Sunday, May 31, 2009

Týr - By the Light of the Northern Star (2009)

It's hard to believe that just one short year after releasing their spectacular Land, Týr have once again returned to my speakers to carry me across the sea on their heathen crusade. There's 9 tracks here and right away you can hear the differences between this album and their others. By the Light of the Northern Star is much more upbeat, with faster tempos on some songs. Overall there's a lighthearted atmosphere here and there is a definite "bounciness" to some of the tracks. The album suffers a bit in this regard. There's a lack of that driving emotion that I really enjoyed in their previous albums. Also gone are the 10+ minute epics on Land, and even the longer 6-7 minute tunes. The longest song on here is 5:57 so the album does feel more focused. It's a mixed bag, but there is still some good to be found.

The album opener, "Hold the Heathen Hammer High", is a great folk metal anthem. It's fast, catchy and my favorite track on the album. "Tróndur í Gøtu" is another great tune filled with Tyr's wonderful clean vocals. There's also some very nice guitar work about halfway through. "By The Sword In My Hand" and "Ride" are two more great songs, once again uptempo and very catchy. There are also some great melodies in songs like "Hear The Heathen Call" and the title track. The album definitely sounds like a Týr album, but it could have been much better.

If I could use one phrase to describe By the Light... it would be "by the numbers". It's got all the Týr trademarks, but fails to deliver the number of memorable, emotional pagan metal songs like their previous works. Songs like "Northern Gate" and "Into The Storm" are fluff tracks and could have really benefited from having more time spent working with them. Perhaps if they had waited another year to refine and really work with these tunes then this could have been a much better album but as it stands it's a bit a of a disappointment. If you're a fan of Týr or folk metal then this is for you, but otherwise you can skip it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (when pagan poets speak of heathen heroes)

Drag Me To Hell (2009)

You are likely hearing this movie compared to the Evil Dead movies and it is not an unfounded comparison. Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell is a mix of great horror and tension and some of the funniest stuff I’ve seen on screen in a long time. It has goat demons, gypsy curses, animal sacrifice and just to keep things light an anvil gets dropped on someone’s head.

Alison Lohman is no Bruce Campbell, but she’s enjoyable and charming enough to elicit a bit of empathy which is rare in these types of movies. Additionally, like Ash she doesn’t take the demon’s abuse lying down. You’ll notice a handful of signature Raimi camera moves, but the budget differences are huge and he’s seemingly able to do whatever he wants here.

The basic premise involves Lohman’s character running afoul of a gypsy who places a curse on her. This particular curse involves three days of torment from what the movie calls a “Lamia” although it is obviously a Baphomet-like goat demon. On the third day she will do as the title says and be dragged to hell. What follows is a number of attempts to appease the demon and remove the curse.

The movie relies heavily on close camera shots, slow builds and loud sounds, followed by shock images like mouthfuls of bugs and eye-cake. Raimi pulls it off by keeping the tension at its peak for the entire movie. At just about an hour and a half in length each scene leads quickly to the next where the Lamia is fucking with Lohman in one gross/startling/humorous way or another. It is certainly worth seeing in a theater with a great sound system because the effects and music are completely necessary to the mood.

If you are sick of Raimi, horror-comedies, or goats that tell it like it is you may as well skip Drag Me To Hell. I spent the whole movie laughing hysterically.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Geist - Galeere (2009)

The interior of the German black metal scene must be massive, because I'm still encountering bands I've never even heard of on an almost daily basis. Could we get a head count over there? Maybe I should pursue some stock options in corpse paint.

Geist is one such band. I have no recollection of encountering their previous albums, but Galeere is their third, a polished if not immediately memorable album which improves upon further aural exploration. The title translates to 'Galley', and the cover image wonderfully captures the vibe of the music: cold, atmospheric black metal, lost at sea on a ghost ship full of dark memories. That the music manages to capture this motif perfectly is to the band's credit, for the band often trade in their blast beats for somber, graceful melodic vistas, like the haunting beauty of the first rays of sun after a massive storm at sea.

Galeere is split across five tracks, most of which hover at above the 8 minute mark, with the extensive "Unter toten Kapitänen" bringing up the rear with over 15 minutes of bleak marine ambience, samples and glorious chords. This was my favorite track on the entire album, though the creepy moments opening "Durch Lichtlose Tiefen" and the subsequent Carpathian Forest-style black rhythm are also quite good. Most impressive is the consistent atmosphere, a captivating foray into maritime black metal, which I'm guessing is a criminally underrated theme for this genre of music. The band's occasional use of 'aquatic' effects over the rhythm are always well timed and placed.

Galeere is quite the surprise, and yet another example of how someone can take a stale genre of music and create something interesting with only a mild amount of stylistic variation. It's not a masterpiece but it hints at such greatness, perhaps the band will maintain this theme. This is easily good enough that I've gone to track down the band's previous output which I missed. I'd recommend it to anyone seeking true black metal with a twist.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Sol Axis - ...To Mark the Ages (2009)

Once again I am bummed to find that I have arrived too late to appreciate a band during its existence. Sol Axis was an Irish black metal project with a vicious and shredding tone painting trails of blood across the malleable darkness of an unforgiving atmosphere. ...To Mark the Ages is a collection of their previously released and now re-mastered 2004 demo, and an EP of the same name. In addition there are two Bathory covers ("Raise the Dead" and "The Return of Darkness and Evil") and an unreleased track. The band featured some members of lesser known Irish bands like Abaddon Incarnate, Kingdom and Dreamsfear.

Much of the material ranges from good to great. In particular I enjoyed "Dirge for All Nations" from the 2004 demo, which alternates a modern Satyricon-like groove with a somber blasting segment. "Through Red Soil" from the EP has some barbaric drumming and churning black atmospheres conjured through the chords and apocalyptic vocals, with a nice Norsecore style arpeggiated breakdown. "Scars On Earth" features a grim, flowing riff along with a minimal rocking drumbeat before blasting out. Both Bathory covers are decent, "Raise the Dead" the better of the two.

The project is listed 'On-Hold' at their MySpace page, so with luck these guys might strap together a full length onslaught. While I can't call their writing truly unique, it's got that an intangible blackened freshness to it I find rare in a lot of black metal. It also wouldn't hurt to have another Irish band to follow besides Primordial and Altar of Plagues.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Fenriz' Red Planet & Nattefrost - Engangsgrill (2009)

Does Fenriz fail at anything? He's done ambient, folk metal, and doom material before, and all have been successful enough distractions from his main band (Darkthrone if you are one of those 3-4 people who don't know). Engangsgrill isn't some bold new project or statement, it's just a fun split from a couple of Norway's finest.

The Red Planet material is fuzzy old school doom with Fenriz rocking out the clean vocals. The theme here is clearly centered in the old space pulp novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Of the three tracks, "Jon Carter, Man on Mars" kicks out the best groove, but "My Ship Sailed Without Me" has a nice melancholic vibe well worth a bong trip. "Temple of the Red Dawn Rising" also evokes a cool melody before the shuffle of its verse rhythms. The material here isn't a far cry from some of the doomier elements of his other projects Isengarde or Valhall. Primal, raw and without a shred of pretention. For something recorded in 1993 it's still pretty charming.

The Nattefrost material continues the path of his hybrid punk-meets-Carpathian Forest. There are five tracks ranging from the messy splatter country punk of "Uskyldighet" to the blues cum black metal snear of "Sin Goddamnit". As with most of his solo recordings (and those of his mainstay) these are good fun, but things get even better when he takes a turn for the darker, the groovy and despiccable "Humiliated and Pissed Upon" with a big Celtic Frost-influenced guitar groove. "Lustmord" is a strange piece with some sludgy guitars, sparse drums and voice samples.

In the end, the split feels like something these gentlemen wanted aired out of their system, and it's successful enough. Just don't go into expecting something of Darkthrone/Carpathian quality and you should come out, unscathed and smiling. I'd also like to state that doom metal based on space pulp is a fantastic idea, I would not mind a full-length from this Fenriz project (we all know there will be more Nattefrost).

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Havok - Burn (2009)

The retro thrash/speed metal scene continues to expand and explode here in the USA. At its core: a rabid new generation of 80s worshiping, hi-top sporting maniacs. All but a few arrive with little more than wishful thoughts and an exaggerated sense of nostalgia. Then there are those who really 'get it' and release albums like this one, Burn, debut from Colorado's Havok (naught to do with the German and Swedish death metal bands of the same name). This is no significant contribution to the genre, but it's a well balanced attack and far superior to many of their flash-in-the-pan peers.

Burn is a crisp and punchy debut effort following up a short series of demos and EPs. A lot of the material here is from those prior releases but reworked, and it all sounds good. Had this released in its 'spiritual' decade of origin, the 80s, it'd be the type of album the Bay Area thrash connoisseurs would devour on a Friday night while throwing empty beer cans at poseurs. That isn't to say Havok fuck around, you will not find the corny (and not at all entertaining) lyrics here. These guys have things to sing about aside from beer and 'thrash' itself, and for that I am grateful. As for influences, I believe I already covered this, but you'll hear some Exodus, Megadeth, early Metallica and Testament. Like some of these bands, they've tastefully incorporated the occasional use of acoustics (intro) and a lot of charging melodic hooks in addition to the thrashier riffing. Vocal/guitar-slinger David Sanchez has a hybrid of grit and squeal not unlike a mixture of Chuck Billy, Schmier and Zetro.

There isn't a single track on Burn which fails to deliver consistent songwriting and a few riffs sure to quicken the blood and move the neck into its jackhammering position. I personally enjoyed the frenzied hooks of "Ivory Tower" and "The Disease", but at no point was I moved to skip a track when listening through. Talented but reined in tightly, the riffs are complex enough to keep a guitar fan interested and the leads tend towards memorable. The production is great, good enough for the present but entirely representative of the Golden Decade. I'm glad to see this band hook up with Candlelight Records. Though they offer nothing new in the grand scheme, they're one of the better 'new is old' school thrash metal contenders here in the States and deserve some exposure.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, May 29, 2009

Oranssi Pazuzu - Muukalainen Puhuu (2009)

We've heard the term 'psychedelic black metal' bandied about for years, most often referring to a band like Nachtmystium (not unfairly) because of an obvious nostalgic twist to their recent material, coming across like black metal which was composed in the late 60s and then sent forward in time. In my opinion 'psychedelic' is more an effect on the listener rather than a pre-determined set of sounds or rules, and to this extent, Oranssi Pazuzu certainly qualifies with their debut. Muukalainen Puhuu is a hypnotic journey with only its bare roots in the black metal territory. Like a sapling planted on the moon, it's roots in the dark gray earth but its growth twisted ever into the void of the unknown.

You'll immediately take notice of the striking cover image: an astral astronaut afield of the glow of stars and nebular dust. When listening to this album, I felt much like the cerebral cosmonaut staking ground in an entirely new reality, just as empty as my previous one. The timbre of tin cans, guitar forged ambience and organs shift into a wondrous speed-picked melody worthy of Voivod's finest. The nightmare is known as "Korppi", and explosions of siren-like space effects scream across the repetitious, mesmerizing bass line. Occasionally the track will lapse into a freeform vibe as the space echoes of supernova guitars highlight the planetary dust. "Danjon Nolla" is creepy as fuck, I had to look up at night to make sure a spectral alien star-castle wasn't about to land directly on my house. The pick up riffs are scathing and glorious, but the freakish verse is bound to return before long and you WILL be assimilated. "Kangastus 1968" shifts into a subtle, tranquil blues, like a western space opera saloon if the entire galaxy spoke Finnish. One can hope! The dredge of "Suuri Pää Taivaasta" serves as a semi-sequel, it comes across like a showdown between two dark moons strapping colt .45s and chewing cigars. "Myöhempien Aikojen Pyhien Teatterin Rukoilijasirkka" re-creates black metal into a churning abyss of high speed bluesy guitars, something like 'Nazi Driver-era' Soundgarden of 1989, but with the added terror of more spacey Voivod-esque shifts in rhythm. "Dub Kuolleen Porton Muistolle" is essentially black metal space ragga. I am not fucking with you. Black metal space reggae. Unparalleled, mortifying and exhilirating simultaneously. The title track follows, dark strobing ambience layered in swaths of guitar experimentation. The perfect prelude to the album's mystifying closer, "Kerettiläinen Vuohi", which features perky little surf clean guitars doing a bluesy lick over the jangling dissonant chords. Spellbinding.

An album like Muukalainen Puhuu doesn't come along very often, an album which somehow recreates and celebrates the black miasma of Scandinavian extremity while simultaneously broadcasting entire new realms of possibility into the stale dried metal blood. At first I regarded the disc with something of a curiosity, a curiosity that has now escalated into baited obsession. This is probably the best debut album I have yet heard in 2009, no...the best ALBUM I have yet heard in 2009. If anything deserves your attention lately, it would be this. Not a dry eye in the house. Phenomenal. Phenomena.

Verdict: Epic Win [10/10]

Ajattara - Äpäre (2006)

Ajattara have always reveled in their simplistic method of executing slow to mid-paced black metal with native lyrics, almost folk-like in places without the use of excess acoustics or humppa instrumentation (they DID release an acoustic folk album just this year though). Critical praise for the band has plummeted since their inception, it seems with each new album, as the band becomes marginally more accessible, they turn off another wave fans. I could care less about this myself, but sadly Äpäre was their last output of quality (2007's follow-up Kalmanto is an atrocity against Ukko). Much of the negative critique is misplaced here: despite the cleaner tones and subdued aggression, Äpäre is a powerful effort with some highly memorable fare.

A trance-like synthesizer launches the big grooves of "Hurmasta", Ruoja (Pasi Koskinen) snarling like a wounded man cut open and left to die in the stellar winter. That's right, you never heard him do vocals like these when he was fronting Amorphis. "Raato" creates a simple, depressive doom groove, while keys create a subtle lift to the dark and constant chords of the chorus. "Säälin Koira" is outrageously good, my favorite track of the album for the dark and fretful verse and glorious chorus. Reall, this is all I require out of an Ajattara album. More of this please! "Lautuma" is dark and frothy, like a tavern at midnight, its patrons mostly gone or drunk on the floor, when a maniac with a rusted scythe arrives. Koskinen's vocals once again put the simplicty of the composition over the edge with venomous black poetry. "Eksyneet" escalates its careening acoustic line into a snake-charmer's rhythm of brutal tutelage. "Hirsipuulintu" transforms from dark piano chord into an Amon Amarth-like charger of dark bloodshed. Again, basic and hypnotic riffing, synthesizer presence and dense throat create an unforgettable haunting environment. Of the album's remainder, "Itse" is notable for its slow and creepy crawl, while "Koito" is one of the most atmospheric pieces here.

While some might feel it's too 'clean' to be effective, the production of this record nonetheless maintains the ominous tones required for conquest. I could liken this record to Barathrum playing in a department store but no one would understand. Ajattara simply shares that same sense of bombast and black purity, stripped of its needless excess and delivered right from the gut like an axe to the neck. Äpäre may lack some of the raw tones of its predecessors, but it's equally worthy and stands poised at the height of their discography to date.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Demigod - Slumber of Sullen Eyes (1992)

Along with the similarly-named Demilich, Demigod represent exactly 1/2 of the best Finnish death output of the 90s. Slumber of Sullen Eyes is an album of remarkable depth for 1992, incorporating somber melodies and atmosphere into its base brutality. This band has never disappointed me, but I still identify most strongly with their roots, fusing deep, Floridian-influenced death metal grooves with cosmic and mystical themes.

A brief intro erupts into the searing "As I Behold I Despise", with a basic if killer riff transforming into a groove reminiscent of Bolt Thrower. Of note is the lengthy bridge segment where the bands becomes highly atmospheric, adding melodies and tasteful leads. "Dead Soul" crushes with a thrashing low-end riff over steady double bass rhythms, again the groove recalls early Bolt Thrower (and maybe a little Dismember on this tune) but capitalized on its use of leads to create a progressive edge for its day. "The Forlorn" opens with an excellent riff, dual guitar harmonies creating a classic death hammering which alternates with a shifting groove. "Tears of God" is a death/doom piece with scarce use of synths to add a layer of atmosphere above its tireless and frightening groove and step. The title track has an air of Pestilence in its chords and composition, one of the most enduring tracks on this release. The remainder of the tracks are all good, with special attention to the bass strumming of "Fear Obscures from Within" and the excellent descending rhythm of "Towards the Shrouded Infinity".

Lifeless are their minds
In the embrace of death
In infinity awakened souls
Shall remain forlorn
The journey through eternities
Mists and blackened skies
I became the one
Beyond all mortal purity

One gets the feeling listening to Slumber of Sullen Eyes that it was very much ahead of its time. While it's not an entirely unique experience, it does use its own influences to set the stage for much to come over the next decade. Brutal and percussive, there was plenty to appeal towards the pit population, yet the material is much deeper. Finland never developed a death metal scene in the 90s to rival that of neighbors Sweden, but Demigod was certainly worthy, and they remain so even if we don't hear from them as often as we might like.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (Summoned to the vale of tears)

Yearning - Frore Meadow (2001)

Yearning is just one of those survivor bands: their releases continue to arrive across the years, but with little fanfare. The line-up has been stripped to just multi-instrumentalist Juhani Palomäki these days, but was once a pretty functional, full band. A lot of you might know Juhani from his more recent band, Colosseum. I should also point out that all of their albums have been good. The core crooning and flowing melodic gothic/folk/doom of With Tragedies Adorned (debut) had been highly refined by the point of 2001's Frore Meadow, and this particular album stands as my favorite release from the group.

I'd urge the listener to take a long look at the cover art, focus in on the visions of pale moon-bathed landscapes and take an internal sojourn through fantastic forests. A soundtrack has been provided to dive into such activities. "Bleak" opens the tale with a driving stream of melancholic chords which should be an immediate turn-on for any fan of mid-period Katatonia, Rapture, or Daylight Dies. The vocals employed carrier a folksier edge than those bands, but the structure is similar. The forward momentum of its metallic riffs is often broken by brief melodic interviews using synths, acoustics, etc, but it comes together nicely. "Solitary" employs a dour acoustic melody below the verse, becoming metallic only later in the piece. "Autumn" is an EXCELLENT track, the best on this album and perhaps my favorite Yearning composition period. A melody both glorious and creepy soars over a sequence of chugging, slowed gothic/doom guitars. The vocals are perfect on this track, and it's ever sliding down the downward spiral of despair it creates. This would be difficult to follow-up, but "The Fall" is also quite good, with its deep vocal tones ringing over the driving, catchy chords. "Years of Pain" is an extended piano/synth piece which creates a worthwhile vista amidsts its metal brethren.

Next, the album trots out a trio of shorter tunes. "Forsaken" starts with a nice clicky drum beat. "Frore Meadow" is a beautiful instrumental with some synthesized flutes. "The Race" has a nice vocal melody to it. "Elegy of Blood" picks up in length, a flowing gothic doom track with some scintillating pipe organ tones, mostly instrumental though Juhani's distinct throat erupts in the middle. "In Strange Slowfooted Fever" is another piano/synth track, with a soundtrack feel to it, think Danny Elfman but with Juhani's vocals present. The album closes with a long but sweet dark ambient piece, the rumbling "Disappearance".

While there is nothing actually bad here, I do wish the focus had been on the songs like "Autumn" or "The Race". It seems much of the 2nd half of the album consists of instrumentals or shorter songs, shall we say more 'experimental' than anything they had done before this. Granted, I enjoyed each of these tracks, but it feels like a loss of momentum. "Autumn" is just such a great song. Pound for pound, Frore Meadow is still my favorite full-length from this underappreciated Finnish band. Despite the often irregularity of its components, its still a distinct and creative vision that I have enjoyed down through the years. The album sounds great whether its striding along in gothic metal grace or lush synth work.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (Gone with freezing rain)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ensiferum - Victory Songs (2007)

Losing Jari Mäenpää to Wintersun in 2004 was a big blow to Ensiferum who by this time had already released two great folk/viking metal albums and were on tour. Initially Petri Lindroos (formerly of Norther) stepped in as a live replacement, but he was soon made a full member by the band. So with a new vocalist/guitarist, a new bassist/singer/songwriter, and a new drummer, could Ensiferum come back despite losing their amazing multi-talented frontman and a new line-up?

The answer is yes.

Musically, Victory Songs is similar to the extremely fast and aggressive folk metal characteristic of Ensiferum heard on their previous two albums - though the genre-merging Jari Mäenpää was so fond of is obviously absent (which I'm not sure is a positive or a negative). With the loss of Jari the vocals have been divided between Petri Lindroos (harsh), Sami Hinkka (clean), and Markus Toivonen (clean) creating a dynamic sound that I really enjoy. Petri thankfully uses a completely different vocal style from his work with Norther, a harsh throaty singing style that really fits in well with the music.

"Ad Victoriam" begins the album with a quite long folky intro which leads into "Blood is the Price of Glory" a great Amon Amarth-esque song about the honor of dying in battle and the cowards who run from it. The lyrics have all been written by newcomer Sami Hinkka (except for "The New Dawn" written by Lindroos) who does an excellent job filling in for Jari Mäenpää. "Deathbringer from the Sky" is a really excellent song telling the story of a dragon coming back from legend to wreck havoc upon the land. "Ahti" begins with soft sounds of the ocean (Ahti is a Finnish God of the Sea) which crashes into a sort of melodic death folk metal bar song - awesome. Then comes "One More Magic Potion", perhaps the greatest song about getting loaded off magic potions brewed by a strange old woman that you've met in the woods. "Wanderer" slows the album down - but not for a ballad, who do you think you're listening to, Rhapsody of Fire? Nope, just a badass song about the world's most interesting guy:

With bare hands he has taken many lives
He's had a hundred women by his side
From tending woods through the freezing north
He's known on every sea and far beyond

With it's cool recorder intro, "Raised by the Sword" brings the speed back up, and "The New Dawn" follows it with the fastest song on the album. The last song on the album is the 10 minute opus "Victory Songs". The first 3 minutes features a soft folk intro, but at the 3:13 mark the song picks up and easily becomes the best song on the album - bringing it full circle by using the main riff of "Ad Victoriam", heard near the end of the song, in the chorus and the eventual outro of "Victory Songs":

Swords in their hands they killed each and every man
Who dared to invade their sacred land
Victory songs are rising in the night
Telling all of their undying strength and might

Great album, pure and simple.

Verdict: Epic Win [10/10]

Kalmah - The Black Waltz (2006)

In 2006 Kalmah released The Black Waltz, the follow-up to Swampsong, which included a heavier guitar sound, a new keyboard player, and a much heavier and harsher vocal style from frontman Pekka Kokko. In effect Kalmah returned as a brand new band showing that it's possible for bands to successfully change their sound without the overly fickle listening community vowing to never listen to it again.

While the sound might have changed on The Black Waltz, Kalmah haven't completely forgotten the fast, catchy, and memorable playing that has always stood them apart from fellow Finnish melodic death metalers. "Defeat" showcases both the new and the old Kalmah, a fast and crushing opener with a great catchy chorus and liberal use of the 'gang vocals' that characterize the newer Kalmah sound. "Bitter Metallic Side", "Time Takes Us All", and "To the Gallows" all follow in the same vein as "Defeat" - fast and crushing songs with great choruses, and in the case of "To the Gallows", more excellent usage of the 'gang vocals' courtesy of The Official Kalmah Pig Unit. "Svieri Doroga" slows the album down with a slow acoustic piece from Antti Kokko, and leads the album into the title track. "The Black Waltz" shows a more melodic side of Kalmah, transitioning into another cool little acoustic solo like "Svieri Doroga" over part-way through the song. "The Groan of Wind" shows off this newer melodic sound as well with a mid-paced thrasher while "With Terminal Intensity", "Mindrust" and "One from the Stands" all keep the fast and heavy sound heard in the first half of the album. "Man of the King" gets a special mention because I just love the "GAH!" from the intro - and the song is pretty fucking awesome as well with a great showing from new keyboardist Marco Sneck.

The only criticism I have after numerous listens of the album is that at the midpoint, "Svieri Doroga/The Black Waltz", the album has a tenancy to slow down a bit too much from the first four tracks, ruining the cohesive feel of the album that I felt was especially prevalent in Swampsong. But if you can get through the midpoint, and the new vocals, the rest of the album will not disappoint you at all.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (We all have to hail the man behind the pain)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sentenced - Amok (1995)

Amok is an important album for me in many ways. Perhaps it's an important album for everyone and they just don't know it. One of the earliest triumphs to emerge from the cross-pollination of death metal and classic, melodic riffing, it's one of the true forebears of the 'melodeath' we know today, though not one which has often been copied nor equaled. It's also a crushing frustration, because it's the last full-length with Taneli Jarva on vocals, and neither Sentenced nor his new band The Black League would ever write an album even close to this in quality.

This is a perfect union of death metal roots aggression and melody. The band had an interesting style going on its predecessor North From Here, which was a melancholic but extremely melodic take on straight laced death metal. Amok is not really a 'death' metal album. Jarva's vocals are still growls, and loaded with character at that, but the music here is classic, melodic metal full of triumphant hooks and solid verse rhythms. "The War Ain't Over!" begins with some flange guitars over the samples of bombs and cannon fire, and then the guitars break out into a crazy awesome melody after a few keyboard notes. Jarva's slathering, almost drunk sounding vocals drive it home, before a brief acoustic bridge. The rest of the track is pure magic, without a single mispaced noted. Brilliant. "Phenix" goes one further with an AMAZING melody to lead off. The bluesy metal riffing of the verse is excellent, and the emotional inertia of its chorus is beautiful. "New Age Messiah" offers a sad and wondrous stream of mutes and chords which would characterize a great many of their future material. But it also has Taneli Jarva's explosive vocal tethering, and a tasteful touch of very brief female vocals.

Far too long - the truth's been inverted by false tongues
and far too long - false prophets have infested the holy ground;
the holy Earth;
the pagan Reign of Nature...
now the time is right (too late)!

I would explode every time I heard this chorus! This and a few other albums (Elegy, Passage, The Jester Race, etc) restored my faith that metal could offer something new and impressive after the waning early 90s. "Forever Lost" is another stunning track with some great acoustic riffs and interesting, majestic build-up. with me! Oh the bliss. The great riffs. "Funeral Spring" creates a bluesy Southern feel over some slower metal chords yet fits right in with the faster material. Jarva uses a deep clean voice intertwined with his growls here. "Nepenthe" is a crystalline acoustic that transforms into pure balls out metal rocking. "Dance on the Graves ('lil Siztah)" is another of the more experimental, rock tunes but still flows with some excellent metal melodies. One could consider these past few tracks the prelude to Jarva's future rock'n'roll direction with The Black League. "Moon Magick" is a mood piece with some great drumming and layers of guitar atmospherics. "The Golden Stream of Lapland" completes the album, an excellent instrumental with some burning, immersive leads.

In 1995 there were few musicians writing material of this quality, in metal or otherwise. Not to mention the durability! It may not bear the densely overdubbed production values of today's artists, but Amok still has a classic, fresh appeal. All the instruments sound clear, fantastic, yet there is a raw edge manifest in Jarva's vocals which creates an organic sheen. Such a creative and expressive use of polar metal extremes in tangent! By far the best material Sentenced have ever produced. Ville Laihiala was a decent singer but really a one trick pony. His voice, consistent though it is, never captured that drunken rage and 'about to fall off the horse' quality which characterized this masterpiece. This is an essential album to own if you like metal with melody or really any good rock music.

Verdict: Epic Win [10/10]
(Bury your dreams and choose catharsis)

Dolorian - When All the Laughter Has Gone (1999)

Finland may not be a doom forge equal to that which, say, the UK has birthed, but it has always had a small, diverse and impressive share of such bands (Shape of Despair, Umbra Nihil, Tyranny, etc). But Dolorian has to be my favorite. A bleak and unforgettable sound incorporating the sparse use of lumbering, frightening riffs, black vocal snarls and subtle keyboards over churning, clashing chords and atmospheric acoustics laden in chorus effects.

The band has evolved through its career into something more 'artful' and even tranquil, but their debut When All the Laughter Has Gone remains my favorite. It simultaneously immerses you in its starving grace while destroying you with its poisoned black spit. "Desolated Colours" inaugurates the funeral with horrific chiming ambience before the riffs slowly creep forward. Like most of the album, this song conjures to mind a struggling individual, left alone in a desert on black and white film, ever lurching forward in a hopeless quest for sustenance where none will be found. "My Weary Eyes" is a grooving volley of minor notes and chords which devolves into a black abyss with its jangling clean tones and minimal chiming atmosphere. "A Part of Darkness" contains an idyllic medieval atmosphere due to its bouncing, playful synth-line, which is quickly destroyed by a very basic stream of repeated chords, as the song transforms into its gloomy core. The title track again uses effected clean notes and almost ironically happy synth lines to paint a tireless scene of agony, like a corpse riding a ghostly carousel at the local carnival where everything is unplugged yet still operating. "Collapsed" does not deviate, if anything it's complete cohesion with the concepts of the previous songs, just blacker and potentially more devastation. "Fields" crafts one of the best weaving melodies of the album over whispers and torn throat diatribe, and features a fine acoustic bridge. Album closer "With Scorn - Perish" is my favorite track with a truly evocative, haunting melody of bells and acoustics that breaks down into a grueling, hopeless pit of black doom.

I must note here: When All the Laughter Has Gone is another of those albums to listen straight through. The songs aren't super catchy as individual pieces, but the work as a whole is quite devastating. It's under an hour in length, but this is an hour you'll want to commit if you enjoy the bleaker aspects of doom. I'm not sure if this qualifies as 'funeral' doom but it's certainly an album which would appeal to fans of that. If you enjoy this you'll also want to check out their self-titled follow-up, another act of frightening if tranquil decimation.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (there's no need for consolation)

Satanic Warmaster - Opferblut (2003)

Few Finns keep themselves as busy as the Satanic Tyrant Werwolf (also known as Nazgul), authoring a myriad of treacherous, vile projects such as Blasphemous Evil, Warloghe, Armour, and Incriminated. He also handled Horna's vocal duties for half a decade. But he is most easily identified through Satanic Warmaster, a project in which he handles most instruments and vocals (often using session drummers).

Opferblut ('blood offering' or 'sacrificial blood') is the 2nd offering of this particular project, and while it offers little in terms of originality, it's a stark and insidious effort of sneering vocals, Satanic imagery and and unrelenting grim riffing onslaught. Seven tracks adorn this feral platter, and although they don't vary much in pacing, they all channel the sincerest hatred of the black metal mantra. The majority of the material features dark and Hellhammer-ized riffs thrusting forward over blasting guillotines of hopelessness. Nazgul has the screech of a nightwitch come to cut the throats of Christian babes as they nestle in the arms of their mothers. I'd dub these vocals 'cute' except...they are not that. Faster tracks like "Bound in Lust and Hate" and "A Wolf Cries in Anger" conjure subtly glorious chord textures within a bleeding black heart. The middle pace is not ignored however, fully defleshed in the scathing "Pentagram & Wood" or the barbaric punk rocking of "Farewell to the Fallen". "Rain Falls" is a nice instrumental interlude with some melodic guitars. "A Raven's Song" is probably my favorite track, with a primal burst that simmers into buzzsaw rhythms and a glorious loop of verse chords.

Opferblut is not a masterpiece nor could it be considered a classic of its genre, but it's a worthwhile work adherent to the philosophy of the great Finnish black metal: primal ferocity, simplistic yet punishing riff construction, and occult sensibility. It's not quite as good as its successor Carelian Satanic Madness, but on par with the debut Strength and Honour. If you favor the dark arts of Finland ala Horna, acquire all of these.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (a diabolical war that once more shall be)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Thy Serpent - Forests of Witchery (1996)

Thy Serpent was one of those formative if forgotten black metal bands of the 90s. Talented composers with a trio of decent albums under their belts and a number of EPs. Of the three full-lengths, I have always enjoyed Forests of Witchery the most. There is a poetic grace to this album which was rare in the 20th century, every song on this album is a beautiful construction which evokes rustic euphoria and lost pagan arts. It also sounds fantastic even to this day: a perfectly executed mix with equal attention to every bass line, drum battery and searing melodic six string.

It would be remiss of me not to discuss the line-up on this. Sami Temetz (guitar) is also a member of Finnish black pioneers Beherit. Azhemin is the driving force of Soulgrind, and did a stint with Shape of Despair. Drummer Agathon is another grizzled veteran, having played with classic thrash band Airdash,
black/thrashers Walhalla, also Soulgrind, and recently Barathrum. Of course, most of you know him from his excellent main band, Gloomy Grim. The sound of Thy Serpent is actually comparable to Grim, minus the over the top gothic horror imagery.

Forests of Witchery consists of six tracks, each excellent. "Flowers of Witchery Abloom" opens the album with an epic stream of melodic chords and beautiful flowing bass. An atmosphere of obscure grace is immediately captured, and the song dazzles eerily through its six minutes. "Of Darkness and Light" lifts the banner with its charging pace, putting most 'pagan' metal of the 21st century to shame. Riff after riff of flawless delivery. In particular I love the darker tone to the riff around the 2 minute mark. "A Traveller of Unknown Plains" is bathed in a warm light. "Only Dust Moves..." lives up to its amazing title with a babbling brook of sorrow, subtle and transfixing. Did I mention the lyrics are quite the mix of cheese and awesome?

I will rather learn to enjoy misery
Than partake a life of hypocrisy
Here i sit by the slowly dying candlelight
So i will drink with the shadows by my side

"Like a Funeral Veil of Melancholy" begins as the slowest metal piece on the album, but the note selection is both moving and powerful, a crescendo of glorious agony. The keyboards are placed at just the perfect level to be effective without ever stealing the mix. Speaking of keyboards, the album ends with the instrumental "Wine from Tears", a nearly 9 minute composition of synths and percussion which should sate any fan of Summoning or early Mortiis.

In short, this is an amazing album which should not have been so overlooked. An immersive experience easily the equal of many of its peers. For example, I found this superior to most of the early Katatonia material. Highly recommended for fans of melancholic, melodic black metal or blackened doom.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]
(All life held so dear is only here to pass)

Wyrd - Heathen (2001)

The debut from Finland's Wyrd was not something I first appreciated, but it's ambitious nonetheless for a first album; a single track over 50 minutes in length which ranges emotionally from acoustic folk bliss to sauntering, slow-paced black metal. The album is raw enough to appeal to the kvlt sect seeking out a tranquil experience, with lush atmospheric synthesizers, manly clean vocals alternating with black snarls and spoken word. It has gradually grown on me, there is a certain primordial charm to it.

At this point, Wyrd was simply Narqath, so all the instruments here were the work of a single man. The drums are programmed but thankfully rather low in the mix, efficiently carrying the weight of the guitars. There is a truly organic vibe at work. I've heard comparisons to (early) Agalloch and I can hear that, even though I enjoy Wyrd more. It takes a particular compositional skill to ramble on for 51 minutes and not bore the listener, and though many of the parts to "Heathen" seem similar, they create enough peaks and valleys to engage you throughout the playlength. There are certain points where the flow of the guitars, the cheap but adorable synths and the crooning come together to create pagan metal bliss, a sincere window into the vistas and landscapes of Narqath's atavistic environment. The lyrics are in English, but based in Finnish mythology. They create a narrative for the separate phrases of the song, but there is a little too much pagan 'chest beating' for my tastes, and often seem a little overboard for the actual music content of the album, which is mellowing.

Proud in our hearts, unchained in our might we are pure heathen wrath unbound!

The strength of the album lies in its ability to capture the imagination and stow it away in Narqath's world for almost an hour. I've come to accept and enjoy this release, but it's still a far cry from his later work: Vargtimmen Parts I and II are both quite incredible, and most of the other albums are also worth hearing. I may have been dismissive at first of this album's cheesier elements, but age and wisdom have won out: Heathen is ultimately a good record.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (Swords swinging in the light of the moon)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Eternal Tears of Sorrow - Children of the Dark Waters (2009)

Although I can appreciate their status as one of the earliest Finnish pioneers to create melodic, atmospheric death metal, Eternal Tears of Sorrow has never been my cup of tea. Their sound has evolved through the years into a hybrid of symphonic, gothic and death metal, and this is no exception. Children of the Dark Water is probably some of the better work I've heard from the band, but even such a solid statement as this has failed to evoke a response from me.

From a technical standpoint, their sixth album sounds phenomenal. A clean, professional mix which captures every note beautifully. This is important since the band is often churning out death metal rhythms while keyboards are encasing the metallic core in layers of orchestration. Some of the tracks here are a little more gothic oriented ("Sea of Whispers" for example), with female vocals used for backup to the regular clean male parts (okay, a little too much for my taste). The band compose their songs well, alternating moments of quietude and ferocity.

Unfortunately, even after repeated listens, I just can't remember any of these songs. There are just no hooks which sink into me, even though I have little negative to say about them. The packaging is certainly fancy, and the idea of symphonic death metal is alluring, but many of the melodies and orchestrations seem fairly obvious and familiar, as if there are never any surprises lurking around any corner. A few songs do create a worthy background atmosphere. "When the Darkest Night Falls" has a driving symphonic edge which would work well as a background battle in a movie or game. "Nocturne Thule" probably held my attention more than any of the others, a pretty epic composure of thundering double bass layered in a myriad of golden tongued melodies. But even this was forgettable shortly after the credits rolled.

If good sound is important to you, and you enjoy bands that blend the disparate elements of gothic, symphonic and death metal (Trail of Tears, Tristania, maybe some keyboard melodeath like Kalmah or Norther), then Children of the Dark Waters might be worth a listen. Eternal Tears of Sorrow have the professional and production skill of seasoned veterans, but I've come away unimpressed for the sixth time now. This is just one of those cases where an album is missing that elusive 'something'.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Amorphis - Skyforger (2009)

Amorphis have been on quite the tear since acquiring Tomi Joutsen; it is now the third album with this new singer, yet another quality effort which aspires to (but doesn't quite reach) the level of some of their classics (Tales from the Thousand Lakes, Elegy). At the same time, it leaves behind none of the melodic progressive folk/rock aesthetic which the band has been pushing since Tuonela. Skyforger is a happy medium between all walks of the band's career with the exception of their early death & doom.

Joutsen has always had the range to fill the shoes of Pasi Koskinen, but it does seem the band is intent to focus on his clean style, to which he adheres the Finnish gothic radio rock influence of his other band (Sinisthra). He meshes well with the compositions of Skyforger as he did Eclipse and Silent Waters, but I do wish the band would use more growls. I realize they've long sinced moved on from that as their modus operandi, but some of the melodies on this album would have sounded superior with drawn out gutturals over them (think the title track of Elegy). At any rate, the rest of the band is in fine form. The guitars conjure folkish melodies over simple chord patterns and the pianos & acoustics are tastefully implemented. It's Amorphis.

The 10 tracks here are fairly consistent in quality. "Sampo" initiates the album with a stream of twisting, catchy guitars while Joutsen cants some soothing melodies. There are a few breaks in the song with orchestration/flute, but they create a tasteful counterpart to the rocking. It's actually a pretty complex tune and Joutsen does break out the growls later in the track. "Silver Bride" uses a pretty safe melodic structure, and the verses feel 'meh' but the bridge and chorus become quite fetching. "From the Heaven of My Heart" (ugh) begins with some piano balladry, but picks up into a familiar rocking territory. The opening to "Sky is Mine" is very reminiscent of some of the band's Tuonela material, but it's the catchiest track (thus far) on this album, with a memorable chorus. "Majestic Beast" is a heavier track, with growls used as the primary WHAT A DIFFERENCE! If only the band has gone this route on more of the tunes. Needless to say, this one brings you right back to their glory days, before they return to safe mode with "My Sun". "Highest Star" is another of those tracks teasing ballad status before it begins to rage, some of the middle segments are quite excellent. "Skyforger" and "Course of Fate" are likewise heavier tracks, emotionally powerful even with the cleans. The album ends on a great note with "From Here I Rose", one of its strongest pieces, again the growl vocals really kick ass.

Skyforger is certainly a strong effort. I really enjoyed its predecessor, Silent Waters, but I think once this gets past the first few tracks, it is every bit the equal. The production is top notch and the performances are superb all around. I can imagine this will be a great album for the autumn when I'm doing scenic drives in New Hampshire and Maine; like many of their previous works, it creates a harmonic confluence with the natural world, and the folklore of Finland's history. The lyrics are poetic and true to the band's past. A few of the early tracks could have used some more growling, it would have created a beautiful atmosphere to counter and enrich the melodies. At least we get this in "Majestic Beast" and a few of the others. Growls are not a bad thing. If someone so much as suggests that they are, shoot them. Either way, I am far from disappointed with the 9th full-length from Finland's sons.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (No shape for loneliness)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Tyranny - Tides of Awakening (2005)

Slow and low: the mantra of doomsters the world over, and their curse. As in most metal genres, this simplified hallmark of the style has been pushed to its extremes, with bands ever seeking to be the heaviest, most encumbered numbers around in this drugged-up version of king of the hill. Yet, too often, this pursuit seems to fall into the hands of those lacking enough musical skill, wherein the struggle through trite repetition has become a new sort of doom - the doom of mental atrophy. As is usual in niche genres, however, select bands amongst the miasma of unworthy can push the envelope with justified aplomb, and of these, Tyranny have gained my respect as the foremost purveyors of what funeral doom can do in its purest sense.

Tides Of Awakening is essentially the culmination of funeral doom tradition. The trademarks are here in full: burdened guitars digging their subterranean way upwards, one strum at a time, disintegrating as they reach the light of the surfaceworld; massive vocals delivered like pained roars from the nether diaphragms of a putrefying god; the mesmeric, unyielding drums that mark the irreversible loss of time and hope. It's a textbook formula, surely, yet Tyranny play it perfectly. Beseeching guitar melodies rise throughout the passages, whimsical anchors of emotion that drag the listener along with them above the churning assembly. The shrill choir of keyboards creates a spacious backdrop, a void lit by starfire to hold the rumblings and soften their terror for human ears. The mix is truly massive, vast and monumental as befits such an ode to the supermundane. Additionally, Tides of Awakening has a superb sense of pacing to complement this fully-realized sound. While the unusually dynamic nature of the drums (for funeral doom) plays no small part in this, the balance and interplay of synth and guitar melodies further lends these songs a compelling nature, which is necessary if one hopes to make it all the way through their nigh-twenty minute lengths. Even I can have trouble getting through the more egregious lengths of songs that can occur with doom, but Tyranny keep me enthralled for their entirety. A coating of Chthonic ichor rounds the album out with eldritch themes that perfectly match the music, although you'll have to hit up the lyrics if you desire any measure of comprehension in this regard.

This is not a release that redefines funeral doom; just the opposite, in fact - it is an ode to those who came before, a loving continuation of the ancient ways, and it succeeds quite excellently. I think that it could perhaps benefit from a greater inclusion of reprieves, such as that found at the end of "Upon the War-Torn Shape of Cold Earth" or the entirety of the ambient finale, "Entreaties to the Primaeval Chaos," although I doubt Tyranny have any desire to mitigate the terror of their music. As it is, however, Tides of Awakening is a giant of an album that needs to be experienced, even by those not particularly attracted to the genre if only to bask in the weight of eternity.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Mortualia - Mortualia (2007)

A true sense of dread and desolation can be difficult to evoke among the extreme metal crowd. We've heard it all, so how is it possible to continue bleeding the stone? The advent of 'suicidal' and depressing black metal has become a stagnant if interesting footnote to the genre at large, but unfortunately few of the bands are actually effective at what they do. Just about anyone sitting in their basement or bedroom with a computer, guitar and drum machine can play some slowish metal riffs and snarl and wail like an old lady being attacked by cats. So who can do it well?

Mortualia. The one-man side project of Shatraug (you'd know him from the great Horna if you weren't a poseur), Mortualia wisely abandons the dank dungeon of eternal cats for a bleak wintery landscape, delivered through five tracks in over 70 minutes. Yes...this is one of those albums to succeed despite its repeitious nature and length, simply because the journey is so immersive. But this isn't just some depressing journey, the album is actually beautiful. Shatraugs tormented cries escape his gasping lungs as the oxygen within freezes in place, while his panoramic vision of bright yet muted eternal tundra bears down on his writhing soul. Let go...let go of everything. Winter has already come, and we are all so fucking lost. So dead. Cut the vein. Cut it.

The individual tracks almost warrant no merit, because I would not advise the downtrodden aspirant to experience any less than the entirety of its playtime in one sitting. For example, the riffs of "Cold and Grey" may differ somewhat from "Devoid of Warmth", but I simply can't envision myself listening to just one. All or nothing here, the perfect soundtrack to a bathtub full of shaved ice and regret, the cold water filling it behind you as you glance sideways from razor to mirror, mirror to razor. Well, your problems amount to nothing in this grand, empty landscape. Winter was long before you. Winter will survive you.

Speaking of survival, I'm not sure if I could take another album from Mortualia. As much as I love this, does anything else need to be said? This is THE END. We all pass quietly into the dusk. How could it merit a sequel? With Shatraug's busy schedule (not only the amazing Horna, but Sargeist, and a myriad of lesser known projects like Hoath and Necroslut) we may ever know. But if you can repeat the same few basic riffs for 70 minutes straight and impress a jaded old man like myself, that's really saying something. An album not to be missed.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (Joining in the moment blue)

Noumena - Absence (2005)

I'm not going to lie to you. Absence sounds like someone rounded up all the good, chunky, heavy riffs from Amorphis' masterpiece Elegy and just ran with it. Not something I could take issue with! This album also simultaneously destroys the previous Noumena album Pride-Fall and manages to deliver one of the greatest melodic Finnish death metal experienced I've had in the 21st century.

A lot of this praise can be heaped squarely on the shoulders of the opening track "The End of the Century", which features some of the most glorious riffs I have ever heard for this genre. Combined with the crushing production and perfectly delivered growls, it's a monster. Numerous A+++ melodies flow in succession while the band belts out a simple four-chord style rocker. When I first heard this tune my jaw dropped because it was everything I loved about an Elegy or Amok captured beautifully by this young band. Even the bridge riff breakdown and simple lead are perfection.

Does the rest of the album hold true? Well, yes and no. It all adheres to the same outstanding production values and bludgeoning vocals, but none of the tracks are quite as catchy as the opener. Then again, very few things in this plane of existence could hope to match that, much less surpass it. "Everlasting Ward" (in keeping with my Elegy comparisons) is a catchy folkish track which picks up pace and features some good clean vocals. "The First Drop" is a moody fist pumper. "Slain Memories" does the melodic folk/death thing once more, quite succesfully, with some tasteful female folkills. "A Day to Depart" is close in style to "The End of the Century" but with the added joy of a well-timed HEY! during its chorus. "Prey of the Tempter" is also fantastic, with more good use of the clean vocals and superb guitar melodies. "Here We Lie" is another beautifully melodic track that will at least have you slapping your desk and banging your head out. Ditto with "All Failed", while "The Dream and the Escape" has some nice acoustic intro licks akin to those you'd find on The Jester Race. The album ends with "The Great Anonymous Doom", glorious and much like it started, though the female folkills here did little for me.

Absence is just hands down one of the best Finnish melodic death metal albums I've heard so far in the 21st century. It has the perfect sound standards that should impress almost anyone listening to it, and the riffs are hard to match. The quality is so high that the band's follow-up Anatomy of Life (while not necessarily bad) was a major disappointment. This album is so good that it puts to shame much of the noodlier, faster Finnish bands with all their keyboards and shred intentions. A powerful, emotive statement in the finest tradition of Sentenced and Amorphis, I'm hoping lightning can strike twice for this band because Absence was criminally overlooked by a vast percentage of metal fandom that would actually love it to pieces.

Verdict: Epic Win [8.5/10] (No one will ever leave)

Barathrum - Legions of Perkele (1998)

Though they were one of the earliest formed of the Finnish black metal onslaught, it was the late 90s work of Barathrum which reined me in as devotee, a series of simple but bombastic recordings which balanced destructive power, classic metal riffing and the unforgettable rasp of Demonos Sova. Certainly he 21st century has seen its resurgence of 'roots' black metal in which the riff and darkness have come full circle (Satyricon's last few albums, for example), but this was already old hat for the Finns, and to their credit, they still sound like no one else...

Legions of Perkele is the fourth full-length from Sova and company, and marked the departure of the heavily bass-dripping ooze of their earlier albums. The guitars here plod across the battlefield like ancient tanks infused with the souls of the damned, delivering surefire yet simple volleys of chords in which there isn't a single misplaced note. This is also singalong, ale swilling material to which you can throw the horns with friends. "Revenge by Magick", "Angelbomber", "Last Day in Heaven", all great, slow to mid-paced tracks with pumping bass lines, restrained but efficient drumming, slathered in demonic sermon.

I bring this torch from the flames
From the flames of Inferno
I bring the end for the days
Of angels' existence
I hunt those white dressed creatures
Creatures with their white wings
My own wings are black skin
And my claws steel

Yet, the album grows deeper and darker still. "Dark Sorceress (Autumn Siege)", a slower piece anchored by percussion and walls of glorious doom-like riffs. "Necromantic Ritual" is one of the catchiest Barathrum tracks of their career, for its powerful choppy opening riff and epic male crooning, the perfect audio companion to Conan the Barbarian (just shut the dialogue off and listen to this instead). The title track "Legions of Perkele" moves at a similar gait albeit with the bass, and a pretty interesting modulated voice sample intro. The true prize here is the inclusion of the mighty "Warmetal" (previously available on the Infernal album) bonus track. One of the most brilliant, catchy and self-referential black metal tracks to ever escape Hell, and easily one of my VERY worthy of the title. I can think of few tracks I'd favor more for the cracking of skulls. If you don't like this song, YOU ARE A PUSSY. No offense to actual pussy.

In short, Legions of Perkele is Barathrum's finest hour, and one of the greatest black metal albums to arrive in the 20th century. Along with Horna and Impaled Nazarene, they formed the perfect triumvirate of 90s evil, and helped create a strong backbone that their country might stand its ground alongside the venerable Norse and Swedish scenes. There are one or two tracks on the album which feel lackluster, but only in comparison to the quality of the rest. This album still crushes today!

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (I command you by infernal names)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Stratovarius - Polaris (2009)

The past decade has been a tumultuous one for Finland's melodic power metal heroes, but it seems after all the drama the band has cleaned itself up like a drunk straight out the rehab doors. I've long been off the Strato-wagon, my interest climaxed during the Episode/Visions/Destiny era when the band was turning out their catchiest material. Since that time they've released only average albums with 1-2 good tracks each. Polaris, which was previously supposed to be the band's swansong (I believe they are continuing on after this), is certainly better than their previous self-titled effort in 2005, and decent overall, with a few weak tracks bringing up the rear.

"Deep Unknown" simmers with some Jens Johansson keys, quickly transforming into the type of song they usually lead off their albums with. Fast, melodic, hooky, yet never achieving anything more. It's one of the better tracks on Polaris, and followed up by another in "Falling Star", which trots at a mid-pace but features a poppy, catchy chorus. "King Nothing" really turns on the prog flavors with its lush synth-scape, again one of the best tracks due to some of Kotipelto's most interesting vocal melodies on the album. "Blind" is fairly rocking, I enjoy how the simplicity of verse (vocals over driving bass) and how the guitars kick in for the bridge, even though the chorus melody is pretty standard. "Winter Skies" is a forgettable ballad, "Forever is Today" somewhat indistinguishable from half the band's previous discography. "Higher We Go" is a decent Euro power metal anthem. "Somehow Precious" is somehow not, a drippy ballad I could do without. The two part "Emmancipation Suite" is hardly a pick me up, but when faced with what seems an endless stream of Strato-balladry...they go with another ballad, "When Mountains Fall", with a more folkish approach.

In other words, if you can stop the album after "Higher We Go", then you've been treated to some of the stronger material the band has composed in a decade. After that, it just feels like the mandatory radio friendly bullshit that has polluted so many of this band's prior works. They have always been formulaic and middle of the road in comparison to other power/prog metal bands because of their devotion to clean studio standards. For once I'd like to hear the band cut loose and go crazy. They are MORE than capable. From a musicianship standpoint, they still have the chops on Polaris. Guitar leads intermingle with keyboard wizardry and everything else is tight. I'm sure this is not the last we will hear from the Finns, and I hope with the infusion of new members they can create something inspiring, something out of control, and something relevant.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Impiety - Terroreign: Apocalytpic Armageddon Command (2009)

Impiety have long been one of the greatest underdogs of the international black/death metal scene. Never compromising, never settling, never caring. Their non-partisan approach to searing black/death hybrid metal with an edge of brutal old school thrash provides them with an endless hellish spring of inspiration, so I will be blunt:

This album wants to kill you.

Terroreign is the sixth full-length in the band's nearly 20-year career, and it opens with an ungodly, brief diatribe before the grinding blast and scathing lead of "Vientos de Holocaust". Two minutes of playtime is all this track needs to eviscerate you, your neighbors, and all living things within a 12-block radius. "Atomic Angel Assault" sets up a nice blockade of rolling double bass and chord assault, to trap any souls who thought they could flee the opening volley. The title track follows with a venomous thrashing cut to the throat. Love the leads here! "As Judea Burns" features some blasting over thunderous distorted bass, truly hyper death metal which recalls Angelcorpse (or is it the other way around...). Though the songs grow a little longer, they maintain their infernal consistency throughout. "Bestial to the Bone" and "The Black Fuck" are veritable onslaughts of violent intensity.

There is just no weakness to what this band sets out to achieve. Surely they are not writing the most memorable riffs or 'Album of the Year' material, but they are yet again battering you in the face with a vicious bludgeon of evil. Terroreign is one of their most polished efforts to date, but even despite the better production the riffs sound chunky, sick and raw. The band knows to thrash out at precisely the right time, and never bores you to tears with endless blasting. Yet they're still one of the fastest and most punishing acts you'll hear. I'd hate to be the hands of these guys...ouch.

Impiety have never put out a bad album, but this one ranks pretty highly among their wretched works, somewhere around Formidonis Nex Cultus and Kaos Kommand 696 in quality. It's well worth checking out if you favor unrelenting assaults of godhating darkness. Burn your bible, your koran or your torah and dance in the ashes! The gates of hell have opened, Impiety has spewn forth, and WAR IS HERE.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Atomic Roar - The Warfare Merchants (2009)

Do you recall fondly the good old days of the early to mid 80s, in particular the back catalogs of Venom and Motorhead? How about the fast, mean and raw sound of Canadian pioneers Razor (in particular Armed & Dangerous or Executioner's Song)? If so, then I salute you. You also might appreciate what these Brazilians have conjured up with Atomic Roar...a very old school sound in both execution and intent, punk-fueled early speed/thrash metal. After their demo a few years back they have issued this debut full-length through Crush Until Madness records.

Though the fanbase might be limited for such an album, no punches are pulled. Not only does the band PLAY old, but the mix sounds like the band recorded this in the garage next door to you on an 8-track in 1984. Almost all the lyrics and song titles are absurd, culled and paraphrased from a slew of classic records, so don't expect anything pretentious. "Chains In Your Face", "Bangers Are Back", "Atomic Whore", and the title track are quite good onslaughts of retro ripping chords, and catchy to boot. Despite their simplicity, the leads truly evoke nostalgia. The bass is a little difficult to notice, but yet again this is a common trait of early records. It doesn't need a well rounded sound, it's plodding right along with the guitars. Unfortunately, some of the tunes are forgettable ("Play Loud", "Metal Patrol", etc), never really building up enough leather and spikes power.

The Warfare Merchants isn't a bad record; the band sounds like they had immense fun putting this together and it certainly translates into their passion for the material. Even though the retro thing is 'in', not a lot of bands swim this deeply into the nostalgia pool. Atomic Roar manage to pull off an authentic sound. If I found this in a record bin and it was dated 1983, I'd completely believe it. This is certainly going to appeal to a number of nostalgic metal fans, in particular those who collect vinyl or listen religiously to the bands I listed above. I found the quality of the tracks inconsistent, there are a few I'd come back and listen to but I'd skip the rest. Still, I have to commend the band for sticking to their roots and having fun with it. To that extent, they are successful. If they can come up with a better set of tracks for their next effort, they might just kick some life into this niche.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]