Sunday, January 31, 2010

Entombed - Unreal Estate (2005)

Unreal Estate is the 2nd live album from Sweden's Entombed, and a far more interesting product than its predecessor Monkey Puss (Live in London). If not only for the superior sound and interesting track list, which features mostly newer material, it was recording during the band's 2002 performances at the Royal Opera Hall in Stockholm, where the band was accompanied by 30 dancers of the Swedish Royal Ballet, translating the band's death metal rock & roll to a visual medium. Yes, a death metal ballet. And this must be the only flaw with Unreal Estate...because this simply should not have been released with only the audio component. The booklet does feature some great pictures of the events, but it's simply not the same as seeing them in motion to the music.

But, alas, this is an audio product, and as such, it's certainly impressive. The guitars are chunky but clean, and being that this was not your average rock hall concert, you don't get any loud jeering or hissing applause between tracks, lending the material a certain, stilled degree of darkness which increases the effect. The band is also spot on here, with pretty accurate, and largely unfiltered performances, none of the messy bootleg feeling of Monkey Puss. L-G Petrov sounds ominous on this recording, like a prophet of the end times, relating his bitter rock & roll violence to a surely fascinated crowd of both Entombed dopeheads playing dress-up and ballet fans who must have been blown away. The thought of some shut-in ballet/opera snob purchasing a death metal album after one of these performances is more than enough to lube my chassis.

The performance opens with "DCLXVI" from To Ride, Shoot Straight and Speak the Truth, an adequate piano piece which might have seemed a relief to any showgoers who weren't expecting the aggression to follow. "Chief Rebel Angel" is one of two tracks here to represent the Morning Star album, which was the most recent full-length out in shops at this time. It sounds really good, backing vocals included, and a perfect chugging gait to the guitars which must have been hugely resonant in such a performance venue. The other Morning Star track here is "Mental Twin", with its ominous, sailing octave chords and pummeling bass undertow. A larger chunk of the live is devoted towards material from Uprising. The plodding bass of "Say It In Slugs" is great to ease the audience into the bands harder material. The impossibly thick chugging that opens "Returning to Madness" is a vibrant molasses, and this is another bass heavy offering which must have been a sight with all the ballet dancers. "In the Flesh" is likewise great, eerie organs transforming into the track's dark, murderous blues, and "Something Out of Nothing" fits like a missing jigsaw piece with its Slayer-ific intro rhythm and balls deep rocking edge.

"Unreal Estate" is a fast paced, deathgrind track under a minute long which was included in the performance, and another unique piece is "It is Later Than You Think", an unnerving ambient sequence with voice loops, bells and noise samples. The band also performs their cover of Rory Ericksson's "Night of the Vampire" here, which meshes in very well with the originals they've chosen to include, and I honestly prefer this live version to their studio takes. Closing out Unreal Estate is the sole track from their old days, the extended instrumental bridge of "Left Hand Path", which sounds amazing in this dark, theatric atmosphere, possessing more gravity than most of the rest combined.

It's a little regretful that they did not incorporate more early material to this release, since that one track sounds so brilliant here, and though the remaining songs are good, they simply don't compare in compositional skill. This is only one of the performances, there were several, so it is possible there could be other set lists recorded, but unlikely, as that would have required the ballet dancers to rehearse a lot more material. At least there is a good cross offering of material, and they don't include any of the rock tracks from their two worst albums (Same Difference and To Ride, Shoot Straight and Speak the Truth). Unreal Estate is a great experience, and I'd be a fool not to be jealous of those who got to participate in it. This is another successful experiment for a band unafraid to cross lines, but it would have been far better had it included the full video, shot in a quality rivaling the audio. I can't imagine having one without the other, but sadly, you'll have to stare at the pictures and use your own imagination.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Entombed - Sons of Satan Praise the Lord (2002)

Entombed have recorded a LOT of cover tunes over their career, the majority of which they have distributed through an array of short play releases, like EPs, singles and splits, with a few having appeared as bonus tracks on various version of their full-length albums. As a sane person, you probably would never have been bothered to track down and squander coin on all of these various items, thus your own exposure to these songs has been limited to internet downloads or possibly live performances. Well, the time was right in 2002 for Entombed to gather a whole pile of these things into one place, the Sons of Satan Praise the Lord compilation, and release it through Music for Nations.

Now, as an insane person, i.e. a collector (yours truly once fell into this category, sadly), the value of this 2-disc, 27-track compilation might diminish. If you've collected the band's many EPs and singles, and own the self-titled compilation from 1997, you've already got a large portion of this material. Sons of Satan Praise the Lord is still a great way to have them all under one roof, since you can just bring the two discs to your car or snowmobile and rock the hell out through the collective decades of music that have influenced your favorite death metal-gone-rock'n'roll band. As I go through this, I'm going to focus more tightly on the tracks I haven't already covered on another of the band's releases.

Disc 1 begins with Repulsion's "Black Breath", from the Out of Hand EP (and Entombed compilation), which is an average take on the song that doesn't really live up to the original, but it harmless nonetheless. "Albino Flogged in Black" is a strong cover of the doomlike track that appeared on Stillborn's debut Necrospirituals, and I rather liked it, also the fact that Entombed has come up on a lot of their country's good, obscure acts like this one. It's naught but a few chords given a dank, bluesy atmosphere, but it rocks. After this, Entombed cover both "March of the S.O.D." and "Sergeant D and the S.O.D" from Speak English or Die. The former is alright, but lacks those pure NY thrash tones of the original, so I prefer the vocal cover, which sounds great with Petrov's vocals. "Some Velvet Morning" is quite an asskicking cover of the Lee Hazlewood original, dowsed in the huge fuzzy guitars and vocals which I'd argue trump the original, including the lines insertions which do justice to Nancy Sinatra's originals. A very successful experiment here. Nobody does Motörhead quite like Motörhead, but Entombed try damn hard with "One Track Mind"; I just don't care much for the vocals, a little too blunt, though the guitar riffs sound great with this tone.

Next up, a pretty dense and powerful chugging take on the Misfits "Hollywood Babylon", which crushes in the hands of the Swedes, given new life and an even wilder abandon that perhaps the old Static Age version (okay who am I kidding). Rory Erickson's "Night of the Vampire" is a decent cover, already having appeared on Entombed's split with the New Bomb Turks and then the 1997 compilation, as did the rendition of KISS's "God of Thunder", which I never much cared for when I first heard it. I was very surprised to find a treatment of Hüsker Dü's "Something I Learnt Today" here, but despite the added 'darkness' of the bands ripping, thick tone, it just doesn't compare...though it does offer further proof that these boys have some taste in who they choose to pay tribute. "21st Century Schizoid Man", on the other hand, sounds perfectly deviant in their care, a brutastic offering to the King Crimson original, heavy as fuck and probably something they've offered on their live bills more than once. The remainder of this disc includes the band's cool cover of Alice Cooper's "Black Juju" which they released as an EP in 1999, and a punk "Amazing Grace" which went straight through the noggin.

Disc 2 starts with the ripping cover of the Dwarves' "Satan", which appeared on the Wreckage EP, and then their very creative spin on the "Hellraiser" theme, which is taken from the excellent Hollowman EP back in '93. When, in an altered tone, the expression "Kick out the Jams Motherfucker" erupts, you know what is next, and Entombed have got themselves a pretty fun use of the MC5 classic. The cover of the Bad Brains "You't Juice" was another surprise, not that they are fans of the reggae-core legends but that they wouldn't pick something earlier that better fit the punk aesthetic. This version is honestly quite weak, losing all of what makes the original special, but it's kind of cool that it can be found at all. Venom's "Bursting Out" rages in the gruff Swedish tones, as L-G Petrov seems a natural replacement for Cronos' filthy vocal spew. Stiff Little Fingers' "State of Emergency" was already on the Full of Hell single and the Entombed compilation, but I hadn't heard their cover of Sabbath's "Under the Sun", which is pretty cruising, in particular the great bluesy lead licks.

We've got the quality cover of Unsane's "Vandal X" next, also from the Entombed compilation, and then Twisted Sister's "Tear it Loose" which the band previous released on the Wreckage EP, a fun if forgettable adaptation. The cover of Dead Horse's "Scottish Hell" is another surprise, a good band and good song, sounding fairly natural through Entombed. Unfortunately, most of the rest are covers we've already heard: Bob Dylan's "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" and Jerry Kids "Lost" from the Wreckage EP, and Captain Beyond's "Mesmerization Eclipse" which they released on the Black Juju EP. The cover of "Sentimental Funeral" from Black Juju is missing here, and the album closes with another rendition of "Amazing Grace" with different vocals...the 'mellow drunk' version, and once again skippable.

Sons of Satan Praise the Lord is pretty interesting due to the eclectic selection of songs included, but only about half the covers actually sound good enough that I'd ever want to listen to them. The biggest attractions are those I hadn't previously heard, in particular the songs taken from digipacks or overseas editions of albums that featured them as bonus content. Probably the best of the bunch are the covers of Venom, Dead Horse, Stillborn, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Dwarves, King Crimson, Lee Hazlewood, and Unsane, but this selection takes into account the fact I'm not a fan of some of the other bands' work. It's a decent idea for a release, considering how many covers Entombed had floating out there already, and other bands like Napalm Death, Overkill and Exhumed have released similar albums, though the 2 discs and 27 total tracks are a nice selling point.

Highlights: Bursting Out, Satan, Vandal X, Scottish Hell, Black Juju, Under the Sun, Albino Flogged in Black, 21st Century Schizoid Man, Some Velvet Morning

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Entombed - Monkey Puss: Live in London (1999)

This would be the 'other' Entombed release of note after the band departed from Earache Records, with a rather interesting story behind it. In short, this was a bootleg floating about the scene which Earache snapped up and decided to give an 'official' release, padding their pockets and filling out a residual obligation they had with the Swedish tyrants, who were at this point already a pair of albums deep into their Threeman Recordings/Music for Nations deal. The performances captured here were taken from a 1992 London tour, so at least you were getting the amazing Entombed of their first two albums, and not the forgettable death rock & roll the band were in the process of puking out of their systems.

One of the reasons it was chosen for release (on both album and VHS formats) was the purported quality of the sound, which I guess is basically true here. This sounds like any vibrant Entombed live performance of the day, with the chunky guitars even chunkier than their studio album counterparts, and Lars-Goran Petrov sounding a lot sloppier, like he's drunk on something he shouldn't have mixed with his medications. It's definitely not bad, but I'd never recommend any of these versions over the studio work, as they lack a little of the subtlety and mood found in their proper forms. The drums also feel as if they might fall off track during at least a few of the songs, but quickly fixed so it's not a major distraction.

As for the material appearing on the live, it's exactly 50/50 between the two albums, which makes sense; Clandestine was the album being touted and toured upon when the recording was taken, but the band's buzz was still fresh on the ears and most fans were probably still getting into Left Hand Path. We've got "Living Dead", "Stranger Aeons", "Crawl", "Sinners Bleed", and "Evilyn", all good choices from Clandestine; and "Drowned", "Revel in Flesh", "But Life Goes On", "The Truth Beyond" and "Left Hand Path" from the debut. Some of the older material sounds a little careless here, in particular "Revel in Flesh" which sounded slightly downtrodden and out of tune, even moreso than it should with the down-tuning. The opening riff to "Evilyn" also sounds pretty weak here, losing a little of the pumping mute sensation that makes it so great on the studio version. A few of the songs do sound adequate, like "Crawl" and "Left Hand Path".

Monkey Puss (stupid title, by the way) is the sort of bootleg that probably should have remained a bootleg. It's great to capture Entombed in their raw, live environment, and much of the tone here is loyal, the guitars crunchy, and the bass throbbing, but there is no benefit to hearing this over the studio side, and having caught one of their performances since, I can say that the band has certainly improved in leaps and bounds. In other words, this was pretty much bound for the bargain bins; it's like a weak little smear of Zima in your vodka & tonic, quickly absorbed and distilled by the superior quality of everything else. Very easily forgotten or ignored.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Entombed - Entombed (1997)

After the band's departure from Earache, to make the most of their own Threeman Recordings imprint (and a distribution deal with Music for Nations), the original label would offer two more of the 'important' releases in their discography, the first being this self-titled compilation in 1997. Many labels use compilations as a cash grab to reprint material they've already released and at the same time fill out contractual obligations with artist they have worked with, and the motivation for this could have fallen in that realm. Fortunately, Entombed is a pretty useful collection of rarities that many of the band's fans might have skipped over, or remained blissfully inattentive of, in particular the EPs and singles that have been culled to flesh out this album.

First is the Out of Hand EP, which was released in 7", 12" and CD formats in 1994, with the title track appearing as the final track on the CD version of Wolverine Blues the year before. This consists of "Out of Hand", a steady rocker which doesn't quite live up to the rest of the material from that album, but nonetheless builds to a pretty raging thrash rhythm close to the climax. Also included (here and on the EP) were two cover tracks. One of KISS' "God of Thunder", which is a cool choice for the Swedes, but aside from having the harsher lyrics and punchier guitar tone, it's not all that great, and I'd choose the original any day. "Black Breath" is a better rendition, from the seminal grind gods Repulsion, given a nice thick treatment due to the guitars, but void of surprises.

Next, the Stranger Aeons EP, which features an album track from the Clandestine album ("Stranger Aeons" itself), an unreleased number known as "Dusk", and an older Nihilist track known as "Shreds of Flesh" which also appeared on the first Entombed demo But Life Goes On in 1989. I've already covered the EP in its own review, and though I question the need to have the title track here, at least it's an act of completion, and it is good to have the other tracks, despite their boxier-than-usual sound quality. The Crawl EP follows, with "Crawl" from Clandestine, "Bitter Loss" from Left Hand Path, and the non-album track "Forsaken", all with the vocals of Orvar Säfström, which are passable, but not quite as strong as the Petrov's "Bitter Loss" or Nicke Anderssons take on "Bitter Loss". So "Forsaken" is really the best value of these if you don't own the original EP.

Following the three EPs comes the cover of Texas psychedelic rocker's Rory Erickson's "Night of the Vampire", which originally appeared on a split with Ohio's New Bomb Turks. It's a moody take on the classic, with a nice Danzig-spin on the vocals and the thick, grinded up edge of the guitars delivering a crushing force above the melodies (which are sadly, a little understated in the mix). The Full of Hell EP is represented here with "State of Emergency", a cover taken from the debut of Irish punk heroes Stiff Little Fingers. I've only heard the original once or twice, but the riffs don't seem to impress me any more in Entombed's capable fingers as the original digits. The compilation closes with a take on Unsane's "Vandal X" which at the time was unique to this release, and it's the best of the covers found on Entombed, even if brief...of course if you stay tuned though a few minutes of silence, you're in for an added 'treat' at the very end of the CD.

There's nothing all that impressive about the material here, but it's handy to have all in one location, and that is the only reason I'd really recommend owning this to the Entombed fan with the cash to burn. It could truly have benefited from some unreleased originals (like the Hollowman EP did), or even the inclusion of Hollowman itself, but contract stipulations with Columbia probably forbade that. This comp also loses a little of its value due to the covers all being reprinted on the Sons of Satan Praise the Lord compilation, but that was released years after this and who could have known. It's likely a lot cheaper to pick this up at a record shop than the four EPs and the split where its contents originated, just keep in mind that nothing here is nearly as good as the first three albums, and it's little more than a well organized curiosity.

Highlights: having more money left over to buy an Entombed t-shirt or perhaps a bootleg lighter with their logo on it.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Gamma Ray - To the Metal (2010)

So I guess this year Gamma Ray's plan was to shock us all with one of the worst album titles we'd see, until you realize that it's just an incomplete cliche: 'pedal to the metal', and then it doesn't hurt quite so much. As for the album itself, it's an exercise in frustration, for it's a mix of some of the most mediocre tracks I've heard from the band in years, and a few that are honestly quite excellent. Sift through this bloated cesspool of stagnation and you are assured to uncover a few priceless gems, but no paycheck could be large enough to cover the damages of its many mundane pitfalls. Coincidentally, no paycheck should be large enough that Kai would write some of these songs. Has he finally lost his mind? Is the man just too awesome for a single corporeal body to contain all of that awesome, so now it is running loose into little marginal half-Kai impersonators? My guess is that he doesn't actually write all the songs, and reading more into the album confirms the suspicion.

"Empathy" is an atmospheric heavy rocker, and while it's not outstanding, it at least grants you hope that this might be a great album. Again, the problem is that, while there is nothing technically wrong with the music, it simply never achieves the same crescendo or unforgettable hook that so many of their past songs have delivered. "All You Need to Know" is a real treat, perhaps the sole track on this album to capture the power and brilliance of the band's New World Disorder album, and features a guest vocal spot from none other than former Helloween frontman Michael Kiske. If that doesn't make you smile, put the album down and go listen to Opeth or Wolves in the Throne Room or whatever you kids are listening to these years, because you probably don't need to be listening to Gamma Ray in the first place. It helps that the song is also quite great...

"Time to Live" is poppy and punchy, with a nice escalation through the verse to its sombering, melodic rage, but while tight, it's yet another of the songs that doesn't deliver on its promise."To the Metal" is probably Gamma Ray's attempt to rekindle the fires of 80s rock anthems by Twisted Sister or Quiet Riot, but unless you fancy yourself some guy who wants to run around a concert banging his fists and screaming HAIL TO THE METAL!, it once again falls flat. The bridge where the band builds up the psychotic distorted song title against a chorus-like backdrop is underwhelming. "Rise" gives Maiden a go for a few seconds before transforming into one of the band's prevalent, driving anthems, with drifting walls of background vocals and plenty of the band's signature tiny melodies surging through the thicker rhythmic core. It's solid Gamma Ray, though it doesn't ever really hit a memorable stride.

"Mother Angel" has a great, classic rhythm riff and tone, content at its steady mid pace, and though it's hardly remarkable, it is the first track here I can say I enjoyed. "Shine Forever" has some balls to it, with Kai reaching a Halford level in the verse, before the big Queen-like chorus, and there are also some down and dirty vocals here which border on melodic death metal. The lyrics are entirely cheesy and throwaway, but it's easily one of the only tracks here I can say I enjoyed. "Deadlands" opens with a plunky little keyboard rhythm, and a guitar melody that reminds me almost exactly of the chords that open "Sole Survivor" from Helloween's Master of the Rings, but otherwise not bad if you're a fan of the band's Powerplant and Somewhere Out in Space albums. That said, I was waiting for the killer hook to sell me, and again, it never manifested.

"Chasing Shadows" features a wonderful thrust of melody with a nice synthesizer intro, and some guitar/synth dual shredding deep in the bridge. I really wish more of To The Metal consisted of songs like this one, then we'd be having a far different conversation. The finale of the album, "No Need to Cry" is another example of how great German bands like this one still keep one foot firmly planted in the hard rock that inspired them back in the 70s, a lame power ballad at large, though the acoustic break in the middle channels a mix of Queen, Zeppelin, Rush and Zebra. The power chord climax is like a dick going limp, and the lyrics are rather sedate, but considering that the song was written by Dirk Schlächter after the passing of his father, we'll give those a pass.

Anyway I try to spin it, this album is still pretty underwhelming for the majority of its 48 minute playtime. There are a few good songs, and one I would consider excellent, but the rest feel rather redundant and uninspired, with the ballad carrying almost no weight (despite the gravity of its subject matter). Gamma Ray have seen far better days, and this is the probably their worst overall effort, even less interesting than the original Land of the Free (I realize I'm alone on that, but I still feel the album was a drag among its perky siblings). They can still play like demons, and the Michael Kiske guest spot was a joyous occasion, but I'm still seeking a German power metal release to come along and kick my ass like so many of them used to.

Highlights: All You Need to Know, Shine Forever, Chasing Shadows

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (bodies stayed hard)

Arkaik - Reflections Within Dissonance (2010)

Because California was not already brimming with young, energetic, technical death metal acts (Odious Mortem, The Faceless, Abysmal Dawn, or the older Deeds of Flesh, Severed Savior, and Sepsism to name a few), they also had to spawn forth the brash and dazzling Arkaik, who, with their sophomore outing Reflections Within Dissonance, assist in confirming that state's claim to the throne of the modern US death. Like their peers, the band blends all the right influence of their forebears Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, Morbid Angel, Cryptopsy and Suffocation into a writhing mass of mile-a-minute riffs and just enough showmanship to prove their technical ability without completely indulging themselves and destroying the songs.

Like any similar act, you need a few listens to really swallow what Arkaik are brewing, because they compose in that same labyrinthine temperament which does not believe in giving the listener a break, simply imploding them with confusion and letting the maggots sort out the rest. As a result, the songs do tend to run together into one 34 minute mass of cross-dimensional violence and reality bending. After the schizoid intro "The Transcendent Spectral Path", it is off to the races for the crushing title track, a tight central Morbid Angel/Deicide style rhythm with insane double bass pandering, then to erupt into a frenzy of the band's bludgeoning whims, complete with tiny surgical death melodies and effective if average, blunt weapon grunts. I like the lead breakout, but this is not one of the stronger tracks on the whole. "Paradigm" and "Obscured Luminosity" both offer a superior experience, running the gamut from juggernaut grooves to flippant finger exercises.

"Womb of Perception" has a great little hyper-thrash rhythm off which it weaves an apocalypse of dementia, almost too acrobatic to comprehend through just one listen. "The Divine Manifestation" tries to apologize with a more steady, death-thrashing ala Deicide or old Malevolent Creation, but the band cannot help themselves, wiring into some of the more noodly and headspinning guitar fills of the album. The remainder of the album follow suit, with standouts being the rhythmic frenzy that is "Elemental Synthesis" or the sombering stomp gone manic "Face of Regression".

You will feel like you've heard this all before, of course (see the list of bands in the opening paragraph), but that doesn't really lessen the amount of practice the band members had to do (both individually on their instruments and as a cohesive unit) to arrive at this state, and Reflections Within Dissonance is an album certain to sate any who think fondly upon the band's marvelous peers. With enough proficiency to evoke envy in the less rehearsed, enough space-like leads to open a wormhole into the beyond, and enough twisting, turbulent, teeth chattering chug offs to tally up a huge dentistry bill, Arkaik is a spectacle to behold.

Of course, since I couldn't afford the bill, I had to send it to Arkaik. And my dentist is pissed.

Highlights: Obscured Luminosity, Womb of Perception, The Divine Manifestation, Elemental Synthesis

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Overkill - Ironbound (2010)

I have a lot of respect for Overkill, I really do, and I once wore my greens and blacks with pride through the 80s, which sadly remain the pinnacle of their career as far as recorded output. They're cool guys, they put on excellent live performances (even well beyond the 80s), and who the hell could deny that they are one of the most persistent bands in metal music. Most of the bigger names broke up, went through massive musical changes, got back together, or died of overdoses in the past 20-30 years, but not Overkill. They've been with us all along, thrashing out through the years with nary a difference in their stylistic delivery aside from occasional lapses into more modern, crushing grooves, or different studios and tones, but even then, they still maintained the core values that make them the most enduring thrash band of the NY/NJ area (sorry, Anthrax, maybe if you hadn't fallen through the cracks...)

With all this being said, Bobby Blitz and his wrecking crew have not delivered an album that knocked my socks off since 1987's Taking Over. There have been great efforts (Under the Influence), good efforts (The Years of Decay), and then a whole lot of just okay efforts...albums that usually feature 2-4 killer cuts and then a heap of filler which rarely, if ever makes it onto the bands live sets or into the long term memory of their fans. They're like a lichen growing across the surface of that 19th century bronze vase you've got out at the edge of your property: they give the world a little bit of extra class, but beyond that, pretty useless. Ironbound is the band's 16th album, and it's a pretty staggering accomplishment to even REACH that number of albums, especially when we're talking about full fledged studio efforts and not 2 kids in their bedroom using pro-tools to build a black metal legacy. Overkill is older, certainly, and probably wiser too, but one listen through Ironbound and you'll realize they have lost nothing of their youthful edge. Arguably, this is also the band's best work in many years, clinging proudly to the thrash and speed of their roots, and it's successful enough to have older fans banging their heads, and younger fans performing windmill kicks and walls of death to drain off their excess testosterone, but it's still not the great return to form I have always hoped the band would one day produce.

Thankfully, it's fast and fun thrash metal which doesn't often give you an opening to ponder just why you don't care for it. "The Green and Black" is a nice tribute to both the band's history and especially the fans that have kept fueling it over the years, but I have to question why it needs to be 8 minutes long. This could have been snipped to 3-4 minutes and had the same effect. By the slower breakdowns later in the track, I was mighty bored. Not really the case for title track "Ironbound", which truly thrashes out like it was Under the Influence all over again, and it carries the 6+ minutes pretty well, with Blitz' undeniable vocal charisma howling and screaming through the night. Speaking of which, "Bring Me the Night" is another smoker, with a total old school speed metal vibe that alternates into the chugging vocal verse. "The Goal is Your Soul" is another cautionary thrash tale, at a strong mid tempo, but not too memorable. "Give a Little" and "Endless War" both have their moments, solid beatings but with maybe 2-3 catchy riffs among them.

"The Head and the Heart" recalls some of the band's more moody, atmospheric tunes from past years, in particular the "Overkill" series of songs that they penned for the first few albums. A simple clean, chorused guitar breaks into a slow-paced rhythm reminiscent of Megadeth's "Symphony of Destruction", and Blitz dips into a little of his late 70s/80s hard rock edge before the thrash fist returns. "In Vain" loses nothing of the energy of the first half of the record, but doesn't quite stand out, while "Killing for a Living" is a concrete blast of urban brutality with a string of mighty riffs and interesting variations through the vocals, from a kind of narrative style in the verse to the more aggressive bridge and chorus. "The SRC" has some cruel grooves and steady pounding drums, another good if not great refresher on the old school sounds they used to churn out in the 80s, with a breakdown assured to get the kids flailing about and the wife to pull out her hair.

Ironbound sounds great, with punchy guitar riffs and one of the more charismatic frontmen in the genre. Blitz still knows how to use his voice as a weapon, it is both sadistic and unforgettable which is more than I can say for like 99% of the retro thrash bands currently clogging up the drainpipe, waiting for the flush. I can't help but think that a little more time to brew, and a scrapping a few of the more average tracks here, could have produced their best album since The Years of Decay, but true Overkill diehards will probably be very satisfied with the headbanging catalysts found within. Here's to another 16 albums, old friends. Don't let us down.

Highlights: Ironbound, Bring Me the Night, Killing for a Living

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, January 29, 2010

Entombed - When in Sodom EP (2006)

At the turn of the century, Entombed started to perhaps re-think their decision to take their music so deep into rock territory, and slowly began their descent back to hell through great releases like Uprising, Morning Star and Inferno. With the When in Sodom EP, a sort of teaser for the following year's new album Serpent Saints, the circle has been completed, with the addition of a campy, occult atmosphere that makes it all the more fun. Yes, When in Sodom is the Entombed you know and love from the early 90s, although moored down in a mellow atmosphere which does not at all displease me. "When in Sodom" itself will appear again on the Serpent Saints album in 2007, but the EP is still worth having because of the four additional tracks unique to it, and they are all extremely good.

First, "When in Sodom" opens with a kickass sample about Satan, imposed over the noise of a haunting atmosphere and female orgasm, before Entombed roll out a carnal, chugging tone which fits fluidly below Petrov's excellent lyrics, very campy and a hell of a lot of fun. When the tempo picks up, the band continues to rock, grinding out wicked melodies and barely contained rage, before the choir arrives to herald the chorus. The song is simply awesome, and though it should please fans of the first two albums, its somber and bitter flavor, and crisp but deep, rocking tone does not ignore all of the work the band has done in the interim. But while this makes for a fantastic warmup, it is "Carnage" which seals the deal, a plucky energetic tune with some real momentum, pure classic Entombed riffs over solid drums. I really like the reverb the band is using here in the drums and vocals, it gives the track a very distant flavor and staying power, and the pure viral death metal breakout later in the track is the perfect chance to celebrate the old Swedish band you love so much by ripping out your heart and then dancing on it.

"Thou Shalt Kill" lurches about like a drugged murderer with a meat cleaver in hand, his every step seeming possessed as if by the devil, and the band manages to alternate a morbid acoustic rhythm with bluesy, simple leads with a hammering, demented chug riff for a pretty powerful effect, again breaking out the stops for some old school death. "Heresy" plays like an ominous warning, darkly curving guitar lines that wander beneath some guitar ambiance before a crashing groove breaks out, trampling your spirit in ill intentions. This is one of the band's best groove-outs since "Demon" on the Wolverine Blues album. "Amen" is a lot different than the rest of the EP, a drugged out, morbid tune that consists of plucking acoustics and deep, throbbing bass, like a 70s horror score meets Pantera's cover of "Planet Caravan", while Petrov performs some distorted, quirky narrative poetry above it. Though clearly a departure from the metal of the other four tracks, it still seems to fit rather well, and makes for a nice closure.

When in Sodom is simply the best of Entombed's shorter releases, even better than Hollowman from 13 years ago. The songs are all straight from the gut, and the new direction certainly paints a colorful, creepy pallette for the forthcoming full length to follow through (which it does). At first I didn't quite catch on to all the charms of the EP, but it has since grown on me a great deal, and now I'd have to say it's one of the more essential offerings in the latter half of the band's discography, even with the one redundant tracks.

Verdict: Win [8/10]
(discredit everything you see)

Entombed - Black Juju EP (1999)

The Black Juju EP was a one-off release through the coveted Man's Ruin records, known for putting out a lot of the critical stoner rock and punk artists that helped that style flourish once again in the 90s. Like the Wreckage EP from two years before, it primarily consists of cover tunes, and in fact, if you purchase the CD version, you actually get the four Wreckage cover tunes as an added bonus. The difference is that the covers you'll find on Black Juju are all pretty good, and some of the better that the band have collected in their many years, and the one original here is also good.

"Mesmerization Eclipse" is a cover from L.A.'s cult rockers Captain Beyond, and the constant, blues grooving is a tight fit for where Entombed were at in the mid to late 90s, that is to say, this band was a direct influence on the Swedes and it makes a little sense to pay them tribute on a recording. Much of the track consists of the same two rhythms, but there is a little jamming and a nicely slicing lead, and the mix of the song places it firmly in space rock territory, where it belongs. "Vices by Proxy" is the Entombed original, a burning rocker lavished in some wailing leads and a surging, cruel punk undercurrent. In particular I like the chugging breakdown, with Petrov's vocal pattern really digging in and playing off the beat.

"Black Juju" is like a deeper, darker take on the Alice Cooper original, and by far the best cover Entombed had done by this point, superior to their KISS, Twisted Sister or Dwarves covers. I really love the original, and I really love this version, with its thumping tribal percussion and keening wall of guitars, sharpened against countless hippie skulls. Heavy shit. "Sentimental Funeral" is a cover of Hey on Glue's bluesy, balls-out rocker, perfect for skulking about any local waterhole with an axe and a pack of cigarettes, trying to figure out who or what to take out your ex-wife frustrations against. I'll be honest, I know nothing about the original or the band that wrote it, but the song is fun enough, with some swaggering Sabbath-like doom in there.

And, of course, if you own the CD, you have the cool covers ala Twisted Sister and the Dwarves, and the rather bland renditions of Bob Dylan and Jerry's Kids. But the real value, if any, is the material new to this EP. Once again, I must re-iterate that you can have ALL of these cover songs, and many more, if you purchase the Sons of Satan Praise the Lord compilation, which was obviously not available back when this released. That release is a far greater value than all of the constituent EPs, singles and b-sides that comprise it, however, you won't find "Vices by Proxy" there, so Black Juju still retains at least a little of its value.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Entombed - Wreckage EP (1997)

You could read it in the cover image before ever hearing a sound: Entombed loved the newfound 'success' their rock leanings had veered them towards, and with each release after Wolverine Blues, they would venture further into this territory. The problem was, most of their actual success had come from word of mouth buzz about their older albums, when they were a death metal band (up to and including Wolverine Blues, a fascinating fusion of the two expressions), and many initiates were flocking to their gigs to hear "Bitter Loss", "But Life Goes On", and "Stranger Aeons", not to hear a bunch of brutal graveyard grinders perform rock and roll music (best left to their associates The Hellacopters). Still, Entombed deserves a little credit for not entirely abandoning their roots, and at least To Ride, To Shoot Straight and Speak the Truth was loyal to Wolverine Blues, if not the amazing debut or almost as worthy Clandestine.

Now, I'm not trying to come off as someone who opposes change, for there are certainly a number of bands who have successfully incorporated the more mainline rock style into their extreme influences. In fact, I wouldn't say Entombed failed. Their whole schtick about washed out Americana, dirty southern rock & roll joined to aggressive hardcore, grind, punk and death was a novelty, and got them some attention, but this period of the band's career was simply not as promising as their first three albums, and those will always receive the most critical acclaim. The Wreckage EP was the teaser release for To Ride, To Shoot Straight and Speak the Truth, and like Hollowman before it, it features one album track and then a bunch of material unique to it (though I warn you, they're all cover songs). But the value really rests upon your collector status or your fondness for the band's middle years, neither of which I possess.

"Wreckage" is a pretty familiar sounding tune, because it doesn't fall far from the tree that was Wolverine Blues. A bigger, stereo production, blazing guitars with little groovy tails like rock & roll comets, and a screwy breakdown where the band drops out, probably drops acid, and trips their way back into the meaty rhythm chords. Honestly, it's not all bad, and if you've seen become a fan of The Hellacopters, or say, Turbonegro, it will probably appeal to you. Interestingly, this is the final track on the full-length. And it's also represented here with the "Wreckage (Indy Cart Larceny Remix)", which feels like a "Jesus Built My Hot Rod" take on the track, extending it out with cheesy techno rhythms. Not the worst remix out there, by a long shot, but I could have lived without it.

After this, we get a cover of Twisted Sister's "Tear It Loose", one of many Entombed would choose over the ensuing years to solidify their rock cred. It's fun, it's edgy, and given the full Swedish treatment, with thick guitars that seem even more vibrant than the original. "Lost" is a cover of punks Jerry's Kids, and it creates a crashing melancholy through the big guitars and roughshod drumming, but the riff itself is simply not that interesting, no matter how much frilly violent Swedish tone you pump into it. With the "The Ballad of Hollis Brown", Entombed do about as much justice as they can to a Bob Dylan track, but again, the original is pretty fucking dull, and the riffs here consist of only a few boring notes. If it's the lyrics you seek, well, you won't make them out here more than the original. Following and finalizing the EP, a cover of the Dwarves' "Satan", a numbing organ into a fast paced, rugged take on an already kickass little slice of grunge and punk, with Lars channeling a little Glenn Danzig into his howling.

Do you want to hear Entombed performing a set of diverse covers from hard rock, punk and bluegrass influences? Well, some of these are alright, in particular the Twisted Sister and Dwarves numbers, but aside from this, I simply cannot find much to recommend in this release. The techno remix of the title track is lame if not horrible, the title track appears on the album, and the other covers are kind of a bore. Entombed circa 1994-1999 is a period which I gladly tend to skip past, as it produced very little of note, and I wasn't really on board again until Uprising, which I admit did get my goose. If you really liked their more rock oriented albums in 1997 and 1998, and you seek more of the same, this is for you. HOWEVER, it should be noted that the four cover tracks here ARE in fact reprinted on the 2002 compilation Sons of Satan Praise the Lord, with a lot more. They're also reprinted on the CD version of the Black Juju EP. In my opinion, it would be better to gather them up there than try and track this release down.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]
(will our bad luck ever turn)

Entombed - Hollowman EP (1993)

In 1993, suddenly it must have struck both Entombed and their new conglomerate overlords Earache and Columbia (the two had struck a deal which resulted in a bunch of releasing like Wolverine Blues and Heartwork reaching a far wider audience than they might have otherwise): let's do an EP properly! And Hollowman is just that, a short player release with enough unique material that it was well worth the asking price. And, not only was the content here largely original to the release, but it was also pretty fucking good. This was 1993, and thus Entombed had already begun to mutate their style towards a more rock & roll outlook, helping coin the phrase 'death & roll', but if you listen even back to their first two albums, you'll hear it in small amounts. Here, it moves out to the forefront, with Petrov's vocals howling like a mad wolf over a bunch of blues-based rhythms married to their carnal, grinding guitar tone.

"Hollowman" was not my personal favorite track off Wolverine Blues, but it's catchy and downtrodden and features that pretty excellent guitar sequence at 2:00 which paints the mental image of the Swedes sitting on a Mississippi porch staring off into the swamp in their backyard, which is shambling with undead, secrets and regrets. "Serpent Speech" is a fucking outrageous tune with a grinding volley of pumping, testosterone fueled guitars and a great little pause where a gun fires...I like everything from the lyrics to the hardcore fistfuck that erupts after the first lead, but if the band sounds like they've gone a little too far, they haven't: a killer if brief death metal rhythm erupts just after that. I'd have to say this is one of my favorite Entombed songs, easily the equal of just about anything from Wolverine Blues, and I wonder why it wasn't placed there...but then, it gives this release all that much more value.

The version of "Wolverine Blues" here is not the same as found on the album, but a karaoke version overlayed with samples of a zoologist (probably a band member, I'm guessing, due to the cussing) discussing the animal in question. It feels a little hamfisted, and a little too obvious, but the song itself is a great piece of groove oriented death rock, in particular I enjoy the thick bite of the opening riff. "Bonehouse" takes you right back to yesteryear, with the same grinding abandon you would have heard on Left Hand Path, only with the arguably better production the band was using in '93. It's fast, loaded with bullets and vitriol, and another of the primary reasons you should purchase this.

That leaves two more tracks. "Put Off the Scent" opens with a choppy rhythm, and i mean choppy like take your axe and hit the fucking tree repeatedly, before it breaks off into a flowing hard rock groove, with chords used as a counter-melody. There is a dash of Zeppelin and Sabbath here, but the band returns to their ghoulish death metal for the bridge between verses, and plenty of huge hooks. The finale is a metallic rendition of the Hellraiser theme, complete with samples, which are used often and in place of vocals. It's actually a really interesting idea (not the last this band would come up with) and works quite well, with enough kickass riffs to carry the atmosphere and conjure the darker side of the film. The shrill guitars after the 5:00 mark are pure money, and that closing riff sequence is pure horror...

Entombed truly outdid themselves here, forging an EP that has more value than the previous two combined, and I'd have to say it still ranks as one of their very best shortform works. It's not entirely void of redundancy, since "Hollowman" and "Wolverine Blues" appear on the full-length this was teasing, but at least the latter is in a mildly different form. Buy it, you won't regret it.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (we fucked it up)

Entombed - Stranger Aeons EP (1992)

Since the band was already considered a success as early as their first two releases, with Left Hand Path and Clandestine creating an immense buzz and spawning dozens of other Swedish death acts to cash in on the sound, it was only a given that Earache would squeeze a little life out of the fans with a release like Stranger Aeons. To be fair, Entombed have a pretty good track record with EPs, a lot of those they released later in their career are packed with unique material and actually worth the money for fans, but this is possibly an exception. It's 3 tracks at just over 8 minutes, and like Crawl, it's also available on the Entombed compilation from 1997, so the value for that release is running pretty high.

"Stranger Aeons" itself, the title track, is lifted from the Clandestine album and reprinted here, so you could actually consider this somewhat of a 'single' for that song, although I can't imagine this was something that would actually chart or see radioplay from anything but a college metal show, in which case they were already playing the song from the album. It's a great song, of course, with Petrov returning to his rightful vocal throne and one of those huge Clandestine mosh rhythms at about 1:45 which, alongside "Raining Blood" and later "Slaughter of the Soul", would help shepherd a few hundred thousand fans of tough guy hardcore into the metal realm, for better or worse. To be fair though, it's a great riff, with a kind of meaty, post-Slayer appeal.

"Dusk" is a non-album track with a pretty crunchy polish to it, like something that barely escaped the demo stage, but the meaty mid-gain on the guitars is still hammering enough to appeal to fans, with a great lead and a few rhythms that feel as if they were bit straight from the Left Hand Path recording sessions. Not exactly essential, but at least consistent with the material of the band's youth. Speaking of the band's youth, the final track on this EP is "Shreds of Flesh", which appeared first on the band's But Life Goes On demo in 1989, and had been kicking around since the band was called Nihilist. The tune is sufficiently violent and explosive, and short, re-recorded here with the same tone as "Dusk", and for my buck, the best value on this recording.

Of course, "Dusk" and "Shreds of Flesh" are both reprinted on the 1997 Entombed compilation, so the aforementioned value is simply no longer present at the current time, unless you are hoarding every release from your favorite bands because you're extremely materialistic, crazy, or you strongly feel they will be worth a huge chunk of change at some point. Otherwise, this is not even something I'd purchase to stare at the cover art, and even at the time of released, it felt rather half-assed.

Verdict: Fail [3/10]
(of flesh so raw)

Entombed - Crawl EP (1991)

After the crushing and unforgettable Left Hand Path, Entombed played musical chairs with their vocals for a year or so before Lars Göran Petrov returned for Wolverine Blues and all was right in the crypt. This meant Nicke Andersson on vocals for the excellent follow-up Clandestine, but for this brief 3-track EP the band recruited Orvar Säfström of Nirvana 2002, another Swedish death outfit who never made it beyond the underground demo stage. I tend to view Petrov and/or Andersson as the penultimate frontman I identify with all the band's better work, so Säfström's approach is not my ideal. But still, the guy has a pretty decent coughing, hacky voice which, applied to this mix of the songs, is more than passable. For fuck's sake, you could have a caged monkey stoked on PCP-laced bananas provide vocals for Entombed in their prime and it would still have sounded awesome.

The Crawl EP is another of those releases which, due to its rarity, has been made redundant since its release. Unless you are a collector of the obscure, there is probably no reason to ever hunt it down, since it was reprinted as a part of the Entombed compilation in 1997, which is very much worthwhile (as it collects a few of these EPs). The title track is taken from Clandestine, and it's an excellent anthem to the grave, with overpowering chords and eerie strings of old school death melody. The huge groove at 2:00 is worth hearing alone, but the rest of the song is equally memorable, including the bluesy graveyard lead and the more atmospheric howling vocal used in the latter half.

"Forsaken" was the biggest draw for me, as it did not appear on either of the band's first two albums, and perhaps it should have. It really kicks ass, with wild leads that weave through thrashing rhythms in Entombed's trademark, broiling mass of guitar tone. Possibly the best part of the song is the segment that begins at :45, a total forward momentum that forces something inside you to erupt as it bludgeons into some great melodic chords and then a horrific, beautiful sequence at 2:00 where Hellid and Cederlund perform some great, classic metal melodies; there is even a bass guitar freakout. In retrospect, this song may actually be a little too busy and choppy. A mess, but a beautiful mess. The final track here is "Bitter Loss" from Left Hand Path, reworked with the newer vocals, and it's just as potent as ever, with its frantic clawing like a shambling corpse locked inside the morgue.

Crawl would have been a nice treat for the fan who actually could find it right as it dropped, but these years it is completely unnecessary, unless you like staring at the cover art and joining pissing contests about all the wastes of space you have collected. I used to have the cassette version which sounded nice and fat on my stereo, but as the Warden of your Wallets I proclaim that you should simply purchase Entombed (1997) and have your way with its private bits, rather than waste the money here. Also, the promixity of Clandestine's release to this EP kind of set it by the wayside.

Verdict: Fail [4/10] (the dirt that I licked off my mind)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Blacklodge - T/ME (2010)

Ah, the French. I swear to you, they plan this shit out. They work in conjunction. If it's not Deathspell Omega or Peste Noire blowing your mind one month, you've got a Reverence or Blacklodge crawling out of the woodwork to remind you why theirs is one of the most interesting musical scenes on the face of the Earth, consistently spawning works that disassemble and reassemble familiar components into a strange and wonderful new whole. Reverse metal engineering, you could call it, and France is the current capital of this field. Blacklodge may be familiar to you, if you've had the pleasure of listening to their previous albums, Login:Satan, and the auspicious excellence of SolarKult, and like countrymen Reverence, they stand at the forefront of French industrial black metal, and perhaps the forefront of ALL European industrial black metal, since there are few such bands worth their weight in clockwork and urban waaste.

Blacklodge certainly pull their own weight, and this newest album, T/ME, is available as a package with the latest from Abigor, Time Is the Sulphur in the Veins of the Saint... Both bands decided to base a 'mutual', conceptual album aboug an Albert Einstein theme, and the Blacklodge 'side' is by far the denser, if not so sporadic and ever-shifting as the Austrians' own effort. No, T/ME functions on numerous, cerebral levels, but it's hard hitting like a titanium hammer to the midriff. Industrial rhythms and sounds provide a gargantuan landscape in which the guitar rhythms churn, noisy and frontal to the mix so that they feel like an improv jam at a factory. While Abigor's segment consisted of 2 lengthy tracks totaling almost 40 minutes, Blacklodge instead offer 5 more traditional length compositions, though the music itself is anything but...

"Lambda [or the last of the Gods; being the secret of SataN]" is the mouthful that opens this burned out shell of dystopic disconnect, awash in the sounds of bubbling murk, machinery, and descending ambient guitars that welcome the rotors of chugging to the narration of Saint Vincent before he put the ghastly, venomous sneer into his vocals. I was a little less taken with "Vector g [Gravity XVI]", which opens with a meaty chugging ala Red Harvest, but despite the many twists and turns it takes, I didn't really find any of this catchy. "Sulphuric Acedia" reminds a lot of Aborym, with razor thin guitar fuzz that slices over the pumping techno beats, and it continues to break into little guitar segues and drum programming that feels a bit too typical of most weak industrial/electro bands. On the other hand, "Saturn" is fairly interesting, a blitz of cyberspace into the reality of your head, battering blastbeats beneath a thrashing guitar rhythm, highly sporadic and chaotic. The final "...Stupefying [Suicide Tutorials pt 11]" almost compensates for the relative weakness (see what I did there? haw haw) of several other tracks: nearly 9 minutes that run from ambient/glitch to a turbulent, gothic morass of information and the rasping lyrics of a vile tongue, later fading into a strange unreality in which you feel you could shut your eyes and feel yourfelt floating against a backdrop of data blocks.

T/ME is captivating enough that fans of strange industrial/black metal, EBM, or gothic/electro could give it a go, but be prepared that the band is long ideas and short on really memorable writing, with the exception of the first and last track which are quite immersive. "Saturn" is also pretty exciting, though I could have asked for better riffs. Blacklodge specialize here in disjointed rhythms, technoid Satanism, and layers of atmosphere, but if you are new to the band, I would advise you start with SolarKult, the second album, which is a lot better. As a companion to Abigor's latest, it does function, if only because each of the bands takes a unique spin on their style and thus, stands out with some degree of success. I did prefer the Abigor material to this, the quality is simply more consistent, but if you the thoughts of machinery and chaos get you wet, you may want to at least give this a visit.

Highlights: Lambda [or the last of the Gods; being the secret of SataN], ...Stupefying [Suicide Tutorials pt 11]

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Darkthrone - F.O.A.D. (2007)

Judging by the increased speed by which they are releasing new material (their most productive period since the early to mid 90s), it's become clear that Darkthrone are quite happy with the new direction they've taken. The Cult is Alive was only the loading station, and with F.O.A.D. (you know what it stands for) the band would move further down the tracks into a new territory. Yes, this album represents the biggest change in the band since they dropped the death metal and got their black on in the dawn of the 90s, and yet, it remains strangely loyal to all the band has accomplished to date. Change is never a bad thing so long as its a well planned departure, and the decision to let the classic metal and punk influence play a more central role to the songcrafting has opened up a new realm of possibilities.

There are a surprising number of subtleties here, through the guitars in particular, which might not have been possible on another Transilvanian Hunger or Hate Them, and the rock focus here really leads the band into a fertile pasture. They've already mastered black metal, several times in fact, so what more could they do with it? This is your answer. Equipped with the new 'Mr. Necro' mascot on the cover (Deathhammer logo in tow) and a new approach to their lyrics which is at worst forcibly silly and at best pretty cool, they strap on for nine new tracks that run the gamut from the vile and muddled to the spry and wistful.

"These Shores are Damned" is a superb opener, with a graceful, classic sense for melody translated through subtle speed metal rhythms and groovy drumming (not unlike something Deceased might write). When Culto begins to bark out the verse, though, it shifts back to a pure, rocking Darkthrone rhythm, and there's a great, popping melodic lick which breaks out before 2:30 in the track which transforms it all into so much more. "Canadian Metal" is a pretty amazing song, making better use of their Hellhammer-inspired rhythmic slamming chords than they've had in years. The lyrics are a little hokey, but fun, as they name-drop a bunch of song titles from Canadian legends like Razor, Piledriver, Sacrifice and Slaughter. Being that I'm a pretty big fan of several of these bands, it is hard not to applaud the tactic, though I haven't enjoyed bands using it before (I remember Seven Witches doing something similar and it sucking awkwardly). At any rate, the song itself smokes. "The Church of Real Metal" follows, and while part of me thinks the band might be taking this too far, the song itself is actually not some shallow Manowar-athon, but a brooding and dimly lit doom rock anthem with some great, depressive atmosphere created through the melodic guitars (and I think a synth is in there). The term 'metal' is only uttered with the actual song title, as the chorus, so it could have been much worse...

"The Banners of Old" is another track in which you can hear a clear influence from doom bands like Sabbath, Black Widow and so forth, but it quickly spins into a groovy, grinding speed/death riff which is extremely catchy, as Culto's thick vox slobber all over it. "Fuck Off and Die" is loud arena mayhem rock, similar to AC/DC but with an even more bluesy twist to it, with Fenriz performing some corny and soulful vocals that slowly pull you in, even if you don't want them to. There's a nice, melodic doom break in the middle, one of the best riffs on the entire album. "Splitkein Fever" has a quiet, thumping beat layered in churning, grungy gothic deathpunk guitar lines, and it's quite effective with the lyrics, though the 'flies to a pile of shit' cliche did come across a little forceful.

I have my world here
You think you are right
But you can't touch me here
The forest is cold and white

"Raised on Rock" is probably the "Too Old, Too Cold" for this record, the true anti-poseur anthem. Some might find the lyrics a little too blunt and obvious, but that had to have been the point here, and the raw vocals and dark punk rock riffing make it all quite sinister. "Pervertor of the 7 Gates" is big doom metal, and here Fenriz puts a ghastly twist on his Tom G. Warrior vocal aping, though the hooks alone are not the best you'll find on this record. F.O.A.D. goes out on a high note with "Wisdom of the Dead", one of the most beautiful tracks the band has written in years, with a soaring death melody and a slowly grinding central rhythm that gives way to a morose, necrotic atmosphere, and some further melodies that arrive and dazzle later in the song. Even if I were to ignore the rest of the record, this song alone is proof positive that Darkthrone's new direction is a success, because where on one of the previous albums would you hear this? Possibly on Total Death, but the production would be far different.

F.O.A.D. is a fantastic album, but even at its apex, it is still only the footprint for the giant boot in the ass masterpiece to come in the following year, Dark Thrones and Black Flags, the band's first flawless work since Transilvanian Hunger. But there are 6-7 songs here that belong on any Darkthrone playlist, from the hell fueled "Canadian Metal" to the more lurid "Wisdom of the Dead" or "The Church of Real Metal", or even the balls deep "Raised on Rock" and "Splitkein Fever". This is some pretty intriguing shit, and honestly, if even the most stubborn expatriates of the Darkthrone camp could set aside their crockety old badger dispositions for 40 minutes, they would find something here they might really enjoy, even if just in fun.

Highlights: These Shores are Damned, Canadian Metal, The Church of Real Metal, Raised on Rock, Wisdom of the Dead

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]
(the rite of being free)

Darkthrone - The Cult is Alive (2006)

Enter the birth of Punkthrone. Perhaps I exaggerate here, but it was clear from the mild stagnation of (the still excellent) Sardonic Wrath that some sort of change was once again inevitable in the Northern camp, and The Cult is Alive, LP #12, is where this would begin to really take place. Now, the band has always admittedly carried the punk, rock and classic heavy metal influences through their career, wearing them boldly upon their sleeves, but never has it been more obvious than the tonal shift taken with this album. Not only through the music itself, but the extremely blunt punk lyrics on a few of the tracks which are at once self-deprecating and scathing critiques of what the 'black metal' scene had lost sight of, in addition to celebrations of the very art Darkthrone had mastered numerous times already in a single career...

But if you're worried that the band has lost their identify, fear not, because this entire album still fits snugly into the black metal realm, with the same raw Culto vocals you've come to expect, and a slew of riffs which do naught but honor the roots of the genre, plus the thrash, punk and heavy metal from which it evolved. For an early comparison, think of Brazil's Sarcofago. For a modern comparison, think of Joel Grind's Toxic Holocaust, who has been creating a more frenetic mesh of these aesthetics for years. The Cult is Alive does not sound quite as fast or crazy as either of those, but you get the general idea.

"The Cult of Goliath" begins with a barbaric rhythm reminiscent of some of the songs from Ravishing Grimness, with a savage thrust to its verse that is wholly violent slaughterpunk, and I love the breakdown, which is pretty rock & roll, with a lame but lovable guitar solo. Speaking of the rock, "Too Old, Too Cold" was already known to most, having its own EP release a few months before this full-length arrived. It's black punk rock, Hellhammer meets the Ramones, with some lyrics that, while a little awkward, pretty much encapsulate the feelings of Fenriz and Nocturno Culto towards the ever propagating scene of black metal hipsters, armed with irony and designs on exploitation. While fun, the song is actually not one of the better offerings on the album, and aside from the rather open lyrical call to arms, I'm not sure why it was chosen as a single over some of the others. "Atomic Coming" is far more of a bruising hymn, with blistering old school speed/thrash riffs that herald annihilation, congealing well with the crushing chords of the black/punk foundation.

Prepare your swollen apathy
Or forge numerous sturdy platforms
Behemoth tankers of mankind
Are now leaking nuclear fear

"Graveyard Slut" had also been released on the Too Old, Too Cold EP before the album dropped, but this is the version with Fenriz' 'Tom G. Warrior' style vocals. The song is highly entertaining, conjuring up nostalgia for teenage years of getting drunk, vomiting all over your denim jacket with all the great patches, and desperately failing to win the affections of that one semi-cool girl in your school who you mistakenly feel might accept you, even though you managed to get the car for that one Friday night. Oh, the pain! "Underdogs and Overlords" returns to the Culto vocal, and the second riff here is total asskicking blackened rock'n'roll, a groove that Thin Lizzy or Iron Butterfly might have conceived had they actually known and coveted the face of evil. "Whiskey Funeral" reaches even further back, grabbing and blackifying a raw rock'n'roll foundation, foreshadowing pretty much the entire Dark Thrones and Black Flags album. It's pretty damn cool, with a searing speed/thrash bridge rhythm and a nice melodic collapse before returning to the speed.

For the next two tracks, Darkthrone remembers that they are in fact Norwegian. "De Underjordiske (Ælia Capitolina)" leaps between the languages, a grimy, flowing rocker with bright chords that make Culto sound all the more menacing. "Tyster På Gud (Preemptive War)" opens as total hardcore punk, which falls somewhere between Discharge and Minor Threat in tone, with a little of the band's guitar bending chagrin', and a Hellhammer-ing breakdown. "Shut Up" is actually one of my favorites on the album, despite the rather no-brainer song title, with some excellent, filthy rocking rhythms and amazing vocals which ooze unbridled aggression. The fuzzy solo is quite cool, and the clamoring bridge hook, but believe it or not, there is also quite an amazingly dark black/death metal rhythm here as well. "Forebyggende Krig" was the 2nd single for the album, a more traditional black/doom rhythm piece that venerates the previous albums of Darkthrone such as A Blaze in the Northern Sky.

The Cult is Alive doesn't start off all that great, but it certainly picks up steam as it progresses through the track list. "The Cult of Goliath" and "Too Old, Too Cold" are passable, but I had already heard the latter a number of times and was beginning to get tired on it. Once the album hits "Atomic Coming", the rest is basically sheer bliss, and Darkthrone perfectly translates the more widespread influence of punk and rock into their sound without losing the bludgeoning barbarity of their youth. The production here is astounding, pure and cold and raw and as perfectly plotted as most of their other work. Truly, this is one of their 'fun' albums, but it also maintains a surprisingly serious side, ala the message found through some of the lyrics. It's probably cool to hate this record by now, but that's the great thing about Fenriz and Nocturno Culto. They are the antithesis of cool, and that is why are so endeared to their efforts.

Highlights: Graveyard Slut, Whiskey Funeral, De Underjordiske (Ælia Capitolina), Shut Up

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (and you call yourself a man)

Darkthrone - Sardonic Wrath (2004)

Sardonic Wrath is the 11th album from Norway's beloved bastards, an extremely strong showing which bridges the morbid taint of the prior Hate Them with a blast from the past, namely a return to the overall sonic aesthetics of the 'unholy trinity' which brought them into prominence (A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Under a Funeral Moon, and Transilvanian Hunger). It is astonishing to me that a band remains so strong so late in their career...think of how many other black metal artists, or metal artists in general, that you listen to, and how solid they were by the 11th album? Most have fizzled out by that point or gone in some direction to polarize their fan base, 'selling out' or whatever hogwash terminology is being used to sate the stubborn feelings of alienation fans can feel when they are no longer the 'only' fans.

Darkthrone have faced such prosecution, and survived, but Sardonic Wrath is the type of album that probably recalled a lot of the fans that left them on Ravishing Grimness, safely nestled in with their earlier sounds, but not ignorant of the minor progressions they have made with each album starting at Panzerfaust. That said, this safety net is just about the only complaint I can make for this album, because truth be told it is phenomenal, thick as thieves with classic Culto riffing and interesting lyrics that see Darkthrone in their transition towards the more bitter political and social criticism that lit the punk fire under their asses in recent years.

"Order of the Ominous" is a drawn out dark ambient void, which unlike the intro to Hate Them, is a track until itself. Distortion buzzes off in the background over swelling black noise, with no warmth or melody, and it is this aesthetic which breeds throughout the metal tracks. "Information Wants to Be Syndicated" is a cold blast of holocaust, the vocals almost lazily placed at the back end of the measures, floating off into the sick violence of the break at about :30. The breakdown in the track is surefire, slow and heavy, not far off from much of the drone and sludge that was breaking out in popularity at the time. "Sjakk Matt Jesu Krist (Checkmate Jesus Christ)" brings in the raving lunacy of the band's Hellhammer leanings, with a raw vitriol enforced through the harsh lyrical winds and the pumping bass distortion.

"Straightening Sharks in Heaven" is yet another interestingly titled track, with a bright, rolling bridge that seems like something Voivod, until it rings out into the glorious third rhythm, evoking that Bathory-on-a-dobby-horse motif the band have often used in the past. "Alle Gegen Alle (All Against All)" is dark and dank, like a pissed off alcoholic spraypainting his own blood, vomit and urine all over a sewer wall, not expecting to see the next day. It's primal and utterly simplistic, with extremely subtle hooks delivered only through the rhythmic crashing, but the meathook delivery of the bridge before 2:00 is worth listening for alone. "Man Tenker Sitt (My Thoughts Sit)" brings forward a little of the band's death metal influence, but the verses broil in a Bathory-like stew with a hefty diabolical impact.

Fuck hope
My empty stare just might make you
want to think twice

So invokes Nocturno Culto in "Sacrificing to the God of Doubt", one of the more melodic tracks on the album, with a great sheen to the chords that feels like skirting a post-industrial wasteland of nihilistic thought. At the 90 second line, the band lurches into a total Norse crawl, complete with marrow-draining minor chords and plodding bass. "Hate is the Law" is like a Transilvanian Hunger track without the screaming mountainside melodies, just a grinding abyss of hostility, a bowel movement for the Father of Lies, but the chorus riff is staggeringly punk as fuck and one of the best on this whole album. "Rawness Obsolete" returns to the crawl the band started with "Sacrificing to the God of Doubt", with a more fleshed out rhythm, and a powerful, ominous crushing atmosphere, before ceding to an even further doomed segment. It's solid 'Throne, but I will admit to getting a little dulled by the rhythm after a spell, and it's likely the least interesting thing you'll discover on this.

I'll admit, a little of my fire for Sardonic Wrath has died down in the six years since its release, a little rust flaked away from the morbid engines of my obsession. It's a fantastic album that I would gladly listen to over about 95% of other black metal releases, but not one of the band's very best when glimpsing back through their career. However, I think it's one of their rare efforts where fans of various eras can come together and find something in common, since it seems to sit dead center in the pantheon.

Highlights: Information Wants to Be Syndicated, Sjakk Matt Jesu Krist, Straightening Sharks in Heaven, Hate is the Law

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (I've become what you hate)