Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Sirrah - Acme (1996)

Like a lot of folks, I was introduced to Sirrah through one of the Beauty in Darkness compilations that Nuclear Blast released; the title track to this debut featured prominently as one of the standouts there, and I had to track down the full-length debut of the same name, Acme, a name which I'm sure we associate more with the old Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote cartoons than Gothic, melancholic doom. I was taken aback by the songwriting itself, there is a bit more involved, a few more layers to peel back than you might be used to, and not unlike the first two Moonspell records, this had a more epic feel than some of the stuff coming from Theater of Tragedy or The Sins of Thy Beloved. In fact, the great use of rhythms and melody also reminded me of one of my favorite albums, Amorphis' Elegy, only if it were coming from a different background perspective than Finland and 70s prog and folk influence.

Well, that one particular track, "Acme", is magnificent even to this day, one of the more glorious individual tracks to emerge from that once-budding European scene, but it's hardly the only success this disc had to offer. The blend of higher pitched, catchy female vocal lines, mournful Goth growls, lighter toned keyboards, strings ("Bitter Seas"), and electric guitar melodies is very well honed across much of the album's playlength, and even where they drop out a bit of it and get darker with something like "On the Verge", reminiscent of earlier Paradise Lost had Fernando Ribeiro replaced Nick Holmes. You've got all those elements of Romance, Vampiric drama, and haunted castle vibes that you might have desired from Gothic/doom or even black metal, but configured in a slightly different package, perhaps due to minor cultural or regional aesthetics that the band members grew up with. Clearly this was much different than what Vader or Behemoth were coming up with, and further showcased Poland as a potential new hotbed for various sub-genres of metal.

There is one GLARING miscalculation on the album that will have you falling apart in laughter, but sadly to the detriment of Acme as a whole, and that is "Panacea", a track which resembles some old surf or cruise rock only if it were a gaggle of Gothic weirdos riding the waves. It's likely included to be a bit of harmless fun and break up the seriousness of the other material, but the rest is consistent enough that it just sticks out like a very sore thumb. That sort of thing might have fit the band Ghoul on their albums, which are quite silly all around, but it just doesn't belong here. In fact I'm shocked it wasn't omitted from further pressings, although this one hasn't gotten much action beyond the 90s whatsoever. Without that track, this is a stronger effort, but even with that warning, you owe it to yourself to check out Acme if you have any interest in that brief period where the sounds of the big British death/doom trio (Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride and Anathema) were blended with Goth orchestration and drama to create a wave of fresher bands.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, June 5, 2023

The Bloodline - Where Lost Souls Dwell (2006)

The Bloodline's sophomore album Where Lost Souls Dwell does on the surface seem like it might have fallen into the dorky, superficial trap that I had mentioned on my review of Opium Hearts, but it becomes immediate upon listening that this is cast in much the same mold as its predecessor, only a bit brighter, better balanced and dare I say it, more 'fun'. It's clearly improved in the production department, and that does drain some of the drab murk from the songwriting, but they also make a better implementation of electronics, and the seductive female vocals become more prominent since I believe both Roman and Kemi are now contributing about equal in that area. You've still got the growls, the soaring, simple guitar leads glazed over the top that elevate it all to a level it would have otherwise un-phased, but there's just a lot more to appreciate, both obvious and subtle.

For example, the strangely pick-me-up vibes of "At the Waters of Lethe" cede to some trailing feedback and horn-like blaring ambiance to set up the really somber "Final Journey" which gives off vibes of a match up between late 90s Tiamat and Theater of Tragedy. The vocals arrangements on this one in particular are quite nice, because it's like you've got the guttural/ethereal exchange plus some more ambient vocals off in the background, and despite the minimalism of its chords and structure, it's potentially the most hypnotic track they wrote over both records. They go much further with the pure electronic experimentation in the title track than they'd previously attempted, and then change lanes for the fun Goth/pop intro to "Cut the Chords" which then smacks you abruptly with the sorrowful lead and chugging. At times, there can feel a risk of The Bloodline losing control where her vocals might drift a bit too distant from the rest, and this reminds me a little of another German Goth band, The Breath of Life, with its unnerving but beautiful singing.

So, I approached the album groaningly because its cover photograph looked like it was meant for David Bowie or Dead or Alive or some 80s pop of that nature, and was pleasantly surprised that the duo had put in some work to improve their style. Granted, if you loathe all things simple and Goth inflected when combined with the heavier guitars and growls, Where Lost Souls Dwell is not going to change your mind, but if your record shelf includes titles like One Second, Skeleton Skeletron, Musique, or half the Lacrimosa discography, this one is adept enough at combining the vibes of Gothic doom metal and pop that you might have a good time with it. It sounds a lot better than it looks...perhaps not six years worth of evolution from the debut is evident, but it's a catchy escape which doesn't bog itself down with too much cringe.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Saturday, June 3, 2023

The Bloodline - Opium Hearts (2000)

Germany's long been central to the Gothic metal world (and adjacent styles like Industrial/EBM), but it's always been a double edged sword. Many of the artists are quite qualified and serious, capable of penning a couple good tracks at least, but they also come off as harbingers of the medium's most goofy aesthetics, often to the point of caricature. How many crazy contact lenses and colored faux-dreadlock extensions can we really stomach? There's got to be more to this corner of the 'dark music' spectrum than its narcissistic overreach...fuck, the Sisters or Mercy did it with only shades and leather. The Bloodline is another of many acts who took a crack at the Gothic/doom metal style back when groups like Theater of Tragedy or Crematory were established, but faded very quickly into obscurity...

And to their credit, the debut Opium Hearts is no joke. It's rough around the edges, and somewhat derivative of other German acts like Pyogenesis or the abovementioned Crematory, and that makes sense, since one half of the duo, Roman, was a bassist and songwriter for the former. Perhaps the material here is an attempt to bridge backwards from that group's experimentations with pop and indie rock, to the morose death/doom of something like Sweet X-Rated Nothings, but the difference is the more electronic percussion and industrial lite synths and effects which drive the array of chords and mournful metal leads. The vocals are largely focused on the grotesque guttural, though they will occasionally layer in some ethereal female vocals tastefully. This is definitely not your full-blown, overproduced EuroPop Goth metal written for an arena with seven or more musicians, loads of orchestration, but rather it's more subdued and sultry, at times comparable to Betray My Secrets but without the world music angle.

The biggest issue I take is that it's a little dull. Even when a catchier piece like "Opened Eyes Dream" is chugging along and then gallops into its minimalistic but effective bridge melody, you just start to expect some sort of climax that never arrives. The atmospherics and effects are decent and remind me of anything from lower tier 80s pop and New Age, but they lack the confidence to stand out once the melodic guitars and growls arrive. It's sad and serious, even when they go for a peppier mid pace tune like "Lost Souls in the Land of Delight", a CLEAR nod to the Sisters, but most of the tracks feel as if they're merely reaching the cusp of quality, and the album lacks the production and push to go all the way. Don't mistake me, this is better than I personally expected, and it's not musically or lyrically tacky before a few genre tropes, but I can understand why this might be ignored in place of other bands' more vivacious explorations of the niche.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Rest in Pain - Intense Tremor EP (1993)

If you look at some of the earlier Invasion Records releases, the focus was almost entirely on local death and grind, weighted towards the local German underground, but not entirely. You had EPs from Defleshed of Sweden, Fermenting Innards, Lunatic Invasion, Finland's Infera, and this little band of unknowns, Rest in Pain, who put out only this single EP and a couple of tracks on a split before calling it a day. Right from the get-go, you can tell this is not a band to take itself seriously, with the goofy Crumbsuckers-like cover art that looks like something you'd see from a crossover or grindcore band with a dash of comedy, and I think the band also had a sort of 'dress up' look to them similar to Pungent Stench, only with top least for promo pics, a notable contrast in aesthetics.

Intense Tremor is definitely death metal, with a quirky weirdness to it not unlike a Jumpin' Jesus or The Lemming Project. It's rough and chunky, with a production level equivalent to a solid studio demo, and lots of simple bass guitar breaks poking through the churning, semi-clinical rhythm guitars. I'll admit that the band seems hard-pressed to evoke memorable riffs, and bounces back and forth before more serious, solemn chords and then peppier moments which reveal a punk or hardcore influence, but they also try to pick up the pace into some faster grooves where they start to lose the plot and sound sloppy. In some tunes like "Organ Donation for a Hungry", they are approaching the chaos of Napalm Death grind, but again the drums, while intense, feel like a mess against the riffs. The vocalist does a guttural similar to Barney Greenway, but they'll use a bit of clean vocal and some more ominous, weird growls elsewhere.

Definitely a curious one, and there are some spots here or there where they seem to be digging their heels into that surgical sort of death metal with dissonant chords and grooves, but they just never perfect it into meaningful riffing, you don't get the evil tremolo riffs you'd love from OSDM. Potential? I can't tell you if they were onto something or not, this was pretty weak. So not all of these earlier works bore much fruit for Invasion...two of their other German acts, Fermenting Innards and Lunatic Invasion would go on to create some pretty damn good material, and the label overall would jump into the more popular emergent styles like melodic death or black metal, but Rest in Pain just had a little fun grinding and moshing and (I'm assuming) dissolved somewhere soon after 1994. 

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Minneriket - Gjennom meg går ingen til hvile (2022)

Gjennom meg går ingen til hvile comes not only after the biggest gap in Minneriket releases, but also as the biggest single leap in progression that the band has made to date. The hallmarks of the project's original style are still present in the rasped vocal and the raw black metal guitars, but these have been joined here with a far more Romantic, prominent use of pianos and keyboards, and a large cast of guest musicians who are providing everything from female guest vocals, to strings, cello, harp, flute, gongs, and saxophones...this was clearly not an album to be given anything less than the full-on, almost overblown artsy treatment, but even if this might seem pretentious when compared to his early work like Vargtimen, it's still quite the alluring album.

I'm particularly impressed by how he's able to slap together a dreamy piano instrumental like "Hjemlengsel" and then flood you with an operatic piece like "Begravelsens hjertseslag", on which the female vocals are very chilling and the lead snarls are as evil as ever. The pianos creep alongside this and other tracks, used as an almost cinematic accompaniment to whatever the guitars are doing beneath. The drums here don't need to blast or anything so you can feel out the beats more, and probably the biggest surprise was the bass guitar, which is groovy and moody and finally creates in own layer of mood that fits write in with the spooky esoterism of the album's classical side. It's so good that I could just turn off everything but the rhythm section and I'd still be bobbing my head along to this one.

This might have more appeal to the Gothic/black metal audience more than those who valued the original Minneriket recordings, but I think its quite an improvement at maintaining my own interest level. There's just so much going on here, and it's both seductive and evil while still doing its own thing and not aping other bands that have mixed the styles. Not entirely avant-garde in structure, but definitely building a unique identity among a scene of so many other great bands that have progressed into their own distinct realms. I don't even know what to really compare it to...Peccatum? The few extra years off were put to good use, and this is one absorbing listen.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Minneriket - Anima Solis (2018)

If I didn't know better, and saw only this raven-haired beauty hanging in her corset, I'd have thought that Minnerket went full out Goth or something, but Anima Solis is instead another incremental evolution of the industrial/ambient black metal style that was started on Vargtimen. If anything, this album is even more accessible than the sophomore, but probably only because it is better produced and somewhat stricken through with more traditional black metal concepts in its construction. There is still that element of edgy, mechanistic-driven noise, the vocals are quite grimy and hostile, and plenty of the guitars produce a splatter of sinister, dissonant, droning lines above the central thrust of the beats, but it's a fraction easier on the ears.

It's also very weird, with a fair dynamic range between cuts, and arguably as experimental as anything the guy has written before. Take "When Life Gets Sick the Dead Grow Strong" with its weird, broken industrial rhythms, constant atmospheric roiling and trolling, and some of the most impish vocals he has committed to an album yet. Evil shit, and he gets the vocals to sound even more ridiculous on other tunes like "Between Infinity and Melancholy" with its cacophony of industrial clatter, or "I Am the Serpent Son" and its dash between gruesome, protracted growls and a snarl so ludicrous it sounds like its being performed by small, wounded mammals. I don't want to accuse the album of having a sense of humor, but it's certainly willing to go as far over the top as needed to make the listener lose his/her nerve.

It's pretty good, though, I mean there aren't really enough of these sorts of experimental and industrial black metal spinoffs out there, or at least not as weirdly absorbing as this one. Just when you think you've got it figure out, then he gets you with the hugely atmospheric "Alle hjerter banker ei" and its deep, narrative vocals and dreamy, dissonant guitars. This is weirdly creative, terrifying stuff, though it runs the risk of coming off a bit too childish or churlish when it goes full into its zanier passages.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, May 26, 2023

Minneriket - From the Veins of a Nearly Dead Boy (2017)

Minneriket's third album swerves away from original material to pay tribute to one of his favorite artists, and I'm willing to bet that you can guess it in three. You got it in one, Burzum. While Varg's material doesn't entirely inform the first few albums of this project, it's unquestionable that its leaning towards atmospherics and even pure ambience is partly inspired by an album like Filosofem, and why shouldn't it be? The rawness, the hostility, but also the melancholy and wantonness you would feel from that album translate quite well into so many of the potential successors, and Stein is able to capture that here while putting a slight spin on the original material.

That of course comes in the form of the more mechanical sounds that Minneriket is prone to. You will certainly recognize the lyrics and riffs of the tracks that are being covered, but they are almost all surrounded in an added level of ambient/industrial black noise, and occasionally feature a riff or two that he will deconstruct for further make it his own. It works best in tracks like "Lost Wisdom" or "Glemselens Elv", whereas others play it a little closer to the belt. They're still not exact duplicates, because there is always some difference, in the beats or the level of saturated noise, but I'm the sort that really doesn't need close approximations when a band is paying tribute though covers, I'd like to see the material adapted further, and this only fulfills that goal in particular places.

Granted, the originals sound fairly chilling and hostile even in these contexts, and as one who enjoyed most of them when they came out, I found this familiar and listenable, or at least as familiar and listenable as something like this Norse project could ever be. The melodies work just as well beneath the added level of mechanical grime, and clearly he's got taste in his  choices, even dipping into some of the later, understated material for an instrumental. Not an altogether unworthy tribute, but I'm more curious to see where Minneriket would head with his own material next.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Minneriket - Stjerner, speil og svartebøker... (2016)

Stjerner, speil og svartebøker... might not seem like such a far stretch from Vargtimen, as it still cultivates the noisy, cold black metal atmospheres of its predecessor, but it is at once more 'musical' and multi-dimensional, a slight warmth beginning to creep in at its corners, and production that is a stone's throw beyond where the project was already at. Even the cover art is a major improvement over the logo-only boredom of the debut, and if you felt like Minneriket wasn't structured enough before, I think Stein made a quick pivot to something more familiar to those seeking out a more traditional black metal, but don't think for a second that he abandoned his experimental ambitions.

Such are present with the second track here, "Vinterblot", which uses the drumming to create a cold, martial, marching beat that intersperses into the roiling, droning guitars and cruel rasp of its creator. The songs seem a lot more adventurous this time around, with elements that were not at the fore now arriving...for instance, the rumbling distorted bass in "Of Storms and Sorrows", which actually spits out some pretty catchy lines that are slathered with all these weird, broken beats, enigmatic industrial noises and such. "Jærtegn" is one of my favorites of these first two albums, it's got an unnerving sense of warmth and light to the floe of chords, and throws in everything from crackling storms, weird tones that sound like deep chimes or organs, and all manner of shimmering noisy guitars. Other cuts like "Totemkriger" take this atmospheric exploration and apply it into a more direct, blasting, warlike experience, and "How to Write Love in the Stars" (great title) adventures far further into pure ambient territory, which Stein really does excel at here...

So if you can't already tell, this effort is dramatically and artistically superior in just a year's time to where Minneriket had already been, and ample evidence that there might be some legs to stand upon, since there's really no limit to the sounds this guy is going to jackknife into your skull. The absolute-zero-temperature temperament of the debut was but a cold spark, where in this sophomore album the flames of imagination have bloomed, begun to consume the firewood and fill the hearth. Still creepy enough to freak you out, but then lays your head on a pillow and does its impression of a soothing before it starts stabbing you again. It's far from perfect, and who knows what the goal is with such an esoteric project, but it's clearly inspired.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Monday, May 22, 2023

Minneriket - Vargtimen (2015)

The first time looking at the Minneriket logo, I am reminded of America's own Leviathan, which is ironic since both bands practice a mix of black metal and ambient, in some cases with a fairly similar sound. Anyway, this is a Norse band new to me, and as I try to keep up every few years with that all that scene has to offer, I was intrigued to find out that this artist, Stein Akslen, has been chipping away quite productively. This debut is rather a mixed bag, in that it conveys some rather generic elements of the style, but it does so with a fascinating atmosphere that kept me engaged even when the riffing and musicianship could not. It's not quite as loose or formless as a project like Abruptum, but it's quite raw, unfiltered and inaccessible, which was likely the point.

The beats are cold, mechanical, lifeless, and while that's a proper companion to the music itself, I did find it rather monotonous, especially when they are being crowned by what seem like bursts of sporadic rasped vocals that don't seem to follow the guitar patterns. Speaking of which, while they often burst out into actual riffing, they often themselves feel like they are being added only as shades of noise to create an evil backdrop. At best, they'll create some dissonant repetition that fades in and out of the clamor, almost more effective in this purely atmospheric capacity than they are at constructing purely aggressive patterns, but of course you do recognize some sequences that are standard black metal with half-step variations in one direction or the other.

In other tunes ("Blodets Hvisken") they are performed as slower, almost droning chords smothered in distorted fuzz that take on a trace-like, noise quality. Neither end of this album's spectrum is particularly compelling, but where the synths or industrial elements show up there is definitely some potential, because you just feel like you're on watching from the sidelines at some societal collapse. Vargtimen is supremely unfriendly, uncaring, mechanistic, the black metal that low-grade industrial robots might compose upon the factory floor, and I think to that extent it works, but lyrically there are clearly some other themes here like "Wolf" and "Fra Yggdrasill". Certainly no trend-jumping here, but Vargtimen is not the best of Minneriket and recommended only to those who want a raw blast of dismal reality to the dome.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Sculpture - Sculpture (1999)

Sculpture was another band of German hopefuls within the Gothic metal niche, and while the band name and cover art to their sole, eponymous debut might seem rather obvious and bland to those who follow the stuff, they definitely made up for it with a production that would rival whatever their peers like a Darkseed or Crematory were putting out. Of course that makes a lot of sense, since half this band was involved in those, in particular Stefan Hertrich doing the vocals and Lotte on the keys and guitars, and if you're a fan of either, then this is something you'll probably want to check out at least once. At MOST once. I'm not saying that it didn't deserve to be swept under the rug, but it's a curiosity that it was ever really green lit, I guess the members' bands were doing better for Nuclear Blast than I'd have thought.

Lots of synth-work, brazen and big bass lines, and a sort of poppy 80s new wave blood that courses through the songwriting veins. Guitars are simple but loud, and if you dug Stefan's grainy Goth vocal slice through his mainstay, then you'll feel right at home listening to this, it could have just as easily been a new Darkseed album and I wouldn't have known the difference, other than perhaps the more prominent use of the keyboards. The tunes are all fairly dynamic, with some different riffing styles and structures, but the one thing they lack is a real payoff when you get to those choruses, you almost always feel like the way they've written the verses and riffs deserves a little something more when you arrive at those critical junctures. In fact, they can get considerably worse...

An example would be "Deniers" which throws a shitty slap-bass line right in the middle of a driving Goth metal song, or its silly mid-90s Metallica lead guitar. That last comparison is not alone, because I think "Bring Me Down", their compilation song, also has that big, bluesy guitar with a riff and tone that sound like some of the more rock & roll Metallica. I've often through Stefan reminded me of James Hetfield's voice with a little post-Gothic Nick Holmes, so make of that what you will, but it doesn't really benefit this album. In fact, I almost feel like the more synth or pop driven pieces like "I'm Free" are just better than the heavier tunes, but even there the lyrics are very simple and dumb as they are on most of these the end, Sculpture has a big production worthy of its constituents, and about 50% tolerable ideas, but it never hesitates to snag defeat from the jaws of victory.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]