Friday, December 1, 2023

Slay Bells Ringing

Happy Holidays, thanks for reading as always, and I will return with my year's end lists, and new reviews in January! - autothrall

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Sodom - 40 Years at War: The Greatest Hell of Sodom (2022)

The prospect of re-recording albums full of thrash classics is obviously not lost upon the German veterans; Destruction has released a few of their Thrash Anthems comps, Tankard has done one, and even Sodom has issued a full, expanded re-recording of their cult In the Sign of Evil EP, and a handful of other tracks have been revisited on other albums and EPs. 40 Years at War: The Greatest Hell of Sodom is an attempt to throw together 17 tracks which cover much of the band's career into a new whole, and it certainly succeeds at that, in particular the earlier tunes that, while charming, were admittedly (and understandably) somewhat sloppy in execution when the guys were young. 66 minutes of Sodom, who are frankly on a tear with their last handful of new studio outings, honing their weaponry into a production level that can contend with their most recent albums, possibly welcomed by younger fans, and after blazing through this a few times, welcomed by this old fart too.

The track selection here isn't terribly predictable, either, so if you're just expecting the 'greatest hits of Sodom', they have avoided that to just focus on really improving some pieces. No "Nuclear Winter", "Sodomy and Lust", or "The Saw is the Law" here, but a ripping volley of tracks like "After the Deluge", "Electrocution", "Body Parts" and "City of God". Regardless of the material's original era, it has all been smoothed over to sound consistent as a whole, as if 40 Years at War were just another new studio album, and while you can figure out the differences based on the relative technicality or punky feel of the tunes, it still sounds like it all belongs to the same band. Tom's vocals sound flawless, Frank and Yorck have a tone that stays loyal to the later 80s recordings but pumps a little more power, and the drumming is as peppy as it needs to be to encourage all the sore necks. Lead guitars are functional and don't attempt to leap out of the mix too much, and the bass production is also pretty good although it lets those iron-clad rhythm guitar riffs take control.

Although the Thrash Anthems collections were quite solid themselves, Sodom has surpassed them with what must be the best of these re-recording sprees, because I can honestly tell you that in many of the cases here I'd probably prefer listening to these very versions. Not every song is amazing, but the fact they didn't just go with the safer picks raises the value of this in my estimation. Like their peers in Kreator and Destruction, Angelripper and crew show no signs of slowing down, even the older members sound just as strong as they did in their formative 80s years, and 40 Years at War is another worthwhile exhibition of their dedication and power. I also really enjoy the cover art with the band's two iconic mascots going at it with one another, very representative of the recording as a whole, that fusion of old school and later thrash.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Lunar Tombfields - An Arrow to the Sun (2023)

Last year's The Eternal Harvest was a tasteful, atmospheric black metal debut out of France, and An Arrow to the Sun looks to continue that style as it shifts between its more measured, contemplative passages and then the surges into the more conventional blast patterns. The band also has a slightly interesting sense for melody, sure the tremolo picking styles are the same that you are used to in the genre, and a lot of the chords do end up in the direction that you predict, but once in awhile they'll spit out a guitar line with a more distinct progression. Lunar Tombfields does stick to its moniker in delivering very sorrowful material that is probably best experienced under some shade of moonlight, but I think this is the very definition of a 'mood record', because when I'm not quite in the headspace to absorb it, I did find myself occasionally phasing out in the longer tracks, which is all of them after the opener.

I think it's that structurally there are not a lot of surprises to be had...the duo performs all the instruments well, the vocals bear the burden of the dour and desperate emotions, and I actually love some of the tones on the guitars when they splay out the slower, spacious chords. The acoustics or cleaner distorted guitars are wonderful, and the rhythm section is tight-knit as needed, the band also balances off the coldness and warmth through some of the chord choices and that offers and air of romance to the music redolent of the debut. But often I found myself combing through the material for just one little surprise lick or tempo break, and they pop up a little too rarely in such swollen songs. I feel that some of them lose their luster after about 5-6 minutes, or they would have that much to hold my attention combined within them.

That said, this is still a decent follow-up to The Eternal Harvest, and from a production standpoint it sounds quite good, especially the glint of the guitars and the drumming. If you're just out to behold the sheer atmosphere of it, you could find far worse than An Arrow to the Sun to explore, but I just felt that there were only a limited number of payoff riffs nestled among the more predictable pieces. The closer "Le Chant Des Tombes" is probably the most balanced of the 8-9 minute tracks for me, but even that one had a moment or so of unneeded excess. Interestingly, the tracks are shorter than the debut but I still found myself more immersed in that one. Regardless, they've still got the wonderful artwork and a style that merits the patient, so if you enjoyed the last album this one isn't far off at all.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

RüYYn - Chapter II: The Flames, the Fallen, the Fury

French one-man act RüYYn's debut EP from a couple years back hardly lit my world on fire, not that its wintry and isolated disposition was intended to do so, but it was rather long on the anticipated atmosphere and short on memorable compositions. Still, there was some obvious potential there that has now been followed up through the first 'full length' proper, and right away you can notice a stark elemental difference, fire and fumes and darkness as opposed to the blinding white squalls of its predecessor. Like that debut, the songs here are numerated rather than named, the usual double edged sword which can promote cohesion to the whole via individual anonymity, but also sap the tunes of some level of remembrance in the process...

That is to say, if they are not good, and Chapter II: The Flames, the Fallen, the Fury takes only a few tracks to prove that it's a notable improvement over the prior material, with a heavier sense of loss, emotion and urgency that is cultivated through more distinct riffing and overall songwriting. This is traditional European black metal embellished with the post-modern dissonance and atmospherics that are rather widespread these days, but it's also very well balanced with some spaced out, higher pitched guitars and melodies that capture a sense of longing and melancholy (even right off in the bridge to the first track, "Part I"). The bass has a tangible presence, flooding beneath the streams of chords, and Romain's vocals, which have a little more robustness than your typical rasping, and a good level of sustain when he wants to bark a line out over the desperate, melodic hostility of the guitars and beats.

Although there's the same sort of uniform sense as there was with the debut, I think the tracks here are just set up far better, for example how the first cut breaks away and surges into "Part II" with that great double bass-driven attack. Each ends and begins with a renewed sense of identity and a wonder for the listener at what is going to happen, and to their credit, almost all of these seven pieces is fleshed out rather well with some interesting atmosphere, bleak or brooding trepidation. Where the EP had its limitations, Chapter II is far more of the 'total package' that one can wander through repeatedly, and cements RüYYn as a project to pay attention to amongst the ever-present French BM scene. Not as wild or experimental as a Blut Aus Nord or Deathspell Omega, but also not entirely conventional or predictable.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, November 27, 2023

Voivod - Ultraman EP (2022)

Two of my favorite things, together at last? I've made no secret of my love for Canadian sci-fi thrashers Voivod, they are my favorite band by an order of magnitude, but I'm also a huge fan of tokusatsu shows like the legendary Ultraman. In fact, the genre has been having a bit of a renaissance lately, with Stateside Blu Rays and DVDs for series from Super Sentai, Kamen Rider, Gridman, and especially the dozens of Mill Creek releases of Ultraman shows spanning the last 50-60 years. Young autothrall would have killed to get some of this growing up, there were a few shows available to watch on TV, but usually it was fansubs only when the internet arrived, and I was never big into the Power Rangers adaptations, the original Japanese shows they were culled from were just far whackier and more entertaining.

But yeah, it doesn't surprise me that the coolest band ever shares this passion, and they mete out a split medley of 9 versions of the Ultraman theme, shifting between instrumental and vocal versions, with a few different languages in there too. It's fun, but obviously this is a novelty, much like their old cover of "Batman" which was weirdly relevant to their 80s evolution. The themes are really short, and play it fairly close to the originals, but there's a slight edge of innovation in the guitars, and Snake's punk-wrought vocal style is a smooth fit, turning them into this almost space-surf-punk feel.  For the B-side, they've included a pair of 2018 live recordings of "Voivod" and "Overreaction" that sound phenomenal, with great angry vocals, booming bass and shuffling percussion to support Chewy's energized renditions, you even get a Piggy chant from the band and audience if I'm not mistaken. All told, the Ultraman EP will have a limited appeal, the A-side is a little repetitive and it's obviously not as powerful as their original material, but it's a cute collector's item to hang on your wall, and one wonders what might happen if they put out a whole album covering obscure sci-fi/superhero themes, maybe some prog and such. Earns a big smile, but not really mandatory beyond its collectible nature, there's just so little to it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Penitencé Onirique - Nature Morte (2023)

Penitencé Onirique is another French black metal act with its post-black influences anchored rather solidly in the more traditional elements of the genre, and their first two records had some great aesthetics when it came to packaging and style, even if the the music itself wasn't constantly winning me over. There was a slight step up in quality between V.I.T.R.I.O.L. and Vestige, and Nature Morte ups their ante yet again with an even more measured and memorable of melody, atmosphere and aggression, not to mention the curious and creepy, thorny floral photography which stands out as a little unique and artsy, yet perfectly melded to the flavor of the songwriting itself.

This one had me right as I got my foot in the door with its excellent intro to "Désir", a swell of percussion and cinematic ambient/orchestration that surged relentlessly into the blasting. It's actually this constant hovering of the symphonic vibe right on the edge of the searing intensity that really rounds out Nature Morte, there is always something tantalizing to the ear, and while I couldn't tell you that every riff is strikingly unique or catchy, there are more than enough to fit that latter category, and the tunes are paced very well to provide potent breaks or balanced against the blazing speed of some of their attack. A spacier, slower tune like the title track works equally well, and allows a little more verve to the bass lines and power to the drawn-out, impassioned rasps, with some really climactic moments that nearly knocked me out of my chair.

There's not a lot of experimentation, necessarily, but for example they have the dramatic instrumental "Lama Sabachthani" which is a lovely respite from the more relentlessly-paced material, and it's just further proof of how well balanced this whole disc is. I was stunned into submission through most of its 46 minutes, the perfect template of tempering a more traditional BM style with epic atmospherics and mildly progressive overtures to keep it present in the listener's conscience, Hands down one of the better French black metal records I've come across this year, and a formidable elevation from the material that preceded it, not that there was anything terribly wrong with that, but if I'm recommending albums from this niche, I'll direct you straight to this as one of the stronger examples in that second tier beneath the more internationally respected (or infamous) groups from that scene. An awesome album and more importantly, a worthwhile experience.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Friday, November 24, 2023

Destruction - The Butcher Strikes Back (2022)

Vic Records' The Butcher Strikes Back is one of those 'deep fan' sorts of releases, slapping together some random material onto a single recording that might have evaded some of the band's audience. This is a part of the label's M.O., to get demos and other obscurities out into the hands of the metal crowd, but I often find that the quality or presentation is lacking, and would prefer to check out their more original releases or pure album reissues. This disc features 12 cuts, including the demo recordings of the same title that came out as the band were getting back together after the debacle that some refer to as Neo-Destruction; a handful of Japan only bonus tracks, and then the entire latter half is devoted to some live tracks from a Wacken performance. Right off the bat, I can say that this already feels like a disjointed product without hearing a single note...

Individually, though, there's nothing terribly wrong here. The demo tracks sound pretty sharp, and the production shows you they were ready to return with a vengeance for All Hell Breaks Loose and then their reunion masterpiece The Antichrist. Still a bit disheveled and demo sounding, but they aren't too far below the official studio recordings. The Tank and Motorhead covers are both serviceable, the production on the former a little more might and iron-flecked than the latter, but both of the tunes work well with Schmier's snarling and adding a little more German steel to them, and these are obvious influences on their own sound from the early years. There's a Japanese version of the Schmier-only fronted "Alliance of Hellhounds" which feels superfluous, and then it's on to the live material, which has a mix of reunion and older tracks but doesn't sound all that good from a band with better live offerings that you can experience in full, like their legendary Live Without Sense, or even the more recent stuff like Born to Thrash or Live Attack!

That's not to say it sounds bad, all the instruments are present but they feel a little cluttered at how they are entering your ear space. The bass sounds livid, the drums tinny, the guitars muscular enough and just enough of Schmier to fully embrace their infernal energy, but it's certainly no big draw towards this product as a whole. And that's rather the issue here, who is this for other than those who have to own absolutely everything? The cover art is just derivative of Infernal Overkill and Mad Butcher, and it just feels like a garden variety, second or third rate fan package which isn't necessarily terrible, nor is it expensive; but you'd be better served picking up a new CD, cassette or vinyl from some band you just discovered, or one of the Destruction albums not already in your collection. If you MUST have it all, though, I have heard far worse than this.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Tankard - Pavlov's Dawgs (2022)

As much as I love the first three Tankard full-lengths, and enjoy some of their material since, there can be no doubt that a lot of their albums of the last 20 years suffer from a sameness syndrome in which you could swear you've already heard the riffs a half-dozen times. Of course, even this period had a standout for me in The Beauty & The Beer, and I cite that title because their latest, 18th (?) full-length Pavlov's Dawgs has a lot of the same sense of melody to it as that one. Rather than the more punk and splatter-fueled alcoholic thrash of their formative era, they've been infusing a lot more of a heavy metal sensibility into their tunes, which ends up working well below Gerre's vocals, because the guy's vocals are just timeless, and even here, almost 40 years after their debut, he still sounds fantastic.

The production is likewise pristine, a vibrant and iron-fisted rhythm guitar tone redolent of the last couple decades of Destruction, and everything is crystal clear, which works well to leverage the nastier vocals and then the melodic, well-constructed leads from Andy Gutjahr which are quite good here. Frank's bass thumps along heavily and Olaf's drums are flawless in his 28th year with the band. In fact, from a pure production/accessibility standpoint, Pavlov's Dawgs might be the band's highlight of the entire post-Disco Destroyer period, and sounds killer on every speaker I've played it through. The downside is that, while there's no question of the effort that went into this album, the tunes are just not highly memorable on any level of consistency. They sound like more of the same that you heard on the last 5-6 discs, with perhaps a slightly elevated sense of melody, but there aren't many killer chorus parts or riffs that truly hook you under the keg and fill you to bursting with mosh-brew.

Now, having said that, I am so attracted to the Tankard aesthetic in general that it's still a pretty decent listen if you just shut your mind off. I mentioned Andy's guitar playing, and that's a particular point which excels here, he's hurling in all these trad/power metal dual harmonies in there and you can constantly sense this potential to explode as he reaches some new level of six-string mastery. Though the riffs and rhythm section are rushing and crushing along through the entirety, the way the vocals soar almost creates a mellow vibe off the top, like it's intense and laid back simultaneously. While the tunes don't slay me, I also can't say it's boring, just like a very 'matured' version of this band which strides forward with full drunken confidence. The album does feel like Beauty & the Beer filler, so whether or not you're going to dig it might depend on your reaction to that one, or maybe 2017's One Foot in the Grave. It's probably impossible at this point that we return to the explosive controlled chaos of The Morning After or the steelpunk-driven Zombie Attack, but I'm alright with this, and I'll keep buying their albums even if just to support their determination and consistency.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Children of Technology - Written Destiny (2020)

Italy's Children of Technology has always been a band I've wanted to like more than I do; their aesthetic blend of punk, thrash, speed metal, societal decay, mutant apocalypse leather and spikes has that inbred appeal to my inner child of the 70s and 80s, and they have always felt like what might have occurred had Voivod swerved their first few albums into a more Stateside crossover style. Now, I'm glad those Canadians did NOT do that, because they're the most amazing band ever and I've enjoyed just about every step of their journey...but I just mean to say that Children of Technology have that genuine 'cool 80s B-movie' vibe about them, and they've maintained it even through my mixed reactions to their full-length albums, of which Written Destiny is only the third...

And I'm happy to say, their best! 2010's It's Time to Face the Doomsday was fairly stylin', but their sophomore album didn't really further my appreciation. Written Destiny hit on all cylinders so fast for me that I purchased it almost instantly after giving it a test listen. There's a maturity here, a willingness to just settle into some great riffing blend of heavy/thrash metal which catches your attention right away and then holds it. I'm not saying that they've brought much nuance or invention to their niche, but straight up, the brazen metal crunch and wailing leads of "Soundtrack to No Future" set up their scythe-wielding, biker mutant aesthetic, and then the screaming and speed metal take you away to a far-flung land of radioactive bliss. Raw, nasty vocals, great gang shouts that resonate past them, and incendiary rhythm guitar tone just rattle every pleasure center in my being, and this one doesn't let up. There's DEFINITELY a huge nod to Voivod's War and Pain, and this almost sounds like a better mixed cousin to that, especially on the killer title track or the shuffling wasteland of "Desert City".

Granted, the vocals here have more of a mix of nasty nasal pinch to them than Snake's punked out pitch, but the use of the howled cleaner vocals also draws some comparisons, so they spice that up further with the occasional grunt and growl, and epic early Tom Araya screams. Riffs are very simple, like War and Pain filtered through some NWOBHM, a couple of the frillier riffs you'd expect from the blackened/speed sect so popular these recent years (for good reason). They writhe in some tremolo proto-death metal riffs here or there too, and it all gels together so well while maintaining a very down to earth, blue-collar feel to it. The riffs are never technical, not even original, but the album is simply a blast and everyone should own it, whether your jam is Manowar or Hellripper. Italy's got quite a good little scene of these bands, with Bunker 66 and Baphomet's Blood also whipping out some strong albums lately, and while Written Destiny definitely has more of the true heavy metal coursing through its nuclear bones, it's certainly one of the best in that scene to date.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Kreator - Hate über alles (2022)

Kreator's another of our enduring, legendary thrash metal bands that took a few lumps during more their experimental self-exploration phase, which usually comes around a decade after their ascent through a slew of thrashing masterworks. All things considered, though, it was never really that bad...Cause for Conflict felt mediocre, although well within their realm of typical aggression, and Endorama's moody, melancholic tinge of Goth rock influence wasn't a total disaster. Their other, more industrial-driven records like Outcast and Renewal ranged from good to great for me, however. I bring this up, because the first track I heard off this latest album, "Strongest of the Strong", featured an interesting use of tasteful female vocals that led me to believe that they'd forayed off into a new direction...and not an unpleasant one.

But it turns out that particular song is an exception here, because this is just a heavy as fuck Teutonic thrashing which put my neck and numerous other limbs in braces. Don't get me wrong, this is richly produced, mature, modern Kreator, more atmospheric than their 80s classics, but it hits like a ton of bricks with some of the fastest pure riffing the band has ever manifest. All of the decades behind them have structured and informed this record, and the only real modernization is a matter of production and tighter musicianship. You've got the utter savagery of your Pleasure to Kill or Terrible Certainty filtered through the more melodic works of recent years like Phantom Antichrist, and then a few refreshing elements like the guest vocals above, which work amazingly well, like a shade hovering above the lightning tremolo picked riffs. Mille's raving bark sounds just as rich as you'd hope, and it still shocks me how the 'Big Four' German thrash frontmen (Mille, Schmier, Gerre and Tom) are still at the top of their game after all these years. This guy is 55 fucking years's astonishing.

He's not the only shining star here, because Ventor still has his hustle behind the kit, and Sami's interplay with Mille's guitars provides a number of ecstatic, melodic moments that really help contrast and balance out the pure ferocity that the band are meting out on the lower end. These tracks sound like 30 years of evolution stacked on top of the ambition they showed with records like Terrible Certainty or Coma of Souls, and while individual riffs might not come across as distinctly catchy, or the chorus parts as obvious, Hate über alles has a lot to unpack, and all of it good. When I see people complaining about this modern Kreator, I have to wonder what they are even thinking. What more could you expect than this?!? It's advanced and interesting, moody and atmospheric, and STILL has the hostile undercurrent the group created in their youths. It's not full of hits that will challenge the Germans' Golden Oldies, you've still got your "Flag of Hate" and "Riot of Violence" available whenever you want to hear them, but they've used all of their experience to produce records with a lot of depth that will forever retain me as a card-carrying fan until I'm wormfood. Stellar record, my fave from them in over a decade.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]