Friday, December 31, 2010

Autothrall's Top Metal Albums of 2010

The Top 20 Metal Albums of 2010

01. Ihsahn (Norway) - After
02. Enslaved (Norway) - Axioma Ethica Odini
03. Sadist (Italy) - Season in Silence
04. Deathspell Omega (France) - Paracletus

05. Urfaust (Netherlands) - Der frewillige Bettler
06. The Wounded Kings (England) - The Shadow Over Atlantis
07. Hooded Menace (Finland) - Never Cross the Dead
08. Darvulia (France) - Mysticisme Macabre

09. Solefald (Norway) - Norrøn Livskate
10. Sigh (Japan) - Scenes from Hell
11. Sargeist (Finland) - Let the Devil In
12. Hail of Bullets (Netherlands) - On Divine Winds
13. Mortualia (Finland) - Blood of the Hermit
14. Odem Arcarum (Germany) - Outrageous Reverie Above the Erosion of Barren Earth
15. Ghost (Sweden) - Opus Anonymous
16. Electric Wizard (UK) - Black Masses
17. The Sword (USA) - Warp Riders
18. I Shalt Become (USA) - Poison
19. Blizaro (USA) - City of the Living Nightmare
20. Hour of 13 (USA) - The Ritualist

Perhaps not so 'loaded' of a year as 2009, but still really deep and impressive. Enslaved, who have become one of my favorite artists on Earth, put out their best album, or at least my favorite. However, after revisiting this list to update it, I had to go with what has gradually grown into one of my favorite metal albums of the last decade, After, by their countryman Ihsahn. Just one of those cases where I wouldn't change a single note on the album, and outside of In the Nightside Eclipse this is the best music I've ever heard from him, and that's saying a lot...because he's consistently excellent. Actually looking through the list, there's a lot of progressive or eclectic black metal here, mixed in quite a lot of good heavy and doom metal from The Wounded Kings, Hour of 13, The Sword, Electric Wizard, and the debut from Sweden's Ghost which is another one that has grown a bit on me as the years have rolled on.


Thursday, December 30, 2010

Infernal War & Kriegsmaschine - Transfigurations (2010)

Participate in nearly any conversation about Polish black metal, which to this day is largely still underground (unlike several of their death metal exports) and the band Infernal War is likely to come up as a subject of interest. Past recordings have heralded the band as one of the true, blasting titans of this scene, competitive against their Swedish and Norse peers; overwhelming, efficient and indisputably savage. I've met several persons who were just astounded by the band, recommending them to me as if I simply would not believe what I was hearing, like some new plateau of extremity had been met. Well, I feel that I'd be exaggerating to claim that Terrorfront and Redesekration had any impact beyond mere enjoyment on me, being standard black metal at intense speeds with heavy drumming.

Their contribution to this Transfigurations split is fairly varied though, occupying three of the five tracks, first with the writhing, slower paced "Primal Degradation" and the even more cautious, creeping "Into the Vortex of Naught" (the best song on the EP), and lastly "Incipit Chaos", a black/thrash piece with a few decent riffs to it. As usual, Infernal War sound bold and clear, lacking some of the atmosphere of lesser structured acts, but making up for that with a sinister professionalism. 'I could kick your ass while even wearing a suit' type fare here, and to be frank it goes off without a hitch. If you enjoyed their previous albums, then I can't see a reason you wouldn't dive right, but there's little of lasting value despite a few spiky riffs in the latter two pieces, and decent ambient intros.

Their companions here are countrymen Kriegsmaschine, who have a rougher, more rock fueled approach to the genre, more than evident in "Onward Destrudo", with its razing walls of thrashing force eclipsed by the higher pitched chords churning above them. "Fear and Loathing in Gethsemane" is a longer piece, 8 minutes in fact, and ranges from steady grooving to a rabid blasting bridge over which the vocals howl, a blackened storm warning with some decent slices of melody inserted. The latter is the more interesting of their contributions, but the former is the better due to its fist fighting inertia, and when all is said and done, you've got about 28 minutes of black metal here that strays a little left of the beaten path, even progressive, though it remains confident in its roots.

Transfigurations is not a recording I'll be coming back to often, but it's certainly a fair pairing of two bands that stick their necks just slightly above the status quo. If you're expecting expressive rawness with filthy, disheveled vocals, this is not something that is like to sate you. Just the drumming in "Fear and Loathing in Gethesmane", or the echoing vocals and brutal hypnotic guitars, are enough to convince all that Kriegsmaschine are an evolutionary, stunning force just waiting to break out with the proper material, and Infernal War won't likely require even the semblance of an introduction, as they've stirred up their share of the hornets' nest already. The five tracks collected here might not be especially great examples of their work, but that a strong amount of effort was involved in their concoction is not up or debate. Along with Furia and Massemord, they shamelessly represent an aggressive generation of Polish persistence.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Impiety - Worshippers of the Seventh Tyranny (2011)

Seven tyrannies, seven albums, and to commemorate their pungent, strong consistency of carnage throughout the past 15 years, your most hated Singaporeans Impiety have attempted something different: the single track concept album. Yes, rather than the rampant, rapid apocalyptic bits and bites of yesteryear's Kaos Kommand 696, Paramount Evil or Terroreign, you will have to endure nearly 40 minutes straight of hybridized extremity. It's a formidable prospect, for sure, but if anyone is up to such a task, why not Impiety? They're not the first Asian blackish metal band to flesh out the possibility; Sabbat of Japan comes to mind for their obscure masterwork The Dwelling, but then they've got a somewhat different palette of sounds from which they've evolved, though the influences are likely the same.

The test here is whether or not these naturally blasting mavens can pull off enough dynamic range that the listener doesn't become painfully unsettled and bored, and to an extent, Impiety have. Long, drawn out, Hellhammer or Celtic Frost-like sequences with slower riffs and Shyaithan doing a fairly obvious impression of Tom G. Warrior's classic constipated vocal style are alternated with faster riffing, taut blast beats, and strangely enough, the latter almost feel more compelling in this context, becoming hypnotic around the 15 minute mark before the song lags once more into it's careful side, which seems to almost climax right near the center, around 17 minutes with some pretty melancholic sounding melodies over the grisly, doomed rhythm guitars. There are a few drudging, lacking guitars present in certain places, some of which are simply uninspired, others which go on perhaps a moment too long, and though all the music is appropriate to the album's blasphemous, apocalyptic theme, it does somewhat lack in cohesion, with a few transitions feeling as if they were simply ground up against one another.

Now, I'm a fan of Impiety, and I actually enjoy most of their full-length albums prior to this to varying degrees, but my initial impulse was that this might not be the best use of their time. In this, I admit I was rather surprised, because while it's not one of the better single track long players I've heard in extreme metal, it's fairly professional. The sound is as focused as they've ever come across, and they've recruited Fabio Zperandio of Ophiolatry to record a few tasteful leads. To be honest, the band actually sounds far more accessible here than their older, outright blitzkriegs, and though there is nothing 'soft' or friendly about the compositions, it does lack for the nuclear fits of frenzy I've so admired in the past. Worshippers of the Seventh Tyranny is hardly scrap metal, and its execution is efficient and vaguely interesting, but against the sum of its parts, only a few sections particularly stand out, and the 40 minute epic format ultimately doesn't suit them well enough to recommend it over their past ravages.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Inquisition - Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm (2010)

Though the warbling, frog-like vocals are the one facet that makes Inquisition such a divisive band among extreme metal fans, it's almost ironic that they provide the one characteristic you can truly rely on as the former Colombians crash through each evolutionary portal they encounter. Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm is more than a mouthful, in fact it's probably the most stupendous album title this year, but it's shocking how well they've morphed into a mix of blazing, glorious occult black metal and sheer dynamic will. Here is an album that will keep you coming back for further helpings due to its variation and breadth, striking high and low, fast and slow.

"Astral Path to Supreme Majesties" honors its very 90s, cliche black metal title with a savage foray into storming melodic severity, with impetuous, blasting drums offsetting the blossoming bounce of the chords. I am reminded of Enslaved or Immortal during their transitions from the orthodox to the majestic, and this is confirmed with the massive melodic breakdown taken before 1:30. "Command of the Dark Crown" is quite different, at least after the din of the open velocity chords dies into a swaggering, unusual gait, which is carried into the even more timid but pondering "Desolate Funeral Chant", then back into the blast-o-sphere of "Cosmic Invocation Rites", or the pounding "Crepuscular Battle Hymn". Two of my favorite tracks here include the deepest on the track list, "Hymn for a Dead Star" and "Across the Abyss Ancient Horns Gray", which measure across multiple, inspirational surges and segues.

Musically, the album is not entirely unlike its predecessor Nefarious Dismal Orations, but cast in a more uplifting light. The vocals seem a bit better mixed, sitting behind the thriving chords rather than echoing across them, but to be honest I preferred the latter approach. The chords they commit here are well sequenced but slightly less effective, and there are some passages in which I found myself less interested than others. A few of the songs like "Upon the Fire Winged Demon" wring sheer power out of their brevity and directness, but in pieces like "Desolate Funeral Chant" or the title track, there is certainly some fat to be trimmed. Ultimately, though, Inquisition have mustered yet another interesting album, even if it's not the measure of some past works, and honestly it might just be their most accessible yet, worthy of the attentions of pagan and folk metal fans as much as the venturesome grim.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Grave Desecrator - Insult (2010)

Brazil's underground black and death metal culture hasn't gotten a lot of attention lately, though the wealth of bands there is simply not in dispute. Grave Desecrator are a candidate for breaking out beyond their borders, as their brand of flashback death metal certainly brings to bear the influence of not only the early recordings of countrymen like Sarcofago, Holocausto and Mutilator; it also seems the perfect fit for the current wave of retro loving being given to bands who evoke the earlier 90s sounds of Incantation and their like. Their second full-length for Ketzer is not the first for Hells Headbangers, as they released an EP with Repulsion and Mortuary Drape covers just a few months back, but its easily an improvement over the debut Sign of Doom.

Part of this is the sheer wall of sound these Brazilians produce. Dark, carnivorous guitars embossed with just enough fuzz and fibrous Repulsion influence to represent the very graves the band desecrates, soil being churned aside with a rusted spade as the bones of the lost are uncovered and then molested. The riffing cycles channel through standard death and thrash patterns that range from Hellhammer to Bathory, and though the band is considered a hybrid of black and death, the former is quite clearly only derived through its recording aesthetics and inspirations; Insult is much more of a primal thrash and death piece, as heard clearly in the title track, "Serpent Seedline" or "Decline of Faith", or the evil indoctrination to "Stained by Blood". About the only unexpected track might be the instrumental "The Satanic Coven", which seduces and then spurns the listener with its wicked melodies.

Grave Desecrator write some pretty effective songs, but they do occasionally suffer from a little bit of familiarity and a lack of anything to look forward to. Once the initial thrust and momentum is captured, there is very little but variation on the standard themes, and I'd love to hear the band rip out some insane breakdown or more unexpected tempo shifts. That said, I do love their lead work, which is purely placed in the old school death camp, wailing monstrosities that shadow the rhythms like butchers awaiting their next shipment of flesh. Insult is a great sounding album, and should be worth at least a listen if you enjoy the gray areas of black, death and thrash that are inherent in many Hells Headbangers or Nuclear War Now! artists, but it might not be one remembered six to twelve months hence.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Black Witchery - Inferno of Sacred Destruction (2010)

There are few collectives of Christ trampling individuals here in the States that can quite match the level of miserable power being manifest through the recordings of Black Witchery, the Florida band responsible for such sacrilege as 2005's Upheaval of Satanic Might. However, I'm afraid their level of caustic, narrow, unrelenting aggression does come at a cost here, as there are almost no dynamics here aside from those of planting your skull under their heathen boots and then crushing, crushing, crushing, their bloated, hostile weight seeping through your cranium and making paste of the soft, pinkish contents that may or may not be contained within.

Yes, Inferno of Sacred Destruction is predictable, a one trick pony if you will, but a nightmare steed nonetheless that peppers its bleak, "Intromancy" or "Sepulchral Witchcraft" interludes with carnal sewage the likes of "Holocaustic Church Devastation", "Antichrist Order of Holy Death", and "Kingdom Against Kingdom". No, this is not a bunch of guys you want to drink egg nog and sing Christmas carols with. Their godless tumult would not only provide an instant ticket to the space below purgatory, but a season's fucking pass to the Damned Soul Olympics. Incredibly oppressive, raw guitars bludgeon over noisy, warlike drums while Impurath's hate is poured free like a conflagration of concrete, and at best you're going to get a number like "Ascension of the Obscure Moon", the unforgiving 4 minute closer which sounds remarkably similar to the rest of the contents.

Sadly, while I can appreciate the band's charnel onslaught, the riffs here simply did nothing for me, bludgeoning along like the very primacy of chaos from which this genre once originated, but never once configuring into hooks that are worth a damn. Thus, you are left with only the bludgeoning atmosphere provoked through their mesh of instruments and torn throats, and I found myself drifting away after even a few minutes. The album's pretty short, only about 22 minutes, so it never really becomes boring, but it's difficult to pay it much thought when you are sure nothing titillating is hovering at the edge of perception. That said, I don't really have anything negative to say. If you appreciate black metal at its most barbaric and primitive, and seek nothing but the affectations of loathing and treachery that this band revel in, or the Osmose and Hells Headbangers imprints in general, then it's not exactly a waste of space.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Disiplin - Radikale Randgruppe (2010)

Earlier this year brought a major surprise in Disiplin's Hostis Humani Generis, a massive shift in direction for the Norse underdogs as they decided to tread an obscure, industrial waste of potential, shucking the rampant black metal of earlier efforts like their 2003 s/t debut or 2005's Anti-Life. Fortunately, they excelled in this new terrain, providing one of the richer, more disgusting mechanical offerings of this type all year, and without wasting much time, they have stormed straight into the follow-up, Radikal Randgruppe, which is not a hell of a lot different. Still caustic, still effervescent, and still crushing. In fact, if there's any change at all, it's that a few of the songs here are more simplistic, basic without being accessible.

The formula is, as ever, intriguing. Program your cold, apocryphal beats, slosh them in heavily distorted black metal rasping, feedback and raunchy guitar lines and then festoon the funeral of sound with bizarre, climactic samples. "Me Ne Frego" chugs along with abandon, subtle textural wails being heard against the froth and swelter of aggravated noise, Wulfclaw's vocals not of this Earth. "Triarii" sounds like the black metal that might be conceived solely through soulless machines if they were given the run of the shop, writhing passages and haunting echoes over a steady, unswerving charge worthy of late 80s Ministry, a more hopped up Red Harvest. Some tracks channel almost pure noise, like "White Earth", which many will find harrowing, but the group also has a beautiful side to them, conjured in the dim, carnal spheres of "The Golden Age" or 15 minute downbeat finale "The Empire".

Granted, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and Radikale Randgruppe is nearly as hostile as its predecessor, though I was never immersed to the same degree. Raw as fuck, filthy distortion, pain smitten, straightforward compositions that rarely fluctuate, and accidental melodies that shine like sweet razors in a rain of viscera. The album will not suit everyone, since industrial black metal is such a small niche, and it occasionally meanders along the homicidal path of a one track mind, but it successfully continues the tirade of creative impulse that the band lacked in their infant years, worth a gander if you were into Hostis Humani Generis, even if it lacks that record's element of surprise.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Amia Venera Landscape - The Long Procession (2010)

On paper, we've heard it all before: Scream/Clean dual vocal tandem, post hardcore, mathcore, metalcore, grind elements, and even post metal. In execution, The Long Procession is anything but an exercise in commonality, and not only draws the best out of its influences but displays an understanding of songwriting that is wholly uncommon for such a young band to debut with.

Dense and epic, Amia Venera Landscape have crafted such a dynamic (hinging on schizophrenic, but it never totally loses its bearings) record it can be a bit overwhelming. Piano gives way to jagged, angular guitar riffs that favor the atonal and thick. Switch-hit song structure fades easily into post-metal drone and then on to lightspeed picking. Vicious roars and screams ebb into triumphant, epic crooning over guitar crunch. Chiming, crystalline leads intertwine in the background of minor-key chugga chug antics. It's a complex, layered record that works on almost every level, even if a few elements tend to overstay their welcome.

Front and center here is the epic ten minute "Nicholas", a song that goes from Between the Buried and Me antics and halfway through switches into a interlude that wouldn't be out of place on a Sigur Ros album. Someone hits a switch, and everything comes back in: Heavy, slow, and evil, segue into another interlude, and the clean vocals bring us back into the thick with a crescendo that may have been ripped straight off an effort from Isis, all with a thread of commonality in their post-hardcore lead lines that gently guide this rabid monster through its inevitable life cycle. It's extended running time and the deftly arranged songwriting allow this monstrosity to breathe and grow on its own, and it all feels completely natural.

This is not a disjointed effort, it all flows remarkably well: For a debut album, the transitions here are admirably well done, and something the previously mentioned BTBAM seriously needs to take a look at.

"Empire" is as nasty as an album opener as someone could hope for, followed closely by two other corkers in "A New Aurora" and "My Hands Will Burn First", both of which showing heavy influence from Underoath, Alexisonfire, Starkweather, and any number of post-metal acts. The two "Glances" songs are probably the most initially pleasing tracks, especially the second since it contains more than ambience, but will be the first that wear a bit thin. It doesn't make them necessarily bad, but in comparison to the power of the rest of the album, they are the weak point.

The fourteen minute instrumental "Marasm" tends to drag in a few of the slower parts as well, but it's tendency to kick copious amounts of ass once it's hitting all its RPM's is a spectacle to behold.

Overall, this was a nice year-end surprise from this small band out of Italy. Powerful, dense, heavy as hell, creative, and executed with the deftness of a veteran band, Amia Venera Landscape deserves your eyes and ears to be on this monster of an album. Highly recommended.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10]

Monday, December 27, 2010

Zonata - Buried Alive (2002)

Buried Alive is the third and final full-length from Zonata, the cap on a career that all told, spanned about 4-5 years of meaningful if obscure discourse. It arrived the year after Reality, and perhaps this explains the overall similarity of the style, but there are a few details that deserve mention. For one, Buried Alive is the best produced of the band's efforts, with a richer focus on the guitars. Perhaps this is the addition of a new second player, but also the way the synthesizers are written to interact with the chords. This is also the strongest performance of Johannes Nyberg's vocals, which still carry their fundamental similarities to the Kai Hansens, Henning Basses and Joacim Cans out of Europe, but cut beautifully through the music.

This would also be the most 'progressive' sounding of their albums, but only slightly nudging out beyond Reality, as far as the dynamics and variety of riffs are concerned, whether that be the stilted anthem chorus of "The Last Step", pumping and scintillating hard rock pulse of "The Mourner's Tale", measured power of "In the Chamber", or high octane frenzy of the title track, which I'd consider the best individual track on the entire album, with a killer chorus hook and dense and effective rhythms that get the fist banging as hard as anything off their debut Tunes of Steel. There are a few other power house pieces like "Blade of the Reaper" and "Unleashed" which are nearly as thrilling, but a few dopier anthems like "Heroes of the Universe" or the mostly hit or miss melodic swagger of "A Dark Chapter" balance out the overall quality, which rests somewhere between their prior efforts.

For whatever reason, this would be the final hour of Zonata, with some members going off to similar, under the radar power mastiffs like Freternia. They never quite had the support or audience that they might have deserved, but then, they're not exactly what I'd think of as top of the line for their chosen genre, which was in clear overhaul at the time of this album's inception. More than enough adventure here for the melodic power/prog devotee, but such folks are few and far between. It's not like you could skip a rock down your suburban street and hit a few fans of Dream Theater or Fates Warning, never mind Zonata, so the potential here would likely be lost upon the more casual music fan or the bloodthirsty metal extremist. Buried Alive is a good record, maybe not as good as Reality, and with some pretty lacking lyrics, but a clear sign that the band were honing their strengths as opposed to looking sideways or backwards.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (blinded by the grace)

Zonata - Reality (2001)

With its thought provoking cover that is at once introspective and unusual, one might draw the impression that Sweden's Zonata had gone all out progressive for their sophomore outing. This is not quite the case, though there is an undisputed maturity brought across in their compositional skills, meshing their blazing German power metal roots with something slightly more unique than mere worship. Yeah, you can still easily trace the band's influences back to the Gamma Rays and Helloweens, with a dash of modern progressive/power metal like At Vance, a fleck of Dream Theater, but all elements come together here for what is in my opinion the best album of their limited career.

There is very little ballast to be cut from the 45 minutes of playtime, and what traces you'll find generally revolve around a handful of blase chorus sequences which rarely thrill over the more adventurous guitar work of John Nyberg. That's not to write off the other Nyberg, Johannes, however, whose vocals have improved here from the nasal Kai Hansen tones to something with a more unique weight. Not enough that you'd distinguish him from dozens of other competent power metal sirens emerging from Europe in the early 21st century, but enough to carry the torch for the band backing him, which includes his own keyboards. "Divided We Stand" spears his shrill attitude over neo-classically infused shredding, with a pompous, escalating chorus that slams through a mid-paced groove. "Symphony of the Night", "Wheel of Life" and "Evil Mind" simply surge, the keys and backing choirs adding grace and depth to the momentum, while "Dimension to Freedom" hovers on a more varied brink of all out, generic melodic anthem after a few moments of steadily climbing synthesizer-driven progression.

Very few of the numbers are the sort to go down in history as 'classics', but Reality is more thoroughly engaging throughout than its predecessor. A few tracks in the lineup sag below the level of the rest, but not for long, as even these produce spikes of melody to put the listener back on the fast track. "Life?" is the most obviously accessible sing-a-long here, but it's fortunately pretty good, with a catchy guitar bit beyond the chorus that almost matches the dreamy sun scape of the cover, strange devices sailing through a clear sky across the works of some foreign industrial renaissance. The production was not a strong point on the debut, and I feel that it's not a great deal better for the sophomore, but it's crystalline enough for you to get the idea, and the vocals thankfully don't bury the rest of the band. Not necessarily a marvel of an album, but it's the most easily recommended work of Zonata, and I bet with a little more of a push from the band's label Century Media, could have stirred up greater waves of appreciation.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (nature bleeds for our disposal)

Zonata - Tunes of Steel (1999)

Sweden has certainly loosed the melodic lightning of many a power metal act in the past decade, but even the best or more successful of these (Hammerfall, Nocturnal Rites, Lost Horizon) draw fairly heavily upon influences south of the German border. That is certainly the double edged sword that dominates the debut of late 90s bloomers Zonata, Tunes of Steel. At its very best, the album sounds a lot like Gamma Ray or classic Helloween, given the surges of nasal vocal wailing that Johannes Nyberg constructs, but though the performances are all around competent, it somehow falls short of the impact crater left in the wake of a Walls of Jericho, Keeper of the Seven Keys or Somewhere Out In Space, and since it arrived at a point which its influences were faring so strongly, there simply wasn't enough room left for this niche act.

They did manage to score a deal through Century Media Records, alongside their countrymen Nocturnal Rites, but the album wasn't promoted here in the States whatsoever, so it was largely a product of the power metal boom at the turn of the century. Though it exhibits a slight flair for the dramatic and progressive ("Criticized" or the power ballad "Beyond the Rainbow"), its far more apt to nail your attention when it's shuffling through Scanner, Gamma Ray or Metalium styled material such as the blazing "Geronimo" or "Bring You Down to Hell", through which Nyberg channels a balance of Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen both. But even in this frenzied terrain, the band often throws out a forgettable blitz like "The Evil Shadow" or "Welcome to the World of Fun", with a lot of riffs happening, but a real failure of the vocals to form the notes necessary in an enduring power anthem.

I'll give the band some credit in that they're fast and efficient, enough so that even the worst tracks on the albums rarely hinge on boring. In fact, if you're in search of a blast of energy in the vein of State of Triumph, Hypertrace or Terminal Earth, then the field is rather narrow, and Zonata might just have your ticket. Unfortunately, this is just not enough to leave a lasting impression, musically or lyrically, and most tracks would require a lot of slicing and reconfiguring to escape their habitual prisons. This is arguably some of the heaviest material manifest from these particular Swedes, but with their maturity will come superior songwriting, so it's the last I'd recommend out of the three they released in their career. For screaming, Germanic power metal fanatics only, and even then you won't regret passing over it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]
(angry and ready to fight)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Zyklon-B - Blood Must Be Shed EP (1995)

Zyklon-B must be one of the shortest lived collaborations in the history of the black metal elite, with its collective output limited to 4 tracks total, all of which appear on the 2004 re-release of the original Blood Must Be Shed EP, and all of which were issued elsewhere on a pair of limited splits. It's unfortunate, because, well, I rather enjoy what is happening here, but understandable given the band's other attentions at its time of conception. Samoth and Ihsahn were busy conquering the world with their prime project Emperor, drummer Frost with Satyricon, and Draug Aldrahn probably hoping for the same from his excellent Dødheimsgard.

Formed in 1995, and releasing this in the same year, there is a clear dissimilarity to other 'super groups' like Wongraven or Storm in that Zyklon-B express themselves not through the sidereal excursions into the folk/ambient climes, but through beastly and straightforward black metal savagery. This is 11 minutes of fast, loose and lethal extremity, more expedient than Dark Medieval Times, more puerile than In the Nightside Eclipse, and more focused than Kronet Til Kronge, yet startling in its efficiency and not lacking in the melodic department, you simply have to survive the initial velocity of its opening charge, the unbridled eruption that is "Mental Orgasm". Scintillating, slicing walls of guitars channeled across several standardized but excellent riffing patterns, breaking around :45 into a grinding velocity that is heralded by a simple voice sample. The finale of the track arrives like a nuclear cowboy tossing his hat into the oncoming fallout.

"Bloodsoil" is one better, a more atmospheric piece with an almost jazzy ambivalence created through the streaming tremolo notes and walls of majestic synthesizers, but it too shows its repulsive, bestial heart, performed at lightning pace for the first 1:30 of the song, before the drum fills shift the piece into a brief, warlike segue. "Warfare" is about the same length as the other two tracks combined, 5:30 of storming disgust that once again uses the choral synthesizers to create this rampant mystery above the monotonous but beatific razor-din of the guitars. At around 1:00, it collapses into a purely 'symphonic' black metal bridge, Draug Aldrahn's barking the best here on all the EP. The final track, if you've got the 2004 re-issue or the limited split with Mayhem, is "Total Warfare (Sea Serpent Remix)", which mixes "Warfare" with various industrial and hip hop beats to mixed effect. It's completely unnecessary, but as it's not a part of the original release, I can't really fault it.

I like Blood Must Be Shed quite a lot, and at times I bear a curiosity as to what a continuation of its exploits might have manifested, but at the same time, it's so narrow and harrowing that it just sort of stands on its own, so I can understand why the participants might not have wanted to do anything further. Samoth would of course return years later with a band known simply as Zyklon, but the similarities are limited, since he transforms that into more of a modern, molten black/death hybrid. The mix here is rugged, but fitting to the level of manic rage being churned out through Frost's drumming and Samoth's guitars, and it's quite 'fun' to hear these four men making music together, though never underhanded or humorous. Really, if you're a fan of almost any Norwegian black metal of the mid 90s, from the works of the constituents to Kvist, Burzum, Gorgoroth or Immortal, then this is very much worth owning.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Gorgonea Prima - Black Coal Depression (2010)

Gorgonea Prima can be summed up quite easily in my eyes: they are absolutely, completely fucking awesome, and their riffs are largely worthless.  I have no qualms about this opinion, which as you might imagine poses a bit of a conflict.

So what are they?  Nothing more or less than the rebirth of With No Human Intervention-era Aborym, upgraded and touting a couple extra sticks of RAM.  Check the (completely fucking awesome) neon blue Mortal Kombat outerspace rave armor action they have going on.  I mean, Aborym used black light corpsepaint how many years ago, yet no one copies them.  Now Gorgonea Prima step in and change the whole game with goddamn battlesuits.  And since we're talking about how cool these guys are, I have to mention I love the atomic pentagram.  Best new band symbol in forever, and all they did was erase some lines and throw balls in there.  Satan is science, Satan is the future!  Brilliant.

Oh and they play music, too.  "Daylight Pollution" kicks off this spacejam like some genetically-mangled clone of "With No Human Intervention," synths lancing through the trees, reptilian vocals broadcasting on every frequency, little industrial samples kicking up knots of survivors here and there.  The only thing missing is, well, the riffs.  Gorgonea Prima take the usual industrial metal approach of using guitars as a textural foundation for everything else without imbuing them with any significant substance.  It works here because the "everything else" is generally mesmerizing upon first listen, and the overall production is excellent - thick, crunchy, layered, and still clear - but it doesn't help the lasting power of the songs one bit.  Eventually the left-panned guitar introduces something that almost sounds like it's supposed to be a melody, but it's mostly disconcerting and makes me feel awkward listening to it.  Then "Blast Furnace" kicks in with some chewy hardstyle four on the floors, getting you amped before you can even parse any of the other data being hurled at you.  The song structure is totally hardstyle as well, all builds and breaks and a couple glorious climaxes.  The guitars are still those primal black metal chords that the last tenants left in the basement, but they don't get any real focus and are never left alone long enough to break anything, so you just can't be mad. 

"Corroded Landscape" is the highlight here and the major sign to me that these guys are the real deal.  Opening with nice, spacey phased synth layers and a mellow instrumental section probably co-written by Akira Yamaoka, you're tricked into thinking this is going to be the chill filler of the album until everything else kicks in and you're suddenly nipples-deep in a wormhole of hooting vocals, spoken word, double bass, female operatics, four on the floor, sliced beats, and just about everything else awesome on the periodic table.  The pacing is fucking great, the guitars never leave it hanging, it's introspective yet exhiliarating, and the whole time I'm shuffling with my claws in the air like some modern Internet-adrift victim of bastardized cultures, not knowing how to venerate all of my impulses and just mashing them together like a dung beetle making a nest.  Gott mos!

"Eclipsed by the Sun" is a commando assault in the dying night, blasting off with synth turbulence before wending its way towards more precise electronic maneuvers.  "Biomechanic Soul" likewise starts on a two-minute spree of escalation, then lowers the resource drain to even its keel. "100 Years of Industrial Burial" is that chill filler I expected "Corroded Landscape" to be, all space horror ambience, loungey drum programming, and some really buried black metal lurking in the middle, but calling it filler really isn't fair, as it's one of the more interesting tracks here.  "Digital Desire" brings the mood back up with some breakcore and final boss keyboard chorus pomp; even a new riff!  It's a nice way to go out, since all of the other tracks after "Corroded Landscape" don't quite pass the good mark.

Industrial metal has seen some significant progress in the past few years, with bands like Control Human Delete exploring the terrors of hyperspace and more degenerate entities like CSSABA tapping into the potential of dark matter.  Since Aborym are going in more progressive directions, it pleases me to know that a band like Gorgonea Prima is here to rapidly fill that niche.  Yet, while I find everything else compelling about them, this duo is really being held back by their guitarwork.  This would be the perfect opportunity to find a more technical guitarist and one of the original two to captain the synthesizers during shows.  Or they could just pay more attention to the riffs.  Either way, as you should have noted from the first sentence of this review I'll be anxiously waiting for the next abduction under the arboreal awning, gazing longingly at the stars while eating out of cans and squirrel nut hoards.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Zanister - Fear No Man (2001)

Symphonica Millenia didn't exactly re-invent the wheel, but there can be no argument that the lineup of Zanister might have represented a bold new hope in US traditional metal. Well executed compositions, almost unparalleled ability in the two guitarists, an excellent rhythm section to back them up, and a promising new singer. It wasn't perfect, it might not have even been great, but there wasn't anything negative to be said for the Ohio based project. Fear No Man attempts to follow this up, and while it largely sticks to the same formula, and in some cases amps up to a more lethal dose of aggression, it's ultimately just not the measure of the debut, and a few pretty dumb songs really throw off the rest.

The fact that the lineup remained the same between the two albums speaks to me that this Zanister was meant to be a pretty serious band, and not a revolving door of guest musicians from the Leviathan Records family, and the first song here, "The Shades They Color Thee", picks up where the debut left off, with a slightly more modernized, angry tone to it, Brian Sarvela's voice almost picking up to a Hetfield level of angst, and "Generation Breakdown" is quite good. "The Fallen" opens with a groovy, almost Zeppelin-like rhythmic pattern which seems at first flightier, but then the bridge is a little more straight forward. "Got to LIVE MY Life" is another tune almost worthy of the debut, and the bass driven title track is very Chastain, you can almost picture Leather Leone singing it on Voice of the Cult or some other, sadly obscured album. Unfortunately, there are also some semi cheesy, simpler heavy rock tracks like "Hell On Earth" and "You Live for Greed" that are just not worth the time, and "Grip of the Groove" is downright laughable as it attempts to pummel you with seductive rock rhythms.

All in all, there are very few moments in which the potential brilliance of the debut, or the classic feel of David Chastain's playing really shine through, like the mixed quality "Egyptian Nights" which seems like something that could have been on his instrumental Within the Heat, with vocals added in. The Zanister lyrics were not exactly a strong point before, but here they feel even more 'meh', though not without some meaning behind them. Even the cover image lacks some of the inspiration of its predecessor, and in the end, Fear No Man is just another of those cases in which you wish you could reach back through history, salvage half the material and dispose of the rest. Supposedly, this was not to be the end of the project, but it's been nearly a decade so the hope of hearing more material has dulled. The mix here is as tight as the debut, and not every moment is wasted, but this is not something I'd recommend giving a chance unless you're a total die hard for Chastain and Harris' finer days, which very rarely turn up.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Zanister - Symphonica Millenia (1999)

I have no idea what a 'Zanister' is, but I suppose like a 'Kenziner' or 'Metallica' it just sounds fit for a metal band's name, and without a doubt, this is pure US speed/power/heavy metal which culls its sound directly from the other projects of its seasoned membership. This is a collaboration of two guitar greats, David T. Chastain and Michael Harris, who have worked together numerous times and through Chastain's Leviathan Records imprint, which of course is also the home to Zanister. They are joined by Michael's brother Brian Harris on drums, James Martin on bass (he's performed in several other projects with Michael Harris, and the sole rookie on this album, Brian Sarvela, handles the vocals.

If you've heard Chastain, Surgeon, Spike or other bands that involved some of the lineup in the past, and appreciated them, then you're more than prepared for what Symphonica Millenia brings to the table, and you'll probably derive some entertainment out of this. There are at least 4-5 killer songs on the album, with the remainder passable, but what's most important is that it represents Chastain's return to the more traditional metal he once created through his self title band through many great albums in the 80s. It's not exactly a duplicate, especially when you've experienced the interchange between both David and Michael Harris' dual shredding abilities. Certainly, Brian Sarvela is no Leather Leone, but his voice has a good range and a cutting tone that well suits the melodic furor of the material here.

"Fighters in the Sky" is essentially Chastain upgraded to a more modern power metal feel, and it does much to heighten the excitement for the album, with solid, busy riffing and well written leads, but it's followed by some of the less interesting tracks on the album, with the exception of the "Save Me Now" bridge with a nice fusion of the rhythms and leads. Once you get to the meat of the album, basically the center of the track list, you're treated to some of the more memorable pieces. "The Edge of Sanity" mixes stout, dark Chastain grooves with great, frivolous riffing that recalls a mix of Liege Lord and Helstar, while "Let Them Live" picks your brain with some solid power riffing, and "Children of the Gods" and the glorious "Evil Will Survive" almost grant you your money's worth. There are a few I didn't care for all that much, including "Born in Cold Blood" and "Feed the Fire", but this is at least better than any of the 90s Chastain works (beyond For Those Who Dare, of course, which is superb).

The production here is good and even, without sounding too polished or overproduced, and I'll give the two guitar virtuosos credit that they manage to impress with their skills sans the slogging wank-fest they'd be capable of releasing if they so chose. If you're a fan of either man's instrumental works, there is just enough consideration for your tastes, but the banks of solos are held to their proper position amidst the verse/chorus sections and it's all quite professional. I do wish a little more effort had been placed in the vocal lines, especially the chorus sequences, because while Sarvela is more than capable of delivering, his note patterns are rarely all that memorable. Still, if you're dying to hear some US power/speed metal that you've been missing, and you've already exhausted your supply of Chastain's Leather Leone-fronted works, then I'd recommend this of the two Zanister albums, because there are some decent tunes that might take you by surprise.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (anger the angels, humor the devils)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Witchsorrow - Witchsorrow (2010)

The band is called Witchsorrow, the record label Rise Above Records, so it's only too safe to hazard a guess that this will be either traditional or psychedelic doom before you've even heard a note of it through your speakers. Well, the UK trio certainly lean towards the former category, if we're thinking in terms of Cathedral or the more sluggish material from Sabbath or St. Vitus, and one actually might conjecture whether or not Lee Dorrian signed the band because he saw a little of his earlier self in their sound. Certainly, there are apt comparisons here to the first few Cathedral records, before they adopted their more groovy, accessible format with Ethereal Mirror (which happens to be one of my favorite albums by that outfit).

So, if your expectations are for slow, tortured sequences of chords that swell and groove to the disaffection of the vocals, then Witchsorrow are only too happy to oblige you in a slurry of five tracks and 45 minutes. 'Necroskull' has a similar lamentable tone to his howling that falls in somewhere between Dorrian and early My Dying Bride, and the music is implicitly simple, with nary a surprise hiding out anywhere. The bass and drums follow the thick axe broth all too closely, and as a result there is a somewhat one track feeling through "The Agony" or "The Trial of Elizabeth Clarke", though "Gomorrah" thankfully picks up the pace in the verse to "Symptom of the Universe" levels before its own churning, nihilistic breakdown, and "Impaler, Tepes" had me slowly craning my neck when it too started to rock.

Unfortunately, these don't represent most of the album, which is rather lacking in memorable riffs despite the straightforward intentions of the band. Nothing here is quite so primal or aggressive as the heights of Electric Wizard, or the more recent Ramesses, and there's not much of a variation outside of slight, minimal psychedelic ambient phrases like the tranquil calm at the core of "Impaler, Tepes" or the drudging melodic hypnosis deep within "Thou Art Cursed". I'm a stickler for certain qualities in doom, in short the ability to create the feelings of inevitable oppression without ennui that bands like Sabbath, St. Vitus, Candlemass and Trouble first manifest, and I'm not sure I'd give this debut a passing grade. By no means are Witchsorrow terrible, and to their credit, they're actually quite sincere, but I'd like to hear more than just the bare minimum of effort laid out before me, spelling my damnation.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Xasthur - Portal of Sorrow (2010)

It was probably inevitable that a musician so disenchanted with the status quo, so at odds with the living as Malefic (Scott Conner) would choose a finite period in which to vent his opaque nightmares to the audio obsessed, and thus the fact that he has stamped Portal of Sorrow as the final Xasthur full-length of that particular entity was not a surprise. Judging from the general quality of his prior efforts, which ranged from sobering and curious to downright suicidally indulgent, I could only have hoped that this belabored swan song would channel the same hazy, wondrous specters as prior issues. Sadly, this is not the case, and despite its variation and interesting atmospheric motifs, Portal of Sorrow is perhaps the least engrossing of his albums, though the 14 tracks do conceal a few priority gems.

The sultry, sickening despair is inaugurated with the roiling clean guitars of the instrumental title track, flecked with twisted ambiance and funeral organs that provide an early burial for this once prolific cellar dweller. "Broken Glass Christening" cycles back to familiar territory, the ghostlike strains of disgusting, repressed black metal painted with Malefic's tortured screaming, low piano keys central in the mix while ethereal, feminine choirs half-haunt the landscape. "Shrine of Failure" continues the grim portrait with aimless shredded guitars over echoing spoken words and coiled dissonance, and while this is sort of piece is not a great distance from his major works like the stunning All Reflections Drained, it just lacks anything truly gripping. The female vocals return for "Stream of Subconsciousness", one of the album's most accessible pieces, and it works rather well with the sad guitar lines and mumble jumbled vitriol in the background, proving that not all hope is lost as we mine deeper into the wealth of tracks.

"Karma/Death" is another winner, a fibrous, writhing serpent of fuzzy melodic glaze, and I also enjoyed the more ambient driven "Horizon of Plastic Caskets", or the funeral black doom of "This Abyss Holds the Mirror" with its more guttural vocal qualities, but there are a number of forgettable shorter instrumental segments like "Mesmerized by Misery" or the lush but empty tranquility of "Mourning Tomorrow" that serve to break the woeful climate. Of the later tracks, "Released from This Earth" is notable for the scarce balance of the pianos, eerie female vocals and thick, oozing bass, "The Darkest Light" being a very familiar approach for Xasthur that could be found on a number of the albums, but in all there seems an inconsistency, a disconnect to the usual disconnect which makes Conner's albums so engrossing.

There are plenty who won't bat an eyelid at the disappearance of this project, as Conner has long suffered and thrived in a love/hate relationship with black metal fans of all edicts, but I feel like he's made the right decision. Personally, I've slowly developed a fondness for a number of the Xasthur works, but I'm not sure where else there would be to go for this particular entity, and I can hear in Portal of Sorrow exactly why Malefic has become so disenchanted with this path. This is not the worst of albums to leave us on, and to be accurate it's got most of the oppressive characteristics common to his releases, but it just doesn't feel quite so dark. It's almost as if the album itself were exhausted, just trying to sluggishly gesture itself through an hour's playtime, and I never felt as lost in labyrinthine caverns of regret as I did in past years listening through his music. That's not to imply this is 'happy', because it is truly not, but I turn towards this man's music to feel drugged, shaken and truly fucked, not drugged, vapid dulled, and Portal of Sorrow is just too often guilty of the latter.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Yyrkoon - Unhealthy Opera (2006)

Whatever downwards momentum the French band had suffered in their 'oniric' transition from debut to sophomore was surely halted at the mighty Occult Medicine, upon which Yyrkoon finally declared that they were indeed a DEATH metal band and decided to act like such was the case, without entirely abandoning their progressive and melodic inclinations. That 2004 effort was and remains clearly my favorite of the band's favorite work, but it's follow-up Unhealthy Opera is thankfully not far behind in terms of effective power, as the band shun none of that newly discovered surge in brutality. Like its predecessor, though, this album is a far cry from mindless guttural banality, but an explosion of taste that never once abandons that fundamental concept inherent in 99% of good metal: the fucking riff.

Yes, the guitars are as carefully constructed as the album's next eldest sibling, and the result is pure, unconcealed excellence. The immediacy of the dark ambient intro "Something Breathes" parts for the shifting juggernaut of the title track, storms of thick riffs glistening against the melodic subtext, grooves emerging and then submerging throughout the verse as the drums lilt and stagger. Naturally, this track builds an enthusiasm that the band are not about to let loose, as they quake through the punishing developments of "From the Depths" and the caustic bounce of "Avatar Ceremony". Once the beautiful guitar instrumental "Temple of Infinity" cedes to the crushing "Abnormal Intrusion", it becomes clear that this is going to be quite the solid goddamn album, and there is nothing to sway you from this opinion later, for tracks "Screaming Shores", "Horror from the Sea" and the jerking closer "...of Madness" all deliver. "The Book" is probably the least interesting track here, but it's still heavily laden in explosive dynamics and deep enough grooves that there's no sore thumb about it.

In fact, if there's anything inferior here to Occult Medicine, it's solely the fact that the band is carving out more of the same turf, without the absolutely surprise by which that particular effort took me. I wasn't hoping for much after the rather average Dying Sun, but the band amplified their effectiveness in coordination with their commitment to extremity, and Stéphane Souteyrand has never sounded this good before, his throat finding not only power in the low end, but also his cleans are more sparse and improved. This is a direct continuance of that cycle, with the individual riffs perhaps being fleshed out ever so slightly, mildly more accessible than the stupendous bombast of their 2004 opus, but barking up such a similar tree that the fan of one has no choice but to experience the glory of the other. Season with some Andy LaRocque guest leads ("Horror from the Sea") and Mythos-inspired lyrics, and the album well earns its keep. Though in recent years the band has taken a hiatus, and we may never hear from them again, Yyrkoon should nonetheless be praised for breaching the creative cocoon of their earlier efforts to metamorphose into one of the very finest of French death metal artists.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]
(behind this irreversible theater)

Yyrkoon - Dying Sun (2002)

One wouldn't have to plumb far into the depths of Dying Sun to note its improvements over Yyrkoon's debut Oniric Transition, because those that exist are largely worn on the surface, in the area of production. The guitars, in particular, sound far more potent, with a thicker, melodic broth to them and less reliance on synthesizers. The riffs are not necessarily evolved to another plateau of composition, for they very closely resemble their predecessors, only delivered with a finer set piece this time around, partially due to the new members the band had attained, including a new axeslinger in François Falempin. Alas, there is also a downside to Dying Sun, and that's the rather haphazard lack of the debut's intriguing atmosphere in a mad rush to write more accessible material more clearly streamlined into the 'melodic death' category.

The band uses a lot of crossover between clean and harsh vocals this time around, and it's not always to the benefit of the songs. "Crystal Light" and "Flight of the Titan" are two examples, the latter particularly confused with its mix of gang shouts, clean soaring vox and largely uplifting rhythm guitars. Gone are the muted, fantastical hues of the debut, and we're left with something far more typical, and the jury's out on whether Yyrkoon are able to pull it off. "The Clans" and "Stolen Souls" offer a few good riffs each, but they're ultimately mediocre when rubbed against the better acts of Finland or Sweden. In fact, the best tracks found on Dying Sun are those that experiment the most, like the vast rhythmic dynamics of the progressive "Back to the Cave" or the jack hammering swaths of melody and aggressive that dominate the unfortunately titled "Thrash 'Em All". Then again, the instrumental "Gods of Silver" is your typical melodic death piece with added noodling, and "Screamer" is very inconsistent, with its mesh of progressive embellishments and mundane death/thrash.

For some reason, I really don't enjoy Stéphane Souteryand's clean approach to much of this record, and while it's not a negative to hear his capabilities in such a range, they feel rather messy over the substance of the meatier riffs. Perhaps this hurdle is due to his natural accent, perhaps not, but combined with the inconsistency of the music, it all culminates in what I find to be the least impressive Yyrkoon album. Oniric Transition certainly didn't have the tight and controlled mix of its successor, but at least it had charm, where this feels like a pretty daft peripheral to most of the European melodic death that was occurring at the time. When matched against one of the era's defining works like a Natural Born Chaos or Damage Done, Dying Sun is simply no structural comparison. There are well implemented ideas here or there, and it feels like a sure footed stepping stone towards their later, greater efforts Occult Medicine and Unearthly Opera, but I wouldn't never seek it out with those options available.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Yyrkoon - Forgotten Past EP (2000)

After their debut Oniric Transition met with only a very small success, the French band Yyrkoon decided to follow it with this self released demo/EP Forgotten Past, seeking out an even deeper and darker symphonic sound. The result is perhaps the least impressive of their works, but still features a few traits associated with the first album, namely the swerving bass performance and the mix of snarled and clean vocals, and decent leads. Compared to their recent output, this is a lot more focused on using keyboards as the primary element of composition, and often the guitars just chug along with a sluggish interest, the riffs never really standing out from the dense, haunted castle embellishments.

Of the three tracks here, the two longer pieces are the most worthy of attention. "Forgotten Past" and "Enclosed in a Dream" are both dark, symphonic, with the latter containing the better use of the guitars. Each is over seven minutes in length, longer even than the more bloated tracks on Oniric Transition, but they fortunately don't become tired, only underwhelming when compared to the band's earlier and later material. I'd almost say that they resemble the mid 90s efforts like Passage by Samael, but they're nowhere near as catchy and the actual drumming differs from Xytras and his machinery. "Schyzophrenic Carnage" is a more brutal and grooving track, but since it's re-recorded and far superior on the Occult Medicine in 2004, there's no reason to pay it mind here.

Forgotten Past is extremely rare, but last I checked, you could listen to "Forgotten Past" and "Enclosed in a Dream" on Youtube. Coming in the middle of the four year period between Oniric Transition and Dying Sun, it certainly doesn't incite much hope for the future of the band, but thankfully those are words I'll be eating. Unlike Oniric Transition, there's just no promise here, almost as if Yyrkoon gave up to trend and decided to delve into the symphonic black metal of the time, only with less black metal ingredients. The EP doesn't exactly suck, but unless you are hell bent on experiencing obscure, simplistic haunted castle style atmospheric death metal, with few guitar riffs to write home about, I'd advise you to start anywhere else in their catalog.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Yyrkoon - Oniric Transition (1998)

France has long been hallowed as a grounds for innovation in the black metal genre, but what of its death metal scene? Certainly, acts like Carcariass, Gorod and Atrophy stand out for their dizzying acts of unusual technicality, but Yyrkoon, named for the original nemesis and cousin of Michael Moorcock's fictional character Elric of Melnibone, wore a different stripe. Unshackled by the scripture of brutality and convention, they've undergone an interesting evolution through their career, which was 'officially' launched with this debut Oniric Transition in 1998, after the band's Oath, Obscure, Occult demo two years prior.

This is an unusual album, or rather an album of disparate parts merged into a functional framework. Yyrkoon were at this time a stark fusion of black, death, thrash and symphonic metal, all incorporating a progressive leaning largely through the song structure and the melodic lead work, the last of which was not all that far from what Death were doing in the 90s. As a result, the album can suffer from a mild lack of coordination, but so many of the individual pieces are pleasant to listen through that it ultimately succeeds. Perhaps not to the extent that later, more aggressive efforts like Occult Medicine and Unhealthy Opera succeed, but for 1998 it was an interesting footnote on a shifting landscape of emergent and transforming genres. Though the production of the whole affair feels little more than a glorified demo, its use of horror, occult and fantasy lyrics among the atmospheric sequences and largely effective guitar riffs is still refreshing over a decade out.

The center pieces are here are the real treats, and by these I refer to the longer compositions like "Throne of Complains", "The Awakening" and "Wind of Decline", each of which cycle through a fairly expansive number of riffs on their paths to the memory. Yyrkoon are capable of busting out memorable lines of melodic death or thrash metal amidst segues of heavily synthesized epic black/death metal, and this uncanny ability to bounce back and forth makes each a joy to listen. None of these tracks stretches on too long in any one particular tempo, and at worst they could be accused of carrying too much weight. Other tracks like "Elemental Storm" and the soaring, atmospheric "Lost Ideal" with its clean vocals, are likewise curious, and the remainder of the album consists of shorter 1-2 minute intros and interludes which are more or less forgettable.

Stéphane Souteryand's vocals do somewhat hold the album back from greatness, for while he expresses competence in his various snarls and howls, it's strangely his cleans that are the most effective. Also, as mentioned, the mix is pretty weak, the guitars feel very thin as they allow the synthesizers and pianos to breathe perhaps too fully, and a remaster of this with thicker tone would go a long way towards adding much needed power to the more emotional phrases. But aside from this, and the often scattershot feeling you get when the band continues to cycle out change after change, there are not a lot of complaints to be had with Oniric Transition. It was a sound debut for a solid career, and while it bears only a passing similarity to their later, better albums, you can hear the creative larva within as it struggles to chew the brains of its hosts.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Candy Cane & Oranssi Pazuzu - Split (2010)

Muukulainen Puhuu turned out to be my top choice in all metal music for 2009, so I've naturally been very excited to hear whatever Oranssi Pazuzu would do to follow that, and it has now manifest in this split with a fellow Finnish act, bizarrely named Candy Cane, who are nearly as interesting in their approach velocity and have existed for 15 years now, releasing a number of albums, splits through the underground. As it would happen, these two are quite the match for one another, both chiming in from left field while paying service to the traditions of their core genre through the malicious echo of their rasped vocals and haunting chagrin of the guitar passages.

Candy Cane takes the first half of the split, with five numerically titled (they look like dates) tracks of treacherous, widespread havoc. "16061978" is an intro teaser with some doom laden riffs covered in scarce synthesizers and feedback, wandering into the three minute clowning black surge of "10091989" with death grunts and rasps wrangling above the din of straight up, darkly melodic riffing and flourishes of piano and oddness. "03012007" is not a lot different, perhaps imbued with some groovier breakdowns, but "25021994" is the most grimly symphonic and interesting of their input to the release, with a teething atmosphere created in the currents of the hydraulic bouncing turmoil of the verse and then the surreal, mocking atmosphere of the extended bridge. "29112008" returns to the jarring piano inflections over scorching primacy, with almost a deathgrind aesthetic paired to its elevating notation.

The Oranssi Pazuzu offerings are thankfully all new, and they pick up directly where their debut left off, alien, psychedelic and storming, like being thrust into a parallel reality in which acid cowboys are all that is left of humanity to discover the ruins of cultures both strange and beautiful, while asteroids and rusted debris dowse the star-blurred skies in collision. "Ole Muukualainen" fuses deep, sludgy punk rhythms and freak-out, jangling cleaner guitars into a vortex of uncomfortable grooves, a bazaar of the bizarre, and its immediately engrossing. "Unihämähäkki" lays out a big bass groove, not unlike that of "Korppi" from the debut, and then smothers it in Voivod-esque discord and glamorous, haunted tears of melody. "Torni" features a few moments of evolving, proggy jamming before it picks up into the swaggering of the chorus, spaced out guitars wailing off like lit angels to the atmosphere, and "Farmakologisen Kultin Puutarhassa" ends the effort with brooding, cutting currents of fibrous torture, Jun-His vocals the one stalagmite tethering the listener to the grim, oppressive sanity of his/her surroundings.

Of the two bands here, I was far more impressed by Oranssi, but that isn't much of a surprise, since they're one of the most incredulous new artists in all of extreme metal. That said, Candy Cane was actually pretty interesting, I just didn't feel any staying power in their compositions, where I'll be listening through "Torni" and "Unihämähäkki" on repeat until the next full-length is delivered. However, while I might not have thought it possible to find a stylistic balance with Oranssi, that has certainly been achieved here; thematically the bands are both strange and compelling. If you enjoyed Muukulainen Puhuu at all, then it goes without saying that this is a mandatory purchase, with the Candy Cane tracks a curious, added incentive to the hours of paranoid dementia that lie before you.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Calm Hatchery - Sacrilege of Humanity (2010)

It was truly a pity that more people didn't catch on to this Polish band's 2006 debut El Alamein, for it was a superb offering of blunt and brutal death metal that certainly would have pleased fans of their better known countrymen Vader or Behemoth, or US staples like Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel, Hate Eternal, and Suffocation. In fact, I'd go so far as to claim it was one of the better death metal albums of that year, with its cautiously carved and implemented inertia compensating for any dearth of new ideas that the band were incorporating. Well, four years on and the band have proven they're no one shot in the dark, with another impressive offering that, while still not among the more original acts in the genre, shows enough skilled craftsmanship and dynamic range that the band should surely be vaulted into the ranks of Decapitated, Trauma, Lost Soul and others of their trade.

This sophomore is essentially 37 minutes of rich, tightly executed material through themes both earthen and universal, examining and lamenting and fallen majesty of ancient cultures and the unthinkable acts of warfare. The musicianship is expertly exhibited through the battering ram blasts loaded with interesting fills, solid rhythmic guitars that thrust forth at both hyper ("Messerschmitt", "We Are the Universe", "Those Who Were") and measured ("Shrine for the Chosen One", "The Blood of Stalingrad") tempos, and the titillating leads which thankfully fall short of mindless wanking. Throw Szczepan's vocals onto the writhing, regulatory mass and you've got one of the better approximations of post-Morbid Angel on the international landscape, and I for one have no problem with this whatsoever. Obviously, the longer tracks like "Sea of Truth", "Lost in the Sands" and "The Blood of Stalingrad" have slightly more gravity and atmosphere than the quickened bursts of "Mirror Giants" or "Those Who Were", but the balance of both is appreciated and paces the album extremely well.

It would be all too easy to sell Calm Hatchery down the river as yet another in a seemingly endless plethora of influence worshiping death metal mavens, but even a cursory examination of Sacrilege of Humanity reveals such an ass kicking experience that it shouldn't be missed. Akin to their Polish brethren, they're able to equip their bruising hostility with elements of melody, mysticism and proficiency that are both compelling and rare. Not a single song on this album sounds forced or effortless, even if a small handful of the riffs fall behind the rest in overall tone and quality. In fact, it's nearly comparable to its predecessor El Alamein, though where it makes up in complexity it lacks in the surprise of that debut. This is by far one of the better, straight modern death metal albums I've heard this year, falling in line with the latest efforts from Trauma and Severe Torture, and let's hope some effort is placed in its promotion, and that the band isn't ignored this time around.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Monday, December 20, 2010

Istapp - Blekinge (2010)

Istapp ('icicle') seems exactly the sort of project that those who favor the more accessible flavors in black metal, without entirely abandoning or alienating its more aggressive components, would die for. It's a wonder that they've not stirred up more of a reception for their debut, despite its fairly high profile release through Metal Blade Records. Sharp, melodic and with crisply plucked guitars, they bear the semblance of some cross pollination of Dissection, Vintersorg and Immortal, with the addition of clean, low vocals that soar off against the wintry landscapes the band are so desperately intent on crafting. Blekinge is named for the band's traditional province in Sweden, and judging by the influence its had on these barbarians, who dress as if being filmed in a Mad Max sequel set on some glacier, it must be a cold, dead and beautiful place...

The band honors many of the environmental cornerstones of the black genre, with a mix of blasted and rock beats, streams of gleaming melodic chords that whip about the production like whorls of silvery snow-dust, almost a more uplifting alternative to the more recent records from Norwegian's Immortal, found here in a track like "Vinterriket" or "Fjällhöga Nord". There is also the obvious weave of folk influences, manifest through the clean vocals, acoustic guitars and pompous majesty of the compositions, "Evig Köld Koncentrerad" and "1160 (Miovik)" being a few examples that might appeal to the fan of a Finntroll, Thyrfing, or Moonsorrow. Most tracks thread through passages of charging grace and skirts of gliding, mead swilling frolic and frenzy that are just catchy enough to be heart again, even though they don't ultimately leave that much of an impression, and (ex-Spawn of Possession) Mordechai von Revaktar's rasp, which is loud and abrasive, simply feels somewhat overbearing in the mix over such razor thin guitar lines.

Blekinge is best recommended to those who favor the Swedish sounds from Dissection and Sacramentum to Otyg and Thyfing, due largely to the mix of folk elements, and storming stringy melodies, and the fact the band don't shy away from writing a catchy chorus bit. If it's a necrotic, newsprint nightmare you seek, then it's unlikely you get much from this. The mix of the record is quite nice, with the possible exception of the vocals being a sliver loud, but the band segues into the cleaner passages and back effortlessly, and there are enough infectious guitar lines to please the atavistic wintry jarl in all of us. I didn't enjoy the album on the same plane as many of the band's obvious precursors (some listed above), but it was pleasant and crisp enough to help welcome in the first snows of December.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]