Saturday, July 31, 2010

End Amen - Your Last Orison (1992)

In 1992, Germans Deathrow and Americans Psychotic Waltz were among the few bands carrying the torch for progressive thrash metal at large, though the former's career was waning and the latter simply never got the established fanbase they probably deserved. People don't like to think and they don't often like their metal to think, but that's another story for another time. At any rate, the bands had the opportunity to tour together for the underwhelming Life Beyond and Into the Everflow albums they had recently released, and it appears a good friendship was formed between guitarist Uwe Osterlehner (who had joined Deathrow to help create their masterful Deception Ignored) and Dan Rock and Norman Leggio of Psychotic Waltz. Thus, the three of them enlisted bassist/keyboard player Siggi Blasey and decided to write and record an album under the name End Amen.

Stylistically, we really have a natural merger between the two 'parent' bands, with some liberties taken to incorporate synthesizers and a tendency towards accessible, progressive rock patterns. Uwe decided to take up the vocal reins, and he's got a nasally, melodic voice that is not entirely out of reach of Milo's performance on Deception Ignored, with a streak of less inspired Kai Hansen. The riffing is complex and quite good throughout Your Last Orison. The songs don't really create the schizoid scenarios found in the maze-like compositions of Deception Ignored, but most of the guitars and leads are well plotted. In all, this is a rare one-off album that should please fans of the bands Mekong Delta and Depressive Age, who showed a similar restraint to their explosive abilities on a number of records.

"World in Decay" functions on a heavy use of synthesizers against which the guitars throttle and thrash. The verse is quite simple, with simple mutes creating groove and momentum below Uwe's charismatic but awkward vocals, but it really picks up in the chorus with a sweet speed metal lick. The chorus vocals are predictable but the shriek was not, and the lead sequence is rather good, as notes crescendo across the immediate sky. I like the mood of the synth in the bridge, subtly elevating alongside the mutes (for more of this style, try Sadist's 2010 album Season in Silence which is superb). "Prisoners in Posterity" erupts with some bleating, glorious guitars scintillating alongside keyboards, almost with a power metal mentality, and for a few seconds it erupts into full-blown Deathrow territory before the simpler verse chugs. "End Amen" is a prog piece with clean guitars, samples, and vocals howling for a few minutes before a metal rhythm at last blows in over some funky percussion, and "Rebirth" has riffs very much reminiscent of Deception Ignored, and I wonder what would have happened if that band had stayed writing in this style instead of Life Beyond.

The latter half of the record follows suite, but perhaps takes off further on a tangent with the bizarre interlude "Mystic Mountains", which balances guitar feedback, Rush-like bass, pitch shifted, sparse vocals and jamming drums into something unusual and indulgent. "A New Day's Absurdity" once again laminates Norm Leggio's drumming with a tribal slant before the phased bass starts to pop in and out and then the band breaks out their most varied composition on the album, and quite a good one if you can bear the vocals. "Nocturnal March" and the title track are nice thrashers with some synth lines, the title evoking some desert-like mystery through the shining guitars and mystic vocal lines. Closer "Silence" is another oddity with programmed drums, swelling guitar chords and moody ambient atmosphere, but I kind of liked it.

Uwe and the Psychotic Waltz really were a match made in heaven, and if you can stand a few of the small faults of this project, it's quite a great listen with some depth and diversity. They're talented musicians all around, but perhaps Osterlehner was not quite ready for the vocals. He excels in places, sounding like a Milo (Deathrow) or Leszek Spiegel (Mekong Delta, etc), but seems as if he could use more gestation or training of his pipes. Either way, though, I honestly enjoyed this more than Life Beyond and a number of albums by the American component, and it's a shame End Amen couldn't take off into something more than a one-shot. Frankly, though, it would have fallen on deaf ears at the time it manifested. If you find yourself enthralled by the works of Mekong Delta, Watchtower, Calhoun Conquer, Paradox, Depressiv Age/D-Age, and later Deathrow, then this is certainly something you would value in your collection.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (there's someone in the silence)

Emptiness - Oblivion (2007)

Guilty to Exist had already proven an adequate foundation for this Belgian experimental death metal squad's immense and immersive permutations on the genre, but what it lacked was a truly distinct riffing ability, the means to draw the listener back beyond its elemental, atmospheric outreach. Oblivion addresses these issues and more, with an incredibly rich production that was easily one of the best of 2007, in death or any other metal, and a slew of full bodied guitar work that more than apologizes from the shortcomings of its elder sibling. But behind this, Emptiness remain loyal to their grim, engrossing aesthetic, only tightening the duration and number of tracks they will require to cave in the listener's cranium while having he/she drooling for more.

No time is spared in parading the three years of evolution this band has undergone; "Truth of Trinity" comes out with all cylinders firing off into the void, a brief wash of noise and samples exploding into a well of complex riffs that constantly lay scourge to the mind, produced with as much discord as a technical black metal record, a mix of the band's guttural and higher pitched rasping vocals, and a tendency to continue quickening until the deeper, thrashing segments of the track that are bathed in pale, clinical lighting. "Summon" goes beyond even this, with one of the most superb arrangements on the entire record, an unforgettable stream of melodic wildfire and intense bass playing that stands out well on its own below the descending dementia of the guitars during the jazzy, atmospheric break at 1:00. This is followed by a great, twisting mute riff before 1:30 which dominates its own lead accompaniment, and the tracks wailing climax imprints deep into the memory.

Merely half a second later, the frenzy of "Feeding Force" continues the compulsive brilliance, a roiling mesh of brilliant grind/thrash, deep battering grooves and sporadic bursts of arching melody that once again pass unto legend. Essentially, you are given no chance to rest your bones before the next ass kicking, the rising hostility of "Crushing Ignorance" which completely rocks your kneecaps off again, sprawling you upon the asylum floor. "Forgotten" offers a glint of melodic despair, once again hinting at black metal through its morose hysterics, later adapting a gliding, pensive death metal structure which feels like parasailing across a dense, black sun. Also of note would be the chaotic crusher "Beyond the Rites", the thrash and bounce of "Guilty to Exist" (named for the debut album), and the sleek, memorable grooves that inaugurate "Exhausted Forms". "Slave" and "L.E.A.D." are likewise worth hearing, but they are the least of the band's compositions here, so it's just as well that they arrive so late in the duration.

Oblivion sees Emptiness reaching their true potential, and it's easily one of the best Belgian albums of its class. It may lack an engrossing industrial sequence as the one which closed the debut (though there are a pair of title track segues that fit this bill), and yet it compensates with so much good riffing that you'll very quickly lose count. Dark, concise, and compelling, there really are not many other albums out there like it, and it's set up some huge expectations for anything the band could possibly produce in the future. My initial reaction to this album was one of disturbed enticement, but through only a few shorts years it has grown into a tense rapture. Well worth whatever you would need to spend on it.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10]

Emptiness - Guilty to Exist (2004)

I'm surprised Belgians Emptiness have not caught on by this point, because surely they offer one of the more unique experiences in European death metal, and stand as one of the finer examples of the medium from their home turf. I might be hard pressed to call their approach 'experimental', but there is a particular progression at play throughout their works which is refreshing and difficult to peg on any specific influences. The band's 2004 debut Guilty to Exist is not the better of their albums, but it establishes the band's uncanny taste in mixing grooves, flowing melodic chords, industrial/ambient segues, and guttural poetry into a distinct portrait of depressive aggression which parallels their tasteful eye in cover packaging.

The band has shared members with a number of other Belgian bands, in particular the black metal veterans Enthroned and death unknowns Hybrid Viscery, but Emptiness is by far the most enthralling of their creations, and the 17 tracks and 44 minutes of Guilty to Exist are at the least a rounded introduction. Few of the compositions here are substantial beyond a mere 2-3 minutes, with the exception of the finale "The Loss and Blind Perceptions", but strangely they need little time to envelop the listener in a cerebral, subterranean state of bewitchment channeling everything from Morbid Angel, Vader and Napalm Death to the morbid, abstract striations of a Demilich or Alchemist, bleak bottom feeding of a Disembowlment, and even the primal melodic/industrial leanings of a Fear Factory.

"Tyrants Forever" serves as hors d'ouvres to the remainder of the record: a slight, grating intro descends into hammering grooves and then a splash of pensive, melodic guitars that reverberate across a landscape of punishment. There are no truly compelling riffs within its borders, but it sets up a style that the band will keep coming back to through "Subhuman Submission", "Age of Nothing" and "Xenomorph". These are not among the album's better selections, yet functional as a backbone to more wide ranging pieces like the septic, blackish metal that drives "None Existence", the immensely atmospheric "Tenebrium Prophecies", or the desperate fury of "By the Loss of Our Dogma". Coupled with some interesting industrial intros/interludes like "Into the 11th Blackshell" or the pair of tracks titled simply "Interludium", you are cast to and fro upon a sea of negative psychic turbulence that resonates in atmosphere (if not notation) well past the records playtime.

However, the best single piece on Guilty to Exist is the beautiful, harrowing industrial/ambient finale "The Loss and Blind Perceptions", which swelters through a carefully measured filtration of rambling yet sparse percussive beats and synthesized melody. Here, the artist's vision is so well realized that you wonder why they didn't just scrap the metal pieces and write us a dozen such excursions. I personally loved this, and would love more, but I can ultimately understand its place in the band's broader cosmos of thought. Emptiness will immediately capture the attention due to their unique style, but in the end, the sum of their debut is far more palatable than many of its individual parts, which do not promote careful composition in the guitars so much that they forge many brief links in an unforgiving whole. The band will destroy this effort with the following Oblivion in 2007, but its still one of the more intriguing Belgian death records I've come across.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, July 30, 2010

Invasion - Orchestrated Kill Maneuver (2010)

I once picked up this Indiana band's previous offerings Conquered and Berserk Artillery Barrage at a discount rate online, expecting very little but receiving a heaping helping of pure war metal in a thrash/death style not unlike Bolt Thrower, but in seeking out further information, found that they hadn't been active in some years. Well, an eight year silence is broken with the spending of munitions as the band arrive at their most punishing effort, Orchestrated Kill Maneuver, which is out through Rotting Corpse Records. The focus of the album is World War II, with broadcast clips and samples of gunfire and engagement scattered about the intense thrust of the music, which impacts like a repeated explosion of heavy guns straight into your unprotected ears.

You can still hear a little of the Bolt Thrower influence, but the band have adapted a very thick, almost Swedish style tone to the guitars which is perfect for their brand of simplistic, grinding thick rhythms that develop mood more so than complexity. The band also has a penchant for incorporating strings of bleeding melody right at the margin of perception, while vocalist 'Phlegm' has a voice like Karl Willetts and Martin van Drunen sharing a cigar as they witness radar points blinking out of existence from some bunker. There is no intricacy to this music whatsoever, so its surprising just how the band are able to offer dynamic variation from track to track, and I have to hand it to them: they are the best US war/death metal band, especially if feel you would fancy a blend of Asphyx, Pestilence, Bolt Thrower, Death, Incantation, Dismember and Autopsy.

If you want fast, you've got it in "Devil's Garden (Journey Through...)", a disgusting, hammering fit of shell-shock with evil melodies repressed to twist their way forever through the grinding bursts of sheet metal. Here, snarls accompany the lower guttural vocals, and the band visits a bluesy, wailing lead over thick chord-smudge and thrashy plodding. "Firestorm in Dresden" feels like Bolt Thrower performed at Entombed Left Hand Path speed, and "When Trumpets Fade" wraps itself up tightly, a savage bombing run but about as stealthy as a tank airdropped into your living room. Honestly, though, it is the band's slower and mid material which really drives the bullet fire home, like the slower chugging in "And Three Survived" or the pulverizing, thick thrash of "Infinite Waves of Human Flesh" and the breakdown in "War Machine". Other great songs include "Black Thursday (Trapped in a B-17)" and the finale "Breach of the Siegfried Line".

Invasion might not win points for originality, but they receive them for effectiveness. The tones, riffs and vocals will all seem familiar to some degree, but its the way the band puts them together in such a hostile envelope of hopeless brutality that makes this a go-to album for those seeking the black/white imagery of war documentaries manifest through death metal. This album will easily please fans of pundits like Hail of Bullets, Bolt Thrower, Napalm Death, Asphyx and perhaps even the crop of newer, atmospheric death metal bands worshiping Incantation, that is, if they don't mind an increase in propulsion and firepower and lyrics that take one out of the corpse eating catacombs and onto the fields of battles past. In the end, a band that many had probably thought was history has just taken history and smeared it across your face.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Blind Guardian - At the Edge of Time (2010)

Once more, a period of massive anticipation subsides for the latest effort from Germany's most visible metal export and one of power metal's royalty, and the product rolls out into hobbit holes, LARPs and out across gaming grids the world-wide. Another cycle of interesting literary subjects has been gathered for discussion, and the band have kept their fans in on the recording process, samples, and probably even the dietary supplements when recording their 9th full-length effort, At the Edge of Time. The band is so transparent and builds hype so well for each new release that I'm surprised we haven't been forced to suffer through a Hansi Kursch reality TV show in the months before each new release.

Judging from the single teaser, "A Voice in the Dark", my expectations were not sky high for this effort, as the two songs there felt like simply more of the same that the band had been rattling out forever, only lacking that certain explosive, memorable ingredient they'd perfected though the 90s in their rise to power. But the samples on their site held out some hope, and now that I've gotten to tear through the album a number of times, I can honestly say that the remainder of this material makes up for the few, forgettable pieces. It was probably foremost on the fans' mind whether or not Blind Guardian would be pushing to an even more poppy level than they did with their previous A Twist in the Myth, or regressing to their far more inspirational past, and I would offer that this represents a mix of these directions. There are no outright, cutesy rockers like "Another Stranger Me" or "Fly" (which were not bad), but several segments that feel close enough; and the straight speed metal raving doffed throughout this album recall the days of Somewhere Far Beyond and Imaginations from the Other Side, with a studio gloss every bit as modern and layered as their former 21st century arrangements.

It's off to a damn fine start with the symphonic suite that heralds "Sacred Worlds", which is an extended version of the song "Sacred" that was used in the computer game Sacred 2: Fallen Angel. In all, this rendition is over 9 minutes in length, but the orchestration truly helps flesh out the track, and if you can wipe your mind of goblins and trolls dancing and head banging to a computer generated cast of Hansi and crew, you are subjected to a reasonable measure of emotional power. "Tanelorn (Into the Void)" returns to the world of Michael Moorcock's Elric saga, a sequel or sorts to "The Quest for Tanelorn" from Somewhere Far Beyond, both lyrically and stylistically, for this is sheer speed/power metal with some excellent vocal arrangements that don't ignore the Queen-like rapport the band had developed in the past decade or so. "Road of No Release" centers on a Peter S. Beagle story, who you might know better as the author of The Last Unicorn. It's one of the most proggish pieces on the album, and could have easily appeared on the previous record, but not the most enticing here, despite a quality burning lead segment with some vocals cascading across it.

Next, "Ride Into Obsession" explodes into the realm of Robert Jordan's haughty and far too worded Wheel of Time saga, doing great justice to the meandering narrative, with a fairly catchy chorus sequence and a nice lead sequence as payoff to the storming aggression that the band have once again found themselves attached to. "Curse My Name" is another of the band's 'bard-like' pieces', slowly developing and steeped in flutes and windy, soaring background vocals. Like many similar tracks throughout the band's career, this would normally represent a sappy and unnecessary lull from their true strength (the metal), but the percussive climaxes here at least give something for the ears to latch upon. "Valkyries" might tease itself as yet another ballad, but soon matures into a multi-tiered, melodic prog piece that was one of my favorites on the album, a fitting enough tribute to the mythological, beautiful entities. Like "Curse My Name", "Control Divine" is based on John Milton, but this time his famous Paradise Lost. The various shifts in tempo and surges of melody do well to capture the desperation of the epic poem, but one wonders if this subject would have been served better by one of Blind Guardian's 8+ minute compositions instead of stuck into a shorter length.

We've already heard the next pair of songs from the single leading up to this album. Both "War of the Thrones" and "A Voice in the Dark" represent George R.R. Martin's sprawling, unfinished political fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire. The former is a calmly thriving ballad that blows into some soothing, sailing vocal passages, and I feel like the version presented here is superior to that of the single. "A Voice in the Dark" is probably the least interesting of the metal tunes here, with really only one catchy bit in the bridge riff. It conjures up Somewhere Far Beyond in style, but not execution. "Wheel of Time" revisits the Robert Jordan novels, a nearly 9 minute piece with plenty of savage orchestration and glistening melody to resonate through a long series of listens. This has some of the best individual licks on the record, so its almost a shame its tucked into the finale, but then, like any good stage performance, its indeed climactic.

At the Edge of Time is overall a pretty good record, though far from the best the band have produced in their 20+ years of existence. The musicianship is stunning, Hansi's vocals still honed and sharp, and the writing good enough to support longer and shorter tracks. Not everything here is gold. There were moments in "War of the Thrones", "Road of No Release" and "Curse My Name" in which I felt I was nodding off, and "A Voice in the Dark" is simply average at best, but you've still got about 45 minutes minimum of excellent writing that will hook onto your psyche and have you back, feeding for more until the inevitable follow-up. I truly believe that if the band is going to devote chunks of the album to specific writers or fantasy series, that perhaps the Germans should strive for another pure concept album like their finest, Nightfall in Middle-Earth. It just seems clunky to my mind having pairs of songs devoted to George R.R. Martin or Robert Jordan, it'd be nice for them to go all out. By this point I don't feel the band have much ground to cover musically. Everything here is old hat, a classy retread of former works, with perhaps the exception of clearer orchestration, so a singular lyrical focus is one area in which they might keep us enthralled for another decade or beyond.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (it is more than a game)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cubbiebear - The Rape (2008)

Funny name, hip-hop album, metal review site. Seems like all three strikes necessary to toss this abstract piece of insanity to the dogs, right?


The Rape is a showcase of serpentine lyrical abilities, aschewing verse/chorus/verse club bumping for progressive song layouts and an affinity for post-production touchups that drive the songs further down the rabbit hole. Far from being pop-sensible, and sometimes far from sensible period, the songs often deconstruct themselves into an array of sonic chaos, scattershot samples, and potshot drumbeats amongst emotional assaults of some of the most venomous put to tape in years, the rebuild from seeming chaos into a tangible form.

Essentially, this is not Kanye West. This is Baltimore's Cubbiebear and, while the album displays a bit of immaturity and the lack of big-time financial support can hinder things, the thought process behind The Rape is pure, if a bit off-kilter, and a completely original take on the rap genre as a whole.

Trying to describe the music contained here is a bit difficult. Samples are chopped, slowed, put through turntables, twisted, and filtered to a degree that can almost seem excessive at times... but when the vocals and the beats are given the same treatment, often molding the entirety of the track into a stuttering digital trainwreck, you can't help but notice the amount of effort put into each and every tune. The samples, beats, and vocals are all extensions of the idea, and the idea is the prime controller of the process.

The rap performance here is pretty astounding, even if it is a battle-rap style. Cubbiebear does, in a way, battle through the entire CD: He passes off line after line of jagged cement haymakers at modern hip-hop culture with a certainty and conviction that's difficult to second guess. Tough shots like this one directed at 50 cent from the song "Contra":

You're not a bad motherfucker
If your demographic is only 13 and under

I can't recommend people check out The Rape enough, and the video for "Contra" can easily be found on Youtube if you're so inclined.

Verdict: Epic Win [10/10]

Heretic Soul - Born Into This Plague (2010)

Turkish metal has always fascinated me, as I attended University with a friend from the country who got me into the band known there as Pentagram (Mezarkabul elsewhere), but there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of coverage in the more extreme field of death metal. I'm aware of the band Cenotaph, listened to a few of their albums, and thought they were decent, but outside of this, Heretic Soul is one of my few exposures. Born Into This Plague is the band's debut, issued through Chicago's Rotting Corpse Records to follow up their Life Becomes Our Grave EP (2008), and though it shows some potential, it suffers from a few issues that mire it down into relative mediocrity. The band is brutal and attempts to capture an array of dynamics within their music, but some of them feel all too familiar and there is just not enough worthwhile riffing to push them over the top.

There is no single vantage point for which to compare this artist. They seem to have a penchant for the grooves and squeals common to brutal USDM bands, and even sprinkle in a few simplistic chugged breakdowns, but they also have a faster, blasted side which carries more of a Morbid Angel or early Suffocation influence, so most of the bases are covered. They are not the most technically endowed band, opting instead for straight up brutality conceived through primordial writing, and there would be nothing wrong with this, only that there seems to be a dearth of truly compelling riffs manifested across the album. The initial track, "The Truth Dwells In Your Head", is not the strongest, opening with a brief volley of blasted, old school rhythms that dives into a typical chug/squeal breakdown that was used up by the mid 90s. Later in the song is another series of open mute chugs that really could have been opted out for something better, and in all, its very underwhelming. Not a best foot forward scenario.

The album tries to clean up after itself with the following "Deadliest Enemy", a blasted slab of murder wrought from the inspiration of USDM like Malevolent Creation, Suffocation, Diabolic and other East Coast criminals. The first breakdown in this song is a little better, with some clean notes dragging up the tail end to make it feel less frivolous. I was not engaged by the melodic bridge, and unfortunately there's another chugged breakdown near the end which feels like something Earth Crisis or Hatebreed would have written many a moon ago. "Mental Decay" is far stronger, with some harmonic saber rattling over the intro riff and then a big, Sepultura-like groove ala Chaos A.D. before they pick up speed. I especially enjoyed the riffing later in the song, which created a huge atmosphere over the growls, and reminded me of Bolt Thrower. Not a single, shitty breakdown found here, and thus it's easily superior to the first two tracks.

"Suffering From Existence" maintains a warlike pacing with a mix of rolled double-bass tank segments and blasted bits, with a better breakdown that makes good use of the drummer. "Faceless" ranges from thunder to thrash, to war metal and back to thunder and thrash, with only a menial breakdown; "Worship Me" is another mix of Sepultura/Bolt Thrower; "Beyond Hatred" is introduced through some clean guitars and moody atmosphere before transforming into a solemn, melodic floe over hammering mid-blasts; and both "Life Becomes Our Grave" and "Twenty One Grams" combine some reasonable grooved walls of chords with disposable breakdowns.

Born Into this Plague never truly escapes the low expectations it sets up for itself, and that's a shame, because there is clearly some passion for old school, 90s extremity at work. There are a few good riffs scattered throughout, but even these could use some further gestation to increase their ear candy resonance. The vocals are nothing out of the ordinary, and the compositions do not set up any impressive musicianship due to its primitive, mosh-fueled nature. There are points at which the album captures to great old vibes of Bolt Thrower, Morbid Angel, Malevolent Creation, Incantation and a number of other bands, but it does nothing to vault itself into their unhallowed company. There's nothing grating or 'wrong' with Heretic Soul, aside from the use of a few cheap and unimaginative breakdowns, but an added element of intricacy would go a long way towards helping them identify against the endless legions of other bands out there.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Demonical - Servants of the Unlight (2007)

When Centinex called it quits, we lost one of the very best of the loyalist Swedish death metal movement, a band who produced a long line of good to great records honoring their roots and in a few cases even expanding upon them. We've suffered a metric ton of carbon copy bands in the past few years, all paying their respects to the godfathers Nihilist/Entombed, Dismember, Grave and Unleashed, but very few have done a knockout, drag down to the grave job of it that Centinex had done for years. All was not lost, however, since three members of Centinex decided that wild hell steeds could not drag them away from their beloved style, and in 2006 they put together the entity Demonical with vocalist Ludde Engellau (of death/grinders Remasculate).

Servants of the Unlight was the result of their first forays back to the sepulcher, and what a great fucking album this turned out to be! A dark, unflinching sprawl of all the elements that made Left Hand Path so great in the first place, delivered with brute grinding force and an incredibly strong set of songs, which could easily sate any Swedish purist whether their fancy lies in the cryptic death metal itself or the more grind-endowed bands to take a bite out of the style (i.e. Nasum and Rotten Sound). You are all familiar with the epic guitar tones that helped place Entombed onto the radars of nearly every sick fuck in society, the bludgeoning hostility of the vocals and the inherent, punkish fervor underlying the outbreaks of D-beat malignity. Demonical captures all of these qualities on their debut and then pushes them over the threshold to the abyss below.

"Suicide Throne" arrives in a cadence of storm, bleak peril and titanic percussion as the chords of walls crash upon the shore of enticing, melodic filth; and then Demonical REALLY let loose with a steady, grinding rhythm of ominous depth and darkness. If can't throw behind that breakdown around 3:10, well I don't think there could be any cure for you. "Revel in Misanthropia" blasts open and then cedes into a series of blazing chords, each hammering down a charnel house, pillars and thrones of bones and skeletal remains shattered and creating an avalanche of dead-waking frenzy. Proof that a good, forceful riff does not require complexity, it completely conquers the listener under Engellau's brute formations of the prose, and when it finally segways into the moshing monolith that you know is coming, it's surprisingly understated and no less effective. The intro riff to "Burned Alive" sounds like something straight off of Death's Leprosy, if played by Entombed, and once again a slight dynamic difference helps the pace of this record enormously, though it soon crushes with the weight of a hundred siege machines, blasting everyone in its path.

The album's loving embrace never lets you go, as it clutches you so tight your blood hemorrhages and your organs burst out through your ribs. "Feeding the Armageddon" does exactly that, lifting your pleading, flailing body off the ground like some unfeeling Hulk and casting you straight into destruction. "United in Torture" takes a tank-like approach, with a Bolt Thrower vibe in the scorching, diabolic melodies; "Slaughter of All Hope" is a sheer, endgame riffing scenario with minor variations twisted about the steady drumming core, and then a huge chorus with enormous vocals. "Unholy Desecration" takes the speed down to another mid-paced piece alternating D-beats and Bolt Thrower segments, and "Leipzig 1945" takes it down another notch to a doomed leviathan of WWII agony. The limited edition CD also comes with a cover of Onslaught's "Death Metal" which is performed extraordinary well, fitting hand in glove with the originals.

Speaking of 'original', that's about the one complaint you could ever launch at this album. It's a mix of Centinex and all that band's inherent influences, from the grinding hardcore of Discharge to the graveyard ethics of early Entombed. Of course, I'm not complaining, and Servants of the Unlight is one of the very best records I've heard to follow in this path. It's not complex, it's not graceful, and it's not for the weak of stomach. The tones are gigantic, the intent only to crush and kill, and the post-mortem emotions of having just been audibly incinerated (which accompany all good extreme metal) fully in position.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10]
(shedding off all ties to life)

Damien Breed - Ave Satani (1994)

As the 90s battered on, it soon became a test of strength and will for nearly any surviving thrash band to persist in their career, much less attempt to begin one. The 'fallout' period would see a number of late comers falling directly on their faces, the relatively unknown Damien Breed among them, but unlike much of the uninspired rabble that were half the reason the genre couldn't hold out, here was a band who actually had a touch of originality and could have evolved into a worthwhile band. They did evolve into something, but it was called Seelenwinter, abandoning the short-lived Damien Breed brand and signing with Massacre Records, earning them some small measure of success, and leaving behind the 7 year career that culminated in this sole full-length shot in the dark.

The Germans stood out a little for their approach which tended to consist of dark, brief intros of clean guitars that would transform into slowly paced thrash rhythms with a progressive element. The guitars can rarely be accused of storming along in typical style for this genre, but very carefully working themselves upon the listener while Olaf Schultz' dark, accented lyrics weave tales of horror and despair. The guy does a number of vocals, including a clean tone, an almost death metal tone, and a deep, nasally tone which reminds me of other European thrashers like Midas Touch, Vendetta, etc. The mix of eerie synthesizers into the steady, largely slow to mid paced thrashing creates a genuine touch, as this is a concept album dealing with the classic Omen films about the spawn of Satan to mortal humans and the 'problems' that evolve out of such a relationship.

An intro, "Prophecy" develops into a tight, picked regiment before the deep, almost cerebral "Conspiracy" explodes with simple but effective thrashing riffs and Schultz's mix of narrative and ritual chorus repetitions. I was very heavily reminded of Midas Touch, who had a similar if slightly more technical element to their music, with comparable riff style. "The Evil Inside" begins like an elegy before a mix of uplifting muted rhythms, spooky muted breakdowns and a few gang shout backing vocals. It's a little long, but I do enjoy the solo breakdown around 4:30. "The Warning of the Priest" has a more melodic, storming feeling, picking up some steam, but the band doesn't really explode into faster territory until "The Sign", which reminds me of Mekong Delta's earlier material, and at points a marginal helping of Deathrow's Deception Ignored: bursts of well structured, melodic riffing that obeys convention and yet shifts into the realm of the abstract. This is one of the better songs here, followed by the creeping and pretty "(It's Time Damien) The Revelation" which does also not disappoint. The rest of the album is sadly average, but not devoid of nuance.

Ave Satani is one of those cases where each disparate element of the writing could have just used a little more push. The riffs are decent, but there are not enough of them, or they are just not as powerful as they might have been. The composition flows pleasantly through between lighter and darker segments, providing an aural narrative to the films, but you always wish it were that much scarier. The production is alright, but the vocals seem disheveled and often tripping over the accent of their bearer. It's a shame that the band would change faces, because they had a half-decent name here which seems to draw the attentions, and if they'd considered continuing into the realm of cerebral, horror thrash concepts, perhaps exploring other classics like Dracula, The Exorcist or Frankenstein, they might have build a reputation. Then again, this might have been a one shot from its conception. We may never know. Ave Satani is not a good record, but its worth hearing once if you're into all things German, thrash and obscure, like Depressive Age, Mekong Delta, Vendetta, Assassin, Deathrow and the like.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (cast out of Heaven)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Netherbird - Monumental Black Colossal (2010)

I've long gathered the impression that melodic Swedish black metal, which was so prevalent in the 90s, is something of a decaying genre of late, with most of its forebears and standouts like Dissection, Midvinter, Sacramentum and (early) Mork Gryning having passed into the halls of extinction, and only a few acts like Dark Funeral and Lord Belial pressing on to varying levels of success. However, decaying does not mean 'dead', and there are some hopes for this strain of black madness which still breathe fresh mists into the haunted air of Gothic desolation. Netherbird is one such hope, if not the brightest, having already released a full-length and several EPs that did not gather much steam. Monumental Black Colossal is a fair follow-up to The Ghost Collector in 2008, but it unfortunately falls just so shy of the graceful kick in the rump this scene really needs to press on against the swallowing night.

The band have some schnazzy song titles on this record, like "Strindbergian Fire", "The Weight of Vapour", and "White Noise Sky in Overdrive", so my expectations were immediately piqued. The intro "Looming Majesty" is the same overture of Gothic piano, ominous choirs at the edge of perception and swelling storm-like atmosphere that has heralded so many albums in this vein, and the band then surge forth with the melodic, expected thunder into "White Noise in Overdrive". The vocals mix up rasping and grunted vocals, so you get the feeling there is a Cradle of Filth influence, though not so pronounced as Dani Filth. As pleasant as its composition is, I really found myself nodding off here, because there are just so few riffs worth keeping, the one exception the thrashing black surge after the opening blitz. After this, another brief instrumental titled "The Faraway View" before the creepy, ivy-like escalation of "A Shadow in the Garden of Darkness", in which bells toll and darkness is evoked but never driven deep into the neck with adequate fangs.

"Strindbergian Fire" is perhaps the most functional piece of work here, an epic of chugging, bells and spooky moods that transforms into a reasonably fast, searing melodic passage, though the song does begin to sag until the haunted house bridge segments, again reminiscent of Cradle of Filth. "The Weight of Vapour" is a slower piece which relies on its redundant melodies to create an emotional momentum before the storming, familiar melodies once again arise, and after the steadily driving "At the Bottom of the Chrystal Artery", the core album's playtime comes to and end, without ever really getting anywhere. This is pretty short, about 26 minutes long, but the band tosses on a pair of unreleased tracks to flesh it out: "In the Eyes of Time" and "Across the Chasm". They sound slightly underfed next to the more modern productions, but musically they are not deficient by comparison. Just not that interesting either...

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with Netherbird. They effortlessly weave their Gothic landscapes through sufficiently punishing black aggression, but they just never quite climax at the proper money shot. All the instruments are tight, the production on the core album is competitive for today, and if you're looking for an alternative to Chthonic, Cradle of Filth, Ancient, Hecate Enthroned, or Dimmu Borgir, you may well be in the right place. But Monumental Black Colossal simply doesn't scream 'necessary' in any of its carefully concocted architecture, and the band's competence and creativity are stifled by the lack of compelling, original ideas, or evil screaming melodies that will resound long beyond its brief existence.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Insidious Disease - Shadowcast (2010)

There are super-groups and then there are super-groups, and this Norwegian project Insidious Disease may very well fall into the latter category, if we are taking into account the collective experience of its membership. This is a collaboration between vocalist Marc Grewe (of Comecon and German death cult Morgoth), bassist Shane Embury (Napalm Death, Brujeria, Lock Up, and many more), drummer Tony Laureano (who has played with basically every successful, extreme band ever in need of a drummer, Nile and Angelcorpse among them), Erkekjetter Silenoz of Dimmu Borgir and Jardar of Old Man's Child on the guitars. One could rightfully ask themselves what has brought this rogues' gallery of Parental Enemy No. 1's together in a single place. Haven't these not so gentle men already covered everything in their vast careers?

Insidious Disease is interesting because its honestly a culmination of many of its members former or current ongoing projects, a jugger-beast of massive proportions, rooted largely in pure death metal, but with an increased injection of black and thrash metal aesthetics, and perhaps a little grind as well. Vocally Grewe does not evoke the commonplace grunt or growl of the death genre, instead infusing his Morgoth frontal force with an almost hardcore edge of anger, like a street ready wakeup blend of Lars-Goran Petrov, Chris Reifert and Chuck Schuldiner (which arguably, he always sounded like). The riffs here are so many sledgehammer pistons of blunt force, though the band is not above a melodic segue where courtesy demands it. The album's sheer strength is both its strength and weakness, for while it sounds intense, it occasionally stifles itself with less interesting, burdensome riffing.

Laureano's a beast as usual, which you can hear immediately in the scorching opener "Nuclear Salvation", which pummels the face like a giant mutant's boot repeatedly, leads exploding off through the course of destruction and Grewe's pissed off attitude. A lot of the tracks are huge and fast, such as "Abortion Stew" (with a minor Pestilence influence in the octave riffing) and the storming black/death monstrosity "The Desire". Some, however, aim for a more grooving, thrashed picking sequence with some concrete breakdowns, like "Ritual of Bloodshed", "Boundless" and the bouncing "Value in Flesh". Rarely does the album expunge into some truly monolithic riff, but the production is so punishing and steadfast that you'll still find yourself straining your neck to the majority of the play length.

Add a reasonable cover of Death's classic "Leprosy", and you've got yourself a marginally successful super-group debut. If you're a fan of old Entombed, Morgoth, Bolt Thrower, Napalm Death, Comecon, Pestilence, Death and Malevolent Creation, with a slightly blacker heart, then this is a feasible reproduction of many of those traits which should at least aurally stimulate the angry masses. The band was formed years ago, so its obvious they took their time getting this to us, aiming for maximum impact. The one true flaw is that the material simply leaves my presence once I have pressed 'stop', and there is not even one song here I feel the instant urge to gaze back upon. But when pincered in its head fisting embrace, as on the blasting epitaph of "Conceived Through Hate", you can't help but feel ready for a fight.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Decrepit Birth - Polarity (2010)

Californians Decrepit Birth made an instant splash amidst the brutal tech death underground with their 2003 debut ...And Time Begins, but I didn't find myself falling for their mix of extremity and excess musical prowess until the the second album, Diminishing Between Worlds, which came out a half decade later in 2008. Like other bands from their coast Odious Mortem, Severed Savior, The Faceless, and Abysmal Torment, they're one of those 'whole package' deals: amazingly coherent and tight with their instruments, capable of writing damn near limitless volley of riffs, and brutal enough in the breakdown department to please the less demanding, violent element of death metal showgoers. Polarity sees the band expand upon their prior effort slightly, with a touch more musical aptitude and willingness to expand and incorporate extra classical and progressive influence to their compositions.

You won't hear a track go by on this record without some well-written, flurry of melodic scales and strokes that perks the ears directly to attention, and it is the balance of this ambition against the expected, double kick/blasted forays that ultimately makes it a success. The vocals are your typical, vomited gutturals, and I feel that at times they feel a little too one-track and uninspired when compared against the music itself, occasionally joined by a snarling companion, but it is a rare death metal band these days with a vocalist that can tear your entrails out and then step on them, so its best in many cases to play it 'safe', if you can call a grown man hammering you with orcish grunts 'safe'. The mix is professionally executed, with all notes available to the ear and a steady balance of instruments. Decrepit Birth put a lot of work into this record, and you'll be able to process every second of tension and release that the band thrives upon.

Polarity seems to me what be the natural extension of the Florida legends Death had they advanced into a more brutal framework instead of sputtering out with a weak and powerless effort like The Sound of Perseverance. You can hear Chuck's influence in a lot of the thin, crisp melodic riffing which takes the inspiration of a Death, Symbolic or Individual Thought Patterns to another level when set against the incredible, forceful precision of the drummer and rhythm guitars. Scales abound here, given just the right processed gleam to contribute an ever twisting distraction for the 38 minutes of the album. Often a keyboard will be used to further push the atmospheric envelope, and the band's brainy, cosmic lyrics match up very well with the almost scientific methodology of the performance. In this regards, they are very similar to the act Obscura, so fans of those Germans that haven't already boarded this interstellar train should step up, because now is the time.

The album moves consistently from the gently woven melodic patterns that christen "A Departure of the Sun (Ignite the Tesla Coil" to the grand sorrow that burdens the simpler chord and clean guitar selection of the instrument outro "Darkness Embrace", and the entire work is reined in under 40 minutes, with no composition becoming so indulgent or far out that you would ever become exhausted (assuming you enjoy this style). I found some rapture in the acrobatic bounce and kick of the title track "Polarity"; the thick hammering of the chugged rhythm guitars, harmonic spills and storm ascension of "The Quickening of Time"; the unswerving juggernaut of percussive picking and sweeps that realize "Symbiosis"; and the great melodies spitting through the eye of "The Resonance", gravity optional. However, there really is not a single track which will not offer some enticement, even the 1 minute hyper riffing prog-death barrage of "A Brief Odyssey in Time". It's remarkable how much Decrepit Birth can compact into a moment.

If you whine and cuss about all things modern in death metal, then let me state, Polarity is just not for you, nor is anything else by this band. Here, they skirt along the boundaries of what tech death is capable of, but I don't think they honestly escape the universal pull of familiarity all that much. The vocals are not quite excellent, but so few are in the modern death landscape, and as a percussive symbiont to the drumming, they suffice. What Decrepit Birth do best here is sculpt an engaging onslaught of music which leaves the gore and butchery of the genre far below, in terrestrial urban chaos, while this band escapes to seed and explore new worlds, as if they were a rocket ship of symphonic-minded, brutal ballast, a Stanley Kubrick sweeping his vision across the pulsing notes of the firmament.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (balanced in the paradox of contradictions)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Lithuria - Pimps of the Living Dead (2010)

What are a bunch of young Finns obsessed with horror flicks and gore to do but start a band to vent out all their twisted, mocking fantasies upon the metal populace? Well, I'm not sure how serious this Lithuria is about their devotion to carnal delights, but I do know that they can write a varied record which draws upon a number of styles in modern extremity. Guttural vocals that often draw upon Carcass-like snarls or pig squeals, stomping rhythms that mix up brutal death, slam death and even some hardcore elements with gang shouts, and one of the better productions I've heard from such a new band. The guitars are huge and punchy, the dynamic, pestilence melodies explosive, and the rhythm section is like a squad of malpractice surgeons making house calls.

Does Pimps of the Living Dead do anything to really stretch the envelope of this genre? Not exactly, but I felt like they offered a more brutal alternative to the American 'secret identity' band Ghoul, but without all the heavier thrash influence. It's immensely dumb, entertaining fun, and noticing the frivolous image the band goes for with the splattered blood and other cheesy horror props, I don't think the band had any ulterior motives except to have themselves a blast while the audience moshed and sloshed around in the oozing, vapid remains that might or might not come flying off the stage at a performance.

The recording is compact, modern and extremely punchy as the band blast away with "The Dying Process", a forward blitz of absolute brutality with mixed guttural/snarl vocals and some nice, simpler chug breakdowns amidst the bridge rhythms. The track ends with a gloomy, morbid atmosphere that recalls a little Pestilence, but with a keyboard instead of discordant guitars, and far more layered vocal squalor. "Pimps of the Living Dead" itself is more of a fun, shuffling thrash/death rhythm with some Sepultura-like siren guitars that twist into a little Necrophagist licking. Despite the excess of chugging, this tune really kicks its feet and it is quite fun, one of the best here. "Dead Embryo Vomit" opens like a Pantera brickhouse thrash rhythm gone Cannibal Corpse, and "Victim of Primitivity" has some dull, crawling mosh rhythms that break for a morbid, horror atmosphere in the clean, eerie guitars and roiling feedback ambiance. Other tracks that rock pretty hard include the choppy "Light Evacuates" and the twisting, grinding "World Ending Pestilence".

Lithuria is not above nor afraid to incorporate a wide range of styles into their composition, and this might actually work against them. At times they are as complex and forceful as the current crop of modern extreme death artists, but at some others they simplify themselves to a scorched morgue policy, with thick and simple groove/chugs that seem bent on providing a manic mosh atmosphere for the audience. I actually feel like the band balances everything pretty well. To the less discriminating, casual fan of brutal death or even deathcore/metalcore, the album might offer a lot of fun (which is rather the point). The band's lyrics and song inspirations are not quite so shallow as one might suspect, drawing successfully from campy horror flicks and doing them some justice. I was bowled over by the fresh sound of the band, but ultimately did not find too many of these songs memorable for very long. Strangely, the slam/chug elements, which I don't often enjoy when used to excess in death metal, did not distract me here, serving as efficient means to an end. Their occasional lapses into atmosphere were the most stunning moments on the record, and though this is decent in the end, I wonder if more of this exploration might improve the band in the future. Pimps of the Living Dead functions well enough though, if you dial down the expectations and you're looking only for a good time.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Shaman - Origins (2010)

When you look at Shaman's story, it's kind of a miracle the band still exists to put out records. They started as an escape for former Angra frontman Andre Matos and drummer Ricard Confessori, and released a pretty good debut in Ritual, which featured a great mesh of prog and power metal with oodles of catchy licks running up and down the fretboard, and of course Matos' trademark for high pitched, whiny but quality vocals. Sadly, the band followed this up with a less interesting sophomore, Reason, under the added 'a' Shaaman, and then Matos decided he was going to do his thing and leave. His was not the only exodus, so Confessori had to hire a new line-up, including Fernando Quesada and Leo Mancini of fellow Brazilian band Wizards, and new vocalist Thiago Bianchi of Karma. This line-up released Immortal, which was not very good at all, a low point for the band.

It would have been easy to just abandon this project at that point, since the band might have felt awkward and the fans might have felt the last of the magic, but no! Confessori and his crew have gone back to the studio, spent a few years writing, and arrived with the 4th full-length Origins, which is truthfully the best thing they've done since the debut. In fact, it features most of the qualities I appreciate about Ritual, with an even thicker tone, and seeing that Confessori is now back with Angra, I think it's truly admirable that he hasn't given up on this band. You don't see that level of dedication every day, especially coupled with a kick ass compensation for a rather forgettable effort. By kick ass, I mean this record is almost at the level of the incomparable Angra in its songwriting, and it weaves a unique conceptual tale of a Siberian boy, the travails of his tribe, and his eventual evolution into a spiritual icon for his people.

Bianchi's vocals might honestly be a turn-off for some, and I do feel that he's toned down a little much in the mix, but he remains comparable in style to Andre Matos and the newer Angra vocalist Eduardo Falaschi. If you appreciate them, then there's no reason Bianchi will not suffice as the torch is passed on down the line. He's somewhat shrieky and wavering, and every now and then he grates slightly on the nerve, but even he shines here in places. When I say 'even he', that's because the rest of the band kick total fucking tail throughout this entire album. The mix of choppy, grooving rhythms and anthemic eruptions is sure to sate the listeners expectations, and Mancini has transformed into this riffing god. This band has always had strong keyboards, but they're also dialed up for this, perfectly complementing the driving rhythms and often escalating into impressive atmospheres of their own.

The tribal percussion and ambiance of "Origins (The Day I Died)" intro transform into the storming epic "Lethal Awakening", where flights of fanciful and complex guitar licks are graced by a series of explosive leads, soon joined by hyper keyboards and Bianchi's ghostlike crooning. The breakdown with the mystical guitar solo and proggish, jamming synthesizer is also a highlight here, and immediately the listener is pumped for this record. This is how you start an album, folks. "Inferno Veil" follows with a great intro, drums thundering into this heavy as balls guitar segment. This is basically a Siberian epic fucking thrasher, with carefully measured levels of tension and bombastic power metal verses. My ears felt like they wanted to tear off of my fat head and forever dwell within Shaman's unraveling myth-history.

Next, a period of calm, with the gentle orchestration and wilderness percussion of "Ego Pt. I", with an emotional performance from Bianchi, counter-attacked by the raging "Ego Pt. II", with a dense, shredded rhythm passage and some of the best vocal lines on the entire album. "Finally Home" is a happier, uplifting piece which incorporates a lot of Angra to it, especially from the Fireworks era, and "Rising Up to Life" is a worthy piano power ballad in which Bianchi also gets to stretch his pipes (very similar to Falaschi here). "No Mind" opens with a big groove rhythm, but quickly abandons it for one of the most incredible little melodic speed metal licks the band has done since the debut, while "Blind Messiah" erupts from a titillating acoustic segment to some jamming, mountain walls of prog metal. I also truly love the band's cover of "Kurenai" from X Japan! What an unexpected surprise, and Shaman offer it all the love and power they can muster.

Yes, folks. Immortal represented the ashes of this band's downward trajectory, and Origins represents the phoenix, spitting fire at all the non-believers at is storms skyward from the pit of a shaky career. The composition and performances are extraordinary all around, with the possible exception of Bianchi, who could be mixed in a little better. Still, he's at his best here, and provides little distraction from the amazing guitar work and rhythm section of the band, nor the choppy but brilliant excursions into synthesizer heaven. I can't think of a single track on the album that did not grasp my attention, and this is a work very much worthy of the band in whose shadow Shaman must forever lie. Or maybe not...

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Darkseed - Poison Awaits (2010)

I've always held a fondness for the more catchy strains of Gothic metal keeping the fires lit for the genre's popularity across Europe, and Darkseed have always been an act I've kept my eyes and ears on. The band has followed a very similar course to the British gods Paradise Lost, though the Germans' origins were slightly more upbeat. Albums like Midnight Solemnly Dance, Spellcraft, and Give Me Light all featured memorable songcraft, but beyond that the band took a turn for the more accessible, radio ready fare that very much mirrored your Draconian Times or One Second. The same use of mid paced rockers, big choruses, and Hetfield-like vocals were dominant in these eras, and still...these were not bad albums.

So really, I was not taken aback when I first listened to this record and thought of Paradise Lost's 2002 album Symbol of Life, which I truly adored. Darkseed's got a new frontman here named Harald Winkler who reminds me a lot of Nick Holmes, with perhaps a touch of accent leading off as he winds through the deeper, masculine baritones and the upper range with its slightly swerving melodies. Do not mistake me, he is not a carbon copy, he just uses a similar inflection, which to be fair fits the music perfectly. The remainder of the band have returned from the previous record Ultimate Darkness, five years ago, with the exception of a new bassist, and it is just Thomas Herrmann sticking around from the band's early 90s period.

Poison Awaits does not lead off with its best piece, of that I am certain. "Roads" is a pretty standard chord progression which is merely a warm-up for far better material to come, eclipsed even by the second song "Incinerate", which weaves cutesy keyboard lines through the steady if predictable, rocking chords. If you love Paradise Lost's late 90s or 21st century material before reverting back to their heavier side in recent years, or if you fancy the Finnish male-fronted Gothic metal scene of Charon, Entwine, To/Die/For and the like, you're probably going to like this one. If you don't love that style, then you will have already have fled from the album from "Roads", so carry on. It's pretty catchy, and I'm also reminded of fellow Germans Crematory, although Darkseed does not make use of the guttural vox. Title track "Poison Awaits" is the next at bat, with waves of electro body music morphing into some desperate, melodic synthesizer lines over an even harder driving rhythm.

"Seeds of Sorrow" sees Winkler in a deeper tone not unlike Fernando Ribeiro of Moonspell, but far less cryptic and far more accessible. It seems somewhat like a Dreadful Shadows track, with the slow build to the surge of power chords. "All is Vanity" ups the ante with some rasped vocals that accompany the pre-chorus lyrics, and "Black Throne" is pretty pure Paradise Lost worship with more silly putty synthesizers dreaming beneath the crushing guitar tone, but its once again very catchy. The latter half of the album features a handful of ear-catchers like "A Dual Pact" and "Striving for Fire", and I really liked the melancholic piano gone metal ballad "Torn to Shatters".

Poison Awaits is nearly an hour long, but most of the tracks deliver the mopey Gothic goods, especially if you're into their past few efforts like Diving Into Darkness or Astral Adventures. "Roads" is probably the least interesting here, so I'm curious why the band wanted to shove it up front. The mix is well done, modern and clear studio sound which hangs at the standards set by many other bands of this genre like Theater of Tragedy and Charon. There is very little ambition in the guitar playing or song structure, and in fact they are preened for verse/chorus song sensibility to a fault, rarely venturing forth beyond some slightly tasty bridge segments. But these are not common traits for the style, and thus Darkseed are preaching to the choir. If you tend to hate this genre of male-fronted, Gothic metal with deep vocals and keyboards, then I see no reason your opinion would be changed by this latest effort. But if you keep a closet full of Crematory, Dreadful Shadows, and the less doomy Paradise Lost records, this is clearly for you. It's still not a Spellcraft or a Give Me Light, but it will have to suffice.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, July 26, 2010

Daemonarch - Hermeticum (1998)

There is probably some sub-set of Moonspell's following that rued the band's decision to shift from their ritual black metal roots of Under the Moonspell and Wolfheart to a more Gothic rock-focused medium, and to these the one-shot side project Daemonarch must have come as some blessing, since it somewhat returns to those years of mystic, occult exploration. The lyrics to this were written when Fernando Ribeiro was but a teenager chasing Satan, though I assume they undertook some revision before this final project, but otherwise we are presented with an album worthy of Moonspell themselves, though perhaps not as memorable.

Hermeticum is a whirlwind of tribal drums, thick and simplistic metal chords and atmospheric keyboards suited to any orgy of the damned, or castle of treacherous, diabolic mysteries. But the band also incorporates a lot of dynamic exploration and some searing guitars that very much mirror their work on a Wolfheart or Irreligious. Through it all, they manage to somehow keep the writing fresh and catchy, especially on a few of the tunes that might have better served the band as standout tracks for their main band. This is all Moonspell members. In addition to Ribeiro, we had Sergio Crestana, Pedro Paixao and Ricardo Amorim in their recurring roles, and perhaps that is where the strength truly lies, in the cohesion of this band of morbid brothers.

"Corpus Hermeticum" is a favorite here for the very catchy use of the keyboards, both symphonic and 'cute' in that light, striking piano technique which flows off the swell of the guitars and orchestra hits with poppy precision. The haunting folly of "Samyaza" is perfect for any haunted house parlour, the vocals like those of some grave tending usher welcoming you to an abode of creeps and frolics. "Incubus" uses a great vocal atmosphere, Ribeiro delivering some of the most aggressive rasping of his entire career, and all manner of mysterious sounds at the edge of the perception beneath the solid beats and blood-glistening guitars. Then there is "The Seventh Daemonarch", a pretty steadily rising charger that would have fit in perfectly with Wolfheart, in particular the soaring, manly vocal force. The bleeding, desperate streams of opener "Lex Talionis" are also worthwhile.

In fact, there are really no stinkers across the whole album. It's all moody and effective work, though varying in the level of seriousness one might take it for. The band have also included a cover of Bathory's "Call from the Grave", set to a pompous level of production with requisite crashing percussion and some added depth. A good choice, and a good band to pursue a cover song (I love what Moonspell did with Depeche Mode's "Sacred"). Hermeticum sounds quite fantastic, a dark and fun trip through the band's devilish roots, which had at this time been supplanted in their main band for more 'relevant' fare (though still intelligent and well written). The lyrics might seem a little dire or primitive, but then that's the source from which they were inspired. I'd easily recommend this to a fan of any and all Moonspell up to Sin/Pecado.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (guilt is growing)

Damnatory - The Madness Never Ends (1990)

1990 was the year Swedish death metal really started breaking out, due to the explosion of Entombed's brilliant debut Left Hand Path, but there was still a carry-over from the thrash scene, and not all bands were to stalk the trail into a renaissance of Euro brutality. One exception was the short-lived entity Damnatory, who played a pretty unique brand of thrash metal laced in power/traditional heaviness that often skirts along the doomed terrace of their countrymen Candlemass. This is not through the vocals, which are more haughty and grunted here than a Messiah Marcolin, but in some of the thick, crushing rhythms. The majority of the material on The Madness Never Ends is not of a faster nature, but instead plods along at a mid pace with powerful thrash riffing.

Are the riffs any good? Well, not very often, but the album makes up this deficit with a bit of personality that simply stood distinct from its peers. "Nailed to the Cross" begins with the same 'hallelujah' intro found on Sabbat's "The Church Bizarre", then into some slower rhythms over which the vocals often soar like a monk staring in sadness at his savior on the rack. "War Without Sense" is a more pumping thrash number, and here the vocals are far cooler, with an angry pitch that sounds like some man with a pitchfork shouting down at you from his mountainside farm. Thus the slightly doom permutation that howls through the music. I rather enjoyed this track for several of its riffs, but it does feel a little forced in the transitions, and the bass is mighty loud. "Money" starts at a percussion-led trot, then cycling through some more throw, chuggy power/thrash rhythms with half-decent leads interspersed throughout. Seems a little messy, but again I kind of liked the vocals.

Highlights of the album are rather scarce, because there doesn't feel like a lot of deviation in the way the bands present their songs, but a few moments catch the ear, like the bludgeoning simplicity of the instrumental "Beyond and Back", the epic 8+ minute journey "Cemetary of Life" which is half decent, drawn out thrash, or the more direct force of "Scars Within the Psyche" and speed of "Into My World Beyond". "Infinity" is also worth hearing, I like the atmosphere and the slow, plodding certainty of the tried and tested riffing, plus the vocals which soar off like some cosmic doom monger.

The Madness Never Ends is a decent record to track down if you can tolerate its thick atmosphere and a production that might feel rather dated to some. The vocals have a lot of reverb, the guitars are thick and crunchy and the bass thick as the man sauce gathered at the monastery wall, with tinny little drums crashing along behind it all. It's probably a pretty good collector's item, but there's more than enough decent music to back it up. Try and imagine a mix of Sabbat (UK), Candlemass and Hallows Eve. Sounds pretty amazing? Well, for me that is what Damnatory had conjured here. Had they gone on to produce more, they might have made a worthy contender against bands like Memory's Garden, Tad Morose or Morgana LeFay.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Dead & Bloated - You Don't (1992)

I've said it many times before, but by 1992 thrash was already in the oven and ready for a good, deep cooking, that is if your name wasn't already Metallica, Slayer or Megadeth. Thus, it pains me so greatly to look at a debut album coming out in this year from a band who had already committed a few demos in the late 80s. Not to say that Dead & Bloated were one to show a considerable level of worth. In fact, the lamely titled You Don't is nothing more than an average offering which felt tired even for two decades ago, but had this very same album dropped a few years prior, it might have ridden the wave of California thrash to at least accommodate some small measure of cult worship and respect.

Perhaps the most delirious and noteworthy element to this record would be the vocals, which are a link in the chain more biting than most thrash or crossover bands of this period. Steven Kubit had a voice like a gremlin, or like the more cruel lines used on Annihilator's great Alice in Hell record, but used throughout almost the entire record. When they work, they work rather well, creating a vicious and hostile unpredictability that feels like a fresh kill. When they don't work, they're so calamitous that you'll just start cracking up unwittingly. The guitars have a solid but average, hammering tone to them, but they seem to focus more on just the act of thrashing out some swerving rhythms than really evoking memorable melodies or stringing together any truly gripping individual riffs. The rhythm section is a considerable presence, especially the bass guitar, which was actually more common as the genre was moving into a new decade.

What really drags the album down is the utter lack of compelling riff-work, despite the bands attempt to hammer out some earnest anger into the tracks. Take the almost 7-minute length title track, which consists of sloppy and unimpressive thrashing and far too much bass. The band also suffers from the occasional incorporation of a 'funky' presence in the bass, which is perhaps the symptom of a large plague infecting thrash of this period, brought on by the crappy Suicidal Tendencies side-band Infectious Grooves, and the increasing popularity of The Red Hot Chili Peppers in the metal audience, as they all abandoned themselves and started chasing the alternative rock culture chuck wagon. Dead & Bloated are not quite 'funk', but that influence is clearly creeping in here, with the way the bass bounces to the thick, aimless guitar.

Elsewhere, you're just not getting much of worth from these Californians. At best, on a track like "IXL", they sound like their statesmen Sadus, only cornier and not as fast. It's largely the bass sound, once again. "Nuclear Lucifer" might be an average, meaty mosh pit favorite at best, with some truly hostile vocals, but as usual this band is incapable of capitalizing on a good chorus. He usually just barks a little harder, and that's the difference. Most of the album though is not even as compelling as these. "Convulse" is retarded, with some clean guitars and an attempt at a psychedelic vocal line before they burst into a hilariously underwhelming rabble of goofy vocal patterns that peak with a few lines of lyrical repetition that make Les Claypool sound like less of a dork, like some sort of bizarre hoe-down throwdown of idiocy.

In the end, You Don't (I can't get over how bad the fucking title is) is nothing more than an irritating missed chance at a screwball thrash record. The competence of the musicians and the clear production do not compensate for the bad writing and ineffectual, floppy feel of the tunes. Perhaps the band's namesake was all too telling about this genre in 1992, and their sole full-length feels like a truly flaccid, extra limb that just flops around in your way all the time until you finally have the surgeon cut it off at the joint. Obviously the band did not feel so strongly about their work here, since they disappeared soon after.

Vedict: Fail [3/10]

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Defier - Overture of Annihilation EP (1990)

Finland was never quite able to break into the thrashing mainstream back at the close of the 80s or early 90s, despite having a few top flight acts like Stone or A.R.G., but then, very few European countries were successful in that medium outside of Germany (and to a lesser extent, England). There were a number of solid but not standout bands kicking around just below the surface, and for a few brief years, Defier was one of them. This EP, Overture of Annihilation may have never made it to a label, but it was given an independent release into the hands of enough folks that it's out there on the web at least.

Basically, Defier sound like a Finnish equivalent to the California thrash legends Testament. This is due to the vocals of Ami. His voice isn't as powerful and churlish as Chuck Billy, but he uses a similar excess of melody to the barking that creates a similar aesthetic. Riff-wise, this band was fairly forceful, as chunky as some of the earlier Stone records, but also structurally reminiscent of the British band Xentrix, albeit rougher in production. The leads are fast and frivolous, and not mixed into the riffage very well, but in all its a decent lo-fi production that can get the heads banging, though it won't last much longer than it takes to develop a strain.

"Blinded by the Preach" has some savage riffs, but its also the closest sounding to Testament, lacking only in the atmosphere of Skolnick's dark, bleeding solos. Once Ami breaks into the chorus, it sounds very similar to a song like "Sins of Omission" from Practice What You Preach. It doesn't help that the intro to "Capital Punishment" also sounds a little similar to something like "Alone in the Dark", and there is not much strength to the riffs here aside from the propulsive force of the track. "System of Oppression" sounds almost precisely like the first two songs, with more chugging, thick guitars, one of which is reminiscent of something from Xentrix' For Whose Advantage?, which came out the same year. The closing track on the EP, "In a Tunnel of Pain", oozes a thick bass-line into some thundering drums and chords, and then a descending Slayer-like melody, before some rolling chugs. Its perhaps the best song on the EP, but then that really isn't saying so much.

There is nothing particularly terrible about Defier. They clearly draw on their influences and attempt to create a similar atmosphere, without much ambition to the writing. If you're a total whore for the first three Testament records, and just want something in a similar style, then you could think of this almost as a cover band, but the songs simply do not provide worthwhile riffs and virile energy for a replay, in any case. After a few more years, and one demo, the band was merely a tax write-off.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]