Monday, January 31, 2011

Risk - Hell's Animals (1989)

After the superb debut The Daily Horror News, and the promising follow-up EP Ratman, anticipation for further Risk output was running high. Here was an outfit with all the potential to join their countrymen Rage and Running Wild as a top shelf speed metal act, honoring their decision to steer away from the classic styling of their previous incarnation, Faithful Breath. Well, Hell's Animals was not long forthcoming, and it marked an even further deviation from the past, adopting a more directly thrash approach than its predecessor, which only possessed traces of the day's leading edge of aggression. That's not to say that Risk are necessarily bad at the straight up thrash, because there are some decent riffs and ideas present here. But they do not excel in the area, and almost without exception, every leap backwards towards faster, speed/power momentum dominates this album.

It opens with "Monkey Business", which in all honesty sounds like California's Forbidden with the muted melodic, arching rhythms and the haughty, barking vocals (though they're not so melodic as Russ Anderson). The lead and bridge rhythm are the highlights of the song, and this also goes for the following "Perfect Kill", a slower, crisp thrasher with a nice break in the bridge. "Dead or Alive" is an improvement, somewhat closer to The Daily Horror News in tone, with some solid, grooving chords to break up the speed spurts. "The Secret of Our Destiny" makes for a better thrash piece, a winding mosh rhythm plodding forward beneath glistening banks of almost jazzy chords and some superior, quick licks firing through its overall structure. I also enjoyed "Torture and Pain" with its progressive feel and melodic muting, and closer to the end of the album, the excellent power metal piece "Russian Nights" which might have fit in cleanly with the debut album (it's my favorite song here, with vocals similar to early Skyclad-era Martin Walkyier). "Megalomania" and "Epilogue" are also quite good.

There are few duds on the album. I didn't particularly care for "Sicilian Showdown", but it has a choice guitar riff or two, and the "Skid Row" instrumental seems like a throwaway, but then it's a bonus at the end of the album. The production is clear and the guitar tone punchy, and I'd say the mix is actually superior to The Daily Horror News. But what this album lacks is the truly memorable moments found on that album. No "Roadwar", "Speed Kills" or "Revolution Now" to be found here. Hell's Animals is entirely competent and I wouldn't kick it out of bed for eating crackers, but I almost feel like it's 'too thrash'. Yes, 'too thrash', words that I certainly never imagined I'd be thinking, much less typing, but it appears to be the case for this album, which is a few steps below the debut in my affectations.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Mekong Delta - The Principle of Doubt (1989)

The Principle of Doubt is the third Mekong Delta full length and perhaps the best proof of life of the band's manic, schizo thrash progression to date, before they took a slight dive in quality through their even more highbrow 90s conceptual material. All elements of The Music of Erich Zann have been refined here, carved into even more frenetic blocks of post-modern speed/thrash with the blood of jazz and abstraction coursing through it, and though Wolfgang Borgmann's vocals can still tend towards whiny and annoying, he turns in at least his finest performance at the helm of this band, and coincidentally his last, before the band would acquire Doug Lee from Aaarrg Records labelmates Siren.

This has arguably the strongest opener of the band's entire career in "A Question of Trust", a flipped out diatribe of shifting, thrashing guitars laced through with surgical threads of melody and brilliant, oozing bass lines that create a paranoid, multi-planar dementia. "The Principle of Doubt" itself is quite similar in style, with some cleaner guitar breakdowns, and they continue to layer on the choppy tech thrash with the more moody, lurching "Once I Believed". This trio of tracks alone would represent the pinnacle of the band's 80s work, but they're followed by the charismatic "Ever Since Time Began", with its spastic but memorable vocals in the verse, and the winning streak continues. "Curse of Reality" follows with a throbbing, synthesized martial intro, Borgmann performing some of his eerily close to Peavy Wagner tones, while the drums escalate into the resonance of the slicing chords, and an almost femme vocal line. It's simultaneously the least heavy and most unnerving piece on the first half of the album.

So I suppose it's not a huge surprise when they toss out their frantic, instrumental cover of the "Twilight Zone" theme music, which almost seamlessly blends with the original Mekong Delta fare. A few more static-charged thrashers await in "Shades of Doom" and "The Jester", both of which offer their share of curious composition, though the vocals in the latter do become rather strained in the mellower sequences. "El Colibri" is essentially Ralph Hubert flagellating over the Julio Sagreras original, one of those rare cases of the band's over-indulgence, but well paid for by the album's closer, "No Friend of Mine", which is very well written, with wondrous melodic swells, thick writhing bass and effective, thoughtful chugging.

The Principle of Doubt also sounds cleaner than its two predecessors, and in particular I love the guitar tone, perfectly balanced between airy, rare chords, low end driving mutes and dazzling crescendos of melody. The lyrics revolve around subjects like self determination and the place of the individual within the greater foundation of society, and while they often steer into cliches that don't seem nearly as smart as the musical half of this equation, they seem suitable to the band's conceptual hunger. This album is actually the best place to start if you're mining Mekong's classic catalog for the first time, and it certainly secured the band in the company of other tech thrash wizards like Watchtower, Realm, Toxik, or the then-recent transformation of Deathrow.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]
(we bring real life to your homes)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Grinder - Dead End (1989)

Perhaps I wasn't the only one fooled by the cover art into thinking that Grinder had transformed somehow into an early death metal band, but that's just the cover art, and the actual audio content is still very much thrash metal. The production here had improved leaps and bounds over the previous Dawn for the Living, and the band were writing in a more spacious, expansive tone, but despite the few moments of truly interesting music offered through Dead End, the album becomes a stunted bore, with Arizona styled vocals (half Phil Rind of Sacred Reich, half Eric A.K. of Flotsam & Jetsam) that offer a little more melody than the usual German thrashers, but lack all of the blazing, venomous charm of their peers.

A song like "Dead End" really represents my feelings about the album. It opens as incredibly generic thrash with no guitars worth a damn, then transforms into this schizoid landscape in which the band experiment with mood, eventually upscaling to fast as balls speed/thrash with ripping solos. Despite the band's obvious level of competence in its craft, the song is at best an uneven, forgettable assault arriving in a time of far better options. The opener "Agent Orange" is simply not as good as Sodom's song/album of the same type, but the intro that sets up the surge of belligerent riffing is well done, and the verse riffs aren't bad. The band utilizes a lot of melody in "Total Control" and "Why", almost attempting to bridge into a progressive/thrash terrain, but sadly, despite the good drumming and occasionally well plotted melodies, they are not interesting.

"Train Raid" is even worse, a spastic blues/punk piece that doesn't mesh well with the album, and the neo-classical gone bounce thrash of "Inside" almost gimps itself. Had Dead End been gifted with more straight forward fare ala the pickup of "Agent Orange" or "Just Another Scar", then it might have gotten by on its sheer good looks, but as it stands, it's yet another example of those records that drift off into the spark of their imagination without producing a theory or relativity or any other worthwhile innovation. 'Proficient' and 'expansive' are words I would use to expand Grinder as they cycled through the three albums of their career (before mutating into the power metal band Capricorn), but 'quality' is one descriptor that eludes them.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (invisible in the streets)

Accu§er - Who Dominates Who? (1989)

Say what you want about the band's consistently awful cover images, but at least through the 80s (up to 1991's Double Talk) they had the consistent theme of some Ultron looking robot mascot, first through just a glimpse and then out in the open. Here the mechanical thing is clasped in a homoerotic grapple with some muscled entity that represents 'mankind' as they fight for the Earth...well, it's a guess. From the previous year's Experimental Errors EP, I was expecting a fuller shift into straight thrashing territory, and with Who Dominates Who?, this is exactly what Accu§er delivered. Gone were most of the traces of melodic speed from the prior album, those have largely been manifest here through the leads, and damned if the leads aren't generally great.

The album also sounds fantastic, the best production of their career until arguably they arrived at their new, underwhelming 'comeback' album Agitation in 2010. The compositions are rich with riffs, and the mix really lends itself to the sort of impact bands like Destruction, Kreator and Metallica all had at their best. The vocals are like hatchets cutting through the finely plotted riffing, and the opening tracks "Master of Disaster" and "Who Pulls the Wire" both dump the band's previous albums on their asses. "Elected to Suffer" slows down the pace to some good, rock inflected thrashing, but "Symbol of Hate" and "Who Dominates Who?" offer unabated, high velocity thrashing with clinical, precision riffs, and the fun doesn't stop there. About the one criticism I hold of some of the later tracks (including the bonus material) is that they don't always pull off their length. For example, "Called to the Bench" is 8:22, and has a lot going on, but it's not always positive or interesting.

Still, for a band like Accu§er, who have never been able to breach the success barrier, this is extremely well written. The tones are punchy, the vocals pissed off, and the compositional skills not in question. Who Dominates Who? does strangely lack the ability to create memorable chorus parts or truly distinctive riffs, and it doesn't really improve or degrade with age, but it's tight enough to be placed just above the level of 'average'. Had the hooks been as undeniable as the level of talent going into their creation, this would probably have taken the band reasonably further than any other album in their career. As it stands, this is probably the place to start if you're interested in hearing them. The Conviction wasn't bad, and it's got a stronger melodic sensibility to it, with more classic metal hooks coursing through the thrash starved veins, but this sophomore was and remains their strongest output.

Verdict: Win [7/10]
(switch on your terminal)

Wicca - Splended Deed (1989)

Wicca was yet another of hundreds of bands to enter the thrash olympics in the late 80s, hoping to emulate the success of the bigger bands from both the US and Germany. Their debut, the oddly titled Splended Deed, was a well mixed, energetic affair, offering absolutely nothing new or out of the ordinary, but at least it got by on having a solid array of songs with a firm mix. I'd have to say that the most distinctive element to Wicca was Padde, who had an overbearing, heavily accented tone to his voice that sounded like Angelripper if he was in some sort of gut pain that was forcing him to keel over. I know I use the term 'constipated' a lot to describe vocals, but perhaps a better description here would be something attempting to squeeze large metallic objects through his colon.

Occasionally, this will manifest in something goofy due to the whole English second-language thing, but for the most part, I really enjoy him here, because it adds a lot of character over what are well meaning but fairly average riffs. The band opens this album with a few savage thrusts of warlike, unmemorable thrash in "It's Enough" and "Psychic Warfare", the first galloping along with the frenzy of Destruction, the second using a very Slayer riff in the opening. "I.O.U." continues this trend with a louder bass line in the intro that sounds like a drunken bumblebee, then forcing itself into a forgettable charge. "The End of the Century" sounds like what might occur if Gerre of Tankard were singing over a Metallica outtake from 1986, entertaining but silly (due to the vocals); but "Splended Deed" itself is quite good, with some nice ascending guitar melodies and more of the band's Master of Puppets-like riffing and omnipresent bass. "Mirror Never Dies" also deserves a nod, and "Speed Thrashing Kids", while corny, is an amusing and brief jaunt with a great chorus.

This debut most likely suffered from lack of exposure, otherwise it might have created a few more waves than it did, but it was up against some stiff competition this year and didn't have any real advantage over Sodom's Agent Orange, Sepultura's Beneath the Remains, or any of the other '89 greats. It's since been remastered and released in 2008 through another label, and the band has reformed and released Bloodrush in 2010 which is superior to this. While I can't give Splended Deed the most glowing of recommendations, it is in fact good enough to whet the palette of those seeking meaty thrash with charismatic, European vocals.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sodom - Agent Orange (1989)

Coming off the strongest studio material of their career, namely the Expurse of Sodomy EP and Persecution Mania full-length, the doors of the world were being blown open for Tom and his troops. Agent Orange, the last album to feature what I consider the band's classic, ultimate combo of Angelripper, Witchhunter and Frank Blackfire, would not disappoint, though like its predecessor, it suffers from at least one needless diversion which threatens its consistency: that's yet another attempt at a German-titled punk thrash track that is ultimately forgettable against the onslaught of finely crafted riffing that marks the band's straight, metallic artillery. Nonetheless, a lot of eyes and ears were focused on Sodom at this point, and 1989 is where they affirmed their position among the thrashing hierarchy.

It helps to have the immortal lead-in track, and like Persecution Mania's "Nuclear Winter", the title track "Agent Orange" serves this purpose with ample, lethal pageantry. It opens with a stock, quality mid-paced thrash rhythm similar to what one might expect out of a US band like S.O.D., but then takes a swerve into a deeper, melodic mini-bridge before the blitz of the verse. Again, we're treated to the predictable chorus with the great, death metal-like riffs brazenly propelling it into distinction, and it's one of the best songs here. "Tired and Red" is close behind, though, a labyrinth of tight riffs with a great acoustic breakdown and leads during the extended bridge. "Incest" cranks up the velocity, and while it's not one of their better songs, there are at least 2 riffs worth shaking your fists at, and it should please fans of "Nuclear Winter"; but a real surprise is found in "Remember the Fallen", a slower paced, thrash/heavy metal song in which Tom adds a subtext of melody to his vocals which is actually quite good.

Once again, the theater of war is explored through "Magic Dragon", which is for the most part another slower paced song until the fast, thrash/death metal breaks arrive in the chorus which are safely filed under the "Nuclear Winter/Agent Orange" category; this characteristic is also the very definition of "Exhibition Bout", but there's a nice thrash break at 1:20 sure to get the heads all banging. "Ausgebombt" follows, and as I mentioned on my review of the EP with the same title, it's similar to "Bombenhagel" from the prior album, a punk/metal track with lots of gang shouts, loud and distorted Lemmy-like bass lines and not much else to it. I can say that I do enjoy the lead there, it cuts straight through the simplicity of the song's structure, and the production of the track is superb, but it's just not that interesting. Perhaps a fraction better than "Bombenhagel", but I'm all too satisfied when the warlike thrashing of "Baptism of Fire" arrives to rescue any further decline.

Agent Orange might well be the best produced album of the first few decades of Sodom, with that sturdy, clinical Harris Johns mix that distinguished many of his great European efforts. The bass and guitars are extremely well balanced; you can always make out the plodding power of the former against the ballistic, ripping weight of the latter. Tom contributes one of his best vocal performances, and despite its serious lyrical bent, the entire album seems perfect for pubbing, or perhaps grabbing a few tankards while you play war games with acquaintances. I'll always favor Persecution Mania for its grimier ethics and vicious appeal, but Agent Orange does belong to the band's most notable body of work alongside that and the great 1990 effort Better Off Dead.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (poisoned till the end of their lives)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Darkness - Conclusion & Revival (1989)

Darkness were hardly one of the forerunners in the Teutonic thrash scene, but their debut at least offered a modicum of success in biting off the style of bigger, better bands. Not the case for their sophomore Defenders of Justice, an album that was the very definition of mediocrity. Apparently, some of the members must have felt the same way, because their third and final studio effort, Conclusion & Revival features a new vocalist in Rolf Druschel, who had a more manic sound that occasionally reminds me of Joey Belladonna with a bit more bark to him. They also picked up a new bassist, Timo Oehlke, who is featured more prominently in the compositions, with a loud tone that rivals the guitar through most of the heavier tunes.

Conclusion & Revival is a strange beast, and for at least a sizable chunk of the album, the band seem to be suffering an identity crisis. You've got some average, pummeling thrash tunes like "The Omniscient", "Soldiers" and "Price of Fame" which are just flooded with bass plucking and thin but serviceable riffs that feel busier than they are distinct; then the band also veers into a more mean heavy/speed metal vibe on "Burial", "Under Control", the latter featuring some synths and a proggish, interesting chorus. But some of the band's experiments go a little to far, in that they must have been jokes that only the band found funny: "Faded Pictures" begins like some mockery of bad 80s pop, with dopey vocals, pitch shifted squeals and terrible bass funk. By the time it goes metal (and decently), I was already phasing out. "All Left to Say" is 4 and a half minutes of bar room blues, which gets ridiculous once Ray starts screaming. There are some other wasted moments here, like the slap/pop bass intro to "Burial", and the synth opener to the album which is like a bad 80s horror score with no worthwhile payoff.

The production to the LP doesn't help, for as I mentioned, the bass is a wee bit loud here. It's apparent that they wanted to show some of Timo's skills off, but as good as he is, it just doesn't make for a compelling mix. The vocals are fairly weak throughout, not even to the level of the guy's predecessor Oliver Fernickel, and the whole affair feels like a train about to crash. If I'm going to give it any credit at all, it's that somehow, despite the many faults, it's at least more interesting than Defenders of Justice, which was flatline boring. I found myself scratching my head to this a number of times, and not because it's all so hideous. Darkness had found a fairly unique sound, but they would have really needed to polish it up and present functional songs for it to fly off the handle. (Not so) sadly, it just wasn't going to happen, and this was goodbye.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Think of Misery - Poverty is No Disgrace (1989)

Poverty is No Disgrace must be one of the rarest thrash metal LPs out there, and Think of Misery one of the most obscure bands, but they weren't at all bad, except perhaps their logo designer? Yes, I actually like the hobohemia of the cover art, though it doesn't seem to do with the actual music. This is hostile, brutal thrash which reminds me at times of Possessed, Bulldozer, early Piledriver or Hobbs' Angel of Death, with a dark, abrasive atmosphere that is sure to thrill the cult black/thrash or death/thrash devotee. In fact, this is such an intensely fast and oppressive style that you must wonder why the band didn't develop more of a name for themselves...

They also had some riffs to them, especially the raw melodies that cut through "Surgeon", the opener and possibly the best track. The songs seem split between forgettable guitars and then these blazing spurts of inspiration which are catchier than they have any right to be. Often, the songs do feel a little cluttered, due to the thick tone of the bass, plodding along like a drunken, bloated zombie while the guitars distinguish themselves through the choppier mutes, but on the whole I really enjoy the production, and Arno's nearly growled, constipated vocal attack is the perfect helmsman. Some of the other choice tracks include the writhing "Deportation", the 9 minute epic namesake "Think of Misery", and the bridge burning "Deadly Hatred". "Conversion By Violence" has some great guitars, almost speed/power metal, but probably the weakest of Arno's vocals.

If you can envision a hybrid between the dark, dense and aggressive tones of the first two Running Wild albums and old Sodom/Kreator, then you're approaching Think of Misery's style. This isn't exactly a 'great' debut, but the atmosphere alone will appeal to those metalians who desire rugged 80s sincerity and uncaring, fuck off attitude. The drum tone on the album is a little crass, and there is a percentage of the writing that is far from compelling, but I'd certainly give it a listen if you're a fan of anything else I namedropped in this review. Had we gotten a second or third album from the Germans, I have few doubts that they would have carved a name for themselves, but alas, it was not in the cards.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Risk - Ratman EP (1989)

Risk might just be the only band in all of metal's history to concoct a nearly 11 minute long opus about the rat species, and truly this is one of the most uncanny things I've ever heard. However, taking into consideration that thrash bands of the late 80s were releasing EPs with their cover of the Ray Parker Jr. Ghostbusters theme (Xentrix), tributes to alcoholic extra terrestrials (Tankard), covers of Mussorgski (Mekong Delta), or pretending to be punk bands (Sodom), it's probably not as out of place as one might think. What's even more impressive is that, for the most part, this release is actually good, a positive successor to the band's excellent debut The Daily Horror News. We're a long way from Faithful Breath now...

The centerpiece here is the 10:40 minute "Ratman", which opens with the sounds of manhole covers being removed, titillating, cutesy synthesizers and pitch shifted narrative about a man's descent into the sewers. The song is actually fragmented into a number of segments called "Invitation" (the intro I just mentioned), "Ratman's Delight" (a catchy, twisting melodic thrash passage), "Ratdance" (which is loaded with amazing, clinical riffing and tight leads), and lastly "Delirium", which sounds like a strange parody of the old Batman theme transformed into a pummeling thrash. This last piece is the least interesting, but up until that point the song is just stunningly good, and would have been worthy of appearing on a full-length.

It's not alone. There are three other tracks here, beginning with "Germans", a sort of patriotic while simultaneously non-patriotic gang thrasher which clocks in at nearly 90 seconds. It's goofy and disposable, but so bad it will definitely make you smile. There's nothing at all stupid about "Violent Science" though, which had also appeared as a CD bonus on The Daily Horror News. A great, mid-paced thrasher with nice, psychotic vocals. "Skid-Row Kid" is a surprisingly moody thrasher which opens with a downcast slew of chords and then rips into memorable precision, speed/thrash metal much like the content of the debut album. A lot better than the title might imply, but then, so isn't this entire release...

You might not think something like Ratman would be possible, much less actually worth hearing, but I assure you it is that. Most of the title track is entertaining, as are the rest, and it makes a fine bridge into the band's sophomore Hell's Animals.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (I'm the big star of the drain)

Sodom - Ausgebombt EP (1989)

The Ausgebombt EP is another of those short form releases which has been retroactively made entirely worthless through time, but even for its day it was nothing special whatsoever. Whereas the previous Sodom EP Expurse of Sodomy offered three blazing hymns of viral excellence, this is one of those 'fun' excursions where a band decided it would be entertaining to themselves and their fans to step outside their skins for a while. All of this content has since been available on the reissue of Agent Orange, so there is absolutely no reason at all to shuffle currency unless you're the consummate, textbook completist, but ignoring that possibility, there was nothing worth a damn to begin with.

The "Ausgebombt" here is the German version, so naturally it was meant to appeal to the local fan base. This was the frivolous punk song from Agent Orange, following up the uninteresting, unnecessary punkish song on Persection Mania ("Bombenhagel"), and it's truly undeserving of its own single, though not a completely terrible song in any language. "Don't Walk Away" is a Tank cover, from their initial 1981 single. While it's hardly mangled at the hands of Tom Angelripper and crew, and you could always tell that the NWOBHM band was a huge influence on them, through both their warlike moniker/imagery and dirty, blue collar sound, it's really that not interesting of a song, with a typical blues rock pattern to it that sounds. Very Motörhead, like most of the early Tank recordings, but aside from an acknowledgment of Sodom's roots, it hasn't improved through this version.

Lastly, because 2 songs does not a full-bodied EP make, there is a live track, a grimy version of "Incest" from Agent Orange, recorded at Eissporthalle Braunschweig this same year. It's a decent tune, but not one of the best from that album, and there's nothing special about it's inclusion here except for the fact that it fills space. Since I'm just not a fan of Sodom's punk stuff, whether that be Tom Angelripper's 'Onkel Tom' solo project or the tendency for the main band to deviate into the territory from time to time, I found this to be a wasteland of value, meant only to cull a few extra dollars for Steamhammer/SPV and the band. Sodom's a good thrash band, once in awhile great, but that's the only context I've ever appreciated them in.

Verdict: Fail [2.25/10]

Sacred Chao - Sacred Chao EP (1989)

The short-lived, ill-fated Sacred Chao is named for the Living Death song "Sacred Chao", which makes a lot of sense when one considers that this is basically Living Death, or three members of the better known speed/thrash entity, who decided to continue their journey after that band's 1989 split. However, despite the presence of Thorsen Bergmann, Atomic Steif and Fred, there is not really all that much in common, as Sacred Chao perform a sort of mix of uplifting melodic/speed metal void of the thrash influences that had gradually enveloped Living Death, to the betterment of their sound. This has a lot more in common with the sounds of Running Wild, Rage, Scanner, and other German ilk, only Sacred Chao has this enthusiastic, goofy air about it that makes it a little difficult to take seriously.

Bergmann for one sounds quite different here, hanging out in a middle register with only slight use of his pinchy, nasal vocal style that one had come to either love or hate through the first few Living Death records. It's a curious shift, but ultimately underwhelming, and though the guitars are fill of fun and fiber, the production sounds like ass through the whole EP, like it's being spun through a wind-tunnel. The little guitar squeals characteristic of Fred's work sound like a bad attempt at commercial hard rock/metal, and the riffs are just never meaty nor catchy enough to function. Of the four tracks, "Cry for More" is likely the most exciting, sounding not unlike mid 80s Ozzy Osbourne, and the material grows progressively worse as you move along, with the lame "Dirty Dreams" biting off the famous AC/DC 'dirty deeds' motif, and the closer "Leave You Right Now" just utter shit.

Well, we all know who got the better of the deal when Living Death parted ways this year. Reiner and Dieter Kelch were at least able to release one more, respectable album in 1991's Killing In Action, whereas the mighty 'Toto' Bergmann's legacy ended here. I really can't picture what was going inside the members' heads at this time. Granted, they were always into the sounds of classic heavy/speed metal, hard rock and so forth, but how could this have been a good idea when the fan base was starving for their blistering, shrieking thrash metal? This EP is so pathetic that the band were inevitably embarrassed, so nothing more would come from it, which might be proof that there IS a God.

Verdict: Fail [2.5/10]

Holy Moses - The New Machine of Liechtenstein (1989)

I'm not sure where the bus on its cover is going from, but I know where it's come from: rehab. Yes, the oddly titled The New Machine of Liechtenstein sounds like Holy Moses were suffering a hangover after the previous, astounding effort Finished with the Dogs, and this is perhaps closer to the sober tones of the debut Queen of Siam, with some pretty simple thrashing through the majority of the track list and a clean, processed sound to the guitars. However, where the debut had no real songs of worth, The New Machine of Liechtenstein is at least written well enough that it's engaging and dynamic for the majority, and thus I'd place it as a second (but fairly distant second) to the band's masterwork of two years prior.

There is no killer app here, no head splitting track like a "Current of Death" anywhere to be found, and one can certainly feel the loss, but the musicality is still in check, evident from the opener "Near Dark" with its great leads and solid riffing patterns. Sabina Classen still sounds like a blood frothing valkyrie with her wings clipped, but more subdued, as if her youthful, violent frenzy had been leeched from her in the intermittent years. Andy Classen and Uli Kusch carry the album with precision, but the guitar tone feels too boxy and over produced, more like late 80s Anthrax than Holy Moses' wild German peers. Tracks like "Defcon II", "The Brood" and "Strange Deception" plod along with reasonable force, but the album almost without exception improves whenever the band diverts to something more frenetic, like the surgical melodic dementia of "Panic" or the speedy licks of "State: Catatonic". "SSP" opens with a nice, muted blitz, but the riff patterns are somewhat lacking.

If you've got the 2005 reissue then you'll hear a few live renditions of "SSP" and "Lost in the Maze" which are in my opinion better than the studio versions. Hell, "Lost in the Maze" live even sounds like a female-fronted Pestilence, with Sabina using van Drunen styled, gorged throat guttural vocals. Pretty cool, but the studio track seems deflated somehow. The New Machine of Liechtenstein is a decent thrash effort, make no mistake about it, with some smart writing and a nice thread of man vs. machine in the lyrics, but the human catapult that was Sabina Classen circa 1987 is just not put to good enough use, and the songs are in general more plodding and slower paced, lacking that vital, violent burst which comprised one of the greatest German thrash albums of them all. They created a tall shadow to stand in, and stand in it they would, for the rest of their career, but at least there is something comforting and solid about this corner of the dark.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]
(he watched it all from the distance)

Destruction - Live Without Sense (1989)

Perhaps the more miraculous fact about Live Without Sense is not that it's the best live thrash album of the 80s, nor one of the best live German metal albums of all time, but that it manages to take the already superb material of a band and make it sound better. Yes, by 1989, Destruction had not sounded superior than they do on this record, and it rewrites the fuzzy tones of Sentence of Death/Eternal Devastation, and the surgical, frightening cold of Release from Agony into a brazen, consistent 53 minute set of the band's best material. Yes, excluding later greats like The Antichrist, you've got almost all the essential Destruction material, here in its prime form, and in my book it's worth every penny to the non-poseur.

Schmier sounds insanely good here, especially his screaming diversions, and the guitars are crisp and delicious as they bite through each layer of your sanity. Mike Sifringer and Harry Wilkens are fucking spotless. Also, you've got a great set that draws from the band's entire 80s catalog, and in most cases, the best versions of the songs available elsewhere. The crude classics from Sentence of Death are perhaps underrepresented, with only "Mad Butcher" and no "Total Desater", but that's the only plausible complaint. Infernal Overkill's contributions are "Bestial Invasion", "Invincible Force", and the instrumental "Thrash Attack", the last of which sounds simply amazing as it bursts into its super catchy bridge. Eternal Devastation makes up for some of the best tracks here in "Curse the Gods", "Eternal Ban" and "Life Without Sense", the last of which is touched off with a brief, fun cover of "In the Mood". "Reject Emotions" is present from the Mad Butcher EP, and Release from Agony is covered with "Dissatisfied Existence", "Unconscious Ruins" and the title track.

Yes, sets like these once happened, and yes, we can be fucking envious of those that saw them. However, Live Without Sense is culled from a number of dates through 1987-1988, so at least we can rest assured that Destruction wasn't this perfect on a single night (who could be?) As far as management of track listing, and the audio quality is remarkable, easily devouring Sodom's Mortal Way of Live from the previous year. I'm shocked to say it, but Sentence of Death aside (which carries a particular nostalgia for its lo-fi tones), Live Without Sense is perhaps the 'go to' album of the band in the 80s. Certainly I would recommend this to any newcomer to the band as a starting point, since it has most of their best songs in the span of an hour. When I first picked it up, I didn't pay it much attention, since I was flooded with new albums in the 80s that were to say the least, eargasms of creativity and execution, but through the ensuing decades, I've grown almost as fond of this as Live After Death.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Svart Crown - Witnessing the Fall (2010)

Svart Crown is a French act attempting to bind together the harrowing force of brutal death metal ala Morbid Angel, Vader, Behemoth and Deicide, with the bleeding convulsions of black metal tremolo picking. They succeed in this, not because it's unnaturally difficult, but due to their rare ability to layer a number of twisted, unexpected melodies into their rhythms that add a pulsing, organic gravitas to their misanthropic demesne. The result is an effort that not only weighs off sequences of haunting atmosphere and abrupt aural incisions on a cautious scale, but actually manifests in memorable, spike-like writing that wedges itself directly between the two halves of your soft and sloppy mind.

I can't say I love the vocals of JB Le Bail, which are your pretty standard accumulation of David Vincent and similar influences, but they have never really failed at propelling this style, nor do they here. Blunt, caustic and to the point, while his guitars collide with those of Klem Flandrois to create acrobatic, acerbic strains of hostile melodies in "Dogs of Gods", "An Eternal Descent", and "Colosseum". The drums are manic, blasting appropriately where necessarily, a process that could become dull if the guitars weren't always diverting your ears; but nonetheless the product of an boundlessly energetic superhuman. Often the band will slow for some rolling, chugged material as in "Into a Demential Sea" or "Strength Higher Than Justice", but the fact that they keep their crisp, bright, punchy and organic guitar tones here goes a long way to evade the sense of plodding, pedestrian breakdowns that many similar bands suffer from.

Witnessing the Fall is a step up over the band's debut Ages of Decay, but there is still some room for growth. The vocals could certainly be more versatile than this to better effect. Also, the transitions are competent but they rarely offer much of an impact, merely cycling from one adequate sequence to the next, but often incapable of setting up one another for a seething storm of menace. That said, if you break down the components, most of the riffs on the album are quality, and I must reiterate that I love the sincerity of the mix, which sounds like you could be sitting in the rehearsal room with the band, but clean and clear. If you're a massive fan of the Morbid Angel albums Altars of Madness, Domination and Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, and seeking similar sounds, then this is certainly worth checking out, but I did get the tugging impression that true brilliance is still eluding these French hopefuls.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

The Eyes of a Traitor - Breathless (2010)

I've long been of the school of thought that there are two schools of the metalcore universe: the crafty, volatile and frenzied fare of a Converge, Botch, Coalesce, Drowningman, and the hundreds that followed in their footsteps by fusing post-hardcore and metallic elements into interesting, splayed dynamics; and then the crass and commercialized fodder (Unearth, Killswitch Engage, Black Dahlia Murder) which represents a hybridization of meaty mosh chugging and melodic death elements straight out of Sweden. By this statement, you can probably tell which one I favor, but on occasion there will be a band that flirts with the space betwixt the poles, and I feel like England's The Eyes of a Traitor represents some subtle, middle ground on their sophomore Breathless.

Don't be fooled, there are still many of the trappings of convention in place here, like the very simple chugging sequences and the passionate but typical metalcore ranting howls, but what is more interesting is what the band lays over the bricks: a cement of post-hardcore inflected chords and gleaming melodies. All of this is evident in "The Birth", which has some great ringing notation in the verses and even the plodding mutes of the chorus, proceeding into the bouncy gone melancholic chorus. But come "Come to My Senses", I was pretty sad to encounter the same crappy clean vocals that poison so many artists in this genre, who must feel that they will carry some compulsive, emotional weight. They don't. They suck, and wherever they touch this band's music (which thankfully isn't that often), they instantly spread cancer in their wake. It's a shame, because the guitars and rhythm section work pretty hard here, with a few melodies in tracks like "Talk of the Town" or "Nothing to Offer" that might have sat well on an In Flames or Insomnium album.

I wish the band could pluck out about 40-50% of the riffs here, and re-insert into compositions better fitting a more curious vision. The meaty, bouncing rhythms that are part Meshuggah, part Mnemic never really go anywhere, and the lyrics are almost all very bland, cliched and self-centered in that 1st person perspective, like thousands of throwaway hardcore bands in the 90s who were 'expressing' themselves. I don't mind personal writing, but they never seem to evoke anything beyond the bare minimum of effort and imagination (nor do the song titles). The vocals are also not interesting, with a phoned in level of emotion you can find anywhere in the genre. The production of the album feels a little too processed, but this is not unusual for the style, and at least it gives you the chance to focus on the band's few strengths: the tight, efficient rhythm section and the melodic choices made by the guitars. Other than that, there's really nothing to see here, so move along.

Verdict: Fail [3.75/10]

The Order of Apollyon - The Flesh (2010)

It'd be interesting to think of The Order of Apollyon as some international group that has come together to revolutionize extreme metal, but the reality is not much more than the sum of its parts: a gathering of seasoned individuals who are casting their lot into the fray with a mix of black and death metal elements. There is some level of atmosphere to the production, and the band will often explore the precipice of interesting rhythms and melodies within the bowels of their compositions, but otherwise you've got your expected blend of Morbid Angel and Deicide aesthetics with Norse black metal chords, rasped and guttural vocals in union.

When firing on all incendiary cylinders, they wind up with a track like "Word", which occasionally swaggers into some interesting riff patterns; or the driving, depressive chords that introduce "Never" before the chugging, warlike verse with its moody, melodic glaze. But for every track of note, there seems to be an "Ich Bin Das Licht" or "Four Beasts", in which the balance of grooves, dual vocals and streaming chords doesn't provide more than your average level of malice. A good band to compare this one to would be Belphegor, but The Order of Apollyon are slightly more adventurous in their selection of song elements. In general, though, I tracks the songs that steered away from the chugging groove sequences were the more interesting. Not that the band is bad at forging bottom end ballistics, but they give the album an inconsistency of the cheap vs. the colossal.

With a lineup comprised of B.S.T. (France's Balrog, Aborted, Garwall, etc), James Mcllroy (Cradle of Filth), Peter Benjamin (Akercocke), and Daniel Wilding (Aborted, Trigger the Bloodshed), The Order provides a fine nexus of British, Belgian and French talent, but all have been involved with better albums in the past. That said, there are the workings of something greater under the surface of The Flesh; if it were to shuck a few of the chugging elements and bland snarl/growl dual vocals, the effort would do more to evoke my curiosity. As it stands, there is some fine playing on the album, a few decently written tracks, and a nice production that skillfully mediates the band's rhythmic variation, but nothing truly standout, vile or enigmatic under the horn-throwing eaves.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Cavus - Fester and Putrefy (2010)

With all the subtlety of a siege machine, Finland's Cavus tests its fortune upon the wide waters of European black metal with their debut Fester and Putrefy. Borne more of Hellhammer, Mayhem and Bathory than a number of their contemporaries, they favor warlike escalation over intricacy, simple bombardments of chords over writhing, hostile melodies, and the deeper than usual vocal tone which borders on a full-bodied, almost Swedish death metal growl over the sniveling rasp so associated with the parent genre. I was perhaps most reminded of fellow Finns Barathrum as I listened through this, due to the storming bass and lack of elegance in the compositions, but the vocals and the thickness of their crushing rhythms distinguish them.

The downside is that for all their applied force, Cavus do feel derivative in a lot of their writing, not to any one band in particular, but the guitar riffs often pan out in predictable patterns and there are very rarely any surprise turns waiting within the depths of these ten tracks. The ring of feedback and vocal swell of "Sea of Tongues" seem interesting, but once the aptly titled "Fist of a Titan" arrives with its big, swinging chords, the atmosphere is parted and you're presented with some savage, but unmemorable black metal, a pattern that continues throughout, though the band's use of caustic noise in "Discovering Through Suffering", or the spacious bombast that haunts the interior of "Death Rattle" do curb much of the potential for monotony. The further you go into the album, the better the rewards, with latecomers "The Sacred Profane" and "Possessed by the Devil's Blood" some of the most fully fleshed, glorious marauders here.

If novelty and innovation are not what you seek, simply the crushing gravity of crude death and black metal, the Fester and Putrefy might sate you for a short time. The tone of the album is sufficiently belligerent and ominous, casting the listener into a rumbling field of war where artillery is rolled on wheels of stone to the gates of palatial paradise, and then let loose upon the seraphim cowered within. It's hostile enough to impede the sunshine, but the riffs are simply too stockpile to provide long enduring menace. I kept attempting to hone in on subtleties behind the calamity of chords, but aside from the ringing of the notes within them there was no vacancy for the virile, viral notation I sought. That said, Cavus do seem content with simply applying the pestle and mortar to your cranium, and there are certainly far less effective black metal albums out there than this one.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Monday, January 24, 2011

Toxin - Aphorisms EP (1989)

Toxin are one of the lesser known German bands to arrive in the 80s thrash wave, which is unfortunate, because they certainly had the chops and potential to move ahead in the game had they seen some better exposure. What I'm most impressed with is that they manage to sound somewhat unique among their countrymen, using a more distinctly American style in the pinched, often overbearing vocals, which are contributed here by several of the band members through a series of gang shouts, growls, screams and the beefy central force of Frank Ungewickel, who sounds not unlike Bob Mayo from the New England thrashers Wargasm.

Armed with versatile songs, explosive riffs and some fairly decent production, they set the stage for their tragic obscurity with the Aphorisms EP, which is easily a prescription for a neck brace through the five manic tracks. There's a sixth, "Lord of the Flies", a brief acoustic instrumental, which serves to further their variation, but it's hardly impressive or atmospheric enough to stand out among the meaty thrashers like "Dismembered Illusions", "Daily Inferno" or the title track, each loaded with angry, swerving aggression and riffs that reek of Destruction or Vendetta, only with a thicker tone. I also really enjoy "Land of Despaire", which takes on a more melodic hue, interspersed with passages of intense speed metal. "The Prophecy" is slightly weaker than the other metal tracks, but there are still a few moments of charging 80s speed guitars and capable yelling.

Aphorisms is somewhat less technical than the band's 1991 full-length, Misanthropy, and I don't think the songs are quite as good, but it compensates with a shred more blunt aggression and street character. The EP sounds quite good, the instruments clearly defined and honest; for a little known band on an even littler known label, that's saying a lot. Toxin really didn't have the same level of chops that bands like Destruction, Kreator and Sodom were laying out already, but they spend their time well here, creating a ballast that would carry the interested listener straight to the following year's album.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Kreator - Extreme Aggression (1989)

Kreator's Extreme Aggression was not only a pinnacle of the band's upwards elevation in popularity, but a success for Noise Records as a whole, as the album got a distribution deal through a major here in the States (CBS/Epic). The young, evolutionary German band had finally hit the big leagues, and curiously enough, the album even sounds like such a major label debut, cleaning up some of the flaws that marred its predecessor just shy of perfection. Unfortunately, this is also the first Kreator album in which the band took a pretty solid step in reverse. That's not to imply that Extreme Aggression is without its moments, because it is for all intensive purposes a 'good' album, but unlike the floodgates of imagination and extremity that burst open with Pleasure to Kill and Terrible Certainty, these seem to have been welded temporarily shut.

As mentioned, the production here is a lot more streamlined than Terrible Certainty, recorded in the States with Randy Burns at the helm. While this certainly makes the individual components like guitars and vocals more audible, there's also a rather sterile feel to the effort that was lacking on the earlier records. Even the cover of the album reflects this, with the band trading in their demonic mascot for a pose under a muted, red sun hue. Truly boring. The music itself is not so bad, making for the natural bridge between the band's career heights Terrible Certainty and Coma of Souls, but very few of the songs have that instantly explosive emotional power that would characterize the 1990 follow-up, and riff for riff, it's simply not as interesting, like the band were tip-toeing along in the wake of their newfound success, trying not to misfire.

They don't, but neither do they truly impress here. "Extreme Aggressions" possesses much of the scything, melodic precision first introduced on the previous album, but the transitions don't feel all that exciting together, and this is perhaps the most riff-tastic song on the entire album (the verse is great). "No Reason to Exit" and "Some Pain Will Last" are two of my other faves, with cold and clinical riffing that cycles through a number of catchy moments; and to a lesser extent, "Stream of Consciousness" and "Fatal Energy". "Bringer of Torture" is also good for a neck breaking, a fast and frenetic number with a great galloping riff and chorus that wouldn't have been out of place on Pleasure to Kill. I've never been much for "Betrayer" or "Love Us or Hate Us", which seem to ironically be two of the most popular songs on this album, but I wouldn't dub them a waste of space either.

In the end, I tend to think of Extreme Aggression of a mere warm up for Coma of Souls, an album that still blows my head off from start to finish, and the peak of the band's songwriting, despite the fact that it's so heavily derived from ideas first manifest on this album or Terrible Certainty. It's still Kreator, and it's still better than most thrash metal of its day. But it's very strange to me that the chorus of "Love Us or Hate Us" proclaims: 'no honesty, just sterility, a cautious sound they make without creativity'. a passage that best expresses how I have always felt about this album. Whereas the previous album was a tornado of riffs, this is a mere dust devil, forceful enough to whip up the dust, but never enough to tear your roof off.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (I never thought it would come this far)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Mekong Delta - The Music of Erich Zann (1988)

When you've lifted your album title verbatim from a famous H.P. Lovecraft story, then you owe it to us all to not fuck up, and in no way were Mekong Delta about to still the pendulum that they had started swinging a year prior. The Music of Erich Zahn serves as a direct successor to the s/t debut, not only chronologically, but stylistically; and yet it begins to flex more of the band's classical influence and technicality for a stronger overall impression. This is schizoid speed/thrash metal comparable to Destruction's Release from Agony or Deathrow's anomalous Deception Ignored, though there is perhaps a little less brain busting to absorb in the grander scheme.

I'm not sure if I'll ever understand why Mekong Delta's members felt the need to use their pseudonyms. Perhaps they had an overinflated sense of their own fame, which at this time was only whispered in relatively small circles, but I can't say it's not an entertaining tactic. Legendary drummer Jörg Michael returns as 'Gorden Perkins', and lays down one of his most incredible, intense performances, but perhaps the most distinct element of the band at this point was 'Keil', or vocalist Wolfgang Borgmann, who continues to sound like the asylum bound sibling of Rage's Peavy Wagner (who was also once in the band). Borgmann can offer teeter off key, and it can prove distracting, but what I like most is the tonal, ghostlike vocals he uses primarily on the tranquil outro piece "Epilogue", but also in bits and pieces of the harder hitting material.

Speaking of which, it hits pretty damn hard, the riffs always carefully woven into intricate and interesting patterns. "Memories of Tomorrow" uses the ghostlike vocals alongside a melodic, complex chugging pattern that sees the rhythm section in total freakout mode, and it's one of the brightest gems on the album, but I also love some of the more frenzied material like "Hatred", the manic "Confessions of Madness", or the explosive "True Lies", a song which the band are still making 20 years later. "I, King, Will Come" also deserves a mention for its gradual escalation into the plodding riffs and shrill, dual vocal harmonies. When Borgmann hits the lower end of his range, he sounds even MORE like Peavy Wagner. Do you think? Could it be? I mean, he must have been at least tempted, being that he wrote the lyrics for the first two Mekong Deltas.

"Interludium (Begging for Mercy)" foreshadows the band's future neo-classical direction with some hypnotizing acoustics that explode into chugging and swelling, paranoid string sections, with a nice synth guitar lead. There's not really a sore spot to be had here, but I will say that a few of the tracks do lose my attention span from time to time, in their staggering attack. For one, I don't care for the vocals in the opener "Age of Agony". He eventually starts wailing fruitfully, but they feel a little rough in the verses. "The Finale Deluge" also warrants a mixed reaction. I love most of the guitars, and the vocals are cool enough, but the attention does wane in the waking seconds. That said, The Music of Erich Zann is certainly one of the more adventurous German thrash efforts of the 80s, a virtue that the band will compound over the next decade, able to stir up enough interest that they were never left completely behind like a number of their peers.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (we are goddamn manipulated)

Risk - The Daily Horror News (1988)

Risk is one of the rare cases of a classic metal band finding successful new life with a change of identity and style. From 1967-1985, they released six full-length albums as Faithful Breath, evolving from hard rock roots to a heavier style more typical of their day, before they decided they would partake in the faster, speed/thrash scene that Germany was very well known for by the mid 80s. Rather than drag their original vision through the mud, they adopted the name Risk, which surprisingly hadn't been taken by anyone important in the metal universe. The Daily Horror News was born, the first and still best effort under this new visage, despite the lamentable cover art which makes...only a strange kind of sense with the title.

No, this is not fucking Donkey Kong metal, but a work of memorable velocity and impressive songwriting which immediately placed the band among peers like Rage, Scanner, Helloween and Running Wild. It's primarily speed/power metal, but there are moments where they bite down a little harder for some thrash. The band's classic metal riffing influence obviously goes a long way towards making each track distinct and full to the brim with hooks, but I'd also point out the vocals of Heinz Mikus, which sound like a mix of Rock'n'Rolf Kasparek and the silky, grimier tones often adopted by Andi Deris through his work with Helloween. I thoroughly enjoy his performance here, with the same wonderful reverb common to Running Wild records from from the 1984-1989 period, and it's damn well consistent. You've just got to survive a moment of jungle beasts and radio samples to carve out the coconuts within...

"Living in Chaos" is the first layer of flaky white goodness, a speed jaunt that sounds strikingly similar to something that might occur of Kasparek were fronting Rage. "Roadwar", however, is one of the best tracks on the album, pretty much a pure power metal number which once again sounds like a particular pirate metal outfit of this period. Gang shouts, uproarious riffs, and fluid lethality all build into a superb chorus. They slow the pace for "DNS Madness", which I assume refers to one of the acids involved with possible cloning, but it's still got hooks aplomb, even the predictable chorus delivers. "Revolution Now", "Rommes Fritz" and "Speed Kills" ramp up the intensity, and I'm particularly enamored of the lead sequences in "Rommes Fritz", and "Strike" and the bonus track "Violent Science" are both likewise remarkable, the latter hitting a nice hard thrash pace through the verses.

The Daily Horror News had a lot to contend with in 1988, and perhaps this is the reason so few have actually heard of the band or album. Running Wild's Port Royal and Rage's Perfect Man both came out the same year, and both are unreal (two of my favorite albums ever), so that might explain why it was left in the dust, but this debut absolutely deserves mention alongside them, a trinity of German 'R' bands hauling ass with the best material of their careers, all within a short span of time. The mix here simply slays, still sounding fresh and bright over 20 years later, and the individual performances here are all noteworthy. But what is most magnificent is that an already established band (in Europe at least) were able to undergo a transition like with this dignity and class, retiring their prior identity instead of molesting it. Whether Risk ever got the credit they deserved is up for debate, but if you're a metalian of taste, acquire this record however possible. It is that good.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (no speed limit at all)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Skyforger - Kurbads (2010)

It's been well over a decade since Skyforger evolved out of their previous entity Grindmaster Dead and initiated a unique cultural spin on historical pagan/black metal. But outside of their national perspective, which was so rare in the late 90s, albums like The Battle of Saule and Latvian Rifleman were pretty standard black metal efforts in the vein of Bathory or Barathrum, only with more samples added to create a warlike atmosphere. Both were great efforts, mind you, but nothing necessarily out of the ordinary, and in the ensuing years, the band started to adopt other influences into their fundamental aggression. Kurbads is their 5th full-length, the first in 7 years, and if you were to compare it to their debut, you'd be hearing a much different band...

The historical/folklore elements are still central to the band's concept, but they've morphed from a straight black/pagan style to one that incorporates heavy/thrash metal, cleaner folk elements and lots of great guitar work, particularly through the leads which alternate between bluesy and emotional to simply glorious. Don't judge this book by its cover, a folksy but primal image which will conjure either disgust or revelation, because this is easily the best of Skyforger's efforts since the sophomore album in 2000, 50 minutes of bombastic, swaggering epic fun with both pride and purpose. If you're seeking flighty and fantastical folk metal akin to what a Finntroll or Korpiklaani produce, then you might not be prepared by the simple, steel rhythms present, but there's enough of that dynamic here that you might still get something from Kurbads, in particular "Son of the Mare", which seems to be the lightest fare on the album, which a straight rock influence adjoining its winding pipes. But most of these tracks draw from deeper wells.

It'd be an oversight not to mention the mix here, which is fantastic, whether it's balancing the core instruments or the pipes, kokle and acoustics. The rhythms are laid on thick in the fist pumping heavy/thrash rhythms of "The Nine-Headed", the gloomy enclosures of "Bewitched Forest", the driving melodic power metal that opens "The Devil Slayer", and the spacious majesty of "The Stone Sentinel", but the real star of the show is the band's sheer versatility. No song derives too closely from another, and each is a sonic extraction of the rich folklore in the band's homeland. Points must also be given for the vocals, which sound incredible in the native tongue. Peter's evolved into what I can only compare to a Latvian version of Sabbat and Skyclad's Martin Walkyier, with a bitter, rasping characteristic that gives a full body against the backdrop of the instrumentation. The backing vocals also satisfy, and when the band breaks into full folk mode briefly for "In the Yard of the Father's Son", you truly feel as if you're sitting around some ancient fire.

This is a total package, though. The drums sound like studio-bottled thunder, and nearly every melodic lead on the album, from the melodies over the crushing "Curse of the Witch" to the superb bonus/title track, is distinct enough to please the palette. I can already see the dismay some fans might feel for the level of variation here, and the lack of much straightforward black metal from their formative years, but it's well worth giving Kurbads the chance to captivate you. The majority of the tracks are catchy and well written, always throwing something memorable your way, and the potential is simply enormous. It's easy to envision that Skyforger will join the fore of Eastern folk metal, standing alongside their neighbors in Arkona, Kroda or Temnozor in opening a window on the past. I hope there are enough people out there willing to look through it.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Despair - History of Hate (1988)

Despair is a band best known for a few of its alumni, who would move on to (arguably) greater things. Original vocalist Robert Kampf, who appears on this album, would become the chief of the now colossal Century Media records, and in fact Despair was the first European act signed to the label. Guitarist Waldemar Sorychta would later become a famed producer and play in some reasonably higher profile bands like the (crappy) Grip Inc. Lastly, Drummer Markus Freiwald has recently become the drummer for Sodom. Alright, so perhaps none of them have quite become legendary, but the success stories are impossible to deny, so it's all the more curious to examine their roots.

They are strong roots, and History of Hate is the sort of intense, technical thrash/speed album I tend to enjoy, with some similarities to Deathrow, Living Death, Vendetta, Destruction and a number of others. Notable effort was spent in composing the 8 tracks here, and each instrument is given a chance to shine. The guitars are choppy and adventurous, splicing together moments of tranquility with surgical, cutting melodies and beefier backing rhythms. I really enjoy the acoustic moments, like the intro "The Enigma" or the early segue in the 8+ minute epic "Constructing the Apocalypse". There was an artful deviousness to Despair, and Kampf's rough, constipated presence seemed the perfect pilot. That said, besides the obvious qualities and care in its craft, there are very few tracks here that really blow you over. Even the versatile, manic exhibitions of "Joy Division" and "Outconditioned" are not quite as knockout as the clinical nuance found on Deception Ignored, The Music of Erich Zahn, or Release from Agony, but they walk a similar path.

It's a good debut effort, and still sounds viable by today's standard, especially the airy guitar tones and the progressive patterns being woven through the thrashing glaze. The bonus track "Never Trust" turns out to be one of the strongest on the album, though it is borne of a more standardized chugging thrash blockade with some stumbling grooves. If History of Hate is lacking in any area, it's just the lack of killer chorus lines and truly destructive riffs that might edge it past a lot of the other second tier German bands at the time. The band would improve with their subsequent output, but Kampf's sole full-length performance was nothing to scoff at. Now, if only the Century Media suits would break this out from time to time, remember what made them so important, and take out all their shitty metalcore bands with next week's waste disposal (but don't recycle them, please).

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (the cross was taught by the sword)

Vendetta - Brain Damage (1988)

Don't let the first :26 of "War" fool you into thinking Vendetta has transformed into a funk abortion, because a few moments later you'll be fully immersed into one of the greatest German thrash albums of 1988, a year that really needs no introduction, so saturated it was with quality across a number of metallic themes. Brain Damage is a slightly altered beast from its predecessor, Go and Live...Stay and Die, in that Vendetta had weathered their sporadic spurts of aggression with mature songwriting, heightened melodies, and a more accessible tone which stands today as one of the best produced albums of its entire school of thought. Riffs. Leads. Songs. Fucking songs. This band had them all in spades, so it comes as quite a surprise that this sophomore didn't take off to the stars.

But it should have, and those :25 of slapping, popping bass transcend into a gyrating flux of crisp, dynamic melodies that eventually cede to increased velocity. When you've got a song with such a vague title as "War", you really need to flesh that out, and Vendetta do so. Daxx has a stronger presence here, his snide vocals far easier to pick out from the fray, due to the clarity of the mix. The lead at 2:20 is immensely catchy, and the verse lead-in lyrics are pretty hard to deny: 'hey mother, do you want war, hey mother?' "Brain Damage" itself once again flexes the band's new found versatility, with a jazzy clean guitar passage which gives the impression of falling snow before the belligerent guitars hammer out around :40. The galloping verse riffs in this song are impressive, and it's no surprise that the leads also glisten with memorable, crystalline presence, before the thrashing trampoline of "Conversation", or the drawn out power ballad "Precious Existence", which despite being the weakest track on the album, still has hooks aplomb.

After this, the album surges into a pair of shorter vignettes, the raging "Never Die" providing 2:32 of excellent speed/thrash, with a little bridge that seems an obvious nod to Destruction. "Love Song" is barely over a minute, a fun number that alternates samples and wild synth sounds with grooving basslines and thrash lines, the band repeating: 'we hope that you love - as I - as we do'. I don't really get it, but Vendetta don't plan on giving me the time to, as the bass solo weaves into the nearly 7 minute instrumental "Fade to Insanity", which is choked with great riffs, one of the better thrash instrumentals of the 80s outside of "Orion". "Dominance of Violence" whips up another sequence of glorious, unforgettable rhythms before the album's finale, "Metal Law", which is probably the closest you're going to find to the material on their debut, though cleaned up quite nicely.

There are some who consider Brain Damage to be an example of progressive thrash metal, and I can't say I completely disagree. It's not technical or complex to the point of being bewildering or genius (ala Deathrow's Deception Ignored), but certainly the band were introducing a lot of elements that betrayed the charging, voracious mentality of Go and Live...Stay and Die. It's feet are firmly on the ground, it's relationship with the audience open and embracing rather than cryptic and alienating. This is easy to write off as 'goofy' or German (Helloween, Pink Cream 69 and others seem to tread a similar, friendly yellow brick road), but it's still a thrash album, with meaningful and relevant layman lyrics, most of which still hold up, almost like the album's bright, fluent production. Vendetta were surely a band aimed at bigger and better things, so it's a damn shame that this would be the last anyone heard from them for nearly 20 years. They've since revived with a decent comeback, but had it all ended with Brain Damage, there could be no regrets.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (a road with one more station)