Monday, February 27, 2012

Exciter - Heavy Metal Maniac (1983)

The sudden manifestation of a popular Exciter: The Story of Exciter documentary notwithstanding, Ontario's speed metal stalwarts are likely to go down in history as one of the longest surviving and little evolving acts in all the metallic canon to never quite get its due. They formed up in the late 70s, first as Hell Razor and later the Priest inspired Exciter, with an emphasis on the then-forward thinking sounds being popularized in both the English scene by Sabbath, Motörhead and the aforementioned Judas Priest, and riding the influence of North American hard rock circa KISS or Van Halen to a new level of aggression and 'excitement' well ahead of comparable Canadian legends like Anvil and Razor.

Thanks to an ironic yet important appearance on Shrapnel Records' seminal U.S. Metal Vol II LP, the band was able to sow its spikes and seeds into the minds of a broader fanbase here and overseas, and thus the full-length Heavy Metal Maniac was born, once more under the tasteful and sadly unsung Mike Varney and Shrapnel. More or less a re-skinning of their WWIII Heroes demo, it proved one of the more exciting North American speed/heavy metal albums in a year that produced Metallica's masterful Kill 'Em All, Manowar's Into Glory Ride, Anvil's Forged in Fire and Dokken's Breaking the Chains, but failed to catch on beyond the core audience for the style. Leather, studs, blood, knives and Marshall amplifiers were certainly eye catchers for the metal consumer of the day, but Exciter lacked the same level of sophistication that several of their peers were evoking, and perhaps their riffs and choruses didn't resonate quite so far...

But despite these setbacks, the debut insured the band's ability to perform and promote itself, and generated enough buzz within the industry that they secured further label support through Megaforce Records out of New York. Heavy Metal Maniac was not actually my first exposure to the band (I came into their sound through a cassette dub of Violence & Force), but in retrospect it's a fine album for its style and one that miraculously holds up nearly 30 years after its initial release. There's something genuine, dark, impulsive and testosterone fueled about this sort of record that seems to transcend time and age, perhaps not to the Arctic Monkeys crowd whose impression of 80s heavy metal is none other than the condescending hipster mockery that VH1's tragic popular video recycling and Metalocalypse taught them, but for those of us who were there and cared, or the newer generation of gateway trad metal fan that actually gives a damn.

Exciter was also cool in that they possessed one of those rare power trio configurations in which the drummer also doubled as the vocalist. Dan Beehler had a rabid, workmanlike, down to earth tone saturated with just the right amount of delay that cut out across the density of the guitar riffing. Never so refined or piercing as a Rob Halford or Joe Elliott, he generally hung about a mid range, but was still capable of a strident screech where it counted. In truth, I found his meter and delivery a bit similar to Bobby 'Blitz' Ellsworth' of Overkill on his earlier records like Feel the Fire and Taking Over, only not so violently wild, biting and infectious. That said, Beehler's kit skills were quite effective, whether laying into the slow Sabbath grooves of "Iron Dogs" or the more standard speed metal mid-pacing you'll encounter on most of the cuts like "Stand Up and Fight", "Under Attack" and "Cry of the Banshee". A bit tinnier in the mix than some might appreciate, but remember that this was essentially a demo tape and the Canadians were far from possessing an enormous studio budget.

Beehler is joined here by the other founding members, bassist Alan Johnson and guitarist John Ricci, the latter of whom many will recognize as the long standing spokesman and 'face' for the band, excepting Unveiling the Wicked (1986) and the s/t (1988) on which he had taken a brief departure from the lineup. Johnson approaches his lines with a festive, plum-picking thickness that he loads with grooves and fills. Sometimes he's doing his own thing, as heard in the intro piece "The Holocaust", but other times he's more or less creating a corpulent doppelganger to the rhythm guitar, especially in the faster riffs for tracks like "Mistress of Evil". As for Ricci, he's got a very obvious, weighted tone redolent of Black Sabbath, yet even more blue collar and raw, thriving on the a vivacious undercurrent of savagery rather than a miserable, gloomy din. One certainly hears a lot of punk in the chord constructions, a dash of Motörhead, but he's not afraid to implement brief, controlled dashes over higher strings, or a Van Halen-esque flange ("Heavy Metal Maniac") to create added depth.

The leads, on the other hand, seem entirely out of control, almost as if they were often improvised or squeezed in as an afterthought to various non-vocal sequences. For example, the solo in "Stand Up and Fight", while perfectly constrained to the bridge sequence, doesn't really stand out to my memory. But this was a symptom of much speed metal or thrash, used both to its detriment and success, and like everything else here, really goes with the times. Otherwise, Heavy Metal Maniac has a great pacing and structure. "The Holocaust" serves as a desolate, windy opener that cedes to the red rocket punch of "Stand Up and Fight", and for every few upbeat tracks they'll interject a slower piece like the potent "Iron Dogs" or the power ballad "Black Witch" so the listener doesn't ever feel like he's being clubbed in the face by the same tempo repeatedly.

There are unquestionably a few points here where the riffs seem a bit derivative of their more obvious influences. For instance, the pre-chorus chords in "Heavy Metal Maniac" feel like a ramped up "Detroit Rock City", and a few progressions seem as if they were paraphrased from various Sabbath and Priest predecessors, even if the same could be said of nearly anyone. Yet as the band themselves hint in one of the sweet 1982 audio interviews included with the 2005 Megaforce reissue, they were never bent on reinventing the wheel so much as regreasing it and dialing up the volume while they ran over the crowd. The only song here I can honestly say I don't enjoy to some degree is "Black Witch", primarily because Beehler's delivery of several of the lyrics is goofier than usual, and even where it picks up to a Sabbath like slower heaviness the guitars are admittedly boring. But everything else works damned well, including the bonus tracks "World War III" (from their U.S. Metal II appearance) and "Evil Sinner" with its gleaming intro harmonics and some impressive, sustained screaming via Dan Beehler.

Ultimately, Heavy Metal Maniac is not offering Kill 'Em All or Piece of Mind levels of quality and craftsmanship, nor is it even the best of Exciter's backlog, but it's a good example of its class that, to the proper ears, will sound just as refreshing as as it did in the mid-80s. To some extent, I feel that this band has never really attempted to tax itself aesthetically. They're quite content with their chosen sound and through their ten full-length albums (to date), have offered us only slight variations that generally coincide with the various lineup changes. But it's not as if we were short on innovators in this or any spectrum, and something can be said for the consistency of vision these Canadians cling to. Whether for a single night of passionate, headbanging release, or a completely leather-bound lifestyle, there's always going to be a time and place to experience music like this: and when you are ready, so too is Heavy Metal Maniac, waiting to embrace you with amplified enthusiasm.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (stand back)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Centurion - Serve No One (2012)

I can't think of a stronger example of anti-Christian symbolism than that of a Roman soldier, so Poland's Centurion is aptly dubbed to accompany their lyrical heresy. One of that scene's lesser known death metal acts, they've been around since the late 90s, releasing one full-length in 2002 (Conquer & Rule), and now a decade later they've finally formulated a proper sophomore. I've never listened to the earlier material, and thus have no foundation for which I might track their development, but Serve No One is a grand example of just how formidable the Polish underground has become, that it can turn out second or even third tier outfits with such competent and muscular fundamentals. Not that I found the album to be all that amazing, but its primary detriment is simply that feeling that it's all been done so often, and often better in the past, that Centurion doesn't quite stand out from the grotesque hordes.

These gentlemen cover a lot of the ground that can be traced straight back to Floridian forebears Morbid Angel and Deicide. The former in that they most often structure their songs around a blasting framework similar to that of Pete Sandoval circa Altars of Madness or Covenant, and the latter due to both the mix of guttural and snarled vocals, and the alternated chugging and bursting mechanics that populate a number of the tracks here. There were a few brief hints of late 80s Pestilence in the octave riffing force of "Thy Portal", but otherwise they stick to the two titans above. This is not unusual for the bands in Poland, of course, and successful groups like Behemoth, Vader and Hate have built off this formula for decades, but unfortunately Centurion doesn't always succeed in crafting the most memorable and athletic of riffs to accompany the unbridled momentum. A few cuts like "Ego Ultimus" are strong throughout, and they do occasionally manage a surprise like the wedge of slamming chords deep in "Sacrilege", palm muted percussion at the end of "Cut the Throat", or the metallic clanging in the breakdown of the titular finale "No One to Serve", but a number of their punishing peers like opener "Total Terror", "Desecration of the Holy Kingdom" or "Under the Black Banner" flew on past my ears without a lot of staying power.

Would have really loved it if they made a greater use of atmosphere throughout the album, as opposed to just using it in specific locales like the eerie, doomed inauguration to "Gateways to Condemnation", but the majority of the material is centered in on serving as a very workmanlike oblation to their hallowed influences. Centurion is not a flashy band, and they don't indulge in a lot of wild lead work, preferring instead to keep the solos brief and/or atmospheric tremolos that ring out like cries from the depths of Hell that their compositions damn them towards. This was not an issue for me, though, since they prove quite adept at blasting and punctual guitars that effortlessly alternate between brash velocity and brutal muted breaks. The album is held to a restrained and respectable 28 minute length, never repetitious or overwrought to the point that it ever becomes boring, but alas it just never seems to surpass the works of its predecessors and ends up well shy of an essential experience. That said, this is by no means a tactless or banal record, and those who really enjoy the similar sounds of Hate, or (death metal) Behemoth with a preference for Deicide's pure and prosaic lyrical irreverence might get a firm, straightforward headbanging out of it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Secrets of the Moon - Seven Bells (2012)

Secrets of the Moon has always struck me as a rather interesting band, considered one of the artsier black metal exports among the German scene and yet strangely accessible. Their writing seems to hone in on simplistic, tried and trued structures albeit with the level of atmosphere dialed up to ten, and they work best when unleashing slower to mid-paced passages with a crushing resonance. Add to this the curious lack of a viable logo, and the strangely hypnotic covers they use for their albums, often centered around simple photos or objects (last time a black apple, this time an owl), and you've this unique and refreshing approach which seems to strip the black metal genre down to its components and then restructure itself from the primordial muck.

In the past, I've found that their albums marked a rather steady evolution, no two seeming quite alike in scope or tone, but to be honest Seven Bells is not a far hoot from its 2009 Privilegivm, which I have previously both reviewed and enjoyed. A mix of harsh and cleaner, textured vocals are cast out above the driving, churling grooves and mutes that represent the majority of the rhythm guitars, and the band with occasionally explode into a faster brand of polished black in the Scandinavian traditions of Sweden or Norway, as they do with the titular opening track. Add bluesy guitar leads, tolling bells (no surprise), tribal drumming with heavy toms, and you've got an easy intro to darker metal that doesn't seem nearly so volatile as many in the genre, whether that be black or doom. Yet to be honest, I didn't find Seven Bells to be all that interesting when I was outside its grasp. No longing to return under its measured, raptor wingspan. Tunes like "Goathead" and "Nyx" flow along with ominous, doomed grace, the latter even segueing into a tranquil ambient finale, but there are never any riffs that emerge and delight from the overall superstructure...

That said, I cannot fault Secrets for their consistency or pacing here. They know how to build a track up for 7 or even 11 minutes and keep you immersed in where it's going, even if you do not find most of the constituent note progressions all that fulfilling. Perhaps my favorite track on the album was "Worship", as I enjoyed how the tormented ritualistic vocals and ringing melodies just erupts into this hammering juggernaut and then subsides for a ghostlike melody, but it's not at all unpleasant to experience Seven Bells in its wholeness, and the chiming of its namesake does persist throughout the playlist in a conceptual procession of funereal shadows. A decent drift off into the eveningscape, well suited to fans of simpler, crushing works like Triptykon's debut Eparistera Daimones or Celtic Frost's Monotheist. Only change up the vocals, add some bells, and chop off a few of the grooves. Dense, but not impenetrable, nocturnal musings. The clean catharsis of the pendulum in swing.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Pandemonium - Misanthropy (2012)

I admit I don't know a lot about this 20+ year, long-term Polish extremity's early work, either as Pandemonium or their years under the moniker Domain. However, I found their 2007 album Hellspawn to be quite a refreshing hybrid of the black and death metal genres which harbored a peculiar, exotic flavor to it. This sense of ethnic and atmospheric worldliness has been carried forward for their latest full-length, simply labeled Misanthropy. We're not talking Therion here, or Hollenthon, but a strong use of female guest vocals, and melodic, arabesque guitar lines that lend an impressive edge to the material which begs for repeated experience. However, even these eclectic tendencies here must take a bow and stand aside for the true star of the album: the intense contrast created by the overbearing and entertaining vocals (both growled and rasped).

Pandemonium focuses on rather simplistic, moody black metal structures but then covers them in this enormous, tortured voices that instantly increase the effectiveness of the riffs below them. Often they'll use a whispered, central drawl and then layer it with rasps on one end and painful growls on the other, but there is this constant, pervasive sense that you're being flanked by a panoply of psychopaths who are warning you of the End of Days, and it's admittedly quite frightening, even if a few aspects like the more repressed rasp-like vocal is nothing innovative. The drumming is loaded, with a lot of muscular mid-paced rhythms driven by brick-like double bass that support the guitars like pillars in hell. There's a surprising level of melody here for a band so dark and oppressive, often culled through the traditional use of tremolo picking but also in the glint of some of the cement chords, and thus tracks like "God Delusion" or "The Black Forest" convey a very full-bodied balance of both torture and obscure beauty. The bass does seem to get a little lost under the staggering weight of the guitars, but it's not inaudible.

It's a little hard to place the band comparatively: I was as often reminded of a usual suspect like Mayhem as I was of the bombast of Finnish bands Barathrum or Ajattara, but inevitably they have something distinct happening here which involves a bit of death metal undercurrent (especially in "Everlasting Opposition") or even some morbid, apocryphal doom drudgery in songs like "Necro Judas". The aforementioned female vocal lines are affixed to the gutturals in "Stones Are Eternal", and create this implacable bazaar of darkness that lurches into a miasma salacious snarling and mighty, grooving guitars that perfectly carry and collapse the mystique. At one point, the vocalist Paul is retching out these resonant gutturals in a sort of percussive pattern which sounds almost like Peter from Vader. Massive and stunning, this is probably the best song on the album and one of the best I've heard lately, almost like a clash between Triptykon and Barathrum with better vocals. But really, the whole album draws you in like a serpent charmer while it lasts. Many of the riffing progressions might not seem that intriguing individually, but Misanthropy as a whole proves a harrowing experience that I'm not like to forget any time soon.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Embrional - Absolutely Anti-Human Behaviors (2012)

I remember Embrional's debut Cusp of Evil from a few years back in 2008. A decent mesh of new and old school influences, with a clear penchant for weaving a good number of instrumentals in through the more brutal fare. The Polish quartet has now returned for a stronger followup in Absolutely Anti-Human Behaviors, which seems more or less like they sent their earlier compositions off to a refinery and then emerged with more memorable results. The cover art here makes this look like a total nostalgia trip, perhaps to some approximation of a black and death metal hybrid, but what actually manifests on the album itself is a solid variety of surgical, semi-technical riffing and influences scattered between the old Dutch and Florida scenes with perhaps a touch of Immolation and early Vader. Ultimately, this sophomore proves that Embrional is well deserving of your attention, if at times the songs are somewhat inconsistent in overall value.

Generally, bands at this level of proficiency and intensity tend towards a more modern polish in the studio, but I must credit Absolutely Anti-Human Behaviors for its more earthen, natural and raw tone. Not void of reasonable clarity, mind you, but the rather organic landscape plays well to the intense skills of the drummer, and the guitars seem to pluck out your spine one vertebrae at a time whether they're crashing along to some dissonance tremolo picked sequence or erupting into this fibrous, creepy melodies above which the gutturals drone on like the ivy encrusted walls of some forsaken tomb being pried ajar (as in the opener, "Possessed by Evil") by corpse robbers. I love the surgical barrage invested into the riffing progressions, alternated between febrile muted mechanical thrashing and surges of old school, abyssal evil. What's more, several of the lead sequences here are incredible, like the early bridge in "The Last Step Into Nothingness" or the fell majesties that permeate "Bestial Torture". Did I mention the drums? Because this guy, Camillvs, is assuredly a beast who must have made some pact with diabolic forces to hit as hard and often as he can...

There are only two instrumentals present, far less than the debut, but both are quite expertly handled. "Necropolis" is chalk full of sensible leads over an old school attack of muted tremolo progressions, while "Beyond the Abyss" is a tasteful, resonant acoustic piece. Neither is quite as brutal or punishing as the rest of the album, but they make for an appreciation 'break in the action' (though the latter might have been placed a little later on the track list for a greater balance). Otherwise, I've got no tangible complaints. The vocals are pretty typical gutturals, but the way they echo alongside the thinner, crisp guitars makes for a lavish, menacing contrast that adds a malevolent breadth to the atmosphere. Once in a while the ruddiness of the guitar texture reminds me Australian oddities Portal, only far more controlled and accessible. I would say that Absolutely Anti-Human Behaviors is well poised to earn the band a wide following: the time is right to strike at this old school, death metal nostalgia, yet Embrional do it without being stupid or a direct derivative of any one sound. Wretched, brutal, and archaic, yet somehow still forward moving and thinking.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Autolatry - Of the Land EP (2012)

So often do I spend aurally roaming metal scenes the world wide and seeking out new (and old) sounds that I very often neglect to pay much attention to what's happening in my own back yard. To be fair, Connecticut is not exactly a stone's throw away from my present haunt in Witch City, Mass, but I still feel a sort of surreal kinship and personal obligation to laud and expose those New England artists who are worthy of attention. Thanks to some initiative from their guitarist Dave, I can now add Autolatry to this number, a quintet which plays a curious blend of progressive black metal that I simply do not hear much from the Northeast area, but possesses all of the potential and professionalism you'll rarely hear in bands with twice or three times the history and experience.

Don't let the minimalism of its song titles or the simple, rustic cover art fool you: Autolatry creates a heavily textured, fairly complex cycle of riffing which is born half of the late 90s Swedish melodic black metal sect of Dissection and Dawn, and half of the more progressive, recent tendencies you'll find in Norwegian bands like Enslaved or Immortal over this last decade. A heavily rasped drawl is slightly echoed and thrust above the driving, woven tremolo rhythms and floods of chords that comprise the guitar patterns, while the drums and bass throttle along with some measure of distinction all to themselves. Though I wouldn't say that the actual vocal timbre is particularly unique in this neck of the woods, the production ensures that they slice through the dense dual melodies like a stainless steel knife through a heavily seasoned gourmet dish. There are thundering passages, like the suffix of the opener "Mountain", in which the lyrics drop out and the drums and guitars go at it like desperate refugees attempting to survive the bite of cold and wind, but I think the process works best when the band surges into its warmer, enormous textures.

Best example of this is the opening riff for "Oak", which is relatively straightforward and recalls mid-period Katatonia or Rapture for how much depth is drawn out of a deceptively simple chord pattern, but once they break into that second sequence of notes it's pure, emotionally leaden paradise with the vocals set at the perfect meter. "Snow" has a similar effect, though it's thrust forth at a charge, with some fibrous explosions of melody once the tremolo guitar joins in for the final moment. "Stag" is another particularly strong piece, though it's cast from a more jamming, progressive rock mold with the guitars freaking out, individually panned to give off a very 'live' and organic atmosphere. Still, the dense production values and the musicianship are incredibly consistent throughout the 20 minutes of the EP, and each of the four tunes feels different enough that they don't seem to be blandly reiterating ideas from one to the next.

Granted, this is not the most morbid and threatening of black metal associated acts. Autolatry will not be winning a gold...err, gray ribbon for grimness anytime soon. If you seek only hatred, necroticism and utter desolation, this might not prove so relevant to your interests. Instead, they seem to have developed their lyrical aesthetics towards the thriving, restless wilderness around them, placing them more directly in a spiritual parallel towards bands of an uplifting, pagan metal nature and a pinch of New England folklore. I haven't heard their 2010 full-length recording, The Hill, so I cannot compare the two releases, but I just can't think of anything else in this region of the US which sounds quite like Autolatry. Not every riff is incredibly memorable, and I wouldn't mind a bit more alternation between the warm and cold tones, maybe some acoustic breaks or cleaner vocals for added variation (though this can grow a bit cliche). Otherwise, the future seems bright here. Fans of the influences listed above, or the heavier sides of other American staples like Woods of Ypres or Agalloch would be wise to check this out, especially as its available as a 'Name Your Price' download through the band's website.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Sphere - Homo Hereticus (2012)

Sphere is another little known Polish death metal entity which has seen about a decade of existence, but one I've encountered before. Their 2007 debut Damned Souls Rituals was a well rounded, if not wholly original effort that boasted some excellent production values and dynamic songwriting. Sadly, it never quite got the exposure that some of the band's countrymen have been receiving in recent years, an unfortunate byproduct of a scene so soaked in talent and potential that it suffers from 'too much of a good thing'. When monsters like Trauma and Lost Soul can't garner much attention, the chances for a band like Sphere to reach a wider audience are just not that high, and it's unfortunate, because they've got just as much to offer as several of the Polish forerunners like Decapitated (who have not written good music in over half a decade) or Behemoth (a solid band, admittedly, but for some reason I prefer their pre-rockstar era when they were still a raw black metal act).

Homo Hereticus picks up where Damned Souls Rituals left off in offering a good deal of variety and taut, intense songwriting which seems to leap right out of the recording and smack you upside the head. There's no direct influence I could cite over any one other, because they draw from a wide variety of brutal USDM, Polish peers and even a steady course of death/thrash that breeds a lot of excitement through the riffing architecture of "Forever Sworn to Blasphemy" or "Third Scent Carcass". Walls of blasting, double bass artillery and steady driving rhythms are soaked in fluid, punchy guitar tones that continuously place their fist in your gut while spikes of arpeggios and atonal melodies provide an extra, subtler dimension. I also enjoyed the ridiculous froglike gutturals that would well up in several spots like oil through virgin soil. In addition, the intros to a lot of tracks like the creepy organ before "Holistic Paralisys" or the keys and choirs that herald the thundering aggression of "Grave's Cold Darkness". These ambient inaugurations contribute to a firmer balance of atmosphere and savagery than one might expect from the tone and construction of the guitar progressions alone, but they also remind me of campy horror B-movies from the 80s which is never a bad thing.

Not all the punches thrown in this melee are equal, though. There were certain cuts here which I felt were less inspired or interesting in terms of the guitars and structure. For example, the brazen punkish momentum of "Sadistfuktion" reminded me of a lot of modernized death grind with roots in D-beat, like Nasum or Napalm Death, but the choice in notes did nothing for me. Also, a few tunes rely a bit too heavily on generic moshcore chugging sequences like "Psalm to the Dark One", which was rather forgettable. Then again, for each of these you've got something like "Devils Reunion" with its acrobatic, clinical death-thrashing verse rhythms that had my neck in a brace in just two minutes of ill advised exertion. In the end, Homo Hereticus is far from perfect, but the crackerjack drumming, muscular bass lines, blunt and caustic vocals, and the wide, indefatigable selection of guitar riffs ensure that it's worth checking out, and that Sphere earns some measure of respect against the flooded backdrop of their scene. I enjoyed it a mere fraction less than their debut, but I think its corpulent, loud production and ardent musicianship should attract an appropriately carnage-questing clientele.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, February 24, 2012

Death Angel - Killing Season (2008)

I think it's a good thing that I've experienced Death Angel's latest album, Relentless Retribution before revisiting their post reunion backlog, because at least that album gives me some hope that the Californians might once again reach the memorable standards that they set so early on. Even if their modern sound is quite different than The Ultra-Violence, I'll be happy as long as the songs conjure up some genuine excitement and impressive riffing. Like The Art of Dying before it, their 2008 effort Killing Season was yet another effort to which I could only extend a lukewarm reaction, a modern and turgid brand of thrash/groove metal which, if not for a few of Mark Osegueda's vocal lines and the logo on the album cover, I might have mistaken for an entirely different band...

While Killing Season felt more angry and consistent than their long anticipated 4th 'comeback' album, it generated a whole set of problems all its own. Or, if not 'problems', reasons that it failed to hit the bar raised by their 80s albums. Instead of that filthy speed metal momentum that once coursed through their compositions, this is largely a groove based album, with a lot of riffing that reminds one of Pantera, or Machine Head, or other 90s stewards of tough guy slugfest metal that evolved straight from the thrash of the previous decade. The guitars focus heavily on thick palm muting and rock grooves, often like a less stoner post-Blind Corrosion of Conformity. There are a decent share of Bay Area chugging sequences that recall Exodus or Metallica, as in the track "Dethroned", but I found the slower grooves far less despotic and threatening than, say "Voracious Souls", and the faster, driving note progressions to leave much to be desired. But probably the most obvious comparison here would be to the 'modern' Anthrax sound circa The Greater of Two Evils or We've Come for You All. When Mark's spitting out those mid-ranged lines, he has a lot of bite to his voice sort of like a more acidic John Bush, and the pummeling breadth of the guitar tone is not unlike Ian and Caggiano.

Not really my thing, not at all. However, like The Art of Dying, I would be remiss to not admit that an obvious effort was placed in the songwriting here. Unlike that album, where you might hear Death Angel fly off the handle and bust out some grunge inflected track, most of the contents of Killing Season follow a logical, fluid architecture that seems like the band had more of a commitment to its style. They come out fighting in "Lord of Hate" and never really let up as they hammer out material like "Sonic Beatdown" or "The Noose". There's a bit of an emotional side conjured through the acoustic guitars or Osegueda's carefully constructed chorus lines. The lead work, melodies and effects that Cavestany and Aguilar dispense here are generally quite creative, like the octave chords carving out "Lord of Hate" or the funky filtering that introduces "The Noose" or "God vs. God", but I felt like the rhythm guitar riffing left a lot to be desire. Whether I'm hearing the pedestrian if somewhat intense chugging of "Sonic Beatdown" or the voluptuous rock curves of the "Steal the Crown" chorus, it never seems to stick with me.

If an album like this had come out around 1993-1994 when A Vulgar Display of Power was in massive rotation, I think it would have done quite well and felt pretty fresh, a more aggressive successor to Act III. But not something with the killer chorus hooks and attitude that would endure down through the decades after that. As it stands, Killing Season suffers from a lot of that same, banal writing that the recent Onslaught reunion or Rob Dukes fronted Exodus records seem to phone in. The production is dense and potent, and in particular I think they did a decent job arranging the vocals here and ensuring that something interesting was going on with the guitars even when the bottom end riffing was tepid and predictable. But the underwhelming groove influences, and the lame, 'you go girl' affirmation lyrics in songs like "Sonic Beatdown" and "Steal the Crown" drag it down considerably, and I wouldn't be caught dead singing any of this in the shower, where I might once have lathered up while howling "KILL...AS ONE!" I'd rank this a fraction higher than The Art of Dying, but nothing special.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]
(sleeps with his gun, his surrogate wife)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Death Angel - Sonic German Beatdown: Live in Germany (2009)

It's sad to me that a live album recorded and released nearly 20 years after a prior such product can fail to live up to it, but that's the case for Death Angel's German live released to help commemorate their successful reunion and commitment to touring throughout the new 21st century (however long into it they will survive). Nuclear Blast hauled this out in two formats, the first an audio CD and the second a three-disc DVD set with the added bonus of an additional pair of live sets and the chance to watch, rather than just listen to their performance, but this review sticks to the core audio disc, which is strikingly average in both execution and excitement level.

Granted, the band were playing here with only 4/5ths of their original lineup, Ted Aquilar having taken over for Gus Pepa for the reunion and The Art of Dying, but I hardly think that's an important factor in just how not-compelling this set feels. The guitars are chunkier than Fall from Grace, for example, but somehow in that translation they seem to have lost a lot of the subtlety and energy of early numbers from the first three albums, which admittedly comprise a fair portion of this gig. Worst of all, Mark Osegueda sounds quite strained, losing a bit of the cut and elegance of his timbre in a song like "Seemingly Endless Time". At times, it almost seems as if he's trying to put more of an aggressive black or death metal rasp on the material, either that or his throat is torn and he's just losing his voice? Certainly on The Art of Dying his delivery is much smoother, but here I'm not just feeling it.

The Sonic German Beatdown starts out innocuously enough with an accented introduction from who I assume was a show promoter, and then they tease us with a warmup riff for a few seconds and transition right into "Seemingly Endless Time". I love this sort of intro, and you can tell the crowd is incredibly happy to get the chance to experience one of their West Coast 80s thrash icons in the flesh, but the intensity really seems to abate over what seems like a muddled, too crunchy performance. As a live gig, this was probably fun enough, but as a live album, I just don't appreciate it on the level of their earlier, now rare recording from Amsterdam. For one thing, I'm just not all that into their newer material. "Thrown to the Wolves", "5 Steps to Freedom", "The Devil Incarnate" and "Thicker Than Blood" are all included from The Art of Dying, and though they're not horrible choices, and fit the present configuration of the band well, they never cull the same frenzied excitement as the old tunes.

Funny enough that an album called 'sonic beatdown' doesn't actually feature that track from 2008's Killing Season (though the second disc of the DVD set version appears to feature a few of the newer tunes), but that is hardly disappointment here, since all I really want are tracks from the first three. To an extent, Death Angel rewards nostalgia with "Voracious Souls", "Mistress of Pain" and "Kill as One" from The Ultra-Violence, but none of these songs sound all that cool due to the wilder bite of the vocals and the thicker chugging. Frolic Through the Park is represented with only "3rd Floor" and "Bored", but the latter doesn't sound quite right, nor do most of the Act III proxies "Ex Tc" or "Disturbing the Peace". "Stagnant" just sounds tired, we didn't need funk metal when this band was fresh out of the creative furnace and we certainly don't need it to consign this one to the dust.

The drums sound decent, the bass thick and juicy enough to matter, and the guitars pretty loud, but the whole performance feels a little disheveled, as if the band was jumping around too much and thus didn't play as tightly as possible. That said, it's not that they royally fuck up anything, it just sounds like what normally happens when a band channels back to their youth and simply does not sound quite the same anymore. We've heard this from nearly every major metal act, and to some level it can be excused, but where Fall From Grace was a decent offering in the live arena, this isn't worth the investment. If you're dead set on its acquisition, go straight for the DVD set and don't look back...which is par for the course for nearly any of these multiple format releases. The full package is the one most of the effort went into, and this feels like nothing more than table scraps.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Death Angel - The Art of Dying (2004)

While I'm tempted to hypothesize over what might have manifest if Death Angel hadn't suffered the traumatic injury that put their career on hold post-Act III, the bare fact is that their music was enduring the process of diminishing returns since the debut. And if you've ever had the misfortune of experiencing the pair of incredibly miserable rock focused albums they released as The Organization (without front man Mark Osegueda), or the slightly less offensive but still mediocre Swarm album Beyond the End, you might have come to the same conclusion I did: that even if their career had persisted into the mid 90s, very little good might have come from it. Death Angel nu-metal albums? I would not have been surprised...that slight deviation towards pop rock commercialism with Act III did not exactly tease me towards promising things to come.

When The Art of Dying did finally arrive, 14 years after its predecessor, I can recall a lot of cautious anticipation from fans who were into the band in the 80s. After all, these guys wrote The Ultra-Violence. They put out that cool video for "Bored", dude. If anyone deserves another shot at the top, it was Death Angel. Yet, with so many of these reformed thrash icons to release new material in the 'oughts, like Celtic Frost's Monotheist in 2006 or Exodus' Tempo of the Damned in 2004, I found that at best, the bands' new material was merely a shadow of their former glories, updated into the modern milieu with contemporary production standards, but failing to create those same instantly memorable songs that imprint themselves immediately. To some degree, age and nostalgia might play into such a reaction, sure, but in all honesty I was instantly hooked by The Ultra-Violence. I am still, to this day, instantly drawn to some fraction of new metal albums I encounter, whether they be the works of veterans OR newcomers. The Art of Dying, unfortunately, did not win me over in 2004 and it still hasn't...

But I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking that it's an entirely worthless, shabby effort. At its best, The Art of Dying is a competent, modernized take on the speed/thrash metal that the band were writing for the first two albums. A few of the pieces sound like Death Angel should sound today if we were using The Ultra-Violence and Frolic Through the Park as its control group. But once again, there are quite a few stylistic departures from the roots, like "Famine" which sounds more like something that would happen if Mark Osegueda had been chosen to front Alice in Chains; or "Land of Blood" which honestly sounds like one of the more aggressive Bad Religion songs sans Brett's peppy melodic vocal; "Word to the Wise", another iffy power ballad type rocker that was clearly meant to channel some of that "A Room With a View" magic; "Never Me", with a funky pulse to its architecture redolent of Faith No More; or "No" which sounds more like an Armored Saint song (vocals and all) circa 1991 than Death Angel...

Oh wait, that's nearly HALF the fucking songs on this disc, and while none of them are quite so horrid as my outrage might imply, none of them are remotely relevant to my interests either. And these are just the ones I've actually listed! In truth, there are only about 3-4 songs on the whole album which resemble anything I'd actually want to hear from these Californians. I was, by 2004, bored to death of all of the alt rock, grunge and funk influences of the 90s that these guys were so enamored of, and I don't want them spoiling a fucking thrash album when the genre finally grew some balls again and decided it was okay to exist. How many of my heroes of the prior decades fell to the allure of that shit? Even the mighty Slayer was toppled when they suddenly thought they were Body Count. So you'll have to forgive me if I found The Art of Dying mildly frustrating in its excesses and the fact that it so openly weaves its outside influence into what would otherwise be an acceptable half dozen speed metal songs that, while nothing special, are at least worthy of their name.

It almost felt like Death Angel was afraid to dive right back into the music that made it what it was at the best of times. "Thrown to the Wolves" is a reasonably savage speedster with some predictable if punishing thrash muted rhythms, haughty and aggressive vocal lines and well placed backing shouts. "Prophecy" follows a similar pattern, but I really like the resonance the reverb creates over Osegueda's voice in the verses, a bit of that John Bush bite creeping into his mid range. "Spirit" is another decent tune with a number of melodic speed licks, but it's got a more melodic timbre to it and some bluesy, backing guitars and an acoustic breakdown which sides it more with the non-thrash constituents on the album as much as the thrash. Even songs like "Thicker Than Blood", with opens with some promising filth before becoming what is more or less a brazen punk rocker with more vicious vocals; and "The Devil Incarnate" which is quite possibly the catchiest song on the album for the vocals and doom/thrash grooves, feel hesitant to commit to that viral intensity of their formative years.

But it's not all that unexpected, really. Since Frolic Through the Park, the band had made it quite clear that they would deviate from a straight thrashing course whenever it suited them, and to be fair, they seem to have a decent grasp of the blues, grunge, groove, funk and punk influences that fashion many of these songs. From a technical standpoint, there are few problems here. The mix is kinetic and clear, with all instruments level and an appropriate punch to the guitars. Osegueda sounds as professional and focused as ever, the right balance of vicious acid and nasal melody that he was always aiming for, even when he veers off into Mike Patton or Layne Staley territory. The new guitarist Ted Aguilar fills Gus Pepa's shoes admirably, though a lot of the guitar leads throughout this album reek more of a hard rock and blues inspiration directly more than the explosive, frivolous flights of terror that helped cement the debut into thrashing infamy. The other members' vocals are adequate, if not as tight as Mark. The lyrics, too, aren't all that bad. A dozen or so cliche lines strewn about its pensive horizons, but the ability to apply personal, meaningful and effective imagery is not lost on them.

Ultimately, it wouldn't be a far stretch to call this Act IV, or the long lost Organization album that no one really wanted, because the thrash they built their band upon is the exception, rather than the rule. From the fine glint of the acoustic intro to the ensuing rush of "Thrown to the Wolves", there is this hopeful impression that Death Angel has returned, at long fucking last, and is about to kick our ass in, but too soon does it betray any notion of this revival, as it meanders off into the same peripheral detours that sullied its predecessor.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10] (your taste leaves us wanting much more)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Death Angel - Act III (1990)

I must admit that my first impressions of Act III were mixed, as the album had such a polished, almost pop finish to it that it forced The Ultra-Violence to cry out in agony from its grave. And yet, I don't think that anyone could argue its significance, if not just for Death Angel themselves, then as a symbol of its times, a poster child for the Rise and Fall of Thrash Metal. Here was a young band playing in what at its time was one of the more 'extreme' metal niches. Sure, death and black metal had been kick started well in advance of 1990, but would take some years to reach the same level of popularity that thrash endured in the underground. They were offered a deal with one of the hotter record labels out there, and all portents pointed to their ascent into a massive, smashing success the likes of which we hadn't really seen since Metallica or Megadeth took off years earlier.

Act III was built to last. It was concocted not only to appease the legions of thrashers who had clung to the Californians' previous, pubescent punishments, but also to exhibit the band's softer, emotional side and introspective lyrics. Death Angel was now something safe to play for your girlfriend (or boyfriend) while cruising in your Mustang. It was simplistic, catchy, melodic and she (or he) could bang their hair spray-petrified curls in between spurts of ...And Justice for All or the Skid Row debut. Your Mom heard you listening to "A Room With a View" one night and then asked where she could get a copy, politely declining once you lent her your disc and she tried to listen from the beginning and ran into "Seemingly Endless Time". Act III was a versatile record, far more than the mildly adventurous Frolic Through the Park. Not only did the band bring forward a bit of that funk-rock influence from "Open Up" and "Bored", but also tempered the heavier moments with a full-on power ballad.

Max Norman, the producer here, was no stranger to tidy metal records, having worked with acts like Lizzy Borden (the excellent Visual Lies), Ozzy's Diary of a Madman, Megadeth, Armored Saint, Savatage and others. His mission here, and that of the band, was clear: put out an album that could be played on the radio alongside all the popular metal and hard rock of the day, without entirely removing the impulsive, thrashing roots from their sound. I think, to that extent, the album works successfully. It's got a 'touching' side to it, but there are also a few tunes that at least strive to beat your kneecaps in. The guitars here are punchier and thicker sounding than the prior albums, but also far less harried or frenetic, something I immediately started to 'miss' once the first few songs had spun past me.

On the other hand, Mark Osegueda is reined in here to deliver only what's necessary and nothing more. Where he might have sounded slightly irritating throughout sections of Frolic, his voice returns to a controlled fragility, falling apart only on the more conversational, silly sounding lines like in the verse of "Stop". The rhythm section sounds incredibly fluid, especially Dennis Pepa who gets to funk his face off with all the slapping and popping in "Discontinued", and I must admit that the guitars are given a lot of creative space, though it's often laid back in the mix, a sure contrast with the more brazen momentum and speed found on the earlier albums. Acoustics are taut and well implemented for "Veil of Deception" and "A Room With a View", and while the leads never really stand out, neither are they an imposition to their surroundings.

That being said, I've always found Act III to consist of about 50% memorable tunes and 50% mediocrity, though the latter is still well performed and featured some of the more accessible choices on the album. For example, while it's not a shoddy first stab at a power ballad, "A Room With a View" is not something that has stuck with me through the years. Not as played out as, say, a "Silent Lucidity", but nonetheless it's smooth, post-Beatles finish just doesn't inspire me emotionally in any direction other than to press [STOP] on my stereo. There was a time when I was far more tolerant of it, as it served as a great 'gateway' to drag friends and squares alike under the thrash banner, but today I'm almost as unlikely to desire it as I am for all the shitty glam power ballads of the late 80s. Also, I don't care much for the funk tracks like "Stagnant" or "Discontinued". They're more mechanical sounding and interesting than "Open Up" from Frolic, with a compelling use of chords and Pepa's percussive and energetic bass-lines, but at the end of the day: I didn't come to disco, you bastards. I don't need another reminder of how open minded of a band you are. I want to thrash.

THRASH. And the album just doesn't give me quite enough of what I need. "Seemingly Endless Time" is a good start, with a nice fit of head hammering aggression after the sample of waves licking some shore, and it has a nice, doomed chorus sequence with a nice flange running through the guitar, Osegueda picture perfect as his melody slices above the haze. "The Organization" and "Stop" both feature some passable riffing, the latter a rather unforgettable pre-chorus in which Mark channels pure Joey Belladonna and then he and the boys explode into the line 'I wanna talk about it' which seems like they're visiting the office of some abuse counselor. I also wouldn't kick a few of the later cuts out of bed for crackers, like "Ex-Tc" or "Disturbing the Peace", but then, they don't really offer much when one dials back the clock a few years and submerges his or herself into an "Evil Priest", "Mistress of Pain" or "Kill as One".

There was a time, many years ago, when I was about 16 when I would have lauded this album more than its predecessor Frolic Through the Park, but after two more decades of exposure I must admit that this takes a dip even below that in its overall resonance. What's more, Act III must be seen as some sort of failure. They released singles and videos, it seemed to be doing quite well and probably even charting somewhere, and yet it just wasn't enough to throw them into the big leagues alongside West Coast titans like Metallica, Megadeth or even Suicidal Tendencies (who, along with Death Angel, also released one of the more polished thrash albums of 1990 in Lights...Camera...Revolution). Perhaps part of the album's crippled success was due to the injury Andy Galeon suffered the following year, which put the band's touring on hold and eventually dissolved them (not a dishonorable disband, since these guys were blood and very close and I rather admire that they wouldn't continue). But I can't help but think that it was the rather gimped fortitude of the songwriting here that stuck the final nail in their coffin.

is by no means terrible, or even bad, and it does exhibit some growth even if for the wrong reasons. For example, the lyrics are better than Frolic Through the Park's childish tripe, and the musicianship, if restrained, is still impressive. However, a glimpse back at some of the legendary records it was facing off against, like Rust in Peace, Painkiller or Seasons in the Abyss reveals a rather shallow resilience. Those albums were dazzling our imaginations, knocking us into kingdom come, and haunting us from the shadows in the corner, but Act III was just sort of buffed, burnished and unassuming, with so little of that unwashed, incendiary potential that Death Angel displayed early on.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (changing with the shifting wind)

Death Angel - Fall From Grace (1990)

Sign that you're a pretty hot commodity: after just a pair of albums on a semi-underground imprint, and some limited video rotation on MTV's Headbangers Ball, you've got a call from Geffen Fucking Records. They want to sign you. You, a young and able speed/thrash band on the upswing despite a rather underwhelming sophomore full-length, about to transition onto one of the higher profile labels out there, which rarely touches upon this particular niche in metal. Sure, they've worked with Manowar, Zakk Wylde/Pride & Glory, White Zombie and even the Galactic Cowboys (who were hardly a meal ticket), but as for thrash? Nothing else really comes to mind.

So you pass this news on to Restless/Enigma and depart for supposedly greener pastures, but they're not quite ready to let you go just yet. The wheels of commerce still need to be greased, so they slap out a live album recorded in Holland in the summer of '88 during the Frolic Through the Park tour in Europe, and Fall From Grace is born. An album almost impossible to find these days without tapping a collector or auction, one that I've purchased on cassette when it first dropped but never even found on any other format to upgrade. It's too bad, really, because in all fairness, even if Death Angel were not privy to its release or happy with it, Fall From Grace is actually a decent live album which showcases the band at its prime, when things were still on the way up and not on their way out (i.e. post-Act III). I'm honestly a little surprised that the band were doing an hour set by this point, but here it stands, an 11 track performance which does its job well enough, and having seen them myself on the following US tour, it's a pretty accurate portrayal of their set and live energy.

The recording of the set is quite good. Brazen and crisp guitars dominate the mix, though the bass and drums are fully audible and Mark's vocals ring true once you focus in on them (though the beginning of the album sets them a little softer than I'd like). There are a few points in which the chorus vocals feel a little limp, whether it's partially because the backups aren't mic'd loud enough or Osegueda is relying on the crowd and we can't really heard them, I can't really determine. But once you reach the climax in a track like "Why You Do This" its somewhat awkward and Mark seems strained. Otherwise, though, it's a spiffy mix with a lot of momentum to it that sounds nearly as good as live thrash staples like Destruction's Live Without Sense. I also have no complaint about the set-list, because it draws from the early albums equally: "Evil Priest", "Mistress of Pain", "Voracious Souls", "Kill as One" and "Final Death" from The Ultra-Violence; "Why You Do This", "Road Mutants", "Confused", "Bored", "Guilty of Innocence" and "Shores of Sin" from Frolic.

Not a bad selection at all, and I enjoyed experiencing almost the whole set, even "Bored" which is not a song I was all that hyped over despite it likely getting the Californian band their major label deal. In fact, I probably enjoy listening to this more than Frolic Through the Park, so if you've got the chance to get your mitts on this in either tape or CD format (not sure if there was an LP release here in the states, though there's a Dutch vinyl version) at a good price, and you have no objection to 80s thrash recordings, then it's worth a listen. If you're into Death Angel's later material more than the first album, then you should hang your head in sham....I mean, you might get more out of the Sonic Beatdown album/DVD which was recorded in Germany and has a wider selection of songs in the set from both periods in their career. Nevertheless, Fall From Grace at least delivers what it promises, even if Enigma couldn't score the band's logo for the cover painting. The crowd sounds happy, the set involves most of their classics, and aside from a few shitty vocal lines it certainly reeks of 'you should've been there'.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Autopsy - All Tomorrow's Funerals (2012)

Having no love for Peaceville's worthless 2001 Autopsy compilation Torn from the Grave, it was only natural that I might approach All Tomorrow's Funerals with some trepidation. With its grim spin on a popular Velvet Underground song title and a shit ton of familiar looking tracks, I wasn't expecting much value, but thankfully the band itself had a heavy involvement in remastering much of its content, and saw fit to include a few unreleased tracks to bolster its worth to long-term fans who possess the original incarnations of the studio material and weren't exactly begging for a re-issue.

Essentially, the band have reprinted and remastered all of their short form EP releases down through the years, an obvious boon targeted at younger fans who might have difficulty in tracking down the original copies without paying exorbitant prices on auctions or in specialty record shops. They're placed on the disk in a reverse chronological order covering roughly tracks 5-21, so The Tomb Within (2010) is followed by Fiend for Blood (1992) and Retribution for the Dead (1991). Having already covered these releases individually, I will say that I got a lot more out of the Fiend material than anything else in its new format, which sounds a little cleaner while losing little of its repulsive, thick and frivolous Steve DiGiorgio bass or the ghastly, loose-structured sense of fun that it originally conveyed. More interesting by far was the inclusion of the two tracks from the Horrific Obsession single, recorded in 2008 and released early the following year.

As I missed this pair the first time around, I found them a bit of a thrill here, wedged between The Tomb Within and Fiend for Blood. "Horrific Obsession" itself is a crude, bludgeoning gutter-death track with sludgy, pumping bass lines and Reifert's caustic throat dominating the action; "Feast of the Graveworm" one of the best songs I've heard from the band since the first two albums, with freak melodies and grimy, primordial tremolo rhythms that blaze into an excellent, wild breakdown groove beneath the lead. Hell, if half of Macabre Eternal had been this bloody good it might have made my short list for the end of 2011. They've also included a final remastered version of the track "Mauled to Death", which had appeared on their 1987 demo and seen a few re-issues on the comps Awakened by Gore and Ridden With Disease, but is rendered here with an appropriate, ghastly production that matches it to The Tomb Within material in tone, and it sounds absolutely great. "Funereality" from Acts of the Unspeakable has also been shoved into the lineup with a minor mastering facelift.

Even with the obvious love given to the older material, some will want to dive right into the new flesh, and I doubt they'll be disappointed. "All Tomorrow's Funerals" is fast and inspiring, with raw and spring coiled guitars that wend their tremolo hostility over one of Reifert's most abusive performances in history, transforming into a churning groan over the death/doom breakdown that will have all the old morgue crew slamming about their environment like restless, corpses. "Broken People" is nearly as fun, opening with a murderous, muddy charge, lead guitar ablaze and then a gradual devolution into an amazing death/doom bridge with steady, tribal drums that transition into a straight rock beat while the dual, solemn melodies cascade about the track's cavernous breadth akin to classic Paradise Lost circa 1990-'91. "Maggot Holes" has a further focus on the escalating percussion, with a lot of droning, drudging guitars and ringing higher strings that create a brutal hypnosis.

About the only 'new' track I couldn't give a shit for was the closing snippet "Sign of the Corpse", more or less an outro fadeout with some reversed guitars to mark its exit. Otherwise, the lion's share of the content here provides quite the rush, doubly so if you were not previously the owner of the various EPs. If you do, then the overall value of this compilation is slightly diminished. There is something special about experiencing Autopsy in its crude, lewd original form, so I can hardly dub the remasters mandatory, but the new songs are good, Horrific Obsession rules, the original covers are included for you to gaze upon, and it makes for a nice compliment to a collection of the full-length albums, whether you fancy the double vinyl or CD. In fact I feel All Tomorrow's Funerals is probably the best single compilation from the Californian creepers to date.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Death Angel - Frolic Through the Park (1988)

The irony of such a killer debut album as The Ultra-Violence is the enormous pressure placed on its successor, a pressure that Death Angel was clearly feeling when strapping together its sophomore Frolic Through the Park for Restless Records. By any standard, this could be considered a more 'accessible' followup to the scathing we received in 1987, though it's far from an abandonment of the savage speed/thrash riffing that the band brought to bear there. If anything, Frolic feels like the musicians, still quite young compared to their many burgeoning Californian contemporaries, were issuing 'feelers' to round out and mature their style, and this manifest in a funkier hard rock influence in a handful of the tracks, plus a cleaner tone coursing through its bloodline, marginally friendlier than its elder sibling.

This was the same line-up as The Ultra-Violence, and you can certainly sense that quintet's performance as a unit was tighter and more comfortable, but I wouldn't say that all of its components were quite so impressive. The guitars still add a lot of interesting flair with a mix of more generic, speed metal palm muting and some clinical, melodic architecture like we find below the final lead of "3rd Floor" or the gallant tint under the surge of the "Shores of Sin" chorus. As for their central rhythm riff set, it's still strong enough to appear timeless in many places on the disc, though there's nothing here quite so immortal as a "Voracious Souls" or "Evil Priest" or, really, most of the debut. Andy Galeon gets a great workout here, with an increased use of his fills alongside the myriad tempo changes that flit about the tracks, a lot of which hover between the 5-7 minute mark and thus get ample space to adventure. Dennis Pepa is also solid, though I'm not a big fan of the funkier bass lines which contribute to some of the weaker tunes here.

As for Osegueda, I felt that he might have often been too pronounced in the mix on this album. There are certainly points like the choruses to "Why You Do This?" or "Shores of Sin" where he excels, and these are arguably some of the catchiest lines he's committed in all the Death Angel legacy, but some of his shrieks throughout the album sound a fraction too 'girly', and there are cuts like the drudging "Confused" where he's all over the place, and I'm not into the nasal, conversational frankness of the chorus alternated with the harsher bite that I associate him with. That said, he's still got a rather unique presence that I can't recall hearing much elsewhere if we aren't to count Belladonna as his most psychotic moments.

Song-wise, I feel that Frolic Through the Park works best when its honoring its lineage from the first album, in other words at its most abusive and aggressive peaks. Tracks like "Road Mutants" and "Guilty of Innocence" certainly stir the circulation with manic headbanging, while "Devil's Metal" and "3rd Floor" at least feature some prominent, compelling guitar work that feels fresh over 20 years later. The band's cover of "Cold Gin" from the s/t KISS debut is nothing to scoff at, though I admit towards a little bias there as it's hands down one of my favorite rock songs of the 70s. On the other hand, there are a few selections here that seriously dampen my potential appreciation of the album due to their lyrical silliness and the elements of funk rock that feel like the band were trying to dust off their hereditary bell bottoms and channel a bit of Hendrix into the hostile environment, which just doesn't work for me...

I wouldn't brand the songs 'funk metal' whatsoever, and bands like the goofy Infectious Grooves were still on the horizon, but we had a few similar cases around this time like San Francisco potentials Mordred, whose debut Fool's Game where they covered a Rick James track and one of their own concoctions ("Every Day's a Holiday") certainly fit that bill. But I think there's undoubtedly some psychedelic hippy groove fueling "Bored", with its plucky staccato riffing and bluesy trills that explode into the chorus, and those verses clearly feature some disco funk hustling over Osegueda's whiny vocals and the ultimately underwhelming chorus of 'I'm bored', which...sounds like he IS bored. Funny enough, this was the video released for the album and generated quite a lot of buzz for them, certainly more than what the band culled out of The Ultra-Violence. But people are funny that way. These days, I find the guitars here efficaciously groovy, but the lyrics and chorus quite sodden and lame.

Even worse: "Open Up". This song 'opens up' with a gang shout and then busts into some MC5 or Hendrix groove with lame vocals that alternate between the nasal whining and an attempt to sound all emotional and hard rock over some funky bullshit. And if the music and delivery were not bad enough, the lyrics are fucking laughable. This is another of the 'celebrate nonconformity' anthems that stunk up the thrash scene in the 80s/90s, as if the general public or the metal audience, who were already 'open minded' enough to dip below the mainstream needed some preaching to over their choice in lifestyle or music. Similar to "31 Flavors" by Sacred Reich. It comes off incredibly dated, trite and not even funny to read lyrics like these:

Knock knock knock but no one's home
Excuse me please but I'm sick of society
'Cause you are you and I am me
And if we don't agree
Just let it be

or the amazingly resonant chorus...

Best loosen up and take it in stride
The world don't need egotistical pride
Open up your eyes
And see the light
Just do it

It's fucking tragic, really, and a major symptom of why this album suffers in the wake of the debut. Gone are the songs about evil preachers and cults and sluts and all that other greatness of The Ultra-Violence, and in their place wimpy musings about life in general, as if penned by a 12 year old staring at the blackboard in his Social Studies class. The prose in "Bored", "Confused", "Why You Do This", and "3rd Floor" is all quite miserable, and even the anti-Christian finale "Mind Rape" manages to come across as pedestrian and underwhelming. It's not that the points being made in the songs aren't important or relevant, they're just handled in the most tacky of ways and ironically makes Frolic Through the Park seem even more childish than an album they recorded when they were basically kids...hell, I was essentially AT THIS AGE when the record came out and I still found it stupid even then.

There are other weak spots here, for example I don't love the punk riffing in "Why You Do This" and feel that about two minutes or more should have been lopped from "Confused", but really it's the shadow of the lyrics and how they translate into Mark's performance that renders the album so disappointing. Had the music itself been utterly intense and unforgettable, then I might be more willing to let these slide. Gods know there are albums I love with crappy lyrics, but in those cases the music is more than just compensation, or the delivery so brutal that you might not even notice. The funk-inflected tunes don't really help either. I can recall about 3-6 months in high school where everyone was so jazzed up over Primus and Red Hot Chili Peppers that it seemed like a great idea, but very few bands were ever able to pull this off for any duration. Thankfully it would never fully consume Death Angel's sound. There are further hints of it on Act III, and in their other projects, but the post-reunion records seem to have flagged it as a generally bad idea.

In the end, Frolic Through the Park is not an album bereft of some character, and there are a dozen or so decent riffs worth hearing once, but where its predecessor leaves a crater in your heart, so radioactive with faux Satanic fallout that nothing can grow there for years, this sophomore just sort of skirts around the crater's edge, selling lemonade and balloons to tourists who showed up that they might witness some REAL destruction.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (life it's not so fair)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Death Angel - The Ultra-Violence (1987)

The Ultra-Violence is another of those unripe, ripping West Coast speed/thrash metal experiences so unique to its point and place of origin in the mid-80s. Kill 'Em All. Killing is My Business... Show No Mercy. Bonded by Blood. Darkness Descends. All of these albums shared a distinction in that they felt fresh in composition, limitless in potential, and most importantly timeless in their transgressions. An album like this has simply never lost its luster through the ensuing decades, and in fact it remains a more memorable, grisly and violent gem than anything released later in the Death Angel canon. The groove and funk-inflected subtext of Frolic Through the Park, the friendly and cleanly Act III; neither was bereft of a catchy track or two, but both seemed rather underwhelming when paired off against their malicious predecessor.

What's perhaps even more staggering about this album than many of its peers coming out in 1986-89 is the sheer age of its creators. These guys were jamming and hitting the studio when they were still young teens (their Kill as One demo was recorded in 1985 with Kirk Hammett of Metallica, of all people). While every city and suburb at the time might claim dozens or more metal bands forming between high school friendships and cliques, and gods know later youthful extreme metal acts would surface and impress (Decapitated anyone?), how many in the middle of this particular decade were actually this talented? Death Angel could not only write effective songs that surpassed, but instrumentally proficient. The Ultra-Violence was perhaps the greatest 'teen thrash' album in history, certainly the best of that California rush, and as one who was only 13 myself when first acquiring and experiencing it, in a word: inspirational. We could do this! We pimply, misunderstood, emotive rebels across the States and beyond who dug our consciousness into our earphones to escape the burdens of pending adolescence were also capable of tearing the goddamn house down! Death Angel our living proof!

Not only that, but there was an air of ethnic novelty at work. Certainly there were many Asians and Asian-Americans into metal music, and Japan in particular had produced a good number of acts by this time, but Death Angel was the first band of Filipino descent that I was personally aware of, all its members related. Not a detail that inherently imparts or detracts any value to the music itself, but firm evidence of how wide a cultural influence was capable through this genre. Today, the easy access via internet to essentially ALL extreme music has created a mass exodus towards the fandom for people of all cultures and nations, with Southeast Asia becoming a specialized hotbed for underground brutality, but just imagine how scarce the market might have been in Death Angel's heyday? I can only imagine what a stir these guys must have caused through their homeland connections, what the reaction might have been for better or worse to see these guys whipping their hair around in lethal unison.

Beyond any of these fact, however, The Ultra-Violence simply kicks ass, taking no prisoners in its drive to rack up as many casualties as possible. The foreboding, post-apocalyptic ruin and petrified skull on the cover, when matched to a title derived from A Clockwork Orange, promise a whole lot of pain, and to that extent, these youngsters more than followed through. Harsh and threatening, yet not lacking in a sumptuous dynamic range, the 45 minutes of the debut prove both substantially solid in terms of individual track quality and versatile as a whole. I mean, for fuck's sake, the band has incorporated an 10 and a half minute instrumental component in the title track; and even if the opening, higher register guitar melody is somewhat reminiscent of, say, Iron Maiden's "Wasted Years", there is no disputing the amount of effort that went into its arrangement, from the wild and psychedelic shredding deep in the bridge to the assemblage of concrete neck-jerking rhythms that lead up to it. And this is easily the worst track on the whole of the album...

In general, we were dealing with more restrained, verse-chorus patterned songs in the typical hard rock or trad metal mold, not unlike how Slayer or Exodus were composing but with every bit the same amount of passion and kick. Driving, crisp guitar tones dispensing bladed hostility in the tremolo mutes that introduce "Evil Priest", or rifle through the verses of "Mistress of Pain". There was also some mid-paced, destructive palm mute chugging for mosh pit genesis, but what I found truly distinct about Rob Castevany and Gus Pepa was their penchant for original, screeching guitar effects in both the leads and prevalent spikes of melody that were constantly threaded over the architecture of the rhythm guitars. Sometimes wild and unchecked, others more structured and important to the momentum of the thrashing, but always unique when compared to, say the wilder, unbridled spasms of a King or Hanneman, the dextrous finger exercises of Mustaine or even bluesy bombast that provided a foundation to Hammett. Perhaps one could not chalk this up to the duo's age or cultural background, but unquestionable a very individual tone that was rare among the Bay Area, East Coast or Teutonic scenes.

Another standout here was vocalist Mark Osegueda, who had a spirited, acidic bite to his tone which was both natural and viral, whether dwelling in a mid range or the occasional shrieks he applied to the tail end of his phrasing. About the only person I would really compared him to might be Joey Belladonna of Anthrax, but lacking that same, nasal monotony despite the same tendency to remain with a cleaner voice. He's especially important on the menacing cuts like "Evil Priest" or "Voracious Souls", two of the best in all the band's catalog, for how he comes off like a living scythe in contrast to the thrust of the rhythm guitars. The drums and bass on the album are also noteworthy, if not the most immediately notable factors. Andy Galeon was no Gene Hoglan, but then, the guy was 14 when this album came out, and had a firm grasp of the standard metal beats which he would accent with some double bass and lots of instances of tinny fills on the cymbals and hi-hat during tunes like "The Ultra-Violence". Dennis Pepa's bass breaks were amazing when left to stand on their own like the distorted twist at 4:40 of "Thrashers" or the grooves plugging along under the acoustic in the "Voracious Souls" bridge.

If I had to chart the band closely alongside any one peer, it would likely be Metallica if only because the thunder of the faster guitars often drew me towards nostalgia for Kill 'Em All or Ride the Lightning. For instance, the opening onslaught to "Evil Priest" was similar to that of the post-intro riff in "Fight Fire With Fire", or the steady moshing gait of "Final Death" redolent of "Creeping Death" or Metallica's cover of Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?" However, who the fuck wasn't inspired by those living gods of the 80s, and mindless of this, there is no doubt just how abusive and potent tracks like "Evil Priest", with its little pinch harmonics or "Voracious Souls" with its intensely excellent grooves and verse triplets were, among the greatest that the West Coat EVER produced during the rise of thrash metal to prominence. Nearly everything from the frenetic melody that inaugurates "Thrashers" to the bass-driven instrumental finale "I.P.F.S." and its frenzied, fist pumping climax is enjoyable to this day, with the one exception being the bloated title track that, while not incompetent, might have been better served by a split in size and the addition of vocals to its better riffs.

In the end, though, there is enough charisma to this record that the minor inconsistencies of its minutia are easily cast aside, that it belongs in the collection of any discriminating lover of 80s or later thrash, speed, or even filthier trad or power metal. The lyrics were fairly strong considering the band's age at this time, paeans to psycho killers, gang bangers, sadistic succubi and devil worshipers alike. Granted, beginning your thrash album with a song called "Thrashers" might seem trite now and possibly even in 1987, and later lines like 'the thrashers will put you to shame' ("Kill As One") might seem like a limp, insular promotion of the band's chosen subgenre, but they were not alone in this, and in general the lyrics provide the incessant flood of violent and efficient imagery appropriate for the underlying composition. This is the best Death Angel to date, and its production holds up just as strongly as its songwriting. Semi-accessible like all the stronger West Coast albums of its type, but nonetheless predatory and punishing.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]
(lustful doings not foreseen)