Friday, October 29, 2010

Emperor - In the Nightside Eclipse (1994)

A lot has been said about Emperor through the years, and not all of it flattering (Norwegian black metal + popularity = walking target), but indisputably they were and will always remain one of the most important of the 'second wave' bands within the genre. They also bear a distinction as one of the most 'dignified' in the field, having conquered several shores with their mighty live performances and then choosing to avoid the pitfalls of stagnation when they felt they no longer had much to offer. This decision came after four full length efforts, each of which marked a notable stage of evolution, Ihsahn and Samoth never content to rest on their laurels by rehashing or sidetracking their writing process.

My personal interest in their work waxed and waned through these changing tides, being of the tiny minority that found Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk and Equilibrium IX to be flawed outings beyond a few particular tracks, and later developing a fondness for their divisive grand finale, Prometheus - The Discipline of Fire & Demise. However, I have long treasured their debut In the Nightside Eclipse, not only as the masterpiece of Emperor, but one of the absolute pinnacles of the genre, the sort of rare accomplishment that is reached only a few times in each generation. In fact, I'd go so far to claim that In the Nightside Eclipse is greatest 'symphonic' black metal album ever written, even if that symphony consists of only Ihsahn with a keyboard and vivid imagination.

So much about this record is enormous. The cover is by far one of 'Necrolord' Kristian Wåhlin's most beloved images, a beautiful but menacing moonscape of towers and bridges, vortex clouds, woodland expanses, haunting spirits and battle starved humanoids, almost like the final battle of The Lord of the Rings being played out across a 2D nightmare diorama set against the band's impeccable logo and a wisely chosen, archaic title font: every depraved D&D maniac's dream come true. The production itself is airy and horrific, falling somewhere below a polished state without the intentional marring of fidelity committed by so many of the band's countrymen and peers. Complaints about the mix might be seen as partially valid, for example the rhythm guitars feel mildly faint against the swelling synthesizers and rasp, impish drawl of Ihsahn, but I can honestly say that I would have it no other way, and the very 'flaws' themselves of the production only add to its memorable nature.

It also invoked a stark balance of terror and majesty that thousands of others have attempted but so often failed to emulate. Sure, In the Nightside Eclipse is rather dated in the grand scheme of its genre, but there is this timeless, authentic quality found somewhere in the margins of highly effective composition and thematic intent that has never ceased to thrill, and when I think back on many late autumn or winter night drives I took to and from my university, along the sparsely populated back roads of central and western Massachusetts, listening to this as my drug of choice, I still get the occasional shiver down my spine. Perhaps I'm just a spineless pantywaist for admitting it, but this album used to scare the fuck out of me, as I attempted to conjecture about the Norse madmen responsible for its existence and what a pale wraith of uncultured American flab I must have been by comparison...

There are also songs. Eight beautiful, flawless songs that foster the cold moonlight and stir the despotic winds of egocentric fantasy. Twilight wanderings from the bleak core of the human psyche, the devious spirit, to the expanse of endless, distant fires that leer at us from beyond the known sphere upon which our flesh depends, the cosmic eaves of horror and uncertainty that bear down upon the soul. The cleverly (?) titled "I Am the Black Wizards" is probably the best known of these, a clarion call to battle against a thousand years and suns, a tribute to all black and blazing phantoms of antiquity. Samoth's guitars are scathing delights that resonate like frozen fire across the punishing prowess of Faust, the tongue of Ihsahn spewing wretched poetry, the backbone of Tchort rumbling beneath like a ghastly march towards oblivion. The gorgeous sequence at 1:50 is strung out across the starlight like a chorus of waning angels, twisting into a powerful momentum worthy of even Bathory's epic Blood, Fire, Death, and at 4:00 you can prepare yourself for one of the most captivating, eerie melodies in all human history.

My wizards are many, but their essence is mine
Forever there are in the hills in their stone homes of grief
Because I am the spirit of their existence
I am them.

"Cosmic Keys to My Creations and Times" travels from an icy momentum to a schizoid funnel of discordant, driving chaos, then back again as the snarling erupts, while Faust gets so much exercise that it's a wonder he didn't suffer one or many heart attacks during the recording. "Inno a Satana" fills out like a contaminated muse, licking the wind with soaring, clean vocals and more of the brazen, synthesized choirs that work as well here as on nearly any other recording on Earth, while "The Burning Shadows of Silence" thrives on stun, whipping breezes of dementia that adorn the scintillating ghostlike savagery of the keys. "The Majesty of the Nightsky" rolls over you, transforming you into some fallen, final chess piece before the sailing Nordic melodies around :40 sweep your ashes and sorrows into the dust of ages, and the 9+ minute epic "Into the Infinity of Thoughts" cycles through its grim, ambient intro to some of the most threatening but beautiful black metal to ever lock up the joints of men. Really, every fucking song on this album is unmitigated awesome, and I am nearly as awestruck today as I was when I first heard it.

You could say that Emperor were the first of their kind to take the 'high road' in black metal, to transform this vile and infectious new brand of extremity into something so much more grandiose than it might have deserved, while Darkthrone was well underway mastering the 'low road' of delicious primacy that was born of Hellhammer, Venom and Bathory. In the Nightside Eclipse is so desperate and inspired that even Emperor could not and never will surpass it, and clearly a standard was being set well out of the reach of most impersonators, even with over a decade of interim in which to refine it. Ambitious as they are, and try as they did, the later efforts do not possess this same level of consistency, exchanging atmosphere for the technicality inherent in progression, and the precision of bigger budget, studio accessibility. I wouldn't trade this album for a 100 Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, and to my ears, it remains one of the greatest of its kind, alongside A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, Transilvanian Hunger, Black Shining Leather and Blood Fire Death.

Verdict: Empiric Win [10/10] (they can not be laid to rest forever)

Evocation - Apocalyptic (2010)

Constant exposure to such a vast wealth of Swedish death metal, both old and new, serves as a double edged sword. It's clearly one of the most redundant sub-genres of the style, with a clear excess of players in the field hammering out the same riffs, the same tones and the same overall atmosphere to the point that the connoisseur's tastes are soured beyond repair. On the other hand, hearing so much of this approach in the past few years certainly goes a long way towards separating the chaff from the wheat, and as Evocation have already proven with their prior albums Tales from the Tomb and Dead Calm Chaos, they are not a band to be trifled with: something more than your run of the mill, competent practitioner of the form, but still being eluded triumphant overture that will elevate them into the pick of the litter.

For sure, Apocalyptic is one of the better of this sort of offering I've heard in recent month, for Evocation do not merely rehash endless riffs from Entombed, At the Gates, Dismember, and so forth. They actually attempt to assert some of their own individuality to the proceedings, and this is often manifest by an enhanced attention to the underlying melody that complements the burgeoning brutality of that pure Swedish crunch. This is evident in "Sweet Obsession", the rather sultry opener that runs you through with a rare glimpse at beauty, and to a lesser extent "Reunion in War", "Murder in Passion", "Curse on the Creature" and "Psychosis Warfare", some of which seem to bear an influence of slightly more obscure bands Eucharist, Unanimated, Centinex and Utumno. These are measured off against the more expected, grisly brutality of "We Are Unified Insane", "Infamy", "Parasites", and the triumphant grooves of "It Is All Your Fault", which is perhaps one of the best of this lot.

All of this is handled with precision and a professional solidarity to rival the legends of the genre, and in truth, Evocation may damn well deserve a trace of recognition hovering just below the bigger names (they've been around since 1991, just took a very long vacation for over a decade). I found the album to be a mild improvement over its predecessor Dead Calm Chaos, and sitting parallel to the 2007 full-length debut, with enough memorable material to render it obvious that time and effort were evoked here beyond the mere twiddling of knobs and simple carbon cloning of the classic guitar tone, which is obviously the most noted characteristic of the country's scene and the thousands of bands worldwide who aspire to copy it. If only more would take a page from Evocation's notebook, because this is one of the bands that prove there might be something left to explore in this tired, sagging schematic, without abandoning the fundamentals to oblivion.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Facebreaker - Infected (2010)

It must be the coolest thing in the world to be a part of a band called Facebreaker. I mean, just think about're rolling up to a gig with a bunch of other tough guy bands, only none of them have that distinction. You sign in to the club or hall, proudly exclaiming that Facebreaker have arrived. You meet a girl in a bar, she seems into you, and when she bats her eyes at you wolfishly and then asks you what band you're in? Facebreaker. Congratulations, you have scored. You get a friend request on MySpace from a band called Facebreaker, and there's just no way you could refuse it? I mean, if you did, they might break your fucking face! Nobody wants their face broken. There is just something so direct and hard ass about that name that only fear and respect can be inspired. Well played, you goddamn Swedes.

Now that the cat's out of the bag, it's no surprise that Facebreaker are a Swedish death metal collaboration featuring members of other, established acts (kind of like Bloodbath, Jr.). Growler Robert Karlsson has featured in Edge of Sanity, Darkified, Scar Symmetry, Pan.Thy.Monium and the more recent Devian, and he's joined by a guitarist from several of his former demo-level bands: Janne Invarsson. Fleshing out the band are Jonas Magnusson and Mikael Wassholm of the short-lived Swedish death/black act Ashes, and guitarist Mika Lagrén. Infected is the third album from this entity, a polished and pure libation to the gods of Swedish old school death metal, with enough crunch, atmosphere and studio superiority that it begs some attention even despite its lack of inspiring riffs.

Facebreaker, however, are also slow and warlike enough that they can conjure comparisons to the crunchy war-death of a Bolt Thrower or Hail of Bullets, and this album is actually quite close in composition to the latter ("Cannibalistic", "Mankind Under Siege", "Into the Pit"). So there's a little more here a mere mirror to the inescapable past, though fans of the primal Swedish butchery of Dismember, Bloodbath, Centinex, Grave and Entombed are all going to sprout instant erections at the muscular pandering of the guitar tones, and barbaric simplicity of the writing ("Creeping Flesh", "Torn to Shreds", "Waiting for the Pain"), provided they don't mind the lack of novelty. Most of the songs feature some worthwhile shredding, even though the base riffs would probably lack something had they not been mired in such a huge and reliable production.

Personally, I found the material fun if ultimately forgettable, unlike the band's moniker. I don't recall being all that thrilled with their sophomore Dead, Rotten and Hungry, so I can attest that this is superior, and something can be said for the very modern atmosphere to which these Swedes have applied the tried and tested formula. Left Hand Path and Life is an Everflowing Stream this is not, you're looking at something more along the lines of The Fathomless Mastery or Resurrection Through Carnage, only 'tougher'. Infected hits like a ton of bricks, but you don't always want to stick around and see whatever got splattered beneath them.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Vex - Thanatopsis (2010)

So, if a picture is worth a thousand words, I rather like the picture Vex puts out there on the cover to their full-length Thanatopsis. A skull, yellowed in decay, sitting before an old rock with what appears to be a rune carved upon its archaic surface. I like to think these two inanimate objects hold conversations with one another...certainly the cranium looks happy, as if the tall, grassy leaves were tickling it in the wind. That said, it doesn't offer even a hint of what the actual music will sound like, so when you begin to listen to the album, you might be quite surprised to discover that Vex are some long obscured treasure of progressive, moody melodic death/black/thrash metal that seems rather uncanny hailing from Texas, one of the brutal death capitals of the States.

Yes, there is something understated and atypical about Thanatopsis, though the individual components are hardly unique: well plucked, darkly twined melodic rhythms racing across a tinny backdrop of drums. Blunt and bloodied vocals. Thrashing, warlike bursts of muted thrash chords that soon surge into ghastly death metal sequences. An atmospheric sheen to some of the better guitars that becomes mildly reminiscent of Swedish melodic death or black metal acts. Most importantly, though, Vex understand how to cycle through interesting riffs that complement the grim but uplifting pallor of the album packaging. They don't always strike gold with every pattern of notes, but for a band to encapsulate such a pure atmosphere straight through the core instrumentation is an ability to envy, and this is one of those albums where a band chops up a bunch of constituent elements like vegetables, throws them into the same side dish, and comes out with something fresh tasting.

There are seven tracks here, beginning with the band's namesake "Thanatopsis", which might mislead the listener into thinking the band is instrumental, since a 6 minute composition with few leads or solos and no vocals is hardly common. To compensate, it is one of the most meandering of the experiences here, with clear elements of progressive influence in the bass lines. Better yet is "Eyes of Wrath", teasing with a surge of melodic black metal before it levels off into somber, engrossing riffs, prominent and interesting bass work, and dour vocals. "Era of Delusion" arrives like a beautiful mix of Night in Gales or Dark Tranquillity styled death metal, every riff worth hearing despite the rather desperate and downtrodden emotions inspired; "Apocalyptic Dream" transforms from warlike Metallica thrash chugging to an almost Viking swagger that recalls old Unleashed. The eight minute finale "The Past is Frozen" is loaded with lavish yet sparse, clean guitar sequences through which heavier riffs often cascade, and though it does at times feel the most scattershot of the pieces, it's one of the most intriguing.

Thanatopsis is not always the smoothest of rides, and at times some of the transitions feel like the band are attempting to branch into too diverse of a sound all at once; as if a few riffs were latched onto to others where it doesn't best serve the whole of the songs. However, the majority of the individual guitars are promising, and overall, I really like the vibe the band are churning out, more sobering than blazing, borne more of focus than virtuosity. Vex have been around for 12 years, so one can't exactly call them new kids on the block, though their prior output was limited to a small series of demos and a recent split with local Texas death/doom act Divine Eve, but there is something about this debut that I think might appeal to fans of other moody US beasts like Cobalt, Wolves in the Throne Room, or Agalloch, even though the styles do not always match up (Vex is also less boring in general). Here we've got something well off the beaten path, even though the stones paving said path have been lifted from more frequently traveled concourses.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Abominant - Where Demons Dwell (2010)

There is always something to be said for persistence, and perhaps Abominant are one of our most stalwart American lessons in this virtue, having released nine full-length albums, all but hidden from mainstream recognition, offering nothing more than the purest of death metal aesthetics that conjure up the Florida blasting of a Morbid Angel or Malevolent Creation, with a tinge of the good old Dutch style of Sinister and Pestilence. At times, I feel like they're a poor man's Hate Eternal, but predating that Erik Rutan vehicle and catapulting through a wider range of storming dynamics.

Granted, the few efforts I've heard from this Kentucky outfit have hardly been distinct, but perhaps Where Demons Dwell serves as the proper catalyst to a re-evaluation of the veterans' backlog, because this is a well-written, mature album that clenches the attention span through most of its eight compositions. It opens with "Baptized by Steel", a blazing piece which exchanges Morbid Angel like blasting for a pretty smooth, downtrodden breakdown and escalating groove that would have a crowd turn wild, though I wouldn't call this the highlight of the album. "Bloodland" offers some more uplifting, streaming guitars that are instantly more catchy, and the thrash breakdown is quite good, while "Firestorm" is one of the better sheer onslaughts on the album, the celerity of its primal grinding enhanced by a simple but entrancing half-melody and another of the band's characteristic breakdowns that waltzes between early 90s Pestilence and Ripping Corpse.

"Rain of Ash" offers more ritual speed, the chords of the initial charge casting a ghastly old flavor soon eclipsed by the band's venomous adherence to raving lunacy, and right when you thought another blitz would taint the album monotonous, they slow to a dreary crawl through the opening moments of "After the Fallout", holding off the blasted tendency until the mid point. "The Wolves of Hate" and "Blackened Earth" both return to the frenzied pacing, but both are complete with quality riffing and a forceful veneer that proclaims Abominant was not born yesterday and might damn well outlive even the damned cockroaches in the end times. Speaking of end times, Where Demons Dwell closes with its title track, a ripping infernal holocaust that yet again visits that delightful old Pestilence churning as it bursts through the crust of purgatory. More of the thrashing breakdowns cede to a rather unexpected, melodic muting sequence deep in the track that truly wraps the experience, making it another of the album's best.

Nothing could be sweeter than hearing a veteran band like this, far off the radars of most of the Nile, Suffocation and Cannibal Corpse worshiping death metal flock, create one of their most enduring pieces, and their long relationship with Deathgasm Records (sixth album through the label) seems to have paid off. I won't promise you that Abominant are technically explosive, unerringly brutal, or even mildly innovative; or that Where Demons Dwell is bound to achieve cult classic status, but there is no questioning the time and care placed in it, seasoned dynamics and willingness to explore and expand the typical blasting motif when the song itself calls for a deeper layer of disturbed consciousness. An American band, performing 90s style death metal without any trace of trendiness or bullshit: you could do a lot worse than this album.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Mr. Death - Death Suits You EP (2010)

Mr. Death might seem a rather cosmopolitan spin on the classic Swedish death metal genre, what with their bloodied suit corporate zombie gimmick. Of course, this is not entirely novel within extreme metal as a whole, but I rather enjoy it when a band cultivates such a combination of class and carnage. Musically, they're even less novel, yet another in an endless cycle of bands dredging up the old school 90s dirt of Entombed, Carnage, Dismember, Grave, and their ilk to once again ravage the living, but Mr. Death seem to have one thing going for them: they know how to pace themselves, offering just the right balance of faster and mid-paced murder and groove to remind the listener exactly what he or she loved about the country's take on the genre in the first place.

Death Suits You is a stopgap between full-length albums, following on the heels of last year's Detached from Life, a foul meaning if ultimately forgettable debut that served only to register them among the crop of nostalgic gravediggers that has exploded in recent years. No risks were taken, no brains consumed in its creation, but it was competent enough. The six songs here are not a major step away from that material, but I felt like the brooding, morbid grooves that cut through "Curse of the Masses", "The Plague and the World It Made", or "On Day 51" offer a glimpse at maturation alongside a faster moving, unbridled antiquity of the guitar riffing, very similar to how Entombed or Desultory expanded their sounds to incorporate a heavier rock and blues influence, more or less gimping themselves in the process. However, Mr. Death does not suffer the same problem, because they somehow keep the guitars on the course of evil, even with something like "Strandead", which surges back and forth from pure repulsion grind to a more uplifting, d-beat riff.

That said, I didn't like all of the songs here quite the same. Opener "March to the Dark" in particular seemed like it might foster some promise, but I found myself numbing to its flustered gait. On the other hand, "Celestial Suffering" musters a doom-like intro worthy of Wolverine Blues, followed by the requisite rock pacing and a series of riffs that just seem to escalate in quality until the unexpected, transcendent melodies that charge into the eventual burnout. With more songs of this quality, Mr. Death are apt to turn a lot of heads loose from their sockets, since there is something more here than the tedium of the genre's unending saturation. Time will tell if the band follows up on these traces of potential, or if they whittle away into the shadows of overpopulation, but Death Suits You is only recommended to those who can't get enough of the style, hunting for slight variations on an apparently infinite theme.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Scanners (1981)

Though it's certainly one of the more 'dated' films in the David Cronenberg horror backlog, capturing its period through a number of unfortunate hair choices, computer clean rooms, mannerisms and way cool mall food court and record shop sets, Scanners remains one of my favorites from the director. It's one of the first films in memory to truly put a 'serious' spin on the entire psychic potential of the human race, and in that way it recalls traces of Bester's The Demolished Man or Silverberg's excellent Dying Inside, only with an exploding head to boot...and Michael FUCKING Ironside, in one of his defining roles, before his genius was rationed out to the B-movie circuit by directors and casting agents that simply cannot fathom or begin to utilize his talents.


You'd think I was joking, especially if you've seen some of the crap the guy has participated in for a mere paycheck, but I'm really not. He's a distinct actor, with a distinct look about him, and one of my favorites. As Daryl Revok, the rogue 'scanner' attempting to breed a new race to dominate mankind in this 1981 sci-fi/horror vehicle, he simply exudes menace, a magnificent demon that at one point drills a hole in his head to release some of the 'pressure' of hearing everyone's thoughts inside him. Opposite Ironside, we have Canadian painter Stephen Lack in a rare film appearance. Lack's bright blue eyes and demeanor seem perfect for the character of Cameron Vale, a vagabond Scanner who is being reserved as a foil for Revok, but the guy's acting does come off a little jilted in spot. Also appearing: Jennifer O'Neill as a female scanner, and Patrick McGoohan of The Prisoner fame (the original, not the shitty remake) as the ponderous Dr. Paul Ruth, who is responsible for the outbreak of these psychic powers.

The plot is pretty simple, and we're not really insulted by some lengthy exposition. Cameron Vale is recruited by Dr. Paul Ruth to track down and defeat Revok, after the latter goes on a killing spree, eliminating a number of agents that work for ConSec, your basic corporation up to no good as you'll find in many sci-fi or cyberpunk staples. Turns out there is a greater conspiracy at work here, and Scanners throws a few minor surprises at us over the course of its 103 minutes, but the real 'horror' of the movie comes in its mere implications. What would happen if people really had these powers? Would they use them for the betterment of all man? Or attempt to destroy and replace all of us 'normals'? I feel that Scanners takes a pretty realistic approach to this, especially when considers the castigation and revenge motivation of its antagonist. Granted, the sequence of events flows along a little too easily for your average mystery based narrative, but it's still pretty cool, for two glaring reasons beyond Ironside's performance:

These would be the score, and the special effects. The score is by Howard Shore, who many of you know from blockbusters like The Lord of the Rings films. But here, he's experimenting with turbulent electric sounds and simplistic synth-waves among more standard fare, and the result here is fucking brilliant, like Kraftwerk or some other primal electronic artist overdosing on Ephemerol (the Scanner-suppressant drug central to the storyline). It may feel very much planted in the late 70s experimentation of tech-savvy Krautrock or progressive rock bands, but it's perfect for the story, the setting, and the effects. Speaking of which, these are superb here, especially the infamous 'exploding head' scene and the end fight between Vale and Revok, which is arguably one of the coolest conflicts where neither opponent does anything but glare at one another. Veins stand out, fire bursts, and eyeballs melt. It's fucking great, and exactly what I would predict a psychic battle might look like!

Scanners is a lot of fun, if you can immerse yourself into its time and place, a sense of perspective that is obviously required of any intelligent moviegoer. It's not perfect, and in retrospect it might not seem particularly scary, until you muse of the possibilities were such an accidental adaptation to occur in our real world species. The music and effects were top notch, and Michael Ironside excels in one of his earlier roles. I would love to have seen his 'method acting' between the various scenes, a Daryl Revok stalking about scaring the shit out of everyone in the cast and crew. However, I must caution the reader that all sequels for this film must be avoided! None of them involve Cronenberg. Scanners II and III are mediocre at best, and the Scanner Cop films are pathetic, without even an ironic entertainment value.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

King Diamond - Fatal Portrait (1986)

Kim Petersen (aka King Diamond) must be one of the hardest working men in all of the metal realm, or at least he was from the late 70s through the beginning of the 21st century. When his alma mater Mercyful Fate first broke up, our favorite falsetto rigorously pursued his dreams into a new solo project, and the initial body of work encompassing the first five albums from 1986-1990 is essential listening for anyone that can get past the obvious hurdle of all that damned screaming. Yes, five consecutive years, five consecutive efforts that ranged from flawless (i.e. Abigail, The Eye) to just being damned awesome, all beginning with this debut Fatal Portrait, a wondrous indoctrination into King's classy horror themes and night bathed landscapes of gleaming melody.

Petersen was followed into this new project by Michael Denner and Timi Hansen, so the trio already had an extremely solid foundation to work with, made complete with the addition of budding newcomers Andy la Rocque and Mikkey Dee. The tricky bit was writing material that could distinguish itself from the legend of Mercyful Fate, and I feel like this mission was accomplished early with the debut. Sure, you can hear a little of the groove and swagger of the Danish mainstays, but the unified concept (for half the record) and haunted house vibes were new, and I feel like the actual guitar lines had a lot more memorable, and I daresay accessible material to offer the fan of traditional power/speed metal. In fact, I'll go as far to say that I actually prefer King Diamond to Mercyful Fate overall: the former is responsible for a far more impressive, consistent body of work than the latter (excepting a few albums like The Graveyard or The Puppet Master), and while I certainly worship Don't Break the Oath for the masterpiece it is, few things can touch Kim's 1986-1990 creative spurt. Was the man possessed?

As I hinted at, five of the tracks here represent a conceptual horror story, that of a dysfunctional mother who locks her young daughter in her attic, only to be haunted by her ghost through a painting of said offspring above the fireplace. You can probably guess what happens after this, but it's really not all that essential, because you'll be too enthralled with the music to really care about the underlying messages of King's 'narrator' character. The man rises and plummets his enchanting, high pitched screams through the epic opener "The Candle", which is initiated by some amazing atmospheric pipe organs and then cast intro cruise mode with a sorrowful, but badass melodic intercourse. This is followed by the doomed taint of "The Jonah", which one might envision as some delicious, bastard mesh of Mercyful Fate and early Candlemass. "The Portrait" rips along with glistening leads and cautionary, climaxing verses over which Petersen's voice crests majestically, and "Dressed in White" persists with surprisingly warm tones and some of the best, flowing melodic mute rhythms outside of Iron Maiden. The Fatal Portrait sequence is closed by "Haunted", which arrives at the end of the album, with some unsurprisingly great riffs and solid bass work from Hansen.

Outside of the story itself, there are four tracks (not counting the bonus of "The Lake", which I covered in my review of The Dark Sides compilation EP). "Charon" offers perhaps the most easily accessible, killer verse rhythm on the album, minute melodic fills riding the cycles, a fine and fitting tribute to the grim ferryman. "Lurking in the Dark" cultivates into a crystalline vocal arch that I find unforgettable, despite this being my least favorite track on the album, and "Halloween" is tongue in cheek hilarity glazing another slew of great guitar rhythms and thick bass. It's all too perfect that the King offer up a tribute to his (and everyone's, really) favorite holiday, because he so embodies the cliches and spirit of the season), but for the record, he also hits up Christmas (the remastered CD also includes a bonus of "No Presents for Christmas"). The one other track here is "Voices from the Past", a brief instrumental with surging, shuffling guitars that start and stop to various, spooky ringing pianos and other creepiness.

I don't know that I'd consider this one of Diamond's utmost masterworks, but only relative to the followup Abigail or the impressive, underrated witch-burning epic The Eye. If you were to compare it to anything post-1990, though, Fatal Portrait is godlike, and a cause to celebrate the fact that the King was not going to suck outside of Mercyful Fate. Production-wise, the vocals on the original mix are quite loud, and perhaps the rhythm guitars just a tad soft, though still graceful and audible enough to make out. The drums, leads, bass and synth line are all quite impressive, though, and the mix sounds very standard for its day and age, which is to say, it still rules today on any stereo you play it. A few of the songs fall just a fraction below others in terms of overall quality, but it's a safe bet for any fan of Fate or 80s melodic power, speed or heavy metal that doesn't immediately cringe at the Petersen's soaring pitch, and after the staring, striking visage that adorns its cover, I doubt I could ever look at a family portrait the same way again...good thing we've got Facebook instead?!

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10] (in every candle that I burn, burn!)

Dark Angel - Darkness Descends (1986)

1986 was obviously an enormous year for metal music, thrash in particular, with monoliths like Master of Puppets and Reign in Blood collecting and consuming an eager audience like Martian tripods attacking the California landscape. The time was right to strike. The crowds wanted blood with their speed. They wanted crunch. They wanted unshakable violence, raw spectators of gladiatorial combat, and the Golden State was one of the first to heed the call, going on to spawn an enormous number of memorable bands like Sadus, Testament, Vio-Lence, Death Angel, Forbidden, and so forth in the span of only a few years. But one name stands as releasing perhaps the most extreme, intense thrash metal album of its generation, giving even Slayer a run for their money, and that name is Dark Angel, whose second full-length and Combat debut Darkness Descends sends shivers down even the most rugged thrasher's posterior.

This album was important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the emergence of Gene Hoglan as one of the prominent percussion forces in extreme metal. His rampant footwork and consistent bludgeoning are one of the most memorable characteristics here, upping the ante for thrash drummers everywhere as they had their heads spun off their necks in the destructive aftermath. By today's standards, in which the death and black genres have stolen metal music off to the coldest and most unfeeling, mechanistic of climates, this performance might seem like old hat, but for 1986 it was unbelievable, making even Dave Lombardo blink twice. Marrying this concrete precision shit storm was one of the more blazing guitar duos in the US, Eric Meyer and Jim Durkin, who decided that the best approach to writing was throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, directly into your face. Each of the seven compositions here cycles through a good number of cocaine rodeo riff assaults that almost unanimously deliver the ominous environs promised by the iconic cover image.

I can't promise that every one of these riffs sticks, and surely this is one of the few shortcomings of the album that would hold it back from the attention whoring of a Slayer, Megadeth or Metallica, but they are at least effective as a whole. "The Burning of Sodom" is generally cited as the favorite here, and this is an understandable sentiment, because Don Doty's normally pinched vocal aggression takes a spin for a slightly higher pitched, punk/crossover approach which is ironically much closer to his replacement Ron Rinehart (on the subsequent Leave Scars and Time Does Not Heal albums), and the guitars race and crash through a number of bombastic blitzkriegs and chaotic solo splices. However, my own personal preference lies for a number of other pieces, including "Darkness Descends" itself, which heralds its approach with scorching feedback and a biting, apocalyptic belligerence; "Hunger of the Undead", which sounds like Sadus and Nuclear Assault jamming together during a zombie revolt; and "Merciless Death", in which bassist Rob Yahn gets to show off a little in the intro before being smothered in bristling speed/thrash metal.

Doty's vocals were not always on point with me, but I will admit that he, like early Tom Araya, was exemplary at knowing precisely where to lay into a scream. The catty, grating voice he would normally hurl out across the energetic mesh of guitars would occasionally feel too light-hearted for the music, despite the blasphemy and gravitas of the lyrics, but there are certainly a number of lines where he's alight with the blistering menace of the instruments, and it all comes together like a drunk out of cold turkey rehab the first time he re-enters a liquor store. As I mentioned earlier, the riffs fly at you like an out of control pitching machine in some hellish batting cage, but not all of them penetrate the memory equally (I don't remember much of "Black Prophecies", for example). However, they are performed with such a taut intensity, ever on the verge of explosion, that they still sound like an impressive array beyond decades of shelf life, and even for 1986, there was a lot of bang for the buck here when compared to most thrash or speed metal efforts.

Darkness Descends might not be a personal favorite, but it certainly deserves its place among the legendary thrash elite for the simple fact of its existence as a dark, looming sentinel of extremity, a standard against which many brutal thrash or death/thrash records will always be compared. I might be in the minority in claiming to prefer the following albums Leave Scars and Time Does Not Heal, with their wall of text lyrical excavations and increased riffing complexity (which yielded mildly more memorable results), but this sophomore has always remained an enticing, reliable option for a refresher in the pure propulsion this genre once promised, a nuclear celebration of murder and mayhem that very few peers could stand alongside without having their knees broken and skins flayed off.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]
(paradise of pleasures lost)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Slayer - Hell Awaits (1985)

Slayer's sophomore Hell Awaits holds a number of memories for me, both chilling and comic, because it was one of those rare albums that experienced a sort of 'urban legend' cult status in my middle school years. Several peers and I once passed a cassette recording of both this and Show No Mercy around to one another, terrified of its contents, perhaps clinging to those vestigial traces of Christian upbringing. Copies were confiscated by teachers and parents, and a few of us got a good 'talking to', myself in particular, for spreading the twisted diocese of Satan through the rank and file of the innocent.

Keep in mind that I was about 11-12 years old at this time, the target of crass, ignorant exaggerations by a Protestant flock, and by no means in thrall of the Prince of Hell. But the damage was done. I bought the actual cassette. My parents took it away. I stole it back. The top of the refrigerator was hardly a sufficient hiding place for my 'unapproved' stock of metal albums. They gave up. I bought the back patch, and was so armored the very day I parted ways from the Protestant faith (after being forced up through Confirmation prep class as an obligation). What an ironic portrait, a dorky pre-teen armed in denim and devils, striding proudly through a dull spring rain in 1986, having quit Church forever, wearing this image and title on my back. The prescient, magic 8-ball might read that my outlook was not so good.

Alas, our figures of social authority had one thing right: Hell Awaits was one scary fucking record, especially when unleashed upon an audience whose idea of extreme was Dee Snider wearing blush and mascara. Granted, we had Welcome to Hell and Number of the Beast floating around by this time, but Slayer took this concept to an entirely new plateau, not only because of the lyrical content, but the cruelty of the riffs here that jettisoned the simplistic, scathing roots of Show No Mercy into an even sharper blade of menace and perdition. The songs were longer, more fleshed out, more 'mature', yet the blinding speed remained: Hanneman and King a pair of unstoppable ghouls cycling through a rogues gallery of bloodstained, fire-hardened riffs that would cement their stature as gods of diabolic thrash; Araya settling more into his distinct mid range, with nary a shriek to be experienced in most of the vocal passages; Lombardo breeding an entire new school of drummers that would follow his extremity into darker, restless climes.

What better a herald to the fiery paths than a bath of feedback and cacodaemons exclaiming 'Join us' in reverse? Such is the de-Christening of "Hell Awaits" itself, the gallant vanguard that slowly and steadily escalated its warlike veneer into plodding, dire thrash, with that legendary ascent from conflagration at around 2:20. You are now at war, children, and Satan is your general. Let him ride upon your backs and piss upon the clouds of the Holy Host. But as charming a setup as this is, nothing, and I mean nothing can prepare one for the voracious evil that is "Kill Again", one of my personal favorite Slayer tracks, the perfunctory serial killer anthem that had to be one of the most bitter and extreme metal tunes I had heard for its day, once more incorporating Lombardo's warlike percussion into a salvo of beautifully belligerent riffs that seem to incite violence with their very notation, the chorus an unforgettably babbled hymn to atrocity:

No apparent motive, just kill and kill again
Survive my brutal thrashing, I'll hunt you till the end
My life's a constant battle, the rage of many men, homicidal maniac!

So how do you follow up a celebration of murder? How about with some fucking vampires? "At Dawn They Sleep" opens with a horrific bristling spike of carnal melody before it transforms into another of the band's undying, gibbering chorus sequences that seems to mock the listener through its cacophonous glee. These three tracks alone would place Hell Awaits fork and horns above most thrash/speed metal histories, but Slayer were not finished with us yet, launching into the barbaric "Praise of Death" which serves as a sinister foreshadowing to the rampant, uncaring speed of their following masterpiece Reign in Blood. "Necrophiliac" is one of the best known songs from this album for a reason, it's rapid fire perversity transforming a sadistic and 'immoral' fetish into an act of glory worthy of any crude Colosseum, the crowd of sinners turning their thumbs proudly to herald the fused fornication of the living and the dead.

Beyond this festering folly, we are led to what I might argue is the most unsung anti-hero of this record, "Crypts of Eternity", which opens with about a minutes of blistering, spiny necromantic guitars before it rolls into the verse and chorus, and an amazingly despotic bridge section that once more teases at what Slayer will produce in the following year, a turbulent breakdown festooned in a blaze of percussive exorcism. Lastly comes "Hardening of the Arteries", one of the album's faster pieces that strikes like a scourge or cat o' nine tails along the bared skin of the penitent with its apocalyptic poetics. While it certainly belongs here among this wretched flock, it is perhaps the one song here I don't think is perfect: for all the accoutrement of anguish created in the warlike, hammering finale, I found myself mildly disinterested.

Slayer's sophomore was not only proof of the band's persistence, that they were no one trick pony with the masterful Show No Mercy, but it also remains one of the band's nearest flirtations with perfection, surpassed only by its closest brethren in bedlam. The album is not so fixed and fluid as its untarnished successor, but it's nearly as bewitching in the consistency of themes and the composition. There is nothing clean or polished about Hell Awaits, no salvation at the end of its corridor of sinful flesh, and it's a worthy archetype for some of the most demented extreme metal to have been produced since, an absolute necessity for any fan of speed, thrash, black or death metal that values the cautionary discomfort of unbridled anger and passion.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.75/10] (He shall soon fall to me)

Halloween - Don't Metal With Evil (1984)

Decades later, I've still not made up my mind as to whether Don't Metal With Evil is one of the best, or worst album titles I've ever come across, but there can be no debate over the contents: some of the most entertaining Midwestern speed metal I've ever heard. The band name Halloween must have been in hot contention back in the 80s, after all it's about the coolest holiday on the calendar and just an utterance will conjure nostalgia for demons, spirits, witches, black cats, pumpkins, candy and horror in even the most stiffened, jaded mother fucker out there. This was a fairly theatrical act, fully embracing the subject matter into which they delved, and to this extent they might be compared to a King Diamond or Lizzy Borden, two of the 'shock metal' greats.

The music is also comparable, because it's melodic and well written, accessible but raw in that delicious 80s aesthetic. I won't claim that Brian Thomas has the vocal chops of those masters, in fact his voice is the weakest link on this debut, but he does attempt some shrill, frightening notes on the album, and even at his worst he fit the splattering speed momentum of the band very well. The guitars are the dominant 'evil' here, Rick Craig spring loaded with riff after riff of thrusting, tasteful dirt rooted in Venom and Saxon, but a lot busier, with a propensity to shred off with numerous fills in pieces like "Trick or Treat" and "Don't Metal With Evil". The rhythm section was also well versed, Bill Whyte's drums crashing all over the mix and George Neil's bass strutting along as the perfect foundation for Craig's eccentricities.

Don't Metal With Evil also has a great mix of material, between the vicious roadsters like "Busted", "Trick or Treat "and "Fight the Beast" to the mid-paced heavy metal hammering of "Scared to Death", "Haunted", and "What a Nice Place", reminiscent of a more complex Twisted Sister. There's only one arguable power ballad here, "Justice For All", and a potent, plodding piece called "Tales from the Crypt" that definitely channels a Maiden-esque appeal akin to what you'd find in late 80s Running Wild. The band doesn't take itself all that seriously, so you'll hear some cackling fun to inaugurate "The Wicked Witch", or some male cackling in "Trick or Treat". Lyrically there is some confusion, as the band veers through horror themes, typical 80s glam seduction ("She's a Teazer"), and even a few more poignant and serious ("Justice for All") themes, but such a blend is not uncommon for this period, and for 1984, Halloween's lyrics were actually decent.

Demon spirits, hiding from the light
Beggars and liars, roam the windy nights
Witches and warlocks, die in bloody fights
Trick or treat, it´s Halloween tonight!

You're goddamn right it is, and Detroit's Heavy Metal Horror Show had a breakout record here which sadly never quite reaped the attention it could have. To it's credit, though, Don't Metal With Evil is one of those inspiring efforts that just hasn't seemed to age through the intervening decades, easily trumping everything the band have released since (though their output is sparse, they've continue to roll out new material every few years). Halloween were performing at an interesting nexus between the more radio prone glitz metal of their day ala Twisted Sister, Malice and Lizzy Borden, and the USPM of Liege Lord and Omen, and thus there's at least something here for anyone that craves poisonous, obscure 80s candy corn.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (we fade to black, we can't be seen)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Crystal Viper - Legends (2010)

It's rare enough to hear a female fronted power metal act that doesn't lag into fairy/Gothic metal posturing worthy of a Stephanie Meyer convention, much less one that is actually flat out good, so Crystal Viper continues their stint as a welcome anomaly in the genre. To boot, the band's Polish origins and Leather Wych's rather acidic pitch give it a distinct and tasteful European flair that conjures up nostalgia for German speed metal greats like Scanner, Mania, Reactor, and early Rage, a sound that is all too rarely represented against the more flowery sounds emanating from Scandinavia or the robust, driving anthems of your Gamma Rays, Rhapsodies of Fire or DragonForces, but there's plenty of enormous melody here to appeal to fans in any of these areas.

Legends is the third full-length, following up the promising, borderline potency of their 2009 effort Metal Nation, and it carves out an intro and 10 themes of galloping melodic fare that seem almost a bit reserved when compared to the earlier material, or at least polished. The guitars are knuckle dusters of surging power recalling Running Wild or Rage, while the leads bring out the fast flurries of anthem force pioneered through Helloween, and Gamma Ray. High above all but the solos, Leather Wych cuts a captivating, crystalline entity whose voice is barely chinked other than the accent, which only adds character. Sadly, the album does suffer from a slight case of predictability: as soon as a chorus begins, you're almost assured of where it's going.

This safety net could hardly be called a plague upon the writing, but it does lessen the impact of the vaulting "Blood of the Heroes" or "Night of the Sin", for example. Thankfully, though most of the tracks here charge along at the same relative, explosive pace, there is enough deviation to perk the listener's interest, especially when one has such a huge soft spot for the German style this resurrects. "A Man of Stone" functions as a worthwhile, finer sex version of something that might have appeared on Keeper of the Seven Keys I and II, while "Black Leviathan" conjures up some tasteful phantoms of Maiden and Running Wild. The piano laden ballad "Sydonia Bork" doesn't quite live up to its potential, but "Secret of the Black Water" rocks out fiercely, like a more venomous tinged alternative to classic Zed Yago/Velvet Viper.

Legends is likely to breed a lot of excitement among Euro power metal fans, and with good reason, because it's been far too long in a band like this coming around. I enjoyed the fantastic or supernatural subject matter of the songs, and the clean gloss of the mix. Unfortunately, the material here, while strong, is not exactly about to become parasitic within the listener's mind, because it's simply been done before, and better. The cover of Accept's "TV War" is tasteful and a few of the songs like "Black Leviathan" and "A Man of Stone" should be counted among the better of this style in recent memory, but it's only a marginally superior effort than Metal Nation.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Costume Quest (2010)

Costume Quest is an adorable and genuinely funny spin on the traditional RPG, made manifest by Tasha Harris of Double Fine Productions, which as many might know is the development studio of Tim Schaefer, legendary game writer behind Psychonauts, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, and several of the Monkey Island titles. Since the studio's last major console title Brütal Legend was more or less a flop (an underwhelming experience in my opinion), Double Fine decided to split into a quartet of smaller development teams, each working on a DLC title, and this is the first of these to see the light of day. The game is available on both XBox Live and PSN, and the version I'm reviewing here is that of the latter.

First off, I'd like to state that this is primarily a game geared towards younger players, which should be obvious from the art style. However, much of the humor and several of the references are also targeted at adults, and the very design of Costume Quest itself should be of interest to RPG afficionados, because it's quite wonderful. The urban, stylized RPG is not necessarily novel to consoles, not since Earthbound or Pokémon, but in truth, the setting here has a flavor far more reminiscent of the Penny Arcade: On the Rain-Slicked Precipice of Darkness titles, with a dash of Psychonauts thrown in to the character designs. At the start, you select one of two siblings to play, Wren or Reynold, but the story deviates little aside from the text. You advance through the plot by performing quests, collecting various cards and candies, and doing battle with adorable beasties like Grubbins and Crestwailers, and a few bosses.

Fetch quests are a bane to some, but personally I found that it was simple enough to collect the various costume parts and cards, especially since the dialog in between is such a treat (pun intended). These are truly humorous characters well above their years, and the incorporation of robots, witches, mummies, ninjas and pirates are all bound to invoke nostalgia for both the player's childhood and the many vapid internet memes they've likely encountered. It's important to remain vigilant about what powers each costume provides for you, and also to the environment in each of the three game areas, because there are a few hidden bits that might seem perplexing until you've had a good look around. Then again, I rather appreciate that the game wasn't some 100% pushover, though it's far easier than most RPGs and there are no options to increase the level of difficulty.

Speaking of which, combat here flows pretty freely, with each of your party members essentially becoming a giant-sized version of the current costume he/she is wearing. You'll only get three at most in your party, so the battles are relatively small scale. You have a basic choice of attacking or using a charge up move (every few combat turns), or using an active ability from a Battle Stamp that you've collected. Most of the fights are similar, and once you've equipped the cards and costumes you are most comfortable with, it's not exactly rocket science to succeed. The game also becomes notably easier when you've got the third party member. Most of the costumes are adorable, so it's worth the time to put them all together (even the 1-2 optional suits) and mess with their abilities. Boss fights are slightly more complex but there are not a lot of tactics, so at most you'll possibly fail 1-2 shots before figuring it out.

I've seen a lot of complaints that the mechanics in Costume Quest are dated, the battle system too simple, but it's important to keep in mind that most of these hail from jaded console gamers who salivate over each new Halo or Grand Theft Auto installment released. I found none of their quips to be an obstacle to my own personal enjoyment. The game auto-saves you in certain places, which has dismayed a number of players, since you can't actually save after each battle, but the auto-saves are close enough together (as in, almost every event or upgrade throughout) that they were never an issue for me, and who cares? As for the difficulty, this is primarily a seasonal game for children. Creating headaches for the hardcore enthusiast was likely not at the top of Double Fine's 'to do' list. The only gripe I could make about the title is that the goals in each of the three areas were too similar (same amount of apple bobs to win the grand prize, same amount of kids playing hide & seek, etc.), but this also warmly allows the casual player to have some idea of what to expect instead of keeping them on their toes.

In the end, I had a blast with the game, and for what I paid ($15) the 4-6 hours I spent with it were well worth the investment. The story itself is rather shallow, but the clever interactions between the major and minor characters more than compensated for it, as did the interesting means through which the RPG conventions were applied to the idyllic suburban setting. Just don't go into this expecting some Bioware level of complexity, lighten up and enjoy the ride, and you'll find yourself immersed in one of the cuter and most unique gaming experiences of late, regardless of your age.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Firewind - Days of Defiance (2010)

The premiere voice of Greek power metal returns with Days of Defiance, the sixth full-length offering from Firewind, and the band continues to reap the whirlwind they started riding with the last album. The Premonition was a superb collection of rocking tunes and the best balanced and most memorable of the band's studio efforts, destroying elder siblings like Allegiance and Burning Earth with ease. A nuclear facelift, a carefully threaded conglomeration of Gus G's endless riffing reservoir and Apollo Papathanasio's vocal prowess, with the experienced backing of keyboardist Bob Katsionis and bassist Petros Christodoylidis, that 2008 album heralded that Firewind was no longer in contention, but now a force to be reckoned with on the European scene, giving and getting on the same level as their many German, Italian and Swedish counterparts.

Days of Defiance casts no illusions about its true nature: raging melodic power metal that picks up the ashes from the last album and scatters them to the four corners of the globe with "The Ark of Lies", Papathanasio exploding from the speakers with a measured potency that would have Jorn Lande and Joacim Cans toasting their glasses in mutual admiration, while the guitars serving as support lines, throttling into melodic volcanoes as the chorus scours the listener with melodic fervor. "World in Fire" capitalizes on the forward push with pure Germanic power metal ala Rage or U.D.O., a fine power/thrash riff thrown into the bridge about 2:30 which gives the impression that this might be Firewind's personal Painkiller. "Chariot" trades in a fraction of impact for a deeper mood, and I enjoyed the exchange of synthesizers, vocals and guitars as they wound their way to the best chorus yet on the album.

It goes on like this for over 54 minutes, with 13 cuts of varying intensity, from the plucky prog keyboards that christen "Embrace the Sun" to the melodic thrust of the finale "When All is Said and Done". As might be expected of a European power metal album, there is the presence of the power ballad ("Broken"), but as it's decent we can't really hold it against them, and the lion's share of the material is pretty good, in particular "Heading for the Dawn", "SKG" and "The Yearning", the last of which just blows you over with an all out attack of guitars and Katsionis' atmospherics. The performances are all around excellent, including new drummer Michael Ehre, but Apollo really takes the center stage, managing to overpower even Gus G's maniacal levels of talent. Fortunate that it all fuses together so well.

This all being said, I can't say I enjoyed Days of Defiance quite so much as The Premonition. Throughout many of the songs, I felt as if the band were revisiting ground they had already covered, offering just more of the same graces they've committed for over a decade. Very few are striking to the point that they become infectious and rattle around in the skull until you can listen to them again and meet sweet release. Clearly though, this is not for a lack of trying, and this is hands down better than the first four albums, worth its weight to anyone that prefers this brand of flavorful, structurally sound European power that Firewind continue to season with a slight scent of character. If you're beholden to this style, then there are 6-7 blazers well worth experiencing, and on the whole it simply doesn't disappoint.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Holy Grail - Crisis in Utopia (2010)

Holy Grail is a Californian band, the product of three former White Wizzard members who went their separate ways. They also have the distinction of being one of a few bands on the Prosthetic roster who don't perform the trendy metalcore I often associate with the label. Speaking of trends, you might expect that this band would attempt to jump on that same retro heavy metal bandwagon that has taken off these past few years, akin to their mediocre alma mater White Wizzard, but I'm happy to say that this isn't really the case. Surely, Holy Grail carry those influences, but there is a prevalent leaning here towards the modern power metal ethics present in bands like HammerFall, Firewind and Dragonforce, though never so blisteringly fast or indulgent as that third name.

Crisis in Utopia is their first full-length, following and incorporating their Improper Burial EP from last year, and though it didn't leave a huge impression upon me, there is no denying the talents at the band's disposal. Flighty, acrobatic riffing rules the day, courtesy of Eli Santana and James J LaRue, whether they're busting out rabid leads or fairly complex rhythms that blend a heavily European power subtext with the precision of old US acts like Omen or Helstar. The rhythm section of Blake Mount and Tyler Meahl is taut and impressive, and James Paul Luna has a beautiful range, crystalline and soaring as he executes each verse and chorus line. The production here is top notch, polished down to the accessibility shared by so much of this genre, never looking back for raw nostalgia.

The album also opens with its arguably strongest number, "My Last Attack", which instantly craves attention with the screaming intensity of its verses and happy go lucky power metal momentum that is cut through by delicious, technical guitar fills, dual melodies and an overall, uplifting propulsion. It hooks you from the start, and then doesn't let you go through the surge of "Fight to Kill", one of the tracks revisited from the 2009 EP. The chorus here isn't all that impressive, but the guitars rage through the composition, too clever and balanced to trip over themselves while Luna is screeching over them like a steel bird of prey. Unfortunately, this is the first point on the album at which the band decides to incorporate a little errant melodeath or metalcore snarling beyond the bridge, something that simply is not and never will be necessary within this band.

Granted, it's in small supply here, peppered in just a few tracks, like "Crisis in Utopia" where it's clearly being used in total metalcore fashion common to other Prosthetic bands (like All That Remains' breakdowns). Minor, but it's like finding a thick, unidentified hair in your porridge: you might still enjoy the dish, but your satiation will be tarnished nonetheless. Better to ignore these unfortunate lapses and concentrate on the better bulk of the album, like the choppy and hammering of "The Blackest Night", intense shredding rhythms of "Cherish Disdain" (ignore the harsh screams there too)" or the sorrowful, driving power of "Requiem". Not a lot of the material sticks to the soul. It's melodic, aggressive and precise, but drips off the body like rain, never quite sinking its pterodactyl talons into the flesh, despite a valiant effort.

It's impossible to ignore the appreciable level of tactics mustered by Holy Grail here, and I would gladly take this over the more traditional, less impressive works of North American acts like White Wizzard, Cauldron, or the awful 3 Inches of Blood (who possess a more balanced mixture of the power and extreme metal relish that Holy Grail only hint at). The professional production values and proficiency of the musicians should go a long way towards gaining them some ground with a wide audience, but most of the better songs are the sort that simply dazzle without depth, shine without submerging the listener into a repetitious cycle of 'press play' lust. Nothing registers beyond the surface, but it's certainly a wild ride across that surface, and we'll undoubtedly be hearing more from them in the future.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Horned Almighty - Necro Spirituals (2010)

I don't often like to use the term 'fun' to describe a black metal band, because it might imply that the band is somehow less serious or sinister, and truly that is not the case for the Danish torture squad Horned Almighty, who write some of the most ripping, hardcore and rock influenced material in the genre. Stoked heavily on the influence of Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, Bathory, Darkthrone, and so forth, they continue to polish their hideous blades to a fine edge, picking up straight where they left off with the excellent Contaminating the Divine, and invoking a puerile jubilation so uncommon in the genre. Yes, Horned Almighty might kick your ass like a pack of excitable teen wolves at a Hell kegger, but they still kick your ass, and isn't that what counts?

Upon my first listen through Necro Spirituals, I wasn't wholly impressed, but I attribute this to my then-mindset rather than any flaws in the composition. The second time through, I slapped myself silly for this failure, and with each subsequent spin, I found myself in that same grip of tension and excitement that I submitted to on the prior year's excursion. Black, punk thrashing mayhem does erupt here, dynamically and quite often, as the Danes crash and careen through 9 tracks in 36 minutes, never wasting your time with any excess ballast or filler. Many such bands like Aura Noir prefer a more raw, understated approach to this hybrid that creates a morbid nostalgia for the records of the 80s and early 90s, but Horned Almighty spit in the face of this convention with loud, abrasive production values that could be appreciated by a number of audiences. Thick, knotted basslines and ripping, simple chord patterns collide with Smerte's hellish, demon-branded throat.

This is black metal for skin heads, punks, thrashers, or those emboldened, grim ghouls unafraid to come out of the damn basement for a street fight, perfect for inebriated or heavily drugged evenings of excess and knife dancing. Horned Almighty will hit you hard with blasting, thrashed and doped up inertia as found in the "Age of Scorn" or total mother fucking "Fountain of a Thousand Plagues", or teeter off into a more potent, lethal Bathory pace in such blasphemies as a "Sworn Divine Vengeance" or the cunt hammering of "Blessing the World in Pestilence". However, there is a deeper level at play, like the carnal black grooves and methodic, swerving bass lines that dominate "Absolved in the Sight of God", or one of my favorites, the urgent barbarism of "In Jubilation and Disgust", but I can't find fault in anything the band have concocted here.

Necro Spirituals rocks, and while it's perhaps not better than Contaminating the Divine, it thrives upon the same playing field. Considering the great sound this band is able to produce, and the stew of riffs offered in a constant bombardment that unifies their cult influences with a broad and modern sledgehammer, it's a shame that more people haven't taken notice. Perhaps this is the effort that will see the end of their morning star rising, but exploding across the faces of a million, hot Satanic lava raining upon the steaming cesspools, alleys and asylums this band seems to inhabit. I am often moved by black metal music, some times deeper than others, but there's something to be said for a band or album that comes along and actually have a good time without losing any sinister luster, and Horned Almighty are a cadre of baying street wolves that take a tire iron to the prevalent and pretentious attitudes, curb stomping them into red haze.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Forbidden - Omega Wave (2010)

Forbidden were an exciting prospect for the Bay Area thrash scene of the late 80s, a skilled band that could incite vicious pits through a carefully coordinated vortex of riff-work, mild technicality and a charismatic vocalist, Russ Anderson, who was pretty unique among his peers, capable of both melodic overture and threatening venom. Their legacy was inaugurated with the memorable debut Forbidden Evil, an appearance on the fabled Ultimate Revenge 2 VHS and then refined to the more accessible but no less competent Twisted Into Form, which saw them cap out their success with MTV videos and good tours. Despite this initial burst of tangible potential, the band did not carry on into greater things. The 90s brought a pair of more modern efforts in Distortion and Green, but both were very disappointing when compared with the band's great legacy "Step By Step", "Rest in Piece", "Chalice of Blood", or "Forbidden Evil" itself, and it's not a stretch to envision how these diminishing returns lapsed Forbidden into a career coma.

One decade post-Green, Forbidden reformed in step with the re-emergence of thrash metal as a potent, sweeping sub-genre polluted with wannabes and old timers honoring themselves, and thus the fifth studio album was inevitable. I was not looking forward to this, as one of those initial fans let down by their 90s output, but I am very pleased to eat crow here, because Omega Wave is certainly the band's best material since 1990, even if a few of its modern flourishes do not spur on the expected level of impact. Russ Anderson, Craig Locicero and Matt Camacho have reunited here with the addition of two more California thrash veterans, guitarist Steve Smyth of Dragonlord, Testament, etc and skin basher Mark Hernandez who has served in Vio-lence, Heathen, Torque and Defiance among others. Together, the five lay waste to any subdued expectations of their ability to write memorable, progressive thrash, and this is probably the album that should have arrived in the early to mid-90s, cementing their momentum into one of California's finest in the genre. Alas, we've yet to master temporal displacement...

I'd actually liken the evolution of this band to that of Germany's Paradox. They too produced some great work earlier in their career, and then upon reforming were able to chip the rust off their joints and bones and come up with something even more complex and aggressive. Omega Wave is a storm of impressive guitar wizardry that never abandons its thrashing core, and thus "Forsaken at the Gates" and the amusingly titled "Adapt or Die" deliver thrill upon thrill of well written riffs to which Anderson's soaring sneers do naught but justice. Often times the band will incorporate a little of their 90s groove ("Overthrow") or slower, plodding tracks that focus more centrally on the vocal lines ("Swine"), but even these incorporate enough riffing fortitude that they become swiftly irresistible, like the unforgettable, eerie glinting of the melodies in the bridge of the latter. "Dragging My Casket" is even more interesting, a moving, melodic lattice with a highly accessible verse sequence, and "Inhuman Race" feels like what might have happened if Soundgarden or Alice in Chains had become a tech thrash outfit.

Once in a great while, there will be an overly aggressive vocal or a grooving ploy that distracts one from the overall experience, but considering that there are 12 tracks and over an hour of new music, these are mere minutia. Omega Wave is like an 'Odyssey' for Forbidden, an epic that the band must have conceived only through many hours of trial and error, taking the elements that were so charming 20 years ago and ramping them up to enthrall the younger generations of thrash novelty. Russ Anderson sounds as if he hasn't missed a step, capable of his prior range and more, acidic and wondrous, with effects used only to accent his native tones. The song dynamics are thriving with essential energy, bustling with dynamics, never boring, and this is by far one of the better technical thrash offerings of 2010, the screaming red and blue skulls colliding once more in triumph. Welcome home, my friends. Welcome home.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (riding on the coattails of destruction)

Arckanum - Sviga Læ (2010)

Arckanum's ÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞ was easily among my favorite black metal releases last year, a stunning proof of concept that marked a new career height. Somehow, Shamaatae was able to wring a savage emotional ballast and superior songwriting out of a very simplistic series of riffs, and the crushing tone of the album was unlike any he had wrought before. Sviga Læ doesn't deviate far from that prior full-length, with a similar density of streaming, hostile guitars that twine very basic rhythms into atmospheric, mesmerizing patterns that celebrate its subject matter, two champions of destruction and chaos among the Norse pantheon: Surtr the fire giant and Loki the trickster god, and the burning perdition they will help reap across the brows of the Gods.

Riff by riff, Sviga Læ is not the equal of its predecessor, and I found it took a number of tracks before I started to feel that same level of engrossment. "Læ Elr" evokes a bank of thick and hypnotic riffs that feel like ice melting off the side of some far mountain, but the interaction of guitars and vocals doesn't ever really nail you down, and it is quickly surpassed with the driving "Gylðir Algørir", in which two separate guitar melodies wrangle off one another to a steady blast, converging into the verse, though this too is not one of the best pieces on the album. "In Følva Felr" slows the pace with some plodding, layered riffs that betray their simplicity through the captivating mood they create, like a somber Asgardian epitaph, before "Goðin Eru Blekkt" turns back towards a fiery, serpentine assault of roving black/death metal which recalled some of the better riffing of mainstream Swedish heroes Amon Amarth.

I found the second half of the album more involving. The style doesn't suddenly mutate in "Gramr Girnisk", but the structure of the riffs manifests a deeper mystique, a sodden procession that simultaneously channels mourning and destruction through the black majesty of rhythmic starts and stops. "Andskoti Ferr Austan" is simple and mechanistic, with a moderately paced black/thrash riff akin to later Immortal that opens into an exchange of open chords and trailing rhythms through which you can feel the shaking of the land, great bastions of stone and fire erupting in slow and inevitable motion through the landscape, a herald of the endtimes. This is the perfect place to launch "Múspellzheimr Kemr", with a riff so damned basic and memorable that it should be outlawed, yet unashamedly malevolent, and probably my favorite here. The album closes with "Røk", a sullen instrumental using only clean guitars, and an effective contrast.

Though not as powerful an experience as the masterpiece ÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞ or the excellent 1995 debut Fran Marder, this 6th album is still among the better Arckanum material Shamaatae has written, and I can't think anyone that derived enjoyment from the prior effort would be left disappointed with this. He remains one of the more potent forces in Swedish black metal, ever tasteful, interesting and maintaining just the right balance of obscurity and loyalty to the traditional values of the genre. Like the Norse artisans Enslaved, Arckanum deals with the medium of Norse mythos in an intelligent, intriguing manner that doesn't belittle the listener with cutout Viking bullshit. It assumes some degree of fascination already inherent in its audience, and then pummels them with mood, a long, low craft being rowed to the end. There are moments of drag in the current, and whorls of wind and thunder battering against its hull, but it still eventually arrives, burning.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]