Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Lethal - Your Favorite God EP (1995)

If you haven't had the opportunity yet to check out this Kentucky band's 1990 debut album Programmed, then I highly recommend YOU get with the program and hunt it down. To put it bluntly, Lethal were on course to becoming the greatest Queensrÿche outside of Queensrÿche, and I say this only with admiration, because Programmed would have made a perfect bridge between Rage for Order and the legendary Operation: Mindcrime. Fuck, I would have taken an album from the 'rÿche of equal quality to Lethal's Programmed at any point AFTER Operation Mindcrime and been happier than the endless stream of drivel the Washington State titans have been phoning in for the past 20+ years.

Well, it took Lethal about five years to get around to the follow-up to their great debut, and it arrived in the shape of this 6-track EP released through Massacre Records in 1995. This is yet another shred of evidence that melodic metal had been outsourced to Europe (and Japan) in the 90s. Grunge and death metal had taken over the American market, and its a shame a quality band like Lethal went unnoticed as early as 1990. But the Europeans kept their ears open, the band got a new deal, and an official release of the demo material Your Favorite God had finally arrived, with the same lineup save for a change in one of the guitar spots (David McElfresh replacing Dell Hull). Unfortunately, the band were unable to capitalize on the momentum of the debut, and Your Favorite God seemed to be lacking in many areas where Programmed had excelled.

First off, Tom Mallicoat's vocals seem a little strained here, and not as crystalline as his prior performance. They're not bad, and easily identified as the same man, but he seems to be decaying when he ranges out. Another nuisance is that the production feels rather weak, and through the years even more dated. The band seems to have increased the heaviness of the low end guitars as if this were somehow going to 'insert' them seamlessly into the current groove metal trends of the mid-90s (where crap like Machine Head, Metallica's Load and later Pantera reigned supreme). From a songwriting perspective, the guitars aren't all that different, except for maybe the groove-thrashing of "Hard to Breathe". It's just an added crunch that wasn't necessary when they were writing their better material.

But the biggest crime about this EP is the utter lack of memorable writing. There is no "Plan of Peace" here. No "Obscure the Sky". No "Arrival". The gleaming eagle of Mallicoat's higher range that once crested the band's excellent approach to melodic riffing had crumbled into extinction, and all we got were these, we didn't even get a t-shirt. The worst songs here are those with the bigger low-end chug riffs like "Waiting on the Kill" or "Hard to Breathe", but when the band more closely resembles their earlier album on "Swim or Drown", or the Fates Warning-like prog rock churning of "The Page Before", they still fail to impress. "Balancing Act" and "The Real" feel very much like a Queensrÿche outtake, from either Empire or Operation Mindcrime, and though neither is impressive, they're the best tracks here. That's pretty sad when you think about it...

The band did manage to survive for one more album, also put out through Massacre the following year, known as Poison Seed, and to be fair, there are a few tracks on that which are superior to what you'll hear on Your Favorite God. Mallicoat is better there, as are the riffs, but even so, the majority of that album is also routed in the newfound groove metal of the period. Hardly essential, and it left me longing for Programmed even more. Apparently that particular adaptation failed to support the organism that was 90s Lethal, because it's the last we've heard of them (though the band still exists in some form). At any rate, you'll want to skip this and head straight for door number one: Programmed, if you haven't already done so. Your Favorite God might entertain a diehard fan or collector for a few minutes, but it's pretty much worthless in the face of the immensely superior, timeless and catchy debut.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Betrayed - 1879 Tales of War (1990)

Brazil might have had the winning hand when it came to the 80s thrash explosion in South America, what with its colossal leader in Sepultura and the likes of Chakal, Vulcano, Mutilator, Dorsal Atlantica and many more. But I'd have to award a solid silver medal to Chile, who came a little later to the game with a solid roster including Necrosis, Torturer, and a little known band called Betrayed. They did not release a lot of material, just a demo and this sole album 1879 Tales of War, but already the band showed a sense of refinement, with conceptual lyrics focusing on the War of the Pacific and a nearly endless onslaught of decent quality riffs that still maintain a rugged energy when listening 20 years after the fact.

The biggest influences I hear within Betrayed are American bands like Anthrax, Exodus, Death Angel, Forbidden, and Slayer, delivered through crisp licks that often become a little more forceful or melodic than one might expect from the majority of the writing on this album. The one arguable weak link in this chain is vocalist Blas Mateluna, whose delivery and accent come across as rather lax, if not outright sedate. But listen long enough and he somehow magically transforms into a piece of the puzzle, and adds an element of distinction to the sound, though you'll never be dialing up this album if you seek an impressive frontman. Otherwise, 1879 Tales of War is some tight, engaging thrash metal with a good sense for dynamics and good guitar tones that maintain their fortitude.

Not every track strikes gold, but the band works best when they actually use the neuroses of Mateluna's vocal chords to create a sort of morbid, percussive dialect, as in the opening call to war "Fight for Your Land", a bevy of hammering riffs and some wild, Bay Area leads that blast through the battlefield before you can bite the pin off your grenade. "The Real Me" opens with a burst of melody across some epic, shifting rhythm work that cedes for arpeggios before the violence of the verse begins. Other ragers include "Betrayed", "Love and Pain", and "The First Desillution", with its extensive mosh stomp intro that mirrors the work of Anthrax or S.O.D. On the other hand, I got lost in the instrumental "Human Madness" or the slow to function title track "1879", and even at their prime, Betrayed were not quite playing at the level of the rest of a world that was producing work like By Inheritance, Coma of Souls and Rust in Peace.

Still, it's refreshing to hear that such sounds were spread wide to countries we weren't used to hearing from in the 80s, and Betrayed are rather intelligent to boot, using their songs to tell a historical saga rather than the petty variety of topics typical to every other album of the day. This is rather forward thinking in my opinion. I mean, just how many war themed metal bands do we have around today? Hail of Bullets? Loits? Hundreds of them. Betrayed was already there, and though 1978 Tales of War is not exactly a standout piece of metal history, it's both adequate and competent for any archaeological thrasher digging through the more obscure species of South America. And, would you know it, the band is around again today!

Highlights: The First Desillution, The Real Me, Love and Pain

Verdict: Win [7/10] (I want to die with a powerful gun)

Crack Jaw - Night Out (1985)

The cover to this obscure German band's sole full-length album seems a natural catalyst to conjure the aesthetics of big city street metal. However, it's not the type to cater to the stench of prostitutes, cigarettes, and puddles of vomit behind the local bar, but more of a metropolitan nightlife at large vibe. Rather than go all-out glam, the band had a dark, leather image to them. And the music itself was a surprise, because while it's not particularly good or interesting, it has a lot more control than many of the band's peers. A certain maturity and polish is applied to both the delivery of the licks and lyrics, both welcome on an album like this which existed in a world of sleaze as the metal scene was beginning to branch off into various constituent genres.

Not a lot of information remains today about Crack Jaw, and this was their only record released through Steamhammer in the 80s, but the band certainly had a potential that probably deserved a second shot, even if Night Out itself is not highly effective. A large fraction of the material here is the performed with the typical hard rocking power of the Scorpions, Accept, Judas Priest, and other big names of the day, but the band does show an exception or two in which they put the pedal to the metal and honestly start to kick ass. This is most prevalent on the title track "Nightout", which features some killer speed metal hooks that twist their way through the mid paced, thriving energy of the verse. "Galley Without Aim" also has a ton of potential, with some nice leads cutting across the bow of its mean beat. Stephan Kiegerl seems rather reserved to his median vocal range, but you get the impression that he could go off at any moment and start screaming like Peavey Wagner (in the earlier Rage years) or Michael Knoblich (from the first Scanner album). Kiegerl has that same, sharp metallic spin to his accent which made me so fond of other German singers of the decade, but he either doesn't have the balls to lay out the listener or he feared his vocals would decay too much once they hit the highs. It's a shame.

Had Crack Jaw fully embraced the screaming speed demon that was assuredly lurking about their hearts, Night Out would probably be a far more potent beast. As it stands, only about half of the album remains listenable to me. The aforementioned "Nightout" and "Galley Without Aim" are joined by the instrumental "Saracen", the lethal Accept-like rocker "Danger" and the wild power metal melodies of "Struck By Thunder" as the album's stronger moments. I don't like the vocals much on "Never Tell No Lies", but at least the guitars rock. On the other hand, arena fodder like "The Change" and "New Tomorrow" are all too forgettable, and the closer "Seven Days of Wonder" shifts from pure class to dull.

The lyrics themselves are rather weak, but this is only natural for many bands of the day, and Kiegerl manages to deliver them in an acceptable form. As for the mix, it's not quite enduring, but not bad if you're familiar with similar output. This is not a bad little album if you're tracking down material similar to mid-80s Accept or the earlier half of Sinner's discography, but it doesn't have the hooks or the memorable chorus parts to measure up against more popular metal-light albums of its day, and I would probably only recommend it to collectors to have a hard on for this period's prevalent diction. Crack Jaw have created an inviting city that I'd love to visit for a night. But I'll be on the first train out in the morning, without the usual hangover or regrets.

Highlights: Nightout, Gallow Without Aim, Danger

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]
(her net is woven tight)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mental Home - Upon the Shores of Inner Seas (2000)

The first two Mental Home albums Vale and Black Art had the band primed and hovering at the edge of a breakthrough, especially considering the rather 'exotic' geography of their origins for their day. Russia was known for some mildly interesting heavy metal bands like Black Obelisk or Aria, but how many gothic doom bands were around at the turn of the century putting out records like this? The first Mental Home album to officially see its initial release through the quickly rising label The End Records saw its arrival a year after Black Art, but while technically a superior recording to either of its predecessors, it seemed the band had lost a little steam.

What went wrong? That's the quandary here, because there really is nothing truly negative to say about Upon the Shores of Inner Seas. It's not a long shot from the previous album, with the exception that it takes slightly more progressive flourishes. Sergey Dmitriev's vocals are more polished than before, and this honestly takes off a little of the emotion and edge, but to compensate he uses a slightly more nasal tone in some passages that quite reminded me of Snake from Voivod. The synths and guitars interact as well if not better than the earlier records, and the band has achieved a great tone here where they measure off one another, the melodies simply gleaming across the keyscapes created by Michael 'Maiden' Smirnoff. The problem would have to be the lack of truly memorable songwriting ala "Aevin's Cage", "Southern Calm Waters", or "The Plague Omen". This album has nothing so unforgettable, but it's otherwise a fairly even 37 minutes with only one 'stinker'.

"Downstairs" is a strong opener, with some guitar lines that seem lifted directly from the fog of inspiration that crafted Black Art, but though the song is dense and atmospheric throughout, I can't pick out a single riff that I truly care for. "Late to Revise" creates a shining moment or two that reflect the graceful cover imagery of the album, many of the synths the aural equivalent to a sun beginning to erupt over a cloud or moonscape, but once again it just doesn't quite make it over the top. "Eternal Moan" is the track I really didn't like sounds like Snake singing over some sort of gothic metal swing band, cheesy keyboards trying unsuccessfully to create some uplifting melody behind the chorus. I feel like I'm engaging some sort of bizarre Russian-alien disco when I hear this track, where the two peoples meet to exchange genes, and when it transforms into slappy prog-funk around 2:10, I can feel my dinner attempting to exit an orifice other than the one I intended.

Sadly, the album never really picks up the pieces after this oddball shocker. At best, it only manages to level itself off with the first few tracks in a few spots, like the desperate melodic intro to "Bliss" or the glorious surges that accent the lazy, Voivod-with-a-keyboard atmosphere of "Breakdown". "Stained" is pretty boring, and the remake of "Amidst the Waves" from the band's Mirrorland EP, while superior to the original, is too little and too late to make up for the lackluster 30 minutes you've spend Upon the Shores of Inner Seas.

Perhaps the band knew they had hit a slump, or perhaps not. All I know is that we've seen a decade come and go with no further releases from the once promising Russian act. If this album is truly at fault, well, everyone makes a mistake once in a while. It's not that the material here completely sucks (aside from "Eternal Moan"), it's just short on inspiration. I'd urge Mental Home to forget all about this mediocrity, and head back into the more gloomy, culturally sharpened doom of the first two albums, writing songs both intense and majestic. At least one thing could be taken as a positive from Inner Seas: the production. With any luck, we haven't heard the last of them.

Highlights: Downstairs, Late to Revise, Bliss

Verdict: Indifference [6/10] (you won't need me anymore)

Obliteration - Total Fucking Obliteration EP (2005)

Norway is hardly the hotbed for death metal, outside of defunct acts like Molested or the chugging carnality of Kraanium. But there are notable exceptions like this one. And though we've since been graced with two of the band's pummeling full-length statements of sluggish old school, morbid death metal with a swamp/tomb atmosphere, Obliteration's initial EP release Total Fucking Obliteration is also worth writing home about. It sets up the style of the ensuing works quite well, but the four tracks here are representative of a far more straightforward sound, evoking the destructive simplicity of early Pestilence, Cannibal Corpse, Death, Napalm Death, Suffocation, Malevolent Creation, and the like.

I should note that of the four tracks here, the final two have a more death/thrash technique and feature an appearance by the great Apollyon of Aura Noir. I actually found myself gravitating towards the music in these tracks a little more, since the riffs are stronger and woven with a primitive technicality that spuriously complements the breakdowns and the brutal vocals. But I actually didn't care for the change up in vocals, and might have preferred them if they stuck with Sindre Solem's gutturals throughout. "Total Fucking Obliteration" itself is the one favorite though, as it rollicks along at an early Pestilence pace, a punishing groove fit for both the moshpit or mortuary slab. "The Smell of Rotten Entrails" is suitably horrific, with a mild grinding edge to it and a slather of snarls accenting the grunts. "Baptized in Vomit" features a truly old school low-end waltz of the dead, spritzed with explosions of abortive turbulence. Instantly it whisks you away to the nightmare world of the early 90s, when death metal albums were rolling out their creepy covers and the lack of internet/instant information made it all the more gloomy.

The Total Fucking Obliteration EP is not as inspiring as the full-lengths Perpetual Decay or Nekropsalms, in part because the band actually develops the style of this short play into something more immersive and original that shouldn't be missed. But if you're merely looking for old school worship done justice, then there is no reason to scoff at this earlier material. The experience might last only 13-14 minutes, but that's just enough for whatever elder god this band is conjuring to tear through the fabric of sanity and wrench your mind from its socket.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sinbreed - When Worlds Collide (2010)

Sinbreed was a band once known as Neoshine a few years back, but have changed their name...for the better, and with a pair of heavy hitters in tow from other, well-known bands, they've put together a fine sounding debut of aggressive power metal that should satisfy fans of Grave Digger, Persuader, Blind Guardian, Iron Savior, Paragon and the lot of them. By heavy hitters I am referring to Frederick Ehmke, the latest Blind Guardian drummer, and Herbie Langhans, the frontman for Seventh Avenue, who are joined by the core of of Alex Schulz on bass and Florian Laurin on guitars. Though Sinbreed's style is nothing new, the band do put a strong emphasis on their songwriting, incorporating savage riffs that evoke memories of mid-to-later Running Wild, Grave Digger and the like, with strong chorus vocals and eager harmonies.

"Newborn Tomorrow" is a good example of the band's entire range, and a strong starter, opening with the glint of dual acoustic melodies and Langhans' passionate delivery over a solid barrage of driving chords that keep the piece moving ever forward. When it breaks for the lead, the notes soar gracefully atop the chords, and weave through an impressive display around 3:30. With "Book of Life", the band continues to hammer away, with a pretty similar structure. Other fun and upbeat numbers include the raging "Dust to Dust", "Infinity's Call" and "Through the Dark". None of the writing will exactly blow you away, but the riffs remain tight and well composed, and the vocal performance is steady. To the band's credit, there is no whiny power ballad here to try and shake you out of your pure power metal fixation, it's a very level album, and I speculate that regardless of how you queue it up, you'll probably enjoy 2-3 songs and then move along to something else, since most of the tracks simply lack that extra 'something' to hook you in further.

As if power metal were the new rap music, this is yet another album to incorporate a few guest appearances: Morten Sandager of Pretty Maids, Joost van den Broek of Ayreon/Star One, and Thomas Rettke of Heaven's Gate are the veterans lending their stamp of approval to When Worlds Collide, but nothing to tip the favor of the album any further than just 'good'. A lot of patience and caution went into the mix, it's a professional sounding studio job that places it at the forefront of German power metal alongside the bands that have inspired it, but the great sound only makes the album's lack of being able to truly capitalize on all the involved talent that much more glaring. Sinbreed is solid, and might appeal to the German fanatic who wants more meat on the block to carve through, whether it's the likes of Blind Guardian or At Vance. But the songs written here are not truly memorable enough to last long after the interaction.

Highlights: Newborn Tomorrow, Dust to Dust, Through the Dark

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, March 29, 2010

Soreption - Deterioration of Minds (2010)

Technical death metal very often suffers from a sense of sameness wrought by so many of the constituent artists, so it's the duty of each band to try and craft their myriad physical talents into a cohesive, creative form and write some damn songs if they wish to stand out and survive. The world simply can't support every Necrophagist or Decapitated to come along and attempt to 'up' the ante on skill over substance, and once technical 'extremity' reaches a level of Origin, or their shallow, terrible shadow-dwellers Brain Drill, you're really at the reaches of human constraint as far as performance.

Enter Sweden's Soreption, a band that by all accounts have little originality of their own, yet somehow carve out an entertaining debut that lurches along like a primordial beast on silts, overstepping most of the genre traps that leave so many of these bands stranded in mediocrity. Essentially they're a mesh of the two bands I listed earlier, Decapitated and Necrophagist, but while they're not quite on the level of the former in songwriting skills, they take the chug chug arpeggio squeal formula of that latter, highly overrated band, and squirt it into a functional whirlwind of momentum that ultimately creates an enjoyable ride. They're fairly young as a band, having only the 2007 EP Illuminate the Excessive before this, but if professionalism is any indicator, they should be turning some heads amongst the fan of modern, precision battery. There is nothing really 'old school' about this, unlike many Swedish death metal bands. You'll recognize the squeals and chugging, but they have far more in common with kin Visceral Bleeding or Spawn of Possession than the wave of Dismember and Entombed worshipers that sill pour out of that nation.

Immersion begins almost immediately as a rapid swell of dark ambiance dissolves into the acrobatic ballistics of "Suppressing the Mute", which feels like Meshuggah and Decapitated got drunk one night and accidentally swapped songs, playing each with their own personal interpretation and then mashing them back up. A lot of interesting little hooks that more importantly keep the listener hooked, but the song is not without its nuisances (a few of the chug-squeal riffs I could really do without, the actual skeleton of the rhythm is far more impressive). Most exciting here was probably the crazy tech break at around 2:10, before a brief but eerie lead. "The Hypocrite, Undying" continues the trend of extreme busywork that this band incorporates with each track, such huge and circular patterns of riffing that are fun to follow around their spherical cycle. Other tracks do not fare so highly..."Breeding Exile" is choppy but often cheap with the arpeggios that really do little for me except exclaim "Yeah we do what Necrophagist do!" But even in that song, at about 2:15 the band goes absolutely insane with this posh little rhythmic sequence that will stun you at the band's level of precision. Of the remainder, I probably like "By Venom Entitled" the most, a terrifying juggernaut of rolling potential.

I'll be candid: if you hate modern death metal, you will hate everything about Soreption. You could certainly argue that their sound is very trendy, and the band has little to none of the menace of their late 80s/early 90s forebears. They are fueled by social and psychological lyrical subjects rather than medical carnage, and they are obviously well versed on the current state of death metal popular among younger crowds. But despite any prejudice for or against the style, they are a talented lot, and fast to constrict you should you grant permission to their riff-oiled coils. Deterioration of Minds is a decent debut if you're a fan of the other bands I've mentioned in the review, or American bands like Severe Torture, The Faceless, and Odious Mortem, but may not for long hold the interest of those outside looking into this circle of (arguably) cutting edge artists.

Highlights: Suppressing the Mute, The Hypocrite, Undying, By Venom Entitled

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Agentz - Stick to Your Guns (1987)

Few things ail me more than taking the piss out of some obscure, forgotten metal record, but since I'm often caught slogging the wine of nostalgia from that very same trough, and am ultimately a child of the 80s myself, it's only fair that I bring the hellfire and brimstone to bear occasionally. Such is the fate of Agentz and their sole full-length album Stick to Your Guns, which was released a few years too late, after the band's 1985 demo. Agentz were a New York act with not only a terrible name, but also some very hair sprayed heads full of dreams of being the next metal sensation. If you're staring at the cover art, eyes agape at the horror of what you see there, whether it's the goofy broad with the gun or the band's logo, I'm afraid to inform you that the contents of this artifact aren't much better...

Now I've been known to dabble in the art of 80s radio metal. You know, that blurred line between hard rock and heavy metal where certain glamorous bands at the end of that decade dared to tread. And I like quite a few artists within these parameters. For example, I enjoy the first four albums by Dokken. I enjoy the first few albums by Bonfire too. I like Kingdom Come. The Scorpions. Vengeance. Fastway. Quiet Riot. Even Saxon released a few divisive albums in this category. But these all had something in common...they wrote pretty damn good songs, the kind of songs that had you looking beyond the aerosol canned headdress, pre-ripped jeans and bad taste in makeup to some place deeper in your soul, where you liked to rock out and have fun. And where you STILL like to rock out and have fun, regardless of what culture has dictated to you as being cool or fresh, all these years. Agentz take an approach very similar to the bands I listed above, but apart from some good intentions and an occasional riff that can get a dry heart pumping (slightly), they fall into the category of easily dispensable demi-glam fodder.

And it doesn't take long to figure out why, because the opening title track is a veritable catalog of everything that is right and wrong about this album. "Stick to Your Guns" starts with the typical mid-paced, steamy street rocking beat, with a crunchy, super simplistic guitar line and cheesy keyboard to give it that total 80s feel (think Journey or Survivor). The guitarist Jason Sabo knows how to lay into a minimal solo that evokes the city nights this beast wishes to prowl about in, but the tragedy begins with frontman Patrick Dubs, whose vocals sound ever so slightly 'too manly' for this recording, like an early John Bush (Armored Saint) whose just had his nose broken and ears clubbed in at a local boxing match. Could this be the Rocky Balboa of street metal? To think, he was actually a guitar player in an earlier incarnation of Savatage (Avatar). The backing vocals also sound just a little too phoned in, but perhaps it's the tempo that needed to be just a little faster.

And then the album gets Dubs pretends he's John Bon Jovi, or a woman, and gives an 'emotional' vocal introduction to "Don't Tread On Me" over some light keyboards that sound like any random 80s pop band in ANY random 80s movie, playing at the prom. You know what I'm talking about. This song is called "Don't Tread On Me", Agentz. You should be TRAMPLING the prom, not wearing the tux and piano tie and drinking the damn punch. "Time Will Tell" sounds like a rewrite of "Jesse's Girl", and "Take a Chance on Love" is like something Aerosmith threw out in the dumpster in 1980. "Bite the Bullet" builds an ambient prelude and for a second I felt like I was at the opening credits of an 80s cop flick, as the shot was panning closer towards the city skyscape. But instead of biting me in the ass, it sounds quite a lot like the first few songs. "Fire in the Heart" might be the most 'burning' track on the album, but it's once again very similar to the rest and doused in too much keyboard that undercuts the metal fire in its own heart. "When the Axe Falls" is like an epic 'power metal' hybrid of Def Leppard, with Dubz lower, manlier vocals, but it's just too hilarious to take seriously when I hear lines line:

Feelin' the pain of a broken heart
I tortured my mind with the games that she played
And when I've cried a thousand tears she doesn't seem to understand...
She was my woman! I just can't let you go...

What the fuck, man? You are the Agentz! You are a metal band. You TAKE the women. It's not the other way around. You don't sit around on their lap like a fluffy white kitten awaiting scraps! You come and you go as you please. For God's sake. Next to this crap, the final cut "Waiting in Vain" seems positively upbeat, but in all reality...Stryper makes this seem like Rick Astley by comparison. 33 minutes of your life, swallowed in a vacuum of broken dreams.

Need I remind you that this was the same year Savatage released Hall of the Mountain King. Raven released the relentless Life's a Bitch. Running Wild had Under Jolly Roger. Slayer and Metallica had already re-written the rules. So an album like Stick to Your Guns feels far, far behind when it comes to the appreciable level of power bands were flexing in their day. It almost smells like ignorance. Perhaps the album just came a few years too late? Regardless, it doesn't even sound good. The keys are too loud, the vocals, too loud, and the guitar has this very lo-fi crunch to it which you weren't hearing from similar artists. Granted, Agentz were an underground band, and they probably did not have the deep pockets or interest necessary to mix a better record...but even a million bucks would have been wasted on these eight miserable compositions. I like a little cheese with my wine, but unlike so many scores (or hundreds) or similar albums treading the border of commercial radio trash and metal music, Stick to Your Guns has not even the minimum caliber of firepower to defend itself on this mean city street. It seems the Big Apple ran this posse through and then ran them under.

Highlights: It's frightening enough to shake out some of your feminine side.

Verdict: Epic Fail [1/10]

Mental Home - Black Art (1999)

I have some rather fond personal memories of this album, for it was one of the first I received (an advance, promotional cassette copy) for the crude, black & white pen & paper zine I started in the later 90s, or at least one of the first I can remember a positive reaction toward. In time I have come to appreciate its predecessor Vale slightly more, but that's not to fault Black Art's natural progression towards a more bold, symphonic sound, and there are some highly memorable tracks on this album still to this day. This album did see one lineup change, with Michael 'Maiden' Smirnoff replacing Roman Povarov on the keys, and perhaps this is felt through a slight increase in the classical influence woven throughout. But it's not a huge transition from Vale, the material on both of these albums could flow and intertwine in any set list and the unwary listener would hardly notice a difference.

Black Art does remind me of Vale in that it seems much of the better material lies on the first half of the album. But once again, it's not that the remainder of the album is necessarily bad, just not as instantly adhesive or memorable in the long term. "Under the Wing (of Gamayun)" channels lush, atmospheric pastures of piano and night noise before a brief, spoken vocal intro and the ensuing stream of melodic guitars that climb towards a majestic summit at 1:35. There's a proggish pop synthesizer that initiates a rather weak bridge, at least until the storming surge of guitars and vocals around 4:30, and the track cycles around to a dramatic close before the vibrant mystique of "The Plague Omen" explodes, perhaps the best song on this album for its titillating arches of keys that break across the guitars like waves through several of the segments. "Into the Realms of Marena" seethes in the rush of wind, pipe organs and further night samples before a nice melodic death melody that sounds similar to something from In Flames' "Moonshield". The smooth bass, bells and melodies of "Silent Remembrance" are gorgeous, another of the album's best, but though the heavier rhythms here are quite well placed, I do wish they would have revisited the motif of that intro more in the track.

After this is the instrumental "In the Shades of Inspiration", all strung out in pianos and synthesizers to help introduce the graceful power of "Pagan Freedom"'s opening riff, but I found the rest of this track to be well-to-do, average melodic/gothic metal with the exception of a few riffs. "Winter Art" is a spidery, gothic gloom of whispers and keys that crawl towards the volcanic twist of melody around 1:20, but despite the rise and fall polish it's simply not that hooky. "On a Hand of the Universe" fares slightly better, with some cool, cruising melodic folk/death lines that recall Amorphis' "Elegy", and a sound overall structure, and "Tides of Time" is a solid closer with Sergey Dmitriev performing his most consistently black metal vocals yet.

Fans who liked Vale will most assuredly get something out of Black Art, but only a few of the songs here are worthy of standing in the shadow of a "Southern Calm Waters" or "Aevin's Cage". It seemed the band were off to a more rousing, straight symphonic black/doom metal style which might have manifested itself alongside the Dimmu Borgirs of the world, only the followup (and final Mental Home album to date) Upon the Shores of Inner Seas would spin the band off down another path. Obviously I recommend the full-length debut over this, but Black Art is the only other album the band released that would warrant a purchase. It wasn't a complete step backwards at the time, it was very exciting in a world which was producing very little symphonic black/gothic metal of any worth. But the songs are simply not all that enduring.

Highlights: Under the Wing (of Gamayun), The Plague Omen, Silent Remembrance

Verdict: Win [8/10] (taken too far and high)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Mental Home - Vale (1996)

As the Russians have proven here, a lot can and will happen in a few years. Mental Home had taken the style they implemented with the Mirrorland EP and capitalized on it in every way possible. Vale is a beautiful and original album of melodic, gothic doom with a unique cultural spin that manifests through the native classical influence in the riffing of the guitars and the bristling synth-work. There was the addition of a new guitar player here, Sergey Kalachov, which allowed Roman Povarov to focus more intently on his keys, and the result is a major payoff. But perhaps the most improved is vocalist/guitarist Sergey Dmitriev, who is now managing not only his gruff, tormented vocals better than the EP (he sounds a little like Johan Edlund on the Clouds album), but successfully implementing both black snarls and death grunts wherever he deems them fit.

Looking back, Vale struck at exactly the right moment where it should have been a smashing success, but whether it was a case of limited distribution or lack of word of mouth, the album didn't quite shudder the walls of heaven. I say this because melodic gothic/doom was at a pretty popular point thanks to Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, Tiamat and their ilk, but also Mental Home were somewhat comparable to the melodic death exploding out of Sweden in the mid 90s. The atmosphere of the album is immense, the guitars like glazed tears on a statue's face on an overcast day, the keyboards perfectly aware of where to appear and where to take the sidelines, and even the lyrics are improved. In fact, this is probably one of the best Russian metal albums I own, and it's not the last time the band would tap their muses and take them for a ride.

"Stranger Dove" begins with scintillating atmospheric synthesizers above a crackling fire, and then the immediacy of a good, stark doom rhythm that trails off with the tail of the synthesizer before a folksy Russian melody arrives. After this, there is much desperation and beauty to the verse, as Dmitriev uses his gothic, breathless vocals to great effect. Also of note are the brief, theatrical pauses used later in the track, and the piano subtext used to flow some of the heavier riffing together. But even this is merely a warm-up to the next two tracks, some of the best of Mental Home's career. "Southern Calm Waters" is both eerie and beautiful, with the perfect miasma of melancholic guitars that twist into an unforgettable pre-verse, there to escalate into an eagles vision of the Volga as it sets its course, carving the land. And then comes the fucking doom! But even as Dmitriev lets rip his gnarliest snarling, the band retains its grace. "Aevin's Cage" is likewise extraordinary, with a saddening surge that gently uplifts around :45 to a wonderful melodic pace before the verse, which once again features one of the most elegant and tear-welling guitar riffs known to man. The climax at about 2:00 is reminiscent of something from Tiamat's Clouds, another excellent album.

On the strength of these opening tracks alone, we'd be looking at a perfect album, but there are five left to go, and sadly the strength does not hold throughout the entire 45 minute experience. But it comes very close. "The Euphoria" returns to winding rivers of sublime, sad synthesizer spiced up in both power chords and cleans, with a loud bass presence courtesy of Denis Samusev. It's a solid track, despite its nearly 8 minutes of content, but there are few surprises lurking about its corners and angles, no glorious payload awaiting delivery as in "Aevin's Cage". Still, it is highly atmospheric and not a crutch. "The Vale" creates a panorama of lush synth and crushing doom, majestic and very even, though it too lacks any decisive riffing that could make a grown man cry. "My Necklace" is a great, if short track that offers a Russian parallel to Amorphis' Tales from the Thousand Lakes (or Elegy), and "Christmas Mercy" moves through segues of whispered, atmospheric tranquility and softly thundering background chords, with a cute little melody at about 5:00. Closer "Their Finest Voyage" ranges from an urgent, rampaging intro to a medieval synth line that would be perfect for your role playing fantasies, until it wallops you with a helping of progressive black/doom.

Though the last 25 or so minutes of the album are good, and still a vast improvement over the bands groundwork from Mirrorland, it does grow a little disappointing that the band isn't about to slam your emotions with another "Southern Calm Waters" or "Aevin's Cage", and that's really the only complaint I have about Vale. It sets you up for such anticipation and then lets you down easily. However, it's still good enough to listen through the entire disc, and it's still superior to so much of the drawling gothic ladydoom that was beginning to pop up in Europe, which would plague us with years on end of shitty female-fronted acts that appeal to suckers with bad fairy tattoos and a Harry Potter fetish. I often debate whether I enjoy this album more than its powerful symphonic follow-up Black Art, and I'll have to answer yes for the purposes of this review. Vale has a beautiful subtlety to it which makes it memory durable, while Black Art is straight to the face, over the top orchestrated bliss (though still quite good). If you've got good taste, or f you enjoy albums such as Tiamat's Clouds, Paradise Lost Icon, or Pyogenesis Sweet X-Rated Nothings, and have somehow missed this, Christmas is early this year. Enjoy!

Highlights: Southern Calm Waters, Aevin's Cage, The Euphoria, My Necklace

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (trust me fool)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Marduk - Glorification EP (1996)

The 90s were the 'cool' time for bands that grew large enough to release an EP with an original track or two and then a few covers of the bands that inspired them. This was usually done with a sincere intention to pay tribute to the influences, but let's be honest: a lot of younger listeners in that period had their first exposure to the classics through the covers that their favorite black or death metal bands performed, and such offerings helped contribute to the mold of the 'cool' bands to listen to. I mean, on just how many of these releases did we find covers of Bathory, Possessed, Venom, Sodom, Kreator, Metallica, Celtic Frost, Mercyful Fate, Slayer, and Motorhead? The answer is most of, if not all of them.

Enter Marduk, who had been creating a stir by the middle of this decade for their crude but intense brand of traditional Swedish black metal, creating albums such as Those of the Unlight and Opus Nocturne which have still held up rather well in the ranks considering how many have become disenchanted with the band's purposed monotony. Like fellow Swedish bands Bewitched (Encyclopedia of Evil) and Necrophobic (Spawned by Evil), they decided to cast their dice into the cover bowl, imprinting their virile and raw edge to a series of tracks that were, well, already pretty nasty to begin with...

To begin with, Marduk offers one of their own tracks, or rather a remix of "Glorification of the Black God" from their Heaven Shall Burn...When We Are Gathered album, which had come out just a few months earlier. The track contains samples of Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain", and in fact the riffing itself is fashioned about the classical piece in tribute, so it's kind of a nice inclusion to go with the more contemporary influences. This is a fairly savage piece, epic and evil even where it's not orchestral, although the cheesiness of the narrative bit is arguable. After this a wall of feedback heralds the cover of Destruction's "Total Desaster", which is quite more energetic than the original due to this Swedish band's ability to play on 'fast' and 'faster' speeds. I like the louder bass here, and Erik Hagstedt does his best to salivate the track in more festooned frontman debauchery than Schmier had originally used. The solo also shreds in this.

As influential as they were, covers of Canada's Piledriver were not so common as the rest of the pack, but here Marduk earn some scene points by including not just ONE of their songs, but TWO. And they are both quite well conceived, with the bombastic warmongering given to the drums of "Sex With Satan" and then the ripping arrangement of "Sodomize the Dead" which just might be the crowning piece on this EP. The band closes the CD with Bathory's "The Return of Darkness & Evil", a rather common cover and though Marduk have their way with it, it sounds the most natural and closest to the original, thus rendering it the least interesting of the chosen tracks. On the limited vinyl of Glorification the band also covered Venom's "Hellchild", so if you happen upon a copy you may want to grab that version for the increase in value and playtime.

This is a fairly fun release, and not a wretched way to kill 18 minutes of your life. The covers are all lovingly performed, and as typical for this Swedish butcher crew, with a sincere, professional effort. I won't give it a high grade since it's not original material, except for the opening track which is only a slight variance on the album version. But it does sound quite amazing due to the searing production values. So if you love Marduk, or cover song albums in general from black metal bands, you probably wouldn't kick this out of bed for crackers.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]
(presiding over the revelry)

Steeler - Steeler (1984)

So there's this great guitar player from Germany named Axel Rudi Pell, and if you've been floating around the metal record bins for much of your life, you've likely encountered some of the works that have resulted from his solo band suspiciously titled Axel Rudi Pell. Love or hate those records, the guy has committed himself to a life of heavy metal music, never bucking for trends, with perhaps his biggest crime being the release of several 'ballad' albums, a practice that should be nuked until it glows and then shipped off to the nearest asteroid belt. Well, his later work being what it may, the real secret of Axel Rudi Pell, which is not much of a secret, is that he once fronted the German speed/heavy metal band Steeler, recording four albums in the 80s which grew progressively more crappy as the years rolled forth.

The album I present to you is the debut, Steeler, from 1984, which is a competent if unoriginal effort that should surely rock yours socks off whether you call yourself a fan of Saxon, Judas Priest, Accept, or the Scorpions. Almost every song here is as rollicking fun as you're going to find in some random German band, with the possible exception of the dour "Fallen Angel", the power ballad which closes the album without completely sucking. One of the best things about this album is the vocalist Peter Burtz (he also briefly sang in the pre-Rage band Avenger with Peavey Wagner). The guy's got such an everyman style to his voice that he might have just gotten off his truck at the pit stop, smoked a cigarette and he's trying to find a cold one. Or maybe he's been welding all day, his lungs seared by the particles of iron that must be forever bound to his soul. Other members on this album included Tom Eder on guitar, Volker Krawczak on the bass (he'd later play with Axel in his new band) and Jan Yildiral (who was also in Avenger).

Riff-wise, it's all Judas Priest meets Accept, perfectly suitable for banging your head or spiked leather gloves against any graffiti-covered wall as you pay the piper for drinking too much. When the band slows down you can hear a little Iommi in there, and there is a subtle melodic texture affixed to the riffing which would manifest itself more generously in Pell's later material. There aren't really any extremely catchy chorus parts on this album, which is the one regret. Part of this could be due to Burtz' honest but limited range, but regardless the riffs do rock and you will probably still enjoy yourself if you're a fan of the stuff coming out of this period.

The songs are all quite tight, but I can think of a few that stand out. "Sent from the Evil" creates an intensity through its on and off guitars that rock like a Kiss or AC/DC of the early 80s, with some nice little bass fills and a teensy guitar melody in the back half of the chorus. "Heavy Metal Century" is extremely Saxon-like to start, with an upperhand melody above the boogie of the rhythm guitar before the raw, old school power metal surge of the verse. "Long Way" has a blues bite that drives the primitive chugging, and "Call Her Princess" is just a rooftop-down, highway cruising convertible slice of bad ass at 65mph. Having a song called "Hydrophobia" might seem a little weird, but it kicks some ass ala early Dokken. As for the 'ballad' at the end, "Fallen Angel", you could do worse than the subdued heaviness to the guitars that slowly emerge from the placid opening sequence.

Steeler is not a perfect album, and in fact this is not a band I was ever truly impressed with, but as far as this 'dated' style of metal goes, it survives quite well. You just need to know what you're getting yourself into, because Burtz is no Rob Halford or Joe Elliot, and the band approaches the music with an honest swagger that mirrors the old jam band living next door, who annoy you on Saturday afternoons until the sweet smell of barbecue charcoal tears you away from it all. There are many hundreds of albums I would probably break out before this when in the mood for some classic metal, but it holds together enough that you could throw a few songs on an 80s German metal playlist and have a blast.

Highlights: Sent from the Evil, Heavy Metal Century, Hydrophobia

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Abigail - Descending from a Blackend Sky EP (1993)

There will come a day when the nuclear rain will descend from the blackend sky, and all Hell will break loose as the feeble liberal government loses control of the riotous masses, who will force disorder on the streets of our bombed out capitals and decaying infrastructure. The meek and the cowardly will be slaughtered as they beg for scraps of food, and the strong will use whatever skills and weapons are available to them to survive. Spiked bats, cut off leather gloves, brass knuckles, rusted muscle cars with big engines, mutants, Satan, prostitutes, football uniforms as armor, whiskey, cocaine just to get through the day, cockroaches, succubi, land mines, cultists, laced marijuana, syringes, psycho killers whipping chains about from the backs of motorbikes, cardinals and popes wielding sidearms, the return of the mother fucking cowboy.

What does any of this have to do with Abigail? Well, I decree that Abigail shall be the soundtrack for such a glorious future, as we throw all other musical recordings (except Metalucifer and maybe Roy Orbison) onto the slag heaps as a sacrifice to our survival. All you need is Yasuyuki Suzuki, a double barreled shotgun and some ammo, and an old vintage booby rag or sexy set of playing cards for your back pocket and you have all the non-injected, non-inhaled, and non-drunken tools for survival. What will be first in my playlist? Well, it's highly likely I will start at the top, with Abigail's debut EP Descending from a Blackend Sky, 16 minutes of the most hilarious evil in my entire collection.

Oddly, this is not the same Abigail you will be accustomed to if your experience includes only the band's legendary street metal pimping aka Sweet Baby Metal Slut or Forever Street Metal Bitch. No, this is more in line with the diabolical black metal of the band's roots, a ghastly communion of Bathory, Celtic Frost and Mayhem with only a trace of the band's filth thrash metal revival peeking through the pecker-pole. It's entirely heinous and primitive and god damn if it isn't one of the best things I've heard in my life. This is largely the work of Yasuyuki Suzuki, spewing caustic lines over the din of raging, rugged blast beats and riffs that could behead French nobility without even drawing the rope.

The chaos ensues with "Swing Your Hammer", which despite the clearly metal title, is a resonant ambient track of swelling synthesizer cheese that would barely be worthy of some cheap George Romero knockoff zombie horror film in the 80s that took itself far too seriously. And despite the absurdity, I absolutely love it! "The Lord of Satan" then flies in on his pitchfork to remind you that this is Abigail, and you'd only escaped an asskicking for a moment while your punishment was being discussed by those below. Grinding riffs, with only the barest trace of melody and a total primal heavy metal overtone. Thick, pumping bass that sounds like a marching band of chainsaw wielding mutants. Some of the most wretched snarling this side of countrymen Sabbat. Queue "Mephistopheles", which rocks with about an impressive array of riffing as a coked up, punker washout, the most generic riff in history. And yet, the rough shod atmosphere allows it to succeed despite itself, with fantastic lyrical fortitude!

There is not border in hell
We are going to found in hell
Confusion of people and fallen in hell
Exceed of Satan, marvelous evil!

"Descending from a Blackend Sky" is another synthesizer trip, this time even more amazing than "Swing Your Hammer", with a very Metroid-esque, slowed arpeggio sequence that is joined by several layered backing lines and some electronic percussion. What this is doing on an Abigail release I have no fucking idea, but the thought that Yasuyuki Suzuki might have the synth chops to rival Tangerine Dream is rather impressive, if this is actually him. But where this would normally be an outro for a release like this, it is followed by the barbaric "Count Barbatos", a searing yet refreshing hellish wind that blasts across your brow as you are sent hurling through the exit to the war theater. Again, exceedingly simplistic, and breaks into a very doom-like pace later in the track which later cycles back to a blast.

A killer, fundamental atmosphere and an inescapable charm make this one of the best of the early Abigail catalog, even if it doesn't possess the same level of hilarity as the band's future records. Some might denounce it on principle, as you could probably teach monkeys or rabbits to play this music with a few bananas or carrots and a week's worth of patience. But to quote an Australian comedian, 'Harden the fuck up!' The air sirens are screaming and the bombs are about to drop. What better to arm yourself with? What ungodly noise have the Japanese wrought upon us this time?

The masters have arrived.

Verdict: Epic Win [10/10] (you're my pride in hell)

Mental Home - Mirrorland EP (1994)

We may take Russian metal for granted these days, since it's long enough after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. that the music is quite common there, and there are now a great number of bands in a great number of sub-genres (though folk, death, black and melodic death seem to be prevalent). But in the 90s, you were still hearing many fresh sounds from the nation. This was well before Arkona, mind you, or the ethnic, worldly sounds of Raxa or the prolific Senmuth. These was the days of the Blazebirth Hall black metal community (Branikald, etc), or the second decade for maturing, classic metal acts like Aria and Master. So it was quite an event when the band Mental Home arrived as a bleep on the radar, a band who had very little in common with most of the metal happening in their country, falling in more in line with the sounds of earlier Pyogenesis or Paradise Lost.

Ultimately, though, there was not a band in existence in the 90s which too closely resembled Russians, and since the band has (I'm assuming) disappeared this past decade, I haven't heard anything quite like them since. The band's debut EP Mirrorland feels like only a crudely cut gem in comparison to the sparkling jewels that grace the necks of later albums Vale or Black Art, but you can clearly hear the band's trademark mix of synthesizer and guitar to evoke waves of gothic, epic sadness, occasionally raging out to mid-paced rhythms as the guitars shed tears above the lush atmosphere, but never getting any more extreme than this, and never needing to.
Probably the one stumbling block to this earlier material would be that Sergey Dmitriev had yet to truly integrate his vocals to the sound. His words have always held an original quality due to the accent and lack of utter snarling or growling, but here he seems rather awkward coughing across the tracks, incapable of meshing with the melodic subtext.

It's not a complete distraction, but it's enough to spoil what is otherwise a pleasant introduction into the band's mythic style, music made for the sadness of a gray day or being lost in the majesty of a vast wilderness. The keyboard/guitar player here, Roman is the original, and he too would improve vastly on Vale, but his soundscapes here are enough to drive alongside the winding melodic structures without leeching from them. "Dreaming Beneath the Rain" is a slower, graceful doom which almost seems like an accessible, gothic parallel to the guitar work being used in Sweden's In Flames in the mid 90s, though they were taking place at the same time. "Amidst the Waves" is a little faster, like a prototypical folk/power metal track with a cheesy mystique conjured through the keys, and "Drowned" has an urgency that calls forth an influence from Russian classical composers.

The latter half of the EP feels much more raw by comparison, and I didn't care for the gothic, almost nu-metal chug & breakdown accompanied by squealing that is the title track "Mirrorland". "Cemetary Flowers" is better, with a nice melodic guitar that complements some of Sergey's better vocals here in Mirrorland. The "Outro" is simply synthesizer, piano and the sampling of birds and nature. I'm not sure if it's just the recording I have, but it feels as if these tracks might have been recorded separately, or just a bad transfer.

Mirrorland is not strong enough that I'd track it down if I were looking for something fresh and new. The songs are somewhat mediocre, and the vocals undefined, but the EP operates on a 'would have been, could have been, may yet be' foundation from which Mental Home would very shortly elevate themselves on the great debut album Vale, a wondrous offering that captures a mystique rare in metal. It's rather a shame the band isn't discussed more widely these days, because the potential they developed in their prime was quite staggering, though they'd fizzle out as soon as the big 2k.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10] (suddenly I hear the voice)

Triptykon - Eparistera Daimones (2010)

Among the many legendary bands that have reunited this past decade in tandem with metal's greatest re-expansion since the 80s, I would consider Celtic Frost's Monotheist to be one of the rousing success stories. Not only did the band score a hit with a great many of their older fans, but ushered in a whole new crop of admirers, many of which exalted their new album even more than the band's classics like To Mega Therion or Morbid Tales. I was actually quite divisive about the album. While it certainly carried on the Frost's tradition of taking the listener to a new and interesting place, and thankfully didn't abandon the groundwork the band laid in getting to their cult status, I found the album almost too simple, with nary a lick of interesting guitar work despite its huge atmosphere and consistent sense of gravitas.

Regardless, the album went over very well when compared to so many other comeback efforts, and the band was able to launch a successful tour on it, giving a glimpse of Celtic Frost live to many who thought they might never live to see the day. Sadly, it took only a short time for the band to fall to pieces once more, through intense personal differences, and the new tricks for old dogs were laid to rest. Dissatisfied with idea of letting any creative momentum subside, Thomas Gabriel Fischer (T.G. Warrior) decided to forge out on his own under a new guise, and with the assistance of a few younger recruits (bassist Vanja Slajh, guitarist V. Santura of Noneuclid/ Dark Fortress, and drummer Normah Lonhard of Fear My Thoughts), he has carefully carved out Triptykon from his dreams and nightmares, a project which could rightfully be described as Monotheist: The Band without causing anyone's fur to fly.

That's correct. Triptykon is the natural evolution of the final Celtic Frost opus, but made the more extreme through a use of heavier vocals, and and even more crushing guitar tone that remains loyal to the prior album (and strangely enough, old school Hellhammer/Celtic Frost). Atmospherically it is also comparable, though I found this sound to be far more centralized around the guitars, with Fischer using less of his old Hellhammer personality to the vocals, and a more direct, and unfortunately, less memorable barking presence. But though the band may seem as straightforward in principle as a blunt object slowly rising and falling with steady strength on your brain, they are certainly not above experimentation. Chanting, whispers and other measures of morbidity all weave their way through the 72 fucking minutes of visceral miasma that awaits the listener. It's a huge investment of time, but one I'm sure many are eager to take if they enjoyed the previous album.

The shocker is that I didn't really enjoy this, and in fact I liked it even less than Monotheist. While I can laud Fischer for continuing with determination along the path of heaviness that he himself had a hand in helping create, commend the producers and musicians for putting together such a huge sound, and feel my inner teen feint in rapture at the return to H.R. Geiger cover artwork, there is a gap here that I just couldn't cross. The album sounds monstrous, the guitars the perfect study of maximized extremity through simple riffing, and the vocals and instruments all extremely well organized here to lull the listener into submission and not boredom, but I'll be damned if I can think of a single guitar riff on the entire album that 'did it' for me. These are the sorts of riffs that have by 2010 been played a thousand times, through thrash metal, death, black and doom, and regardless of how well sounding the distortion may seem as it slices you through the headphones, they're simply not inspiring. I feel no nuance, no surprise hidden around any corner in any of the songs.

Fischer's past work was far from complex, but records like Into the Pandemonium and To Mega Therion evoked a mystique and aggression that was so rare in the metal of its age, an undeniable charm that snaked itself about you with each successive listen as it ascended into the stuff of legend. But after spending over 70 minutes with this new album (numerous times), it feels simply cumbersome. It's Monotheist all over again, but lacking even the subtle charms of that effort as it attempts to span the bridge to a modern audience which demands more heavy, more crunch, more doom! When you've got an 11 minute song like "Goetia" or a nearly 20 minute track like "The Prolonging" (the punditry of the title is not lost upon me), I expect to hear something more interesting than basal chugging and open picking riffs that sound like they took little to no effort to compose, but are here to fill up space.

Granted, the band are not horrible composers, and each extensive sequence always features some slight shift in perspective (usually through Lonhard's tribal war drumming infusions or another vocal arriving to balance the grunting off), but I still get the constant feeling like I'm waiting for the morning bus to arrive. Only it's getting later, and I suddenly realize it's a holiday, or the schedule has changed, and I'm going to be waiting a lot longer than I had expected. There are some bouncy moments here like the 13 minute mark of "The Prolonging" that should get ever sludger out of his galoshes and into the murk and blood of the local mosh pit, but I actually think the material here works best when it's moving faster. A point in case would be "A Thousand Lies", which opens at a pace very similar to the title track of Sepultura's "Chaos A.D", which was undoubtedly itself influenced by Celtic Frost, and then continues to spew lava as a dense, nihilistic thrash grinder. For slower material, which you'll be hearing a lot of, the song that least drove me towards my Tempur-Pedic would be "Abyss Within My Soul", which persists in some rather creepy, haunting grooves through its 10 minute existence. "In Shrouds Decayed", the song most resembling older Frost to my ears, Tom brings back the old, tortured lament (ala Into the Pandemonium) to his vocals before a meaty doom riff erupts.

The album also takes some breathers, as in the dark ambient interlude "Shrine" or the tranquil post-rock tonal meandering of "My Pain", with its ethereal female vocals and subtle drums. These elements are to be expected, being familiar with Fischer's past few works (Monotheist, Apollyon Sun, etc.), and they do feel as if they're inserted in the proper spots to bisect the weight of the metal tracks. "My Pain" is actually not so shabby, where Tom takes over from the placating female vocals with his moribund, gothic narration. As for the lyrics, well they do tend to fall on the rather average side of sinister, but there is a consistency between their composure and the music itself which fits like a hand in a glove, and he does continue to explore the realms of both the internal/personal and the occult.

Once again I stand divided and unconvinced. While the album is a technical marvel, a Celtic Frost brought current and level with the 21st century standards of studio gravity, and the band have carefully plotted out its entirety so that even the disbeliever won't be so bored as to run screaming in terror, I developed no relationship with any of the songs here as I have so many times in the past with the man's work. Some credit is deserved that Fischer would press on with the inspiration he had for the past album, twisting it into a blacker veneer, rather than run towards a softer direction, and assemble a band who seems to complement his vision. I expect a lot of people will have their jaws so agape at the production elements of the music here that it's an assured success, but I'm still waiting patiently for my bus to arrive.

Highlights: A Thousand Lies, In Shrouds Decayed, My Pain

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (the dead are never gone)

Leviathan - The Tenth Sub Level of Suicide (2003)

Press play. Begin the downward spiral. Suicide beckons with cold, grey fingers.

There is no light for you...
at the end of the tunnel

Leviathan is the work of Jeff Whitehead aka Wrest, California tattoo artist and DSBM one-man wrecking crew. If despair could ever be a beautiful thing, he achieves it regularly with his albums. Poetic song titles, carefully written lyrics, riffs elegant in their simplistic, torturous harmony. The aural equivalent of watching a snake slither. Repulsive and beautiful at once.

His vocals are much like I would imagine the cries of a patient in the days of early psychiatric 'treatment'. "Fucking Your Ghost In Chains of Ice" is a frighteningly grim track. If it were personified it would dust off its lapels casually and put out a cigarette in the eye of many bedroom black metal bands that try and fail to achieve this level of despair.

"Sardoniscorn" continues at nearly ten minutes with a nifty little riff that will stick in your head, along with an entrancing combination of vocals and percussion. There is a breakdown (no, not some mosh-fodder, trust me) that gives way to a positively creepy piano/bass section that I'll leave for you to interpret on your own.

Never ending the sound
rope creaking in mine night
the eyes of spectres
which call to me
reflecting every
movement to die
"Come with us
you belong to us
kill yourself
you deserve this."

The song explodes in a crescendo of pure, sweet, unfiltered black metal wonder. "The Bitter Emblem of Dissolve" almost sounds like it could be off a different album at first, giving off a Nordic vibe. As if fallen warriors are crying out to valkyries from some unfathomable eldritch limbo.

Skipping ahead, "He Whom Shadows Move Towards" has a terrific atmosphere and sound, almost as if My Bloody Valentine had given up the romantic shoegazing for black metal. I absolutely love this song. The vocals are absolutely tortured, however the song offers some dark, and yet magestic (and even at times beautiful) music.

Hidden in plain sight
uttering unheard volumes
a soliloquy of the shadow
darkest broad day-light

"Submersed" is a lovely dark electronic piece, a break from the fury if you will. The album finishes out with three long tracks, all amazing. The final song "At the Door to the Tenth Sub Level of Suicide" is the heaviest of the album, a fifteen minute tour-de-force and possibly my very favorite on the album.

The Tenth Sub Level of Suicide is an essential album for the black metal fan, even if the depressive/suicidal sub-genre isn't your bag. Musically, lyrically, it's all there and then some. Haunting, beautiful, so traditional and yet I've never heard anything like it. Perfection.

Verdict: Epic Win [10/10] (and ice is wept by the sun)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sorizon - Behind the Emerald Starscape (2010)

Considering that the Orange County area of California is a hotbed for awful pop punk and suburban trash rap like the Kottonmouth Kings, a band like Sorizon must be a huge relief for any sane person living there, because they've basically absorbed all the vacuum of sanity and intelligence left behind by so much of that music scene and injected into their own work. That they can write and deliver a 43 minute debut full-length album of such professional traits and well-crafted melodic metal as this must earn them some measure of castigation in such circles, but for the rest of us, Sorizon is an exciting young force within the often ignored spectrum where progressive and traditional metal elements gather for a tete-a-tete.

However, while I would be equally comfortable classifying the band in either the US power or progressive fields, there is actually more to this entity, for they incorporate a host of other influences, the primary of which would be 90s melodic death metal akin to earlier In Flames or Dark Tranquillity. For the most part, they pull it off. The band cites a wide array of influences from Symphony X and Dragonland to Arch Enemy and Norther, but I feel like the band most closely resembles the Italian band Eldritch during their earlier (and good) years. Melodic, loaded with hooks, and a vocalist who makes the most of his down to earth, middle range. Keith McIntosh actually goes beyond this, in fact, because he's also adequate at harmonizing himself, or snarling and growling for the more extreme parts.

Normally this mixture of clean and harsh can prove a jarring proposition, as with a band like Into Eternity, where you get the feeling the band is trying to please everyone and ending up a muddled mess, but at the very least McIntosh does a good job within the distinctive styles. The harsh vocals do feel like somewhat of a distraction on this album, and I don't often find their presence necessary, but he manages them with a restraint that suppressed any gag reflex I might have had. They're not as forced sounding as many of the modern US melodeath/metalcore bands who insist on overbearing them, but they're also not omnipresent on this album. This band knows where its strengths and loyalties lie, and they can be forgiven for a little experimentation.

One thing is certain, he's met his match with this band. Sorizon features a pair of guitar players (Danny Mann and Al Jorion) versed in exactly what makes a song keep the attention, offering a plethora of balanced aggression, melody and lead work that never once sullies itself in needless repetition or hokey self-indulgent shred. The rhythm section of Sean Elston (drums) and Keith Hoffman (bass) is fit for the task, grounding the guitars which are heavy but lack excessive crunch. I do feel the bass could get a bit more adventurous in a few of the sections, but you can really hear him on the cleaner parts and his tone is the right counterbalance for these guitars. The production of Behind the Emerald Starscape is highly professional, the measure of many peers within the genre, with the band having the actual foresight to send it over to Finnvox Studios for mastering.

There are 11 tracks here, two of which are instrumental, and I actually found myself gravitating more towards the later half of the album since there are some stunners there. "Bridges Burned" is a mature piece which opens with a mere plodding bass and clean guitar, then blossoming into an arch of melody accompanied subtly by McIntosh, before he explodes into the verse with a latticework of memorable vocals, like a deeper Ray Alder. "La Fee Verte" is a healthy draught of absinthe given musical voice as a progressive labyrinth of heavy grooves and thirst quenching solos, which also seems to have inspired the album's cover art. "Outreach" is considerably complex for such an accessible track, with excellent vocal harmonies. But there are also some excellent songs early on, like the engrossing "Lady of the Sea", the graceful "Don't Just Exist" (which includes a rare synth line, the band is largely guitar-driven), the quirky instrumental "Kirsnabogg" or the wild western saloon surf that opens the gothic prog metal of "Beauty in Darkness". The only song here I couldn't embrace was the opener "Cosmic Eden". The music is fantastic, as are the clean, harmonized vocals, but it's probably the most excessive as far as the Night in Gales-like melodeath snarls which felt a little overboard and unnecessary.

But really, if a few vocal lines are all I can complain about here, Sorizon is off to an impressive start. Most bands don't have their shit organized after a decade or so, but in two short years these Californians have mustered a great debut that nearly rivals the better work of Kamelot or Symphony X? There's no real chink in the armor here now, so I can only imagine what the band might come up with if given a few more years of gestation. Without being intensely poetic, the lyrics of Sorizon manage to stir up an enthusiasm for both the future and the mysteries of the world's past. They're a band of dreamers, and when you listen closely to the music they create together, the dreams are already well within reach of their galaxy-wide grasp.

Highlights: Bridges Burned, La Fee Verte, Don't Just Exist, Lady of the Sea

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (I strive to know)