Thursday, December 31, 2009

Autothrall's Best Metal Albums of 2009

Autothrall's Top 20 Metal Albums of 2009

01. Oranssi Pazuzu (Finland) - Muukalainen Puhuu
02Peste Noire (France) - Ballade Cuntre lo Anemi Francor
03. Klabautamann (Germany) - Merkur
04. Sólstafir (Iceland) - Köld
05. Nokturnal Mortum (Ukraine) - The Voice of Steel
06. Tribulation (Sweden) - The Horror
07. Insomnium (Finland) - Across the Dark
08. Nazxul (Australia) - Iconoclast
09. Blut Aus Nord (France) - Memoria Vetusta II
10. Pestilence (Netherlands) - Resurrection Macabre
11. Arckanum (Sweden) - ÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞ
12. Midnight Odyssey (Australia) - Firmament
13. Onirik (Portugal) - After Centuries of Silence
14. Hellveto (Poland) - Od południa na północ...

15. Thy Catafalque (Hungary) - Róka hasa rádió
16. Vektor (USA) - Black Future
17. Paradox (Germany) - Riot Squad
18. Absu (USA) - Absu
19. Ealdulf (UK) - Hrimcealde sæ
20. Abigail (Japan) - Sweet Baby Metal Slut

Through the years since 2009, I've docked dozens of album that I reviewed by about a half-point, since so many of them lost just that minimal amount of shine to me. Despite that, this was still an OBSCENE year in metal music, across many varieties. While the only 10/10 for me is my #1 choice,  there is such a depth of quality releases that I probably have another 30 or so albums that rank around a 9/10 which aren't even on the list! Extremely strong time for black metal, with a lot of bands really expanding that niche's portfolio of sounds, or evolving outside of it. There were some mighty tech/thrash records and a comeback from one of my favorite death metal bands that really delivered. But Oranssi Pazuzu wins the year with an amazingly memorable psychedelic black metal debut which remains my favorite in their excellent catalog.


Zoetrope - Mind Over Splatter (1993)

By the 90s, a band like Zoetrope was considered long past dead, and yet, six years beyond A Life of Crime, here was their 3rd album. Mind Over Splatter is one of those albums that struggles to validate its own existence. On the one hand, it's got a few decent tracks that honor the band's legacy and show that they weren't going to go out like suckers...completely. But on the other, it's also got its share of worthless songs, the lineup is almost completely different (only guitarist Kevin Michael remains), and really, the better songs could have been released as bonus tracks on a CD re-issue of one of the prior albums. But alas, Mind Over Splatter was an attempt at a new lease on life for Zoetrope, and with 12 tracks and 40 minutes of new music, it simply did not succeed where it needed to.

I don't know where the train fell off the tracks, or why most of the original lineup crashed and burned, but new vocalist Pete Montswillo does try to maintain a loyalty to Barry Stern's vocal approach. His tone is meatier, and sometimes feels like he's about to lose his breath, but he's not really the issue here. The leads are pretty well written and consistent through the album, and about half the tracks rock out in like an Amnesty revival. Also no problem on the drums and bass, which are just as busy if not busier than the previous albums, which only makes sense after six years of the genre's evolution.

"Crack" is a pretty boring and silly track, though the rhythm is pure Zoetrope and the leads are decent. The vocals sound a little off, and the riffs themselves are not exactly memorable. "Million Ways to Die" is far better, though the catchy leads and a cutting rhythm are superior to the rather dull, plodding thrash of the verse. "New World Order" is like an entirely different band... There is metal here, but the verse sounds like The Police, a proggish leaning that doesn't quite jibe with the rest of the music on the album. And then, the band returns for a number of decent, fun tunes, in "Guilt by Association" and the punishing "Down and Out", though the strange ragga-like Megadeth rhythm at :40 in the latter threw me off for a minute. "It's My Life" operates on a pumping bass line and some corny but fairly catchy melodic guitar lines, and "New York Minute", while riotous, is just not all that memorable.

"Acid Rain" is a pretty good speed metal track with some melodic doom to the bridge at 2:00 minutes, and "Deceased Corpsmen" transforms from a raging rhythm into more twisting, melodic guitars that heighten its immersion. And then..."Splattered" is a fucking rap song. Yes, a rap song, or rather a Zoetrope take on such, with big bass, samples (including Flava Flav), and a guitar solo, which seems rather lame and unnecessary. It's another one of those 'experimental' tracks which bands would toss on their albums because they were afraid of not looking as if they embraced the new diversity and open mindedness of the 90s. LMFAO. The album tries to recover with the grim tones of "Spilling of Blood", and it ends with "Tomorrow It's You", which is hands down one of the best songs on the album, though that is not saying alot.

Surprisingly, Mind Over Splatter has the most raw and underground production of all their albums, and this is a positive. Very earthen, vibrant tones carry the rhythm guitars, while the leads blaze over the top. Though it tries its hand at experimentation, those tunes should have probably been left off the album, and the rest are just not as convincing as the past albums. The parallels to Coven's Boneless Christian are a little uncanny...both released on Red Light records in 1993, after years of no real output, and both coming up far short of the bands' respective 80s work. While, Mind Over Splatter is clearly superior to that Coven offering (Boneless Christian), it's just not good, and I would never reach for it above A Life of Crime or Amnesty, though it may have the best lead guitar of the three.

Highlights: Million Ways to Die, Acid Rain, Tomorrow It's You

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]
(it's too late for you to change)

Zoetrope - A Life of Crime (1987)

If Amnesty would serve as a Great Train Robbery for Illinois' Zoetrope, then A Life of Crime was their Godfather, their Goodfellas, their Untouchables, and perhaps the ultimate street metal album of the Midwest in the 80s. That doesn't mean it was perfect, just a lot better than other bands of the time and place performing with the urban aesthetic, and a leg up on the debut album. There is a bit more hardcore influence on this effort, and it's all around heavier than Amnesty, even in the vocals and drums of Barry Stern. There was a single lineup change, as Louie Svitek (Lost Cause, M.O.D., Mindfunk) replaced Ken Black on the 2nd guitar, but otherwise the core remains the same.

"Detention" breaks the prison gates with a volley of punkish riffing, enough energy to get the combat boots kicking in the heads of whatever mohawk or longhair was unfortunately to cross their path. It's not nearly as memorable as "Seeking Asylum", probably my favorite Zoetrope track overall, with an immediately catchy, classic metal riff that you'd expect more from some NWOBHM act that went on to legend. Pounding speed and flurries of unscrupulous leads help round out a pleasurable track that belongs on any compilation of great 80s speed. "Promiscuity" is also catchy, with a playful, driving guitar melody that breaks down into a thrash thrust. The song also features El Duce and Sickie Wifebeater of The Mentors doing brief backup vocals, as does the following "NASA", an obvious critique of the Challenger disaster, which chugs along with a punky swagger below the occasional lead or melody. "Unbridled Energy" is one of the band's faster tracks, Stern barking out vocals at a lower pitch than normal, and explosive like a more metal Sick of It All, with some pretty hardcore-styled lyrics. "Prohibition" is another fast as hell piece, a tribute to the gangsters of days gone by. The rhythm guitars beneath the lead are fucking intense, as are the leads themselves.

In an abandoned warehouse late at night in the shipping yards
The gangsters keep a watchful eye for the man in blue
As a loaded semi pulls up to an empty dock
The rear door opens to reveal the demon alcohol

"Company Man" is another Zoetrope track to feature a solid Motorhead influence, balls deep rock & roll with some harmonics in the verse and clapping percussion, plus a kickass punk mosh breakdown for the chorus, very catchy. "Pickpocket" has a lot of bounce to the bass and a decent, faster paced guitar in the verse, but it's not one of the better tracks here. "Hard to Survive" compensates with a searing melodic intro and drumming momentum, the melody returning post-chorus as it thunders into the next verse. Rinse and repeat, until Barry Stern screams and the album ends.

A Life of Crime features some truly awesome songwriting, and then a few filler pieces between, which don't really disappoint, but don't blow me away either. "Seeking Asylum" is so good that I'm surprised it did not gain the band a greater recognition outside the Midwest thrash scene and radio underground, especially with a Combat Records deal in place. But, I suppose sacrifices had to be made in order to afford Anthrax and Metallica concert t-shirts, so Zoetrope never made the splash it could have. At any rate, this is their finest hour, so if you're checking the band out for the first time, begin here. It's a great album for caving someone's skull in with a pair of brass knuckles.

Highlights: Seeking Asylum, Promiscuity, Prohibition, Hard to Survive

Verdict: Win [8/10]
(bullets slam into your eyes)

Zoetrope - Amnesty (1985)

Zoetrope ('e trope') is another of the bright young flames of the 80s, snuffed out when the scene's interest shifted from thrash metal towards other forms of entertainment (grunge, 'alternative' rock, and so forth). But during their prime, they were a pretty good band, and one of the few I would proudly label 'street metal', as the band did. That is to say their songs evoke a low to middle class feeling of bars, rumbles, and crime, all in a crispy speed metal shell which balances both a 70s hard rock/NWOBHM influence and the same punk/hardcore source that helped birth the thrash metal genre. Zoetrope were already in existence for some time before this album, forming in '77 and dropping their first demo a few years after that.

This is a band probably best known for the vocals of Barry Stern (also the drummer), who had a dirty barroom style full of urban anger and expression, and the solid riffs of Kevin Michael, which are huge enough to sate an arena full of headbangers, but hail from the concrete and gutters of the Windy City and its surroundings. Amnesty is one of those timeless recordings which sounds as fresh today as it did nearly 25 years past, and there is a charm to it difficult to place, even if I wasn't enamored with every single track.

It begins with the slower, hardcore rhythm of "Indecent Obsessions", as much Sabbath as punk, and then picking up the pace with a pretty explosive thrash riff, and lyrics about that peeping tom or pervert we have all heard about, through several scenarios. The chorus is basic but memorable, evidence that Stern, though wild and throaty, had the chops and just enough range to deliver alongside other hard rock or metal singers. "Kill the Enemy" is the usual anti-Hitler, megalomaniac ranting, but the guitars are just as driving as the first tune, and Stern adds a little bit of a melody (or scream) to the end of the verse lines, which cycles nicely into the obvious chorus. "Mercenary" kicks into some drums and bluesy, over driven melodic leads before a mid-paced thrashing and excellent chorus vocal, and the title track has a feel of Motorhead meets early Tankard (though this was pre-Zombie Attack). "Member in a Gang" is an honest, blunt title for a scorching, dirty hard rock tune, with a great grungy tint to the guitars.

It don't mean that you're clean, because you ain't killed nobody
Because you know every ruthless scumbag, and that's no lie
But when it's time to get in line, your fear starts to show
But it's your obligation to the devil, because you're a member in a gang

This dirty streak continues, as "Break Your Back" only sounds a few notes away from the iconic "Ace of Spades", albeit more of a US, blue collar steel mill take. "Another Chance" has a solid rock & roll riff for the verse, and then a nice, grinding bridge with some of Stern's best vocals on the album. "Creatures" is a horror-themed tune about the walking dead, and a bruising, cruising guitar rhythm with gang shout chorus, and a groovy ass thrashing bridge. Possibly my favorite song off Amnesty. "Trip Wires" is the finale, opening in a Sabbath-inspired crawl and then busting out some gritty punk metal.

There are very few audible flaws to this album, and it rather perfectly captures the 'street' sound the band were peddling. The sound is excellent, savage and raw without losing the melodic edge. Perhaps the lyrics aren't all that great, or the riffs themselves entirely memorable. It's basic fare, but delivered with an honesty and passion that transfers well into the follow-up, A Life of Crime. This is still a good time if you're cruising around your local urban decay and want to spark up a riot.

Highlights: Indecent Obsessions, Mercenary, Another Chance, Creatures

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (you got nothing left)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fukpig - Spewings From A Selfish Nation (2009)

Somewhere in the pits of Birmingham, England there is a
twistedrealm of punks and heshers, miserably coexisting only to producesome of the most fantastic and brutal music from Ol' Blighty. I imagine everything in this hell to be drenched in stale beer and vomit, covered in permadirt and rubbed-in cigarette ash, and sounding like it was born in the digestive tract of some mutated Satanic gutter rat.

Fukpig's Spewings From a Selfish Nation is the embodiment of that world. This is Napalm Death, Anaal Nathrakh (including members of), and Tragedy brewed together into a potent draught of pure fucking hate. Genres are straddled like a nightmarish warhorse and then ridden straight through your miserable little skull. This is crusty, grinding, blackened metal armageddon with screaming leads and crushing chugs.

Perhaps this record resonates with me so much because I am a bastard child of political punk and black metal, but there's a lot more to Spewings than that. A hellish sample opens up the album to "The Horror Is Here" just before snarls take over the sonics of "Necropunk". If your neck isn't sore by track three, you're not listening to this loud enough. Spewings never runs out of steam, either. There isn't a single lull in all fourteen tracks (just over thirty minutes) and I had to play a few of the later tracks multiple times to make sure my ears weren't playing tricks on me. Was that really a Crass-inspired talking part in "Caught Out"?! Yes, it was. Fuck me, this album came out of nowehere.

Simply put, Spewings is one of the must-listen albums of a year already packed to the brim with other mandatory gems. It's transcendent, wicked, and utterly filthy. Go get it before it's gone.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10]

Yggdrasil - Kvällningsvindar över Nordrönt Land (2007)

It seems to me Sweden's Yggdrasil is almost the perfect band for twilight idylls and festivals of the Elven folk, dancing their pagan lilts through the cold, rich woodlands of the seasons. I mean no insult by this whatsoever, for I refer to the Elves of Norse legend, of primal grace and forgotten, mythic beauty. No, this is not faerie metal in the negative sense that I generally loathe upon, but a real evocation of folklore. Kvällningsvindar över Nordrönt Land is the band's debut, with material culled from their two previous demos and re-recorded. It's a good thing they decided to honor these tracks and breathe them new life, because there is no reason songs of this quality should not have reached a larger audience.

Like their newer effort Vedergällning, this album is long on atmosphere, but where many pagan/folk metal bands clash at the crossroads of archaic instrumentation and black metal aggression, Yggdrasil makes it sound like the two were always unified, as they can flawlessly transition through moments of melodic, ripping guitars, violins and synthesizer swells, with a fiddle here, or mouth-harp twanging off there. The vocals are clean and forward, but they intone like dark bells hung from the trees of this ancient landscape. About the only thing I did not find necessary on the album were the female vocals or the 'shrieking' vocals, but these are few and far between and greatly outnumbered by the finer moments.

An hour of atavistic relaxation commences with "I Nordens Rike", from the 2003 demo of the same name, and its ambient sounds of sky mesh seamlessly into the developing guitar melodies before the chords crash forward into a lead like a thousand autumn leaves exploding as a steady breeze strikes the tree. The only issue here is the screaming vocals just before the 6:00 mark, which serve to do little else than annoy, sticking out like a sore thumb in an otherwise great track. "Kvällning Över Trolska landskap" transforms beautiful acoustics and a sad violin line into a thundering blitz of black momentum, though the real star is the following melody. "Frid" is a sullen, slower folk metal piece, and the 11 minute "Gryningstid" morphs from percussive guitar rhythms to glistening streams of melody, an interesting and fairly original style. "Nattens Vandare" once again uses muted with a percussive feel, but this is more of an Amorphis feel with some violins. Love the melodies in this track.

"I Nattens Timma" moves at a slow, drawling doom, as shining melodies cling to the broiling sequence of chords, and the vocals soar. "Vinter" is much the same pace, but with less of an upper end to the notes, and a little more of the gruffer vocals. Good acoustics, good mouth-harp, but the female vocals feel a little mediocre (though subtle). "Nordmark" is a blitzkrieg at first, of rather average pagan black metal, and the female vox later in the track are half tolerable. Which leaves the "Elfdance", or "Älvadansen", to finish out the record...with more female folk vocals, this time covering almost the entire track. In the beginning, they are restrained and catchy, but when Michelle Maass starts screaming later on, results may vary.

Kvällningsvindar över Nordrönt Land is, for the most part, a good album, but there are points at which it starts to unravel (largely through the female vox) and feel like an effort from one of the great many other, mediocre folk metal bands Europe is spewing like a geyser of ex-goths. The stronger tracks here have all the dense atmospheres and lush idylls of the following album Vedergällning, which is superior to this. But the debut sounds quite somber and romantic in an ancient forest fashion, and it's nice to have the demo material made 'official' rather than left to wallow in the dusk.

Highlights: I Nordens Rike, Frid, Gryningstid, I Nattens Timma

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Acid Witch - Witch House EP (2009)

Michigan's Acid Witch have decided to keep the coven's menstrual flow consistent with a limited run 7" EP featuring two new tracks in 2009. If you enjoyed the thick, pea soup broth of their first album Witchtanic Hellucinations, then I can see no reason why you wouldn't track this down (if you can find it). Both these tracks are pretty great additions to the witchography, the rival of anything found on the debut.

"Witch House" itself is a slab of molten hot, haunting sludge which uses keyboards to conjure an old school horror atmosphere that simply should not exist post early-80s. I've long been waiting for a band to mix such sounds, as the normal garden variety sludge/doom is more often boring than not, and Acid Witch definitely deliver a pleasing pie crust of the macabre. "Worship the Worm" is a libation to the lovely little parasites that will feast upon us and return us to the earth, captured in a few total stoner moments as the guitars trudge towards into some freaky, wailing melodies that lead us out from the EP.

Witch House is short, sure, just enough to keep you entertained for about 8:30 minutes and change, plus the inevitable replays. The mix is downtrodden and somewhat raw, which is all too fitting for their music, and the band's horror camp smut schtick is kept intact. Another of Razorback's stable of quality acts, it seems likely Acid Witch could continue to grow into one of the hidden treasures of US doom. There should be another EP (Midnight Mass) kicking its way forth from the grave soon, and hopefully the new year brings a new full length album.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]
(cyclopean monoliths and glowing prisms)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

X-Wild - Savageland (1996)

After two albums in a single year, X-Wild took the next off, to return in 1996 for their third and final album. Consequently, Savageland would be their magnum opus, and the very best power metal album of that year (to be fair, there wasn't a lot of competition). This is tight, conceptual, bold, and frankly quite savage sounding (puns intended) by comparison to either of its predecessors, and even though the songs are not 100% awesome, it has a few exceptional tracks which are among the best of the 90s German power. Frank Ullrich (Attack, Grave Digger, Living Death) replaces Stefan Schwarzmann for the swan song, but keeps the drumming at much the same pace, wonderfully complementary to the raging fantasy warfare that creates the heart and heat of the record.

Yes, Savageland was over an hour of the best in dorky, but manly power metal you were going to hear, and though the influence still hovers like a pirate caravel to a helpless mercantile galleon, this is the effort where X-Wild have actually come into their own, no longer just a simple ripoff of Running Wild. A grim, pulsing intro (complete with Knight's goofy narrations) initiates the listener to this war-strewn world of butchery, and "Braveheart" enters with Iron Maiden-like savvy, before the level chugging of its Germanic verse and the uplifting, memorable pre-chorus. "Savageland" is next, forged in pure power as the double bass rolls below the very patriotic rhythm and fire. Not the best track here, but "Born for War" compensates with an elegaic grace, as slow and steady wins the race. Knight sounds like a blade finally sharpened to its most deadly edge here, and the way the lyrics interact with the melody makes for a pretty mature spark. "Murder In Thy Name" trots forward with more of Knight's frenzy and passion, and "Children of the Underground" has a killer synthesizer intro which meshes very well into the deeper, folksy vocals and brooding atmosphere (no REAL CHILDREN were hurt during the recording of the chorus!)

White as snow
Eyes that fear the light
Pale and drawn

Oh noes! Will our heroes free the child-slaves from their dusky, toiled fate? We must wait for an answer, for next X-Wild journeys into the "Dragonslair", with its arching melodic intro and somber acoustics, a sort of 'power ballad' with an emphasis on the former word. But no discussion of 'power' can be complete without the next song, one of the best songs of its class to ever be penned into existence. Yes, we might have to suffer through Knight's (AWESOME) narrative here, but it is (AWESOME) well worth it to hear the thrashing of those huge mutes, while the drums build a violent crescendo and the vocals drive forward the ULTIMATE in warfare motivation. If you do not like this song, you do not like power metal. The two are one and the same, synonymous, so check your estrogen back at the fucking door! This is "Die Like a Man", and you will. So make a prayer to whatever deity you hold high.

And if that track is Savageland at its most...savage, "Field of Blackbirds" is X-Wild at the most glorious moment of their career, a beautifully trudging anthem of loss that actually achieves what you might have previously thought impossible for these expatriates...true beauty. The sadness persists through the slowly slogging guitars to the pre-chorus and the wonderful payoff. Holy Glory, Batman! Another of those songs I could gladly die to, though like a man I had already been killed off on the previous. So...yeah, play this one at my burial instead. It's pretty fucking hard to follow up that 1-2 punch, but Savageland is not yet complete, and Frank and the boys will give it their damnedest as the "Clash of the Titans" begins to rock out like, like if Perseus was somehow given a motorcycle by the Gods, instead of a pegasus. "Hunting the Damned" opens in a thick, oozing bass plod, emboldened by huge chords which recall the Running Wild influence, a pretty strong power anthem despite its crawling gait, Knight going wild. "Chaos Ends" is too fitting a title for the finale, and it is definitely a solid track with more of Knight's better vocals.

Savageland is a beast, though 2-3 of the tracks simply do not exude the power of the rest. The sound is immaculate, spacious atmosphere that will engrave this album into immortality. If you've never heard X-Wild and want the 'full spread', then I highly advise you start here. This effort showed a band on top of their game, and on par with many of the best from Germany. It's the most mature, with all the best considered rhythms and a few tracks that were worthy of radio airplay, even though we were living in a world of self-hating alternative rock and incestuous boy bands. This is the one you want.

Highlights: Die Like a Man and Field of Blackbirds are not just highlights of Savageland, but my entire life to date. If only the rest were quite so good...

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]
(remembering the myth)

X-Wild - Monster Effect (1994)

It may not seem like much time had passed before X-Wild were already into their sophomore effort, but it arrived late in December whereas So What! (likely a collection of older songs) dropped in February 1994, so there is enough distance here to recognize the upgrade in quality that this album conveys. The title is a little better, the songs are a little better in general, and the album has a more cohesive, consistent atmosphere that dominates the occasionally scatter-shot debut. This is pretty good, although the Running Wild comparison is still very obvious, and it is best remembered as a 'prequel' to the later Savageland.

The line-up is identical to the debut, and there is a more mature, airy vibe to the recording which makes it quite the class act as far as derivative German power metal. "Wild Knight" (named in part for Frank, I'm sure) begins the festivities with a great, atmospheric intro, melodic leads resounding deep within, before a very Kasparek charging rhythm. "Souls of Sin" has a dash of Maiden and a pretty straightforward, catchy verse where Knight really lets his vocals wander. Good stuff. "Theatre of Blood" may sound like an outtake from Death or Glory, but it's quite good regardless, one of the tracks that best evokes the windy, glorious feel of the record, with an excellent maritime melody at around :50, and great vocals. "Heads Held High" should be titled "Cocks Held High", because it rocks out with that proverbial member flapping in the wind like a bold Teutonic flag. "Dr. Sardonicus" is no "Dr. Stein", but it has a catchy, slow pace which is quite mighty in delivery. "Sinners are Winners" is back in Running Wild's 1989-90 territory, a scorcher with a nice piratic flair to the riffs.

The arrogant muther
Kicked dirt in the face
Sweetened his deals
Mixed with arsenic and lace

The title track commences the latter half of this slab, a fairly written mid paced classic power metal anthem with good vocals and atmosphere. I love the rather Saxon feel to the riff after 1:00. "Serpents Kiss" is another biker-style rocker akin to Running Wild's "Raw Ride", or a good number of Accept tracks. "Sons of Darkness" has a nice intro, with light bass and guitar melody, then a meaty rhythm which the band will also perfect on their 3rd album. "D.Y.T.W.A.C" seems a rather roundabout way to exclaim the song's chorus, 'Do You Think We Are Crazy?', an almost doom-like groove with a nice bridge and lead segment. The album ends with "King of Speed", one of its best tracks, even though it's a multi-layered bass solo instrumental from Jens Becker. Seriously kick-ass, and probably would have worked even better as an intro to some epic historical track.

Monster Effect sounds resilient, keeping stride after 15 years with its majestic tones and bone crunching German Panzer power. There is enough melody and memorable sensitivity to keep any power metal fan thrilled through the 50 minutes of playtime. All the songs are listenable, provided you have no problem with the similarities to THAT OTHER BAND.

Highlights: Souls of Sin, Theatre of Blood, Dr. Sardonicus, Monster Effect, King of Speed

Verdict: Win [8/10]
(too late to let you out)

X-Wild - So What! (1994)

Formed by three former members of the great Running Wild, X-Wild is further proof that the apple does not fall far from the tree. Their first album, the unfortunately titled So What!, is an exercise in pure German power metal that sounds a lot like something Rock'n'Rolf Kasparek would write. But can you ever have enough of a good thing? Answer that for yourselves, and you will have determined whether or not it's worth the time to check out this debut album. Granted, So What! also takes a few hard rock liberties, similar to Accept, Grave Digger and Running Wild, so this album isn't always 100% what you are expecting.

Frank Knight's nasal range actually places him somewhere between Kasparek and Dirkschneider...he uses a lot of Udo's rock & roll antics, but has a lower pitch, rarely raising the siren. It's pretty dirty and it works well, as Knight has a harsh bite that I'd much rather listen to than any wailing, 'clean' power metal vocalist of the Tate school. His tones help make the material here street ready, while the trio of Becker/Schwarzmann/Morgan rampage through a solid pile of riffs and a few really catchy tunes.

"Can't Tame the Wild" has a bouncy, mid-paced energy which, alongside Knight's circus freak, narrative vocals, creates a fairly goofy intro, before the Running Wild worship erupts in a riff that would have felt just at home on Blazon Stone or Death or Glory than it does here. "Dealing With the Devil" again apes Running Wild, a lot like "Raw Ride" from Under Jolly Roger in that you could ride your motorcycle to this and kick a poseur as you speed past. "Scarred to the Bone" and "Wild Frontier" are both fairly forgettable knockoffs, but "Sky Bolter" has an uplifting thrust to it that does not disappoint. Here the album begins to take a slightly diverted path which reflects a more widespread influence, as "Beastmaster" is slow moving, hard rocking and "Kid Racer" is a total oldschool German blast (and one of the better speed songs on the album).

Suck up the gas, foot to the floor
Engine is screaming, I gotta have more
It''s people like you, I don''t wanna be
Hey you over there, why are you looking at me? Oh God

Oh God is right, and So What! is not an album one should turn to for lyrical enlightenment, though the words are often amusing for their tongue in cheek qualities. "Freeway Devil" is another pretty good racing tune, with the pirate metal overtones in the riffing. "Mystica Deamonica" is where the album swerves most into the hard rock territory, and yet, despite all the cheese, it's honestly one of the better X-Wild songs throughout their discography. Catchy through a very simple set of chords, with a great song title = chorus part and a kickass bridge around 2:30 that I bet David Lee Roth wished he had come up with. "Thousand Guns" is total Accept worship, with the ballsy chorus and big hard rock riffs, and the album closes with another faster paced track "Different (So What)" which has some barbaric, meaty power metal rhythms.

So What! is a straight shooter as far as its production values, probably owing a lot to the individual members' backgrounds on other albums by Accept, Running Wild and Grave Digger. It sounds good at all volumes, and the musicianship and riffing is tight enough to show that these guys were going places. The only real downside (aside from a handful of mediocre tunes) is the band's too obvious similarities to the other German acts in its family. But if, like myself, one Running Wild might just not be enough...track it down. It's the least impressive of their three albums, but there are some good tunes.

Highlights: Kid Racer, Mystica Deamonica, Different (So What)

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (the bastard son of the evil one)

Nokturnal Mortum - The Voice of Steel (2009)

Speak what ills you wish of the checkered past of the Ukraine's mightiest band...their ideologies, their hostilities, their gimmicks, and their unshakable ability to develop an increasing cult following in the face of a world that defies just about every lyrical message they pen. Nokturnal Mortum are capable of some pretty incredible music when they set their minds to it, and The Voice of Steel is the best album they have produced since To the Gates of Blasphemous Fire, 11 years past. The sound is huge and swelling, and I would dare to say this is their most accessible work, sure to enthrall the masses of come-lately pagan, folk and melodic black metal as much as the band's original fans. But make no mistake, the convictions remain firm, and this is no flighty journey into a friendly song, but a herculean effort of pagan metal that bathes in the glory of past fires and winds. It's fucking unbelievable.

The lineup here is a little different than the previous Weltanschauung. Varggoth remains on the vocals and guitars, and he sounds intense here. Saturious handles the keyboards and folk instrumentation, and they are joined by bassist Vrolok, drummer Bairoth and Astargh on the other guitar. They are also joined by several other contributing guitar players for several of the leads, as well as former fulltime members like Odalv. Yes, you could consider this some grand woodland meeting of all a near army of Ukraine's warriors, and the songs produced through The Voice of Steel shall surely become their anthem.

The horns and strings of the intro resound across the hills and copses like a narrator of ancient glories that speaks in winds, while the percussion of the earth rises to stoke the forge of our inevitable armageddon. "Голос сталі (The Voice of Steel)" arrives with thundering drums and drudging, barbaric guitar lines, before the strings conjure forth a bold orchestration, somewhat akin to Graveland if he was rocking a 30-40 piece orchestra. Vocal choirs, gnarled Varggoth vocals of Eld, and rousing flute bridges conjure one of the most powerful Northern folk metal tunes of the year, and for nearly 10 minutes you are savaged by this renewed, vital band. "Валькирия (Valkyrie)" marches across you like an entire army of risen warrior spirits, a solid block of symphonic black metal that recalls some of their stronger work of over 10 years back. It's beautiful, graceful; never once does the blade dull for over 10 minutes...even when they pull out a blues solo over the tribal folk of the mid section. "Україна (Ukraine)" could not be a more fitting tribute to the band's beautiful homeland, glistening with lovely strings and a powerful atmosphere that makes Arkona look novice (and I love that band).

The album takes a somewhat more progressive turn with "Моєї мрії острови (My Dream Islands)". It still maintains its incredibly dense atmosphere, but subtle synth rhythms and curious riffs burrow themselves into the walls of bristling spear-guitars that provide the brunt of the charge. "Шляхом сонця (By Path of the Sun)" is as broiling and catchy as the surface of the star it worships, with a glorious verse in which the vocals turn more cookie monster and manly, as the drums storm through the heavens. "Небо сумних ночей (Sky of Saddened Nights)" is a brilliant acoustic folk track, with amazing vocals and despite its brevity (well, 5 minutes if brief only when compared to its neighbors), it is one of the best songs of their career. But Nokturnal Mortum will hit you up for one more, 12 minute epic to close off this bold effort, and that is the brilliant "Біла вежа (White Tower)", which evolves through beautiful synthscapes and proggish folk wanderings into a savage majesty that calls the heart of every man to war.

Yeah, The Voice of Steel pretty much knocked me out of my seat and back through the centuries to touch my inner pagan. The sound on this album is just unreal, so much depth delivered through so many layers, and not afraid to incorporate a subtle touch of modern sounds into its rolling glories (soundtrack swells, even a little lush 80s New Age pop). This album is not quite so brutal and effective as To the Gates of Blasphemous Fire...that is to say, of the 71 minute playtime, there may have been 1 or 2 minutes in which I was not entirely enthralled. Which is not enough downtime to offer it less than the highest accolades. It's a little less dark, quite bright and positive feeling than previous albums, honestly, and for this reason it may be a 'first' for many who did not previously enjoy the band's catalog. But Nokturnal Mortum lose nothing of their desperation, of their message, or integrity's just a stunning piece of music that honors both its influences (Graveland, etc) and its culture.

Highlights: the sun also rises.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10]

Hysteria - When Believers Preach Their Hangman's Dogma (2009)

Hysteria is a brutal French death metal outfit who takes the influence of a band like Vader, Behemoth and Morbid Angel and then runs with it. When Believers Preach Their Hangman's Dogma is their 2nd full-length offering, which follows the 2006 debut Haunted by Words of Gods. Perhaps the closest comparison here is the sound of their fellow French death act Yyrkoon, with a similar, blunt edge to the composition style, an infernal thrashing that is converted through Sylvain Ostengo's grunting into the realm of heavenly death. Not all of the tracks on this album were very impressive, most just meandered through a moshing holocaust with some leads here or there and a great tone, but at a few points, the band just explodes into a great rhyhtm, all the instruments come together, and it escalates to something more...

I didn't get a lot out of the first few tracks, but "Suffering Make Me Almighty" has a decent death bridge at about 1:20, and as "Your Kingdom Will Be Mine" develops, is breaks out a cool lead with some nice old school grinding death below it. "Still Haunted by Flesh (Work or Torments Pt. III) uses more melody for its thundering verse, and a haunting desperation permeates the brutality. "Art of Evil" is chastened by a wall of bludgeoning, evil octaves that recall Hate Eternal or Morbid Angel, and "The Unholy Creation" launches like a downtrodden, double-bass weapon of war, once again using melodies that are subtle to lift its crunchy tones into something more than the average death. Other tracks worth a mention are the choppy "Stroke Down By Disease" and the glorious, brute "Blinded by Religious Doctrines".

The production of When Believes Preach Their Hangman's Dogma is nothing to scoff at, with simmering guitar tones that perfectly compliment the puncutual, bludgeoning bass drums. As far as their technicality, the band is certainly at the level to compete with its peers from Poland, France and the US, though Hysteria is never concerned here with over the top flashiness or excess leads, complex structures. If you've enjoyed the recent onslaught of Vader or Behemoth, I can think of no reason why you wouldn't get something from this effort. It's not great; the tracks are not often all that memorable, but at least it's tight and menacing.

Highlights: Art of Evil, The Unholy Creation, Stroke Down by Disease

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Netherbird - Covered in Darkness EP (2009)

Netherbird is a Swedish band who play an accessible brand of melodic black metal, they have already released a few EPs, and a debut album last year. Covered in Darkness is a brief and harmless collection of cover tunes, recorded a few years ago, that the band is offering for free through their websites, so you can't really complain about the value. If all bands offered their cover albums/EPs in such a format, it would be a blessing for fans, so Netherbird has a generous streak that should be taken into account.

Two of the covers would seem predictable here. First is "As I Die" from the Paradise Lost album of the same name, and Netherbird do a fair job of sounding like the original, only with the more lavish touches of Nephente's cutting snarl, more atmosphere and background femme vocals. Sentenced is represented here with a cover of "Nepenthe", which I'm assuming is where the singer took his stage name. Again, use of female backing vocals and a little more atmosphere than the original might have had, but honestly Nephente does a decent Taneli Jarva impression, and it might be the best of the four songs here. More surprising is the inclusion of "Alice in Hell" by Annihilator, but the thrashing rhythms sound reasonable here with a bigger modern production, and the band has taken some liberties in adding synthesizer orchestration that at least makes for a creepy haunted house vibe. Last but not least comes the cover of Swedish rock band The Soundtrack of Our Lives "Firmanent Vacation", from their debut. This is given a suitable melodeath injection which honestly works like this.

It'd be difficult to recommend this EP to fans outside of Netherbird's base, or difficult to recommend it at all, since it does not contain original work. But offering cover compilations to your fans for free is a wonderful idea, I just don't happen to be one of them. However, if you've ever wanted access to the influences that make Netherbird tick, here is a small window into their world.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Monday, December 28, 2009

Watchtower - Control and Resistance (1989)

Control and Resistance is not only one of the very best progressive thrash metal albums ever created, but it's yet another example of how Noise Records had almost cornered the market on all things metal of quality in the late 80s. This album exceeds Energetic Disassembly on all fronts, both for its better use of dynamics and insane level of immersion which can actually transport the listener into the various scenarios it presents through the lyrics and music of each track. This was by no means an album I could digest all at once; it must have taken me a dozen listens before all of its intricacies converged upon me like a lattice of pulsing, electronic information.

Judging from the vastly superior songwriting, it's clear some changes have been made in the years since the debut. Alan Tecchio has taken on the vocal duties here, and while he does not distance himself greatly from the style of McMaster, he is simply better at managing the task at hand. He can shriek like a harpy with the best of them, yet he restrains himself so he never becomes some awkward component of the instrumentation. But an even more profound improvement has been made in the guitar department, where Ron Jarzombek has taken over the position of Billy White. Jarzombek is sheer insanity on this release, a monster of ideas and quality riffing that had guitar maniacs' heads spinning when the album dropped. A wealth of leads and speed picked thrash rhythms conjoin to create an atmosphere through the notation alone. The rhythm section of Keyser and Colaluca remain, and both have also tightened their performances; to stunning results. Keyser has crafted himself one of most technically satisfying applications of the bass guitar in the history of metal music, not only complementing Jarzombek's witticisms but becoming an equal. Colaluca has perfected his mix of jamming fusion and electronic fills into something one rarely heard outside of the stricter, progressive rock/fusion circles.

But, musicianship aside, even if we were to assume aliens landed on our planet for a few weeks to record this album, each with dual concentric brains and six limbs, it is the music itself which launches Control and Resistance into the stratosphere. There are so many individual riffs on this album that I must have spent hours stopping and rewinding my original cassette version to try and comprehend what was going on. And yet, the riffs are never so indulgent that they strand the thematic nature of each track outside of its performance. "Instruments of Random Murder" arrives in a wash of adventurous guitars, plopping bass and shuffling drum work that at once immerses the listener while warning him/her (oh who am I kidding, how many girls listened to this record?) that THE GAME IS AFOOT. As it begins to thrash out of control, like the section at 1:15, you can actually feel the hysteria and panic of a murder, an autopsy, and a brain being wracked to find the answers. "The Eldritch" is fast and dangerous, with more intense thrashing that threatens to explode out of the seams. The little tapping lead is beautiful, and Tecchio's vocals fit like an escaped madman over the amazing flow of the verse...and yet it's the speed rhythm at 1:10 that ensures you will NEVER forget it. "Mayday in Kiev" has some of the best bass playing I've yet heard on any progressive metal composition, and this is one of those tunes that truly sucks you into the post-nuclear disaster landscape, a smorgasboard of excellent riffing.

Severe political fallout - toxic exchange of words
Soviet obscurantism under verbal attack
Abroad, outraged countries appeal for information
Met with grudging riposte, hesitant placation
At home, TASS reports no danger - nothing to fear
As deadly elemental isotopes spew into the biosphere

That happened! And now, YOU CAN BE THERE. The opening salvo of "The Fall of Reason" has a lot of bite as it proceeds into a scintillating sequence of clinical, punctual melodic thrashing sequences. Eight minutes in length without even the remotest trace of boredom. "Control and Resistance" is another jarring composition with fantastic bass and intense spurts of mechanical thrashwork, Tecchio reaching desperate heights as his throat glares through the madness of social ineptitude and mass conformity. "Hidden Cycles" thinks outside the box functional, terminal rhythms and percussion that make Fates Warning and Dream Theater of the period seem childish by comparison. "Life Cycles" has some interesting, clean tones that evoke a psychedelic mystique (modern Cynic reminds me of this song), but the bass storms and the track soon evolves into another thrashterpiece. "Dangerous Toy" may be some offhand reference to previous vocalist Jason McMaster's new gig with the lame hard rock band, or perhaps it was penned by McMaster himself, yet it's another strong Watchtower tune here with some circular, bouncing rhythms and entropic bass-guitar interplay.

Control and Resistance is incredible...a work of brilliance which far exceeds many similar attempts in the decades since. Bands like Psychotic Waltz or Spiral Architect have tried, but only scratched the surface of what Watchtower had already accomplished two decades ago. Atheist and Cynic haven't even come close. 1989 was a banner year for technical metal (Deathrow's Deception Ignored and Coroner's No More Color are two other examples that I enjoyed even more than this, if you can believe it), and yet this sophomore effort remains fairly timeless, despite its often dated production. And this is perhaps the only minor complaint I hold for Control and Resistance. The guitar tones are often a little thin for my tastes. When they are sharing space with the transcendental lead work, I can give it a pass, but just an inkling more power would have processed perfection. But, really, if you think this is going to be a distraction, you think wrong...because this album is a monument of possibilities, regardless.

Lowlights: You and I will never be this good. Ever.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (war of the senses, war of emotion)

Watchtower - Energetic Disassembly (1985)

Watchtower were an impressive technical thrash band for their day, one of the few that could actually be labeled 'progressive' in the 80s field without much dissent. Though it was the less refined of their two full length efforts, you can imagine Energetic Disassembly was something of an anomaly for a year in which bands like Slayer, Anthrax and Possessed were still cutting their teeth. Even the arguable progressive metal contemporaries Fates Warning were still exploring their traditional metal phase at this point, so this album is simply far out there, thinking ahead of the pack.

Having praised its distinct nature, then, I must say that I really do not enjoy this debut entirely. For all its shrieking eccentricity, it often fails to immerse me or conjure up the masterful compositional skill of its successor. It's almost a drag to listen through, knowing that there are very few riffs here that catch my attention beyond their oddness and the obvious wealth of idea that went into them. Most of the tracks jerk and meander about without delivering so much as a compelling melody, and Jason McMaster's vocals range between intense heights and awkward foolishness. This is one of the albums in my collection which has actually grown more tiresome with each successive listen, but there is still enough here to appeal to that very small niche of the progressive thrash fan.

"Violent Change" starts with a few jarring riffs that groove alongside the drums of Rick Colaluca, while McMaster lets loose too quickly. The only part of the song I actually enjoyed is the driving bass and leadwork after 2:00, though McMaster emits a few cool shrieks later in the track and the thrashing begins to foreshadow Control and Resistance's tighter mechanism. "Asylum" does work it for awhile, as the drums and Doug Keyser's bass pop and shuffle through a nightmare scenario scored in shrieking; the lead here is also pretty intense, but the remainder of the riffs passed through me as if I wasn't even there. "Tyrants in Distress" has a more traditional metal edge to it, not unlike Helstar, and "Social Fears" a few decent, shrill warnings where the vocals join the deep thrashing of the verse.

Heatflash - atomic disarray
Millions perish in a single instant
Chaos wrenched from all relation of time and space
In the threshold of immence confusion

And then follows the title track, which is a decent listen if only for the oodles of bass that anchor its progressive arrangement of thrashing fusion. "Argonne Forest" begin with some stop/start bass-driven pounding that flows into a chaotic verse thanks to McMaster's freakish presence, and there is a decent lead line. "Cimmerian Shadows" does a reasonable job of building mystique into a more traditional, melodic speed metal riff, and the closer "Meltdown" is possibly the most old school metal track on the album; aside from a few of the guitar chops, this could simply be a jammy, intense NWOBHM band.

The mix of the album feels a little sloppy to me, with the popping bass, siren-like wailing, crunchy guitars and the electronic drum fills that often bust through. But at least you can hear everything. The lyrics are suitably centered on the dynamics of both social injustices and their scientific application to the human psyche, with a slight not to fantasy, but they are quite well written and remain as interesting as the better riffs. At a few points, where the mix comes together, the album really does excel, and the reach does not exceed the grasp. Certainly it deserves mention for its novelty, and ambition, but I'd take their second album over this.

Highlights: Asylum, Social Fears Argonne Forest, Cimmerian Shadows

Verdict: Win [7/10] (no safe disposal)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Norns - In Fog They Appear [DEMO] (2009)

In Fog They Appear was the initial 2005 demo of Finnish band Norns, given a facelift here to inaugurate the birth of Voldsom records in Germany. The three tracks of the demo have been remastered and repackaged with bleak, black and white photography that is only too accurate to the sounds within. Such is an honorable pursuit, and Voldsom has done an excellent job with this, hopefully the first of many such releases. The minimalist approach to the effort is highly appealing (if not entirely novel).

As for the contents, Norns plays an extremely straight form of raw, unsullied black metal that honors the traditions of the genre's great pioneers Darkthrone and Burzum, while channeling the cold landscapes of their native European winter through a repetition of desolate rhythms that are imbued with simplified, epic melodies. This is a harsh, stripped brand of black metal which shares more in common with its Norse forebears than most Finnish countrymen (though you could argue a vague similarity to several of Horna's works). It's not the most ambitious of sounds, but the use of actual drums (courtesy of Vulcan) places it far above many similar works. The band is rounded out by Full Destruction on guitars, and Behemoth performing bass and vocals. The vocals are of particular importance here, for Behemoth has an ungodly rasp which exemplifies this genre, like a hissing wind that speaks the voice of the ages, praising the emptiness and condemning the folly of mankind.

With three compositions totalling over 32 minutes of music, this is the sort of demo that one must assume some patience for. "Descent in the Black Night" is rather short for the form, at just over five minutes, and commences with a blast of timeless, tested grimness that feels as familiar as it does justice to the ripping hostility of a high speed blizzard. Yet the track does not play only to this aesthetic, as the melody after 1:00 is more forgiving, like a wreath of sorrow that surrounds you, to shelter and guide you from this dark boreal nightmare. "Supreme Goat Cult" is over 9 minutes in length, with a similar sadness in its opening, rime covered stream of godless, paralytic chords. Behemoth again shines like a steel blade in the night, his vocals wed in unholy matrimony to the thundering rhythms, transcending (or rather, descending) into the memory. At around 3 minutes, the track breaks down into a slower segment ala Darkthrone, and maintains this pace for some time, shifting into a glorious, late rhythm that rises like a fortress of frost against a barren, level plain. The title track is over 18 minutes in length, and creates a similar saga to the first two tracks, only there is far more repetition, as it meanders through both faster paced and slower sections, my favorite of which is the storming sorrow at the 7-minute mark.

This leads me to perhaps the only complaint I can launch against a band so pure to their chosen form: there are a few points at which the repetition of the rhythms does not support the strength of demo's foundations. These largely occur during "In Fog They Appear", but a minute or two could also have been trimmed from "Supreme Goat Cult". Note that none of the actual riffs are bad, in fact they are beautiful in their simplicity, and for the most part the band never tries your patience. But a little 'trimming of the fat' would have made for a more punctual and effective demo release, still capturing the hopelessness the band excels at. In other words, it could have been just as effective at 24 minutes total as it is at 32.

But this is my only real gripe. I could hardly call Norns an original act, yet they perform this style as well as most other bands at the demo level, and in closing one's eyes to listen, In Fog They Appear does capture the imagery I demand from the tradition. I am unsure as to the status of this band, they are listed as 'split-up' on the Metal Archives, but the members are also involved in some similar acts Vornat and Nattfog. The packaging is superb, with the back panel of the booklet honoring the immortal Darkthrone, and the photography perfect to stare at while you listen through the compositions. I can only hope Voldsom will offer similar works in the future, whether they be re-issues or new releases, for this is a worthwhile initiation to both band and label.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Master's Hammer - Mantras (2009)

I am such a huge fan of the previous Master's Hammer albums Ritual and The Jilemnice Occultist that I admit I hold any new output from the Czechs to an impossibly high standard. I must not have been paying much attention to the news, because I had very little forewarning that a new album would even exist, yet here is Mantras in all its formidable, bizarre glory. Master's Hammer is not a band new to experimentation: Šlágry was an odd duck which alienated many of the band's original fans, and if you've followed Necrocock's work, his Kaviar Kavalier project is a real trip...and fall, into the pits of experimental obscurity. Mantras borrows just as much from those works as it does from anything previous in the Master's Hammer discography, and the result is an album that, while not sucking, really lacks for that primal, haunted gothic black edge that made their first two so compelling, morbid and beautiful.

Now, Master's Hammer are simply not a bad to dwell on their past exploits, and it was unlikely you were ever going to hear a Jilemnic Occultist Part II. Face facts. It was not going to happen. So the question remains: is the strange pastiche of styles on Mantras good enough to bear the band's monicker? Yes and no. You will hear everything here from traditional pagan/folk black to electro-porn with gothic vocals, but somehow it more than scrapes by on its charms and writing. The core of the outfit is, of course, Necrocock, and his guitars range from the black/thrash of the band's past to sleaze rock rhythms. He is complemented with synths, female vocals, and just about every combination that can make you scratch your head in wonder, including the ol' tympan drummer.

"Typograf" opens with the tympans, and an interesting selection of thrashing chords and organs that create a swirling, whirlwind of chaos that magnificently fits together like the pieces of some puzzle. I especially like the sad little guitar lead before the track transforms into its black metal origins. "Domanín" has some deep, gritty black/thrash rhythms that fit alongside the gothic male choir in the intro, and a nice interplay of acoustics and electric melodies that builds a desperate longing to its bridge. "Až Já Budu V Hrobe Hníti..." is very much old school Master's Hammer, with its crisp riffing and doomed organs, and "Čerti" takes the same organs and transforms them into a more proggish composition, with more great (if simple) leads courtesy of Necrocock. It's a pretty fascinating track, which does not exactly prepare you for the wild Lords of Acid-like techno rhythms that introduce "Bodhi", a smutty tune which would have probably fit in better with a new Kaviar Kavalier album. Yet, it's not bad, and kind of fun, especially the interaction between the little guitar melodies and synths after the 1:00 mark. The deep Czech vocals are...kinda seductive.

But we've got a long way to go.

"Červené Blato" is like stripper rock with deep weird vocals and ghey fashion runway keyboards. In fact, the guitar riff sounds a lot like that in "Free Your Mind" by R&B divas En Vogue, only with creepy Czech dudes vocalizing above it. I don't know whether to love this track or grab a crucifix and some garlic. "Tympan" is a song with tympan and some scintillating keyboard lines that build into a percussive muted picking on the guitar, and then some sort of synthesized pipes drive it home. "Vrana" is sleazy death metal with strange ambient sounds droning across it, and for the verse at least, Franta Štorm sounds like he is coughing up chicken bones. "Propesko" has bluesy guitar slidings, and then becomes like some alien Vegas lounge track, with the Czech whispers echoing across. It does break out some metal chords later, and to be honest this is one of the more interesting tracks of the album, because it's so out of left field that you can't help but sit and stare with your jaw agape.

Are we there yet? No.

"Fantasie" is like some freeform Czech sex poet strutting his sexy throat music over some sleazy porn music, while strippers festooned in masquerade costumes spread and shake across the stage behind him. "Ganesha Mantra" is Master's Hammer's take on tribal Hindu techno?! Does that even make sense? The song is like something Mr. Bungle might try, and Necrocock & crew somehow pullit off. Jáma Pekel begins with creepy creature sounds, also like something Mike Patton would use on a track, but then it transforms into a punkish black metal rhythm and some weird, jangly acoustics that hover over the bridge riff. Quite nice! "Epitaf" closes out the album with chugging nu-metal rhythms, busy percussion and more of the slavic vocal slather.

If you've made it this far with me, you are probably wondering, what the FUCK did you just listen to? It's as bizarre as anything Master's Hammer have offered to date, not to mention the work of its constituent Necrocock. But, strangely enough, after my initial revulsion came wonder, and perhaps even a bit of joy. This is not the band you used to love in the late 80s/90s, but it's a staggeringly original entity worth the risk of the more daring avant-garde metal fan. The album brims with sexuality, cosmic energy and gothic black metal roots, all at once, and forms them into an album with a great many sounds to experience. Is it perfect? Absolutely not, and I would not put it on a level plane with Jilemnice or Ritual. But it does rock, in a weird way, and I feel my fondness for it increasing like a pulse in my pants.

Master's Hammer have been a band of weirdos for quite awhile. Isn't it time we caught up to them?

Highlights: picturing in your mind what videos for some of these songs might be like. Dibs on the alien transexual midget carousel.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Lux Divina - From the Tomb to Nature's Blood (2009)

Spain's Lux Divina have been around for over a decade now, releasing a few demos and an EP around the turn of the century, and taking their time to produce this first full-length debut. Though the result is not the most thrilling pagan black metal you'll hear in this year, it's competent and well-performed, capable of producing a fine atmosphere that rekindles early Borknagar, especially through the use of Norax' clean vocals which blend in well over the thriving acoustic segments and glorious tones of the chords. Make no mistake, From the Tomb to Nature's Blood is not re-writing the book on the style, as hundreds of bands have previously mixed their harsher black metal side with the folk elements, and lyrically Lux Divina offer up only the most basic lyrics that pay tribute to the forest, the times of old, and whatever pagan gods they libate.

"Forgotten Deity (Deletrix) Part I" lets a few chords ring before storming forward into some adequate, melodic black metal, with a mix of deep clean male vocals and Norax' biting snarl. The note selection is glorious enough to conceive a rapturous momentum, but it's not exactly stunning. "Bloody Herbs of Revenge" and "Praise Hymn to the Horned God" feel like more of the same, with a good balance of plodding, woodland acoustics, soaring clean vocals and repulsive yet graceful black metal sections. I found most of the album's stronger moments to arrive later, like the beauty of "The Oracle of the Funeral Trees" or the creeping shadows of "Black Goddess' Mountains". "To Darkened Catacombs" also has a great rocking out feeling that pagan black does not often create. I didn't quite like the short vocal piece "Serpents Philosophy", but it's pretty folkish and lets Norax get that out of his system.

From the Tomb to Nature's Blood sounds pretty good, the tones are earthen feeling and all the instrumentation is clear, without the vocals ever dominating too fiercely. There is a strong core to the band, though they could sharpen up their riff writing. It's a decent effort from a country which is starting to produce a lot more in the black and folk genres, and since I don't always associate Spain with the Northern European history, a slightly different take on that style.

Highlights: The Oracle of the Funeral Trees, Black Goddess' Mountains, To Darkened Catacombs

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Expulsion - Wasteworld (2009)

Because hearing one great new Dutch death metal record in a week was not enough, I present to you the full-length from Expulsion. This is a fast, fast band, who hitch explosive thrash metal bumpers onto their grisly roller coaster of writhing, spastic death. Their style feels a lot like the energetic Swedish melodic death of a band like At the Gates, Terror 2000 or the more frenetic tracks of The Haunted, injected with a hyperactive desperation, as if the world is about to end over and over again, and Expulsion has a lot that they want to get off their chests first!

You are first given a swelling, brief guitar instrumental before the band just nails you in the face with a powerful trio of "Land of Empty Graves", "Neoconomicon" (hahaha), and "End of Days", the latter of which is a thrashing eruption that could probably power most vehicles if its energy could be contained. I have rarely heard such spastic lambasting outside of the faster tracks from Darkane, Dimension Zero or Terror 2000, and yet even here the band has some great riffs like the dizzying bends after the 1:00 mark. I'd advise you take a breather after these, because "Martyr" is only mildly more forgiving, and "Messianic Shadows" slows down to a battlefield crawl before its great initial leads and savage thrust. There are plenty of quality offerings to compose the remainder of this debut, including the jumpy "Promise Never Made" and the storming onslaught of "Spirit Emission".

If there is any weakness to Expulsion, well, perhaps they just move too quickly too often. They do this with riffing fortitude, mind you, but a little bit of an additional dynamic shift here or there would not harm their writing. Like a testosterone rush, these songs can leave you in the dust feeling tired and less appreciative after the fact. Not to say that the album flies past for 100% of the playlength, but just enough that you can almost get bored by the speed. I also did not find myself completely falling for A.B.'s vocal bark, I'd almost expect something wilder to match up with the rapid riffing, but it's not necessarily bad. Wasteworld is a debut that should turn heads just sharply enough that the necks connected to those heads are strained or snapped, and the general quality of the freakish, terminal riffs is enough to recommend it by.

Highlights: End of Days, Messianic Shadows, Primise Never Made, Spirit Emission

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Devious - Vision (2009)

Devious's previous album from 2007, Domain, was an excellent effort of old school death and thrash metal conjoined into a modern medium, with a great many memorable riffs and a solid atmosphere. Naturally I've been excited to hear the follow-up, and while Vision feels a little deeper and there is less of an immediate catchy feeling, it's a more brutal record which is every bit the equal of its predecessor. There is a little less thrash on this record, instead it goes toe to toe with most modern death metal bands. The riffs are grooving and brutal, but laden in all manner of amazing melodies. Synthesizers resound off into the atmosphere, used sparsely and efficiently to achieve an epic environment.

Vision is really what I want to hear from a modern death metal release. It honors all of its influences while forging a dark new path. Everything from a little earlier Hypocrisy to a nod at Polish bands like Vader, but both brutal and musical enough to appeal to almost any fan of well performed, produced death. "Heritage of the Reckless" is a jaw dropping opener, from its gorgeous and moribund orchestration to the arrival of downtrodden melodies and relentless, grooving guitars that slam over you like a squad of infernal tanks. The riffs that start at 2:40 are fucking incredible, like a more technical modern Pestilence. "False Identity" opens with a huge, technical groove, with more bottom end to the mutes than most Atlanta nightclubs and a swerving column of chords that emit monolithic atmosphere. "Respiration of Fear" transforms from New Age/electro into a deep melodeath thrash, with great riffs to offset any feel of derivation that similar bands often lapse into. "Abide" has a great sample from the Merovingian in Matrix Reloaded, and then rolls forward like a more melodic Hail of Bullets, or modern Hypocrisy hymn.

Sold yet? But wait, there's more! "Impulse Overload" is a brutal slugging chug track which should create a jerking motion in all of your limbs, controlling you to acts of violent impulse against whatever is closest, an object or person. Like Suffocation and Vader if half their members had passed out from food poisoning, and the remainder had to fuse together to perform a track. "Predefined" teases you with a rolling orchestra that busts out into a Pestilence style groove, then erupting into a flurry of melodic speed. "Validate" is better and more brutal melodic death than almost anything else I've heard lately, firmly anchored in the palm mutes while the tones of deep synth and bass permeate the mix. The album closes with "Disconnect", another track which can merge touches of orchestration into a mesmerizing, complex atmosphere that is beyond compelling. In fact, I am reminded slightly of the last few Septic Flesh albums, where the brutality and operatic nature swells together. Only more surgical.

Vision is a clear statement of just that...a progression forward for a band who was already showing signs of greatness on their previous full-length. The album is modern and exciting without abandoning any of its values and influences, and it sounds simply stunning in the mix. Technical without being indulgent, the band is always balancing its melody writing with the brickhouse brutality below. I'll be clear: if you hate all modern flourishes, melodic death metal elements and massive studio production in your death metal, you should avoid this like the plague, and have fun living in the past. If you want to hear a respectable effort that strives towards a future without letting go of the roots, send your money to Devious. It will keep them working, and we will be the ones to profit.

Highlights: getting hammered into the floor and not wanting to get up.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]