for that album, because it's really good and I haven't heard nearly enough people talking about it. Either way, if you love French black metal and want to dive more into this newer crop of bands who are sprouting forth while the debatable 'Big Three' are still going strong, here are two example of bands with something worth paying attention to.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, May 20, 2022

Cauldron - New Gods (2018)

New Gods is by far the best-produced of the Cauldron albums, and I can only imagine if most of the prior full-lengths had been given the same treatment. Bright, clear and powerful enough to carry the strength of the rhythm guitars and Jason's vocals, any of the small and annoying flaws of the past are history, and this is the new standard by which they should record. As with the album before it, In Ruin, this one also sticks to their strengths at writing mid-paced, classic heavy metal with a bit of a punch to it when necessary, and almost a laid-back mood to the writing which gives it an atmosphere it might not otherwise possess if it were firing on all cylinders. Clearly rooted in the mighty 80s, the Canadians seek to smother you with quality hooks and memorable vocals, and while I don't know that I like the songs as much as those on its predecessor, the added richness of the production really goes a long way towards compensating, because even that one was a little too washed out in moments...this suffers nothing of the sort.

The formula is simple: take basic heavy metal chord structures of times past, add the distinct vocals, and profit. Worked well enough for all the hairspray, fishnet stockings and leather skirt-lings of the past, but Cauldron isn't burdened by any such lame fashion sense, they're just cultivating the strengths of accessible, occasionally AOR-worthy metal music that is pleasant on the ear. I admit that the Lovecraftian cover artwork is a bit of a throw-off, but the band has sadly not excelled in this department with the one exception of their 2012 album Tomorrow's Fortune. But the lyrics and music here really don't give you any such horror impression other than the strong associations that heavy metal and hard rock always had with that genre, especially in the 80s when band like this one's heavy influence Dokken were tapped to do. So there is a clear aesthetic mismatch that does the music no service at all, but if we can ignore that, then New Gods is a damn tight album with a timelessness about it that easily thrusts it to the forefront of their catalogue alongside its direct predecessor and the original Into the Cauldron EP.

I mean if we got this album in 1985-1987, this would be one of those 'respectable' sorts of metal records that might see a little rotation on MTV's Headbanger's Ball, mainstream enough for the hair metal crowd but also satisfactory for those into the heavier shit who were just waiting for that potential glimpse of an Armored Saint or King Diamond video at half-past midnight. Similar to a Bonfire or an Accept, maybe. Jason's vocals have never sounded more refined as this, and the guitar tone just smokes every previous Cauldron record. The drums aren't doing anything special, but they also sound great, and tunes like "Never Be Found" and "Letting Go" are among my favorites in their catalogue. They don't include any lame ballads, which you'd think they might flirt with, but they do have the very mainstream sounding "Together as None" which definitely sounds a little bit like a prom song from that glam era, but it has some warm chugging and a good chorus at least, and hell Saxon has done this a number of times (like "Hold On"), and well, so I can forgive it.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Wesenwille - I: Wesenwille & Live at Roadburn (2022)

I had the opportunity last year to cover this Dutch band's sophomore outing II: A Material God, and now the band's label Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions has done a solid with not only a reissue of their scarce debut, but also pairing it up with an additional live disc. As I had mentioned on this record's follow-up, Wesenwille approaches its black metal with a visual concept that simple reeks of bleak, urban despair and decay, one that you might think lends itself to a more industrialized or electronic instrumentation, perhaps some droning which would visually match the presentation, instead performed with a more traditionally organic approach to its genre which is complemented only by a degree of jangling, dissonant post-metal or post-hardcore augmentation.

I'll be blunt: this debut is even better than its own successor, a flurry of rapid riffing and drumming, tortured vocals that don't depend too strictly on monotonous rasping, and a great use of guitars as tools of atmosphere and not just riffing...there are spacey guitar segues with samples used as narrative, shining and beautiful guitars that would absolutely satisfy those looking for a more -gaze vibe within their black metal, and then these slews of almost hyperactive, punchy thrash riffing ("Prosopopoeia") that they'll unleash before putting the pedal to the metal for the album's peak hostility, its blasting segments dowsed with spiteful, dissonant chord series. All five of the tracks are threatening, haunting, and sometimes beautiful and I can hear easily why this album deserved to be put out there into more hands along with the second.

The Roadburn festival set takes three of the debut tracks, and two from II: A Material God, and blends them seamlessly into a devastating set, which if I'm being honest, sounds just as good if not better than the studio interpretations. There's a vividness or brightness here, especially to the vocals and guitars, which is a little different than the dimmer album versions, and yet it's all performed with razor perfection, and in fact some of the vocals, like the angsty barks in "The Churning Masses", sound even more impressive. I don't know if people in the audience there had a lot of experience with these guys in advance, but they hopefully came away with the desire to track down their stuff. This sounds so great...the bass, the details to the atmospheric guitars, even the sample stuff. Two albums might be a brief amount of time before you slam out your first live album, but in this case it's exceptionally captured, and adds nothing but value to the experience of the debut. If you like bleak, expressive black metal and haven't yet heard Wesenwille, effective without being needlessly complex, conventional only to a point where the modernism sneaks in through the cracks, this is well worth tracking down.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Déhà - Decadanse (2022)

Decadanse is an interesting album for me to approach, for while I've heard a few of this artist's myriad projects in the past (Yhdarl, Silver Knife and Wolvennest to name but a few), he's been on a massive productivity streak with this 'solo' act...dozens of full-lengths and collaborations in just the last 4-5 years, part of which was possibly spurred on by pandemic-era isolation, but is showing no signs of slowing down even today. From what I've just briefly been able to read, the Déhà project is one that intentionally avoids pigeon-holing itself into too narrow a niche, but if I had to describe this, it's almost a horror landscape terraformed through a mixture of drone, doom, black metal, industrial and electronic ingredients, programmed drums with extreme vocals ranging from a prolonged rasp or growl to whispery nightmares or soaring mid-range harmonies.

There are but two tracks, each 22-23 minutes in length and obviously narrating a creepy, grandiose concept through musical construction that transforms from careful control to calamity, but always focused on forming oblique and harrowing imagery in the listener's mind. There are times when this is lurching along like the most stolid funeral doom, and others when it intensifies into blasting frenzy and tremolo picked note progressions. The guitars vary from rather predictable trudges and black metal melodies to more spacious, eerie anomalies that are constantly offering up a higher dimension beyond the aggressive substrate of the songwriting. His vocals are splayed out almost like paints of blood and ichor splashed on a canvas, becoming a part of the atmosphere just as often as they're a metallic, percussive focal point. And what's more, there is a tendency to lurch into some unexpected electronic/techno part which is quite fun despite sounding a little less dire and serious than the rest.

I'm not going to claim I was totally bowled over by Decadanse, I mean it delivers what is advertised and successfully transfers the feelings of gloom and fright into the mix, but occasionally it relies on some repetition, or riff patterns that are a bit predictable or repetitive. In the span of 20+ minutes, there could certainly be a few more interesting riffs or atmospheres on exhibit, I don't know if they struck often enough through this particular album's play-length as they might have on some of his others. But having said that, when I pull myself back about a mile from the details, and just appreciate the dark and monolithic atmosphere, the obvious amount of work places in the tortured vocals, and the placement of segues like the electronic parts, or the creepy acoustic break in "I Am the Dead" with the filtered vox, this is definitely an imaginative and involved work that fans of lightless, atmospheric dread will get a lot of, and I'm surely prompted to listen to more of what he's done directly under the Déhà handle.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Cauldron - Tomorrow's Lost (2012)

I was a bit underwhelmed by the first few Cauldron records, so when I first saw the excellent Todd Kowalski cover art (do more of these, Todd) for Tomorrow's Lost, I imagined they had turned a new leaf and might be trying out something different. That's not quite the case, but what I can say for this album is that it's a righting of the ship, a better set of tunes with a better production that validates the style the Canadians had been developing through their formative years post-Goat Horn. This isn't exactly a 'great' effort, mind you, it suffers a little from over-familiarity in a few riffs, but it's balanced quite well and shows an added maturity through the band's tenure at Earache Records.

The band is still alternating between driving power metal lite ("End of Time") and their big, bombastic hard rock/heavy metal anthems ("Born to Struggle"), the latter tracing a lot of its DNA to bands like Dokken and Scorpions, and also still a little of the over-pronounced rhythm guitar tone that irked me on Chained to the Nite, if not as bad. I personally find the faster stuff here is just better mixed and more effective. Tracks like "Nitebreaker" and "Burning Forture" really live up to the material on the band's Into the Cauldron EP, which was my clear favorite until the album after this one. Jason Decay's vocals still really work for me, and the drums have a nice rumbling clip to them, as well as the lead guitars, which once again need to be a little more brazen against the rhythm riffs. A couple others I did like are "Endless Ways", which sounds like a tune that'd be better fitting on In Ruin, and "Summoned to Succumb" which rocks along at the perfect clip and has that great Dokken vibe to the chorus; these two also prove the exceptions to the general rule of how I liked the faster material more.

Tomorrow's Lost could have used slightly better production, but for the most part this is one I can sit down and listen through in its entirety without getting annoyed. I do feel that Cauldron was already losing ground at this point to a lot more exciting throwback heavy/speed metal bands, like Enforcer, or their own neighbors Striker and Skull Fist, all a lot more explosive and exciting, but what I can say for these guys is that they were so good at evoking nostalgia for those horror movie closing credits themes, or borderline metal/hard rock anthems of the 80s which thankfully eschewed the glam bullshit. I was finding myself more intrigued with the everyman metal mood that Cauldron creates, something they would refine for what I'd consider their best album four years later, or at least the one I always reach for besides the EP.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Cauldron - Chained to the Nite (2009)

It's got the kind of hot album cover many bands would have dreamed of in the 80s, but then the fact it's coupled up with the cheesy album title font and the gigantic logo is quite hilarious. We have arrived at the Cauldron debut full-length, which dropped on Earache records when the British label suddenly got involved in snapping up a bunch of retro sounding bands to compliment the grindcore and death metal royalty of their back catalog. The style on this one is fully representative of the previous EP, and yet I feel like it does show a little more maturity or restraint (pun intended) that actually sometimes drags it down a little. Really though I think my issues here come a little with the album's mix.

The guitars are just as bulky as they were, but the tone here just stands out a little too much for me, and it feels a fraction too processed, so that it starts to suffocate Jason's excellent vocals, which are absolutely on point here, I just wish I could hear them more against the bulk of the riffs. This is much more egregious on some tracks than other, for instance the opener "Young and Hungry" is one of the main offenders, it's like a young fan plugged in his personal Marshal stack and played over the original recording; and on other cuts like "Conjure the Mess" or the more power-metal oriented "Dreams Die Young", it's not such a big deal, but I honestly don't love the rhythm guitar sound on most of the runtime. The riffs themselves are pretty consistent, and they are definitely merging a lot more USPM and Euro heavy/power into their sound, even a dose of thrashing gallop, which automatically generates a more appreciated variance, a bigger sandbox for the Canadians to play around in. I had mentioned that Jason's vocals were awesome, and they throw in a lot of decent backup vocals and such that show this was a central component. The leads and melodies also sound pretty damn good, but again the rhythm guitar can off-set that.

Basically, if Into the Cauldron was your jam, I can't imagine this would disappoint you, and it continues to cultivate the aesthetics the band would continue throughout their career to date, but I think this is clearly the record most deserving of a remix, because the vocals and songwriting do deserve a little better. A couple of the tunes are also better earworms than others, but there is at least always some cool vocal line or riff in each, and though they do experiment with some of those aforementioned metal styles, there is still that core of West Coast heavy metal in plenty of tracks like "Chains Around Heaven" or "Bound to the Stake" if you wanted them to keep rockin' like Dokken. A decent debut that struggles a little under its studio choices.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Cauldron - Into the Cauldron EP (2007)

Born from the dying embers of Goat Horn, Cauldron was an act that sought to hone some of those same influences, but dropping off the doom metal for a more pure retro heavy metal sound redolent of, but not entirely relying upon the 80s. I think this was an important maneuver, because while the Canadians might be a little underrated even to this day, and have truthfully been inconsistent with some of the ensuing full-length albums, I think their arrival was one of a number of portents that cravings, both newfound and nostalgic for classic metal sounds were to once again explode across the metalscape, as they tend to do in cycles. It doesn't hurt that their Into the Cauldron EP is a fucking barnstormer that, at least for me, rendered Goat Horn irrelevant within about two tracks, it is just THAT much better...

This is STILL some of their best material to date, with riffing that comes across like a mix of West Coast sounds of the 80s, with the catch that it's heavier and more iron-clad. Maybe combine the first two Armored Saint records with a more aggressive Dokken, and it might turn out like this. The guitars are potent, the bass loud, the leads effective it not entirely catchy, but for me the selling point to the band has always been the vocals of Jason Decay. Down to earth, memorable, melodic and a little acidic, this guy is the epitome of the 'guy next door' heavy metal frontman, and that is what lends his presence such character. Sure you will hear a one-off higher scream or growl, but his voice just brings me back to a bunch of low rent heavy metal records that never got their due, that I'd actually find throughout the 90s in the bargain and cut-out bins on tape and LP, in Boston or at one of the many record dives near my alma mater UMass. A few friends and I would snatch these things up and take them back to our apartment or dorm room and just revel in the cheese, more often than not truly falling in love with what we've heard. Cauldron does that for me, and I thank them profusely, even if I don't like all their albums equally.

Four tunes. Three burners and "Restless", which is a little more measured, but no less powerful once it gets into those plodding triplets that Decay sounds great soaring over, and his lines there definitely expose the roots to some of the great material they'd write for their better albums like In Ruin in 2016. The mix here is really dense and home-grown, with guitars taking the forefront but not in any way clouding out the thundering drums, bass-lines or vocal track. I don't have many criticisms, I could do without some of the snarled vocals but they are so sparse it doesn't matter, the cover art is terrible, and I'm sure a few of these could be catchier than they are, but all told this was a fine introduction to the band that I will still spin alongside some of their stronger full-lengths when I need a dip in the Cauldron.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Enslaved - Caravans to the Outer Worlds EP (2021)

It wasn't enough that Enslaved regaled us with a number of great streaming performances and a killer new studio album, they had yet more material waiting in the wings during the pandemic and that has manifest on the short but sweet Caravans to the Outer Worlds EP. This is comprised of 18 minutes and four tracks, two of which are instrumental, but that's never a band thing in the hands of these capable Norsemen, and the two longer vocal tracks will more than compensate for any misgivings that might create. I do feel that the title track is really the centerpiece, a vicious and incendiary cut with some rapid riffing that is just covered in ambient atmosphere, drawn-out roars that drift into the difference, and an awesome contrast between some vocal harmonies, calm acoustics and heavy surges. This more or less fits the Utgard aesthetic, so like that album it can create nostalgia in turn for their mid-90s and 21st century material, but overall it feels like some of their most modern and ethereal music to date.

The instrumentals are quite cool, with some low-end, creeping organs and eerie chugs leading into a massive, crushing wall of slower doom/black metal for "Intermezzo I", and  "Intermezzo II" seeming like some prog doom that erupts into a melodic death metal riff. I do think both cases would have been stronger as full-blown compositions with vocals, though, the riffs and atmosphere in these almost seem too good to waste on their current formats. Probably the most bizarre piece here is "Ruun II - The Epitaph", an acoustic 'sequel' song that has these lush walls of acoustic guitars, brooding chants, and then squishy sounding little bass or guitar sounds that add an unusual sense of tribal percussion to the proceedings. But it's the clean vocal that arrives right after the 4 minute mark that brings it all home, just great stuff. Caravans to the Outer Worlds would have been more impressive with the two instrumentals extended into proper tunes, for a total of maybe 30 minutes, but as it stands, its still strong writing from one of the best bands in the world, which shows no sign of endings its aural cross-genre adventures any time soon.

Verdict: Win [8/10]