Monday, October 31, 2011

The Gardnerz - The System of Nature (2011)

Swedish initiates The Gardnerz took me quite by surprise, not due to their unusual moniker, but by their rather unique approach to the hybrid of doom and death metal which is a bit trickier to classify than the garden variety drudges who generally inhabit the genre. You can clearly hear the roots of My Dying Bride, Anathema, Paradise Lost or Officium Triste in this sound, but the stark melodic walls they superimpose seem more akin to fellow swedes like Memory Garden or Candlemass, if they implemented layers of growling and snarling more like a grind or death metal outfit. They are also fond of interjecting calm contrasts into a lot of their songs, with flows of thick bass and cleaner, slightly affected guitar tones.

It doesn't always work that well, but the overall aesthetic is one of a some bone carved galleon on a sea of crushing and tranquil emotions that seem to shift on a normalized basis. Prime examples include opener "The Art of Suffering", which transforms from an elfin eloquence to these massive dual melodies that twine beneath the guttural foreman; or "Flaw in the Axiom", which has these epic, gliding guitar lines but builds into complexity to create a more exotic, hammering rhythm after the bridge. They definitely experiment with the riffing, striating cuts like "Incident" or "Born to Consume" with these eerie, scale based departures that one might expect of a more technical death metal act, and most importantly, they understand that doom metal must not be slow, boring and wholly soul-leeching to successfully shower its emotional void upon the listener, even if a few too many of the tunes use comparable techniques and suffer from sameness.

This is far from funeral doom, mind you, but a dynamic formula which never underplays the significance of the guitar riff. The production is giant, boxy and bright, even when converting a few of their obscure influences into covers. Vulcano's "Bloody Vengeance" and Winter's "Servants of the Warsmen" are both tackled here, and they both do a loyal and chunky service to the originals, even if some of the somber mood of the latter is lost with the brighter production. At any rate, I didn't love all the material on the album, and the vocals, while abrasive, are your pretty standard variety growls like a harsher Nick Holmes (his death voice), but the Swedes are onto something here. If they can extract some of their mightier melodic conjurations into some better grooves, and perhaps clean up some of the transitions between loud and soft, then they could easily lurch alongside their countrymen Isole as modern death/doom titans.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Xenomorph - Empyreal Regimes (1995)

Not to be confused with the Dutch band who released a few mediocre progressive death metal efforts years after, this Xenomorph was instead one of the rare extreme metal acts to hail from the state of Nebraska, where you'd expect they might be branded heathens early on in their career and chased by farmers with pointy implements straight across the border. Unlike the Netherlands Xenomorph, this one seems to have directly incorporated the H.R. Giger designed movie creature straight into their cover concept, but sadly this is not an Aliens death metal concept album. Empyreal Regimes initially got released in 1995 to a small audience, but Dark Descent have decided to issue the cult-classic with the Subspecies demo (1993) as an added incentive to finally check it out.

Being fascinated with the development of death metal and other genres, I'm always curious to experience the parallel evolution of sounds in various scenes. As one might expect, Empyreal Regimes is not a connect-the-dots of Florida or Swedish influence, but rather a grueling sound that incorporates a lot of grinding and thrashing substrate and vocals that are more barked out and bloody than guttural and bludgeoning. For some reason I was reminded of Martin Walkyier of the British Sabbat. This guy doesn't have the same charisma or range, maybe, but he does sound like Walkyier's lower, forced rasp, and the churning of several of the guitars in songs like "Wehrmacht" reminds me of Sneap's tone. The drumming is dense and loaded with thundering double bass that would nearly overpower the guitars if the album weren't mixed appropriately, but it is, and the result is reminiscent of the earlier Incantation records.

That said, it feels that the production was different on a number of the album's tracks, even if we disregard the demo. Tunes like "Inducted Throughout Time" and "Valley of the Kings" feel more grisly and raw than the earlier, more ominous tones, though the songwriting matches the same level of dynamics. Xenomorph doesn't write the catchiest of hooks, but they play with their tempos and structures enough that the listener still feels as if they're capable of a wide range, from the Death-like drawl inherent in the "Subspecies" verse to the more grimy, chugging swagger of "The Keep". The three demo tracks included have a far more repressed production quality, but if you pay close attention to their architecture it turns out that they exhibit a comparable level of skill to the newer material, though they're a less compelling experience.

Xenomorph might not have been running with a big budget to record this material, but I think it's clear they had their shit together, and while I wasn't in love with Empyreal Regimes then and don't care for it all that much now, they had the makings of a mildly unique entity. With a few further albums and incremental improvements in sound and songwriting, they surely could have transformed into a distinct voice in Western death, but sadly this would be the whole of it. I can't offer highest recommendations here, since the songs lack the incredible riffs and tangible menace of many other bands in this period, but there was definitely a potential here that might be appreciated by death metal purists who like to find different when turning over a rock.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Mausoleum - Back from the Funeral (2011)

Back from the Funeral is the second outing from Pennsylvanians Mausoleum, who released one prior album (Cadaveric Displays of Ghoulish Ghastliness) in 2003 and had not been heard from since. I actually liked that record. Even if it was frankly little more than a tribute to the ghastly old school death metal sounds of Autopsy or the first two Death albums, there were some nice vintage tremolo rhythms there, a moody catacomb atmosphere and brutal vocals reminiscent of Reifert, Schuldiner, Tardy and van Drunen. Nothing morbidly obese with quality and ideas, but a fun enough listen once in a blood moon. Eight years later, and they sound largely the same, intentionally undercutting their production to sound as if they belong directly to the antiquity they worship.

Creaking-crypt samples cede into the straight, double bass bludgeoning of "Doomed in the Desecrated Cemetary", and though there is no question of the band's authentic tunnel vision towards the past, I was quite underwhelmed by the music. They shift from a faster, hammering tempo with a boring, repetitive riff to a groove that Death or Autopsy would have thrown out as scraps to alley vermin during their prime, and that sets the tone for pretty much the entirety of the sophomore. There are songs that build better grooves, like "Dead Walkers" or the slogging, swamp-like "Baron of Terror", but even at their best the riffing doesn't create quite the dense miasma of horror that other retro acolytes seem capable of conjuring forth. Don't get me wrong, the repression of the lo-fi recording doesn't bother me, but the riffs all seem to shamble down paths that have already been littered with the corpses of thousands.

To their credit, Mausoleum mix up the content a bit so that one is not faced with a ceaseless tirade of old school drudging paces. They pull out a 24 second death-grinder in "Raped Within the Casket", complete with arpeggio leads. In fact, the leads and melodies throughout the whole album are quite good. "Brains (I Must Eat Your Fucking Brains!)" sounds like something that I'd expect out of Deceased, only with gutturals in place of Fowley's distinct tone. And closers "Back from the Funeral" and "Graveyard Shift" are both competent entries into the death/doom field, with tight and oppressive atmospheres sure to sate the less demanding, nostalgia starved sect who absolutely loathe the technical and progressive strains of the genre. In the end, Back from the Funeral is not a bad listen if you're heavily into its influences, or other Razorback related acts like Decrepitaph and Encoffination, but these days, its strand of soggy, trodden ground is saturated to the point of sinking.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

IC Rex - Vedenjakaja (2009)

IC Rex is a one-man Finnish exhibition of Luciferian black metal which proves that lo-fi recording values need not be incorporated at the expense of the concepts of strong melody and layered riffing textures, but I can't help but feel that his third album Vedenjakaja might have benefited from an upgrade. Normally I go all out for this, after all I'm a whore for Darkthrone, Burzum and Horna, the latter of which is probably the closest IC Rex has to a direct influence. But with Vedenjakaja, I feel like Cinatas has a lot of great musical ideas that would have been better suited to a slight flourish of cleaner, modern aesthetics, but instead some seem lost in the harrowing, raw edge of the mix, while others strive too much to the fore.

Regardless, the songwriting here is as tight and focused as the reaper upon the cover, its scythe as bright as the moon. Cinatas balances tempos between periods of tinny, crashing blast beats and slower, moody atmospheric sequences with soaring, clean vocals, all of which can be heard in the post-intro track "Valolanka". He loves to include lead guitar, whether in shorter flurries or more prolonged, proper solos, and this constantly creates an added dimension against the influx of grime that the more typical rhythm guitars bring to the altar. There are a number of cuts here which seem rather excessively inflated, like the 14 minute title track or the 11 and a half minute "Näky Hävityksestä", but IC Rex compensates for their swell with an appreciable degree of variation in their borders that manages to avoid the pitfall of suffering slog that often plagues most over-ambitious black metal composers.

My personal favorite here is in fact "Hautajaiskulkue", which is this slowly moving piece in which the low, somber riffs churn against massive tides of despairing melody, ghostly and subtle background synths and Cinatas ashen rasp. It's all atmospheric enormity, and while it panders along a predictable course, it's difficult not to feel moved near to tears. I even love the dippy little proggish synths that appear during the bridge upon the precipice of perception. But overall, even though this is a long album (about 75 minutes), it's somewhat consistent. Vedenjakaja is a few years old, but the 2011 vinyl re-issue also includes two messier bonus tracks that are not quite as piercing as the core material. At any rate, while I think that a slightly better balanced mix would have brought more of the music's emotional layers to the surface, this is nonetheless a fitting landscape for suffering, a volatile breath of cold, crisp night air that shimmers with malice and sorrow.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Heresiarch - Hammer of Intransigence EP (2011)

Heresiarch is a New Zealand act involving a few of the Diocletian guys and a few who work exclusively within this project. Hammer of Intransigence is their second release, following a brief demo earlier in the year, and I was immediately struck by the excellent cover art and, hell, the use of the word 'intransigence'. I'm a bit of a vocabulary whore, and this is the sort of thing I like seeing, but I must admit to being dismayed when I listened through the actual music of the EP. Not that it's necessarily a bad recording: the band fuses a lot of carnal snarls and blunt gutturals into a standard lattice of grinding guitars that seem targeted at advocates for the most primitive forms of the black and death metal genres. I heard a bit of Beherit, perhaps, or old Carcass, Bolt Thrower, Napalm Death, and not unlike the faster paced, mindless grinding or bludgeon-grooves of Australians Blood Duster or disEmbowelment.

My issue is primarily with the guitars, which almost unanimously fail to evoke anything but the most basic and familiar velocity of chords that all feel as if they'd been beaten to death. The low, churning tone is relatively appealing, but it's not conducive to striking note progressions. Then there is also the fact that they generally use only one, forced blasting pace which is barely broken up except for a few doom-like segments as in "Carnivore" or the entirety of the molasses maneuver that is the closing, titular "Intransigent". Interestingly enough, whenever the New Zealanders concentrate on ambiance or atmosphere, like the intro "Abomination" or the lead sequences threaded through a few cuts, it begins to take on a more dramatic dimension of debauchery which I frankly would have liked to hear more of. Unfortunately, these elements are in the clear minority upon Hammer of Intransigence, and the remainder, while punishing, can admittedly grow dull.

If you're in the market for a churning, pounding headache akin to shoving your noggin into a meatgrinder, I fail to see how 21+ minutes of this would seem out of place. The vocals function along the axis of Carcass duality, often in conjunction but separated into their own hostile threads, and the guitars bristle and rip like a less dissonant Portal. If only the latter didn't feel like the guys had spent so little time composing them, but rather muscling out the first, most basal patterns that came to mind, they'd come off a lot more compelling. In the end, Hammer of Intransigence too rarely feels as menacing as the pile of skulls or chaos wheel on its cover. It's meaty and crushing everything in its path, but leaves little to the memory. That is very likely the aim, but it's a goal which has been accomplished hundreds if not thousands of times in the past with better writing.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Riot - Immortal Soul (2011)

New York legends Riot have always been a damned consistent band regardless of who was steering at the helm, but I have to admit a partiality to the years of Tony Moore's vocals, in which Mark Reale developed a more potent, power metal style to support all of that shrieking and wailing. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a lot of their older works like Fire Down Under and Restless Breed, and I'm even into some of their calmer melodic speed/trad stuff throughout the past decade (Inishmore, Sons of Society, etc), but Thundersteel? Come on...Thundersteel. That was fucking awesome, and naturally I have always privately pined for a return to that epic crusade of air raid overtures which is one of the finest USPM records I own.

Well, with Moore now firmly in the fold for the 14th full-length Immortal Soul, I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping that this would finally be the case, and Riot themselves seem well aware of such expectations, so the album is decidedly self-referential. "Riot" is no "Thundersteel", but it's a great use of the band's namesake to fuel a faster paced assortment of melodic speed licks and a chorus that seems so obvious that you wonder why they hadn't written it before. Reale and his six-string ally Mike Flyntz are on fire throughout, providing not only a skilled lead segment but lots of flighty fast-picking through the verses, and it's arguably the most 'power metal' that the veterans have felt in a very long time. "Still Your Man" resurrects the character of Johnny to create a spiritual successor anthem to "Johnny's Back" from Thundersteel, and there are lots of other pieces like "Sins of the Father" and "Believe" which just explode out of the speakers, ready made to thrill power metal aficionados on both sides of the pond.

But it's not all speed and bluster, for Riot still include a lot of their bluesy, hard-rock based fare like "Whiskey Man" and the groovier title track. There are no real power ballads here, which I am thankful for; about the closest you'll get is the intro to "Crawling", but in general the album favors its more lethal, fast paced content to the slower, rocking exceptions. Is Moore in such a fine shape as he was in the late 80s? Often, his vocals here are so shrill and piercing that they seem to lose their definition, and his lines are not so memorable as a Thundersteel or Privilege of Power, but at least he still has the range to probably shatter glass, and some of these songs are such spectacles of lightning that you'll hardly have time to concern yourself that he's a fraction rusty. As for skin basher Jarzombek...he's Jarzombek, and gives nothing less than his best, even if this is far from his most experimental and technical outlet.

With stock, clean production aesthetics, lots of glossy anthems and impeccable musicians that breathe this material reflexively as it if were air, this album easily blazes past its predecessors Army of One and Through the Storm in quality. I wouldn't deem it flawless, as a few of the songs are clearly a lot more fun than others and Moore feels a little shaky, and I really don't care for the lyrics. But one thing can be certain: Riot still matters. 36 years deep in career, most bands only WISH they could sound like this, but Mark Reale lives it. Just compare this to the newer Judas Priest abominations of the past year. Or Iron Maiden's latest, forgettable fare. Exactly.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Vallenfyre - A Fragile King (2011)

A Fragile King is an album I have definitely being looking forward to, as it promised a return to the roots for several of its celebrated membership. I'm an enormous fan of Gregor Mackintosh's melodic, Gothic guitar lines, and to hear them placed back into the context of crushing doom and death that heralded the halcyon years of his mainstay Paradise Lost was something that I was surprised took even this long. He's joined here by another old guard in the death doom field, Hamish of My Dying Bride, as well as storied Swedish drummer Adrian Erlandsson, and A Fragile King is the ultimate result, one that both delivers and, sadly, somewhat disappoints...

But not, at least, for the first two tracks, which entirely fit the mold of heightened anticipation. "All Will Suffer" features those darkly gleaming, rain-drizzle walls of emotional oppression that were so prevalent on Paradise Lost classics like Gothic and Icon, while Mackintosh himself provides the dour, opaque growling like a more muscular alternative to his long-time compatriot Nick Holmes in his early years. Lots of tense, burrowing double bass here from Erlandsson, while the rhythm guitars take on a distinctly old Swedish tone that might remind one of Entombed, Dismember and the many thousands of acolytes to follow them. The ensuing "Desecration", which was already releases as an EP earlier in the year, is also pretty strong in the melodic department, with grimy, corpulent grooves that are flawlessly fixated to the tearstained canopy.

Problem is...well, the album is just not that consistent, and there are a number of cuts here where the band adopts a more crude death metal aesthetic reminiscent of Grave, Asphyx and Unleashed but lacking some of the strong riffing and balance of the cuts above. "Ravenous Whore", "As the World Collapses", and "Humanity Wept" are all pretty bland attempts to develop effortless, derivative grooves and feel like any random band of Sweden worshipers circa 1992. The guitar tone is still potent and pulverizing, the vocals rich and dark, but the notes just don't have that 'it' factor to stand out among so many similar recordings. There are still a few stunners spread throughout the track list, like the melancholic swell of "Seeds" or the better approximations of Entombed meets Paradise Lost ("The Divine Have Fled", "A Thousand Martyrs") but the mood is occasionally broken up with the more boring filler.

That said, there is still enough to A Fragile King where it might be worth checking out for either long term Paradise Lost devotees or those addicted to old school nostalgia or the Swedish stylings of other throwback bands like Miasma, Demonical, and Entrails. The production is well suited to the composition, so bleak and impenetrable that you eagerly seek each ray of downtrodden melody as if it were the last ray of the sun to warm your bones. Though Gregor's vocals can grow dull and listless in their gravelly repetition, he's got a strong enough presence to sell the sad opacity of the lyrics. But of the 42 minutes of material, there are probably about 30 worth the wait, and the rest seem as if they might have been better developed. I'm hoping that next time, if there IS a next time, Vallenfyre can increase the consistency of its throughput.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (until the shell of man remains)

Krisiun - The Great Execution (2011)

Krisiun is a band that has taken me some getting used to, as I've experienced a number of their live performances at which I found the music to feel dull and repetitious, despite its brutal architecture. I could also say the same for their albums, but a number of them have grown on me, from the 90s excursions like Apocalyptic Revelation or Conquerors of Armageddon to their 2008 outing Southern Storm which showed an increase in songwriting depth and variation that was well timed in such an enduring career. The Great Execution is the band's eight full-length, and continues along the axis of its direct predecessor, that is to say a more versatile approach which channels their massive Deicide, Vital Remains, Morbid Angel influence to an appreciable breadth of possibility, if not the most breathtaking results.

The Brazilians pace themselves fairly well here, but I can't help but feel that a lot of the actual riffs being performed are highly predictable and unwilling to change up the progression of notes into something more satiating to the ear. "The Will to Potency" is an almost tribal escalation of momentum, but until about 3 minutes in, and the great lead sequence, it feels underwhelming. "Blood of Lions" integrates a lot of chugging, thrash influence but this often manifests in a pretty bland selection of mutes, and once again the bridge and guitar solo are more musical than the remainder of the track. Fortunately, the deeper in, the more exciting and memorable the actual rhythm guitar content becomes, so songs like "The Extremist", "Violentia Gladiatore" and "The Great Execution" itself are spring-loaded with great riffs that feel as if they deserve the Mosyes Kolesne leads, which are in general excellent across the entirely of the album.

One of the tightest functioning death metal bands in existence, the execution of the musicianship here is pure precision, and that's always a pleasure to experience, even if they're not among the more menacing or memorable of death metal acts internationally. Max is a metronome of steady muscle who never wavers, and the crisp and clean tone of the guitar suits the percussive nature of their composition. I'm not a big fan of the bass-lines, which too often seem to follow along with the rhythm guitar so that you rarely notice them, but then, Alex Camargo is also doubling up as vocalist, a position in which he is superior. The Great Execution definitely seems to me like a clinical, modern upgrade to the roots of their countrymen Sepultura, bathed in the context of Krisiun's USDM influences. It's not quite as forceful as Southern Storm, but shares in that album's more adventurous use of the guitar in the bridge and leads to create what is a damned solid, if not perfect, listen.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Halloween (1978)

I'm going to preface this review by stating that I'm not really a slasher fan. Or perhaps I should clarify: I'm not really a fan of the 'big three' slasher franchises which have corroded the arteries of moviegoers and horror-hos for the past 30 years. Nightmare on Elm Street is irredeemable tripe in its entirety, and while I thought the very first Friday the 13th film had some potential, the franchise's transformation into masked-stabbing-by numbers became an increasing chore to experience. And then, there is Halloween, John Carpenter's legendary film which birthed a thousand copycats, most of which I find just as void of thrills and entertainment as the original...

You read that right. I don't like Halloween. It's a formulaic, predictable piece of film that neither stirs my emotions, ever makes me feel remotely threatened or scared, and never seems to get any more interesting no matter how many second chances I spend with it. Oh, I can appreciate certain elements at play here. In particular, I think John Carpenter did a wonderful job with the synthesizer score, which deserves all its place in horror history as one of the finest in the genre. I like some of his direction choices...some of the film techniques. Like the first-person views, the massive up-front panning shots of Haddonfield's middle America suburb setting. The chance to see the breasts of almost everyone Michael....

*Spoilers and punkin' seeds*

Yeah, but as far as the actual plot, acting and script are concerned? This must be one of the most blase films to ever achieve such an unbelievable cult status. Little Michael Myers murders his sister in cold blood, after we get a nice glimpse of her cleavage of course. No real explanation, the kid is just dead inside. So he gets put away for 15 years, and breaks out, while Dr. Sam Loomis is straight on his heels. So he goes back to his old neighborhood, picks a few teenage girls who he thinks will reveal their tits before he stabs them or strangles them, and gets to work. Man, can Michael pick them! Because two of his three targets do indeed reveal their shapely bon bons before gettin' their dues. But no, not Laurie, she's the smart one, fights back and manages to turn the tide. Or does she? Roll the credits.

Sound like a preposterously basic plot? Because it really is, and in no way is the film gruesome or frightening in the slightest. The titular 'Halloween' is represented only by the fact that it's that time of year in Haddonfield, and there are pumpkins everywhere (and a cool movie poster). It does work in Myers' favor of course that no one questions this creep whose driving or stalking around in the open, during the daytime, because hell, on Halloween even grown ups are allowed to be murderous psychos trespassing and hanging out where they shouldn't be. But really, I'd actually forgive all of these strange little inconsistencies if the film could scare me, but like most of the Friday the 13th sequels, the deaths are all too predictable, and there is not a twist in sight (they attempt a few in the Halloween sequels).

I like Donald Pleasance in general. He was cool in The Great Escape and You Only Live Twice, and he's just pretty average here. Having a 'foil' for the psycho killer is an interesting choice, but it becomes a bit redundant in the subsequent entries to the franchise. Also, this was the film debut for Jamie Lee Curtis, her first 'screen queen' role predating The Fog or Prom Night, but she's really nothing special here either. The teen friends all feel phony. They're basically here to smoke up, be naughty with boys and take their shirt offs so they can be stabbed, so I think the award for 'best role' here would have to go to Nick Castle, who stalks around silently as Michael Myers for $25/day on set and manages to grunt a bit and add a fraction of atmospheric eeriness. He's no Kane Hodder or Gunnar Hansen, but he gets the job done.

Unfortunately, the movie comes across too clean and unsurprising to really resonate with me, and while it's certainly a progenitor for the slasher genre, it was nowhere near as good as those few predecessors it had, like Black Christmas or excellent Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which is admittedly the fourth largest of the useless franchises, but at least built upon a phenomenally fucked up first chapter). I realize it's a pretty old film for its style, but I am four years older and it never even freaked me out as a child.

Needless to say, I'm not popular at parties when it comes to slasher discussions, but I can't help but feel that this is one of those films that is so highly loved and accepted due to its premise alone and what it represented, rather than the actual quality of its less than gripping suspense. And considering just how great other Carpenter films are (The Thing, They Live, Big Trouble in Little China), I can't help but feel that this is just a wee bit overrated...and by a wee bit I mean massively. I don't 'hate' Halloween, it has its strong points (the music and camera style), and it blows Nightmare on Elm Street away, but its premise and 'thrills' are flatline average at best.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Helloween - Keeper of the Seven Keys Pt. 1 (1987)

Few and far between are the bands who can claim not only one, nor two, but THREE exemplary eras of output, but Helloween are one of the clear exceptions. Both the nasally fronted, filthy melodic speed of the Kai Hansen-fronted efforts and the silken, dynamic sounds of the Andi Deris records (now the lengthiest epoch for these Germans) have produced works of timeless wonder and entertainment, and yet it's the middle period with Michael Kiske that truly put Helloween on the map, inspiring hundreds if not thousands of other gestating musicians to follow in their anthem-driven, often corny footsteps. Granted, Kiske was present during what I'd argue were the band's two career flops, Pink Bubbles Go Ape and the slightly less retarded Chameleon, but I don't think anyone can really disregard the sheer influence of the Keeper of the Seven Keys records, the first of which is perhaps the best solitary record of their entire career...

Let's get something out of the way first: Helloween are basically the 'pranksters' of the whole power metal class, known for the tongue-in-cheek approach they take to a few of their lyrics and for never, ever taking themselves too seriously. That said, about 90% or more of their songs are no joking matter, and Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I definitely seems moodier than its once conjoined-twin Keeper of the Seven Keys Part II. Most of the quirkier material got shoved over to that album ("Dr. Stein", "Rise and Fall", etc) and what's left here would is a smattering of self affirming lyrics with a bit of sci-fi ("Future World", Twilight of the Gods") and the not-so horror of the epic "Halloween" itself. It's amusing that the band chose to bastardize the pagan holiday for their band moniker, because I've rarely found their musical and lyrical aesthetics to be the least bit creepy, borne more of fantasies and relationships and candid views of civilization. But aside from its somewhat poppy lyrics ("I'm Alive", "A Little Time"), this album is one of their more straight faced.

And it's beautiful. Each of the six central tracks is enormously memorable, even if the "Initiation" intro and "Follow the Sign" outro seem like unnecessary fluff. "I'm Alive" was our introduction to Kiske's vocals, which seem like a natural blend of Geoff Tate and Bruce Dickinson's higher pitch, but also our introduction to the newer, 'cleaner' Helloween. The production here seems like a summer blockbuster next to Walls of Jericho's indie film atmosphere, and while that might have been felt as a turnoff to those craving the band's blinding speed and raw appeal, this far better suits the level of depth in the composition. "I'm Alive" alone features constant layers of dual melodies in the verses and bridge, not to mention its instantly accessible lead; while "A Little Time" moves at a steady rocking canter, ascending melodies flaking through its own verses and Kiske offering a more somber, middle-range in addition to the climax of the chorus.

But what of the gleaming anthem "Twilight of the Gods" and "Future World"? Flawless and fun, despite the somewhat cheesy narration of the former and the uplifting anachronism and plucky melodic mutes threaded through the latter. Who could forget that chorus, or the breakdown with all of its random sound samples used as percussion before the dual lead erupts? And then, of course, there is the picture perfect power ballad "A Tale That Wasn't Right", and I must thank Helloween for making this bane of all albums at least tolerable due to its steadily climbing, almost spaghetti western atmosphere. I can't promise that the Germans will never go down the route of the dreaded, dull ballad, but here it was well enough written that the audience would flick their lighters on during the gig, and their undergarments off later that evening.

Really, though, the centerpiece of this album, and perhaps of Michael Kiske's entire stint with the band, is the 13+ minute opus "Halloween", which is focused on the actual holiday itself, following the rituals of its younger audience but hinted at something more...a conflict between the infernal and divine. It's an incredibly well plotted and dynamic song, from its doom and synthesizer initiation to the epic speed/power metal licks that charge into the verses. The backing vocals are well organized, the arching vocal lines the most standout of this album, and the chorus amazing, not to mention the extended bridge and the flighty, neo-classical frenzy that hovers about the 9-10 minute range. I've enjoyed every moment of this track for the past 24 years, and it feels no worse for wear despite my having passed through puberty, university, relationships, hair loss, maturity and every other factor of existence.

And that's Keeper of the Seven Keys Part 1 in a nutshell. Yes, it's occasionally corny and 'cute'. Yes, it's a FUN album, and it never claimed otherwise! Michael Weiktah and Kai Hansen were at the peak of their compositional creativity here, and in fact Kai Hansen would keep remaking this album for the next few decades in his later vehicle Gamma Ray. Kiske's wailing might not be for everyone, but his pitch and ability were impeccable, and the late Ingo Schwichtenberg was a more than able hammer to match the stringers' prowess. The airy production is well tuned for the times, with a lot of reverb and atmosphere. In the end, Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I is just another timeless wonder of the mid through late 80s, when metal was pretty well peaking in every available category. It's no surprise this got picked up by RCA for wide distribution and enchanted new generations of fans, which led to a touring opportunity in the States alongside thrashers Anthrax and Exodus. It's just that unflinchingly cuddly and unforgettable.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.75/10] (I can see a light comin')

Sunday, October 30, 2011

I Tre volti della paura aka 'Black Sabbath' (1963)

As far as Mario Bava's films go, The Three Faces of Fear (Black Sabbath among English audiences) is a relatively restrained affair lacking a wealth of shocks and nail biting suspense. It's not as violent as Twitch of the Death Nerve or as campy as something like Planet of the Vampires or Kill, Baby, Kill, but it compensates in its use of atmospheric mood setting and appropriate musical accompaniment, not to mention solid performances that help to sell what are admittedly simplistic tales that don't rely on overt twists to lure the audience. Shot in gorgeous Technicolor, the use of lighting here and the generally slow, assured pace are what will stand to memory long after the stories have played out, but I must warn any prospective viewers in advance that the Italian version of the film is by far the one worth watching, as the American remake significantly alters one of the stories ("The Telephone") to remove a pretty tame but potentially controversial subtext and mixes around the playing order unnecessarily.

The first of the three stories, "The Telephone" is a simple stalker piece involving the titular device in a central role. I wouldn't call this one entirely predictable, since there's a slight tint of irony to the resolution, but really the joy here is in experiencing the clean movements of the actresses (and actor) to the chic lounge-jazz score. But really, this is but a setup for the far more interesting period piece "The Wurdulak", which is the most beautifully shot, with a larger cast than its neighbors and a very certain level of somber suspense and psychedelic occult, not to mention an internal, appreciated consistency. Boris Karloff, who opened the film with a bit of narration, also features here and does his usual 'monstrous' job, gluing the audience to his wild eyes and spectral movements across the screen. The final piece, "The Drop of Water", is your garden variety ghost story with a hint of Edgar Allen Poe, but to its credit it manages a few cheap thrills and again the great use of lighting and minimal effects to rouse the audience.

What I didn't actually enjoy about Black Sabbath was the lack of any real consistency in the way the three stories related to one another. Outside of the fact that they were indeed horror, it just felt like an omnibus of material, and they clearly weren't equals (I found "The Wurdulak" to be superior to both of its surrounding shorts, and almost wish they had been omitted to provide a full-length feature with more twists and turns to that particular story). Also, as was generally the case for a lot of Italian films or gialos in the 60s-80s, the cast feels almost too beautiful to really believe, especially in "The Wurdulak", in which even the peasants are enormously well groomed and cleanly despite living in the middle of goddamn nowhere. I blame it on Hollywood, really, for the sense of glamor so central to the casting, and it's not as if the actresses are hard on the eyes (Michele Mercier, Rika Dialina, Susy Anderson and Jacqueline Pierreux are all Helen of Troy material), but a little bit more grime beyond the few elderly characters would not have hurt.

Ultimately, the trio are aesthetically pleasing enough to recommend to anyone into retro horror flicks from the 60s, and especially those into the classic Hammer Horror vibe. There can be no doubt of the influence of Mario Bava on directors worldwide: his pacing and atmospheric focus are quite intense, and his eye for capturing statuesque beauty. There can also be no doubt of the film's influence on pop culture at large, thanks to a little Birmingham, England band who decided to snap up the title as their moniker, and help birth a genre of music whose purpose was to aesthetically mirror the horror genre with somber blues, crushing chords and ominous lyrics and song structures. To think, without triad of Bava briefs, I might not be sitting here typing this to you right now...

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Black Sabbath - Black Sabbath (1970)

Reams of study and debate over whether Black Sabbath should be considered the first true 'heavy metal' album have already been ground out through the years in myriad forums. Horns have been locked, sides drawn and oppositions condemned. But while it might be impossible that we EVER pinpoint and agree upon a sole, single progenitor for the medium, the truth is that the style was born out of a number of influences, culturally and musically, which led to a band from Birmingham, England to intensity their heavy blues sound into something we now recognize as a defining, formative work of our beloved escape. Yeah, Black Sabbath might not have penned the very first 'metal' record, and who cares? But I don't think there's any argument that this was the first of such enormous significance...

Upon a cursory listen, of course, one might discern that the band's blues rock roots still shine through heavily here, and as a result the s/t debut is not one of stylistic certainty, but a balance of components akin to the evolving sounds of Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin in the same era. There are tracks here as heavy as fuck-all, and others through which the quartet delves into the psychedelic folk and rock that were a huge influence upon them personally growing up. So by no means is this album thorough in its metallic content, but then, said content is far and away what I'd deem the most memorable writing here, and of course I'm referring to their namesake "Black Sabbath" itself, which I'd consider the best and most important track on the album. Samples of rain and church bells build support for the centric, funeral brooding Iommi lick which entire sub genres of heavy rock were born from, and our introduction to Osbourne's vocals is flawless, hypnotic and most importantly: assertively blue-collar and honest.

"Black Sabbath" creeps along like every cliche out of nightmare! You can close your lids to this and imagine any serpent, spider or rodent creeping along its carrion course, or a murder of crows stirring upon the grounds of some fell cathedral. Bill Ward's percussion totally sells the simple guitar line which, while alternated between single notes, bends and chords glides through both the corporeal fat of Geezer Butler's bass lines and the foreboding doom of the lyrics. The end of the tune picks up into a fairly 'freakout' sequence of sweltering blues lead and psychedelic, wavy rhythm guitars, but it's not a bad climax, and really the only negative thing I can say about this song, one of the band's greatest, is that it sets up such a high water mark for the album that the ensuing material simply cannot reach or surmount it...

But it tries. "The Wizard" transforms from Ozzy's harmonica intro to a more swaggering form of choppy, heavy rock that wouldn't be alien to fans of Zeppelin, Cream or Hendrix, and the true star here is Geezer's punctual, fluid bass as it clings to the underside of the chords like a green slime about to drop itself on some dungeon victim. "Behind the Wall of Sleep" is trippy thanks to the contours of the grooving bass and Osbourne's slightly effected bite, while "N.I.B." sounds like the devil's own spiritual successor to something like The Kinks' "Girl You Really Got Me", only more slovenly, measure and mesmerizing. I'm also quite a huge fanbay for the track "Wicked World" which appears on the American version of the LP in place of their cover of Crow's "Evil Woman (Don't Play Your Games With Me)". The opening minutes are pretty pure blues driven Sabbath groove, with Butler taking another wet-booted stroll in the mix, but what I found most fascinating were the closing moments where the song takes on an almost early 'post-rock' appeal with the calming clean tones in the bridge, and the spacey surge of whining, ambient feedback at its close.

I'm not quite as into some of the minor clips of excess fixed into other tracks here, like the brief Geezer vehicle "Bassically", or the rather pointless "Wasp" intro to "Behind the Wall of Sleep". I also don't really find the cover tunes necessary. The 10+ minute rendition of Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation's "Warning" is not a highlight for me, but certainly I found myself transfixed to its strutting style and the great performance on the bass. But then, including covers on a debut album was just not that out of place during this period. Deep Purple used covers, and hell, even Ozzy and crew were themselves on the receiving end when Japan's Flower Travelin' Band kick started its own recording career with Sabbath covers. At least these guys chose a few that were appropriate, flush with the original material. A few that they could make 'their own'.

Ultimately, even if it never really eclipses the titular opening cut, Black Sabbath is monumental in its quality and the span of its inspiration upon hundreds of thousands of hard rock, stoner rock, doom and psychedelic metal cosmonauts for the next four decades and on into infinity. I would not say this was my favorite of their records, since Paranoid, Sabotage and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath are just too loaded to deny, but its waves of harrowing nostalgia and morbid, serious lyrical prowess are legion, and "Black Sabbath" itself is easily one of the best songs ever in the doom or 'proto' doom category, an apparition of eerie atmosphere that has kept me nervous around graves and doing a double take on every own shadow I've crossed since the day I first heard it.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]
(what is this that stands before me?)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

King Diamond - "Them" (1988)

Landing dead center in one of the greatest streaks of recording in all 80s metal, "Them" is the third conceptual horror piece from King Diamond, elevating the Mercyful Fate crooner's solo career from the blood-lacquered woodwork into the spotlight thanks to a fairly steady amount of airplay for its "Welcome Home" video. Honestly, I can't remember even his alma mater's works receiving the same hype that this album did, and for many this was a first exposure to the shrill falsettos, airy riffing and elegant leads that make his music so damned memorable. A few lineup changes were made, with Pete Blakk replacing Michael Denner and Hal Patino taking over for Timi Hansen, but otherwise this is a pretty straight evolution from the tremendous sophomore Abigail the year before.

As for its subject matter, "Them" is the story of a boy being haunted by ghosts and his grandma, and really there isn't much more to it, though it's continued through the following LP Conspiracy. Personally, I've not found all of his concepts to be equally engaging. Fatal Portrait and The Eye are stirring enough, but I couldn't really care for such hauntings as are explored here. That said, as a musical score to such a theme, this album functions brilliantly. The evocative cover image of the rural haunted house against the withered trees and moon is a perfect match for the eloquent aggression. Andy LaRocque's leads are a highlight of the album, almost always memorable and creating added dimensions to the songs, rather than just indulging himself (even if his technical ability is unquestionable), and though cheesy as all hell, the intros and interludes work to move the story along rather than feel out of place.

But for its central, metallic components, there is not a single track here I'd throw under the bus. "Twilight Symphony" is a particular favorite of mine for the arching chorus and the march-like meter of the verse guitars, but each piece is a wonder of straight-up trad metal with an almost thrashing fervor to its grooves. For example, the intro riff to "Welcome Home" has a lot of light chugging between the blissful lead breaks, while "The Accusation Chair" hammers along below it's gleaming bridge solo. If you're looking for a straight heavy metal headbanging nexus, you've got the opening to "Bye, Bye, Missy", while other pieces like "Mother's Getting Weaker" and "A Broken Spell" take a melodic power metal role as they plummet along to their own individual climaxes. Even where they dip into acoustics, like the titular interlude, none of the quality is lost, and the result is an album of well structured dynamics.

King Diamond put up quite a pantheon of recordings from 1986-90, and while I would not count "Them" as the best of them, that's only because I slightly favor the songwriting of its predecessor Abigail and the beautiful, witching woe/atmosphere of The Eye. There are a few riffs here which don't completely stick, and "Out from the Asylum" and "Phone Call" are just too cheesy despite their narrative importance in helping set the story. The lyrics are almost all narrative and dialogue. That aside, this album is worth every cent you'd pay for it, ten times over, as is the followup Conspiracy. That a single band could release five albums straight of such strength is remarkable. With the exception of maybe Slayer or Rage (from the same period) I can't really think of others who accomplished such a feat, and that's even if we DON'T include the Mercyful Fate stuff.. "Them" is superb, spectral, and for the most part, unforgettable: all hail the painted King.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (the old bitch is back)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Possessed - Beyond the Gates (1986)

I've often pondered why Possessed would never develop into the powerhouse popularity of their Californian peers Exodus, Slayer or Metallica through the 80s and beyond, but the answer might very well lie in their sophomore outing, Beyond the Gates. Don't get me wrong, I like this record quite a bit, but I can't help but feel that the band had toned their sound down ever so slightly, and much of the raw, ripping appeal of the debut is lost in translation. In 1986, albums like Reign in Blood or Darkness Descends were flirting with faster, more aggressive aesthetics while Master of Puppets was stealing the spotlight with its impeccable songwriting, so it was the wrong time to put on the breaks, and in the long term, it might have cost Becerra and company the race (even if they retain their cult icon status).

That said, Beyond the Gates is still worth hearing and probably owning, if you've got any predilection for occult or horror fueled death/thrash. It's no surprise that Possessed are considered one of the forebears of the 'death metal' genre. Not only did their debut have a song by that title, but Jeff's vocals were ghoulish, a massive inspiration for Florida luminaries like Chuck Schuldiner of Death. The guitars here are pretty straight thrash/speed metal though, with a bit of Slayer-like construction similar to Hell Awaits or Reign in Blood, and the ruddy, muddy tonal constitution that the lesser known Maryland band Indestroy would cop for their s/t debut the following year. Larry Lalonde is nowhere near as eclectic as he'd become for the bands Blind Illusion and Primus, but he and Mike Torrao deliver a firm barrage of dirty speed licks and knifing lead sequences which, while unmemorable on their own, thread a natural counterbalance against the hammering backdrop.

The vocals are not quite so grisly as Seven Churches, and the guitars never so belligerent and bloodied as on a "Burning in Hell" or "Satan's Curse", but it's nonetheless a consistent album which revels in its subject matter. The intro is beautiful, almost like an 80s horror b-movie theme before it cedes to the bludgeoning of "The Heretic", but "Tribulation" is the first real track of note with its faster paced guitars which had a similar momentum to what Metallica were doing at this time. This is even more the case with "March to Die", which charges straight into the great, mid-paced "Phantasm" with its solid verses and mystical, Eygptian breakdowns. Other killers include the bristling "No Will to Live", the writhing leads of "The Beasts of the Apocalypse", and the choppy, mudslinging brigade of "Restless Dead".

There are a few tracks that seem less interesting, like the sloppy "Beyond the Gates" itself or the chugging footnote "Dog Fight", but in general this is a highly satisfying experience with a lot of reverb on the vocals and guitars that place it straight into its mid-80s era. Personally, I'm a huge fan of that sound, but I can understand how some might be turned off that it exhibits less of the brash and repulsive hostility of its precursor. The lyrics are all fairly simplistic dissertations on the typical themes that were also being explored by Slayer, Dark Angel, Venom, and so forth, but they do the trick, and there weren't a hell of a lot of bands doing more than that in the period. Ultimately, Beyond the Gates doesn't earn the Gold medal for Possessed, and would easily be subjugated in any throwdown with Bonded by Blood, Ride the Lightning, Darkness Descends and so forth, but it's a reliable enough ride into Hell.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (revelation unorthodox)

The Mummy (1959)

The Hammer Horror rendition of The Mummy is the second film to bear the eponymous title, though it heavily borrows characters, plot and ideas from some of the sequels to the original Universal pictures starring Boris Karloff in the titular role. Like most of the Hammer releases in its period, the production values are quite elaborate and contribute greatly to enjoyment of the film. The lavish sets and colors, the excellent score by Franz Reizenstein, the measured skill of the cast all compensate for the rather lackluster and predictable script here. It's a bit talkative, and nowhere near as action packed at the later 90s version starring Arnold Vosloo and Brendan Frasier, but then, it doesn't need to be. Hell, I could watch Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee juggle squirrels and sugar gliders while dressed in leotards and rabbit ears and be content.

*Thousands, 50+ years of spoilers*

I mentioned that there was a lot of dialogue here, and part of this the constant exposition being shared with the audience through the film. On one hand, this was probably a decent primer for the late 50s audience, who had several less decades than we do of Egyptology 101 in our cultural diets. A lot of the details seem fairly accurate, at least in the idealized sense, and Christopher Lee is superb as the priest Kharis, whose love for a Princess cursed him to protect her for all eternity as her somber mummified champion. His scenes both in priestly garb and the creature costume are a pleasure, and at times he's even difficult to recognize. But on the other hand, The Mummy really fails to build and deliver suspense. As soon as the Mehemet Bey character shows up to warn the archaeologists, and then curse them for disturbing the sanctified dead, we know exactly how the rest of the film will play out...and so it does, without any surprises in store.

Granted, anyone who had seen ANY of the Universal flicks would not be going into this with the expectation of shocks, but even the horror elements here seem rather tame. Kharis murders by strangling. He gets shot a few times. He crashes through doors and breaks bars in an asylum cell. Big deal, really. There are other Hammer Horror pieces with more gruesome details, but then, this is not that sort of outing, but more of an accessible production which stands on the designs of its sets, the costumes and the actors alone. This is more of a classy Romance/horror in the vein of Dracula than anything else. It was only 1959, after all, and the sick stuff would be kick started in the following decade, but it would not have hurt Terence Fisher to stretch the envelope just a few inches.

I should mention that Peter Cushing is rather a bad ass here, and never hesitates to go at the shambling mummy with a shotgun, or even a grapple. Fuck, if I had a millenias-old undead on my heels, ensorcelled to put a cap on my lifeline, I'd be hightailing it by land, air or sea to the other side of the planet, where the necromancer with a chip on his shoulder would never find me. I don't care if I have to live out the rest of my lifeline working a rice paddy, or carting a rickshaw about the stinking, disease infested streets. I am out of there. I am GHOST. Not Cushing's John Banning though, he'd rather face the problem head on. If only Grand Moff Tarkin had such balls, the Rebellion would have been quelled many galaxies ago, and we'd never have had to suffer the damned Ewoks!

In summation, The Mummy is a film one should watch for the performances and visuals more than the story, which you'll see coming from a mile away. It never creates the same sense of dread as later Hammer outings like The Lost Continent (1968) or Quatermass and the Pit (1967), but then, they were released in an era where studios were allowed to take more chances. If I had to compare this to the Karloff or Vosloo vehicles, then it probably places a solid third. I realize my preference for the first film of the 90s series might dismay some readers, but there can be no question that Arnold owned that role, and the light, Indiana Jones action flair had a few nice twists in it, not to mention the advances in film and effects. But as it stands, the 1959 cult classic certainly feels timeless enough thanks to the primary actors, who I'd consider two of my personal favorites in the entire pantheon of international thespians.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Stake Land (2010)

"And it was over like that. All that goodness, shattered by some Christian crazies droppin' vamps from the sky."

Stake Land is a recent American post-apocalyptic horror film which arrives amidst a glut of such titles, from the I Am Legend remake and 28 Days Later, to The Road film and Justin Cronin's soon to be adapted novel The Passage, plus about a gajillion others that all owe more than a share of their existence and inspiration to Richard Matheson and George Romero. So immediately the movie is faced with an uphill struggle as it attempts to balance its memorable and 'touching' moments against the slogging derivation of its theme. At heart, though, this is a primarily a 'human' drama dressed in a bit of animated gore and fighting, quite a lot like the televised adaptation of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead comic only not nearly as good. In fact, I found that the human elements worked both for and against Stake Land, because they represented both its finest scenes and its perplexing inconsistencies, in addition to its absurd stance on the Christian right wing which almost seems as if it were born directly through the liberal propaganda of something like MSNBC.

*Spoiler land*

Some unforeseen and unexplained 'plague' has swept across the world and turned a percentage of the population into zombies...or vampires...or whatever you want to call them. They have fangs, they eat people, they're occasionally stronger than the average human, and they have the minds of animals. We're not talking Bill Compton or L'estat here, but a pack of rancid savages whom often look like they just got drunk at an Insane Clown Posse gig. Through it all, we follow the travails of the stone cold vampire killer 'Mister' (performed by actor/writer Nick Damici) and his young sidekick as they journey through the treacherous South to arrive at the fabled New Eden, some Northern locale which is safest for human survivors. There are a number of punctual and violent scenes depicting the youth as Mister trains him to cut his teeth on the sawed off fangs of would be predators, and eventually they meet up with 'Sister' (Kelly McGillis) and a hot teen girl that's just about the right age to be a love interest for the lead...

Ready to gag yet? Well, it gets a bit worse when we realize that the vampires are not actually the antagonists here, but the crazy Aryan-themed 'Brotherhood', a society of Christian loonies that have eschewed the Ten Commandments in favor of using feral vamps to assimilate all of the remaining survivors and start their New World Order. Of course these guys wear hoods like the KKK, are probably racists (they dump one black guy at an outhouse and leave him for the vamps until our heroes come along to save him), rape women (even the Holy ones) and are basically a political metaphor for Americans' morbid fascination with the right wingers, Jesus Camp or Bible belters. The director and writer don't come out and say this, of course, and it's perhaps the case that they meant no such harm, but it's almost impossible to watch Stake Land and not come away with bile rising in my throat.

Now, I'm no Christian and no Fundamentalist, nor even am I particularly conservative or the member of any right wing, red flag militia, but I cannot stand when a horror film, which makes money off gore and thrills, is preaching to me about the dark divide of humanity. I also find it incredibly inconsistent in the world of this film. These vampires are not quite so tough...a pair of wanderers kill a great deal of them, and they are known to have weak spots. So what exactly was the problem here? How did they manage to destroy so much of our civilization when it's clear with advanced weaponry and organization we could have slaughtered them by the thousands? And how did this 'Brotherhood' manage to wreck Washington by dropping planes of vampires on it, or take over what amounts to much of the human-inhabited South, when just about EVERY scene we see of them depicts them as bumbling idiots who fall for the oldest tricks in the book!?

I also just don't buy the main character, since he seems entirely flat and devoid of personality despite his central role and overlying narrative. I figured since I saw the kid's family get diced by vamps in an early scene that I'd develop some sort of bond for him, but I felt nothing. Hell, I'd take Jesse Eisenberg's narrator/character in Zombieland any day of this guy, even if he was playing it for laughs. There's also a moment where Sister got on my nerves, as she begins to work her moral ramblings upon Mister, who promptly tells her she'll be deposited at the next stop so she can go save some souls. Really, Sister? These beats are killing Gods' creations indiscriminately, but I half feel like she'd rather feed us along to the afterlife with our collars unbuttoned.

All of this negativity aside, I must say that I cannot completely fault Stake Land, because there are a number of strong points that render it at the least watchable (once) if not entirely enjoyable. For one, I rather liked Nick Damici's take on the ruthless vampire killer. This guy takes no shit, and if something like this plague were to occur, I'd like to know that we can all become a 'Mister', and get each others' backs as we deal with the problem. He's also smart. He has a small tool to lift lips and check for fangs. He sets up traps that the stupid vamps cannot resist. He knows exactly how to disable any of the vamps, whether kids ('scamps'), newly turned, or powerful specimens (who are known as 'berserkers').

The location shots are great, and add to the realism of the film. The landscapes are not completely destroyed, but they're solemn and empty enough to allow for the ambiance of the pianos to pluck at our heartstrings. There's a similar atmosphere to The Road and The Walking Dead, only not as gray-toned as the former and not so wonderfully filmed as the latter, and the music seems to get better as it grows more intense. The scenes of drama and action are very carefully balanced, so it never grows dull in the near 100 minute running time, and even though part of its central journey feels hokey, it at least feels as if you've been traveling alongside these characters, which I suppose is necessary for such a plot.

Stake Land has problems, primarily in that the whole brother killing brother mentality which has always made little sense to me when there is a far greater threat at hand (to all of us). It's not the monsters that are the problems, guys, it's them darn humans! Always the humans you gotta look out for. We get it, now can we all hold hands? There's also the fact that this stretch of terrain has already been trampled to oblivion, and it's rapidly becoming a horse deader than the starved ghouls from which the protagonists are fleeing. But, worse than either of these flaws, the film is just never scary. Even the scenes that might feel 'startling' are obvious from a mile away. It's serious in tone, granted, but never all that uncomfortable, and the makeup and effects aren't all that interesting (The Walking Dead, or that French film Mutants I recently covered are both far better in this area). Obviously a large degree of effort was placed in its development, but I came out of this feeling pretty blasé.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Dark Funeral - The Secrets of the Black Arts (1996)

The Secrets of the Black Arts is what I consider to be the epitome of 'generic Swedish black metal' album, with its Abyss studio production and predictable riffing patterns that attempt to bring its Norse and Bathory influences into a mildly more accessible medium. That's not to say that I actually dislike this record, because in truth I have oft spun and enjoyed it through the years, but there is nothing remotely menacing or terrifying about it that I've been able to pick up in the last 15 years. It becomes obvious pretty early why this band has so divided the black metal audience, turning some off entirely from not only Dark Funeral but almost all of the Swedish scene, while others simply revel in its mindless, middle of the road blasphemies.

This is not only the band's full-length debut, but the last of the 'original' Dark Funeral lineup, with only guitarist Lord Ahriman going on to its successor, the faster and more vicious Vobiscum Satanas (but still just as generic). I recognize this era in particular for Themgoroth's fuller, more brutal vocals than on ensuing albums, though the riffing sequences are largely the same sort of chord progressions you'd expect: not nearly so high strung or melodic as Dissection, and a bit thicker and more fibrous than those of earlier Marduk. There is no question really of each members' prowess in punishment. Equimanthorn was a beast on the kit, blasting steadily along beneath the lattice of Blackmoon and Ahriman's riffing and Themgoroth's present if standard bass lines which seem to just gallop along to the beat.

From the compositional angle, though, The Secrets of the Black Arts doesn't offer a whole lot of standout tremolo note progressions other than to merely due justice to the deep blue, eerie shading of its cover art. Tunes like "When Angels Forever Die" or the titular "Secrets" burst along a hurried, unhallowed axis with some only a slight cognizance of rhythmic variety, but even when the band takes a dip for a more broad, open mid-pace ("Satan's Mayhem", or the double bass driving of "My Dark Desires"), the structure of the riffing doesn't get any more interesting. The Swedes are more interested in muscle than complexity, and to that extent they succeed in achieving a sound somewhere between Those of the Unlight and De Mysteriis dom Sathanas, which is all some might ask for.

Yet despite the density of the band's assault, the album feels a bit too level, and since they lack the symphonic rigor of an Emperor or the subtle pathos of a Burzum, the album doesn't ever really grab its audience. It feels all too plain, a textbook exhibition of strength and sacrilege that never leaps first to mind when one is in the mood to revisit the mid-90s boom. I realize it's all the rage to accept this album (and the previous EP) while reviling the band's later worth with the changed lineups, but I'm entirely forced to disagree. I found at least their 2001 album Diabolis Interium to have a far more engaging, fevered and intense riff-set, but certainly that would not have been possible without laying the bloody brickwork here.

I might find myself unable to listen through their monotonous cover of Von's "Satanic Blood" here, but if I'm really in a crunch for stock hellblast velocity, the originals on The Secrets of the Black Arts offer an adequate thrill ride. It's not original, it's not innovative, it's not particularly dark or catchy and it's far from the top of its class, but the consistent lyrics and infernally fueled energy build some semblance of atmosphere despite themselves, and if you're in the mood for what Dark Funeral is brewing, provides enough satisfaction.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (a disciple of the art aflame)

Dracula (1931)

It's all about the stare. The stare that has persevered eight decades, terrifying or enchanting many generations of new fans to the Universal pictures classic Dracula. Bela Lugosi, who was very nearly NOT cast in the role (imagine that), brought his stage vampire persona to the big screen adaptation of Stoker's masterpiece and the rest is cinema history. How many times has his heavily accented Romanian inflection met reprisal through celebration or caricature? How many pale, ghoulish gentlemen do you witness at your average Halloween get together sporting capes, fake fangs and blood dribbled on their chins like a bite of an errant bite of raspberry pastry? They owe it all to this particular film, whether they're die hard advocates of the Bram Stoker text or True Blood aficionados trying to be all cute.

Yes, Lugosi's brightly lit, mind controlling glare might be the single most pertinent image that stands to memory here, but Dracula is loaded with beautiful set pieces, elegant design and a traditional 'haunted castle' aesthetic that, while cheesy in retrospect, was quite impressive for its day. A giant cobweb serves to set up a metaphor from the Count about the relationship of prey and predator, it's architect then scuttling up the far wall. Floppy, fake bats are near constants in the film, usually the Count himself on a house call. Wolves howl off in the distance, setting up one of the greatest lines in all film: 'Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.' Both the Transilvanian and Carfax Abbey, London locales are efficaciously Gothic, ripe with a foreboding grandeur that feels timeless despite being filmed a grandparent's lifespan ago. And let us not forget the omnipresent fog. I'm a huge fan of black/white films for their lighting. Hell, I might live in a black and white world if given the opportunity, so naturally I revel in this.

If Dracula feels like a stage production with a set no Broadway venue could hold, that's really what it was. Film had only recently begun to evolve out of the silent features of the 20s, and thus a good portion of this functions on imagery alone. In particular I really enjoyed the sweeping, ominous motions of Dracula's wives, the iconic still shot of the castle, or the scene of Dracula and Mina confronting Renfield on the old stone stair while he pleads for his life. This movie is over eighty years old, so a lot of its horrors were 'implied'. For example, we don't actually see the vampire's bites, he'll usually just lean over a victim and then it cuts to the next scene. We hear screams off in the backdrop, and have to guess what might be happening.

A classic, to be sure, but I do have some quips with the film, even allowing for its age. For one, the final death scene of Dracula is not played dramatically, but anticlimactically: the practical staking at the hands of Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing. This might honestly seem a 'realistic' approach, but considering how much time was just spent building up this powerful, mythic figure, a closing 'glare' or a few spit lines of dialogue might have seemed more consistent approach. Also, some of the sea footage was borrowed from a previous reel (The Storm Breaker, 1925) and I might have lived without the clip of Tchaichovsky's "Swan Lake" over the opening credits. These are minor details, granted, and the studios of cinema antiquity had to make budget decisions like this, could not likely afford a full original score, etc, but it still seems the equivalent of finding a hair in your soup, that anything was derived from an outside source.

Fortunately, you can actually watch this today with the Philip Glass score commissioned in 1998, for which he used the Kronos Quartet. Purists will probably avoid this like the plague, and yet I can't help but feel Glass did a stellar job here and it should not be ignored. At the very least, it helps distract the modern audience away from some of the old tape hiss in the audio which might turn off those used to the advancements in the medium. But either way, Dracula deserves every iota of praise it receives, for it is unquestionably one of the most influential works of Hollywood in the 20th century. Is it better than its blood sucking predecessor, Nosferatu? That I cannot say, because F.W. Murnau's silent epic is far more resonant and horrifying to me personally. As much as I enjoy Lugosi's shit-eating grin and Carpathian charm, he is no Max Schreck (but then, no one is). In the end, though Dracula is undeniable a work of wonder, its magic forever engraved upon the consciousness of pop culture within its horror genre and beyond.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Santa Sangre (1989)

Santa Sangre ('Holy Blood') might just be the most elaborately garbed serial slasher/revenge flick in the history of cinema, but that comes as little shock once one takes into account the enigmatic individual at its helm. Those of you who have experienced Alejandro Jodorowsky's prior works El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) will be attuned to the incessant bombardment of unnerving and surreal imagery he imparts through his films, and his enormous fascination with circus freaks, midgets, amputees, pageantry, and the mentally disabled. Santa Sangre is a surprisingly straightforward narrative from the Chilean master, likely due to the fact that he was attempting to break into a more mainstream audience in the 80s and shared the writing with Claudio Argento (brother to famed horror director Dario) and Roberto Leoni. But fear not, because much of his trademark insanity is well intact.

*Santa Expoliadors*

This is the tale of a young circus magician (Fenix) in Mexico whose mother is brutally dispatched after splashing acid on his father's wang. That's the setup, told through a series of remarkable scenes and scenery which involve an elephant's funeral (complete with peasant scavengers tearing the beasts guts out of its enormous coffin) and father Orgo's seduction by a tattooed lady. Here we are first introduced to the various support case, including Fenix's mother (Concha) and the deaf-mute (Alma) who sort of plays the lead's 'love interest' throughout. The rest of the saga plays out as one of revenge, Concha controlling her son to use him as her 'arms' as she destroys anyone who has hurt her family or comes close to Fenix. Events occasionally jump around in between flashbacks and the 'present' of the film, but it's actually pretty easy to follow and makes a lot more sense than something like The Holy Mountain which is esoteric to a fault.

At its heart, the simplicity of the plot and it's not so unforeseen psychological twists is not really the star of this show, but the amazing flood of imagery manifest in true Jodorowsky style. We see a graveyard of white painted, veiled nudes who represent Fenix's guilt for the murders. Or a noisy, festival-like prostitute market in which a pack of hospital patients with Downs Syndrome are introduced to an obese hooker for a night of pleasure, while the street ladies and various freakish and deformed officers dance away to salsa lines. One of my favorite scenes is actually the morning AFTER the prostitute market, where we see 'day of the dead' skeletons lying strewn about a street, a mariachi band performs and the obese harlot and her pimp (played by Alejandro's late son Teo) embrace, along with two of the officers who patronized the tattooed woman the night before.

Just a prime example of Jodorowsky's consistent reuse of characters and constant 'parade' like configuration he uses in many scenes. There always seems to be something going on that adds a subtle, second (or further) layer to all of the primary action and storyline, and it makes Santa Sangre, like his other films, easy to revisit and decipher. But none of this would work without such convincing actors, and in addition to Blanca Guerra (Concha) and Guy Stockwell (Orgo), special credit should be given here to Alejandro's three sons Axel (Fenix), Adan (young Fenix) and Teo (pimp) who all treat this with the fragile balance of disenchantment and intensity that it deserves. In particular, Axel/Cristobal Jodorowsky is a living storm of talent, which has sadly not been put to use often through the years.

It's not all gold, and with a near two hour runtime, there are some scenes, certainly in the latter half of the film, which do drag just a bit. For example, a lot of the later film is shot in Fenix's Zorro meets Phantom of the Opera like magician hideaway, and some of the 'mom time' didn't really establish anything deeper about the pair's relationship. It seems like Jodorowsky used up much of the film's surreal potential before we get to this point, and it then becomes a more formulaic horror experience. I didn't feel the film was nearly as outrageous and memorable as The Holy Mountain, but then, that's a review for another time, and Santa Sangre seems as if it were intended more as a Central American giallo with a few of Jodorowsky's personal touches, rather than the other way around. Either way, though, it works fairly damn well. Not the sort of story one will easily forget, and easily deserving of its cult reverence.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]