Thursday, September 30, 2010

Myrath - Hope (2007)

After having my mind blown sufficiently by this Tunisian band's sophomore Desert Call earlier this year, I felt it pertinent to track down their 2007 debut and see what I had been missing. Never before had I been exposed to metal of any sort from this particular country, least of all a band who can trump American favorites like Symphony X and about half of Dream Theater's catalog while fully fusing their own cultural perspective as a native influence in their composition. Hope is not quite so powerful as its successor, but it does mold itself around an impressive center-piece, with a number of other tracks also shining through the din of mediocrity to cement a pleasurable listen for fans of power/progressive hybrids.

The center-piece is of course the 11 + minute "Seven Sins" which dominates the core of the album. Here Myrath calmly develop a mystique through both eerie synthesizers, busy bass and an almost doom metal gone progressive wackjob in the guitars. Keyboardist Elyes Bouchoucha's escalating vocals are superb, almost as if he's mixing a little of James Hetfield's earlier edge in with the more melodic voice, and as the track transitions through each phase, delightful surprises await, like the moody breakdown around 4:30, the power metal surge after the lead around 6:00, or the later piano rock sequence after 7:00. A tasteful integration of both ambition and superb musical quality, it's the most powerful individual track found here. There are other lengthy pieces like "Hope" and the finale "My Inner War", the latter of which is bristling with jazzy funk which later develops into some jarring metallic components.

Of the shorter fare, the intro offers Middle Eastern percussion and synthesizers that immerse the listener directly into the rich history of Myrath's region. The muddy deep end grooving guitar tones of "Last Breath" part for some excellent bass playing and an overall ark that feels like Jorn Lande jamming with Symphony X, albeit with a cooler guitar tone than Michael Romeo's. "Fade Away" is the power ballad, slowly cruising from folk to electric, and while its not a favorite of mine here, it's far from bad. "All My Fears" answers this doldrums with angry gang shouting, impressive shredding and intimate energy, though it too is not one of the better songs. "Confession" has its highs and lows, with muddy chugging guitars, Bouchoucha impressive as he conjures a little angst, but the most impressive moments arriving in the Dream Theater-like jam that steals away the song in the bridge.

No, Hope did not leave me salivating quite so much as the follow-up, but clearly its impressive enough in its own right to satisfy progressive metal fans. You can hear the band developing their fusion of ethnic melody and more contemporary tactics that will thrust them into the top tier of this genre's acts, but the songs just don't have the beautiful power of Desert Call. The mix is pristine, the musicianship tight and fluent, and "Seven Sins" alone is worth giving the album a listen, but if you're new to the band I feel you might be better served by the sophomore.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Iron Fire - Metalmorphosized (2010)

I don't know what it is with all the power and traditional metal bands lately, incorporating 'metal' into the album titles. Gamma Ray drops To the Metal. Halford is Made of Metal. Helloween's new single asks "Are You Metal?" Is this some poignant statement? Is it necessary for the kiddies, so they don't mistake this shit for rap music? Or is it just pure laziness? I'm going to lean towards that last option. At any rate, Iron Fire is the latest to jump aboard this sad wave of album title faux pas, with Metalmorphosized, their sixth full length. Arriving at the rise of power metal's popularity in the turn of the century with a debut reminiscent of Running Wild, I don't think there are many who thought the Danish group would survive once the wave broke.

This is primarily due to the voice of Martin Steene, of course, who has quite a set of pipes, but delivers his melodic lines in such nasal force that they often prove more humorous than serious, though the lyrics are anything but the former. Still, Iron Fire have occasionally produced a worthwhile effort in the past decade, such as last year's To the Grave, and Steene's qualified enough that one can just get used to him. Metalmorphosized is a sort of special occasion, a 10 year anniversary since their Thunderstorm debut, so the band have brought back a lot of their former members to guest on tracks. The songs themselves are a mix of new compositions and tracks from the band's career gap between On the Edge (2001) and Revenge (2006), so it is arguably a clean sweep of the stables as much as a novel representation of the band.

The trademarks of German power metal anthems are all present in Iron Fire's sound, with a slight twist of the Finnish scene ala Stratovarius or Sonata Arctica. Steene likes to mix in melodic death grunts or blackish rasps into his more typical, high pitched fare, and this can often create a disconcerted effect which might be functioning as intended. For example, in "The Underworld" they serves as a distraction, where this would otherwise have been an upbeat, excellent track (taken from the band's 2003 demo). In the opener "Reborn to Darkness", the heavier, crushing tones of the riffing, futuristic spin on the synths, and the immediate use of the melodic death vocals tricked me into thinking the band had shifted to a Soilwork style, but soon enough Steene switches into his highs and you're left with a bizarre mix of the two. Normally I'm not opposed to power metal bands incorporating outside influences, since the formula is so rarely deviated from, but I'm not sure I was welcoming of this here.

Still, the majority of tracks here play it safe, like the charging "Back in the Fire", the graceful and grooving "Nightmare", and the ripping glory of "Left for Dead". "Drowning in Blood" and "The Graveyard" are both decent anthems, and the closing "Phantom Symphony" shifts through a number of aggressive and ballad-like segments in its 10 minutes of existence. "Riding Through Hell" takes the band's Running Wild influence to an appreciable level of aggression, and this was perhaps my single favorite track on the album. Unfortunately, aside from this and a few other moments, Metalmorphosized is neither as memorable as its predecessor (which just barely made muster), or much of a standout among superior efforts in the genre.

The mix is great, the riffs heavy, and nothing truly offensive present unless the harsh vocals will turn off the power purist, but as sugary as the songs are written, they feel like the last satisfying pack of bubble gum you purchased. Cheap thrills that last only briefly before they blow up and you spit them into the garbage can. Iron Fire can write a chorus or a solo, or incorporate a thicker grooving tone to the bottom end, but all this is moot when I have no desire to instantly skip back to replay a track, and I found no such inspiration here even after a few complete playthroughs.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Halford - IV: Made of Metal (2010)

After the past two mediocre Judas Priest albums Nostradamus and Angel of Retribution, and the only marginally entertaining Christmas album Rob released last year, I have to admit that I was not quite excited for his next true, original-loaded solo venture. Then, when the single for "The Mower" dropped, I was even further perplexed, for it featured Rob's Painkiller era screaming over some extremely weak, chugging riffs that did absolutely nothing of note. Fast forward a few months, and you can see the terrible cover art to his latest album, Made of Metal. Yes, by this point, expectations were not running high at all! But, you see, Halford is just one of those folks one should NEVER count out, because lo and behold, this new record is the strongest he's done since his first solo under the Halford moniker, Resurrection, trumping Crucible in the overall songwriting.

Yes, Made of Metal is far better than it has any right to be, especially when you consider this man's age. But his vocals are still on top, conjuring up a performance here that should prove a thrill to fans of his 80s work like Turbo, Defenders of the Faith and all leading up to the amazing Painkiller. This is also a fairly diverse album, with Rob trying his hand at new subjects and slight tweaks to the formula he's been a part of for nigh on 30 years. You've got your more modern power metal with NWOBHM roots, namely "Fire and Ice" with its descending, gorgeous slopes of melody, and then a number of pure old school Priest-like pieces via "Speed of Sound", "Hell Razor", "We Own the Night" and two of the strongest songs the man has written in forever, "Like There's No Tomorrow" and the "Breaking the Law"-like "Matador", the latter showing him in extremely strong form vocally, arguably the equal of anything in his career, with hard as hell drumming courtesy of veteran Bobby Jarzombek.

The whole band turns in an amazing performance here, with Metal Mike Chlasciak and Roy Z ousting their prior lead work on Resurrection and Crucible, and Mike Davis throwing it all down with his steady, powerful plucking. The solos are all well written, adding interesting aspects to the songs that go above and beyond a mere formulaic acknowledgment of the rhythms beneath. This is especially true of "Matador" or the arena metal anthem "Thunder and Lightning". There are very few songs on this album I would kick out of bed for crackers. Strike that, only one. And if you were paying attention, you'll know exactly which I mean. Thankfully, "The Mower" is tacked on to the end of the album, almost as if Halford & company saw the reactions from the early release and realized it was not the single they might have been expecting. But alas, it still remains, a stain of poison in an otherwise pure, delicious apple. A few of the other tracks suffer lyrically, like the ballad "Twenty-Five Years", the metal boxing anthem "Undisputed" and the goofy but lovable robot alien sci-fi schlock of "Made of Metal" itself, which...sort of addresses the cover image?!

The Made of Metal mix is quite superb, and perhaps this is one of the reason's Rob sounds so good. He literally soars across the metalscape, but not at the expensive of the instruments. The rhythm guitars are given excellent crunch, the melodies ringing off beautifully into the night, and the drums are loud, clear, and forceful. Like the latest from Accept, or Saxon's excellent streak through the late 90s to the present, it's an album that enforces the cliche of 'old dogs with new tricks'. Surely, Halford is paying tribute to his own career, but this is once again about getting with the times, without losing what made you so important in the first place. My hat is off to this living metal deity, now if only he could convince Priest to write something has been far too long.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

October Tide - A Thin Shell (2010)

13 years have passed since October Tide's monumental melodic death/doom debut Rain Without End, and in the interim, the duo of Jonas Renkse and Fredrik Norrman have gone on to a huge career with their primary band Katatonia. Ironically, Norrman and his brother just quit in the winter of 2009, after the release of the excellent Night is the New Day, so decided to focus his efforts on getting this band back on its feet from its decade long slumber. Of course, he'll be doing it without Jonas Renkse this time, who remains in Katatonia. Nor is he doing this with Mårten Hansen, who replaced Jonas for the barely passable sophomore Grey Dawn in 1999.

Actually, the entire lineup, with the exception of Fredrik Norrman, is new to October Tide, if not new to the Swedish scene in general. Tobias Netzell of In Mourning handles the growling, and does a pretty smash up job of it, channeling the deep and full grunts of Renkse on the debut. Drummer Robin Bergh has been brought over from Amaran, Emil Alstermark on the second guitar, and session bass for A Thin Shell is provided by Jonas Kjellgren of Scar Symmetry, Centinex, and several other noted Swedish bands. Thankfully, the band heads straight back to the source of their initial momentum, the slow paced, beautiful melodies of Rain Without End. Grey Dawn, which was not a terrible album, but a dive down in quality, is ignored completely. This is to the band's advantage, as that sophomore was not held in very esteem, and if October Tide is bent on becoming a full time act as opposed to its initial Katatonia side project status, they should be providing their best doomed leg forward.

Like the debut, there are but seven compositions here, and all are solid, though I've developed a preference for the latter half of the album. "A Custodian of Science" comes out gunning with the unmovable chords and sailing melodies of Rain Without End, as if an apology for those years of absence, but it never quite develops any truly sticking riffs. Nevertheless, it's a tasteful balance of calm, clean guitars and roiling bass with crashing walls of melody, and certainly true to the band's M.O. "Deplorable Request" saunters along even more slowly, descending lines tailing off in the blunt chords, a little chugging for heaviness and a warmth in the note selection that merges well with Netzell's growling, joined here by a second, snarling vocal. "The Nighttime Project" is mellow and frightening, the best track up to this point, an instrumental with some memorable guitar lines that leads into the lurching "Blackness Devours", which surprisingly seems to have a little bit of stoner doom shoved into its lead-in groove.

Deeper still, "The Diving Line" provides a crash course in what made a Rain Without End or Katatonia's Brave Murder Day so divine, pretty much the perfect selection of notes, distant, echoed melodies dancing off against the elegance and power, and I adore the bridge riff here as it transforms from beautiful to eerie. "Fragile" returns to a lurching gait, but the chords are captivating, the leads just icing on the cake as it picks up to majestic, crashing heights, Netzell the very match of Renkse on the debut, if not better. "Scorned" closes the album as its most moody offering, guitars transforms sparse sheens of sonic, depressive rain while the beat rocks off minimally into the depth of ages, as if your lens were being slowly pulled away from the glass autumn globe on the cover as the winds of time begin to erase all happiness. Not the best song here, but a fitting finale to a fairly impressive return to form.

A Thin Shell allows us to forget the past decade, and perhaps even to forget Grey Dawn, because it's the natural sequel to Rain Without End that a lot of fans likely desired. It's certainly not as riffy as that debut, or rather, the guitars are not quite so strong, but the wonderful production creates a new depth to the procession which makes it emotionally potent. I often find myself drifting off to a lot of the melodic death/doom acts, and not in a good way. The same can be said for certain moments of this album, perhaps a part of "Scorned" or "Blackness Devours", but the rest serves as an attention holding lamentation. "The Nighttime Project", "The Dividing Line" and "Fragile" are the only true standouts, but as a whole it does not disappoint those who have been patient for its arrival.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Flesh Consumed - Ecliptic Dimensions of Suffering (2010)

It almost seems unfair that California is producing so many of these sorts of technical, brutal death metal bands in the 21st century, tilting the nation into a lopsided plain of brutality. Granted, the style is not for everyone, and dissenters who disdain any material which sounds as if it were created post-1993 are unlikely to have a change of heart here, but I rather enjoy the work of Severed Savior, The Faceless, Decrepit Birth, Odious Mortem, Inherit Disease and so forth. Flesh Consumed fits right into this pattern, another talented bunch of maniacs whose visceral apple doesn't fall far from the tree of entrails, conjuring a brand of polished brutality that delights in lobotomizing the skull with whirls of technical shredding in between drawn out passages of slamming rhythms and terrifyingly brutal drum work.

If you were to trace the band's roots back, further, of course you'd arrive at the usual suspects of Deicide, Suffocation, Gorguts, Cryptopsy, Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel, all via Deeds of Flesh, a band that also seems to have influenced many of these fresher acts. The members all have experience with other small time underground acts like Vaginal Discharge, Lacerated and Eviscerated, with drummer Ron Casey also serving double duty in the more technically intense (but less interesting) Brain Drill. Casey is as much a beast here as that other project, his feet and wrists constantly hammering each thrilling blast, honing each slower, stomp rhythm with added complexity. Vocalist Corey Athos has the stock bark down, and the guitarists are both well versed in the genre to offer constantly shifting panoramas of extremity that do not dull the attention when listening.

The band is at their best when busiest, with winding monstrosities like "Immortality Through Infinite Consciousness" and "Caverns of the Disembodied", which keep the mind attached as they explore a wide variety of intricate riffs and cavernous, claustrophobic horrors. There is enough of a groove element to satisfy the slam-death enthusiast, but the band are never quite so simple, so if you're not enamored of intense barrages of guitar work as in modern Cannibal Corpse or Decrepit Birth, you might seek your grisly entertainment elsewhere. I liked the strange interludes performed, like the guttural spoken word of "Forever Chained", warped guitars of "Valleys of Rust" and the eerie, scattershot ambiance of "Doomed", and it might be interesting to hear these elements incorporated more directly into the songs, but Flesh Consumed fire on most cylinders here, and even the crudest ass stompings like "Interspecific Coalesce" and "Chamber of Torture" deliver the goods. There are also a few guest spots from Luc Lemay (Gorguts) and Erik Lindmark (Deeds of Flesh) on vocals, and Craig Peters of the similar Arkaik contributes a solo.

Ecliptic Dimensions of Suffering is more of the same, at least if you've been following this style now for the nearly two decades it has been made manifest. I mean, ask me as a teen if I ever would have thought fare this extreme would become 'garden variety', and I would have looked at you with astonishment. But at the least it's well written and entertaining, if you can shut out the fact that the music is largely interchangeable with any number of similar acts. Modern death metal has become a contest of riffing patterns, technical marvel and otherworldly atmosphere and lyrics, all of which Flesh Consumed do offer here, if not as far out on the spectrum as several of their peers. This is easily an album I'd turn to when seeking out this brand of Californian brutality, with intricate riffing aplomb, so it's worth a listen and probably a purchase if you're down with the band's peers.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Mutiny Within - Mutiny Within (2010)

Mutiny Within is just the latest in an ever increasing cycle of trend bands signed by a label like Roadrunner Records in their unending, desperate appeal to the masses, and the almighty dollar sign. Though the band itself was formed in 2002, and cranked out a number of demos since, they have ultimately arrived at the same metal lite, disposable platform of the artists they emulate: Killswitch Engage, God Forbid, The Black Dahlia Murder, All That Remains, etc. You'll also hear the clear nods to In Flames, Dark Tranquillity, and even a little Nevermore here in the thrashing, modern technique of the guitars and one of Chris Clancy's myriad vocal personalities, but it seems every time this New Jersey outfit has the head pumping along in appreciation, it seems as if they are contractually bound to poop all over themselves and fuck it up...

Let me make this clear: if Mutiny Within cut out about 25% of the elements found on this album (the trendy, weak ones) you would have a competent if forgettable onslaught of modern melodic death/thrash which would have Nevermore and Soilwork fans touching themselves in all manner of fond places. However, that is simply not the case, and the excellent lead efforts and versatility of the riffing and keyboards seem to be lost here, yet another album that all the MySpace fans will forget come next Saturday when the next hot ticket arrives at the Hot Topic. It's really a shame, because if you look at the band's history, numerous line-up changes, it is clear that these are folks who have persisted at their career...only to arrive at this?!

First off, the vocals are far too schizoid. Not schizoid in that they sound entertainingly insane, but schizoid in that Chris Clancy takes too many styles on a test drive. He must literally be using a dozen different voices on this album, including heinous Good Charlotte, My Chemical Romance radio rock chorus style and some of the worst US metalcore growls I've ever heard. He needs to pick a few and just stick with them, because its incredibly fucking distracting. For example, on the song "Falling Forever", he proves he would have a pretty good power/prog metal voice, with a little bit of constipation in there that hints at decent anger. But even here he botches it up with throwaway melodic radio chorus parts. Is this American Fucking Idol? Are you Chris Daughty or Adam Lambert? Or both? in "Images", he lays on harmonies with himself, but sadly these are undermined by the really generic metalcore barks. The tragedy is that the man can actually sing, and I wish he'd pick a straight up, bad ass metal voice and stick to it.

Next, the music itself, while undeniably competent (especially the guitars) is the kind that is too quickly forgotten on contact. They know how to carve out a melodic outbreak that feels soothing and pleasant to the ear while being a strenuous exercise on their hands, i.e. "Images" or "Undone", the latter of which seems like a modern Dark Tranquillity track. These guys are far better riffers than peers like Killswitch Engage and the all too sucky In This Moment, but aside from that cheap and brief uplift you feel when you turn on the radio and hear the latest pop-punk sensation, there is just no one home. I feel like a little more inherent darkness and anger would do the band good, not just through mosh rhythms or anything like that, but carry those Gothenburg influences or the Nevermore-like riffing to its logical end, aggression, instead of making 'light' and 'pretty' with every damned song on the album. "Suffocate" is an example of a positive direction, a track that might have fit on This Godless Endeavor or Enemies of Reality, with cyclic, complex riffing and a few of the less annoying vocals on the album (though even this suffers from the radio syndrome).

There is a lot of talent hiding under the trendy facade of this band, if only it could be harnessed in a direction that wouldn't immediately escape the memory five minutes after impact. If they could cut out the disease of wanting to be 'big' and 'offer something for everyone' including the 14 year old schoolgirls that must think they are the hottest thing since Rose Funeral, then we might be onto a killer band. I'd like to hear Mutiny Within write a straight power/prog or melodic death metal album and kick some ass, because I've no doubt they could contribute to the growth and persistence of metal music rather than fall into the desperate cash grabbing of poseurs while the going is hot. I threw up in my mouth at least once per track here, and my teeth and tongue are as unhappy as my ears.

Verdict: Fail [2.5/10]

Martriden - The Unsettling Dark (2008)

After the band's Martriden EP, there was no doubt a feeding frenzy of interest due to their highly professional, polished pedigree of the Montana band, and thus it is no surprise that Candlelight Records licensed the band's debut full-length album from Siege of Amida for release in the North American territories. The Unsettling Dark is a direct continuation of the musical ideas put forth on the prior EP, so you can expect a lot of unhallowed, massive atmosphere affixed to the primal battering of the drums and rhythm guitars that tend towards the more basal, chugging elements of the spectrum. This atmosphere arrives in both the near constant use of synthesizers against the backdrop, and the melodies shot off across the bough of the moshing torment.

This also marks the beginning of Martriden's fixation with conceptual themes that run though the course of their albums. Here, of course, we are dealing with fate, death and purgatory, while the later (and somewhat better) Encounter the Monolith deals with more cosmic proportions. Don't let the beautiful, spectral female figure gracing the cover fool you for too long, this is a harrowing, pummeling affair offering a lot of broken and bruised limbs to those who decide to explore it in the local pit. But let's not sell it short, it is better written than the previous EP and the band are by no means a one trick pony, just as high on creating an atmospheric whole as they are kicking your ass back into the Montana woodlands from which their creative impetus erupted...

...and kick your ass they will, once the morose intro piece passes into the gloom, all octave chords spanned over chugging, a discordant tail chord quickly ceding to the neck breaking rhythms that inaugurate "The Enigma of Fate". Choppy, convoluted thrashing melodies and walls of mesmeric torment characterize the next 5:30 minutes, the band almost decided to leave nothing of you left to experience the rest of the album. I can't say most of the riffs here are individually thrilling, but as a whole they deliver the Martriden experience pretty seriously, and fit flush with the next track, "The Calling", which is nearly as punishing, though slightly more atmospheric, with a fine melodic bridge to it. The two-parter "Ascension" first offers an escalating juggernaut, the most progressive piece on the album thus far, and then a mellow but climbing instrumental second half that becomes quite immersive when the chords begin to charge. Ascension, indeed.

At this point, it's back to the bone breaking, "Processional for the Hellfire Chariot", which opens like a heavier, crushing Testament and then dissolves into a chugging, squealing morass sure to snap any limbs left over from the first few tracks. "The Unsettling Dark" bounces back to calm, its intro segment beautiful and lush with the ringing synthesizers and well constructed clean guitars...this is, of course, not going to last, and within a minute they'll be laying out the biggest smackdown of the album, in which I'd consider my favorite song here. "Prelude" and "A Season in Hell" also deliver the formula tastefully, the former a dreadnought of dementia, the latter eclipsing its big grooves with transcendent keyboard-driven atmospheres and bouncing, curiously thick thrashing fervor. The finale, acoustic instrumental "Immaculate Perception" incorporates some Rachmaninoff into its blissful awakening, like rising from a bad dream.

The Unsettling Dark is more than appropriate as a debut album, building upon the fragments of potential that characterized the EP before it. The individual riffs are better, and it better regulates the balance of brute, storming momentum and periods of frightening calm. Again, Martriden is a very accessible brand of extreme metal, in both the production values and the actual composition. You will not find infinite layers of complexity, much of the material just hammers you up front. That is not to marginalize the proficiency of the band, each player here is taut and excellent, but they rein themselves in far more than, say, your average frenzied West Coast modern USDM band. The album is not short on ambition, even though its individual elements might seem familiar when deconstructed, and thus it is well worth hearing.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (the path burned into my eyes)

Martriden - Martriden EP (2006)

Martriden is one of the better up and coming bands out of Midwest America, performing a delicious mix of melodic black and death metal with a tasteful penchant for grooves that never grow tired upon the conscience like so many of the awful metalcore and deathcore bands our country is spitting forth this past decade. It's also a little hard to pin their sound down. Surely you'll hear a little of Emperor in their sweeping overtures and sweeping leads, with a bit of Morbid Angel or Deicide in the vocal delivery, but the band's slow and rolling momentum conjures a dread majesty over brick house chugging not unlike Fear Factory or Meshuggah. The real strength is to capture these various elements and then from them, craft potent songs that each stand on their own and offer rewards on multiple listens through.

The band also benefits from enormous production values that put most professional, better known artists to shame. Even as far back as this s/t debut EP, the guitar tones are perfectly thick and bruising, the leads cutting straight through, the rhythm section present and powerful, and the barking vocals mixed just above the primal force that powers the band. These are not complex compositions by any means, but the band delights in just the proper balance of melody and brutality to capture the ear and not let go despite some of the tracks being 7 minutes plus. Martriden features four tracks not available on the later, greater albums (The Unsettling Dark and Encounter the Monolith), so it's well worth hunting down through Siege of Amida for that reason.

"Blank Eye Stare" creates steady bombast with the double bass and darkly escalating guitars, streams of melodic chords ringing out against the thrashing fist of the rhythms, like a pendulum of punishment. There's an acoustic segue serving as centerpiece here, gloriously executed like something In Flames might have done back in their heyday of the mid 90s, with some fine double leads. "The Art of Death Infernal" opens like a more aggressive Death, proceeding into a killer old school death metal drive in the verse, drums thundering below with a churning stride, while "In Death We Burn" incorporates tasteful melodeath guitars into perhaps the most memorable and satisfying piece on the EP, if you don't mind this style. "Set a Fire In Our Flesh" opens with a calming segment of bluesy guitars and atmosphere before the pendulum returns, circular riffing that can stir madness from within the listener as the double bass rolls below, plus a pretty sweet riff at 1:30 beneath the keyboard.

As a demo or debut EP, Martriden is quite exemplary, with sound quality that should have immediately stirred the interest of labels and fans alike. I wouldn't number these compositions among their very best. They go down smoothly, with suitable force, but there are certain individual riffs here that seem a little dated or familiar due to their similarities with bigger groove metal acts. However, the Montana band deserves credit for dressing these elements into a sustainable medium, never fickle or quite forgettable, and its great to see how they expand upon this process over the upcoming albums. Martriden is by all means a 'modern' metal band. They don't dwell in the 70s or 80s, taking only rudimentary queues from the 90s, so those who wouldn't touch a Meshuggah, Gojira, Daath, Mnemic, or the more modern works from Morbid Angel, Nile and Fear Factory might be put off by the clarity and general accessibility of the content, but this is nevertheless a fine introduction to a fine act.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]
(not if death will take me first)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Crown - Doomsday King (2010)

A decade after The Crown made their 'definitive' statement of fuel injected death/thrash, Deathrace King, they have yet again surfaced their royalty in Doomsday King, which feels as if the years have passed almost without skipping a beat. Of course, those beats did actually pump at the heart of the band, and they cycled through a number of vocalists like Tomas Lindberg (At the Gates) and their original frontman Johan Lindstrand (now with One Man Army and the Undead Quartet), producing decent efforts like Possessed 13 and Crowned in Terror, but despite the presence of yet another vocalist here in Jonas Stålhammar (God Macabre, Utumno), the material feels thematically close to their turn of the century blitz.

The rest of the lineup here is retained from the band's heyday, after transforming from the more melodic/black metal oriented Crown of Thorns. Janne Saarenpää still hits like a motherfucker, Marcus Sunesson and Marko Tervonen focus the impact of their riffing like artillery fire, bassist Magus Olsfelt plodding along, loading up more shells into the gunnery. A lineup this tight and well acquainted have no other option than to execute a solid beating upon the listener, and to that extent, Doomsday King delivers adequate bruises. Doomed tolling and doomier guitars herald the title track, as thick chords broil towards the thrash and thrust of the inevitable blade storm the band are packing in their imaginations. Stålhammar proves very quickly that he is the right person for this job, with a death metal bark closer to Lindstrand than Lindberg, and then we are off to the races with the Slayer influenced (in both title and riffing) "Angel of Death 1839", a volley of brutality that should get get the windmills swinging in the pit.

The rest of the album shifts between two poles. The stupendous, manic thrashing of "Age of Iron", "Soul Slasher" and "Desolation Domain" are all yet again heavily influenced by Slayer, only with this band's thick death metal drive and a dash of the Swedish death of At the Gates, Entombed and so forth. Then you've got your longer, more fleshed out tracks like "From the Ashes I Shall Return" and "He Who Rises in Might, From Darkness to Light", both of which have a number of superb riffs, and atmosphere to boot. "He Who Rises in Might..." comes the closest to sheer death metal brutality, and the drumming here should be pointed out as particularly superb, especially the bridge madness. I feel like my sole favorite on the album would be "Through Eyes of Oblivion", a faster piece with some exceptional riffs that really got the blood flowing through me at an excited pace.

There are not a great number of riffs on Doomsday King which stand out to memory, even after successive spins, but as a whole the record more or less delivers everything this band stands for. As a functional ass kicking, it's easily the measure of their previous two full-lengths and deserves to be placed alongside Hell is Here and Deathrace King as an example of the band's better work. The production is sheer hostility, perfectly married to the warlike riffing as tiny threads of angry melody erupt at the edge of perception. The album is superior to the latest from fellow Swedes Witchery, and it offers no apology in handing you your ass, but the musicality is more violent than durable.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

The Batallion - Head Up High (2010)

The Batallion is yet another of those projects born of a cross section of Scandinavian metal musicians who collectively have a wealth of experience in the field. Tormod Haraldson has played with Helheim, Taake, Dead to This World and Amok; Ole Walaunet with Grimfirst; Kai K Lie with Borknagar; and Tore Bratseth with Old Funeral. Of course, here in The Batallion, they've adopted pseudonyms that better suit the 'fun' and mock danger of the nasty, black thrashing persona, so here you know them as Stud Bronson, Lust Kilman, Colt Kane and Morden, all strangely fitting for this band and in particular this record, which brilliantly compiles a sound from classic black and thrash metal and executes it with an almost Wild West abandon.

Think of the more modern death/thrash or black/thrash sounds adopted by Swedish bands Witchery, Maze of Torment, Bewitched, The Crown and their ilk, and then season them with the more rustic Norwegian tones of Aura Noir or the latest records from Darkthrone. Liberally add a positive sense for lead dynamics that incorporate classic heavy metal influence, and you've got a stunner of an album that is both fist raging and intensely fun. In fact, the deeper into Head Up High you dare to tread, the more rewarding the experience becomes. Not that the initial tracks like "Mind My Step" and "Head Up High" are necessarily bad, for even these are among the best black/thrash I've heard this year, putting the latest Witchery album to shame. But let's just say The Batallion have not front loaded the big guns on their warship this time around!

Once the turrets of "Within the Fame of the Graveyard" explode their shells across your face, the album becomes enormously entertaining, with riffs like a more polished Aura Noir, harsh barking vocals and boundless momentum, not to mention the highly impressive lead sequence around 2:30 in the track. "Thick Skinned and Weatherbitten" continues this trend, excellent but simple old school thrash metal guitars breeding forceful unrest, hammering through each riff pattern like a crew of undead Civil War soldiers intent on finishing what they started. "20 Paces to Death" is another stomper with impressive leads and flawless riff cycles, and the final trio of the album: the Hellhammer meets dirty speed of "Where There is Smoke There is Fire", the steady bombast and bizarre vocals of "The Roaring Grandfather", and the ripping punk/speed of "Bring Out Your Dead" should secure the impression that you've just been fist fucked mighty hard by the spiked gauntlet of old school perdition.

There are flaws here, minor nicks in the bullet belt strewn leather armor of The Batallion that hold it back from complete praise. Stud's vocals are excellent, but they do become monotonous in a few of the verses. The style of the band is obviously not even hinging on unique, but for what it's worth, they mix up the various influences nicely. A few of the songs near the beginning of the album are not as memorable as those deeper in. All of this considered though, Head Up High is still an album well worth owning, a lovable visitation to the realms of the dead if not forgotten tones of the band's influences, thrilling through a large number of spins. It's easily better than the band's debut Stronghold of Men from 2008, so if you fancy a blast from the past in the face of the present, have at it.

Verdict: Epic Win [8.5/10]

Enslaved - Axioma Ethica Odini (2010)

While many did not take to the Norse legends' previous effort Vertebrae, I found it a flawless presentation, a proof of concept to where the band had been steering for a great many years as they grafted a myriad of progressive rock influences into their core Viking black metal aesthetics, exploring their culture and roots in ways few if any bands had dared to tread. I still listen to that album on a regular basis, along with many in the band's history, yet they've already delivered a follow-up here that will also serve me for many years to come, a step backwards and forward simultaneously. Yes, Axioma Ethica Odini has a clear possibility to reinstate those that were dispossessed with the prior record (their loss!), as well as continue to breathe new life into the band's evolving mythology, as a wealth of new fans are bound to pour through the floodgates.

This is a heavier record than Vertebrae, and as I have said, somewhat a step back to other records like Ruun or Isa, in that the band better envelop the progressive rock influences of a Pink Floyd, etc. with more aggressive guitars. However, at the same time, this has the best clean vocals of any Enslaved effort to date, and the consistent lineup here (now four albums deep) ensures that this is perhaps the most coherent writing and execution of their career. Many have complained before that the harsh and clean vocals of the band created a bizarre dichotomy that did not sit well in their ears, and while I've never had this problem myself, I feel like the naysayers should be pleased here, since they are fused together wonderfully. The guitar tones here are brilliant, thick and punctual while incessantly manifesting mood through the well placed chord changes, and Grutle's bass and Bekkevold's drumming are likewise impressive, tethers to the world of iron and bloodshed that the band's dream-like vistas threaten to escape.

You're still running the gamut of the band's sonic exploration here, with numbing, Roger Waters style vocals and an almost jazzy undercurrent to some of the guitars, but Axioma Ethica Odini offers to steer this into newer, bolder territories. "Night Sight" offers mellowing folk extractions that loosely congregate to the foothills of a gathered storm, erupting into a brilliant sequence of jarring rock guitars and then the escalation of granite through earth, as if a mountain to were rise straight from the crust, rather than wait out the millenia for the natural process of erosion. "Lightening" circles about one of the most eerie and fluid guitar riffs the band has written before it slams you straight in the chest with sheer melodic force. "Giants" emphasizes strong Sabbath influence, organs grazing in the distance before the elevating, trippy verse that yet again births a thundering depth and force, as if the leviathans of the title slowly strode across a primordial landscape. "Axioma" itself is a brief yet scintillating, proggish ambient piece, quirky little guitars and echoing narrative placed against the searing, lush synthesizer.

Of course, this wouldn't be an Enslaved record without a few more glorious, direct undertakings, and these populate the rest of the album. "Ethica Odini" transforms from creepy, creaking intro to a surge of driving if predictable chords that foster a highland majesty in between the wild and mighty guitar fills inextricably linked to the soaring cleans. "Raidho" seems a little less stunning at first, but once it builds to the clean/snarl trade-off at its core, you can feel all the pieces to its puzzle locking in step and rapture welling inside the chest. "Waruun" steps carefully, as if through a landscape of sharp rock, creepy chords ringing off against the rhythmic undertow, a minimalist intent betrayed by the sheer sense of adventure this band provokes, while "The Beacon" plays it fairly straight with savage, driving force and another dreamy bridge sequence. "Singular" builds calm but cresting onslaughts of guitar, clean vocals coming at the peaks of waves and the listener can feel the temperature shifting with each rhythm, easily the most interesting guitars on the entire album.

Considering the stunning level of grace and power the band balance here for nearly an hour of playtime, I have had no choice but to become increasingly absorbed into the longing flood of emotion here that achieves almost mythical proportions. My first few runs through its content were met with mixed levels of adoration. I felt it was a far less dry sound than on Vertebrae (which never dulled my appreciation), but wasn't sure if it took me to quite that same level of investment. Having now listened through over a dozen times, finding new steel glinting upon the curves of each consecutive dive, I can once again see that the band have managed to carry the essence of their entire discography forward into a new clime, not shedding their former skins but devouring them, like fine chefs so confident with their previous culinary masterpieces that they have no choice but to once again define themselves, best themselves and blow the tastebuds of every attentive glutton that walks through their kitchen doors. Axioma Ethica Odini deserves top honors. The fact that it is not the first Enslaved album to achieve this is testament to the band's commitment to music above all else. To greatness.

Verdict: Epic Win [10/10]

Monday, September 27, 2010

Algaion - Exthros (2010)

Algaion have now been around for quite some time, nearing 20 years, in which they've only produced three full-length efforts and a few EPs. In fact, since the sophomore offering General Enmity, it has now been 13 years. To be fair, the band have never really broken up in this time, they simply have other projects they've all worked with, and Algaion itself is a tasteful endeavor which will simply manifest when the core duo of Mårten Björkman and Mathias Kamijo feel like they've actually got something to write about. If more bands had this attitude, well perhaps we'd be less knee deep in shit, and only ankle deep, but I suppose concessions must be made for those wishing to use their music to put food on the table.

Nevertheless, each manifestation of this Swedish mainstay has arrived with a new evolution of sound, tracing its core back through their early 90s demos and debut album. Speaking of which, Oimai Algeiou is a favorite of mine among cult Swedish black metal releases, an incredibly vicious affair with disgusting levels of vitriolic vocals meshed with an amazing atmosphere. But there is no doubt that the band have held melody as an integral component of their compositions, and even in those savage, halcyon times, the band could conjure something beautiful. So, despite Exthros being less of a traditional black metal record and more of an interesting, melodic black/death curiosity, it is by no means a surprise that they are heavily focused on mesmerizing the listener through the guitar patterns, a feat which they more or less succeed in here.

I am most reminded of the more recent efforts from Rotting Christ, which use galloping or charging blast beats with choppy, hammering guitar patterns. It's a little ironic, since Exthros contains a cover of "Sign of Evil Existence", from back when Rotting Christ sounded quite different. This inherent influence is felt in "Theos Tou Aimatos" and "Nature Our Slave", both of which pound pretty hard, the melodic infusions like nails shoved uncomfortably into the ear drums of the surprised listener. Tunes like "We Are the Enemy" take this style even further, so directly and intent that you feel the drummer is about to fall off his kit, every string in the band about to snap as each rhythm persists in pounding your head. Robert Eng (Corporation 187, Satanic Slaughter, etc) is like a tightly wound cobra here, constantly striking a different target with each flick of the wrist and ankle.

Thankfully, the pace is changed often enough that the technique never becomes a complete headache: "The Last of Cursed Days" straddles a middle pace, Björkman's vocals conjuring up some of the band's early years, and "This is Our Temple" another graceful departure which should satisfy any fan of thriving, desperate melodic death/thrash (or black) metal. "House of War" has a similar sadness in the intro, with a fine swagger to its verse riffing. The Rotting Christ cover, "The Sign of Evil Existence" is taken from Thy Mighty Contract album (1993), and wedged together with another Greek classic cover, "The Era of Satan Rising" via Thou Art Lord. Both are tidily performed in just over three minutes, and they fit in rather well with the current style Algaion have extracted from their brains here.

Exthros has its qualities, and it's largely a pleasant listen if you don't mind the melodic nature being driven through your mind like a piton that the band is scaling up some windswept mountain wall. However, it hasn't had the same effect on me as the disturbing debut or its more melodic, glorious thrashing and rocking successor General Enmity. That said, it's still worth a listen, whether you appreciate Algaion of years past or you fancy Rotting Christ's recent catalog (Khronos, Genesis, Theogonia, etc.), and I'm glad they haven't forgotten about this band in the intervening years since they last spoke out.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Dimmu Borgir - Abrahadabra (2010)

Depending on which side of the spectrum one lies, Dimmu Borgir is either the most loved or most loathed of Norway's black metal exports, having ridden the road to popularity without any of the usual apologist backpedaling, firmly ignoring the necro diehards that think of them as the very symbol of what they never wanted to happen to the genre. Through it all, the band have consistently written albums that have by no means sucked as hard as they are given credit for, arguably peaking creatively with 1997's Enthrone Darkness Triumphant and making budgetary allowances with the formula since, since the band can now afford to work with actual choirs and orchestras rather than just a keyboard player.

On the other hand, they've not been quite as good as some make them out to be, either, at least not for a decade plus change. Oh, they'll occasionally have a song on their hands that is difficult to deny, like the catchy "Progenies of the Great Apocalypse" which has been used in numerous films, commercials and whatnot. I even found the previous album In Sorte Diaboli to have its moments, but despite the band's ability to create massive, sweeping orchestral black metal epics these past few forays, they never seem able to nail a true masterpiece. Their latest album, the tragically (to some) titled Abrahadabra, we have another case of a symphonic tour de force, that despite all its best intentions and the efforts of the remaining Dimmu core (Shagrath, Silenoz, and Galder), just doesn't really last well beyond the initial impressions made when anyone hears the simmering strings, serious business choral sections and creepy organs.

Since the band parted ways with bassist/clean vocalist ICS Vortex and synth player Mustis a year or so back, there were a few holes to fill here, and they did so using Snowy Shaw for both bass and vocals. Shaw's been quite the metal mercenary of late, working with the recent but sadly mediocre Therion outfit, and he's certainly an adequate replacement here. Drums are played by Darek 'Daray' Brzozowski (Vader, Vesania, etc), with the professional thunder expected of anyone to wield that seat in this band, and there are additional vocal guest spots here from Agnete Maria Forfang Kjølsrud and Kristoffer Rygg (Ulver). Andy Sneap is in the mixing both, and the band have chosen to use the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and Schola Cantorum Choir to round out the proceedings.

I'll add that never before has a Dimmu Borgir record been such an ambitious undertaking. Most of the prior albums had their 'symphonic' element, but this is actually pretty evenly a symphonic black metal record, with the former just as pronounced as the latter. There is so much to take in at any given time that I often found myself listening back through specific segments of tracks to listen for particular melodies I thought I heard. The production is stunning, integrating the orchestra with the largely Spiritual Black Dimensions core of the songwriting. A few of the songs carve out an even further ambition, like Silenoz having his way with some shredding in "Renewal", or the bleak an intriguing dark ambient intro to "Ending and Continuations", with its creepy Shagrath narrative.

But the bulk of the record is sheer drum & orchestra driven fare, like a more distinctly aggressive, black metal alternative to Therion (circa 1996 and beyond), and this is where it both excels and begins to fall apart. Rousing monoliths like "A Jewel Traced Through Coal" and "Born Treacherous" center themselves around traditional Dimmu blasting rhythms and thick, charnel house chords, but the metal riffs themselves almost never seem to be nearly as interesting as what is going on around them, serving only as vehicles to the next sweeping vista of grandeur. This is not for lack of riffs, mind ye, for Silenoz is often churning out a dozen or so per individual song, and he's developed a proficient technical ability. But for some reason, you get the feeling that if you stripped out the orchestra and choir shouting 'Born treacherous!', it would be a middling affair at best, with fast and frenzied but ultimately forgettable guitar lines.

There are a number of 'treats' on the album, so to speak, tracks where the hard work here really comes together, like "The Demiurge Molecule", which has a fresher, more spontaneous feel as the guitars crash along to Shagrath's snarling, subtle currents of symphony choosing submission to the simplistic, slow escalation of diabolic majesty. The pure orchestral pieces like "Xibir" and the bonus track version of "Gateways" show a clear influence from a Hans Zimmer or John Williams, and both make suitable soundtracks to whatever grandiose fantasy you're about to indulge in. Huge choir-driven tracks like "Dimmu Borgir" and "Chess With the Abyss" have their moments of bristling cheese, but despite Silenoz' great playing in the latter, and the mountain high majesty of the former's bridge, they just didn't resonate with me for very long.

Like any release from this particular band, message boards will flare up, virtual battles being waged between the firmanent & purgatory of the bands' lyrical Acheron by anonymous twats and cable modem scholars the world round, Abrahadabra being either praised as the second coming of Death Cult Armageddon or blazed into the cinders of the same prepackaged hatred that always follows the big Norse acts like this around. In reality, it's an album the band have put a great deal of work into, which sadly is just not all that great. Individual components meet their polished prime, perhaps, and one cannot really fault a lack of musical skill or foresight in the structure of such an undertaking, but the moments that lapsed me into an inattentive coma sadly outweighed those of edge of my seat rapture.

If you truly appreciated the band's past catalog beginning with Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, and you've hung on to the edge of your own seat through offerings like Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia, then you'll likely wrench an appreciation out of this roiling mass. If you hate the unconsecrated ground the band walks on, well then take a number, and if you're lucky you'll get to voice a complaint at the front desk before you're forced to shift over to the Cradle of Filth line. Personally, I'm not impressed other than the palpable amount of effort here, but neither will I greet its yawning, pseudo-Satanic eaves with an unending tirade of expletives.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Mega Slaughter - Calls from the Beyond (1991)

Swedish death metal is a fascinating territory to explore, for not only do you have the multitudes of 21st century wannabes riding the train, many of whom are surprisingly adept at aping their idols with the same level of menace and atmosphere, but you've also got the wealth of bands that arrived in the original generation, but never got much attention. There was already an Entombed, a Dismember, a Grave, an who in their right mind would have needed a Mega Slaughter to boot? Well, as it turns out, there are those of us out there who constantly seek more of what the Swedish bands were giving us, a darker and meatier alternative to much of the early Florida scene that was rapidly giving way to the faceless, brutal tech gore porn hordes of the mid 90s.

From what I've already tossed out there, you can gather what this band Mega Slaughter sounds like. They use the thick, bludgeoning Swedish tones of Carnage, Dismember, and Entombed, not only in the actual distortion but the weight given to the huge chords. After a demo, they were signed by the small time label Thrash Records who released some other, similar groups like Epitaph, and Calls from the Beyond shows this young group peaking often, a worthwhile investment of time and energy for the rabid fan of this particular strain. Perhaps the barking grunts of Jens Johansson don't offer the same personality as a Matti Kärki or L-G Petrov, and perhaps even by 1991 the riffing does not feel so original, drawing more heavily from the US forebears than many of the other obscure Swedish hopefuls like Gorement and not always ripping along like a Left Hand Path or Indecent & Obscene. But in the end, there is a stark and primordial feel to the band's riffs which, coupled with the atmosphere and leads, truly delivers.

"Shreds Left Behind" seems a prime example, a mid-paced shuffle of wretched, rotting flesh guitars that draw on old Death and Carcass to produce morbidity. "Into the Decay" channels the warlike, tank treads of Bolt Thrower into a grinding hostility. "False Paradise" which features a riff eerily similar to one found in Pestilence's godly "Echoes of Death", but also some great intro guitars and scathing before the thrashing finale. "Death Remains" leads off with bells and horror before a series of shambling thick chords and then the festering momentum of an early Entombed/Nihilist track, and "Calls from the Beyond" itself is grisly and warlike, down tuned guitars stomping over double bass before the grooves set in. I doubt any of the band's rhythms took more than a few moments to piece together, but despite their crude barbarity, I would find it hard to stand still in their presence.

Mega Slaughter were of course playing it 'safe', and despite its suitable aural oppression, there is nothing about Calls from the Beyond which eclipses its influences by any stretch. This was simply a band wishing to pool together its influences from both shores of the Atlantic into a palpable, crushing testament. I'm not sure how much appeal the record might have had outside of the European death metal fan, and since the album was barely promoted, it never ended up mattering. Another demo was produced, but the band would not survive much longer, another victim of disinterest and overcrowding. Today, those seeking out obscure Swedish death acts like some I've mentioned here (Gorement, Epitaph, Uncanny, Interment, Crematory to name a few) will find just as much to like about this as most of the 'retro' bands like Rogga's Paganizer or Ribspreader, so let the exhumation begin.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Maceration - A Serenade of Agony (1992)

Maceration was the work of Jacob Hansen and Jakob Schultz, the two 'Jakes' of Danish death/thrash cultists Invocation, and a friend, guitarist Lars Bangholt. The sole official release from the project, A Serenade of Agony, was released in 1992 between the Excursion Demise and Weave the Apocalypse albums, and after a few listens, it becomes evident why the project was left on the shelf: it's passable but generic death metal that, for its day, was not offering a lot of new ideas to the genre, whereas the members' main band Invocation was an explosion, a storm of riffing and energy that blitzes past this record without ever turning back to offer condolences.

But despite its shortcomings, which are largely reserved to its songwriting alone, A Serenade of Agony is least a competent middle of the road death metal record which owes some of its charms to that 'other' member joining the Invocation blokes: the unstoppable Day Disryaah, who most know as Sweden's Dan Swanö. Aye, he of Edge of Sanity, Bloodbath and a hundred other bands, in addition to his well regarded production and mixing resume. He operated here under the same pseudonym he would use in some other, earlier projects like the bizarre Pan.Thy.Monium, and his role was that of vocalist and keyboards. The latter appear only briefly throughout the album, in particular the morbid piano intro to "Silent Lay the Gentle Lamb" which then leads into a riff reminiscent of the first few Death albums.

In fact, most of the material bears a similarity to the Florida gods, both Death and Obituary, as opposed to the Swedish flavors of the month. Sporadic bat flights of evil leads grace the very simplistic, bass-thick morass of old school death metal and Dan's full frontal guttural barking, and the tones are consistently pummeling and punishing through tracks like "The Mind Rampant", "The Forgotten" and "Transmogrified". The real issue here is that so few of the songs seem capable of anything more than this vocal atmosphere and passable riffing. There is never a welcome surprise awaiting around any corner, and though the 'menace' of the guitars is clear and present, it never feels so effective as something from Cause of Death or Leprosy. From a proficiency standpoint, the band is well behind Invocation, though that was likely the intent, to create a pure, old school strain of death metal before we had even deemed it 'old school'.

Sadly, for every brief flash of brilliant, wild soloing or insurmountable evil, there are a half dozen or more dull, numbing riffs that feel as if very little effort were placed in their conception, and Maceration ultimately fails to make much of an impression beyond those intrigued by the lineup. The songs had even less of an impact on me than the Edge of Sanity debut Nothing But Death Remains (decent, but not memorable), and when so much fascinating death metal was exploding from European territories, this was very likely to be abandoned by the attention spans of anyone who visited it, despite its few ghastly and morgue-infused moments of depth. I could see someone obsessed with Swanö's many brutal projects tracking this down just to hear his performance, which is adequate as usual, but anyone seeking a riff storm of diabolical potency had better turn elsewhere down the retro path.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Mania - Changing Times (1989)

Changing Times was the first and last full-length effort released by the sadly obscure German act Mania, following up the Wizard of the Lost Kingdom EP from early 1988. It could easily be considered both a triumph and a tragedy, because while it improves upon the prior release in both the songwriting and production territories, it leaves the scar of potential upon the listener's ears, never to be stitched (unless you count Klauke's later, similar band Abraxas), only scratched until eternity has come to pass or some grandiose reboot of the material universe. 'Changing Times', indeed, for once the album had seen its limited release through Noise Records, tucked into the shallow end of a roster of overwhelmingly talented bands, three of the members would evacuate Mania, leaving behind just a few to struggle and ultimately fail to produce.

A few of the qualifying hurdles from the debut remain, manifest primarily through Klauke's vocals, which retain their nasal and often nauseating approach. However, when the man is on fire, he truly destroys any of his work on the previous EP, and you really get the sense that he's a knife waiting to be sharpened (which he is, to an extent, in Abraxas). The guitar tone, on the other hand, has readily improved since Wizard of the Lost Kingdom, with a less processed distinction that gives a warmer appeal to the songs. The segues between cleaner guitars and distorted guitars as in "No Way Back" seem to function well, and Didy Mackel remained one of the more interesting bass players in the prototype years of the modern power metal genre, hammering his strings with beautiful ballast, clearly born of progressive leanings.

The "Prelude" here is not so cheesy as "Muffty's Arrival" from the EP, instead offering a warm and welcome sequence of clean guitars joined in brooding synthesizers and a tranquil but cautionary lead before the listener is confronted with the brick house, dark power metal of "The Expulsion". Mackel's contorted bass lines give the track a similar feel to Watchtower, who would release their amazing Control and Resistance this same year (same label), though Mania is not nearly so complex or as adept at dragging you into the world of the lyrical theme. Still, the chorus is great here, and Klauke gives a quality performance throughout. "Turn Towards the Light" joins writhing, speed metal mutes to bigger emotional chords to create an effect not like the material on Scanner's sophomore Terminal Earth, but the vocals are inconsistent.

This is followed by Mania's first power ballad, "No Way Back", which is competent for this style of song, somewhere between Scorpions and Queensryche, with Klauke lending some of his lower range, frankly superior to most of his shrieking heights. "Be Strong" is an average speed metal number with some of those very shrieks. I like the darker feel to the chords and the sharper, piercing vocals, but the track is probably the weakest on the album and never really goes anywhere you'd like it to. "To the End of the World" opens with a Judas Priest bass pump, and you don't hear many power metal tracks about Arctic expeditions, so there is some novelty, while "The Vision" sees Klauke screaming at a Warrell Dane pitch, though he can't seem to sustain it for all that long. Ditto for the venomous "Violent Time", and I'd also point out the corny if well-meaning "We Don't Need War" as a strong point, though "Gambler" is average at best.

There is a far greater level of consistency to Changing Times that makes it the pick of the band's litter, though Mania produced so few offspring that this might not be so much of a compliment. If you can track down the CD version, you will conveniently also have access to the band's Wizard of the Lost Kingdom EP, all in one place. There are a number of small details I really love about this album, like the great cover art, a robotic fist drawing down the veil of history to reveal a glimmering future scape of steel monoliths. It lends the impression that this might be a science fiction speed metal epic like a Hypertrace. That's not exactly the case, sadly, but the lyrics do dabble in several adventurous subjects, despite their largely generic, cliche titles. In a year that produced great Noise titles like Terminal Earth, Fool's Game or Secrets in a Weird World, it is easy to see how many would pass Changing Times by. It's not nearly as catchy, well-written or distinct, and yet I've always valued it as the curious catalyst to a grand career that might have been.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Mania - Wizard of the Lost Kingdom EP (1988)

Having been an extremely avid collector of the Noise Records roster in the 80s, I often found myself salivating over every release the label would muster, and thus every new band name to appear was a thrill to seek out. Mania was not one of their most successful outfits, but nonetheless when their name appeared on the Doomsday News II compilation in '89 alongside some of my favorite bands like Rage, Watchtower, Coroner, Mordred, Vendetta, and so forth, I was compelled to immediately track down their records, beginning with their EP from the prior year, Wizard of the Lost Kingdom (this had the song "Break Out" from the compilation).

While I wasn't as bowled over by this as most Noise releases of the period, I found a tasteful and competent effort of melodic speed/power metal with some similarities to label mates Scanner, but with an added level of intricacy to the guitars and less of that raw, shrieking power that dominated that band's debut Hypertrace. Another obvious comparison would be Helloween, also from the Noise roster, but there are some differences in the vocals and bombast of the riffing. Speaking of the vocals, they may prove the one barrier to entry for new fans exposed for the first time. Chris Klauke has a high, crystal range which is slightly marred by his accent and an oft overblown tendency to remain in the same, higher register when a more diverse span of octaves might have better suited a song. Once in awhile he'll spike up into a higher pitched scream, but for the most part he's wandering just below the shrieking of say, Peavy of Rage.

Wizard of he Lost Kingdom features five originals, book-ended by an intro an outro known as "Muffty's Arrival" and "Muffty's Departure". "Arrival" is driven by synth sort of like the intro to Helloween's "Halloween", bridging into a sequence of chords and pumping bass line that herald the fairly fast, melodic rush of the title track. While perhaps not so endearing as the work of the band's closest peers (all mentioned in the previous paragraph), the track soundly engages the listener from the verse to the chorus, in which Klauke climaxes with a shriek. The lead sequence cycles a little too briefly through a classical influence, and I don't love the vocal lines through the entirety of the track, but otherwise it's decent. "Night of the Blade", on the other hand, is superior, a slower paced, slamming power metal warning in which Klauke's soaring, biting vocals seem better suited.

After this, the EP continues to pick up, with the delightful power anthem "Gods of Fire", spears of ascending and descending neo-classical guitar lines drawing out a glorious mysticism, while "Under the Sign of the Cross" presents a volley of mid-paced, thrashing fare with some interesting time breaks and a bass that crashes right up against the processed guitar tones. "Break Out" follows, and it's arguably the best track here, with some fluid bass and an edgy, progressive tone to the opening chords before the almost creepy verse patterns erupt. Klauke's vocals are a little loose here, and might have used an additional layer of polish, but despite the strange nasality I find the chorus and riffs here most effective of anything on the release, in particular the bridge and leads.

Mania were not quite up to the level of their close neighbors here, but as a fresh burst of proto-modern power metal, it's a worthwhile curiosity to anyone not put off by heavily accented vocalists or the production of the day. The guitars do feel rather too processed through the album, and might have benefited from more of a raw power that Rage or Scanner was using, but at the same time they give the EP a pretty distinct feeling, and jive well with both Klauke and bass layer Didy Mackel. Wizard of the Lost Kingdom has its small, characteristic flaws, but since it was later released as ad addition to the following, better Changing Times album, then it is worth checking out if you're fascinated by melodic German speed metal with imagination, like Scanner or Reactor.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Montany - New Born Day (2002)

The uproar of melodic European power metal in the late 90s and on into the 21st century was riding on the back of the genre's most popular acts at that time, namely HammerFall, Helloween, Blind Guardian, Primal Fear, Running Wild, Gamma Ray, and Rhapsody, and sadly most of the passengers were naught more than disposable garbage, including the wealth of the bands out of Italy and a load of the German hangers on. Into this mix we cast the band Montany, who despite a very long history (begun in the late 80s) were unable to produce anything of merit until the turn of the 21st century, when their demo Evermore arrived. There were not a lot of Dutch bands astride this wave, so the band's nationality alone was a point of minor interest.

Their skills were tight enough to land them a deal with Limb Music, one of the forerunners in melodic power/progressive metal the world wide, and with New Born Day we got a reasonable effort that was simply not standout enough to stir up the checkbooks and ATM cards of those well into debt with the band's more famous contemporaries. That's not to say there is not a considerable amount of effort here, but I feel it falls squarely on the shoulders of the guitars. The vocalist has a silky and somewhat seductive tone, but not so smooth as say, Andi Deris of Helloween. When the higher ranges are explored, the vocals seem to drift off, losing power at a rapid rate, so he's forced to spit some acid into his mid range, and this is where he seems to fit perfectly. As I mentioned, though, it is the guitars that truly explode off this record, with thick and constant rhythms chugging along below the synthesizer tones, often cut apart by wells of rich melodic rain that mesh in well with the refreshing atmosphere.

The material is highly accessible, like a HammerFall with a touch of 80s hard rock radio nostalgia provoked through the far out of date synthesizer pads, but really the influence is taken from the same source as any other power metal band of this period. Standout tracks include "New Born Day" for the incorruptible, enthusiastic energy of its chorus; "Here in the Light" for the catchy 'whoah oh' backing vocals in its own chorus; "Pyramid of Cheops", which made it here from the demo, a more moody, elegant and progressive piece with a good balance of dense, heavy guitars and mid-paced momentum; and a few more tracks like "Sentenced" and "Deep Water Rising", which remind one of Gamma Ray's output from a few years prior. Despite their similarities to a wide range of peers, though, Montany deserve a little credit for never sounding too much like any one in particular, though individual tracks differ in their level of tribute. "Back from the Sky" sounds very similar to Helloween, Freedom Call, etc, while the riffing on "Higher and Higher" would fit in directly with a Glory to the Brave.

If the pumping heart of the sub-genre suits you, and you don't find yourself pining for anything more than a stock, melodic chorus and some uplifting guitars, New Born Day is probably enough to satisfy your cravings. It sounds professional, the songs almost all tend towards well written, or at least well enough written to survive a brush with mediocrity, and the band is well practiced, though the guitars tend to spasm over everything, occasionally leaving the rhythm section and even the keyboards in their dust. Several things could be better: the vocals, the character of the riffs being the foremost. It's good enough, and a strong enough foundation to build upon, but unfortunately the band split after this release, the flying sarcophagus coming to a halt in some distant galaxy, perhaps never to return...unless their recent reformation and gigging decides otherwise.

Verdict: Win [7/10]