Saturday, May 29, 2010

Zed Yago - The Invisible Guide (2005)

Yeah, it happens. It happens more often than we'd like to admit to ourselves. Bands scuffle, and due to a number of concerns, they go their separate ways. Thus was the fate of Zed Yago after just two glorious albums in the late 80s. Jutta Weinhold, Lars Ratz and others would form the 'follow-up' project Velvet Viper, releasing two albums and then once away going the route of extinction. But other former members were not so fast on the initiative dice. Jimmy Durand, a good guitar player and writer by all accounts from the old Zed Yago albums, wound up the owner of the Zed Yago properties, and some 16 years after the brilliant Pilgrimage, he decided to continue the band's legacy. But this time there would be no Jutta Weinhold. This time Durand's own wife, Yvonne Durand would be the front woman.

This is probably where it all went wrong. Now, I don't know this guy personally, and if he wants to continue using the band name he legally owns, who am I to stop him? It's really a question of taste. If you're going to release a new Zed Yago album, then you owe it to yourself (and perhaps you owe it to your fans, if you care for them) to release something of equivocal merits. Clearly, The Invisible Guide is a major step down for this band, and a slap in the face of anyone who had any real expectations for a reunion album of quality. Like so many other bands that reunite or try to adapt themselves into modern times, it includes a far more excessive electronic presence ("If I Close My Eyes Forever") and a production that meets contemporary standards. There is a metal shell here which has riffing of the same vein as From Over Yonder or Pilgrimage, but the riffs feel pretty hollow, as now they've been used for decades and this incarnation of Zed Yago is bringing nothing newish to the table, though once they felt pretty fresh. It feels a little like Scanner's mutation Scantropolis, except that album had good melodies and decent songs.

But the truly terrifying elephant in this room, the immovable object that prevents all appreciation of this music, is the vocal presence of Yvonne Durand. I'm sure she's trained her voice, I'm sure she had all the best intention, but she sounds atrocious here! She attempts to give her voice much more 'edge' than Jutta once held, and the result is almost consistently laughable as the poor Zed Yago fan suffers through 42 minutes of nonsense. You know when the backing male vocals of the band are FAR more talented and melodic than the front woman, that you have a SERIOUS problem, and she occasionally sounds more like a bad, heavily accented male singer from some demo level Euro power metal band. She's like a Tim 'The Ripper' Owens. She tries far, far too hard, and it often feels as if the band are just clowning around. Are there exceptions? Well, not really, though I would say "The Invisible Guide" or "Fire" at least match up to her more 'witching' style. But when she starts talking in a more conversational tone, like an Eric Adams on estrogen, it becomes even more embarassing...

Ugh! It might be one thing to accept these vocals if the backing music was worthwhile, but even here the record suffers. Not a single riff on the entire album stands out as something I would want to come back to. The style is not so hugely differentiated from the band's 80s output, and yet there is a certain sheen to the writing of old that is just as invisible here as the guide in the title. I'm used to hearing some pretty weak reunion efforts, since just about every band and their mother that disbanded in the 80s and 90s have pulled something together in the 21st century, and many cannot live up to the earlier lineups or original inspiration. But this album is downright shameful, and I wish I could pray to some Chronological deity to convince Jimmy Durand to change his mind, dial back time, and NOT issue this under the name Zed Yago. The album's existence is painful enough, but the thought that some younger fan might hear this atrocity and then automatically discount any curiosity towards the band's earlier albums is heart breaking.

Verdict: Fail [2.5/10]

Zed Yago - From Over Yonder (1987)

1987 was the year Helloween broke out in a major way with Michael Kiske and their sophomore album Keeper of the Seven Keys Part 1, but they were not the only German band engaged in flights of fantasy lyrics and impressive, accessible melodic hooks that year. Nor was Running Wild the sole German band to explore 'pirate metal' territory through their excellent Under Jolly Roger in 1987. No, it was also the debut of Zed Yago, the new band to feature the vocals of songstress Jutta Weinhold, who had previously performed in prog rock, blues and even some controversial punk metal. Weinhold joins the 'classic' lineup here of Tatch, Gunnar, Bubi, and Jimmy Durand, and together they would produce a pretty stellar first effort.

That's not to say this is their best, because aside from 3-4 of its better songs, From Over Yonder does not hold up quite so preciously as its follow-up Pilgrimage. Still, the style was pretty original for its day...a female fronted fantasy metal band with both the ballsy, traditional NWOBHM chops and what might have been the better production job of their two albums. This is crunchy and clear metal with some great hooks to it, and resonant, scintillating leads that breeze gracefully across the prow as it crests each rolling, rhythmic wave. The appeal is widespread, as I could envision a fan of anything from Helloween, Warlock, W.A.S.P. or Accept to the Scorpions, Bonfire, Dokken and Saxon appreciating what's offered here.

I'll begin this with the creme of the crop, the opening track "The Spell from Over Yonder", which builds a slow, desperate mystique, its primary riff playing out like a melodic metalized alternative to the James Bond theme before the giant, blues balls of the verse riff break forth, and Jutta gives you what was probably your first taste of the best German female front lady of the 80s (at least in traditional metal). I love the way her voice interacts with the chorus riff...such a primal and elegant force, compounded by the subtle surge of the guitars. "Zed Yago" is another of the band's best tracks, with a resounding, simple guitar lick that channels a unique, polished savagery over which a tasteful melodic fill dances like a slave girl at a pirate bazaar. "Rockin' for the Nation" is another showstopper here, reminding me a lot of Saxon, but with firm use of the keyboard player Hansi Kecker, and a lot more depth and appeal than the rather obvious lyrics might suggest. After this trio, I favor "Stay the Course", which feels like a midpoint between AC/DC and Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills".

The rest of this material does not hold up quite so well for me, but it's solid enough that it doesn't drag down the album if you plan on listening straight through. "The Flying Dutchman" is a bombastic, operatic interlude piece using horns, synthesizers and guitars to introduce the narrative of the band's mythos. "Queen and Priest" had some scorching, slow hard rock rhythms akin t o"Rockin' the Nation", but it isn't as catchy. "Revenge" is a pretty, sparingly climaxing power ballad, but not as powerful as "The Pale Man" from Pilgrimage. "United Pirate Kingdom" is Zed Yago doing what Zed Yago does best, slowly pumping heavy metal with eagle-like soaring vocals, and the addition of cheesy but adequate keyboard 'horn section' presence, but it's not that memorable either. "Rebel Ladies" might have made an impression on Lenny Wolf, because Kingdom Come's "Can't Deny" from the 1991 album Hands of Time sounds very similar to me, at least the big lead-in riff.

All told, From Over Yonder is a solid listening experience, especially if you take into consideration the scarcity of quality traditional metal with female vocals in the mid 80s. It certainly beats out anything Lita Ford would produce in her solo career, and it's the equal to any of Warlock's four albums, but I prefer cutting out the less important songs and playing the rest in a mix with all of the sophomore album Pilgrimage, which is astoundingly good. In fact, on some versions of the Pilgrimage cassette release, a few of the From Over Yonder tracks were included! The album still sounds pretty clear today, and though I don't worship all of its wiles as much as its younger sibling, it remains one of the better efforts in Jutta Weinhold's career, alongside Pilgrimage and the mistreated Breslau record.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (remember all those hungry years)

Zed Yago - Pilgrimage (1989)

Pilgrimage is the second album from the German heavy power metal band Zed Yago, and in my humble opinion the very best work Jutta Weinhold has ever put her stamp on, with an unforgettable, epic vocal performance that absolutely destroys any other female fronted album of its type in the 80s. About the only thing that comes close here would be Leather Leone's years fronting Chastain, but the fact that this act never caught on while the similar, and less impressive Warlock were able to tour much of the world is shocking. Not that Doro's first success was anything to scoff at, but compare any of those records to Pilgrimage and shudder.

In fact, this is one of the best German metal albums of its type, with a wholly consistent set of breathtaking tunes that carry conventional but catchy melodies, strong guitar rhythms, the precise if primitive drumming of Bubi. It's also the best example of 'pirate metal' I can think of outside of the gods Running Wild, as Jutta presents her concept of Zed Yago, the fictional daughter of the Flying Dutchman's captain, who roams a world embroiled in both adventure and folklore. Weinhold had always expressed a desire to translate famous literary works into the metal realm. It was hardly a novel idea by the late 80s (Iron Maiden had been doing it for over a decade at that point, among others), but evidence that Zed Yago were not simply some stupid band screaming METAL THIS METAL THAT from the rafters. These compositions were built to last, long after the band dwindled away, reformed as Velvet Viper, and never again reached this level of excellence.

Pilgrimage is the best Zed Yago album in EVERY category. It was released through RCA, so for once, the band had some actual money to put into its production. You'll notice the cover art here is actually quite stunning here, a painting of the ghostly lead character in their mythos sitting in some galley or tavern, in the presence of the band themselves (proof that Weinhold and Zed are separate entities, whereas some speculated she was trying to project herself into the character). Though its arguably the weakest point to this record, the production itself was still quite nice, with the typical 80s centrism on the vocal lines. Often on some stereos I feel the guitars get a little lost, which is a shame since they are so lovingly articulate at driving her voice through these forgotten tales, but on others I can hear them clearly. In all cases, the drums crash at an acceptable level and you can hear the bass tones as they thicken the storm, like the waves of an angry, stirred sea frothing at the hull of a wayward vessel.

The lyrics are not even remotely retarded. For example, compare this to any of Manowar's 80s efforts, or Helloween, and you'll quickly see how important the literary influence was to Jutta and the band. Granted, English is her second language, and they may not flow as pure poetry, but I reiterate, this was not a band crafting disposable pop metal for arenas. This was made to last, and its timeless craftsmanship has served me well for over 20 years! So close your eyes, drift off to a realm of fantasy, lightning cracked skies, ports of danger and mystery, and some vivid, rousing, passionate metal of the purest strain!

The "Pilgrim's Choir" inaugurates the record, with some anthem-like German opera metal guitars that are joined by synthesized orchestration. You get the impression curtains are lifting upon some viking or sailor about to lurch into a searing soprano, and as the climax develops into an actual choral section, the guitar feedback rolls into the slowly but surely riffing title track. Graceful, careful melodies carry the day to the savage sounding chorus riff worthy of Rock'n'Rolf himself, while gang shouts erupt from the crows nest around :55. Few bands had this ability to play in such a relaxed pace, and yet still conquer you...the arabesque hymnal of the bridge that precludes the lead section is further evidence. "The Fear of Death" uses this slower pacing once more to superb levels of excellence, a tear jerking, descending melody that Jutta counteracts with a silken, seductive poise. I'm crying right now just listening to it for the millionth time! The things I endure to bring the truth to you folks.

Call the foreign dimension finally to earth
More than we know appears in a dream
Disappears into space a taste of rebirth
Don’t, don’t want to be defeated no...
But we are, but we are in the second we are born...

Meaningful heavy metal in the 80s? Lies! Listen to the solo bridge, with the slowly churning, bad ass blues metal rhythm in the backdrop. Eat your hearts out, Schenker and Jabs! Jimmy and Gunnar were on fire! Following this emotional landscape, the band decides to pick up the pace through the light, digestible speed metal of "Pioneer of the Storm", with riffs just as tasty as anything you'll find on the first few Queensrÿche or Dokken LPs. Once more, the band crafts up a wonderful bridge of sweet leads across a great backing rhythm, and the lower guitar notes wailing off against the final verse is likewise immortal. This is followed by the timeless "Black Bone Song", which pays tribute to the damned crew of the Flying Dutchman from folklore. This is not my favorite track on the album, but it was probably the band's best known title at live performances, with some simple, fist in the air guitars that strut proudly across the bow while Jutta serves up a killer chorus over the slyly inserted, busier axe melodies. She also pulls out some lower, rasping vocals here which show her ability to get down and dirty, and the crew shouts and moans here are pretty cool.

Congratulations, we're still blessed to have over half the album left! "Rose of Martyrdom" is a majestic yet melancholic piece in which the sombering vocals really take the fore, melodic semi-speed metal licks resounding off in the distance. "The Man Who Stole the Holy Fire" has a nice little spin on a Zeppelin meets Def Leppard riff which totally stands out to memory, and "Achilles Heel" is a straight, perfect rocker which will easily appeal to a fan of Warlock, Saxon or other big riff 80s street metal, with an amazing, warlike gang chorus around 1:45. You have just had a sailor's clog stuffed right up your rectum, but the band lets you down easily with a soaring bridge. "The Pale Man" is a slowly escalating power ballad which thankfully engages due to the vocal performance. Had Joey Tempest written this for a Europe record, it probably would have been huge. Alas, Jutta and crew were destined to wallow in obscurity. The remaining songs return to the harder rocking format, though lyrically they depart into other subject matter: the excellent "Omega Child" sounding like it would have fit in on one of Kingdom Come's (highly underrated) early records, and "Fallen Angel" gallops at a similar pace as it tells the parable of some sinful divinity (I like to think it's about Lucifer directly).

Despite all the cards it brought into play, Zed Yago's Pilgrimage was unfortunately lost in a bad shuffle of the deck. 1989 was a busy year, with many bands' careers steamrolling, and the wallets of so many fans already committed to the developing thrash metal titans of the US or the safer melodic power and late NWOBHM fare out of Europe. As such, Jutta Weinhold and her boys were not able to make the same impact as an Accept, Warlock, Helloween or Gamma Ray, and it's a crying shame, since the band would lose their big record deal and she would then disband them. The 'Zed Yago' concept does not end here, of course, because Jutta and Lars would return with some new gentlemen for the very similar band Velvet Viper, but none of that incarnation's output could match the grace and excellence of this sadly neglected slab of memorable mirth and melody. It's not exactly 'perfect', for there are one or two songs slightly less impressive than the remainder (those songs would be "Fallen Angel" and "Rose of Martyrdom"), but it's an enormous improvement over From Over Yonder, and the fact that I still listen to an album so often today that most would consider 'dated' or 'insignificant' only proves its enduring quality.

If it is crushing German power/speed metal that you seek, then seek it on another island. The buried treasure on this will not appeal to you. That's not what Zed Yago were about. They were about dreamy, drifting compositions that resonate far into the ears and imagination, and Pilgrimage conjures such a strong, pale fire of inspiration that its embers still glow today, far brighter than the newer album Jimmy Durand and his wife would put out under the same band moniker in 2005 (Jimmy held on to the legal rights to the name).

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (try to harness each hour)

Friday, May 28, 2010

Weinhold - From Heaven Through the World to Hell (2004)

As Zed Yago was quickly to dissolve after a pair of albums, so too was Velvet Viper, bringing an end to the entire 'Zed Yago' concept. Following The 4th Quest for Fantasy, she released one solo album called To be or not... in 1993 which remained within the realm of hard rock/metal music, and then took a long hiatus from the form, instead moving on to blues and other styles. A decade later, her interest returned, and so she assembled a new band with various friends she had on the music scene, and later some members of the band Shokk Machine, including Markus Großkopf of Helloween.

Weinhold is a pretty natural extension of Jutta's work in Zed Yago and Velvet Viper, with all the added 'perks' of the modern studio era. There is a more progressive and atmospheric edge to this debut than her previous albums. The core is slightly more of a chug fest with simple power thrash metal riffs, above which the keyboards and effects simmer. Though many younger fans who got into metal in recent years might actually find this heavy level of studio polish a boon, I actually believe the album trades away some of the charm of its predecessors, and does not necessarily reap a reward. Jutta layers her vocals here a lot more than the past, and though her performance is still solid, the songs were not as striking as those found on a Pilgrimage. She has always maintained an interest in transforming literature into music, and From Heaven Through the World to Hell does continue that tradition, with tracks that delve into Shakespeare and other influences.

It's also far more expansive than I'm used to from this singer. For example, take the track "Macbeth", in which she creates all manner of vocals to represent characters in the tragedy along side a bluesy big rocking beat. Once she soars off into her chorus and verse lines, all is well, but clearly this new band is not as intent on straightforward metal charms as her old one. There is an interesting combination of styles to be had, like the mix of groove and progressive metal on "My Own Sister", in which Jutta herself shines, or the straight blues rocking of "Wounded Pioneer" which reminds of Def Leppard and AC/DC. "Heaven" is a sweeping rocker in the vein of a "Dream On" via Aerosmith, and "Rock of Metal" is almost entirely classic Zed Yago, and "Nearly a Lovesong" also delivers a direct connection.

A decade is a long time, but Jutta Weinhold did prove with this new project that she still has the range and passion to explore this end of the musical spectrum. That said, I feel this modern material lacks some of the subtleties of the Zed Yago era, and where those olden times would produce everlasting choruses, grace and power, these seem a little too tidy for fulfillment. From Heaven Through the World to Hell is not a bad record, as she is able to match her vocals to almost any musical backdrop, but the riffs here are pretty lackluster, and her voice is really the one part of it I would come back to hear. Sometimes, that's just not enough.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Breslau - Volksmusik (1982)

If I were to hazard a guess, I would assume that the majority of the (admittedly small) cache of metal fans out there actually exposed to the career of Jutta Weinhold would know her through her two Zed Yago albums. They were the most highly exposed, on a decent label, and thus present on the shelves of many a record chain in the 80s. But Weinhold has had a long career, performing in a number of acts and genres before even developing her interest in metal music. She performed in some blues and progressive rock projects, and she even once toured with psychedelic masters Amon Düül! As it turns out, Zed Yago was not her first metal band, but instead the ill-fated and short-lived Breslau.

Breslau was one of the earliest German metal bands to actually use German lyrics, and since they were not averse to the use of WWII imagery in their cover and lyrics, they were almost immediately branded as some pro-Nazi act by the same sort of delusional, politically correct witch hunt hysteria we still experience 30 years later whenever the subject is broached outside of some super hero or movie action star kicking Nazi asses. If you imagine it's bad here in America, just think how bad it is in Deutschland! The accusations were, of course, not true, but it's a hard stereotype for a band to outlive, and these poor musicians probably did not want to put up with such drama. Thus Volksmusik would be the sole offering we were going to get Jutta left the project shortly after, and the record label ended it.

Fortunately, it would be an enduring one, as Breslau wrote in the solid tradition of a Judas Priest, Girlschool, Motorhead, Deep Purple, Rainbow and Black Sabbath! Pure, old school heavy metal here, with a slight but notable punk pep to it. This younger Jutta was all the rage, with a glaring energy in her native language that would not often translate on her later work with Zed Yago or Velvet Viper. The riffs are your garden variety, driving rock based in blues and rock & roll, and nothing you couldn't figure out on a fretboard in minutes, but all the same, there is a genuine pulse pounding feel to Volksmusik which doesn't sound a day older even when its' almost three decades older!

The title track makes an immediate break for it, with thundering bass and a burning lead, a brittle and vicious edge to Weinhold's vocals, but it's not one of the catchiest tracks here. "Exzess" is quite wonderful, like a mix of AC/DC and The Runaways, which you can bang your fist to while you light a joint in the off-hand. "Kampfmaschine" is a riot, with some simple punk guitars flowing over the bass, and a great chorus with male backup. "Auf der Galeere" is slow and extremely powerful, and "Spinne" makes for some good, laid back cruising rock and roll. Other great tracks include "Ohne Gesetz" and the speedway ready "Held Im Traum", but really, the whole album is consistent from front to back.

Volksmusik holds a place in my heart for its sincere tones, though its been far displaced by time and a limited public memory. The language barrier is the most obvious, but it's possible some blowhards might pass on the record simply because of its undeserved controversial stature. You may find a slew of instant hit material here, and in fact the record might not shine so brightly as the myriad of stars that exposed themselves in the metal cosmos through the 70s and early 80s. It's a damned shame they were cut so short of their prime, because despite the serious lyrics, this was party metal that should immediately evoke nostalgia in all but the most jaded of 80s hard rock worshipers, whether you speak German or not!

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Velvet Viper - The 4th Quest for Fantasy (1992)

While the cover to Velvet Viper's s/t album was bad, nothing could prepare me for this outrageous fucking eyesore. Seriously, how does a cover like this pass customs? I can understand laxness. I can even understand procrastinating until the last possible moment and having to come up with some desperate substitute to a real album image, but this is truly terrifying. One glance at its sloppy coloring book aesthetics and I want to dive beneath my bed and never come out. Fortunately, Jutta Weinhold has not lost her chops on this, the fourth album in what you might consider the 'Zed Yago' quartet (beginning with Zed Yago's From Over Yonder and Pilgrimage, and continuing into this newer incarnation/band.)

This is a more face rocking, forceful effort than the s/t Velvet Viper, and perhaps part of this is owed to the lineup change. Both guitar players and the drummer from that album have departed, and here they are replaced by a pair of gentlemen from the short-lived Bubi the Schmied project, which featured none other than Bubi (aka Claus Reinholdt), the Zed Yago drummer who did not appear on Velvet Viper. He is joined by his Bubi mate Roy Last on guitar, and surprisingly, as a 4 piece this sounds a lot more frontal than its predecessor, though it continues to walk that fine line between classic 80s hard rock/traditional metal and the power metal scene that Accept, Judas Priest, and Helloween had erupted across Europe.

Yes, the key word is 'power', and almost all of The 4th Quest for Fantasy involves an interesting, well crafted attention to heavy rocking that would sound superb with Jutta's voice soaring across the top of an arena-sized audience. The cornball opera intro "The Valkyrie" seems a little dopey, but after that it is (mostly) smooth sailing. Tracks like "Forefather", "Modern Knights" and "Horsewomen" all move at a similar, slow rock pace, but they also tear the roof out, with sledge hammer guitars, Bubi's simple but effective warlike kit pummeling, and just a sense of fun and energy that was slightly lacking on the previous album (which just felt like a loosely knitted extension of the Zed Yago efforts). In fact, if this album suffers, it is because too many of the songs use this same, plodding tempo: "Highland Queen", "Mother of All Voices" and "Stella" are all further examples. The closer "Trojan War" is a nice shift from a mellow intro ballad to a good steady rock with glorious chorus, and "Ancient Warriors" is what might occur if Jutta started getting creative with a Judas Priest cover band, but I did feel like the album could have only benefited from a wider range of speeds.

Still, if you can ignore the cover art, or better yet, INCINERATE it at the next available opportunity, and shut your brain off for some big sounding heavy metal with one of the finer female singers the genre has ever borne, you may very well squeeze some enjoyment from The 4th Quest for Fantasy. It's not at the level of Pilgrimage, as the riffs and vocals do not combine at the same level of memorable quality, but one could imagine some of the material here mixing it up quite well with the older songs in a set list. For 1992, an age in which this genre was all but interred at the local cemetery, I can think of far worse examples of torch carriers!

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Velvet Viper - Velvet Viper (1991)

Perhaps it was just a blond thing, that the public at large will always associate female fronted 80s metal with a Lita Ford or Doro Pesch. Perhaps it was the commercial success of their former associations. In either case, Jutta Weinhold has long been the unheralded songstress of her German metal generation, to date having partaken in four metal projects (Breslau, Zed Yago, Velvet Viper and her newer Weinhold solo projects). I'm not going to lie. I'm a sucker for brunettes, but my attraction to this woman's work has always had a lot more to do with her piercing, harpy-like pipes, and it's easy to see why. Jutta has NEVER sold herself upon sex appeal, but by the strength of her voice alone. You can imagine this was a breath of fresh air in a period when both men and women were selling themselves upon hair products, hollow glamour and super-sexualized stage posturing.

My favorite of her works was certainly Zed Yago's Pilgrimage in 1989, a graceful power metal album with a good balance of slower and mid-paced power metal albums that really stood out, and continue to do so whenever I'm in the mood for something akin to Running Wild with a mellower attitude. For whatever reason, Jutta put that band to rest after just two albums, and then reformed it a few years later under the new name of Velvet Viper. Not quite as catchy, in my opinion, but clearly the two Velvet Viper albums are kindred spirits to From Over Yonder and Pilgrimage, and even the 'Zed Yago' female adventurer/pirate mascot character makes an appearance here in the largely Arthurian lyrics. Thus the four albums from 1987-1992 all serve as a sort of loose continuity, and the two bands' logos are nearly the same.

Musically, this is a direct continuation of the style found on Pilgrimage. If anything, you could consider it more expansive, with a heavier classical/folk music influence and a studio production that was arguably superior to the predecessor. This is user friendly, fest hall heavy metal music with all emphasis placed on simple riffs, effective leads, and the cutting, accented voice that stands astride the instruments much like the character on the extremely lame cover (yeah, that art truly sucks). This is hardly the forceful, heavier rocking of a Running Wild or Grave Digger, instead centered on a drifting grace. Jutta is joined here by Zed Yago bassist Lars Ratz (also of Metalium), guitarists Dave Moore (Skyclad) and Peter Szigeti (Warlock, U.D.O.) and drummer Franco Zuccaroli (of the German Steeler), all seasoned and talented but not in the least interested in showboating, so you get this very laid back, classy style which is unlikely to appeal outside the field of 80s appreciators.

As I mentioned earlier, some of the lyrics here revolve loosely around the folklore of King Arthur and his Knights of Camelot, with Jutta inserting her 'Zed Yago' character briefly into the opener "Merlin", a big beat hard rocker paced akin to the previous incarnation's "Black Bone Song". Other tracks following this topic include "Percevel", a moody piece with some pumping bass presence and good leads; the medieval metal anthem "King Arthur" which sounds very much like something Running Wild would write (how about a Rock'n'Rolf, Jutta Weinhold duet? Would that rule?); and "Parsifal", a snippet of Richard Wagner re-arranged here into an organ/electric guitar piece with some male chorals. Beyond that, there are tracks like the great, rocking "HM Rebels" which tracks back to the 'metal pirate' concept, and "Brainsuckers: Thommyknockers" (apparently Blind Guardian were not the only German band fascinated by the King story). I found one of the more interesting pieces here to be "Lost Children", with Weinhold's layered mantras flowing across some percussion that seems to echo off the mountains and clouds as rays of sun shine through. This is not a metal song, and the guitars only maintain a faint presence ringing alongside the drums. The Accept/Saxon-like fortitude of "Icebreaker" and the driving "Millstone of Rage" represent the better of the metal fare.

There are certainly some areas in which we could have expected more out of Velvet Viper. The cover art is really awful, even for 1991, and the track layout could have been streamlined to have all the King Arthur lyrics in one clump, or even dominating the entire record. It seems a little disjointed to switch in and out of the theme. The music is generally at a good standard, but there are some songs which are easy to pass over, unlike Pilgrimage which was all around beautiful. I also don't see why this could not be a Zed Yago album. It makes little sense to have two bands so close in style and aesthetic and then use the separate names, but I'm assuming there is some valid reason for the change (business, respect to previous members, whatnot). It's not a favorite of mine, even from Jutta, but I was at least satisfied to have another Zed Yago effort (in spirit at least).

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (good enough is never enough for you)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dew-Scented - Invocation (2010)

Eight albums deep into their career now, and the strangely named German death/thrash entity Dew-Scented has never grown tired of its gimmick of starting off each effort's title with the letter 'I'. I guess it's kinda stuck by now, and it does at least provide for a talking point, however brief, because there has rarely been much about this band that could ever stick out. They play a modernized thrash metal with old school values intact and a slightly more grisly vocalist than usual in Leif Jensen, but they also incorporate a lot of elements we expect from Swedish melodic death metal acts like the The Haunted or Carnal Forge. Backing metalcore or melodeath vocal shouts, plenty of slam parts and lots of tight leads ensure that the band should be a boon to audiophiles or anyone that just wants to bang their head a little.

Unfortunately, Invocation suffers the same fate as so many of the band's previous efforts. There are some solid riffs to be had throughout the album, in particular "The Invocation", "Global Hysteria" and "Condemnation" had a nice, casual momentum to them that I would have gladly smashed my fist alongside had it not been occupied with a tasty beverage. In particular, "Global Hysteria" moves at a nice mid-pace gait like an Exodus track from the 1987-1990 period. They also include a cover of D.R.I.'s "Thrashard" which sounds a little more fuel-injected in their capable hands than even the original. But there is a lot of weaker filler here, some of which is all too derivative. The rolling intro to "Arise from Decay" sounds a lot like the intro to Sepultura's "Mass Hypnosis", for example, if not the same muted note. Tracks like "Artificial Life" break into some very generic, mosh grooves which provide almost nothing interesting that you haven't heard a million times already.

If you've already got a wide variety of thrash metal to choose from, even death metal hybrids, there would be very little impetus to place this anywhere but back in the bargain bin. The riffs are simply not as interesting as their influences, nor many of their contemporaries. Dew-Scented have offered us better in the past, far better in fact (Inwards and Impact both smite this record, though they are musically quite the same), so I cannot honestly offer a recommendation to anyone save the most jaded fan of The Haunted, Carnal Forge, Hatebreed, or the few most recent albums from Exodus and Slayer. 'Those are hardly inspiring comparisons!' you say to me? Exactly! Now, I return you to my regularly scheduled beverage.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Sanguis Imperem & Nocturnal Blood - Imperial Impurity SPLIT (2010)

Normally my exposure to Californian death metal consists of either high quality Carcass worship (i.e Exhumed, Impaled) or a slew of consistent and technical fare with its finger on the pulse of today's current edge of brutality (i.e. Severed Savior, Deeds of Flesh, Odious Mortem, Sepsism, The Faceless, the list goes on). It throws me off my game a little to hear two downright old school bands like Sanguis Imperem & Nocturnal Blood from the same place, but hey, it's an enormous state, and there are plenty of killing grounds for everyone.

This is one of the better match ups for a split release I've heard of late, because both acts walk a very similar path, though not to a fault that you'd be unable to distinguish them from one another. Sanguis Imperem has a slightly more warlike, in the face death tendency while Nocturnal Blood is more about invoking sheer horror through the level of atmosphere placed alongside the riffs. I won't lie, the writing is incredibly simplistic, to a level that many bands could assert by simply plugging in and jamming out the first things that come to mind. Neither of these bands is bent on establishing virtuoso credential for itself, they just want to play death metal the way it once reigned, and a listener's enjoyment will rely largely on the extent to which he or she can ignore any lack of nuance or progression. That being said, if you are fond of the morbid old regime of Entombed, Autopsy, Grave, Obituary, Hellhammer, Bolt Thrower and Deicide, then pull up a chair, throw on your scrubs and watch the mortician as he begins to embalm these archaic tones. The place is here, the time is Nuclear Now!, and the Father, the Spirit and the Holy Ghost have each turned their backs on us long ago.

Sanguis Imperem takes the first half of the split, several of whom actually perform live with Nocturnal Blood, making this an even more natural collaboration. They open with a bizarre, brief ritual of fuzzed out clean guitars, background winds and noises titled "Festum Mortis", and then proceed into "Carrier of Plagues", a grinding blaster with basic, primal riffing and a nihilistic level of hostility reminiscent of the early English bands like Bolt Thrower, Benediction, Impaler and the like. "Tyrants of Iron" is more bombastic, with some steady, slogging rhythms over a march-like drum beat, as well as some snarls mixed into its growling. "Red is the Color of the Gods" is the best of the three, reminding me very much of something that might have appeared on War Master or Realm of Chaos, with a great build in momentum after a writhing, snakelike melody that offsets the pummeling chords.

I'm already loosely familiar with Nocturnal Ghoul, Spirit of Darkness and his Nocturnal Blood project, having some exposure to his previous EPs, Nocturnal Crucifxions (2009) and Invocation of Spirits (2010) which, while falling short of mind blowing, were successful stabs at a raunchy, ancient vortex of evil. The material here on the split is no different, and the guy knows how to win you over almost immediately with a creepy intro ("Chime the Bells of Doom") and an immediate lapse into death metal so dark it can NOT have been created in the surface world. At the very least, this was written in a deep, dank cellar somewhere, or some secret catacomb that runs below a sepulcher, where the willing are free to rob the dead from below. This shit is just disgusting sounding, and tracks like "Blasphemy Written in Fornication" and "Abnormalities Prevail" should solidify Nocturnal Blood's place among similar depravities like Funebrarum and newer acts like Cruciamentum, Vasaeleth and Innumerable Forms.

If I were forced to choose a side, well, I think I've made that already clear. Sanguis Imperem shows promise, and riff-wise the bands are close to the same level, but I did find myself losing a little interest in spots where the material felt too dry and had little cryptic octane dowsing it to compensate. Nocturnal Blood simply maintains that grim and horrific craft I have come to expect out of the better nostalgia-fueled death metal acts, and his side of the split is like having your rotten cake (Left Hand Path) and eating it too (Onward to Golgotha). I'm certainly no apostate towards the more modern, technical and experimental movements within the scene, but it's always refreshing to throw on some of this freshly festering, old school sound and realize that there are others out there who know just where it all came from, and where it is very often welcome to return.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Winter's Verge - Tales of Tragedy (2010)

Tales of Tragedy is the third album from Cyprus' Winter's Verge. On their third effort the band has crafted a solid and acceptable power metal sound that suffers from being easily forgettable. The songs are energetic and will appeal to fans of bands like Persuader and others who practice a speedy and heavy sound. Unfortunately I'm not sure they've distinguished themselves from the competition, so it's hard to really get into the album.

Singer George Charalambous is reliable, though he is definitely stretching the limits of his voice. Particularly on "I Swear Revenge," a highlight of the album, Charalambous seems to be hitting on the upper limit of his screams during the catchy chorus.

Guitarist Harry Pari shreds and plays a variety of riffs although nothing that will immediately make you take notice. The intro to "Dark Entries" demonstrates his capabilities, but something still seems lacking. A second guitar might mix things up.

Stefanos Psillides does a good job with the synth orchestration particularly on "Captain's Log." Unfortunately they tend to drop him out during the verses, and it seems like he could add more to differentiate each song.

Other highlights include "Tomorrow's Dawn," a quick thrasher where Charalambous slips a little theatrics into his vocals. Winter's Verge is a solid band that needs to work on their sound. Their songs hit all of the expected notes in a power metal album. If they manage to shake it up on their next effort and work in some uniqueness, I'd be excited to hear it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Pain of Salvation - Road Salt One (2010)

Road Salt One is the follow up to Pain of Salvation's sketchy 2007 Scarsick. Their stated intention with that previous album was to become more "band oriented," presumably focusing on the riffs and rhythms, shorter songs, and less orchestration. Road Salt One achieves that goal much better while referencing their past albums and containing quite a few surprises.

The first track "No Way" is likely the weakest, opening with a jarring vocal, and easily skippable on repeat listens. However, the promise of their new direction comes through with "She Likes to Hide." Part of the idea for Road Salt One was to sound like a 70s rock band, and that is very well done here. A muddy and bending guitar riff compliments drums that aren't in a hurry to get anywhere. Gildenlow's vocals drag the song along and it's slow, but pleasant.

There are two types of songs on the album, the 70s rock stuff and tracks that harken back to their previous albums. "Sisters" is the latter, and would fit right into The Perfect Element. A somber piano works through a melody while Gildenlow laments his drunken desire to sex up his lover's sister. It's ultra maudlin, but hey- that's what people liked about Pain of Salvation in the first place.

"Of Dust" sounds right out of BE with its church organ background. Then "Tell Me You Don't Know" sends the album right back into rock mode with an acoustic, yet heavy riff that strums along underneath a dirty vocal. It's easily the best rocker on the album.

"Sleeping Under the Stars" is a surprise. A waltzing piano backs a high pitched vocal that is at first grating, but ultimately fitting. There's a way Gildenlow snarls the word "scars" that is practiced, but emotive that fits the mood perfectly. This is a song that took multiple listens to get into, but is full of melodic surprises.

"Darkness of Mine" and "Linoleum," a song pulled from last year's EP, are the closest they get to heavy metal on this record.

"Curiosity," a meditation on sexuality, is a highlight of the album. It's fast and raw, trading heavy riffs with a fast and simple drum beat that gives way to a soaring chorus.

"Road Salt" follows a lullaby-like sound with an engaging vocal melody, but it is very slow. This leads into the final track "Innocence," which combines many elements from the album. The rocking riffs are present, as is the somber mood of some of the tracks that call back to their past albums.

Outside of a few tracks, Road Salt One is a very slow album. There isn't anything with the speed and urgency that you might find on Remedy Lane. A few heavy riffs pepper the album, but ultimately it's a rock effort. The vocal melodies and backing keyboards are the hooks. This is a definite listen for Pain of Salvation fans, or someone looking for a slow, but engaging, and often surprising rock album.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lightning Swords of Death - The Extra Dimensional Wound (2010)

The first thing one will notice about The Extra Dimension Wound is the massive stride in production the band has taken since their debut The Golden Plague in 2007. While that was a raw and appreciable debut effort with some decent songs, I was simply not prepared for the huge tones here on the follow-up. The bass here is enormous, and the guitars brazen enough to rend open the very flesh of the Earth, to spew forth otherworldly abominations. The Lightning Swords of Death are a pretty intelligent band. They have a cool name. They use consistently good cover art. They have phenomenal song titles like "Damnation Pentastrike", "Vorticating into Scars" and "Venter of the Black Beast".

It comes as a contrast then that the band play such a brute, simplistic brand of punishing black metal. Clearly the major influence here is Bathory, and the band culls their pacing almost directly from the first four albums, in particular The Return and Under the Sign of the Black Mark. But there is also something more broadly 'Swedish' about the LA band's writing. The spacious, creepy tones they emit are resonant of the more energetic exertions of orthodox black metal bands from that nation like Ondskapt, Valkyrja, Dark Funeral, Diabolocium, and others. Lightning Swords do not try to impress with a huge slew of fact, this is almost the stuff of the primal, fundamental elements arisen from chaos. Barbaric, prototypical death metal rhythms thrust about the interminable, downward spiraling galaxy at both fast and slower range of execution, while Autarch's throat gorges on the hopeless truths of a carnivorous cosmos, as it feeds on the flesh of all living forces.

I'm going to be blunt, though. This is an album one should listen to SOLELY for its oppressive atmosphere, because there is not a single case of a guitar riff on this entire album which I felt was written well enough that I'd want to listen to it again. The riffs feel as if they are meant to be predictable and effective, and a result, not so interesting. These are not new ideas here, but the channeling of familiar force into the skull. Thus, the blunt instrumentation of "Damnation to Pentastrike" and "Nihilistic Stench" rely upon their sum wall of force attitude as a quality rather than the individual components, which do not stand out far at all (though it would be hard to argue that this drummer is not a beast). In fact, the most musical moments on all the album are the 2:00 "Zwartgallig", which is but an ambient interlude...and the closing moments of the epic length "Paths to Chaos", in which there are some finely tuned leads, and I love that doomed bass.

The Extra Dimensional Wound has me on the fence, because unless I'm really in the mood for something mindless with a punishing tone, I have very little reason to revisit it. As a loyal and contemporary tribunal to a band like Bathory or Mayhem it's functional, loud, and oppressive, but also lacks the genuine filth and the memorable songwriting those bands were able to produce 20 years ago. There exists comparable if not better black metal writing now from hundreds if not thousands of bands internationally in these days, and I just wasn't taken in with anything beyond the band's nihilistic grasp, superb tone and lurid packaging.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Godless Rising - Trumpet of Triumph (2010)

Jeff Gruslin and guitarist Toby Knapp might seem an odd pairing to stick together for a band. The former was the vocalist for Vital Remains during their 'classic' phase of Let Us Prey and Into Cold Darkness, rejoining briefly in 1999. The latter is probably best known for his melodic US power metal band Onward, but has also done some work in black and death metal ala the brief lived band Darken, not to mention his instrumental records which showcase his accomplished playing skills. Well, unusual or not, the two have truly come together here to produce something far and above the call of any expectations one might hold based on the band's previous fare.

As a New Englander, I am always happy to have a couple bands in my extended backyard that perform this genre the way I like it, but I wasn't a huge fan of the first two Godless Rising records. They were solid, competent death metal albums, but really lacked in the departments of pacing and replay value. Well, if Rising Hatred and Battle Lords were mere matchsticks to the infernal depths, Trumpet of Triumph is the full-on field of artillery fire. The addition of Toby Knapp has grafted a hint of sub-technical flash to this record which keeps the majority of its 11 tracks interesting and polished. This is 'riff' death metal and not 'atmospheric' death metal, though the latter is often conjured directly through the former. Above the writhing, almost progressive guitar onslaught, Gruslin offers his choral hymns of sacrilege, a massive, tattooed affront to the sanctity of sheep that inhibit the progress of all mankind!

The album shows a pretty heavy influence from acts like Pestilence and Gorguts, in addition to the expected Vital Remains, Deicide or Morbid Angel. You can really hear it in Knapp's riffs, several of which feel like outtakes could have been used on Testimony of the Ancients. Tracks like "Ungodly Incantations", "Devour the Soul" and "Through the Flames of Rage" are simmering with enough guitar power to please not only the advocate for technical, musical death metal, but possibly beyond that into the melodic death realm, without any sacrifice in brutality. Gruslin is here to make sure of that, using a wide range of growls and snarls and even some morbid spoken word that takes you by surprise when it pops into a track. There are a few occasions where his snarling voice is not quite on par with the growls, which he excels in, but there are equal occasions (as in "Through the Flames of Rage") where he uses the higher range more and it snuggles right into Knapp's constantly engaging axe ministrations.

Trumpet of Triumph is about 45 minutes long, and it really never gets boring. Even when you have plumbed its depths, surprises like "We Are Legion" and "Warlords of Darkness" await you. Lyrically, this album seems like Sun Tzu for the legions of the underworld as they march upon the witless flocks horded about the Pearly Gates, with cannons of hellfire and lashing sermons of blasphemy parting the spectral human tide. The production is reasonable, if not the best I've heard lately. The guitars crunch nicely on the low end, and the vocals could be a little better mixed, but the leads and melodies are beautifully woven through the lattice of dementia.

In all honesty, Godless Rising have arrived at the precipice of originality here, a place where thrash, death, and a little classical shredding influence congregate upon the hinge of damnation to create something you can listen to repeatedly. The riffs and leads are pretty accessible, and yet I still felt like subsequent spins of the albums brought new details to my attention. The gripes are very few here, and minor. The cover art, while decent for some retro black or death metal release, doesn't quite live up to the music on the album. In fact, I could see someone flipping through the CDs at a local shop, seeing this and passing it by based purely on the notion that it's some generic Satan adoring slugfest. That's clearly not the case when you listen to the music, and I'd urge you to give Gruslin and Knapp a chance here. Theirs is a remarkable collaboration, and I hope they will work together again to ensure Godless Rising progresses further into the depths of this hell-well of inspiration.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Monday, May 24, 2010

Enforcer - Diamonds (2010)

The styling of traditional speed and classic metal is all the 'latest' rage these days, with larger genre labels like Earache snapping up a number of artists to carry out the execution of the revival. Will it somehow succeed? I very much doubt it. But considering the enormous backlog of bands in this genre who were around in the 80s, releasing great material and never receiving much international attention, at the very least we can hope these younger bands spur on some sort of mass nostalgia. Several have tried thus far, and in many cases, like Earache's other 80s cult White Wizzard, the result is not all that impressive. Sweden's Enforcer, however, may just have the chops and attitude to really pull it off.

Yes, the band carries with them the image of an 80s act. Stylish stage clothing, 80s like album covers, and suitable logo for the time period they are emulating. But what's more important, I never once feel, when listening to their sophomore outing Diamonds, as if they're anything less than a genuine article. I don't imagine Enforcer sitting around their jam space, brainstorming a bandwagon they can hitchhike to achieve some sort of success. They don't come across as a group of teenage internet 'scholars', revisionist punks who got into metal music in through Rock Band on the XBOX and feel like they need to rationalize themselves with worthless lyrics about 'metal' or the history of metal. No, Enforcer feels like the real deal, as if they grew up with classic metal music like Angel Witch, Riot, Lizzy Borden and wish to share their love for these times by adding to the legacy rather than mocking it.

Their first album Into the Night was a success, but I feel as if Diamonds is one step better. This is a legitimate work of 80s speed metal, rooted in the British tradition, with a slight hint of reckless USPM and a production job which does not date it much beyond the period it emulates. The lyrical subjects range from samurai to smutty, steamy city life, and as irreverent and irrelevant as that might seem, I greatly prefer this to songs about 'thrash' and 'beer', 'moshing' or 'heavy metal _ _ _ _ _ _' which insult the intelligence (unless you're a Japanese Engrish band like Metalucifer which takes it all to such a level of absurdity that you cannot help to become glued to it). Enforcer are not unique, and they know they're not, but they're hardly Captain Obvious either, and for this I am thankful.

I am also thankful for both the nostalgia and I blazing, melodic bliss of tracks like "Katana", "Roll the Dice", "Live for the Night", "Take Me to Hell" and "Diamonds", all of which seethe with qualities I had thought long dead for over two decades. The rough, almost broken vinyl like feel of the mix, and the quivering, but savory throat of Olof "Enforcer" Wikstrand create a hurricane of excellence. But the band can also smooth out the ruffles with a mellow, psychedelic rock moment like you find at the close of title track "Diamonds". Another highlight of this record is the steady "Running with Menace", which feels like pre-80s Riot with even better vocals...but I'll come clean: there is not a single song on Diamonds that I did not enjoy, and if any album is to be considered a flagship for this return to the fundamental speed and boundless excess and energy of metal music, I do believe we're listening to it.

Do you miss the crisp promise of your 80s metal vinyl collection? Do you wonder why so many bands can no longer manifest such spikes & leather today, turning instead towards the safety net of down-tuned brutal extremity? Do you miss the age of the Trans Am? The coin op arcade? Women in makeup and big hair? Do you sing elegies to the days of your hesher adolescence? Enforcer has answered your call, with a good old burst of energetic fun that will not talk down or insult you, but instead celebrate alongside your finer memories, and help you hang onto them a little longer. Diamonds were a girl's best friend. Now they're a banger's best friend, and to the rest of the retro knuckleheads out there: you have your work cut out for you.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Noctiferia - Death Culture (2010)

Death Culture is the latest incarnation of Slovenia's Noctiferia, a band that have slowly and gradually carved out a niche for themselves in nearly two decades of existence. Earlier efforts were written in a more derivative, melodic black/death metal style, but as of this, their 5th full-length they have arrived at something quite a bit more precise and edgy. This record is an intricate mesh of industrial and metal music which, while incorporating some modern, down-tuned grooves that we might negatively associate with the previous decade's nu and groove metal scenes, is never slack of its musicians' individual merits for a lick or two of further complexity.

It would be easy to write this band off as a European Fear Factory, and in fact the band does share some things in common, with the constant shuffle of chugging guitar rhythms and mechanical beats performed by an actual drummer. Certainly if you enjoyed a Demanufacture or Souls of a New Machine, you could find something comparable within Death Culture. One can also find a streak of Meshuggah here, in the bands bouncing, cold grooves. But there is something more to Noctiferia, a rampant death metal impulse that runs just below the rudder, and an ability to transmit a glorious signal through the writhing, bludgeoning mass comprising a largest fraction of their compositions.

Refer to the track "Deluders & Followers", which showcases the wealth of this band's range. It's ridden with technical chops, double bass rolls and momentum, and yet, at its height, it incorporates sallow synthesizer backdrops which provide for an 'epic' atmosphere that I am not often accustomed to in industrial metal. I don't love all the band's riffs, even in this song. They're busy enough that the guitarists are not about to feel bored, but only as they rush to the climax of the various, accessible keyboard rhythms does it all culminate into something of exotic beauty. Other songs create a more bouncing, constant, emotional duress such as "Non Individuum", in which you feel like Samael, The Kovenant and Fear Factory are in a free throw competition or the relentless grooves of "Demagog". Again, they're decent songs with good atmospheres, but a few of the groove metal-like guitar parts turned me off slightly. The mystical, Middle Eastern choral weavings of "Samsara" make for perhaps the single most interesting track on the album, and hearing Noctiferia branch even further into this ethnic direction might make for a more interesting package. The strange closer "S.M. 02" is also intriguing.

The effort that went into Death Culture is hard to dispute. It's a brash, loud, modern sounding album which booms at you from your stereo, through each chugging gait. The band can arrange leads and complex rhythms with ease into the more forgettable fare, so it feels like you are being strung along, each second in the dry expanse of ennui splashed upon by the wetness of some previously undiscovered oasis. The lyrics seem like a potpourri of political and individualist concepts as you'd find on a Fear Factory or modern Sepultura record, but Gianni Poposki's vocals are hammering along enough that even when you feel a line is cliche or cheesy, the band's energy wins the day. With this band and Sybreed, it seems Listenable is building quite a roster of electronic fused metal potential, so it will be interesting to see further developments. I was not enthralled by the Slovenians' album here, but if you fancy Fear Factory, Sybreed, harder KMFDM, Meshuggah, Mnemic or Samael (Passage and beyond), you will find they give the style a fairly effective punch in the nose.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Kruger - For Death, Glory and the End of the World (2010)

Another band with the ability to topple conventions and prove the relative dysfunction of the means by which we label extreme music today, Swiss Kruger have concocted a fourth album which not only trumps all previous outings, but actually creates a refreshing and unique space within the genres of sludge, groove metal and metalcore. That's not to say there is not some overlap here with other, existing artists, but the means by which these gentlemen transfer their blueprints into an actual product falls, for the most part, outside the realm of any safe and identifiable sound.

Bands that might represent the best comparisons for Kruger would be the infamous Mastodon and the largely defunct New York artcore magnates Snapcase, but this is largely in the vocals of Reno and the means by which they flood their tracks with these churning, post-punk grooves. However, the loud blasts of bass guitar and the thickness of the riffing patterns are this bands selling points, and they possess little of the jamming tendencies of Mastodon. So a European Snapcase, or a sped up and pissed off Neurosis of Fugazi would be the closest I can think of, with perhaps an inkling of similarity to another, newer act like Tombs (though not as dreamy).

For Death, Gory and the End of the World was recorded here in Massachusetts by Kurt Ballou (of Converge) at his God City, and I have to admit it is one of the best sounding albums he has produced through his considerable (and ever expanding) repertoire of studio work. The tones are wonderful, especially in the interaction between the bass and the more spatial, melodic guitars, and each instrument is perfectly mixed. If we were to shave it down to a single genre, then an argument could be made that Kruger have to their credit one of the best, brightest sounding albums in all of the sludge sect. You can hear everything, and combined, the three string bearers exude quite a force, both melodic and pummeling.

It seems like each song on the album has the ability to create this vast polar spectrum, from a driving post-hardcore rhythm to a more than tolerable segue of drifting, jangly jet stream melodies. Perfect examples of the balance include "Villains", a stunningly precise piece which opens with a graceful force beneath angst added vocals, inserts a slight rush of a more frenzied, hint at complexity, and then walls of melancholic contentment before an extended bridge where the percussion pulse bleeds to the forefront, guitars gleaming off the edges of the skin tapping. At the close, the aggression escalates through darker, bouncing riff patterns dredged in the tones of urban rust. For other examples of their crushing material, "Muscle" has a feel of flexed joints and stretched cartilage across a thundering bass line; "Dukes of Nothing" a more carnal, grooving sensation that disappears into a spacious beat; "Our Cemetery is Full of Strangers" a loaded gun of forceful melodic walls, behind which a backing vocalist can be heard echoing the sentiments. I also really enjoyed the weight of the "Anthem of Pretended Glory".

Kruger will most likely find their crowd within the fans of modern sludge and progressive hard or metalcore music, but their base creativity, and sensitivity to smart, powerful grooves makes me wonder if they'd also reach the fans of a band like France's Gojira. There is nothing cheap about their expression. It's the transfer of emotions across the ballast of exertion, and to keep up through this record's peaks and valleys requires a certain amount of resilience. They don't come up with money shot after money shot riff here, but all course are plotted to create an album in which the listener's attachment becomes a difficult thing to dissolve. With a massive production and a boundless, dreary bludgeoning determination, look for more heads than eyes to roll here.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Wuthering Heights - Salt (2010)

In a year that also saw albums from Angra and BlindGuardian, Wuthering Height's The Shadow Cabinet was my favorite power/prog album. So naturally I had high hopes for their follow-up Salt. It manages to hit on a lot of the things I like about the band while never quite living up to the manic creativity of their last album.

The lyrical premise centers around sailing, but there is also a running theme of desperation, and infertile minds and land, reminiscent of TS Eliot.

Nils Patrik Johansson's theatrical vocals are perfectly suited to the band's sometimes off-beat developments. "The Mad Sailor" slowly builds to speed and as the guitars come in Johansson belts out "Abra-macabra baby here we go!" and it's silly, but he pulls it off in convincing fashion.

Both "The Mad Sailor" and "The Desperate Poet" are highlights of the album, featuring memorable melodies and sing-along choruses. Even with the depressing subject material
Wuthering Heights always manage riffs that are upbeat and inspiring. The album dips a bit after that, not because the songs are bad, but rather they are slightly redundant. The Shadow Cabinet managed to be surprising with its compositions, but some of Salt's tracks unfortunately blend together."Water of Life" steps in with a catchy acoustic riff, and folk feel that leads to a lyric with a drinking-song sound. That fun ditty sets up their big sixteen minute epic "Lost at Sea," and so at this point you have to ask yourself whether you're done with bands attempting songs of this length. It's noticeable here because some of the songs on Salt clearly overstay their welcome with an average length of over six minutes.

Fortunately they saved some of their best riffs for "Lost at Sea." The song charges through the first seven minutes without slowing down. I'm not sure if its possible to make a song about the sea without referencing
Rime of the Ancient Mariner (the poem and the song), but Wuthering Heights do and do it well. At the seven minute mark the guitars fall away to a sinister bass line, while Johansson's narrator works through his madness and imposed solitude.

The eleven minute mark introduces a slow gallop of an acoustic guitar that builds towards the climax. The real end of the song hits around the fourteen minute mark and kind of summarizes the problem with the album. They simply needs to learn when their songs are over and let it go. Had they tightened up each number it would be a much stronger album over all.

Bottom line: Salt is a worthwhile listen for fans of the genre, new comers should check out their previous album instead.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, May 21, 2010

Usurper - Cryptobeast (2005)

Cryptobeast is the 2nd album Usurper recorded for Earache records, and also their final studio outing. The band brought on a new vocalist here, Dan Tyrantor, who has a pretty different voice than General Diabolic Slaughter. I dare say, Tyrantor sounds a little like a more bruising, death obsessed Phil Anselmo, or a bloodier cousin to Crowbar's Kirk Windstein back in that band's prime. He's not necessarily an awful frontman for this band, and when he breaks into a growl, you can feel the death metal power coursing through your skull, but I'm just not into the swagger I feel when listening to most of his vocals here, and I felt a little of the buzz die inside, really missing Slaughter's performance on the first few releases.

On the other hand, musically, Usurper has polished itself up and delivers a far more aggressive, exciting set of tunes than one found on either Twiilght Dominion or Necronemesis. They come out fighting on a few songs like "Bones of My Enemies", "Return of the Werewolf" and the very Deicide-like, blasting death metal of "Supernatural Killing Spree". A few of the mid paced tracks like "Wrath of God" deliver these massive grooves which feel like a mid point between Bolt Thrower and a brutal hardcore, complete with repeated gang vocal shouts. "Cryptobeast" is the fastest, most purely thrashing element of this album, and I also enjoyed the eerie yet warm atmosphere of the instrumental "Ectoplasm". "Reptilian" doesn't do much for me musically, as it's a very chug hardcore song which reminds me somewhat of Hatebreed with a doomier sounding breakdown. But I like that they tackle the old conspiracy theory of the reptile humanoids that are hidden among us!

Alas, the band once again incorporates a pair of 'WE ARE METAL' songs here. The first, "Kill for Metal" features some cool, swerving bass and classic, dirty speed metal riffs, and really all is well until the dopey lyrics arrive. When did this band decide they were going to become the death metal Manowar?

Arising from an electric Hell
Usurper casts the decibel spell
Annihilation of the false and weak
Metal shall inherit-death to the meek!

It is not alone, joined here by an update to the song "Warriors of Iron and Rust" from the Necronemesis album, subtitled "Battalions of the New Millenium". Ever wonder what the original would sound like with a more panterrible death metal singer? Here, sate your curiosity on this abortion. It's a shame, because yet again, the music itself is pretty sick, with Scythe and Necromancer delivering more passion than the previous edition. Among the rest of the lyrics, which deal in cool subjects like Gaelic myth and warfare, these two tracks stand out like swollen, ugly pimples in need of a popping.

This is the gist of Crytobeast. An energetic outpouring from a rabble that had seemed quite subdued on the their two previous albums in the 21st century, but ultimately failing to impress solely on the basis of the majority of the vocals and the two 'metal' tracks. It's a goddamn shame, because the guitar tone is like the jet fuel of an Abyssal airline, burning hellishly through the night sky as it delivers the souls to the underworld. These strings burn. As I've stated, Dan Tyrantor is not exactly some shitty, half-assed replacement, but I just feel his style better fits a metalcore or groove metal band, and its presence here often rapes the music's potential. The overall quality thus falls once more below to the middling realm of mediocrity.

In summation:
Usurper 1995-1999: Great!
Usurper 2000 and beyond: Try not to think about it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]
(my breath is the blinding fog)

Usurper - Twilight Dominion (2003)

I can always appreciate a band for trying to branch out, but in the case of Usurper's third album Necronemesis, that branching out involved a rather mediocre watering down of the band's heavier than though, raging Hellhammer roots, an offering of dessicated thrash that neither excited nor compelled through anything bordering on the monstrous evil conveyed by many black/thrash acts. A few years later, with a new drummer in tow, the band would return to the studio to produce their fourth full-length, Twilight Dominion, and through a new label...none other than Earache records. This is not a far cry from Necronemesis in terms of style, and some ways, it still suffers from that records blase riff writing.

I'll even go further, and admit that General Diabolical Slaughter's vocals here are rather boring, even in comparison to the previous album. He still gives a good grunt here or there, and in truth he spins around and heads back towards a tone more reminiscent of his older, Tom G. Warrior vocals, but a lot of the lines here feel monotonous and simply too clean. They had me craving the old Diabolical Slaughter, who sounded like a parting of graveyard soil to vomit out the dead that they might torment the living. Here he sounds like any old random, 2nd or 3rd rate thrash singer with a pretty manly, angry voice that sounds a little weaker than the music surrounding it. The riffs also suffer a little, but Twilight Dominion benefits from something Necronemesis did not have: a thicker tone which naturally adds a slight layer of atmosphere.

This album most reminds me of the great US band Deceased, in particular their album Fearless Undead Machines. The music is nowhere near as good, but the blend of classic, dark and melodic speed metal riffs and leads within the denser compost of black, death and thrash metal really casts a similar shadow, and the vocals are also similar to King Fowley. When the communion of riffing fury and vocal abandon works, it works well. "Golem" shows a strong side to the band, with engaging walls of death metal riffing, thundering, precision drums and a massive collapse into thick doom for the finale. "Utopian Nightmare" also builds a great, Celtic Frost and Cathedral inspired groove infused with some solid chugging and Necromancer's strong bass presence (which is true of the entire album). The leads in "She-Devil" are nice and wild, "Lycanthropic" and "I Am Usurper" get a pass, and "Invincible Overlords" might suffice if you seek something more scathing. The lyrics are almost all based around pulpy horror and science fiction themes, which have a lot of appeal to me.

One of the worst songs here is, of course, "Metal Lust". For some strange reason, the band has yet again decided to include another 'metal way of life' track (I refer you to "Warriors of Iron and Rust" on the last album), which feels pretty meek in the face of the cooler topics they explore in other songs. Hell, the latter half of the album's tracks revolve around the 'Chronovisor' myth! Now that's fucking cool! Clearly Usurper were a respectable metal band to anyone with ears. So "Metal Lust" sounds phony, and phoned in, especially when Slaughter intones 'nothing else to live for, a Metal way of life, nothing else to live for, so I will make you die!'. For the thousandth time, a song like this is complete unnecessary. Maybe to an extra terrestrial visiting Earth in 1985, it was a helpful piece of advice when a band proudly announced their "Metal _ _ _ _" in a song title. But by 2003, we all fucking understand. We know you are a metal band. We're your fans. We listen to you because we like metal music. It's a foregone conclusion. I'd expect this sort of output from a clown band like Dream Evil, and I realize it's just meant in good fun, but do we really need this sort of predictable, self-referential material from a generally good band like this one?

It's frustrating, but what can you do. Twilight Dominion is a better album than Necronemesis, but the band would have a long way to go before they reach the bar they set from 1995-1999. Half the songs here are worthwhile, the other half not so much. This doesn't always work as a thrash metal record, as the rhythms are too familiar and fundamental, but the leads are pretty exciting throughout, and if you're seeking out a more brute companion to Deceased's Fearless Undead Machines or Supernatural Addiction, you may have found one. The mix sounds good and thick, in particular the bass and guitars, but the vocals feel like a man going through the motions, too easily dismissed, except when he bursts into life like the vicious, black metal screaming in "She-Devil". Coincidentally, this would be General Diabolic Slaughter's last record with the band, with Dan Tyrantor taking over for the final slay-ride, Cryptobeast.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]
(calamity and powerlust)