Monday, November 30, 2009

Stillers Tod - Katharsis [DEMO] (2009)

Katharsis is another of those ambitious demos you hear which is really just an album in disguise. At 49+ minutes of quality black metal, with a pagan/folk edge to it, this release could easily be snapped up by some label, released as a full length and no one would know the difference (except the band). But alas, this is the form it is released in, and the criteria to which it adheres.

Stillers Tod is a German band with a pretty straight and dark tone, which they spice up just enough with acoustic sections, creepy vocals and glorious melodic infusions to pass inspection. Kargáist is the vocalist and also writes the music, then rounded out with a full band. Katharsis features 10 tracks, with a good variety of slower and faster material and a pretty decent mix. The vocals are thick, accented and decrepit, without much of a rasp to them, and this matches up well against the thundering guitar rhythms.

"16 Jahre Fegefeuer" is an average bombastic, epic synth intro which you might find at the beginning of a great many folk/pagan metal records, and "Katharsis" opens with a few acoustics, before thundering off into the night with blazing guitars. There is a nice break with some violin and synthesized choir, before the battle is rejoined. "Von Wiederkehr und Niedergang" has some nice, night-life samples before a rather epic, arching march that softens beneath the cleaner vocals of Kargáist, who is actually pretty good at these too. "Blutiger Schnee" has a streaming melody over a pulverizing rhythm, which reminded me of Endstille (though that band does not break into the similar glory charges this one runs up here). I really enjoyed the track 5+ minute "Seelenwanderung", which is all synths and bells and whispers. "In jeder gottverdammten Nacht" has a driving, descending rhythm that makes for an epic warlike atmosphere. And "Demian" is a worthy closer with a great, epic build up and some fine synth-driven parts.

Katharsis is a pretty high quality introduction at the demo level, and Stillers Tod should fit right in with the better half of the German black metal scene. They don't often go as savage as an Endstille, Dark Fortress, or Lunar Aurora, but fans of those bands would find something here to enjoy.

Highlights: Von Wiederkehr und Niedergang, Blutiger Schnee, Seelenwanderung

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wodulf - ...from the Corpsegates (2009)

Wodulf is a Greek band within the NSBM scene, who released a demo in 2003 known as Wargus Esto. The material was rather dull and the band seemed far more heavily involved in their politics, as they are with their more prolific main project Der Stürmer. With ...from the Corpsegates, the band has veered into a more interesting lyrical direction, which focuses on magick, folklore, and ancient horror. While this is likely to put the project on more radars than their demo, the music still leaves a lot to be desired. Don't get me wrong, they've come a long way from Wargus Esto, and the writing is pretty solid as far as barebones black metal (with some death influence). The album has a nice, dark atmosphere which meshes well with its subject material, cover image, and so forth. But few if any of the compositions will stand out in such a crowded field.

"Doomed by the Scythe of Disease" ushers a simple, creepy guitar line over the shuffling, tin sound of the drums, while the vocals have a wooden, bark-like tone that straddles the border between death and black (reminds me a little of Graveland). "Lycanthropus - Ex Tumulus Preliator Exsisto" is a better tune, with a slow, driving rhythm that channels early Darkthrone. Though I wouldn't call it exciting, the track drips black, evil ichor, and even when it picks up to a rhythm much like the first song, it still delivers the goods. "Nekyia (Hideous Rite of the Spilled Blood)" begins with an evil melody, which winds into an even more serpentine pattern as the drums softly crash into the composition. "Resound the Hooves of the Army of the Deceased" is a pretty standard charger, with more Darkthrone influence, and in "A Black Skullbanner Appeared from the Corpsegates" you could hear a little In the Nightside Eclipse, without the keyboards. Of the remaining track, "13 Urns" and "Spectral Shades Around the Sepulchre" just sort of whistle past, while "Blood on the Altar of Dis" builds a nice, creepy rhythm (with the bass peeking its nose out below) before it too transforms into a dull blast rhythm.

There's really nothing too harsh I can say about this album. It shows a clear improvement over the demo, and maintains a persistent, grim atmosphere which makes the very basic rhythms and riffs more enticing. But with so many other black metal albums to reach for (including the band's own influences), it simply would not scream out at me for further listening, despite the overcast skies of old it conjures through its sheer existence.

Highlights: Lycanthropus - Ex Tumulus Preliator Exsisto, Nekyia (Hideous Rite of the Spilled Blood), Blood on the Altar of Dis

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Borgia - Ecclesia (2009)

Borgia is yet another entry into the French pantheon of bands that merge styles to create a progressive work quite unlike anything you have heard up to this point. Ecclesia is their first full-length effort, following a series of demos and a compilation.
An obvious starting comparison would be Deathspell Omega (or newcomers Way to End), but Borgia are not as manic or frenzied. Their work is difficult and labyrinthine as far as the songs are written, but not technically exhilarating. Géraud de Verenhe has a very dark wealth of vocal talent, from his harsher tones (reminiscent of Swiss legends like Tom G. Warrior or Coroner's Ron Royce), to the gothic cleans delivered through Romance tongues. There is a creeping complexity to the guitars which range from old school death metal rhythms, to a pulse of black discord with roots in Voivod or Ved Buens Ende.

"Le Bûcher des Vanités" initiates the ritual through a charging black rhythm which lops off its own tail for a death groove. The band mixes the two approaches so well that it can often become perplexing where one ends and the other begins. The bass playing is quite good, popping along during the band's more hyperactive riffs and then anchoring a syrup-like groove. Arpeggios and other licks are used here more for chaos than technical indulgence. "Par La Croix Et La Bannière" has a fierce fusion of unshaking melody in its verse rhythms, and again the bass thunders. "Litanie du Misanthrope" is a pensive track, slower and I dare say more ominous feeling than the previous, with hints at glory to match the band's lyrical themes of medieval times, the travails of religion and the promise of sacrilege. "Des Martyrs...Allégorie De La Foi" feels like a slightly more complex extention of "Litanie...", with some good old school death rhythms infused within. Other good tracks include the bells and choirs of intro "Te Deum", the morbid "Flagellum Dei", and the mesmerizing bedlam of "Conquistadores".

This is one of those albums which begged numerous listens before I could even sit down to describe it. The mix itself is very dark and polished, a great vehicle for the band's stylistic misanthropy and the Dark Ages that forever settle in their minds like dust. All members are quite talented, including the vocals, which are ever fascinating as they flip between tones. Definitely a band to listen for if you like Deathspell Omega or the most recent album of Merrimack.

Highlights: Par La Croix Et La Bannière, Litanie du Misanthrope, Flagellum Dei, Conquistadores

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Enfold Darkness - Our Cursed Rapture (2009)

Enfold Darkness is a young band exploding out of Tennessee, with a promising debut that exists in a limbo between the realms of black, thrash, and melodic death metal. Essentially they sound like a hybrid of At the Gates-style hooks and Cradle of Filth-like vocals. Now, before everyone starts whining about how they hate these bands (if something is popular, it must suck, after all), know that Enfold Darkness do a pretty damn fine job in this sphere, and Our Cursed Rapture succeeds where many other melodic death/thrash bands of late do not. They write energetic songs with riffs that outlast the 37 minute duration of the album, and the musicianship and production are both strong.

Some might cringe at my Dani Filth comparison, but Justin Corser does have a similar, severe rasping tone, and the band contributes some backing vocals that cover the lower death grunting and some gothic, narrative garbling that marries the theme. But this is where that comparison ends, for the music is far more akin to modern melodic death. There is a mythological, conceptual feel to the album and a relentless sonic plague that gnaws at your skin with technical precision. The hyper minute that is "The Rise of the Great Fornicator" bursts into the death/thrashing rhythsm of "In the Galleries of the Utmost Evil", where you'll get the full spread of Corser's sanity scratching range, and the pummeling rhythms that are always weaving melodies. And most importantly, while the band will often break out into a slower thrash rhythm, there are no shitty metalcore breakdowns in sight! "The Benefits of Your Demise" has some nice, stomping groove rhythms which break into a descending guitar line, "Our Cursed Rapture" opens with one of the more glorious melodic hooks I've heard in recent memory. The two parts of "Exaltations" are among the highlights of the album, with some nice, tech thrashing riffs that match up well with the screech and tear of the vocals. "Dead in the Brine" and "The Sanctuaries" are also loaded to the teeth with quality momentum.

The mix of the album lives up to modern standards for clarity and quality, but it never curbs the savage mysticism of the band, though it would be interesting if they pull off such a polished precision at live performances. The leads are consistent and interesting throughout the album. Elitist jacktards will probably shun this band for its influences, modern veneer and kick, but I prefer them to similar US bands like Arsis, and this is well worth a listen if you simply want some decent riffing and energy. The band is already touring extensively, and getting their music out to popular sources (iTunes, Hot Topic, etc.) so it's likely they'll turn some drooling heads while drawing down the ire of others.

Highlights: Our Cursed Rapture, Exaltations (I & II), Dead in the Brine

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Suppuration - A River of Corpses (2009)

Beto Martinez is no newcomer to the brutal death metal scene of Colombia, having taken part in 8-9 albums in the 21st century through his various projects (Ancient Necropsy, Amputated Genitals, Purulent, and this Suppuration). A River of Corpses is the 2nd slab of slaughterhouse gristle from this particular band, and offers a fairly run of the coffinwood mill experience. Intense drumming and gutturals (both courtesy of Martinez, or 'Dying Betus'), ooze-thick churning guitar rhythms, and mixed parts blast and slam, you could pick out almost any brutal underground band at random from North & South America and hear something similar. That is not to say Suppuration are particularly offensive or necessarily bad at this style, but one could probably find a far better way to kill 30 minutes than this album.

A River of Corpses hints at some technicality, but often this is just a string of chugging pit rhythms that the band crashes through at high speed, breaking for a slam here or a thrashing rhythm there. Martinez has some solid chops, his hands and feet motoring away with ligament-tearing intensity. Julian's guitars are thick and brutal, but aside from repeating a bunch of mediocre rhythms, there's not a lot to recommend. Of the 12 tracks and 28 minutes of playtime, I probably enjoyed the flighty Carcass-like hulking of "The Abyss of Nightmares" and "Eating the Christians", and "Hunter of Flesh" also has some decent old school death rhythm guitar, though it gets a little choppy. The band has also covered "Obnoxious (Surgeon of the Dead)" from the 2002 album Morgue Sweet Home of Spanish goregrinders Haemorrhage, which fits in with the original material.

If you consume all things carnal and grisly, without much regard for standout songwriting or any intrinsic quality aside from guttural groping and moshing brutality, then Suppuration is far from the worst you've heard. The production here is not bad, lo-fi but bright with butchery. I simply cannot recommend the album, as there are hundreds if not thousands of similar and superior efforts with more memorable songwriting. I'd advise checking out Ancient Necropsy first, some of Martinez' stronger work.

Highlights: The Abyss of Nightmares, Hunter of Flesh

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Impious - Death Domination (2009)

Success has ever eluded this Swedish cult of death thrashers, but after 15 years, they are still plugging away, because it is never too fucking late to try. Death Domination is the band's 6th full length offering, picking up where the rather average Holy Murder Masquerade left off. Only this time, the band seems to have an injection of fuel and vitriol which crushes their past few records. They are really, really pissed off here and the plan is to take it out on your ears. This is a fast album, so fast it slices through your perception like a vorpal blade. Imagine a band like The Haunted or Dimension Zero sped up to overdrive, racing towards the finish line as if on a line of cocaine spiked with jet fuel, steroids and jello-shots. This is Impious in 2009.

"Abomination Glorified" started with a good, rousing thrash, before quickly turning into one of those 'what the fuck was that moments' when a vehicle speeds by as your taking a piss on the side of the highway. Mikael Norén has apparently had his fleshy limbs replaced by machinery, because I just don't understand how a human being could perform at this level without breaking something at each blasting refrain. When "The Demand" arrives, you've just zipped up your fly, and another entire song has throttled past at hypersonic speed, with some great snaking chords patterns and guest vox from Johan Lindstrand (The Crown). Want a chance to catch a breath? "I Am the King" is not going to give you one, another slugging onslaught with big footwork and a few chugging slaps to the cranium. "And the Empire Shall Fall" teases you with acoustics before again running you over with an 18-wheeler of frenetic thrashing death. While the energy is appreciated, some of the better songs off the album come in its later moments. "Hate Killing Project" has some great, circular thrashing rhythms and "Rostov Ripper" is like fast-forwarding Hypocrisy's already faster material. The closing track, "Irreligious State of War" is 3+ minutes to sum up the album and break what remains of your neck clear off the spine.

Death Domination is abrasive and in your face with a pulse pounding tone, yet eschews the Sunlight tone of many Swedish peers. Fans of the faster thrashing melodeath acts like Terror 2000 and Darkane will immediately take to this material, as it rarely shows any compromise. At times, I felt like a more dynamic spectrum would have served the songwriting more than just fast fast fast kill, but I still have to admire the band's philosophy that getting older does not mean getting slower. The album isn't perfect, but it IS frantic and fun, and certainly superior to Holy Murder Masquerade or Hellucinate. Now to find a hospital.

Highlights: The Demand, Hate Killing Project, Rostov Ripper

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Embryonic Depravity - Constrained by the Miscarriage of Conquest (2009)

The UK has been producing a lot of brutal death metal bands of late, often with these massive names. Recently we've heard from Repulsive Dissection and Infected Disarray, and now the debut from the gore laden psychopaths Embryonic Depravity. Anyone in the know of the past decade of extreme death knows what to expect here, insane levels of brutality which are tempered by complex grooves, technical adequacy, insane drumming. The cover art and logo for the band really brought my thoughts back to the early days of Suffocation, Malevolent Creation, and the like, but the writing has enough labyrinthine density and squealing guitar fill to appeal to the most jaded Necrophagist fan, and enough low end slag and frag for the Devourment maven to stretch his mighty muscles.

Let's be clear from the start: Embryonic Depravity are not concerned with a lot of musicality. There are few memorable hooks to be digested through this apocryphal 10 course meal. But their energy is focused on beating the piss out of your ears. Embryonic Depravity are also not concerned with your safety. This is an extreme metal record for fans with the attention span to absorb its intricate bludgeoning. If that includes you, then welcome to suicide. I've worked construction job sites with a jackhammer that were less noisy and grating than this band. If you sent an Embryonic Department song as a telegram to any head of state, war would be immediate. These songs are all slamming and indifferent, and they also can kick a whole lot of ass. "Bound by Dejection" sounds like a half dozen death metal bands jamming together; Rob Newson's vocals get pretty guttural and busy and it's like a hellish game of Pac-Man, with your soul on the line. Tracks like "Apotheosis Through Isolation" and "Acephalous Transmutation" grind through intense batteries of chaos and erosion, and the title track is like Suffocation and Demilich having a tug of war with your intestines.

It wasn't easy to sit through this entire album, and few individual tracks really stood above the rest. But that's not for any lack of energy and punishment. The mix is bright and modern, each chuggering reveals the subtle and complex riff patterns and the vocals are like abyssal toads that preach of end times and the excrement of civilization. I feel that there are other, ultra-brutal death bands who write more fetching material (Severed Savior, or the latest Deeds of Flesh, for example), but Embryonic Depravity know their target audience, and this debut knows how to beat the fuck out of them.

Highlights: finding out your home has not just been leveled by demolition equipment, and that your entrails are still inside your body.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Atritas - Celestial Decay (2009)

Swiss black metal act Atritas have been blasting away since 1997, with a carnal, furious paced style reminiscent of Swedish bands like Dark Funeral or Mörk Gryning. Celestial Decay is their 3rd album, and a little less symphonic than its predecessor Medium Antigod. The keyboards still have a part to play here, but the songs here live and die by their guitar riffing. Vocalist Gier has a pretty scathing rasp, though he will balance this with a deeper, death-like edge over of the thicker guitar rhythms. Though aggressive and bloody, the band's sound is far from a grim bedroom level barbarism. They've got a fine-tuned studio polish which creates a lot of clarity in the chaos, yet the songs will still scream at you from the broad slopes of the Alps late in the winter night.

The "Ultimate Downfall" heralds the imminent demise of all that is holy, through a thick bank of symphonic fog that rolls across the land into the blasting mayhem of "(Sacrificial) Devil Worship Psalmody". I like the sonic flow of the speed picked verse guitars over the double bass, and the track later offers some morose keyboards that don't interfere with the biting axe-centricity. "Gnosis" wrangles a tall melody, a peak to the valley of Gier's snarling creature, and then begins to haunt the mountainside through some chord driven atmosphere. Very cold and eerie. "Memorium Magicus" has a fiery, bold rhythm with a nice, thrashing impulse (again reminding me of Mörk Gryning in a good way), and "All Celestial" is like staring at the ceiling of a black cathedral as it slowly fades into the vacuum and angel draining starlight of a winter night. "Blasphemic Madness" is punishing vitriol with another of the band's thrashy skeletons, and "His Presence" has some dense symphonic atmosphere and arcane guitar wizardry. "Peste Sacrale" and "Divine Apocalyptic Gloom" are also notable as scorching inductions of sin and slaughter.

Atritas are not a unique entity, their style can be largely attributed to an influence from the Swedish black masters, but Celestial Decay is a well-written affair which delivers high production standards and a wealth of captivating, diabolic atmosphere. They're not as relentless as a 1349 or Dark Funeral but it might be worth the time of any fan of Sacramentum, Dissection, Marduk, or Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse to at least give this a playthrough.

Highlights: Memorium Magicus, All Celestial, His Presence, Divine Apocalyptic Gloom

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Fatalist - The Depths of Inhumanity (2009)

Fatalist operates with a very refreshing take on death metal that is actually not so fresh...they take the grisly horror of old school Obituary and Autopsy, dowse it in a little Swedish tone, and then write some fairly memorable tracks with the resulting mixture. This is a band who understands how to use their guitars effectively to create both an atmosphere without sacrifice the power of the riff. These two power saws are hacking straight from through charnel house, splintering bone and sawing through morbid flesh. And yet, there is nothing too gloomy or morose here. The lead work is well placed, and highly atmospheric (like old school Entombed leads from the first two albums, if a little less wild). Wes Caley and Neil Burkdoll then infuse their guitar work with brash, bloodied vocals that fall within the expected, post-Carcass range.

Most of the songs create an excitement, a forward thrust which reveals a near-thrash aesthetic. "Frozen Epitaph" barrels along with some thick but crisp, flighty, thrashing guitar passages while the vocals tear across the top like a chainsaw murder. "Internal Misery" would be the natural result of Entombed writing a sequel to Obituary's killer Cause of Death album. The riffs carry a grim humor to them, and the leads are simple but deep, carrying the track to another level. "Morbid Derangement" grinds into a chuggy thrash rhythm, once again very simple, but quick to get the neck banging. "Contamination" is a full bore stomper, with a similar olden Entombed pace to the rhythm and a little funeral contagion in the bridge melody. Other gut wrenchings of note include the groovy Grave-a-long "Homicidal Epitaph", the grinding "Life Deploration" and the plasma churning "Rivers of Blood", with its murderous melodies.

Fatalist embody a lot of class from both sides of the Pond, and The Depths of Inhumanity can wisely play into the death metal advocate's nostalgia for the genre's swampy Floridian roots and Swedish meat cleaving carnage. The band mixed and produced the album themselves, and it sounds vibrant like fresh slaughter. There are a few tracks which don't develop nearly as well as others, and so it's not wholly consistent, but for a debut it was a pretty good listen.

Highlights: Internal Misery, Morbid Derangement, Contamination, Rivers of Blood

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Apparently the wordy title is a result of the how this movie was initially conceived: as a remake of the 1992 Harvey Keitel movie Bad Lieutenant. What Werner Herzog and Nic Cage have produced is not a remake, but rather something completely remarkable and often hilarious.

It takes place in the titular city shortly after, what else?, Hurricane Katrina. Lieutenant Terence McDonagh (Cage) leaps into neck high water to rescue an inmate. This results in life-long back pain. The movie is quick to establish in the first few minutes that good deeds are punished. McDonagh develops an addiction to vicodin that quickly leads to hard cocaine abuse.

The remainder of the movie purports to follow McDonagh and a cast of characters including Val Kilmer trying to solve the murder of an African family. This goes quickly off the rails as McDonagh is much more interested in shaking down club goers and the evidence room attendant for more drugs. He gets heavy into college football gambling debts. Eva Mendes plays his prostitute (girl)friend Frankie, which later leads to McDonagh running afoul of an Italian mobster. Eventually he gets into the drug trafficking business himself and McDonagh's motives are never quite clear.

Each of these plot lines collides in a perfect shit storm much like the Hurricane itself. However when that first scene establishes that good deeds lead to punishments, you start to realize that the opposite is also true for the "bad" Lieutenant. Despite his horrendous behavior McDonagh is the most likable and sympathetic drug addict since Raoul Duke. It helps that most of the stuff he does while high is hysterical.

Nic Cage is a weird dude. He is associated with so much routine garbage that it is hard to remember that he can act. This is his show and it is impressive. The decent into madness is cataloged by an increasingly nasty attitude, weird voice, and penchant for insane laughter. His character suffers from chronic back pain and so Cage lurches around. This is offset by the hilarity of how he wears his gun: right in front, hanging out of pants with only his belt to hold onto the barrel.

I've read some reviews that describe this as a deliberately bad movie- an ironic piece of pop cinema that lampoons detective movies. They are full of shit. Herzog isn't a hack. This movie wonders what it must be like for authority figures to live in those post-disaster conditions like New Orleans. Several shots spend minutes lingering on things like alligators and iguanas, which will surely produce "wtf" moments from the audience. Until you realize that in all the chaos of the storm and thereafter the reptiles did not give a shit.

Verdict: Epic Win [10/10]

Obliteration - Nekropsalms (2009)

Norse death metal has not truly seen its day since the era of Molested. Sure, Blood Red Throne has done their very best to keep our corpses rotting in the interim, but they have recently been joined by another slowly gathering force, Obliteration. 2007's debut album Perpetual Decay was a fine introduction to the band's atmospheric, old school festering horror, but their second splatter, Nekropsalms, takes this one step further, a rambling and decrepit offering that truly tests the dank waters of the form (much like Molested did those many years ago). The word to describe this album is: morbid. Obliteration do not struggle to impress you with fast, blasting hyper-rhythms or maniacal displays of chug and virtuosity...they can create a hypnotic fermentation through sheer willpower and minimal hints of progression.

I seriously felt maggots birthing in my eyewells and cobwebs forming across my beard as I listened to this album. It is the true sound of rot, the horror of the grave as the bodies moulder and commit themselves to the cycle of micro-organic rebirth. "Ingesting Death" starts with roaming guitars and bass, ellipsing into strange seconds of discord, like the last light dying from the eyes of the recently deceased. If this doesn't creep you the fuck out, "Catacombs of Horror" will absorb you like a river of sentient molasses. Slow, chugging beneath the deep, desolate vocals of Sindre Solem, with some freakout bass effects and glinting chords to add just enough melodic shine to the destructive depression. The band clearly has their roots in death/doom metal, and a healthy (or unhealthy) amount of influence from pioneers like Autopsy, Obituary and Death (the death metal Death, before the cosmic hippy boredom). Just when you thought all would be crawling along like a perpetual bowel movement, the track "Exterminate" opens with a moment of broiling slaughter, bouncing bass and infernal thrust. "The Spawn of a Dying Kind" transforms creepy, wailing guitars into another slow, crepitating abysmal vomitscape, and "Nekropsalms Evoke the Frozen Age" indeed. "Styxerian Path (Into Darkness)" is another track with a faster intro, which crashes about like a decapitated meat colossus in a slaughter farm, until it finally falls over and the blood slowly saps out of its neck. The album closes with the 9+ minute epic "The Worm That Gnaws in the Night", and we are re-visited by the trippy bass hypnosis and a surge of mid-paced, 'uplifting' rhythms, that later ascend into more grindy material and then a total chaotic collapse.

The band has outdone itself with this release, and the Nekropsalms sound ancient and horrific. Repeated listens continue to offer me more insight into this living death, the album is like being a symbiote inside the null-mind of a zombie as it trudges through a landscape of rotting carcasses, decided where and whether to feed and pondering the parasites that pick at its flesh from their invisible world. Though it's not nearly as chaotic or technically adept, the album reminds of Gorguts' Obscura in so much that it transforms the death metal tradition into a nubile realm of decadent exploration. I would certainly classify this as 'psychedelic' death metal. But not high off drugs. High off decay.

Highlights: Catacombs of Horror, The Spawn of a Dying Kind, The Worm That Gnaws in the Night

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Rimfrost - Veraldar Nagli (2009)

Sweden's Rimfrost take a different approach to the frozen north than many of their thematic peers, in that they sacrifice a lot of the brazen folk melodies, pomp & circumstance to provide a solid black/thrashing. The glory here is delivered straight through the band's energetic discharge...and there is a huge influence of German thrash metal here that truly works with the subject material. Perhaps the best comparison is to Immortal, who also have a very punchy style to these rhythms which Rimfrost excel at. Veraldar Nagli, the band's second full-length effort, has a cool tone to it which feels very authentic but well balanced. The guitars are boxy and the drums crash about, while Hravn's vocals unsettle through a powerful, emotional snarling.

A good band, and another good pickup for Season of Mist. Title track "Veraldar Nagli" provides for an immediate confrontation, hostile and thrashy and ready to punch your kidney in with the hilt of an oak hewn battleaxe, before reversing direction to cut your head clean off. The riffing is like Immortal meets Witchery, a frigid and diabolical slew of palm muted frenzy. "The Black Death" reveals a bit more of the band's Norse glory, a galloping mid-paced rhythm which rolls into black chords and double bass. "The Raventhrone" is right back to the thrashing, thick guitars (here they sound like Iced Earth, sans mediocrity). "Legacy Through Blood" has 3 minutes of acoustics, percussion and atmosphere delivered through a synthesizer, before the war drums pick up. It's about 9 minutes in length, and mostly slower thrash rhythms. "I Stand My Ground" and "Mountains of Mána" pick the pace back up, both solid throttlings, and "Scandinavium" is another of the longer tracks (8+ minutes) with slower riffs and acoustics. The closer, "Void of Time", has a glorious, charging gait, and you can subliminally feel the winds of old howling through the silence above its spread of punching rhythm.

I enjoyed my time with this, and would recommend it to fans of Immortal or the late 90s material from Enslaved (in particular Blodhemn). It offers further proof that not all Viking metal must be laden in synthesizers and excess folk instrumentation to succeed, and the thrash-like influence is welcome. Not every riff is great, and to be honest there are times where some of the excitement lapses off (in particular the longer tracks), but certainly enough meat on the tired bones.

Highlights: The Black Death, The Raventhrone, Mountains of Mána, Void of Time

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Contradiction - The Essence of Anger (2009)

One might immediately lower expectations for a metal album when it opens with a George W. Bush Jr. sample, but Contradiction at least avoids the cliche 'taxes' quote for something else, a threat of intent which mirrors the band's own style, an aggressive and warlike slab of old school thrash that lacks the dated feeling of a great many peers. There is the influence here from the usual suspects, in particular Sodom, Kreator and Tankard, but Contradiction do not try and outpace their idols through sheer speed (like many of the sillier current of retrotards), they write pretty laid back thrashing tracks which carry enough power to push them to the fore of the rat pack. This is probably because Contradiction is a band of old timers who simply never hit the big time, having formed in 1989 and released 5 other full length albums before this one.

The Essence of Anger is not a great effort, mind you, but it has a certain quality to it that I find refreshing. At its most energetic, the riffs pop at you with semi-memorable aggression, but the band also evokes a lot of slower moments, which feel as if they echo from a dystopian nightmare, an empty city full of armed vigilantes and warlords (like the guy on the cover). Oliver Lux has that brand of constipated vocals, rich in accent and mildly reminiscent of Tom Angelripper, or perhaps a male equivalent to Sabine from Holy Moses. The best tracks here are all quite simple, like the thundering "Start the Action" which seems the perfect incitement to a 21st century riot; the Sacred Reich slamming of "Collateral Carnage" and "The Spectator"; or the very Destruction-like vitriol of "Life's End". Two of the songs feature Leif Jensen (Dew-Scented) as a guest vocalist.

The tones of the album are rich, especially the vocals, which soar across the rhythm like a steel throated cyborg issuing orders to a core of riot punks, who assault you from the shelter of rusted, burned out motor vehicles and graffiti-splattered concrete abandon. I was not riveted by a lot of the material, and they certainly do not set out here to re-invent the wheel, but I feel Contradiction is owed a certain level of respect for writing a true thrash metal album and not some 'Look at my hi-tops and patch collection, I am soooo fuckin' real' recycled garbage.

Highlights: Start the Action, Collateral Carnage, Life's End, Commandments

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Kladovest - Escape in Melancholy (2009)

Escape in Melancholy follows the self-titled debut from 2006 of the Ukraine's Kladovest, a band best known for being a project that involves Thurios (Drudkh, Hate Forest), who replaced the former vocalist. The material here has an even more ponderous, stripped down feel than his other bands, ever so slightly more experimental and possibly entrancing if you can sit back and absorb it. There are only four tracks on the album, but they stretch out for nearly 34 minutes. There is no immediate access here, so if you seek kinetic melodies or folkish rambling, the material of Kladovest is unlikely to please you. That is not to say these elements do not exist in a small quantity, but the strength here lies well below the crust of more obvious bands.

"Abyss of Broken Clocks" sets the stage, a 10 minute piece which consists largely of buzzing guitar rhythms that breathe out over open air. The drums do not enter until the 4 minute mark, so you really get a chance to immerse yourself in the decaying atmosphere. The instruments are all performed by Dmitriy, while the art and lyrics are created by Alexander. Thurios is simply offering his tortured rasp to the compositions. "Clocks" continues to slug along at a slow pace until a happier, melodic eruption, with a pair of guitars soaring above the raw rhythm guitar. "Gritted Fangs" is an offering of melancholic black doom over the drum programming, with some breaks for gnarled blackness that evoke a diabolic grandeur. The latter half of this track provokes the most depth and darkness on the album, but "Tead of Silk" continues to roam the fields of somber aggression, at a mid pace across the vistas of shining, threatening guitars. "Insignificant Bile" has a few moments of flowing acoustic work before the band once again surges into their driving black wasteland of sadness.

I'd consider Kladovest a minimalist black metal project, for it avoids all technicality in favor of simple, streamlined atmosphere. The result is that the album simply cannot please or unsettle you through its riffing strength alone. It is the overall, drugged out package that will hit or miss the mark, and once I had the patience to digest it's arching overtones, Escape in Melancholy did succeed by the imagery it evoked into my imagination. If you approach the work with no expectations, you may be surprised at the result. I don't think the title could be more honest.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

In Slumber - Arcane Divine Subspecies (2009)

In Slumber is an Austrian band who morphs black and death metal into a modern style, for better or worse. While the band is perfectly capable of carrying a good melody or providing an authentic moment of atmosphere where needed, Arcane Divine Subspecies is simply slathered in too many terrible breakdowns and overbearing snarls and growls that recall a lot of the less memorable melodic death metal from both Europe and the US. The band's sound actually compares with recent output from Sweden's Hypocrisy, in that it packs so much into a dense record, but that band doesn't need quite so many mosh pit rhythms to enforce its point.

I must not travel very far to make my point, for even the first track on the album displays this tendency. "Bleed in Vain" starts with a charge, the drums slamming and guitars blazing, before the big melodic hook arrives (similar to something Hypocrisy might do) and the band breaks into a more grooving rhythm. Then, even though the first half of the song isn't that bad, the band busts out an uninspired, shitty breakdown at around 2:30 which nearly put me into slumber. "Patchwork Masquerade" is another example, the song has some pretty good leads and I liked the scintillating acoustics in my ears, but the breakdown grooves make it feel more like a band of 13-year old metalcore kids than members of Thirdmoon and Eluveitie. Most of the songs follow this pattern, but unlike some similar albums, the complete effort does not entirely disintegrate as a result. "Fragile Synthetic Order" has some nice, mechanical rhythms which seem a fine bridge between the poles of Hypocrisy and Fear Factory, and "Hatepath Engine", "Razorblade Balance" and the electro enhanced "Pain Priority Injection" all have some moments of delivery.

Arcane Divine Subspecies has a modern, futurist mix which some might consider too polished and sterile, like a Soilwork album. But for this style of metal, it's a given. The guitars bounce, the synths are present but not too overbearing, and the melodies pierce through lovingly. The vocals here are a smorgasboard of death and black, but they don't really add much to the songs, since you've heard them a thousand times before. In Slumber does not suck, but the album left much to be desired, and these musicians are likely capable of better.

Highlights: Hatepath Engine, Fragile Synthetic Order

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Septycal Gorge - Erase the Insignificant (2009)

I'm a sucker for the great, traditional cover art that bands like Italy's Septycal Gorge insist upon for their album covers. Otherworldly scenes of bedlam and chaos that stretch beyond the known material realm, into far flung corners of the universe...madness, elder gods, and rivers of woe and flame. Their previous album was just as sexy in appearance, but I felt like the music did not quite live up to expectations. Erase the Insignificant, too, does not initially breathe fire and plasm into my ears. On the surface, it sounds like a lot of other fast-paced, acrobatic, technical death metal with a lesser emphasis on production (like a sped up early Suffocation or the first few records from Deeds of Flesh) and greater emphasis on brutal precision. But take a few more listens, and it is revealed to be a tight and entertaining death metal record which offers spurts of both moshing, brutal slam rhythms and hyperkinetic extraplanar riffing.

Septycal Gorge certainly avoid boring the listener, with 9 tracks that race past at a total of 30 minutes playtime. "Deformed Heretic Impalement" slams out of the starter gate with morbid breathing samples that mutate into Mariano's guttural dementia, with the guitars flying all over the place in complex patterns of alien hostility. "Lobotomia" careens and caresses the ear with a sledgehammer of hatred, as the brain drill descends upon the unwary victim. "Redneck Slanderous Mutation" is forceful and ridiculous, chug-chug-chug bludgeon chug as every last drop of bile is drawn from through your stomach to meet the day. "Aprioristic Discharge" may have forced me to break out a dictionary, but the means by which it slowly creeps into reality and then starts snapping necks leaves no uncertainty. The band then charges through 5 more questions in the Hyperblast category, earning their reward money for each successive crime. Of these, the best were probably the charging "Forgotten Faces of Human Prism" and the noise inducted instrumental "Elegy for the Wretched".

Seek out Erase the Insignificant if you want the incessant pounding of a Deeds of Flesh or Severed Savior record, or if you admire Cryptopsy's earlier work like None So Vile. This is a step above 2006's Growing Seeds of Decay, but not a large transition in style. The mix is rather bland and laid back (as with many of these types of modern death metal works), so it's up to the rhythms and aggression of the band itself to deliver. And they do, at least if you favor this energetic pace and unswerving devotion to brutality.

Highlights: Lobotomia, Aprioristic Discharge, Forgotten Faces of Human Prism

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

9th Entity - Diabolical Enticement of Blood and Lust EP (2009)

It's immediately clear that 9th Entity has great taste in women, for the model adorning this debut EP is as smoking hot as they are ever molded in the flesh of the human race. But how does the band's black/death metal mesh compare to their eye for seduction? Pretty well, in all honesty. Their thick tones and vibrant rhythms compare favorably the the Swedish bands that first spawned this hybrid, but the vocals are a lot more wrenching and the band has a simplified approach to the songwriting which you wouldn't find in pioneers Sacramentum or Dissection. Vocalist Antonio Acuña has a pretty cool, dominant style which seems to me a Chilean accent on Piotr from Vader, and this hoarse throat matches really well with the thick, battering rhythms.

9th Entity has created a solid introduction here, with over 30 minutes of material that never bores you, even when it's not at its best musically. A brief synth intro evades into the opener "False Idol's Followers", a powerful if effortless expression which loads on the atmosphere. "Serpent Plenilunium" begins with a riff as seductive as the song's title, organs shining across the mesmerizing rhythm before the band picks up the aggression in the tracks later moments. "De Sangre y Lujuria" has another of these killer lead-in hooks, like a mystic South American Slayer, and a driving, blackened thrash rhythm. Again, this band does not ever burst into technicality, they thrive off their devotion to a simple motif and lavish it with as much evil as possible. "Dogma del Padecimiento" maintains a blacker, slowly paced grinding edge to it, with the howls of vile winds and clanking of steel. Along with "Serpent Plenilunium", it was one of the highlights on this offering. "World's Decaying Crown" is perhaps the most rousing and brutal track of the EP, and yet another of its best, with a tight thrashing/death rhythm that had me fully onboard. The doomy "La virulenta Entidad del Caos" closes out the EP (aside from a brief outro) with a few moments of ponderous, serpentine slaughter and diabolic melody.

Yes, the beauty of the Diabolical Enticement of Blood and Lust is deeper than the skin of its cover model, and this could be a foretelling of great things in the future of this Chilean act. Think Vader meets Sacramentum meets a mass sexual ritual, and you get a clear picture of the atmosphere on this disc. If they were to replace the Basil Poledouris writhing orchestra during the "Orgy" in Conan the Barbarian with black/death metal, this would make a good substitute. I hope to hear more from the 9th Entity.

Highlights: Serpent Plenilunium, De Sangre y Lujuria, World's Decaying Crown

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Arckanum - Þyrmir EP (2009)

This Þyrmir EP would probably be a hard sell if you didn't enjoy Shamaatae's recent full-length masterpiece ÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞ, but since that was one of my favorite metal releases of the year, I was very curious to hear new material.

Well, there is a single new track here, "Þyrmir", which is similar to the material on the full-length, albeit bearing more of a direct thrash/death influence in the riffs. The atmosphere is hostile and dense like that of the full-length, perhaps even thicker. Over a doom-like breakdown, Shamaatae uses extremely guttural vocals to create a looming, shadowy presence. The other track is not an original, but a cover of Pentagram's "Be Forewarned". The song does little for me to begin with, aside from its killer bridge section, and I'm not sure this version is about to change my mind, but a little raw personality does shine through in Shamaatae's vocals. Aside from the thick bass and chug of the guitar, it does not bear much in common with Arckanum's original work. The solo is pretty cool sounding.

Whether Arckanum will continue the Þ titling on his future efforts is yet to be seen, but he has at least done so here. I can't give the EP much of a recommendation...there is only one original track, and though it's passable, it is not up to the level of the asskicking that was ÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞ. This is obviously marketed for the diehards.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Suicidal Angels - Sanctify the Darkness (2009)

Nuclear Blast has snapped up yet another thrash metal band, and if this isn't proof of the genre's official 'arrival' (though it never quite departed), I don't know what is. Suicidal Angels is a Greek band akin to Released Anger. They play a heavier band of thrash with a slight touch of death metal, and a riffing style only marginally derived from the Germanic sounds of Sodom and Destruction. The band is fast, crisp, furious, and thankfully they do not blow hot air out of their asses in the form of 'thrash' titled songs or excessive retro mongering. Sanctify the Darkness is actually their second album, and continues the blasphemous lyrical spew that permeated their 2007 debut, Eternal Domination. Disease and corruption of Biblical proportions dominate the lyrics, and Nick Melissourgos has a decadent grit to his vocals (partially imbued by his accent) which helps them stand out.

Suicidal Angels is at first "Bloodthirsty", but though the song picks up in a frenzy, it's not the best foot forward for this album, simply sounding like an average Sodom sound-alike. "The Pestilence of Saints" is better, with a good thrust to the lead-in rhythm and a brief Slayer-like breakdowns, before the solid verse riff. "Inquisition" opens with a death metal rhythm, proceeding through a mid-paced thrash shuffle and then into a faster death/thrash rhythm with Sodom and Pestilence influences. "Apokathilosis" breaks into a nice thrashing trot and has some wild leads, and "...Lies" once again evokes the forceful, fanatical riffing of Sodom and Slayer. As for the album's latter portion, there are some solid tracks in "No More Than Illusion", "Beyond the Laws of Church", and "Dark Abyss (Your Fate is Colored Black)".

This is certainly no original band, and not about to steal the throne of Greek thrash established by Flames a few decades past. But their energy is as infectious as their influences would dictate, and it's a fun listen, although the tracks do start to feel very samey throughout. The mix is good and punchy, with the crisp licks and light hammering of the drums in great balance to bear the brunt of the unkempt vocals. Sanctify the Darkness is at least a superior offering to that being produced by the other old school thrash bands who seem to make waves these days, a sign that the band has been plugging away for years. But I would never reach for this album over the source material.

Highlights: Inquisition, Apokathilosis, Beyond the Laws of Church

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Chaos Inception - Collision with Oblivion (2009)

Chaos Inception may be a new band, having formed only last year, but they already have the chops of a far more experienced outfit, and Collision with Oblivion is a fine debut, showcasing the band's hooky, percussive riffing and grinding drums. Culled from the rosters of other US acts Fleshtized, Quinta Essentia, Blood Stained Dusk, and Convergence from Within, these gentlemen immediately clean the clocks of their other bands to produce a flurry of death metal which is far more Morbid Angel than Cannibal Corpse. The generally fast tempo of the material and the great lead work will probably also appeal to fans of Behemoth, Krisiun, and Hate Eternal, and the quality does not let up throughout the album.

The initial labyrinth of riffing, "Becoming Adversary" is a quick burst that demonstrates the band's level of aggression within 2 minutes, though the band's riffs get more interesting with the title track. The thick guitar tone of Matt Barnes is perfect to rival the rhythmic onslaught of Gary White and Cam Pinkerton, but rather than batter away for 100% of the time they induce some shredding, atmospheric moments where the rhythm guitars really churn the butter of dementia. "Black Vapor of Corruption Rise" and "The Scourge Infinitum" are two more juggernauts of blasting insanity, I especially loved the riff construction of the latter. "Desolate Beyond" is a 2+ minute instrumental in which haunting chords trudge below Barnes' frenetic fretboard exercises, and then the band returns to their relentless pounding through "Hand of Defamation" and the spastic "Pig Flesh Decimator". The final three tracks are no less acrobatic, in particular the grind and wind of "Regicide" and monolith discord that christens "Impurified".

Unlike a lot of USDM, Chaos Inception does not exist on the concept of brutality alone. There is a great deal of musicality to their riffing, which would probably impress fans of technical thrash as readily as the death sect. The mix of the album does it a great service, with blunt but warm tones that persist through the hammering verses and interesting solo bridges. Not just another gore band, they have a more mystical/occult lyrical scheme which better jibes with Hellwitch or Morbid Angel. I haven't heard a lot of death metal (or metal in general) from Alabama, and this was a refreshing, festering surprise.

Highlights: Collision With Oblivion, The Scourge Infinitum, Regicide, Impurified

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, November 27, 2009

Manowar - Gods of War (2007)

Though the cover to Manowar's 10th studio full-length album has something to appeal to those of any sexuality, I have spent the past two years burdened with a question that burns my mind and threatens the delicate balance of the universe...

Who gets the fifth chick, Manowar?

Who does she belong to? Odin? Thor? Does the band split her, or are they all 'community' to be shared, and thus the unbalanced numbers mean for naught. I may never know the answer to this. For all I know, none of the men and women adorning this album cover have any interest in those of the opposite sex.

Tits, ass and pectorals aside, Gods of War was a pretty daring dash to restore the faith of the band's massive fandom and re-enter a world loaded with spastic, corny power metal bands like Dragonforce who are amusingly even more dorky than the Kings. The ninth album, Warriors of the World, may have had a herald or two of memorable material sure to fire up the band's live sets, but they had been producing fairly mediocre (and fully overrated) work since the great year of 1984. Oh, fans will laud every accolade possible upon the ironic, iconic figureheads, but let's face facts. A lot of the band's charm of the early 80s was lost in cut and paste self-tributes to sate a rather numb crowd, hyped on Budweiser and cocaine and the steam of their own wind. Gods of War goes quite a distance to restore this, but you will have to dig a little, beyond the overinflated narrative of the album, which will probably have you in stitches.

For instance, you might have to look beyond the title to the pompous opening track, "Overture to the Hymn of the Immortal Warriors", and also the rather lackluster, symphonic music which is more fitting for a carousel than a head banging. Oh yeah, it's SIX FUCKING MINUTES LONG. And when it ends, and you're ready for the guitars to rip and Eric Adams to scream and blow your mind and cherry get NOTHING. You get another 2:30 minute symphonic piece titled "The Ascension", though at least Adams sings on it. And then, at long last, "King of Kings", which is so much different than "Kings of Metal", you get a pretty standard Manowar number, with choppy guitars that pummel alongside a steady rockin' beat and Adams' dirty mid range. "Army of the Dead Part I" is another intro with Adams soaring across it, and "Sleipnir" has even more of the goofy narrative, but at least it ends in a little metal thunder.

With "Loki God of Fire", we get the first worthwhile Manowar song, splitting the sky with some burnin' rhythms and a nice little break in the bridge, with some speed pickin'. "Blood Brothers" is a power ballad, but it's hardly offensive, as Adams can carry such a song and have every lighter swaying and male or female zipper longing to burst. "Overture of Odin" is more symphony. "The Blood of Odin" is MORE symphony, with narrative. "Sons of Odin", well that's a metal track, with a plodding bass, great solos, and some powerful (if cheesy) anthemic vocal melodies. "Glory Majesty Unity" is another symp...alright, fuck it.

These are the remaining metal songs on this album: "Gods of War" is huge and totally lame, but I wound up smiling anyway, because they build such a glorious cornball atmosphere that I'm surprised Meat Loaf doesn't bust out in the middle with some of his howling. "Odin", just Odin, mind ye, and the fourth track on the album to contain the name Odin, is one of the better tracks here, though the band seems afraid to really pick up the pace. "Hymn of the Immortal Warriors" is part bombast, but does evoke a little metal near the climax. Bonus track "Die for Metal" is totally lame and totally awesome, suck on that Hammerfall! Of course, it's only considered a bonus track because it isn't part of the Gods of War concept, which is to libate Odin and Thor and every other generic Norse concept, hammering them into stupidity. And of course, it cannibalizes their own past lyrics song titles, but it does at least rock.

They said hold your head up high
Raise your fist up in the air
Play Metal louder than Hell
Louder than Hell

Manowar devotees are so blindly obedient that the band is far beyond criticism. As for the rest of us, you can probably enjoy this album if you:

1. Shut off your brain.
2. Forget all standards (should happen as a result of #1)
3. Have a ready supply of beer and/or cocaine.
4. Stop wondering about that fifth nekkid broad on the cover.

Highlights: bound to occur whenever the 'Kings of Metal' get the brilliant idea to actually play metal

Verdict: Win [7/10]
(eight legs and magic runes)

Týr - Ragnarok (2006)

Týr is a name heard round the world, one of the few bands to emerge into the Viking/folk stratum with a truly unique sound, and perhaps the only metal band of note to ever hail from the lightly populated Faroe Islands. Ragnarok is their 3rd and most vital full-length album, which takes the penetrating melodic tones of their early work to a new height. This band does not simply evoke the storm and carnage of their conceptual material, but a brilliant warmth permeates their riffing and the dominant vocals of Heri Joensen. About the only comparison I could make would be Borknagar, during their Olden Domain/Archaic Course years, but Týr is simultaneously more advanced and less frantic in their writing.

This album is a complete journey, thorough in its subject matter, with 16 tracks of narrative folk-telling (ranging from the full-length metal songs to intro and outro pieces). The musical talent and restraint of the band is near legendary, and they manage to foreshadow and conjure themes which they will re-use throughout the work as a whole, a glorious subterfuge which glues the experience into your memory. This is no blasterpiece, the band rarely experiments within the more extreme reaches of metal music. Instead you will find melody steeped upon melody, complex and weaving through a hurricane of carefully laid rhythms and beautiful vocals. Aside from Joensen (who also plays guitar), the band is comprised of Terji Skibenæs (guitar), Gunnar H. Thomsen (bass), and Kári Streymoy (drums). Each a capable player in full service to the songwriting, never indulgent or breaking rank for any foolishness.

"The Beginning" dabbles in sparkling acoustic work and some powerful inlays of melody, the instrumental nature of the track lacks for nothing emotional, as the guitars create arches of sadness that scour the memory. "The Hammer of Thor" hearkens with a phenomenal dual melody that is picked up through the drums and bass, slowly gaining ground into a near charge, plucky mutes painting an aural portrait as Joensen's disgustingly hypnotic range. "Envy" is a brief, 70 second acoustic piece that sets up the gallivanting "Brother's Bane", and the vocals hit a mid range stride reminiscent of Hetfield's 'rock' vocals (though far more impressive). I fancied the glorious bridge of the song, as the melodies sting out from beyond the circular rhythm. "The Burning" is another intro/instrumental piece, played in a progressive/fusion rock style, but not lacking the band's folkish taint. "The Ride to Hel" is quite likely my favorite Týr song period, with its slower, crawling rhythms and the absolute eruption of beautiful vocal melody conjoined to the guitars at about 1:15, which will return during a faster rhythm later in the track. Try and shake this one from your brain, I dare you, one of the best folk metal hymnals ever conceived!

Who has won, who has lost
Boldest son
Sent away and you will count the cost

We all died,
when you fell
Far and wide
Waiting one to take the ride to hell

A hard song to top, but the band will at least try several more times on this very album. "Torsteins Kvaedi" builds a dark, worker-like atmosphere, one can almost imagine the falling of timber and the slow, careful construction of longhouse or longship, as the sun arks through the day into the next. "Wings of Time" is similar, if married to a more festive lyrical pattern, while "The Hunt" takes on a swerving, prog metal groove to it, with a great rising/falling vocal pattern that perfectly pops across each plummeting guitar rhythm. "Lord of Lies" has a rousing folk melody which is so strong that it takes second place on the album, also some fantastic bass work. Scattered about these are some more of the band's shorter, instrumental pieces, and the title track "Ragnarok", which was probably the weakest of the metal tracks, though not lacking an atmospheric cohesive with the rest.

Ragnarok is simply one of the best mixed albums I've heard in the genres of progressive OR folk metal. The completely professional polish is almost mandatory in order to squeeze forth every nuance from the vast repertoir of riffing. There is a lot of music contained within this hour, with very few refrains necessary. The album does climax with "The Ride to Hel", but very little of the glow would fade later. Though their following full-length Land, is also quite good, it failed to deliver this level of composition, and Týr really have their work cut out for them if they wish to top this effort.

Highlights: The Hammer of Thor, The Ride to Hell, Torsteins Kvaedi, Wings of Time, Lord of Lies

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]
(burn and rave, not so brave)

Enslaved - Frost (1994)

Next to the progressive, psychedelic journeys the band is producing in recent years, Frost must now seem like a primal behemoth haunting the desolate landscapes of the black metal pioneer. But even at the lowest of the band's career (Eld and Blodhemn), the great Enslaved have produced nothing but albums deserving of your respect, if not your utmost attention. And Frost is a far, far cry from the lowest, an epic of dynamic blasting and blitzing wrapped in the atmospherics of lo-fi synth work. Even at this early age, there was something quite different about the band's writing, and Frost was a diversion from the debut Vikingligr Veldi (released only 6 months earlier in '94).

The two founding fathers of the band, Ivar Bjørnson (guitars, keys) and Grutle Kjellson (vocals, bass) were joined here by the equally storied Trym Torson (Emperor, Zyklon, Tartaros, and others), whose frantic drumming is unmistakeable as it cavorts below the wandering guitar phrases and plodding, pumping bass, which is lathered in just the right amount of distortion. The keyboards here play a well balanced role, appearing only where needed, never steering or detracting from the guitar work or the central rhythms of the band. The album ranges from blasting aggression, certain to please the short attention spans of many, early extreme metal fans, to atmospheric passages and inventive rhythms which few peers were perfoming at the time. These are nowhere near as far out as later works like Mardraum, Below the Lights or Vertebrae, but in its day, many did not know what to make of this album.

The title track is a new age/ambient piece which invokes the mental imagery of thawing, frosted pines that scale a grand mountainside, each droplet of withered rain running its course to the foothills, the rivers and the mouths and cookpots of hardened, ancient men. "Loke" opens with pensive, ringing notes over crashing percussion, before bursting into life at the :30 mark with bloodthirsty speed picking and punishing blast and footwork from Trym. Truly of note is the bassplaying, which Grutle performs with flash and fury, as it coils ever below like a cold, snaking river. "Fenris" begins with spoken word Norse, before some great, curvy bass dowsed in sporadic chords and slides, breaking for acoustics and then an eruption of double-bass driven chords and further acoustics. Strikes of the synth are used deep within the depths of the track to highlight a charging rhythm, creating an atmosphere of airiness. "Svarte Vidder" is one of my favorites on the album, the way the bass and muted guitars cruise below the choral synth and then open into melodic blackness, relieved by even more coherent chaos as the snarling vocals ride across the mid-paced bashing like Sleipnir doing his morning struts. "Yggdrasil" features a guest, Eirik Hundvin, and some impressive, manly howling from Kjellson which resounds off into the atmosphere, dominating the plucky bass and mouth-harp.

Not given bread
They brought no horns
Saw down from the tree
Took up runes
Took them with screams
And down from the tree I fell

"Jotunblod" is one of the the more straightforward black tracks on the album, not letting one up for air even when it hollows out to some mid-paced breaks and synth. "Gylfaginning" is another of my very favorite pieces on the album, as it rages and taunts one with a salvo of glistening, doom inspiring chords, freakish synth inserts and soaring vocals. "Wotan" is another rapid rush of ash and flame, Trym going ballistic while the guitars stream and scream above them in ribald, unrelenting fury. "Isöders dronning" is the finale, a track opening in acoustic bliss with creepy keyboards and gradually building into a more savage composition with large amounts of double bass finesse and acoustic/black interplay. The song thrives through both its driving momentum and moments of tranquillity, an epic closure as its final notes break to a halt.

Everything about Frost was top flight, from the great production values, to the great lyrics and cool packaging (the band logo and title were printed as a part of the CD case, rather than on the cover itself. Osmose did a great job with its release, and it became an early favorite for many fans of the rapidly expanding Norwegian scene. It actually remained my own favorite from the band until Below the Lights hit in 2003. There is something cold and energetic captured in this recording which is difficult to forget. It cries from the heights, like a pair of ravens who see all and transmit the forging of civilization to their master.

Highlights: Fenris, Svarte Viddar, Gylfaginning, Isöders dronning

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (warriors are gathered through the dream)

Bathory - Blood Fire Death (1988)

And so it would happen, in 1988, that Quorthon would transition from the primal black chaos of his first three works (all pretty fine by their own rights), into the mightiest epic of his career. Blood Fire Death is the first Viking metal-themed work of note since Led Zeppelin's immortal "Immigrant Song", and remains to me the very highest watermark by which all other works of its kind must eventually be compared. With the exception of Enslaved (who have also written several masterpieces, though usually with a different, complex progression to them), no other band can really stress the point of 'Vikinghood' quite like this one. This album arrived alongside the top crop of the best overall year in metal history, and thousands of bands have been trying to live up to it since.

I'll note here that despite the larger, epic structure of its tracks, Quorthon retained a lot of what made his earlier albums so vibrantly destructive and misanthropic. He has simply merged that furor with a lyrical hierarchy that means enough to him that he would continue to trace it through the remainder of his career as Bathory. But his later success would be limited...some of the works like Hammerheart, Twilight of the Gods, Blood on Ice, and Destroyer of Worlds were worthwhile, but I felt that his insistence on the cleaner, shaky vocals and ever increasing use of acoustics provided them all with an inconsistent quality. However, not the case for Blood Fire Death, which walks a straight and true path of belligerent savagery and and kicks your ass again and again for 9 tracks and 45 minutes.

It does not kick your ass with metal alone, as the intro piece "Oden's Ride Over Nordland" proves, a stunning three minute intro of thundering horses and epic choirs that hover below a gathering storm structure, gray and black clouds penetrated by the light of the suncross and the wisdom of the Father's sole, gazing eye. The track flows nicely into the acoustics that introduce "A Fine Day to Die", Quorthon adding subtle vocal flavors, and then at 1:45, all fucking hell breaks loose...and we all welcome our doom. Prepare your soul, my friends, because this is THE END. Fight or flight! Vvornth's crashing kit exclaims the immortality of the riffing to follow, and the guitars grind you into a mid-paced paradise where Valhalla calls every wayward man of honor to crush the fucking skulls of his enemies. The vocals are sick, tortured and 100% authentic gleanings into the genius that, for a brief period of years, possessed this man. The track is just over 8 and a half minutes of bewildering punishment, slowly churning along like a juggernaught of axes and screaming that cannot die until the deed is done. "The Golden Walls of Heaven" follows, and Quorthon shows that he has not abandoned the speed of his previous works, as this is a vicious and brutal punishment which channels early Kreator and Sodom-like speed/thrash into the bowels of Asgardian lore.

Soundless wings lacerate the night
Angels of death emerge accross the sky
Thorned heads spiky limbs climb the air up high
Attack of the pearly gates
Now wait for the sign...

Not convinced? Then the mean, crushing rhythm of "Pace 'Till Death" shall quell all doubts, an hymn of destruction that once more takes the brutal German thrashing roots to the fullest extent as it helps usher in the age of barbaric black metal. Noisy and unforgiving, with messy, hack leads and a scorching, thunderous end. "Holocaust" is another neck breaking tribute to the insanity of warfare, and once again it bears the heavily influence of insane Euro speed/thrash, with guitars so thick on acid and high on blood that you probably should be deaf after hearing them. More streaming, turbulent leads which go nowhere (except straight through my heart), and more cancerous, raw power! "For All Those Who Died" brings it back down a notch to a deadly, mid-paced battering. The way the chords ring out over the surging bass of Kothaar and the simple, stick and bash drumming is beautiful, and Quorthon again poisons the masses with the savage lamentations of his cruelty. The song is a steady five minutes of rocking, the only climax the heightened slamming of the drums over the noisy distorted rumblings in the end.

Burning naked but smiling
Not full of fear but pride
Knowing death alone could cleanse them
Of the reasons for which they all die

"Dies Irae" claims all your remaining lifebreath, ramming it back down your throat with a mailed fist of frost. The song is so fucking heavy that I feel like, even 20 years hence, it slowly peels off the dead cell layers of my skin with only implied, psychokinetic frost and fire. Gods, what a headache! What a beautiful, lummox of wrath and pain. And the breakdown is viler and more penetrating than an einherjer receiving the blessing of Sif between his thighs. At this point, the album is already one of the most brutal and effective metal works I've ever heard, and's not over yet. THE BEST IS YET TO COME. And it comes in the form of the title track, 10:30 of classic, immortal riffing and atmosphere that anyone worth his weight in sea salt could live and die by. The track is truly immense...the riff at 1:00 is the best 'Viking' metal riff ever written in history, so strong that I get the shivers running through my head and spine just hearing it. The way the keyboards glint above it, and Quorthon's vocals summon both the chaos of Loki and Ragnarok and the primal chaos beyond the destiny of all mankind. The bridge is even more glorious, with the vocals taking on a grim majesty, a king dethroned, a dying and rising soul. The extensive bridge of this epic breaks for some acoustics, and some surging thrash rhythms that march across the battering of the drums. There is also an outro piece which breathes like wind and thunder, but you will hardly care, because you have just been leveled and brought to your knees. What could be left of you?

Blood Fire Death is staggering. When I first heard it, I simply could not fucking believe it. I was just starting high school that year, and had to bring it in to school the day after I got the cassette, to let all the poseurs know the latest herald of their apocalypse. I may very well have transformed a half dozen glamboyant hairspray chuggers that day, and frightened away another score or more. This was something new...something savage and carnal and yet emotionally impactful. This album is a mountain. It will not move. It escalates from track to track. You can erode it with age, but its imprint will always remain, in the ground soil and dust and memory. It's mandatory listening, whether you enjoy black metal, thrash or speed metal, or Viking/folk metal. And if you've not heard it, I will arrive at your doorstep, beaten cassette in hand, one eye burning directly into you.

Highlights: The first 45:43 of the album. The final 45:43 of the album.

Verdict: Epic 'Where Can We Go From Here' Win [10/10]
(now the limit is so close)