Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Umbah - Enter the Dagobah Core (2012)

For whatever reason, my paths have never crossed with Umbah in the past. Unusual, since the project has produced a dozen albums to date, but we can't all hear everything, and I'm willing to bet most of these earlier works were small pressings, self-released with a limited audience in mind. If Enter the Dagobah Core is any indicator of their quality, then I admit I might have missed out, because not only is this a high strung, entertaining manifestation of cyber industrial death thrash, but comforting proof that there are human beings far stranger than I out there. The kind I typically tend to hang out with. The kind we could all benefit from. Now, autothrall is no square, but Enter the Dagobah Core is a humbling, eccentric experience which fuses the geek-chic of its creator into a harness of spatial, spastic, plastic and technical absurdity which gives the aesthetic impression of flying a TIE fighter into a Macarena party while huffing glue and gasoline.

I'm not exactly a stranger to Cal Scott, the project's sole member at present. Or rather, HE is no stranger to the scene. He once slung the six-string for the fairly enjoyable British death bangers Necrosanct, who produced a pair of sadly forgotten second tier gems in Incarnate (1992) and Desolate (1993) through Swedish imprint Black Mark Productions. However, aside from the fact that it flirts with the extreme side of the metal spectrum, Umbah, at least in this present state, has little to nothing in common with his alma mater. Enter the Dagobah Core is more like listening to Germans Mekong Delta while you're trying to perform speed runs of Mega Man, or a clusterfuck of Florida hybrids Atheist and Hellwitch with Devo. In fact, I don't think I've had so much fun with a cybernetic metal beatdown of this sort since Alf Svensson's Oxiplegatz. Or, more accurately, Gigantic Brain's Invasion Discography, but while that was more of an alien abduction grind outing, this is more like a man entirely off his meds, shredding and growling his way through some 16-bit future.

It's not total chipset video game death metal like the amazing Norrin Radd, so the guitars still play an important part of the picture. However, the architecture of the songs here is absolutely batshine insane. With "Whispers of a Dying Sun Part I" alone, the first three minutes of the CD, we've cycled through warbling, pulsing electronic noise to dissonant spikes of driving thrash, tense and complex electro freakouts, and even an EBM framework or two which would not have been out of place on a KMFDM record. Scott's vocals engage a wide, schizoid array of personas that range from the usual rasp or death grunt to a more Gothic, doped up edge redolent of The Kovenant or Marilyn Manson, to bursts of nasal paranoia or even pitch shifted narrative via Darth Vader. There are no rules to which he strictly adheres, and this creates a massive sandbox of personality through which he gets to explore through the lurching, chugging diatribes of "Cosmic Garland", Cannibal Corpse gone psycho-hyper-fuck of "Rackborn Skin Expulsion" or destructo dancer "Zombinods".

I swear, I heard such divergent voices here as an opera singer and a horse whinny. The entire 13 track progression of the album feels as if its almost always about to burst at the seams, succumb to its own energized clutter, but Scott hurls one interesting passage after another in your path, and I found myself unable to turn away from it. Each successive spin drowned me in the chaos, a whirlwind of electronic drumming and choppy, thrashing precision. There must be six thousand riffs on this thing, and while not all are incredibly distinct of their own volition, the rapid, surefire succession of their arrival is bound to drill itself into even the most A.D.D. addled cranium. On the flip side, this is not something you want to listen to if you're sporting a pacemaker. Or if you have epilepsy. A few songs are mildly calmer, like "Mad Zu Chong", but in general you're dealing with a strobe light of frenetic industrial trance excess.

It's not the perfect cure for a hangover headache, because admittedly the music is so frivolous and fun to the point that its own goofiness burdens the listener's ability to take it serious. Enter the Dagobah Core is too spurious, synthetic and ridiculous for its own good. Certified crazy. But then, that's rather the point of the thing. Subject matter ranges from the obvious Star Wars influence (the title track) to Germanic physicists ("Dr. Geiger") and Chinese astronomer-mathematicians ("Mad Zu Chong"), and you get the feeling this guy had as much a good time choosing them as you will have listening to them. I don't know just how wide an audience a record like this will find, but I'd recommend it to nearly anyone with the eroded mental health to appreciate it's flabbergasting charms, or anyone who might appreciate a Mr. Bungle remix of Illud Divinum Insanus which DIDN'T suck. Can you imagine that? Nerd on, motherfuckers.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Celtic Frost - Emperor's Return EP (1985)

Snakes and ladies. When you get right down to it, they're the building block of civilizations. Morals. Faiths, or at least one faith. We might not all have lives blessed with the same caliber of coiled demons and chained, moppy headed (or bald) punk harlots who confront us from the cover of Celtic Frost's second EP, Emperor's Return, but I can't have been the only young teenager to have felt a strange seduction at the sight. Fortunately, this packs more than a mere penis pump, but a notable stride forward in the quality and style that were introduced through Hellhammer's Apocalyptic Raids and its direct precursor, the 1984 release Morbid Tales. Sharpened, polished, call it what you will, but Emperor's Return is responsible for at least one of the best cuts in this Swiss band's repertoire, and one of the grooviest, darkest hymns in all of 80s thrash.

Perhaps the writing here represents one of the most marginal evolutions in the Tom G. Warrior canon, for the riffing structure is not a far cry from previous tracks like "Return to the Eve" or "Procreation (Of the Wicked)". I found the production on these five tunes to sound less ruddy, though that strangely grisly and fulfilling guitar tone remains intact. Simple and effective chord sequences which rarely deviate from the band's prior curriculum, but they seem to bear a bolder sense of darkness, an inescapable and suffocating sense of being stuffed into a crypt where the dead dance by day and necromantic rituals and forsaken eros are performed by the few traces of moonlight that filter through the stone cracks of the ceiling. What I'm trying to express in such crowded and colorful hues is that Emperor's Return rocks: pretty much from the first notes of "Dethroned Emperor" to the faster paced speed/dirt of "Visual Aggression", you are getting your ass kicked.

"Circle of the Tyrants" is my favorite of this lot, and arguably the band's career highlight, fully cognizant of the punk and hardcore aesthetics that informed Frost's roots, with a percussive use of chorus to split the verses, and some of their most immense grooves, like the dark and potent riff that erupts about 1:40 into the tune. As usual, Tom G. Warrior places just the right amount of echo on his vocals so he seems to be drifting into your ears from the dust of decay, and there are also some garbled pitch shifted incantations here which add nicely to the context. "Morbid Tales" features a prominent, thudding bass courtesy of Martin Eric Ain, and another classic, unforgettable heavy palm mute in the verse riff, with some of Warrior's unmistakable rock star swagger in the 'ows' and 'yeahs' found therein. Reed St. Mark offers a more muscular double bass in the bridge of the track, and overall I'd consider the drums more consistent and rock solid than those of Morbid Tales, and Celtic Frost proves yet again why they're so influential upon the decades of extreme metal to follow.

The latter tracks on the EP like "Suicidal Winds" and "Visual Aggression" have always held a slightly less important place in my memory than the first three, though they've also got a more grimy interface and rely on some of the faster riffing that I wasn't always so thrilled with on the first EP. In a way, the grooves that often manifest in Frost tunes would not be so effective without a change up from this almost pure dirtcore momentum (the NY band Sheer Terror would later channel this into excellence on their classic LP Just Can't Hate Enough), but I just never found the note sequences to be so enduring. That said, both of the tunes are admittedly consistent in disposition to the forerunners, and they certainly don't break the 21 minutes of bludgeoning, grooving and driving momentum.

Hands down, Emperor's Return is the best of Celtic Frost's non full-length fare (unless you're experiencing it in conjunction with the first EP on the CD reissue), and the ramp up towards the band's most brilliant album. Normally it might lose a little luster in the fact that "Circle of the Tyrants" would also appear on To Mega Therion, but I honestly prefer this less atmospheric version for its earthly charms, and alongside "Dethroned Emperor" and "Morbid Tales" it belongs on any highlight reel of their stronger work. I also love the cover art, the immortal lyrics ("are you morbid?"), and the truly oblique atmosphere the band is able to evoke through the riffing and bare minimum of other effects: it feels tangibly, invariably evil, like the musings of a mummified despot who longs to slake his thirst on the sanguine essence of the world once more. Whether you've got an original tape or LP or picture disc or you're loving it up alongside its older sibling, it belongs wherever there is good taste. Blood and concubines optional.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (locked forever in a veil of shame)


Monday, January 30, 2012

Malasangre - Lux Deerit Soli (2012)

While I've not encountered these Italians previously in their native, creative environment Malasangre, I did run across their material as Caput LVIIIM on the Tribute to H.P. Lovecraft - Yogsothery - Gate 1: Chaosmogonic Ritual of Fear compilation released through I, Voidhanger. Presumably that collaboration led to further interest, and thus their relationship to the label continues here with the third full-length from their primary outlet: Lux Deerit Soli, an apocalyptic musing upon the end cycles of the Kali Yuga described in the Hindu scriptures, or more bluntly, the decline of human civilization. A two part concept recording which begs some comparisons to their work on the Lovecraft compilation, though a good deal of the psychedelic spaciness so compelling there has been dialed down to promote a drier, darker, and if possible, more desolate atmosphere.

Lux Deerit Soli is structured upon a sparse framework of down tuned chords set against an ambient periphery. The note progressions shift in slow gradations over time, but 'time' is also the greatest demand on the listener. Each of the album's halves is over 35 minutes in duration, yet neither incorporates a wide range of variation. At times, the compositions feel as if they were much shorter tunes stretched to slow motion, but then this is a common characteristic of its chosen niche. You're not just getting a lazy Sunn O))) exposée of brash, unwashed distortion left to simmer in its own vapor trails for 20+ minutes; but more of a Khanate, with a jilted, sadistic atmosphere manifest through the interplay of vocals, distant feedback, percussion and drudging chords. Malasangre creeps along with a purpose, an elderly arachnid with a serious limp, steadily if surely closing upon its prey, but monotony can set in pretty early, and patience can be tested without the appropriate mindset for the experience.

The 'black metal' element of Lux Deerit Soli is found solely in the vocals, a pure salacious rasp that hovers off just below the level of the rhythm guitar, asserting its presence through several drawn out, bloody, harrowing snarls. Dire vultures ready to pick at the entrails of the collective mankind once we've emptied each others' mortal vessels. A protracted, necrotic breeze of decay whispered over the viscera, often transformed into grisly mantras or chants drawn from the album's conceptual source text. Malasangre will also involve creepy acoustics, lucid patterns of 3-4 notes repeated off and on the crush of the droning chords (around the 10:00 mark in "Sa Ta"). The bass is another 'hovering' component, throbbing and monotone at the intro to the album but eventually curving into primal, lightly distorted patterns that rarely falter from the confident minimalism of the guitars. Drumming ranges from stock funereal doom beats to tribal breakdowns, but it's important not to take his myriad fills for granted: they are essential in alleviating the potential ennui of the riff patterns.

Bands of this sort often pride themselves on consistency, and surely the Italians can claim the same: the two halves of the album do not diverge greatly from one another. "Sa Ta" is the more morbid and dark of the pair, but it's also the less intriguing. "Na Ma" has a more fulfilling palette, with more titillating feedback applied to the denser guitar sequences and a lot of dour, plucky clean acoustics into which a din of whispered apocrypha is embedded. Both, however, embrace the agenda of suffering and illumination that Malasangre feeds upon. That said, I was unable to wrest a great deal of interest or enjoyment from this record. Not that such a souring, elongated spurn on the face of Creation is intended to evoke the latter sentiment, but I found the limited selection of notes and rhythms to be forgettable rather than hypnotic, moistureless as opposed to a wellspring of spirit leeching miasma.

The atmospheric ingredients of Lux Deerit Soli and the lyrical inspiration are fascinating, and go a long way towards curbing my reaction towards the positive, but ultimately I was parched for a fraction more dynamics than simply feeling dead inside. Respectable, certainly. Worthwhile as background noise when mood allows. Yet somehow void of that crucial, elusive, haunting fiber that makes a doom record blacken my skies for any significant duration.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]


Celtic Frost - Morbid Tales EP (1984)

What I love most about the retrospective analysis of the metal music from my youth, that which I've matured alongside for decades now, is just how fascinating and divergent its evolution seems in the rear view mirror. How different nations and scenes contributed to parallel growth, structurally and lyrically. How particular releases launched a thousand ships like the fabled Helen of Troy, while others could not inspire disembarkation from even the scantest of flotilla. Funny then, that even among all of these coordinated fronts of competitive and emulous transformation, Swiss godfathers Celtic Frost stands as more or less an anomaly, an anthropological crossroads between the cultures of thrash metal, doom, hardcore punk, and the black and death metal scenes which had yet to fully embody their own identities.

It would be hard to take an accurate count of how many recordings have been directly inspired by Morbid Tales, because we're at a stage now where even its own aesthetic offspring are now at legendary status. Darkthrone is the perfect example. Both their death metal debut Soulside Journey and seminal black metal mutation Ablaze in the Norther Sky were openly, enormously inspired by Tom G. Warrior and crew, in atmosphere, attitude AND actualized riff structure; and I could name hundreds of shameless knockoffs of that enduring Norse outfit. Granted, Celtic Frost (and its prior incarnation Hellhammer) were not themselves without some precedent. Punk and hardcore music had by this point arrived and spawned a number of aggressive legends of their own (Discharge's Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing among them), while a not insignificant fraction of this band's relentlessness and filth might be attributed to UK demons Venom and Motörhead; lyrically the former and musically the pair. Tendrils of descent from the crushing pathos of 70s Sabbath are undeniable.

Even inclusive of these considerations, though, Morbid Tails is a distinct landmark on a trail of carnage that stems from the dawn of musical extremity to the ongoing struggle for attaining that next 'level' of aggression. By comparison to faster, more lethal contemporaries of the period like Bathory's self-titled debut, Slayer's Show No Mercy or Destruction's Sentence of Death, the material here often lacks finesse or the same knack for riffing complexity. Celtic Frost had cleaned itself up from Hellhammer, and the production values are noticeably more accessible and professional than the Apocalyptic Raids EP from the same year. That's not necessarily a positive, and I might personally prefer the earlier archetype to their first two releases under the new identity, but it makes sense for a band whose intent was growth alongside the emergent and diversified European underground of extreme metal. These days it's a badge of honor in certain scenes to produce the most amateur, afflicted and unwashed material possible, but by the mid 80s, that practice generally manifest as a symptom of having little to no budget.

However, fret not, heralds of grime, because Morbid Tales still retains the ruddy riffing texture and dynamic sensibility of its predecessors. Blazing, punk guitar passages are interspersed with slower palm muted hardcore/thrash sequences, the latter just as worthy of the primordial mosh pits as what the Stormtroopers of Death would soon start to build overseas. Of the five metal tracks on the EP (excluding "Danse Macabre"), there is a fairly even distribution of fast and slow material. "Into the Crypts of Rays", "Visions of Mortality" and "Nocturnal Fear" all feature rapt excursions into velocity, while "Procreation (Of the Wicked)" and "Return to the Eve" adhere to a plodding, crushing consistency which feels incredibly heavy despite the clarity and polish of the guitar tone. Martin Ain's low end and Stephen Priestly's drumming might not seem extravagant, but they add to the bruised ugliness of the music, in particular the syrup-thick bass which often competes with the guitar for attention, even if the notation runs a similar course.

I would like to spend some time discussing the signature components and techniques that these Swiss legends brought to the table. First and foremost, the corpulent and molten 'grooves' bear some mentioning. A strong example would be the opening for "Procreation (of the Wicked)", with its slosh of chords against strong palm muted chugging that is pretty much the default for how thousands of bands in various genres build a riff even today. Prior to this, I think only Sabbath could crush so hard ("Symptoms of the Universe", etc). But Celtic Frost also evolved a rare characteristic of opening and closing off certain measures with a simple, bended note that oozed torment while giving a false sense of 'incompletion' to the overall riff, a technique that progeny like Darkthrone would recycle for decades. They also stuck to a lot of very basic ascending and descending patterns or chords that helped solidify the grooves without scattering themselves over the fret board, like the incredible mosh riff in the lead-bridge of "Return to the Eve".

Most importantly, though, are the vocals of Tom G. Warrior, which sound like a man choking on crud while clearing his lungs, or some constipated, drunken drifter emerging from a bar in Zurich to take a squat in a dank alley of refuse. With the right amount of echo or reverb here, his bark sounds incredibly oblique, evil and memorable, and the guy's 'hoos' and 'has' and 'ooos' are just legendary, a clear remnant of his showmanlike, hard rock forebears. Surely there's a bit of Cronos and Lemmy in the 'spirit' of his delivery, but his thick accent ensures a unique quality that, to its day, I know I hadn't experienced. The lyrics are also pretty fucking impressive, paeans to the contrasted knight/serial killer Gilles de Rais ("Into the Crypts of Rays"), ritual magic ("Visions of Mortality"), the succession of original sin from the Old Testament ("Procreation of the Wicked"), the dreamstate ("Return to the Eve"), and even Lovecraft's Mythos ("Nocturnal Fear"). A pretty eclectic array of dark subjects delivered through thoughtful, image-thick prose that was well ahead of many of the band's metal contemporaries (internationally).

Despite all of its myriad qualities, and the many distinctions I've described herein, I will admit that Morbid Tales is not quite deserving of a bust upon the pedestal of perfection that others might claim. Its primal transgressions I take no issue with: not the simplicity of the songwriting structures, nor the predictable flow of the riffing. But, for example, I don't like the lead guitars, which are fleeting and messy but lack the energetic, unhinged pizzazz that bands like Slayer and Pestilence whipped up through the 80s. While consistent with one another, and the mood of both the iconic cover art and lyrical matter, I've never found all of the rhythm guitars to be that exciting ("Nocturnal Fear" and "Into the Crypts of Rays" have a handful I could do without). And then there are the experimental flourishes, not as eclectic and variegated as those later manifest to their sophomore album Into the Pandemonium, but not very interesting either. I like the wall of tortured howls that inaugurates "Into the Crypts...", but the 4 minute ambient ritual "Danse Macabre" sacrifices a little catchiness for its creepiness.

Screams, whispers, a piano here, a violin shred there, a morbid mantra. Acceptable for a Halloween evening, since it sounds like it might hail from one of those holiday CDs you buy at the grocery store; or as background noise for some obscure, Gothic seduction, but not something I would expressly seek out for its own allure... Fortunately, none of these minor mars can heavily compromise the surface area of the EP, and its importance as a cornerstone for the incessant thrash, death, doom and black metal lineage of the 90s and beyond still stands as it approaches its third decade of existence. It's not the peak of this band's repertoire (wait a year), nor a Lord of the Rings for extreme metal. I'd liken it instead to Robert Howard's original Conan stories: elegant but barbaric, crude but descriptive. But is the one really all that less influential than the other in the end? One final note: I was originally exposed to this and its successor EP (Emperor's Return) separately, so I'll review them as such. Today's crowd has the convenience of acquiring them on a single disc, which in no way decreases their individual worth, and makes for a rather consistent full length experience.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (obsessed by the nightmare's sound)


Friday, January 27, 2012

Bathory - In Memory of Quorthon (2006)

Finally, a Bathory collection which doesn't suck? Well, that all really depends on what format you choose to acquire it in, and what exactly it is you're looking for in such a fan package. For example, if I were to break it down into the three independent CDs which one can still seemingly purchase from Black Mark, it doesn't carry a lot of weight. But the full deal, with the poster, booklet, and bonus DVD is quite comprehensive in both CD and LP formats, and thus the preferred option. Surely this is superior to the awful Katalog comp or the individual Jubileum releases, but there are a number of what I'd consider strange omissions and the same miasma of incompleteness that populated the latter.

First off, you're getting a considerable number of remastered tracks, spanning the 1984 self titled debut through the 2003 swan song Nordland II. I've never had significant personal issues with the production of anything Quorthon had released for Bathory, just minor nitpicks, so this is not a major boon in my opinion, yet the fact that they're all given the treatment helps gel them together as a unified collection, despite the studio production variance of their roots. Choices are pretty good, with important cuts like "Blood Fire Death", "A Fine Day to Die", "Enter the Eternal Fire", "Raise the Dead" and such scattered about the three discs, but the selection is far from restricted to the classics, so you've got examples of the mid-90s thrash mediocrity ("War Machine") and a boat load of inclusions from the more recent Nordland sagas.

There are also quite a number of covers here, which were originally recorded throughout the Bathory canon, some appearing on various editions of full-length releases and some I'd never heard before. Some of the choices are very obvious, like "Ace of Spades" or "War Pigs" which are not that impressive other than getting to hear Quorthon's uneven accent. I found the KISS tributes to be much more entertaining and obscure choices, in particular "Black Diamond" which really benefits from the power placed in its translation. Lastly, though, you've got a pair of covers from the Quorthon solo career, namely "God Save the Queen" (Sex Pistols) and "I'm Only Sleeping (Beatles), and I didn't really enjoy them outside of appreciating the guy's obviously eclectic tastes. A few of the originals from the two solo albums are likewise present, like the heavy rock track "I've Had it Coming" or the atmospheric "Boy" with all its samples. Despite my disdain for the albums in general, these are not poor representations, though I would have clipped them in favor of more raw Bathory.

The songs with his sister Jennie Tebler are much less appealing. "Silverwing" is pretty boring crunch rock ala Evanescence with the female vocals flowing over them. Once they enter into a harmony, it's not so bad, but the solo strands of her voice sound like a miserable wannabe of Lacuna Coil or The Gathering. Nor do I much care for her version of "Song to Hall Up High", which closes out the third and last audio disc. It would have been far cooler, and really reflected a sense of completeness if the demo and rare tracks from the Jubileum collections had been gathered here. Still in print, perhaps, but considering the price for this boxed set it would not have set them back so much, and ultimately it might have spared the fans from wasting their money on the older collections if they hadn't already. So, some omissions that would dramatically improved the value of In Memory of Quorthon, but in the end you're still getting about 45 tracks, all remastered, so at least some minimum effort was applied by Black Mark.

Finally, there are the perks and 'omake box' goodies that usually come with these media boxed sets. The poster is absolutely retarded, nothing more than an advertisement for the set that you just purchased with a classic pic of Quorthon. I would have rather it just included the latter. The booklet itself is enormous, a pretty comprehensive biography with lots of photos and notes, but not necessarily anything novel or unexpected if you'd been following his career. The DVD itself is not brimming with content, just the full video for "One Road to Asa Bay" which is little more than a bunch of guys in armor, costume, riding a horse, etc all quite slowly to the roiling pace of the music; an MTV interview clip in which he discusses his transition from the occult lyrical focus of his earlier years to the folksier Norse mythology, and some random promotional footage also from the same 1990 era. Nothing too impressive here, least of all the video, but it's a decent add on for the diehard who might feel the urge to occasionally listen to his/her hero speak.

Needless to say, if you can get your hands on this collection, it stands head and shoulders above its predecessors. I wish it had more to it, and I'm sure everyone does, but as far as a posthumous memorial, it's comprehensive enough not to disappoint. I wouldn't say it was worth purchasing if you already own all the studio albums, but even then, if you want to show more financial support to honor the legend, it's far more reasonable than Jubileum or the needless Katalog. You are getting SOMETHING for your money here, which is more than I can say for a large percentage of shit-eating collections put out for major bands. As of 2011, a nice vinyl box also became available which includes a picture disc of the whole Bathory s/t. Keep that in mind when you're mining eBay, since the format is all the rage and very likely to become a collectible of high value.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Necronomicon - Invictus (2012)

The tenacity of second/third tier Teutonic thrash acts like Wicca, Vendetta, Accu§er, and Necromonicon is nothing short of inspirational. Even if the best most of them can muster are average beatings which pay tribute to their individual legacies, while dowsing them in the production standards of the present, the very fact that they've overcome large gulfs in their careers and returned with a sound remarkably inattentive to trends touches some murky space in my heart. Sure, some will argue that they're merely attempting to use the present rekindling of their genre as a 'second chance' at the spotlight, and that if they really cared they wouldn't have vanished in the first place, but the sounds I'm hearing on their records, while often flawed and unmemorable, do not at all mirror such a sentiment.

Necronomicon has long been a less structured, less impressive alternative to its popular peer Destruction, but there's no doubt that they've evolved their writing through time, and even less that they've improved as far as production. Earlier works like Escalation and Apocalyptic Nightmare had a particular charm to them, all thanks to the coat of amateurish grime that a low budget permits, but since reforming in the 21st century they've ramped up considerably for a more professional sound. In this, too, they reflect the changes of Schmier and crew, but where that band maintains a firm, angry thrashing presence, Necromonicon seems to veer off into a slightly power metal territory on a number of their tracks here, perhaps more reminiscent of Headhunter. Certain tracks here highlight this more than others. For example, "Invictus" itself has a riff in there that sounds a lot like on of Priest's "Painkiller" guitar progressions, while "Unleashed" and "Unconquered" are total power/thrash hybrids with leads that reflect the more driving, melodic side of the spectrum, akin to post-90s Rage.

Freddy's rasped vocals, however, remain almost fully within the snarled thrash camp that was represented on the earlier albums, and the combination of the Germanic raging mutes and chords and his fevered grit is one of the strengths of Invictus. As usual, Necromonicon is a fairly dynamic band. You'll get plenty of variation like the Iron Maiden bass break in "Unconquered" or the acoustic intro to "Face to the Wall" (another spot where they remind me of Judas Priest from the intro to "Night Crawler"), but the best parts of the record are almost unanimously where they throw down the gauntlet of aggression in "Pandora's Box", "Thoughts Running Free", though these too have a clear Euro power metal imprint circa Accept, etc. There's also a sweet re-recording of "Possessed by Evil" from their s/t debut (1986), and I love the sheer enthusiasm of the vocals and the bricklaying of the guitars. Perhaps an entire remake of the first two albums would not be such a bad idea in a modern context?

Ultimately, though, Invictus is not all that great an album, and I felt that it fell shy of even its direct predecessor Revenge of the Beast in 2008. It's not bad, mind you. Necronomicon has a mature, seasoned sound to them, but it rarely manifests in a song that endure in the memory for more than a few minutes. Add to this the derivative construction of many of the guitar riffs and you get another album which seems wholly content with settling into mediocrity. What I'd love to hear is for this band to go utterly fucking crazy. Look at the explosions Paradox has written since their own desire to once more breach the theater of warfare. Necronomicon once had a snarling, raw character to them redolent of Sentence of Death, and I would not be averse to hearing some of that over the redundant power metal riffs that saturate this record. Invictus is not a total shot in the dark: it's balanced and professional, it just doesn't excel in the songwriting, which is what I most look for in any record of this type. That said, if you LOVE that old German tone and the recent efforts from peers like Vendetta, you might give it a listen.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]


Bathory - Nordland II (2003)

Released about 5 months after Nordland I, Bathory would not leave us waiting long for what was originally intended to be the second of four total chapters in the Nordland saga. Unfortunately, as we all now know, that would not turn out to be the case. Quorthon's tragic passing in the following year (2004) would retroactively establish Nordland II as the grand finale of one of the most important and influential legacies in all of metal. No pressure, right? Well, perhaps its not remotely fair to judge the record on such grounds, and I won't, but there is no escaping the fact that it often feels like a bunch of leftovers from the previous effort, or rather that he front loaded the content to the series and intended the garner interest on momentum alone with diminishing returns.

Not that Nordland II is necessarily a negative experience. In fact, I feel that tracks such as "Sea Wolf" and "Blooded Shore" create quite a cloud of nostalgia for the Hammerheart album, and I admire the grit he exhibits in his vocal performance here and elsewhere on this sequel. Slow, pendulous heavy metal hammer riffs drowned in choirs, synthesized organs and steady drums that create a dramatic subtext to the sailing, drawn out voices in the late bridge of "Sea Wolf". Chunky momentum and crashing chords dialed straight back to the late 80s glories. I also feel that some of the longer tracks like the 10 minute "The Messenger" (with that incredible, simple melody) and the 12 minute "The Wheel of Sun" with its leaden grooves and gleaming spikes of zephyr-like guitars, are far better at balancing their content and shifting necessary gears of composition thank some of the whales from the previous album.

There are also no crappy thrash tracks like there were on Destroyer of Worlds. The closest the record comes is "Flash of the Silverhammer" a mid-paced chugger which reminds me of the older, primal doom/thrash crunch of their countrymen Memory Garden, making decent use of the vocals to carry what otherwise might be a dullard. Like Nordland I, there's an 8 minute tune which makes good use of a propulsive, brutal into ("Death and Resurrection of a Northern Son"), but I don't exactly love this song, and along with other middling fare like "The Land" or the desolate "Vinland" I just feel like it treads on previous ground. With Hammerheart, Blood Fire Death, Twilight of the Gods, Blood on Ice and Nordland I already out in circulation, I got the impression of rinsing and repeating here, which I'm sure might have stretched out its welcome if the ensuing chapters were to manifest without significant deviations.

In the end, as usual, evaluation comes down to the songs. Some of their older albums had them in spades, but Nordland II doesn't really have much to recommend it unless you're obsessed with its stylistic and spiritual forebears and demand more of the same. I'll grant that there are a few epic climaxes here, and an atmosphere which sparks up fond memories for the influential storms Quorthon rode in on, but it's not an album I would choose over others in the canon. Let's face it: the guy more or less created two massive, enduring substrata of the extreme metal realm, and both within a brief span of years. About 13 years after that period, nothing innovative or really interesting had manifest from Bathory. But he had nothing more to prove, and so he resigned himself to small tweaks on the existing formula. I like the simplicity of the lyrics here, their dependable imagery and adherence to the atmosphere or the songwriting.

But where Blood Fire Death summoned up an eternal wrath from my soul, called my imagination to war forever, this album is more or less a pleasant fjord surfing experience with a few gut wrenching moments of anger. A functional successor to Nordland I, and not a regrettable experience, but not a source for much fascination.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (none it shall claim or conquer)

Bathory - Nordland I (2002)

After the split personality of Destroyer of Worlds, it was rather nice that Quorthon would return to a singular vision for its successor, the first half of his Nordland saga. If you couldn't already guess through a glance at the cover image, that vision entails a straight return to the Viking metal aesthetics of prior works Hammerheart, Twilight of the Gods, and the 'lost' album Blood On Ice. Only here, Quorthon has written a more substantial treatise on the subject, since both sides of the project total over two hours of material, and there are none of the banal pure thrash regressions that crippled Destroyer of Worlds. In fact, I feel like this first Nordland is perhaps the point at which he best expresses this style. Not that it's the best of his Norse journeys by a long shot, but because he gives it the ample space in which it needs to breathe.

Nordland I is very well paced to provide its narrative in the span of an hour. The intro passage "Prelude" is meticulously crafted to draw the listener into its antiquity, with blazing horns, war drums and the soaring clean choirs that had become a hallmark of Bathory since the late 80s. You can burn Necrolord's artwork into your mind, close your eyes, access headphones and then become a direct participant in Quorthon's Romanticized translation of old. With "Nordland" itself, the appropriate pomp and strength arrives with a thudding, mid-paced metal rhythm and drums that place it aesthetically between the climes of the muscle metal Manowar and the slower, intended swan song of Norwegians Immortal (Sons of Northern Darkness) who themselves owe Bathory a great deal for its influence upon their own career. Folksy dual melodies adorn its crested waves, and Quorthon uses a deeper clean vocal throughout the verses which showcases his own willingness to grow, even if his sum presence is still rough around the edges.

But "Nordland" is also symptomatic of one of the downsides of this extensive work: the lack of appreciable variation through its lengthier tracks. With a duration over 9 minutes, I would have liked to hear more happen in this piece outside of the predictable melodic progressions and the same, studied tempo. The same could be said for other swollen ingredients to the album, like "Foreverdark Woods". Its promising intro sequences features glinting acoustics, mouth harps and pretty much the perfect setup, but once the distortion is introduced you're just hearing the same chords repeatedly, a practice that might have worked in Quorthon's formative shift into the territory (Blood Fire Death), where the darkness and furor of the writing felt so desolate, fresh and hypnotic, but here it's just rather painted by numbers. No surprises wait in store for the listener through any of these longer tracks, and in this they differ from the stories upon which they draw their inspiration.

Really, Nordland is almost exclusively playing it 'safe', a practice treasured by some and trashed by others. Not a deal breaker for me, however, and I do admire that Quorthon has incorporated some faster material here sans resorting to the regrettable thrashing of the mid-90s Octagon. "Broken Sword" has a nice thrust to it courtesy of the driving double bass, as does the brute speed metal introducing "Great Hall Awaits a Fallen Brother", and the pair lends a well needed respite from the slogging pace of the contents leading up to it. Again, especially in the latter piece, Tomas plays with vocal potential, a clean melodic tone applied to the verse. Far from his best singing, but it functions well enough to discern that he's not a total hack, and this is the best of the longer pieces on the album, though it too only experiences a few shifts in tempo and could easily have been better packed. Shorter tracks like "Vinterblot" and "Mother Earth Father Thunder" don't suffer as much from the lack of variation, but they're really just covering the familiar ground of Blood On Ice and Twilight of the Gods without offering much embellishment.

Special mention should be made for "Ring of Gold", one of Bathory's best pure folk songs since the anthem "Hammerheart", and the acoustic guitars and vocal arrangements here feel lush and absorbing against the sparse samples in the background. In general, I find Nordland to be very well produced, rich and atmospheric, emblematic of Quorthon's mastery of this particular style. The drums don't suffer from the offsetting splash effect on Blood On Ice, and the mix is rich on various layers of depth, where Twilight of the Gods was perhaps an inkling too clean. There is a sense of airy fulfillment here which is sure to sate fans of those albums, and I think it's the best effort from Bathory beyond the year 1990, but not necessarily in contention with his rabidly influential works in the first 5-6 years. More of the same, perhaps 'too much' more, but a solid foundation for an hour of daydreaming that holds up after a decade.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (this land and heaven, forever tied)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Massive Assault - Death Strike (2012)

Massive Assault is another one of those outsider bands who truly draws upon the Swedish old school roots to the extent that their own nationality (Dutch) becomes moot. Death Strike transports its prospective audience straight back to the 1988-1990 period, when bands like Nihilist/Entombed, Carnage and Dismember were approaching liftoff with their early recordings, and creatively they do not deviate far from the path. Perhaps there is a stronger punk and hardcore influence circa Discharge than a Left Hand Path or Like an Ever Flowing Stream, certainly more than a lot of the comparable upstarts you'll hear these days, but vocally and structurally these guys stick with what works, both to their credit and detriment.

A thick coat of fuzz is applied to the guitars, sort of the Sunlight style beefed up, and it totally churns up the ear canals, working as intended. The vocals have a rather brute edge to them redolent of the usual suspects like L-G Petrov or Ola Lindgren, perhaps a bit less impressive in the range and timbre of their delivery, but efficient enough. As early as the first track, "Driven Towards Death", you get a real feel for that punk influence I had mentioned, especially in that melodic riff around 2:40 which a sliver of indie rock gleam, but this is of course balanced off with far rougher guitar progressions, in particular a nice, dense tremolo picked sequence threaded in the verses. Other tracks like "Cycle of Violence" and "Finished Sympathy" have some pretty sick breakdowns, the former in which the drums cut out to heighten the impact and tone of the main riff, and the latter more of a mosh fueled, slower groove that keeps on thrashing for the majority of the playtime. These are tempered with a few slower, crushers reminiscent of Obituary like "Dismal Life" or some straight shots of late 80s death like "Chained".

There is certainly a huge range of acts currently deployed in this field, and Massive Assault writes with a sense of confidence and competence comparable to many of their contemporaries, possibly with a marginal increase in variation. That said, the band isn't quite so dark, heavy and crushingly potent as what a Tormented or Miasmal brings to the game, and I'd place them more alongside Swedes Mr. Death in overall style, or perhaps Mordbrand and Brutally Deceased, two other European bands abroad inspired by those same root Swedish influences. Death Strike is a fun enough record for a few spins, and I dig the loyal adherence to the old guitar tone and pungent production, but ultimately I felt like it had no lasting effect, just another familiar carcass thrown upon an overstocked heap of bands seeking a similar fortune through a loyal adherence to and abuse of their influences. Didn't love it, but certainly didn't hate it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]


Waning - The Human Condition (2012)

In a world where drifting, melodic post-black metal acts are all the rage of late, it's practically offensive to me that Swedes Waning have not garnered more attention for their curious take on the style. Why spend the time and energy absorbing monotonous, effortless paeans to emptiness like the recent Lantlôs or Altar of Plagues releases when there is something so much more vibrant and effective just around the corner? Population Control was a promising lattice of compact drums, huge swaths of guitar tone and an almost organic influx of nihilistic urban-industrial subtext that permeated both the lyrics and composition; and it's successor, The Human Condition does it proud, if anything broadening the scope of the unsung quintet.

The guitars are kept simple, brazen and loud through cuts like "Beneath a Septic Sun", "Void" and "Continuum", presenting a cautious balance of consonance and dissonance while they wreak emotional trauma upon the audience. Virile melodic strains will often manifest off the primary thrust of the chords, but the careful threading of the bass against the dominant riffs creates a curious level of warmth and immersion, almost as if one were glimpsing out through a fluid womb to the blinding penetration of sunlight. Waning plays a lot with the tempo of beats, so that even a more straight ahead, driving riff is given an almost mechanical variation beneath, but the best parts of The Human Condition arrive when all of the varying instruments condense into some saddening contemporary black/doom passage like the bridge of the title track, through which tremolo picked guitars careen like crashing tears until the drums drop and create the bright, droning apparition of a climax.

Another contributor to the atmosphere is the vocal presence, which proves dynamic enough that no two tracks sound quite alike. Many feature the massive, drowning black rasp expected of the modern black metal genre, but then you've got a piece like the excellent "Through Fields of Mercury" in which a more somber, bitter tone is used to set up the more barbaric snarl. I could definitely make out an almost post-2000 Katatonia influence to the compositions, only this group embeds the dreamy, depressive riffing into a louder skeletal mechanism redolent of bands as widespread as Thorns, Neurosis, Void and Thralldom. The Human Condition doesn't haunt you from the woodlands, or harry you from antiquity, but it boldly screams at you from the surrounding, suffocating walls of brick, steel and plastic of the dystopia so many of us find ourselves lost in. It's abrasive and yet strangely calming, as if just knowing its pains are alive in your synapses is a comfort, and to that extent, I would place it just inches beyond its predecessor in terms of achievement and quality. Worth hearing.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]


Bathory - Destroyer of Worlds (2001)

Destroyer of Worlds is an aural exhibition of an important, almost constantly evolving artist who had at long last firmly settled into a particular style, or rather two particular styles, and thus it bears some striking similarities to both the past Bathory canons of the glorious Hammerheart, Twilight of the Gods and Blood On Ice Viking heavy metal trilogy, and the sodden and boring thrash that Quorthon thought for some reason he'd dial in during the mid 90s. The roots of both are set in the grimier blackness of Quorthon's youth, but now structurally manifest through either an emphasis on soaring male choirs, lead guitars reminiscent of the slower Manowar fare, and simplistic riffs that do not exactly inspire outside of their presentation as an atmospheric component; or in lame duck, barreling thrash rhythms that seem effectively pedestrian in intent and impact.

The problems I ran into with this album stem largely from its clear division of content. If one were to glance back at the discography, nothing here is necessarily new or out of place, but there is a crippling inconsistency to how the album flows as a whole. Sorrowful, plodding sequences like "Ode" or "Destroyer of Worlds" provide nostalgia for Hammerheart or Twilight of the Gods, but then you've got the clear delineation between that and a piece like "Death from Above", which while not as miserable as, say, Octagon, is at best fueled by mediocrity, cliche and a guitar riff that some random groove/thrash bar band in 1994 might have thrown together at a moment's notice. To Quorthon's credit, he at least tries to create a bridge between these two forces, this ying and yang: you'll hear some atmosphere, distant synths and such in a few of the thrash bits, but then you've got others like "Liberty and Justice" or the pure groove shite "Sudden Death" which amount to nothing more than massive crap stains over any potential the album might have woven.

Destroyer of Worlds is in dire need of a clipping, so swelled is it with middling content, so teemed with tripe. Not only the 6-7 shoddy bludgeoning thrashers (which, in addition to those mentioned include "109", "Pestilence", and the darker and mildly less annoying "Krom"); but also a few of the more spacious, drawn out pieces. For example, the 8+ minute closers "White Bones" and "Day of Wrath" seem rather dull and bloated: the former impregnated with some pedantic groove metal rhythms in the bridge, the latter for its almost Pink Floyd like progression and inane self-referential lyrics in the third verse. You know you're really running out of ideas when this happens, and this is yet another flaw with Destroyer. It retreads numerous prior trends in Quorthon's composition, but it offers no superior or even interesting slant on any of them...

I'm not willing to entirely throw this album under the bus. It's more of a weak and confused effort than one actively terrible, but at its best, even songs like "Ode", "Lake of Fire" and the title track are underwhelming, average shadows of past glories. The album never feels as if it's transitional, whereas just about every important step of the past felt exciting and revolutionary. Many other bands had by this point taken up the Norse mythos crown conceptually (Enslaved, Amon Amarth etc), so it makes sense that Quorthon was no longer exclusively focused there lyrically, but despite the broader prose, the music itself is not reflective of such expansion. The production values are fairly level throughout, the boxy and dense guitar tone and vocals being consistent even when he's shifting ranges, but as an album it feels both redundant and conflicted, indecisive about the next steps and thus suckling at the teat of prior missteps and majesties.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]
(encased in lead and steel)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bathory - Katalog (2001)

This is one of those perplexing releases that reeks of 'you have got to be fucking kidding me'. Just a few short years after Bathory had finished producing the largely useless Jubileum compilations, they go ahead and release ANOTHER. Katalog is your standard cash cow collection featuring entirely re-issued material. There are 11 tracks culled from the 10 studio albums (including the latest, Destroyer of Worlds), and presumably the intent was to con some young sucker into purchasing this as a 'sampler' of what to buy and experience next. Katalog was initially intended to be a promotional device only, so I assume it was meant for radio stations, zines or shops, but it was eventually decided to produce it in a commercial format.

The only way this works is as some sort of case study on the various transformations wrought through Bathory's career, but even then it's not worth the $.02, since you could just as easily build your own mix CD or shuffle your .mp3 playlist and achieve the same results. You'd assume each selection is meant to best represent the particular album it was initially released upon, but fuck if that's the case for the crappy Octagon ("War Supply") or average Requiem ("Distinguish to Kill"), which don't necessarily have good, at least not great songs. From the earlier archives, we get "Armageddon" (Bathory, 1984), "Possessed" (The Return..., 1985), "Enter the Eternal Fire" (Under the Sign of the Black Mark, 1987), a medley of "Odens Ride Over Nordland/A Fine Day to Die" (Blood Fire Death, 1988) and "One Rode to Asa Bay" (Hammerheart, 1990). All are good choices, but at the same time, more poignant when listened to in their native environment. Rounding out the track list are "Lake of Fire" from their new (for the time) effort Destroyer of Worlds, "The Woodwoman" from Blood On Ice and "Twilight of the Gods" from the album of the same name, plus another of the band's dingy, brief outros, a useless inclusion.

And that's it. No unreleased material, strong remixes or re-recordings, etc. Had this been a bonus disc included with Destroyer of Worlds (dropping "Lake of Fire"), it might have proved a sweet little perk aimed at younger fans who were not familiar with the band's legacy, but as a standalone product it's shit. Might as well just procure an envelope, stuff some cash or a check in it and send off to Black Mark Production asking for nothing in return. In the end, this is just as void of worth as those Lake of Tears compilations Black Mark churned out in 2004.

Verdict: Epic Fail [0/10]

Bathory - Jubileum Vol. III (1998)

Because two near worthless Jubileum compilations were not enough, it was decided that a third be released 5 years later to incorporate material from Quorthon's mid-90s identity crisis circa Requiem and Octagon. Now, I'm not quite sure why such albums, the first quite mediocre and the latter downright awful would warrant such a treatment. Any masochist who was interested in such letdowns could surely just purchase them at barely double the cost, and there are no 'greatest hits' to be had in either case. The refinished songs included here from Blood On Ice had been so recently given an official album release that they also had no pressing need for a reprint, and they are so stylistically jarring to the content from the previous two full lengths that this is by far the most inconsistent of the comps.

Jubileum Vol. III presents one hour of material, 9 of its 15 tracks previously released through the 90s. From Requiem (1994), we get "War Machine", "Pax Vobiscum" and "Crosstitution"; from Octagon (1995) "Immaculate Pinetreeroad #930", "Sociopath" and "33 Something"; and from the entirely different Blood On Ice we've got "The Lake", "The Stallion" and "Gods of Thunder of Wind and of Rain". Not an an impressive roster by any standards, though I favor the last three simply because they are part of Quorthon's return to common sense, and the Norse themes he had begun to explore upon the masterwork Blood Fire Death. Even then, though, these are far better experienced on the full-length album with their neighbors, almost out of place among the more boring, straightforward thrashers. So in other words, about 60% of this collection is a rehash of null value.

We are left with the unreleased material, which hails from all over the spectrum. "Satan My Master" is the best of the lot, a pure grimy speed/black metal track from the s/t debut years which has eventually developed into one of their most popular classic tracks (covered by a large number of the bands they've influenced). Not that it's really one of their best, but the riffs are pure honest bludgeoning with Quorthon's rasp splattered all over them, and almost a punk undercurrent in the bass and chords. Another oldie called "Witchcraft" is here, a nice savage rush of gnarled speed with scintillating guitars, though the vocal bark is a bit repressed in the mix. "In Nomine Satanas" was the original incarnation of the track "Bond of Blood" which was later recorded for Twilight of the Gods, but obviously the subject matter was changed. I rather like this raw interpretation, but it's not cool enough that I'd go out of my way for it. Other than these, we're treated to an alternate vocal take on "Valhalla" (Hammerheart); and a pair of mediocre mid paced groove/thrashers in "Resolution Greed" and "Genocide" which probably didn't make it to the miserable Octagon and wouldn't have helped if they had.

In short, not a lot worth a damn, and I once again am left baffled as to why the rarer demo and cult tracks from all three of the Jubileum releases weren't just gathered in one place. Instead, Boss and Quorthon must have felt we all owed them another 30-50 dollars for next to nothing. Comparatively, Jubileum Vol. III might have more unreleased material than either of the earlier compilations, but as a collection of music of note, it pretty much sucks a bone. Better to listen to "Satan My Master" and "Witchcraft" elsewhere and save the scratch.

Verdict: Fail [3.5/10]

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Nominon - Manifestation of Black EP (2011)

Nominon were one of those Swedish acts barely filling out their death metal diapers when countrymen like Entombed and Dismember were already establishing names for themselves, and yet the fact that their existence dates back to 1993 puts them well ahead of the hordes of Left Hand Path wannabes we've heard in recent years. To date, they've produced a number of solid full length efforts like Diabolical Bloodshed (1999) and Recremation (2005) which provide the same tangible excitement as their forefathers, without seeming like 100% derivatives. To supplement their four albums, they've issued a number of short player EPs through their history, the latest of which is Manifestation of Black through their latest imprint, Deathgasm Records.

Obviously the value here is somewhat confined due to its brevity, but for what it's worth, the title track is one of the best the band has written in some years, with solid tremolo riffing and unbridled, demonic energy redolent of some of the heavier Dismember records. The tones are not a far cry from their most recent full-length Monumentomb: grimy and muddy distortion which leans more towards an organic representation than a heavily polished one, immediately creating an inherent, murky darkness that honors its title. "Burnt Human Offering" follows suit, not a hell of a lot more charming than the first track but fully consistent in style, and I do like the thrashing impulses buried near its aft. The drums and guitars here are quite rich, the bass appropriately dense and shadowing the rest of the mix, while the latest vocalist Henke Skoog gives a ghoulish performance that would make L-G Petrov and Matti Kärki proud.

All told, you're only getting about 8-9 minutes of new music here, and who can tell if it's going to be included also on their next full-length (their last EP, Omen, was not exactly bristling with exclusive material). I wouldn't reach for this over Nominon's first three albums, but it's decent and gritty old school death metal from one of Sweden's longest lived devotees of the form, and it has only to contend with its own shortness of breath.

Verdict: Win [7/10]


Bathory - Blood on Ice (1996)

By the latter portion of the mid 90s, Quorthon was in desperate need of a turnaround, as his once mighty Bathory institution seemed to be unraveling at its seams; his writing devolved into phoned in, dull thrash and groove metal which wouldn't have sufficed even a decade before its release, when the genre was still shaping up. I just don't see the appeal in creating a bold new genre of music, like the Norse themed folk-tinted metal that he manifest and progressed through the trio of Blood Fire Death, Hammerheart and Twilight of the Gods, and then sputtering out into something more pedestrian like Octagon, or Quorthon's grunge rock solo records, but thank fuck the man would come to his senses and return to the Viking path.

Granted, Blood On Ice was not a remarkable return to form. In fact, it wasn't even necessarily a new album, but enough of the content had been restored and supplemented from the original writing and recordings in 1988-89 that it feels like at least a sidereal movement from Twilight of the Gods. Originally, it would have served as a bridge between Blood Fire Death and its follower Hammerheart, and structurally, it's a lot like the latter. A lot of glorious, open passages guided by cleaner, layered vocals, with a handful of brief, folksy acoustic sequences ("Man of Iron", "The Ravens") to break up the more substantial bulk of the heavy metal tunes. Curiously, while I've never been the biggest fan of his cleaner vocal presence, Quorthon sounds admittedly tauter and more professional on some of these cuts than anything he'd done to their day (in 1995), and a few of the softer segments lend credibility that the guy could have written a pure folk record and built up a following that way.

Tunes like "Blood On Ice", "The Woodwoman" and "The Lake" rely heavily on their atmosphere just as much as Twilight of the Gods, so Bathory was continuing to move away from the central guitars so important to the first five records, instead writing riffs to support the woeful choirs of winter depression and unrest. But where this all comes together, like the acoustic sequence at around 3:50 in "The Woodwoman" or the enthusiastic canter of "Gods of Thunder of Wind and of Rain" which feels like Neil Young astride a long ship, you're getting a solid experience worthy at least of it's chronological predecessor Twilight of the Gods, if nowhere near as poignant and crushing as his seminal works in the style. There are some problems with the production, for instance the cheesy slap of the snare drum in "Blood On Ice", but in general, for something that was recorded and reworked from two different periods of Quorthon's career, it comes together fluidly.

My favorite tune here is surprisingly the expansive closer "The Revenge of the Blood on Ice", which more than any other places my psyche upon the same cold, battlestained vistas of the 1988-1990 material, and Bathory had long possessed a rare ability to write lengthy songs that incessantly draw the listener into their depths (since "Enter the Eternal Fire"). However, there is a bit of derivation and excess familiarity. For example, you'll hear a VERY familiar drum beat in the bridge of this piece, and a lot of the soothing, structured choir vocals feel as if they were just lifted from and slightly tweaked from Hammerheart. That said, compared to Octagon, this feels so enormously inspired, from the beautiful cover image to the obvious amount of effort Tomas placed in its salvage and reconstructive surgery. Rather than continue to crash along for another decade (aka Metallica), the Swede seems to have recognized his errors and righted them before they could run quickly out of control. Blood On Ice is not one of his best, but it comes near to compensation for the lackluster comps and albums that he'd been spewing forth since 1991.

Verdict: Win [7/10]
(long tall beautiful people fallen lifeless to the ground)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Pharaoh - Bury the Light (2012)

How does one surpass what might arguably be considered the best melodic US power metal album of the 21st century to date? Be Gone was just such a piece, an effort of impeccable craftsmanship in its gleaming guitar architecture, tonal mastery and the pinnacle of Tim Aymar's balance of fragility and focused fire. Composition that drew equally from 80s power, speed and progressive titans like Fates Warning, Omen, Helstar, Savage Grace, yet brewed it into a modern froth of finesse and accessibility. How do you top it? Or, more accurately, how do you live up to it? In the case of Bury the Light, Pharaoh's fourth full-length, you continue forging along the same path, with the same standard for memorable hooks and rhythmic versatility, and prove once and for all that you're not a band capable of dishing out anything less than your best.

No, it's not quite so inspiring and flawless as Be Gone, but Bury the Light is still likely to go down as one of the best albums of its type in this or any other year beyond the brilliant 80s. I felt as if there was an even heavier technical thrash influence circa Heathen or Paradox in the riffs of tracks like "The Wolves" and "The Spider's Thread", and the overall atmosphere through the 9 tracks seems somewhat darker and moodier, but it's hard to deny the traditional flair of straight drivers like "Burn With Me" which can counter the rush of power chords with elegant muted dual melodies, transient leads and an incredible level of skill. Guitarist Matt Johnsen is simply a force with his instrument, and he performs in a clinical yet beautiful style that waxes both an absurd level of precision and an ear for flinging the listener into the vortex of majesty and sorrow that defines the pensive lyrical vistas. Next to his prowess, the rhythm duo of Chrises Kerns and Black has its work cut out for it, but the pair matches every calculated shift in tempo and exudes an aura of professional complexity that you just don't hear among others in this field...

Pharaoh is one of the few metal acts recording today which gleans the genre's possibilities for the future instead of miring itself solely in the past. Thus, while you might feel familiarity for the traditional, beloved power anthem in a piece like "Castles in the Sky", there is no escaping how 'current' it feels, how snappy and adventurous and void of stagnation. Johnsen's myriad melodies cascade about the album's atmosphere like drops of crystal rain colliding into one another. The aesthetics of illumination and tragedy are inescapable, and yet the rugged, multifaceted edge of Aymar's delivery grounds the material in a way that some wimpier, traditional Kiske or Tate like screamer simply wouldn't do. There is a light at the end of this tunnel. This music still matters. There is hope yet for the eventuality of this oft ailing, laurel resting genre, and its agent provocateurs are a bunch of old schoolers from Pennsylvania who prove, once again, unwilling to let nostalgia alone control their collective voice.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]


Bathory - Octagon (1995)

Oh, those 90s. Nearly every metal artist of credibility running smack dab into an identity crisis, trying to decide whether he or she should 'go with the flow' or stick to his or her guns. Strangely, Quorthon is not an individual whom I would have expected to succumb to such follies, but yet Octagon stands as another bitter pill to swallow, and the absolute low point for the career of Bathory. Down from the mountains of the late 80s, to the sea level of Requiem and now fully submerged in mediocre riffing and writing, disposable vocals and elements that the Viking or black metal connoisseur of Quorthon's fan bast must have found tasteless and confusing. I can only speak from my own experience, but this album was an immediate shelfer, and if I hadn't been so materially inclined to collect the band's whole legacy, grounds for an immediate return.

Don't be fooled by the eight-pointed parallel to the pentagram on the cover, or the traditional font used in the logo here, this is NOT the Bathory you'd grown accustomed to and not something Quorthon has or will ever be recognized for, outside of the obvious chinks in his armor that it represented. I've seen a lot of tell about how this is the groove/nu-metal Bathory record, and while it drifts closer to that clime than any other, it's more of a failed attempt at modern and grimy thrash redolent of what Slayer were doing post-Seasons in the Abyss. You might catch hints of similar structures to those used by Machine Head, System of a Down or other tripe emerging out of the 90s, but Slayer is the perfect comparison for Octagon, since there are a number of riffs here that seem pulled directly from the Hanneman/King playbook. For example, the descending thrash rush in the opener "Immaculate Pinetreeroad #930". The mix of grooves and primal thrashing in "Psychopath" or the bridge of "Schizianity". Or how about the vocal architecture in "Sociopath"? Ring any of hell's bells?

Nothing is straight lifted, of course, but I felt as bored and irritated by this album as I had been underwhelmed by a Divine Intervention or directly appalled by Diabolus in Musica. It's not that Octagon wholly lacks a personality, or a few 'experimental' touches. For instance, there are a lot of dissonant passages embedded in the guitars, or stolid and raw post Helhammer grooves in tunes like "Born to Die" or "Schizianity", but the riffs are almost without exception predictably patterned to the point of no return. Not one charming, resonant vocal line or memorable guitar progression exists throughout the entire play length, and even when songs like "War Supply" embellish the neanderthal thrashing with noisier, infected atmospheres it still feels no more entertaining than a taut morning struggle on the toilet after a few bowls of bowel sluicing fiber heavy cereal. The only song here I can't say I totally hate is the moody, mid paced "Century" slugger which sounds like Hellhammer and 90s Slayer in a circle stroke. But it's not good, either...

The album ends with a cover of "Deuce" from KISS, but in all honestly this sounds nothing like any other track on the entire album. A straight hard rock version with slightly more crushing guitar production and Quorthon's wild, slathering rasped vocals, but contextually it doesn't fit in with the remainder of Octagon. By extension, Octagon doesn't fit in or belong to the remainder of Bathory's discography. Not because it incorporates unwelcome, unimpressive groove metal elements or terrible lyrics in tracks like "Psychopath" that feel like something an angsty teen would pen after being the last picked for volleyball teams in Phys. Ed class, but because it just fucking sucks. The songwriting is lamentable, the vocals pathetic, and all the lofty ambitions of previous (and later) albums are rubbed into the mire of contemporary industry driven revolt.

Requiem might have been the first case in which a Bathory album failed to inspire me to set someone or something on fire, or dream of the Eddas, but Octagon was the first and only that I want to run over with my fucking car. It's not clever, it's not funny, it's not interesting and it's nowhere near acceptable.

Verdict: Fail [2.75/10] (this is my fucking despair)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Blind Guardian - Memories of a Time to Come (2012)

Interestingly enough, Blind Guardian has only smacked us once in the past with a compilation, and that was The Forgotten Tales in 1996, a gathering of odds, ends, covers and alternate versions that were previously only available on import singles and such. In fact, that collection was itself not domestically released at the time and I had to import it, but at least I was satisfied that I did not own much of the content. Well, that time has rolled around again, and once more the German power metal legends have satisfied this critic in that they show some due concern for their fans receiving a degree of value from what might have otherwise been a worthless repressing and reconfiguring of tracks to cash in on redundantly on their considerable, prior success.

No, most of the tracks here have at least been 'remixed'. Brightened and adjusted to meet the sleeker, 'modern' visage that Middle Earth's most lovable bards have presented on their latest studio full length At the Edge of Time. There's not a massive difference, in my opinion, and I doubt I'd ever spin this collection over the original incarnations, but the vocals in cuts like "This Will Never End" and "Imaginations from the Other Side" sound slightly more fulfilling in their presence, and the mix of the guitars less squeaky and distraught, a factor that was fortunately never enough to entirely curb my enjoyment of the albums in the first place. In other places, though, like "Follow the Blind" the vocals seem a bit wavier in quality, so to hear them so much more to the fore is not necessarily a positive thing. But at least Blind Guardian managed to add SOMETHING to the tracks, so for better or worse, they're not precisely the same.

The problem is that they've pulled off a bit of a 'dick move' reminiscent of Iced Earth's Days of Purgatory collection, where there were different versions available with varying degrees of content. Personally, I'm not fond of this practice, here or in video games or DVD sets or really anywhere. My opposition is not from a pure capitalist standpoint; clearly an individual can discern what he or she is purchasing in advance and make the choice to buy the better product. It just seems arbitrary and wasteful not to give all your fans the same amount of content, or to even waste whatever raw materials are essential to bother printing up separate products when it might save a whole lot of time and effort just to give everyone the full monty. For Memories of a Time to Come, this comes in the form of a third disc incorporated to the 'deluxe super special magnificent elite wonderful' edition, which features 70 additional minutes of content over 15 fucking tracks. Consider that Discs 1 and 2 are only around 51 minutes each, and then realize just how much you'll be screwed if you don't buy the deluxe version...

Obviously, I recommend that anyone who is actually interested in this would buy the fuller, more expensive and expansive version, because who knows if they'll just cave in and make it all available in some later pressing, and there's just so much more bulk to it. Great tracks like "Time What is Time", "A Past and Future Secret", "Lost in the Twilight Hall" and "The Script for My Requiem" are compiled there plus a few rarities like "Brian" from their 1989 live/demo promotional release, or "Dead of the Night" and "Lucifer's Heritage" from their Symphonies of Doom demo when they were actually called Lucifer's Heritage. In fact, that whole demo is here on the extra disc and it's been tweaked. But then, I don't really care for any of those particular cuts, they showcase a much rawer band in which Hansi has only the slightest trace of ability that he would later adapt into renown. The few tracks that Blind Guardian decided to fully re-record for this release were quite surprising. There's a good, heavy version of "The Bard's Song" which I love a lot more than the wimpier, acoustic versions that have long numbered as some of my least favorite content in their whole catalog. Ditto for "And Then There Was Silence".

Does Memories of a Time to Come justify the 30 beans (US) that you'll likely drop for it? That really depends if you have a huge problem with the production of their earlier records. It's not as you're getting a full remix of their discography, but the mix of oldies and from their early speed power metal years and somewhat more recent fare is interesting. A lot of favorites have been omitted like "Journey Through the Dark" and "Time Stands Still (at the Iron Hill)", and I just don't see myself desiring this experience when I could just listen to the originals and experience the full breadth of Somewhere Far Beyond, Nightfall in Middle-Earth, etc. This is a lovely package with a great looking cover, and I do appreciate the fully re-recorded versions, but it just depends how much money you wanna throw at the Germans, and how much you really need to hear the same songs with edited production. If you DO get it, though, don't waste your money on the normal two-disc version, or you'll just regret it.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]