Friday, December 30, 2011

Cruel Force - Under the Sign of the Moon (2011)

I remember listening to this German band's first full-length The Rise of Satanic Might last year and thinking, while it had some potential, that Cruel Force were an authentic if brash and unmemorable entry into that blackened thrash cauldron which also stirred up names like Nocturnal and Witchburner. Lots of tangible, demonic energy and a clear love of the forebears Sodom, Destruction, Kreator, Venom and Bathory, but little by way of great riffs that you want to spin on endlessly. Having long considered the guitar progressions to be crucial to this niche, that's really a deal maker or breaker where I'm concerned, and unfortunately, Under the Sign of the Moon is not a whole lot better at their conception.

There are clearly strong points to the band, not the least of which are the cool logo, nostalgic and colorful cover image, and the enormous production of the record. Carnivore's vocals go for more of an expansive, death metal growl over the filthy speed/thrash metal of the guitars, and it does create this ominous, spacey sensation which I could appreciate. The construction of the riffs is basically pure dirt derived from the first few Venom records and them tampered with a bit of Bathory's s/t debut, Sodom's In the Sign of Evil and perhaps a pinch of Motörhead's robust simplicity and driving, distorted bass tone. Every now and then, like in "Obscure Evil" they will tear out this proto Teutonic death/thrash sequence, and a bit of Hellhammer groove, but even at these moments the patterns are rather predictable and wouldn't seem all that menacing or evil without the massive, raw tones in which the songs are recorded. Cruel Force is not a one trick pony, though, so you'll hear some variation in the slower strut that opens "Chants of Mayhem" or the more atmospheric, heavy metal finale "The Gallows Prayer".

In the end, this is just another case of a band doing just about everything right to appeal to their target audience, and yet not entirely following through with the songs I want to headbang over for years to come. I found myself getting into this only a margin more than the first album, but not nearly so much as other black/thrash hybrids like Nocturnal's Arrival of the Carnivore, Witchtrap's Sorceress Bitch or Aura Noir's cult recordings Black Thrash Attack or Deep Tracts of Hell. However, if you're a total sucker for this sincere, archaic flavor and often find yourself perusing the Hell's Headbanger catalog then you should by all means at least give this a run through. Not as catchy as it looks, but a fairly honest take on the beloved bastardization of these two styles.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Antichrist - Forbidden World (2011)

Fuck this band for taking everything I so loved about the early, aggressive thrash from both the Bay Area and German scenes, mashing it up, adding a relish of kinetic, blackened vitriol and then feeding it to me all over again. How is it that Sweden keeps churning out bands like this, or rather not exactly like this but from all over the metal spectrum, in such quantity and quality? It's like they have something in the soil over there that makes its way into their plants and livestock and inevitably ingested into some metallic lobe in their brains. Born metal, living metal and spewing metal into the ears of the rest of the world, so that we must writhe in the envy. For sure, there is nothing remotely unique about Antichrist. They couldn't even come up with an original band name. But with music this incendiary, exciting and enthusiastically vicious, they've done one better than innovation: coming up with what is the most fun release of its kind in many moons. Some of the most fun I've had all year in this genre.

The last blackened/thrash album I had such a strong reaction towards was Abigail's Sweet Baby Metal Slut in 2009, but that was a lot cruder with some straight speed/heavy metal undercurrents balanced off by the harsh barking. Antichrist is more explosive and refined, at least in terms of velocity and the business of the riffing, but lyrically and aesthetically it's just as primitive. Imagine if you might pick around in the time stream of the 80s and draw forth the very best elements of Destruction's Sentence of Death, Kreator's Pleasure to Kill, Slayer's Hell Awaits, Bathory's first few albums, vintage Possessed and Venom's Welcome to Hell and then breed them together for several generations in some dank, forgotten kennel in a corner of Hell. About a century hence, or rather 20 years give or take, the offspring of their offspring finally emerge from some crack into the mortal purgatory and unleash the devil's music upon the unsuspecting. Forbidden World is not 'news', perhaps, and hundreds of other bands have followed a similar path, but treacherously few with such ripping, diabolic finesse.

The first two traits that stunned me into submission here were the vocals and guitar tone. Front man Steken has this impressive, abominable ability to sound as if he is screaming and rasping at precisely the same time, as if he were singing from not only his mouth but some cut in his throat simultaneously. Whether it's single tracked or double tracked makes no difference. The guy is part Schmier, part Jeff Becera, part Tom Araya and perhaps a hint of 'Hellbutcher' Gustaffson from fellow Swedes Nifelheim. The guitars are nice, crisp and crunchy, yet their fuzzy nature never falls behind the intense pace of the music. I can't promise that every pattern on the disc isn't at least derivative of some past recording, but the notes always play out like pitchforks being stabbed through your spine at incredible speeds and as a result you've got no choice but to flip about like a marionette of unwitting carnage. In addition, Antichrist has done well to cast the leads in a brighter, spurious tone so they leap off the rhythms like evil incantations leaping off some weathered scroll.

Selecting particular highlights here is almost impossible since every song is so entertaining, but I feel like "Militia of Death", "Victims of the Blade" and "Sign of the Beast" are all fine examples of their uppity thrust that would immediately impress anyone into the more extreme speed and thrash of the mid-80s, or the blackened variations since. The Swedes can also show a softer and more atmospheric side to their music in the titular "Forbidden World", a gorgeous acoustic interlude, but this is an exception to the rule. Other points of interesting include "Necropolis" and "Minotaur", both of which are 8 minutes long and have a more varied, epic structure that often recalled some of the Japanese Sabbat's more ambitious offerings. The leads are almost always intensely memorable, the tremolo and muted guitars engaging and loaded with twists and turns, and the vocals simply incredible. About the only thing I could not count in their favor is that the lyrics and titles seem pretty derivative of their influences (if not poorly composed). But then, if something is this damned good, I maintain that there is always room for more.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.75/10] (die by the spells of the dead)

Vicious Rumors - Razorback Killers (2011)

It's always a shaky period right after a band's beloved, long time front man leaves the fold, or in the case of California power thrashers Vicious Rumors, passes away well before his time. And yet Geoff Thorpe and crew have had an interesting go of it since Carl Albert's unfortunate demise in 1995, making use of a new vocalist on each subsequent album. In 2006, it was James Rivera of Helstar fame taking on duties for Warball, the best record these guys had issued in years, but half a decade later we've got Brian Allen for the followup. He's hardly a newcomer, having worked with underground US acts like Malice and Wild Dogs, with a style reminiscent of both Rob Halford's shrieking ability and Bruce Dickinson's sustainability, or perhaps more closely Andy Pyke of the UK Marshall Law.

That last comparison is especially apt, since Razorback Killers has a lot in common with that British band's latest, Razorhead (2009). Straight, heavy power metal with hints of thrash anger, heavily charismatic vocals in both verse and chorus, and loads of muscle to the guitars. Not a coincidence, really, because Vicious Rumors have been writing in this vein for the past 25 years. In fact, this album is highly reminiscent of the band's prior Albert-fronted outings like Digital Dictator, Welcome to the Ball and the self-titled album. Same balance of catapulted, harsh palm muted rhythms, sliding octave chords and biting, melodic vocals. The rhythm section on this record is hard enough to carve up concrete, and even though the chorus parts are not the most memorable of their history, they do no disservice to the simple song structures. Just like the Albert years, you get the impression that each line is being howled out at the heavens like a serrated rocket being flung at whatever unfortunate seraph happens to be near our planet's atmospheric envelope.

In other words, it is extremely difficult not to get excited when one experiences tracks like the mid-paced painfully Painkiller-esque "Murderball", the triplet trotting "Rite of Devastation" (which feels as if it were peeled right out of 1990) or the mighty thrashing of "Axe to Grind", in which Allen is joined by some solid gang shouting, another long-term characteristic of the band. No real power ballads this time around, which is fine by me, thought songs like "Deal With the Devil" and "Pearl of Wisdom" feature some cleaner guitars in the intros. Ultimately, I did not find Razorback Killers to be quite so catchy as its direct predecessor, and certainly there's nothing here as memorable as a "Town's On Fire", "On the Edge", "Hellraiser" or any of the songs I used to and still love from their first decade. But the abrasive atmosphere and kinetic swell of the music is certainly something you can crank into the night, and fans of bands like Leatherwolf, Marshall Law, or the solo material from U.D.O. and Halford will devour this like candy.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Dragonland - Under the Grey Banner (2011)

After a near decade of cosmic and astrological deviation, Sweden's Dragonforce return to their conceptual, epic fantasy roots with Under the Grey Banner, the thematic end to a trilogy that started with The Battle of the Ivory Plains (2001) and was continued on Holy War (2002) back when the band was signed to the defunct Black Lotus Records out of Greece. Now, I'm not going to lie, I've never had much interest in the sagas being told on such albums. As someone who reads a great deal of the fiction, keeping current on scores of authors each year, I find that a lot of these European acts (or artisans of fantasy themed metal in general) to be little more than shallow knockoffs of popular, dated works like Tolkien, Moorcock, Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, and other RPG influenced properties like the Dragonlance setting or Baldur's Gate PC games.

Not that these are bad sources to draw inspiration from, but unlike a Summoning or Blind Guardian, who have managed to pay great tributes to Tolkien, a lot of these concepts created by bands like Rhapsody or Dragonland are laughable at best. Mirroring what I said in my recent review of Iron Savior's The Landing about sci-fi, this literary genre has come a long way since the domination of predictable, sword & sorcery, Dark Lord and Chosen One syndromes, but you don't see a hell of a lot of bands dabbling into the gritty political fantasy of a George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie, or the weirder, darker and innovative spaces developed by authors like a Steven Erikson or China Miéville. It's a pity, really, because fantasy is such a broad place to find one's muse and metal seems such a great outlet. Granted, I got a kick out of, say, the first two Rhapsody discs despite themselves (stupid fun), and have more or less enjoyed every Dragonland disc to date (including the more proggy ones), but there were moments on this latest album where the narrative intrusions felt tragically lame.

Of course, this is a crack team of musicians here, and wherever the music shines, it shines as brightly as the celestial objects that influenced their last effort (Astronomy). So these few brief interruptions can at least be overlooked. "Ilmarion" opens the festivities, a pompous orchestral intro that would not seem out of place as a fantasy RPG intro on the Playstation 3 or as part of some theatrical escape into a popular literary realm. Then "Shadow of the Mithril Mountains" arrives with the corny female narrator and explodes into some well crafted, anthemic power metal that clearly shows its roots in bands like Helloween, Labyrinth, Rhapsody and Nocturnal Rites, in particular that phase of the later 90s when it seemed every Italian, Swedish and German power metal band with a keyboard or competent vocalist was being signed up in a frenzy until the industry arrived at Dragonforce.

But credit where credit is due. Dragonland has a real knack for jubilant, soaring chorus sequences, complex arrangements loaded with flashy, brief and exciting leads and muted melodic bravado redolent of Gamma Ray and their ilk. The lyrics are all generic tripe revolving along some schlock fantastic saga (as I spoke of earlier), but despite them it's hard to not want to roll up some LARP character and run around with a foam sword to the momentum of "Fire and Brimstone" or the pure Euro-anthem "The Black Mare". They can mix it up for some cleaner guitars ("Lady of Goldenwood") or concoct an 8 minute epic ("Under the Grey Banner" itself) without much difficulty, and while there are no real hooks on this album which I can envision myself singing in 15-20 years like an "I Want Out", "Port Royal" or "Send Me a Sign", the Swedes offer enough dynamics and vibrant energy throughout this album to thrill purists who are not yet jaded with the genre. Not a 'great' album by any stretch of the imagination, and not as interesting as its predecessor, but firmly and lovingly executed.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (with steel I will redeem)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Gates of Slumber - The Wretch (2011)

Perhaps the most formidable faculty of The Gates of Slumber is the band's ability to completely absorb you into its world of leaden and dark nostalgia. Like (70s) Black Sabbath or Cirith Ungol before them, they are so adept at establishing pace and controlling the listener's metallic metabolism that one cannot help but become transported directly into their tales of barbarism, vice, myth and fantasy. Their albums are like being immersed in a virtual reality tank in which the stories of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft collide with the Biblical books of Revelations and Genesis, the fables of various European pantheons while an endless soundtrack of Psalm 9, Master of Reality, Be Forewarned, King of the Dead, and Born Too Late is spun out ad infinitum. Yes, that equates to awesome.

In fact, I don't think these Hoosiers have released one bad record to date. Perhaps not the sort of masterworks to which they themselves pay tribute, but I can't name The Gates of Slumber album to which I've felt no inclination to break out my mead horn, pipe, twenty sided dice, Viking helm and broadsword to face off squarely against some sea serpent or another. And The Wretch, their fifth full-length proves no exception. Karl Simon's husky, smokey tones channel Osbourne into a lower, more workmanlike register, while the guitars lurch along with just the right level of understated distortion to reflect a 70s rock purity. Much of the riffing architecture mirrors Tony Iommi from the first 4-5 Sabbath LPs, but what I find remarkable is just how humble and real this band comes across, as if they were performing for you right in the middle of your washroom or garage. Clean like a Cream or Zeppelin outing decades before its time, but just lowdown and dirty enough to escape any taint of excess pop polish.

I will say that The Wretch does not start out on its strongest foot. "Bastards Born" is arguably the most boring track of this bunch, but it still has a decent, central riff and some stops and starts with the vocals that recall something like "War Pigs". Once "The Scovrge Ov Drvnkenness" and "To the Rack With Them", arrive, though, it's GAME ON, the former a sweltering, foot thumping barrage of beer soaked bedlam bisected with some bad ass blues (forgive the tongue twister); the latter an incredible barrage of stolid grooves in which one can feel his or her stomach quake to the sheer volume of the butter churning crunch of amped up distortion and the cruddy curvature of the bottom feeding bass. Yet the album gets even more engrossing the deeper one travels, with the slow, suicidal swagger of "Day of Farewell" and the baleful, cautionary "Castle of the Devil" and it's bass-driven bridge and Ozzy counter-vocals standing out as personal highlights of the experience.

Through it all, with the possible exception of "Bastards Born" or a few less impressive moments in the 12+ minute "Iron and Fire", The Gates of Slumber evades the sense of derivative ennui that pervades so much of the modern and retro doom this past decade. The Wretch feels like a record that could have been cut in 1978, and it's that stripped down return to primacy which is so ultimately compelling in much of their work. Granted, the influences are laid bare on the guys' sleeves. No one is going to accuse this band of being highly original, and that's not what they set out to be, but instead masters of the past who offer you gifts of nostalgia in a delicious haze of drugs, dragons, demons and damnation. Along with the mighty Italians Doomsword, who have an admittedly busier, brighter sound to them, The Gates of Slumber have this corner of the stony market locked down.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (three sisters confess to the god below)

Altar of Plagues - Mammal (2011)

Words of advice: when you're going to kick off your album with a 19 minute long track, make sure you front load it with some interesting material, or at least some sense that you'll be escalating towards such. It's this very tedium which offers a crippling initiation unto the Altar of Plagues sophomore Mammal, and a flaw that I've found difficult to circumnavigate in subsequent returns to the material. Sure, I can just skip this track and move onto the fluffier, marginally superior remainder of the disc, but it's presence alone ensures that my overall relationship to the Irish band's latest will be fleeting at best. A shame, really, because I've liked much of the band's work up this point, and in particular White Tomb proved a promising specter of spacious, urban black metal which directly addresses the cracks in civilization.

Now, it's not solely that Altar of Plagues compose such lengthy songs that is the problem here. They've done it before, and Mammal has the same four-track configuration as its predecessor. But where White Tomb had this gripping, dark miasma about it that slowly suffocated and drew the listener into its callous concrete folds, "Neptune is Dead" does next to nothing. Ambiance begets a cyclic two note progression that remains the same through the oncoming blast beat, and we're subjected to over three minutes of sameness until another minimalist sequence ensues. Of the 19 minutes of this song, there are maybe two points where it's not empty and droning: the warmer melodic sequence at about 5:30 and the more frenetic tremolo after the eight minute mark. Both are decent, but really, in a song this swollen shouldn't we be able to except something truly amazing to happen? It doesn't.

The rest of the album. Not too shabby. I like the dense, sludgy guitar tones in "Feather and Bone", and the steady muted thrash sequence above which the angst laden vocals bark out and tiny, spooky guitars pan out almost like incidental pianos in a tense horror scene. There's also some tapping in there reminiscent of Gojira, with cleaner vocal accompaniment. The wailing ethnic vocals that open and close "When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean" are compelling, as is the use of creeping strings and looping drums, though this should largely be considered an ambient piece. And "All Life Converges to Some Center", the last and second longest track is somewhat emotional and expressive black/post-rock sludge with a brief electro-noise finish.

Mammal isn't all that bad, it just takes too long to get anywhere, and much interest is lost in the waiting room. Fans of spatial, wide open post-rock or shoegazer black metal like Deafheaven or Lantlos will undoubtedly find this an absorbing experience, but then for many such folks you could simply juggle 2-3 notes and apply feedback and rasping and it would seem a Renaissance. In truth, despite its few appreciable moments of warmth and texture, this is naught more than the law of averages, a 52 minute journey into emptiness. The lyrics are decent, using a streamlined conceptual appeal (I like the 'horses are rapid and ready' line refrained in two of the tracks), but the vocals delivering them aren't particularly effective. Ultimately, I just didn't wring out the same level of immersion here that I did with the debut, and the appeal of these Irishmen might have reached its plateau.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Cormorant - Dwellings (2011)

Perhaps the most talked about independent metal release of 2011, or at least the second half of the year, Cormorant's Dwellings is the sophomore effort of a group of talented Californians slowly carving out their sound from a number of influences in the folk, progressive, and melodic black metal spaces. For something self-released, Dwellings is an impressive package, with intriguing artwork, evocative lyrics, fluid and highly proficient musicianship, and most importantly scads of riffs that clearly took some time and effort to conceive. Strangely enough, though, despite it's obvious array of weapons, this is one of those LPs that I must admit to shoving off after only a few spins. Cormorant are emotional, dynamic and pleasant to experience, but I did not find the songs to have nearly the profound impact that so many have raved over.

Perhaps an accurate comparison for the music here would be Opeth threaded with Agalloch melodies and percussive elements redolent of Mastodon's lighter, progressive writing and the swagger and gallantry of Slough Feg. Season with hints of folk metal flavoring and Scandinavian melodic black and death acts like Dissection or Insomnium and then stir. It's a wide range of influences, so many that the coherence of the music is often questionable, but some credit is due to these gentlemen for their flow and pacing in what might otherwise seem a marginally jarring clash of components. Their lyrics explore the worlds of the natural, the social and the personal, with a vivid poetic sensibility, and combined with the vocals that deliver them, comprise my sole favorite aspect of Dwellings. Harsh, charismatic rasps and barks stand out well above the incessant, streaming guitars, but there are also clips of thematic narrative, soothing and clean calms ("Funambulist"), and even some French (?) samples which admittedly seemed a touch pretentious.

The issue I took with the music is simply that the songs are so intent on providing gleaming, catchy melodies at every given second that the maximum emotional potential of the better note progressions is almost constantly trampled upon. They all vary in texture, tempo and length, but I never felt that the riffs all interlocked very well, merely ceding to one another in an endless procession of spent creativity. Peaks and valleys are wrought only through the decisions to swap to acoustic cools and then burst back into either tremolo picked sequences or the majestic canter of mid-paced, ale pounding crescendos reminiscent of Rotting Christ in its late 90s pageantry. The drums remain busy and varied, not unlike a Brann Dailor ("Confusion of Tongues)", and the guitars and bass engage one another in the antithesis of monotony, but several of the songs drift on a bit too long and never hit that climactic stride that you'd expect ("Unearthly Dreamings", "Junta" and "Funambulist" to be exact.)

I felt that the rather raw and authentic production values of the album worked in its favor, and the vocals certainly stand out for their unchecked passion and versatility, much more so than the more guttural/brutal approach they took with their debut Metazoa. Yet in the end, I don't think I could point out a single song here that I felt the urge to cycle through repeatedly. For such dramatic use of melody, there seems a dearth of real tension in how the tracks are written. Riffs follow other riffs, occasionally circling around, but never all that inspiring as a quantified whole. In this way, the band very much recalls Opeth's dysfunction of occasionally conflating too many ideas onto a rhythmic skeleton not up to the task of supporting them, and I often found myself wondering just how much more compelling the album might have been if Cormorant had stuck to just a few per song and then played around with them.

That said, it'd be remiss of me not to mention just how much latent potential lies in the quartet. I might not have found the album quite so enduring and endearing as others have expressed, but there's enough pent up talent here to fuel a half dozen bands, so I expect that once the kinks are worked out we'll be dealing with some truly impressive songsmiths.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

SubRosa - No Help for the Mighty Ones (2011)

Few new artists have I heard in recent years with a configuration and concept quite so staggeringly beautiful as Salt Lake City's sludge angels SubRosa, and yet I feel that it's this very nature which often outpaces the band's ability to compose itself. Don't get me wrong: No Help for the Mighty Ones is a distinct, compelling album worth listening through whether you're a proponent for the doom, stoner and sludge genres or just someone seeking out crushing new sounds. But it's not some uniformly well written straw that broke the camel of quality's back, and it too often lulls into that age old mire of ennui that has plagued the niche for well over a decades as bands sacrifice strong structure for sheer heaviness and atmosphere.

In those two categories, SubRosa is a shoe-in for your attention. Dense, copious guitar tone drones on in simplistic, familiar patterns while airy, female vocals stretch across the surface of the tribal drumming and desolate glaze of the violins and sampled instruments. The opener "Borrowed Time Borrowed Eyes" is a joy to experience, a bastion of irreverent sadness that fully delivers on the quintet's unique promise. Catchy verses, catchy chorus, and a moderately cool bridge define what is clearly one of the best songs on the disc. But it's the longer pieces, like "Beneath the Crown" and "Stonecarver" where they start to slip. For instance, I don't really dig the harsher vocals where they are implemented. I realize the purpose, to create a whole 'beauty and the beast' contrast like so many Gothic/doom metal bands have done in the past, but I feel like the idea of the cleaner female vocals is strong and numbing enough that these are just not necessary.

Also, bigger does not always equate to 'better', so these fatter tracks bear the brunt of the album filler, or the riffs that don't quite affix themselves so lavishly to the vocal lines. For example, some of the guitar parts in "Attack on Golden Mountain" are just downright boring. If not for the atmospherics, and the collision of clean and harsh vocals, it'd be a truly monotonous slog. Much better are tunes like "Whippoorwill" with its drowning, stoner overtones or "The Inheritance" with its marriage of violins and wah-wah. The closer "Dark Country" is also quite essential and busier with guitars cycling in an almost bludgeoning, progressive fashion. But sadly, despite the strength of much of the material, there are a few gaping holes where it just doesn't work as well as I'd like it to. Also, the vocal-only traditional harmony piece "House Carpenter" is forgettable.

If No Help for the Mighty Ones had been condensed to just a few of the songs, perhaps as an EP with "Borrowed Time, Borrowed Eyes" and a handful of the others, it would have been one of the most revelatory experiences I had this year, but there's just not enough of the good stuff here to pass around the whole campfire. Two of the songs are culled from the Swans Trapped in Ice EP a few years back, and of these I would have left at least "Attack on Golden Mountain" off and replaced it with something shorter and better, then maybe trimmed down "Stonecarver" and left off the "House Carpenter" piece. As it stands, there's still enough here to recommend towards any prelate or adept of psychedelic hippie doom, especially if you're into other female fronted acts like Blood Ceremony, Jex Thoth or the new album from The Wounded Kings.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (clothe them, feed them, heal them)

Wolvhammer - The Obsidian Plains (2011)

An album like The Obsidian Plains always throws me for a loop, for while I didn't get a wealth of enjoyment from the music itself, I have a very healthy respect for what the band is doing. Wolvhammer is a Minnesota quartet which ably proves that blackened sludge need not be some wholly tortured, sluggish mess that forces a listener to mercilessly snort laced cocaine while tearing out his/her own ears and eyeballs. Granted, that's precisely what some adherents to the genre desire to experience, and thus we have acts like Eyehategod and Ramesses to dispose of them, but Wolvhammer is far more forward in incorporating its punk and hardcore influences, and in asserting a genuine, brighter sense of melody into the fury of their desolate existence.

In short: variation. If you've no interest in this genre outside of slovenly, spirit sucking noise, then The Obsidian Plains might not be the album you're looking for. It's slightly better produced and less impenetrable than last year's debut Black Marketeers of World War III, but they still incorporate a solid range of tempos into the track list that hold the listener's attention far more than some 45 minute harrowing stoner crawl might. "The Gleaming" morphs from wide open, muddy melodic sludge to punk-injected raw black metal and then into a moderately thrashing breakdown while the highly distorted bass glues it all into a singular, sobering expression. That said, I was more the into songs with fattened grooves that channeled a bit of Hellhammer like "Bones of the Pious" with its tremolo black breaks or "A Defiled Aesthetic" which alternates a Scandinavian dissonance with seething hardcore anger. "Shadowhorn" is perhaps the darkest and most memorable of these cuts, with mesmeric clean chanting cast like a shadow beneath the churning propulsion, and I also liked some of the warmer, melodic sludge in "The Sentinels".

Unfortunately, even the best written songs on this sophomore suffer from a bit of filler, and one could probably count the truly engaging guitar riffs on one hand. Left or right, your choice. The black, spacious vocals of Adam Clemans have a grisly sneer to them which sounds more than adequate to the mix and material, yet there's nothing particularly catchy about his phrasing or intonation which would drive you bonkers like Eyehategod or Iron Monkey used to do. The guitars, or at least the rhythms are very often predictable and familiar feeling, and I wish they'd made more use of the feedback and noise that permeates "Ghosts in the Water", because that actually added breadth to what otherwise follows a fairly obvious path. The Obsidian Plains is a loud and heavy record, but not heavy in terms of menace or vitriol, just the volume, so I'd like to hear some more wicked sounding note progressions mixed in with the more consonant choices.

Overall, Wolvhammer manifests the impression here of emerging from some third shift stint at a meat packing facility in the winter, red and tired eyes thrust out into the sun and in desperate need of coffee. Enormous sounding, but more blunt and spacious than abrasive. I admire them for crafting music that's a little harder to pin down in terms of its precise classification, but not all of the tunes here are created equal and too few of them really endure in the memory, nor does the work as a whole. Wanted to like this a bit more than I actually did.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Antediluvian - Through the Cervix of Hawaah (2011)

Because Mitochondrion wasn't enough, Canada has unleashed yet another epoch of guttural clamor upon the unsuspecting with the advent of Antediluvian. A band which has, in its brief five year existence, managed to open some yawning portal to the beyond, and have its members' minds massaged and supplanted with the tendrils of extra-dimensional abominations with whom direct visual contact would drive even the most hardened and resolute mortal insane. You can see this in the abstraction of the cover artwork, but perhaps more glaringly in the oozing, unhallowed compositions which 'grace' their first proper full-length Through the Cervix of Hawaah, one of the more oily and appreciably disgusting efforts to emerge beneath the banner of the maple leaf in some years.

I've on occasion used the term 'cavern core' to describe this modern sort of crushingly guttural old school exaltation, but I'll be frank: no subterranean space could contain Antediluvian for very long. This is copious, lurching and primordial death metal which resonates as much at a faster pace as it does at the snail-like, expected speed, and the Canadians are also mindful of the actual presence of 'riffs'. Not to just down-tune the guitars and play random sequences of chords and tremolo notes, but actually try to draw the ear towards less predictable patterns. I cannot claim to have found a great number of note progressions here that piqued my interest over the long term, but I laud the fact that they at least tried. More resonant with me were the vocals, which are dour and brutal enough at their most simplistic, but often stretched into these creepy and unfathomable, sustained passages as one will find in the depths of the title track. In other places, they'll back up the central growling with a second, decrepit vocal that makes the listener feel like two Elder Gods are fighting over his/her bones before they've even supped on his/her flesh.

It's highly unnerving, and that word more than any other best sums up this recording. Certainly, Antediluvian offer one of the most bowel rupturing, uncomfortable brands of experimental death metal out there, but I must also point out that there is a good deal of variation to be found on Through the Cervix of Hawaah. From the incendiary blasting of "Luminous Harvest" or "Gomorrah Entity (Perversion Reborn)" to the ambient indoctrination of "Turquoise Infidel" to the shivering post-operative feedback and battering of "Erect Reflection (Abyss of Organic Matter)", no two tracks are precisely alike. Hell, they even take a sudden and unexpected turn towards warmer, cyclic melodies in the bridge of "Scions of Ha Nachash (Spectre of the Burning Valley)", perhaps the most forgiving piece on the album. It's quite a trip, and the descriptive, disturbing Biblical inversion of the lyrics make for an appropriate, squamous companion to the tremulous, turbulent songwriting.

The one potential drawback to this work is simply that it's another of those albums you are more prone to 'experience' than shatter into its constituents and party hard to with your headbanging friends. Your girlfriend is not going to slip this onto her iPod (and if she is, all the power to you). You're not going to find an "Enter Sandman"or "Breaking the Law" anywhere within a thousand miles of this, and in fact there are very few individual guitar lines I could even point towards as 'hey, check THIS out' material. As someone who has traditionally favored the guitar driven metal album for decades over those more abstract and artsy sorts, I find that I need to be in a certain head space to wrap myself around this. It's not perfect, but then it's only the first album...

But that aside, Through the Cervix of Hawaah is one such trip worth taking, a surreal deconstruction of religious symbolism and a slovenly, tunneling anathema to the premise of jock-death prowess, polish and technology. Some Shoggoth's dinner escaped its plate and found its way to Profound Lore Records, so if your various poisons include Portal, Demilich, Incantation and Mitochondrion, grab a spork and have at it.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]
(ophidian phalanges thrust)

Encoffination - O' Hell, Shine in Thy Whited Sepulchres (2011)

One of the more 'serious' projects in the vast lexicon of US musicians Ghoat (Justin Stubbs) and Elektrokutioner (Wayne Sarantopolous), Encoffination was formed with the intention of bridging the gaps between crushing, funereal doom and the nostalgic death metal that the duo gestates in their other collaborations Father Befouled and Festered. I say 'serious' because often with various of their works you can clearly grasp the endearing, tongue in cheek horror concepts, but O' Hell, Shine is Thy Whited Sepulchres could never be mistaken for anything even bordering on funny, unless you've got the sickest sense of humor this side of dead baby jokes. Brooding, somnolent, and oppressive, this sophomore strives to function almost solely on its atmosphere: you don't turn to Encoffination for riffs, they are merely means to an end. Your end.

Unfortunately, I almost wish they HAD preened the guitars just an inkling further when writing this material, because much of it feels rushed out the door, or about as rushed as this sort of sluggish molasses could allow. There are numerous strengths to the album, for instance the great intro "Sacrum Profanum Processionali" with its bells, atmosphere and incantations. The massive guttural devotions of Ghoat, which swell to the ceilings and arches of its emotional catacombs. The epic contrast of the drums, between its tinny hi hats/cymbals and enormously thundering deep end, the latter of which is moving enough to empty your bowels alone. For myself, though, I found the riffs in which the down-tuned tremolo guitar lines were joined by these curving, hypnotic bass lines to be the most memorable on the album, like the opening sequence of "Crypt of His Communal Devourment" or the drudgery of the verses in "Pall of Unrequited Blood". Sadly, the guitar lines themselves are not exactly evocative, just strings of notes that make sense for the style but fail to cling to the depressive mental nodes the album draws to the fore.

Encoffination recognizes the limitations of the medium, and thus some credit can be given for their implementation of atmospherics like low, brooding organs or haunted bells, but no matter how hard they season some of these riffs with funereal textures, they still often feel like tedious, disposable death/doom derivative of early 90s artists like Asphyx, Thergothon, Sorrow, Skepticism, Unholy, Disembowelment, etc. It's too bad, because where this album works, it works fairly well, and I enjoy a few of the other bands these guys are involved in. They've evinced mightier tones from their equipment here than on the more subdued, somber Ritual Ascension Beyond Flesh from 2010, but then it's not quite so engrossing either, since that album had this palpable distance to it which felt like you were experiencing it through some Cyclopean, forgotten subterranean temple in which you were soon to be sacrificed. O' Hell is far more up front and in the listener's face, and appreciably depressing, but I wish the metallic components had been up to snuff with its pacing and atmosphere.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Flourishing - The Sum of All Fossils (2011)

Albums like The Sum of All Fossils might only come around rarely, but they're the primary reason I meticulously scour message boards and blogs for recommendations and obscurities each year. Without such, I might never have heard of Flourishing or experienced what has easily escalated into one of my favorite metallic efforts of late. The Sum of All Fossils might not be 'entirely' a metal album, to be sure, but what's so marvelous about this New York trio is its ability to mash up dissonant post-punk and post-hardcore guitars with the excitement, intensity and vocals of the death metal genre and not come off as pretentious, snotty or even remotely 'cool'. I mean that as the highest compliment, of course, because for all this band's humble presentation and execution, they've got one of the tightest, freshest and most engrossing sounds on the East Coast.

If I told you this was like the bastard child of classic Immolation and Fugazi, you might not believe me, and yet I feel compelled to describe it as just that. The gutturals of guitarist Garrett Bussanick have a bit of Pestilence/Asphyx titan Martin van Drunen appeal to them, broad and bloodied and capable of driven, hostile emotions amidst the carnage, well suited to the copious and roiling guitar tone. Curiously, the more aggressive guitars of the album don't immediately come off as all that unique or inspired, but it's how they interact with the warmer, melodic textures throughout the album that has completely won me over. Thudding, distorted bass lines are wrought against the leaden density of the guitars, while the drums are capable of a dynamic range of double bass, blasting and whatever suits the more atmospheric passages that speckle the album's gritty, urban landscape.

Not a track goes by with out some brilliant, beautiful and frankly unexpected burst of warmth and fluid melody that reflects the band's indie/noise rock and post-hardcore influences, and thus a precarious bond is made with the listener. You know that 'money shot' riff is coming (or more than one), you just don't know when, but for eight tracks and 44 minutes, I can promise you that Flourishing does not fail to earn its keep. In "The Prospects of Rejection", it's that bombing, bass tone that cedes to the groove of the drums at the intro, or the melodic chugs around the 4 minute mark that lead to the trilling higher notes. In "By Which We're Cemented", it's the sparse harmonic notes that writhe atop the pump of the bass while the band barks out a cleaner, more angst-filled vocal style. In "Fossil Record", perhaps my favorite of the album's many highlights, it can be found in the airy, shoegazing abstraction in the bridge and the subsequent rock riff that sounds staggering under the brutal gutturals.

But if you're worried that my description of this album makes it seem too 'pretty', then I must assure you that is not the case. Flourishing will beat the living spirit out of your limbs with its percussive, corpulent textures and then use its more tranquil, resonant passages to sweep up the chunks of inanimate bone and marrow that remain. The lyrics are written in that emotional, matter of fact narrative abstraction I often equate with post-hardcore or artsy metalcore bands (Converge, Trap Them, etc), but they're an amazingly congruent and effective partner to the composition and pacing of the record. Ultimately, if you've been searching out something new and profound in metal, and you're not averse to the exterior influences I've mentioned here, then The Sum of All Fossils is the one you've been awaiting. I'm struggling to even come up with accurate contemporary comparisons. Bands like Castevet, Krallice and Ulcerate certainly bring a similar range to the table, but this album reduces their collective output to cinders before the smoke from the first track clears. The Sum of All Fossils might not look like much, but... Oh hell, yes it does. Just check it out.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.75/10]
(rotting dialog exhausts me)

Baring Teeth - Atrophy (2011)

Willowtip Records is generally associated with the more technical and spastic side of death, grind and metalcore, so it was with reservations that I decided to check out the debut Atrophy from Texas hopefuls Baring Teeth. I'm not a huge proponent for music that sounds like a bunch of monkeys looped to IVs of crystal meth and testosterone, but every now and again I'll take a bite into such controlled chaos, and with Atrophy, I was surprised to retain both my composure and sanity. Essentially, this trio exudes a sense of mathematical, spring loaded efficiency that they've loaded up into a dynamic palette of cautiously sculpted dissonance. I suppose much of the music here could be labeled 'mathcore' or 'math metal' or whatnot, but the brute vocals and general aggression place it well within the sphere of the technical and progressive death artistry.

In particular, I was heavily reminded of the Canadians Gorguts' unhinged, 1998 shocker Obscura, only that seemed to deceptively operate along a looser structural axis than this album. Baring Teeth doesn't seem interested in an improvisational architecture, though the spurious nature of their riffing might often cast that illusion. While the plunking bass lines and drums are incredibly dynamic and well-practiced, the central focus here rests upon the dissonant, often dreary guitars which mold an atmosphere of reflection and hostility. Songs like "Atrophy" itself, "End" and "The Dead Hand" all feature zippy, cathartic sequences of textured, jangling notes that keep the listener affixed as if he or she were observing some trapeze artist routine. I admit I was more impressed when the band explored a greater level of detail and variation, as with the slower, drawn out passages in "Distilled in Fire" or "Scarred Fingertips", but my favorite chunk of the album is the bridge between "Distilled..." and "Vestigial Birth". Here a simple, hypnotic bass line thunks along to the jazzy drumming, soon glazed in waltzing, eerie guitars.

Reminded me of something the Salt Lake City artcore band Iceburn might have churned out back in the 90s, and I almost wished there were more such breakdowns on this album. I was not always enamored of the bouncier, clown-like rhythms they manifest in several of the songs, so when they give their writing a chance to breathe, like the sheen of atmospheric guitars over the slow paced drums in the staggering 12+ minute instrumental finale "Tower of Silence", it becomes far more engrossing. I also was not feeling the vocals so much. Standard, functional broad gutturals, sure, but rather subdued and monotonous next to the flexibility of the guitars, though they'll occasionally accent them with some angst-ridden bark in the backdrop.

That said, Atrophy is not a bad record. Baring Teeth have captured a pretty good range of tempos here, and never dwell on any one for an excess of run time. The boxy, organic tone of the guitars is well suited to the style, and fans of the aforementioned Obscura, post-hardcore influenced tech death like recent Ulcerate, or the more mathematical, rhythmic side of Converge, Botch and Dillinger Escape Plan might want to give this a whirl.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Ulcerate - The Destroyers of All (2011)

You know, in general I like to think of myself as a fair and balanced individual, open minded in his musical tastes. I consider it a blessing that I've been listening to metal music in all of its forms, from an age at which I was unable to even distinguish what those were. An age where really the only brand was 'heavy metal' itself. Come thrash, come speed, come power, come doom, come death, come black, come drone, come folk, come whatever, it's always been a pleasure to experience each new terrain as it took form, to separate the chaff from the wheat. But every so often, I find myself at odds with an album that appears like some new cultural monolith from the void, some tribally praised epiphany of the unsung, and this year out it would appear to be Ulcerate's third full-length The Destroyers of All.

I don't think there's a single hip rag out there which isn't lauding this as one of the year's best offerings on the extreme side of the spectrum, and I've seen it mentioned on years' end lists more numerous than I could count in a lifetime. New Zealand band finds a new direction, and impresses all with its absolution and artistry! Now, let's reverse for a moment: I actually quite like Ulcerate. Or rather, I enjoyed their first two first two albums to some extent. Everything in Fire, in particular, was an incendiary and turbulent blitz of harrowing architecture. Certainly even then you could tell that there was something mildly different about the way the band were building their compositions. Tense, jerking tremolo riffs supported by one of the more technically versed skin-hammers in the field (Jamie Saint Merat), and what it might have lacked in truly memorable note progressions it made up for in its sheer, explosive facade...

Here, they've basically watered down the formula, or rather pacified it to the degree that the music has become more accessible. That's not inherently a bad choice, knowing just how chaotic they had seemed up to its release, but somehow Ulcerate have managed to leech all that terror and tension out of their music. The influence of drone, post-hardcore and sludge have crept forth into the compositions, and thus this feels like a more excitable alternative to Neurosis or Isis with a drummer who can mete out more strikes per minute than those acts have on entire albums. The guitars center in on spikes or ringing, higher pitched droning notes that one would think might actually brighten up the beats, or add some warmth, and yet they're almost entirely without any value. Each note sequence feels pitifully simplistic and unmemorable, as if the two players were simply trying to zip and zag around one another with all the shiny strings and create some sort of aural sunstroke in the listener.

Quite annoying, and eventually The Destroyers of All grows as tired and boring as watching water drip from a slowly leaking faucet. The odd thing is, the musical meter is not monotonous on this album. The band will shift between slower passages like "Beneath" to more harried, manic double bass beats in "Cold Becoming", and certainly the notes continuously shift with each streaming imprint of irritation, but considering these tracks range from six to over 10 minutes long, there's a lot of headache lying in wait, and the guitars seem to pull the same tricks over and over again in this banal dearth of creativity. I picked up the album earlier in the year, listened through and found nothing even remotely as interesting as what people were raving about, and then put it away for some months. But time has not been kind, and I find myself just as irascible towards its content as I was back then. Hell, I can't even listen through this anymore without reading along to the lyrics, because in all honesty they're better than the music...

Admittedly, this is not the WORST record I've heard in a year choked with disappointments and overrated tripe, but I must say that in ratio to its surrounding miasma of hype, I reaped the least yield of enjoyment out of The Destroyers of All than almost any other of its kind. Compared to Flourishing's amazing debut album, or others in this class of hybridized post-hardcore and death metal, in flounders on such a flat and soulless plane that it's practically two dimensional. 53 minutes with not a single good riff to be shown for it, dull semi-guttural vocals that aren't nearly as interesting as the text they speak, and a jerky atmosphere as annoying as a cloud of flies at a picnic. God, I'll just recommend this to everyone I know. The Destroyers of All is not clever. It's not well written. It's not inventive in any meaningful sense of the word. The Kiwis of Ulcerate can certainly do better, and HAVE done better than this, but until such a time as they return to that point, I must remain humbly and respectfully undestroyed.

Verdict: Fail [4/10] (and leave us dry amongst the dirt of men)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Skeletonwitch - Forever Abomination (2011)

Skeletonwitch is a band whose music I've never felt was quite commensurate to the hype surrounding it, if only because I've never enjoyed their particular marriage of guitars to vocals. This somewhat changed with 2009's Breathing the Fire,their most impressive riffing gallery to date, as the guitars were finally strong enough that I could listen past Chance Garnett's monotonous black rasp. Two years out, and they've fired up the creative forge once more, with Forever Abomination, another colorfully fronted effort which features some of the tightest dual axe-slinging in all the metal realm, a duo writing riffs that actually matter rather than 'settling' for the same rehash you hear from about 99% of bands out there. Blazing, exciting and perfectly produced, they've just got one obstacle here...and you've probably guessed it already.

Yep, the black, rasped vocals return, this time even more one-note and irritating. Granted, it's not like the guy's delivery would be out of place in some black/death metal environs, but there is just something so disappointing that such effort goes into creating such a bright, pulverizing guitar tone and then spoiling it all with such a lackluster snarl that hides just behind it. It's like baking a three layer cake with fabulous fillings on each tier, then frosting it all with a dash of dull Betty Crocker chocolate icing. What's worse, Garnett's meter is so predictably generic that he almost never varies it throughout specific verses and phrases. You could have just sampled one or two syllables into an audio program and then cut and paste them in patterns and created a comparable emotional range. For fuck's sake, some variety would go a long way to making this one of the best modern thrash band's in the US. Syncopated gang shouts, a more guttural death vocal, or better yet, a charismatic, distinct voice like all the great 80s thrashers carried.

Another thing is that I just don't buy this band's lyrics. They write about demons and vengeance suffering and pain and Dark Ones and all this other 'extreme' stuff, not unusual for a black/thrash hybrid by any means, and yet it just doesn't feel right for some reason. I can't exactly put my finger on why. It seems like they're just throwing words together, scrabbling up some cliches to make them sound cold and evil, but I'm never on this album convinced that they actually believe any of it or even give a damn. A shame, too, because when I see a track called "My Skin of Deceit" or "Choke Upon Betrayal" I'd love to see it backed with some grit and meaning, but this instead feels like what might transpire if Hatebreed wrote an album based on the Necronomicon. Wasn't into it.

On the other hand, with those considerable gripes being aired in the open, there is no way I can deny the potency of the actual riffing. If only the lion's share of younger, 21st century spawned thrash bands were writing at this level of inspiration the genre would be alive and well. They do a lot of melodic black/death lines which give tracks like "This Horrifying Force (the Desire to Kill)", "Sink Beneath Insanity" and "The Infernal Resurrection" a semi-Swedish feel, and they often weave in tremolo melodeath passages, but where they really accelerate is through pure, high speed thrashing tension. "Rejoice in Misery", "Cleaver of Souls", "Of Ash and Torment" will all cave and kick in your skull, and just about every song on the album has at least one riff of merit tucked away inside. Whether Scott Hedrick and Nate Garnette are playing in perfect unison or splitting hairs and strings, the two work wonders here, backed by a firm rhythm section.

If only it had been different. If only this had a singer with the distinguished presence of a Tom Angelripper, Schmier or someone equally hostile and unforgettable, we'd be dealing with an enormously fun album. As it stands though, the rasping is a hurdle that it never quite leaps past, not only in the delivery but the actual engineering, and I really found it hindering my desire to keep on spinning through the song list. Certainly one to check out for riffing that will have your neck in a brace almost instantaneously, but ultimately the vocals and lyrics did nothing for me, and I enjoyed it somewhat less than its predecessor.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Arch Enemy - Khaos Legions (2011)

Geeky spelling of its title aside, what first strikes me as absurd about this latest Arch Enemy album is the flag waving comic book appeal of its cover image. One gas masked lass surrounded by four others in some scene out of Killzone, waving their banners amidst some post apocalyptic wasteland. Naturally, this infers some manner of pride or conquest, which I'm assuming the band meant to enforce with their music and lyrics here. Let's face it, high visibility and appeal to 13 year olds and poseurs notwithstanding, this storied Swedish/English collaboration has not been on a roll these past few years. Personally, I've found that their best days are long behind them, peaking out on Stigmata and Burning Bridges ('98-99) when Johan Liiva was in the band, but at least early Angela Gossow era albums like Wages of Sin and Anthems of Rebellion had a handful of decent tracks on them. Not so for the ensuing Doomsday Machine or Rise of the Tyrant, and they REALLY hit a low with The Root of All Evil comp in 2009, a re-recording of cuts from the first three albums, with Gossow's vocals replacing Liiva, wholly unwelcome and unwarranted by any but the most tasteless and impressionable fan girls and khaos bros.

So then, how does their 8th original full-length Khaos Legions measure up? A 180 degree shift unto past glories? A competent and well executed foray into new terrain? To no real surprise or dismay, the answer would be a resounding 'neither'. This is nothing more than refurbished, vapid claptrap. Uninspired, recycled ideas performed with sterility for a Century Media paycheck, offal and fodder for the inevitable package tours with other high flight, overrated video rotators who bear the banner for 'extreme metal', when there is nothing whatsoever extreme involved. Really, though, that's not the main issue here. I wouldn't give two shits if Arch Enemy released a pop album the likes of Justin Bieber, if the music were not so predictably tired, cliche and ultimately a useless stain on the band's legacy which makes even the prior Rise of the Tyrant glow by any comparison. Khaos Legion might occasionally spew forth some half-baked, decent idea, or a riff worthy of the considerable talents of Michael and Christopher Amott, but in general it's as flat and exhausting as they come in the melodic death niche.

First and foremost would be the vocals. Now, I've never really gotten into Angela Gossow's style in the past, and consider her a lousy replacement for Liiva. It's not a gender thing, believe me. She just seems so dry and inauthentic, using and layering a Carcass like sneer with virtually no emotional or dynamic range, and she somehow manages to sound both bored AND boring on this phoned in lump of polished plastic. I simply cannot bear her attempts to sound 'menacing' and/or 'dark' when singing such cliche lyrics as the chorus to "Cult of Chaos": 'There are many ways to die, but only one way to live. Let the cult of chaos reign, be as free as you can be!' or "No Gods, No Master": 'I am who I am. Take it or leave it. A rebel at heart'. This entire album plays out like some motivational self-help recording set to mundane metal music. A 'metal' album for folks who purchase the most generic, cliche-ridden greeting cards for birthdays and holidays. They'll occasionally toss in a little something extra to the mix, like the shrill backing vocal of "Through the Eyes of a Raven" or Angela's sparse but awkward black metal snarl, but nothing can save how bland this all comes across.

I mean, really... "Thorns in My Flesh"? 'No more chains in my flesh! No more chains hold me down! I control my destiny!' It's two thousand fucking eleven. How about showcasing even an iota of creativity or poetic/prose sensibility? Hell, hire someone to do it for you. There are Pink songs deeper than this shit. But you know something? I might even be motivated to forgive or to participate in such inanity were the music itself not so banal. There are approximately two good riffs on the album. One is the Metallica-like speed/thrash frenzy in the verse of "Cult of Chaos", and the other the even more hyper shredding, escalated velocity of "Vengeance is Mine". Mind you, these are the 10th and 13th tracks, respectively, so you've got to wait a long time before anything of import happens, and even then, these songs contain their own share of bland power/thrash guitar progressions which sound like hand-me-downs from Accept, Judas Priest, or solo albums from their front men U.D.O. or Halford. For example, one of the riffs in "Under Black Flags We March" sounds like it was half-stolen from "Painkiller", and some of the lines in "Secrets "sound like knockoffs from late 80s King Diamond grooves.

Arch Enemy will occasionally surge into some mediocre death metal progressions in "Cruelty Without Beauty" or "Through the Eyes of a Raven", but it almost feels hammy and jarring next to the rest of the material. Wimpy transitions to cleaner guitars feel forced ("Cult..." again), and the leads throughout the album are crafted into these dramatic, limp wristed soap opera melodies. Such predictable, friendly patterns that Mister Rogers might like to whistle them to frightened neighborhood children. Not a single lead here stands out, stunning when this was such a strong component of the band back in the late 90s. What's worse, the album is 54 minutes and 14 tracks long (16 if you've got the Japanese bonus material), when it can't even assemble one or two tunes that feel suitably consistent, complete and engaging. Remember when they were writing 8-9 good songs on a CD with very little filler? Apparently they've decided to invert that practice.

I have no automatic or absolute aversion to an album which features a sterile, pop production in accordance with a more 'modern' or polished evolution of the melodic death genre. Soilwork's Natural Born Chaos and Dark Tranquillity's Damage Done are two examples that leap to memory, but they both have what this doesn't: fantastic songs. Authentic, enthusiastic energy balanced against stirring fits of sadness, in both the lyrics and melodies. A hint of creativity, or of the unexpected. Khaos Legions is an almost incessant misuse of a group of talented musicians. Sharlee D'Angelo and Daniel Erlandsson provide such an uninspired rhythm section here that you could replace them with almost anyone else and not notice the difference. The plasticity of the production leeches almost all the Amott riffing of its edge, but in truth, they weren't doing an admirable job of it anyway, and in the end this is their most underwhelming, underachievement to date. It's past time to pack it in. No wonder they're all wearing the gas masks: this stinks.

Verdict: Fail [3.5/10]

Iron Savior - The Landing (2011)

The Landing, while never especially awful or offensive, sadly serves as a grim reminder of German power metal stagnation these past few years. As much as I respect Piet Sielck for all he's done in this scene and his loyalty to the roots and sounds that inspired him, this is yet another in a line of samey sounding records that stretches back to the late 90s, when Iron Savior joined its peers Running Wild, Blind Guardian and Grave Digger as one of the forerunners in that niche of grittier fronted acts that proved ye needn't sound like Rob Halford and Michael Kiske to deliver the goods. Iron Savior peaked on its eponymous debut, and while they've usually mustered a small handful of catchy songs on each subsequent release, I can't help but feel that they've been more or less scrambling and rewriting their sophomore Unification for well over a decade now.

The chorus parts feel much the same, the guitar tone processed to yield the same bite, and of course the subject matter of the lyrics revolves around their namesake space opera. Sielck has gone on about the grand concepts and scope of this saga, but you'd never guess it through the actual lyrics of their albums which are pretty much bonafide 'feel good' German power metal ala Gamma Ray, Helloween and Accept with a slightly futurist bend. Far be it from me to discourage such use of the imagination in metal music, being a total dweeb that intakes more speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, whatever-punk etc) than he drinks water, but anyone with even a remote interest in space opera knows that we've come a LONG fucking way from Close Encounters and Star Wars. Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, Iain M. Banks, Vernor Vinge, Dan Simmons and many others dominate the local brick & mortar bookshelves, brimming with countless ideas in line with the technological expansion of our species.

So you'll have to forgive me if I find the whole 'Iron Savior' arc pedestrian at best, but it's always taken a back seat for me to the music of this band, which this time around, is equally at fault for gliding straight in and out of the ears. Consummate professionals, these guys know how to set up their verses, chorus, bridges and leads with the best of them, but strict structure aside, there are painfully few moments here in which the riffs distinguish themselves. Mid paced rockers like "The Savior", "Hall of the Heroes" and "Heavy Metal Never Dies" all feel as if they've been played out so many times in the past, and while quicker paced anthems like "Starlight" and "Faster Than All" do well to ramp up their intensity and spread some variation through the track list, they're almost all replete of memorable guitar progressions even after repeated listens. Piet himself sounds as solid as any of the prior full-lengths, but despite the man's consistency I just can't shake all the exhausted, cliche lyrical lines which feel as if they were simply paraphrased from past Iron Savior tracks.

So incredibly safe and lazy sounding, which might be excused if the songs themselves were anything to write home about, but they just feel like Unification Part VI. Instead of "Starborn", we've got "Starlight". Instead of songs about traveling here or there via spaceship, we've got songs about traveling there to here via spaceship. And yet, the lyrics paint it all out to be so vague and streamlined with any other random power metal song. Why not get more specific about this grand fiction you've created? Focus in on people, planets, gadgets, cultures. Name them and let us in on the details. Otherwise, what impetus have I to focus my lens in on this particular saga over any other? "R.U. Ready"? "Heavy Metal Never Dies"? The last thing people need is more of this retread self-affirmation metal nonsense. How about using that same imagination you tease us with, instead of dumbing everything down? Help the genre grow, not collapse in on itself like the pathetic caricature this album portrays.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Alice in Chains - Dirt (1992)

By the time Dirt was released, the Seattle grunge scene was in full swing. Nirvana had blown the doors off with their chart-topping Nevermind, and other bands, such as Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, were beginning to find themselves in the spotlight with their respective seminal works, Ten and Badmotorfinger. Released over a year after the aforementioned albums, Dirt lumbered onto the scene like the coked-up family member showing up late to the reunion. Dark, dirty, and desolate, Dirt is an exercise in exposing and exploiting the demons that lay nestled in the band’s collective conscious. Without a doubt the bands most definitive work, the album takes the listener through every twisted corner of Layne Staley and company’s psyche, and never pulls its punches. Much of the hard rock aesthetic present on Facelift is dropped here, choosing to instead to dig into sludgy riffs that limp through odd time signatures. The entire album becomes a rather unsettling look into the mind of an addict, with Layne Staley’s lyrics forming a simultaneously grating and enchanting synergy with his distinct voice. Add to the mix guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s own singing and pummeling guitar playing, and I would argue you have a singer-guitarist duo to rival the likes of the greats. The rhythm section, once again composed of bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney, provides the ever shifting but always-solid backdrop to the proceedings.

AiC once again pulls no punches with its opening track, diving right into the off-kilter groove of “Them Bones”, with Staley starting things off with a distinctive bark. The riffing on display here is exceptional, with a driving energy that sinks its teeth in and doesn’t let go. Cantrell’s solo is one of his finest, taking a similar trick from “Man in the Box” by playing what feels like two distinct solos from two players, but at the same time achieving a cohesiveness that boosts the song into the stratosphere. The listener will notice by the first song that the band has not sounded better up until this point. The guitars are fuller, the vocals are at the forefront and clear, and the rhythm section has a low-end growl and thump that was not present to the same degree on Facelift. Again borrowing while also tweaking the template laid out on Facelift, the second song is another riff machine meant to kick your ass and show you the band is back with an even sharper edge. “Dam That River”, by far one of my favourites, chugs along at a brisk pace, leading up to a killer chorus and solo. By this point, Dirt has my full attention, taking the sound established on Facelift and crafting it into something bigger and better.

Things slow down on the acid-trip grind of “Rain When I Die”. A plunking bass line leads into a whammy-bar/wah-pedal solo that sounds like the kind of thing you would hear after a night taking a hit of everything under the sun. The guitar melody is classic Cantrell, combining the expression of the wah with eccentric phrasing that formulates his sound. The vocal harmonies at 3:22 are the perfect example of the trademark AiC developed over their career. Beautiful yet haunting, harmonious yet dissonant.

Three of the following four songs all display the very bleak atmosphere that permeates the entire album, like a layer of filth that accumulates in a home long abandoned. “Sickman”, “Junkhead”, and “Dirt” all dig straight into the mind of the bands iconic vocalist. “Dirt” in particular features Staley lamenting, “I want you to scrape me from the walls / And go crazy like you've made me”. The lyrics present the musings of a man who feels disgust with what he has become, but can’t pull himself away from it.

Backtracking a bit, we get a little personal with the other side of the vocal duo with a tribute to Cantrell’s veteran father, “Rooster”. One of the more radio-friendly songs on the album, the song features an incredible chorus courtesy of Staley’s signature pipes. You can’t help but sing along, “You know he ain’t gonna die!” Fucking killer stuff.

The next two songs, “God Smack” and “Hate to Feel”, are not songs I find myself coming back to often. They feel similar at times to what is heard earlier, but this is not to fault the songs themselves. They portray the same kind of self-loathing and drug-fueled insanity that is obvious on the first half of the album. But as it stands, I personally don’t find much reason to come back to them. “Angry Chair”, on the other hand, makes its presence known with a stomping drum line, followed by an ominous guitar melody. Another personal favourite, it grabs me from the get-go. The start-and-stop pre-chorus is a highlight, with some heavy-as-fuck power chords pounding you into submission. Angry indeed.

The albums one true ballad, “Down In A Hole”, exemplifies AiC’s knack of being able to combine an elegant grace to their gritty subject matter. Sorrowful to the nth degree, the song still manages to uplift the listener by the end of it. One of the strongest tracks on the album, it provides a moment of calm before the storm. And by storm, I mean Dirt’s crown jewel, the juggernaut “Would?”. By far the best song on the album, and one of the bands single greatest tracks, “Would?” has it all: a subtle bass intro, drums that thunder and stomp, and a kick-ass chorus combining guitar and vocals for something far greater than the sum of its parts. The interplay between Staley and Cantrell in the verse is haunting, with a foreboding guitar part becoming an instantly recognizable sound of the grunge scene. It’s a perfect way to close a near-perfect album, and I can’t see myself failing to enjoy it any time soon.

So, as you can tell, I find Dirt to be an intriguing and exceptional experience, but not one without its faults. There are times where I find the bleak and drowning nature of the music and lyrical subject matter to be too overwhelming. The album oozes atmosphere and almost leaves you reaching for something to clean yourself off with. Some of the songs are a little similar in how they go about things, and the album suffers a little for it. With that said, the album is the bands definitive work. Tracks like "Them Bones", "Dam That River" and "Would?" are mainstays of the bands setlist to this day, and for good reason. This is the band at its peak in terms of songwriting and honing their sound. This is the place to start if one is looking to explore one of the dirtier bands that rose to prominence in the grunge scene. But, for all its fanfare and praise, I cannot bring myself to declare it my favourite, nor can I give it a perfect score. Listen to it anyway.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]