Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tankard - A Girl Called Cerveza (2012)

I like my Tankard records as I like my women: very German, and voluptuous to overflowing, two traits shared by their latest inebriated adventure and 16th full-length studio album, A Girl Called Cerveza. While its title and cover image are likely to offend their share of the Planet Butthurt citizenry (not at all the intention), they're really nothing out of the ordinary, a celebration of beer soaked celluloid and goofiness that has defined the group for better or worse now since the 80s, and not something one should conspire to take seriously on any day of the calendar. On the other hand, the music itself is quite well composed here, boasting superb production and strong enough variation to survive a good number of replays, even if it shouldn't be counted among their best work.

A Girl Called Cerveza bears some semblance to the band's 2006 effort The Beauty and the Beer, which was my favorite of their releases since their prime in the 80s, before the band's 'gimmick' arguable fled South and they started bouncing back and forth between quality and mediocrity. While the band picks up the pace and levels some devastating thrash redolent of their glory years in "Witchhunt 2.0" or the title track, it's not nearly so dirty, manic or explosive as, say, The Morning After. Like The Beauty and the Beer, the band have incorporated a lot of straight up heavy metal or Germanic power metal elements: dual melodies and riffs reminiscent of bands like Accept, Running Wild, Iron Maiden and Omen are contrasted against the harsher, wretched inflection of Andreas 'Gerre' Geremia, who hasn't lost a damned fraction of his charisma in 30 years of drunken belligerence. Like other German front persons Schmier, Tom Angelripper or Sabina Classen, the guy is instantly distinguishable from the legions of charmless retro thrashers peddling yesteryear's news from unpopulated newsstands; tons of edge to his timbre, but just enough melody to carry off all the choruses and compensate for the intentional, often laughably retarded ("Son of a Fridge" had me in stitches) lyrics...

...which as usual, are not all about beer 100% of the time, and this is how Tankard have managed to avoid wearing themselves thin through these many years. No, instead of unanimously swilling from the pilsner glass on every track here, they tackle subjects ranging from a more serious political rage in "Rapid Fire (A Tyrant's Elegy)" to an eyebrow raising tribute to Thailand ("The Metal Lady Boy"). Fortunately, the music packs a lot of punch, Andy Gutjarh truly having settled into his role long ago, riffing all over the place and showing solid dynamic inclinations and effective lead work from his traditional metal influences. This is hardly the most 'mosh' oriented thrash recorded, it's not loaded with many palm muted chug fests circa "Toxic Waltz" or other standards, but more of a brash and testosterone fueled mesh of power and thrash that becomes unique under Gerre's trash talking tutelage, and that's perfectly acceptable as far as I'm concerned, because the bold clarity and muscular depth of the guitar tone and vocal mix sounds fantastic here as it has for a number of albums leading up to it. Few thrash bands have production at this level, and yet despite its level of polish, it somehow doesn't betray the frolicking spirit which has existed at the core of this band since '86.

I could give or take the duet with Doro Pesch in "The Metal Lady Boy", or the clean guitars used to intro pieces like "Son of a Fridge", but I had a genuinely fun time listening through this record, even if it's not the sort of quality I'm likely to turn towards for the next 25 years (i.e. Zombie Attack, The Morning After). The songs are well structured across varied paces, a few of the riffing sequences really get the fists flying and the taps emptied, and in summation it all sounds like a band who have aged VERY FUCKING well, which you'll note is a pretty common trait among the German thrash acts (far less so for their Bay Area competition who so rarely mount an adequate jaunt 'back to the front'). Keep your expectations realistic, a mug of your favorite poison handy, and if possible, the company of a buxom admirer (male, female, tranny as your personal preference dictates), and you'll come away from A Girl Called Cerveza smiling more often than not. I'm not sure if a 'Prost!' or 'Salud!' is more appropriate here, so have 'em both you maggots.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (her love was just a lie!)


Monday, July 30, 2012

Queensrÿche - Queensrÿche EP (1982)

Compared to the tragic oil spills of creativity the senile Seattle rockers have suffered in more recent times, the eponymous Queensrÿche EP seems like a distant, safe harbor from the storm of years that have rusted and peeled back the once great outfit's hull. A solemn reminder that there was a point at which this quintet had been so far ahead of the pack that they helped write its textbook, and a glimpse at what 'might have been' if the band had not decided, through flawed leadership, to rebuke most of its roots in the 90s and beyond to chase its own tail around in a wasteland of progressive rock and 'modernized' ideas that felt just as trite or dated when they arrived as any conceived perception the band might have feared at the prospect of sustained ass kicking on the metallic circuit...

But come 1982, we didn't have a hell of a lot of bands here in the States quite so advanced as this one, and I'm oft surprised just how much of this formative Queensrÿche survived even through their smash hit albums like Operation: Mindcrime and Empire (note the semblance in the vocals of "The Lady Wore Black" and the band's relentless, redundant radio juggernaut "Silent Lucidity", for example). Iron Maiden and other groups hovering around the birth of the NWOBHM might have predated this by a few years, and you can certainly hear a similarity in the strong fits of melody, riff structures and general airiness of the guitars and vocals, yet I can only think of a handful of American bands, like Riot, who were putting out precursive power metal at this level of polish and charm, and there's simply no downplaying on how influential this group was. Certainly groups like Fates Warning, Lizzy Borden and Liege Lord were paying attention in their youths, as was just about everyone else tuned to hard rock/metal radio in the 80s, which is why they were able to build such a resounding foundation of success that echoed well beyond the stagnation of their second decade.

Personally, the Queensrÿche EP has not possessed the staying power of the three full-lengths that followed it, but like so many other recordings of its period, there's a particular timelessness which seems as fresh and evocative as when I heard it as a Huffy-owning neighborhood whelp. "Queen of the Reich" might not have the stickiest riff-set of all time, but I really admired its driving sense of style that mirrored what Maiden were writing across the Atlantic from about 1982-86. The muscular, harried bass-lines of Eddie Jackson were competitive with Steve Harris; the rhythm guitars, while somewhat muddy in contrast to the vocals, were rife with inspiration, whether they were splayed out in open, atmospheric chords, faster picked verses or the screaming, bulky melodies persistent through a number of the tracks such as "Nightrider" and "Blinded". In addition, Rockenfield's drums felt aggressive and angry to the point where they darkened the mood of most of these songs; even though the guy's never been the most technical skin smasher of his generation, he had a means of placing a great deal of kinetic force into simpler beats, and thus memories of the guy freaking out in his various drum cages are hardly exaggerated.

But what most would have found the most distinctive in the Queensrÿche sound were the wailing vocals of Geoff Tate, one of the most prominent testicular harpies in all 80s metal alongside names like Dickinson, Halford, Dio, Dirkschneider, Osbourne, Arch. While the guy's also capable in a lower, brooding range to which he adds a lot of (sometimes forced) emotion, he definitely stuck to a higher pitch through most of the tunes in this period, and he was quite on point. I always loved how the guy's voice would trail off with this wavering sustenance after delivering a harmonious spike, and it shares the stratosphere of the album quite well alongside the ripping, rugged leads in "Queen of the Reich". The caveat is, as with a lot of works in this time period, they often feel a bit loud and disparate against the instruments, something that in retrospect is easy to understand but, at the time, felt a fraction showy and grating here, though not enough to curb one's appreciation for the music.

While the songs here aren't the first I'd crank during a workout Rÿche-athon alongside "Empire", "Speak" or "Eyes of a Stranger", they're admittedly very consistent, each with functional riffing dynamics and outbursts of melody. Even the power ballad, "The Lady Wore Black" doesn't drag its heels too far behind, its gleaming clean guitars erupting into power chords and gently thundering, simple fills, and the first real example of Tate exploring much of his range within one track. The 1988 bonus track, "Prophecy", which had been written later than this material, sounds a lot more polished due to its bigger budget, and so it tends to stand out from the original EP content, stylistically more in line with Rage for Order (when it was recorded), but despite that it's a solid song no matter where you feel like experiencing it.

I've certainly had a few acquaintances who cite this as the greatest hour of Queensrÿche, and while this is not a sentiment I share in any way (there are certain individual songs on Operation: Mindcrime, for example, that have had more impact on me than the sum of all this material), I can recognize and share in its raw appeal. Ultimately, it might only feel as if it were a few years ahead of its time, since this style seemed to peak here in the States from about 1984-1989, but the lyrics and songwriting were quite solid, and when you consider that it was more or less a demo the band had written as 'The Mob', before Geoff Tate had even joined full time, it was already far more than a humble beginning. Had only the band itself returned to this more often in their personal listening habits through the years, we might not have experienced some of the post-Promised Land abortions that clutter the landscape of their discography.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (she will find her way)


Friday, July 27, 2012

Holy Moses - 30th Anniversary: In the Power of Now (2012)

While Sodom celebrates its 30 year anniversary with a boxed set full of various goodies, an official 'bootleg' on multiple formats and a collection of rehashed studio material, another German thrash cult, Holy Moses, has taken a more entertaining route towards paying tribute to itself and its fan base, with a 2 disc, 20 track spread cover the span of its entire three decade career, a pair of new studio tracks offered as a bonus. This is hardly without precedence in the Teutonic scene: Destruction rattled my teeth with its impressive Thrash Anthems compilation in 2007, while others like Tankard and Mekong Delta met with a more limited success despite the dubious contemporary strides in production treated to some pretty fantastic source material.

Thankfully, Sabine Classen and her latest round of musicians have done an absolutely excellent job here, and I have been listening the shit out of this thing for weeks. Any worries I might have had in terms of respect for the original songs were quickly abolished when I experienced the dense, puerile energy the band have affixed to the earlier incarnations. I've never had much of a problem, with, say, the mix of Finished With the Dogs, by far my favorite of Holy Moses' studio full-lengths even after the intermittent decades, but even those choices shine on this collection. The band has always had a very percussive undercurrent to its style, the riff patterns somewhat simpler than fellows like Destruction or Kreator, but loaded with intense palm muted picking on the lower frets and a rush of sheer, volatile momentum steering the songs more than a delve into the more adventurous, progressive leanings of many of their countrymen in the 80s. The re-recording does not seek to alter that aesthetic, only envelop it in a more pudgy, punching tone and then deliver it straight to the listener's face, to the point where even some of the more mediocre choices among the track list sound better!

As for Sabine herself, she sounds just as violent and raucous as she did 20 years ago, consistent with the group's more recent recordings in that she infuses a margin more of a death metal presence into the thrash rooted patterns of barbaric inflection. Long one of the best female forces in thrash, she does not shy away from aggression, and this Holy Moses in no way sounds like a washed up band waxing nostalgic, even if that's precisely what they are doing here. The guitar tone is forceful, functional, and gut rupturing with just the proper dose of clinical complexity to escalate it beyond garden variety bar thrash, the drums mix quite sincere, the bass bulbous and compact. One could mosh his/her brains out to the majority of these 80 minutes, but it's hardly minimal or unformed material, the riffs are in general decent to good and the process of re-recording has shuffled the varied chronological phases of the group into a unified whole.

Some might scoff at the omission of certain favorites like "Current of Death", but really, that song is already perfection as it stands, and I'm quite impressed that the band chose to leave it off, as if to say 'we are not touching that'. Otherwise, you get a reasonable selection from MOST of the Holy Moses backlog. Debut Queen of Siam seems strangely absent, but Finished With the Dogs is represented ("Corroded Dreams", the title track); The New Machine of Liechtenstein ("Def Con II", "Panic", "Near Dark", "SSP"); World Chaos ("Jungle of Lies", title track again), and so on, even some of the 21st century material being included like "Symbol of Spirit" (Strength, Power, Will, Passion) or "Master of Disaster" from the EP of the same name. Most importantly, the songs feel pretty flush with one another, and the fact that they are not presented in chronological sequence of their origins works to make this all feel fresh and consistent.

As for the new tracks, they feel like they're running a direct line to the past. "Borderland" charges straight forward with Sabine's ghastly vocals and some tense, effective rhythm guitars that draw from that old West Coast US train of pummeling presentation you would remember from Metallica or Testament in the mid 80s. The gang shouts are great, the ringing guitars over the chorus of "Entering the Now", the leads wild and sporadic, and the band never resorts to some crappy plebeian breakdown or anything else to try and feel 'modern'. This is love it or leave it, 100% Holy Moses, does no disservice to the band's legacy and it's probably the most fun I've had listening to the band outside of Finished With the Dogs, which was one of the hands down best German thrash/speed recordings of the 80s. Fans will lap it up. So should any thrasher wanting an intro to the band. A rare re-recording spree that actually works.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]


Waylander - Kindred Spirits (2012)

Of all the metal varieties in the world, folk is perhaps the most difficult to pull off effectively, since its very nature implies a heavily cultural influence that must be fused against the more decidedly aggressive elements. In the case of North Ireland's Waylander, it's been performing in this niche far longer than most, which shows in the band's tireless ability to implement solid riffing sequences and extreme metal blast beats, double bass, black rasping and semi-technical picking patterns with the melodies of whistles, mandolin, bodhran and other native instruments which help place Kindred Spirits on the map. But bear in mind that this is a metal album 'first', it's not just a faceless collection of toe tapping tavern jigs and gallantry permeated with pedestrian chugging, so if you're merely looking to dance about the moonlight naked with the elves with ethereal fairy vocals, step away.

I'm most reminded of Skyclad, but a more muscular interpretation of that group's Martin Walkyier fronted years with meatier guitars than the thrashing that comparison evokes. Lots of desperate, melodic lines cull the folk inspirations into a lattice of hostility in tracks like "A Path Well Trodden" or the rousing mug swinger "Twin Fires of Beltine". Many will evoke similarities to the melodic black/folk strains coming out of Sweden or Germany, but where a band like Suidakra might summon up strong Gaelic aesthetics in its writing, I feel as if Waylander has a more authentic stake in its heritage, and there's far more of a classic metal strain coursing through the band's veins, only wrought out in mightier, stomping beats and dense guitar textures. Most often, the multi-instrumentalist Dave Briggs will be responsible for the more evident, perky melodies, whereas your typical melodic death outfit would accomplish this through dual guitars. As one might predict, acoustic guitars also play a role in the songs here, but while I found their presence to be largely lackluster and serving only as ligaments between the album's metallic bone structure, they are never over abused or cheesy, not even in the "Grave of Giants" interlude with its cleaner, narrative vocal tone.

In fact, despite the glints of frolic and melody cast throughout, Kindred Spirits seems to be a belligerent and brooding experience, taking itself quite seriously, and therefore it's not bound to alienate the more extreme metal audience with frivolous lights of regrettable gaiety. The blooded rasp of the vocals, while not all that distinct from hundreds of other black metal front men, ensures that the music is kept gnarled, focused and punishing, not for the faintest of heart. In addition, Waylander fills out its tracks appreciably, even where they are 6-7 minutes in length you get enough dynamic versatility that they're never dulled down. That said, while the album is competent and consistent, few moments really leaped out at me. As solid as the band are at executing the varied patterns, I never felt there were many winning riffs or emotional peaks throughout the music, just a level 54 minutes of predictable, charging onslaughts contrasted with familiar folkish melodies whose novelty had worn thin a decade past. Fans who can fancy themselves an interest and investment on a crossroads between Primordial, Suidakra, Cruachan and early Skyclad may feast their hearts out with this, but I didn't get all that much from it. The execution is on point, the band members have a seasoned, solid skill set, but the songwriting never quite stuck to me.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]


Zonaria - Arrival of the Red Sun (2012)

Zonaria's previous albums had established such a futurist, sweeping sense of fulfillment it's a wonder the band hasn't established a wider audience, as bands at this level of production and atmosphere are won to do. Granted, neither Infamy and the Breed or The Cancer Empire had an enormous resonance with me, but both were good albums that took a rare spin on the melodic death metal niche than most of the stock, noodling Dark Tranquillity clones. Dense and dystopian, never afraid to add a subtext of groove or a symphonic ingredient redolent of larger budget, modern black metal acts; I suppose the closest comparison I could make would be fellow Swedes Hypocrisy on their more recent records (1999-2009), only Zonaria's compositions are more complex and more heavily layered.

Arrival of the Red Sun sounds much like it appears, a crushing and pessimistic paean to metropolitan corrosion and nuclear Armageddon that is musically consistent through its 40 minute run time. What I enjoy most about the group is how they slowly, meticulously build some exotic pattern of melody and groove through the rhythm guitars and choir-like synthesizers in a tune like "The Blood That Must Be Paid" or "Desert Storm", almost like a more technical, harried, Middle Eastern military version of modern Amorphis without the clean vocals. Lots of deep, chugging rhythms mix well with the various arpeggios and melodies that haunt the bleak miasma of the album's skyline, and they incorporate death metal squealing and other techniques familiar to the genre with class and precision rather than mindless indulgence. I found that the leads here just screamed out over this rusted rhythmic desolation, tastefully conceived and never seeming frivolous or forgettable.

Drummer Emanuel Isaksson is a monstrosity, a mechanical bull of a drummer who grafts each track with tight blasting and frightening footwork, and he also helps maintain a high level of dynamic variation that keeps the album from stagnating, as in "Full Spectrum Dominance" where you get beats ranging from controlled blast to surgical thrashing under the din of the piano strikes and serpentine guitar riffing. The album is fairly bass-thick as a rule, a lot of low end to contrast against the synthetic orchestration of its stratosphere. If there's one aspect of the music I wasn't fully invested in, it would have to be the vocals, which are a fairly generic, if dense mesh of growling and rasping that once again remind me of Hypocrisy, if louder. They're bold and broad enough to distinguish themselves against the vast musical slaughterscape, but in the bigger picture they don't possess much of an individual character, and considering the simplicity of a lot of the lyrics, and the tendency to drop an overabundant amount of F-bombs, they can often seem trite or distracting.

That said, Arrival of the Red Sun, as a whole, works just about as well as their prior output, and it never wimps out. If you're seeking a sleek, modern sound rife with dissent, plenty of proficiency, and a plethora of sounds feast your ears upon through multiple listens, you've come to the right place. Fans of groups like Stalwart, Hypocrisy, or even the later Emperor (Prometheus) or 21st century Dimmu Borgir records will find a lot to enjoy about this, and it's few flaws are overcome by the sheer effort the Swedes have placed in its audacious architecture.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sodom - 30 Years Sodomized 1982-2012 (2012)

Sodom's latest collection is a doozy, a box set clocking in at three full discs and 2 LPs, with all manner of omake-style extras like posters, stickers and such to sate the diehards with more than just a mere musical retrospective. It's also somewhat affordable for all it includes, and the sheer scope of the material places it well past the Ten Black Years - Best of Sodom compilation released in 1996, which was ultimately pretty worthless outside of a few rarities, despite it's comprehensive glimpse through the group's chronology. I should point out that the glaring fact this band has gone 30+ years already without throwing in the reins makes me feel incredibly old, even though most of the members have got over a decade on me.

The biggest draw here is the 'official bootleg' The Witchhunter Decade, which is included in both CD and colored double-vinyl formats (how thoughtful), and provides a slew of live and pre-production/demo material spanning from about 1984-1992. Performances from Holland, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland all sound appreciable noisy and raw, pretty representative of the band's first decade (if you've experienced their original Mortal Way of Live you can confirm this), but this was almost without exception my favorite period in the band's history. As one would expect, the performances are not exactly flawless, with some feedback or slightly imbalanced levels in the instruments, but they suffice. The performance of "Body Parts" from Japan is probably the best sounding, with raucous sewer bass tone and vicarious thrashing force. Otherwise, there is a truly grisly rehearsal for "Sepulchral Voice", unpolished versions of "Shellfire Defense" and "The Saw is the Law", and a demo for "Sons of Hell" with an explosive black/punk style dowsed in Tom's rasp.

The 'Thirty Years War' is the pure retrospective part of the collection, 2 discs and 30 tracks hand picked and delivered in chronological sequence, with an average of about two per studio full-length. Surprisingly, the band didn't just go for the 'obvious' picks each time. We'd have expected, "Burst Command 'Til War", for example, but "Agent Orange" and "Nuclear Winter" are nowhere to be found. On the one hand, this shows a conscious effort not just to rehash the songs they've already rehashed for prior comps (though there is some overlap), but on the other, if you were trying to pawn this off to someone new to their sound, I feel it goes without saying you want your best material, and many of their best songs have been omitted. Either way, though, this is likely to prove the least valuable element in 30 Years Sodomized, because most of the folks willing to slap the money down on this beast might not appreciate the redundancy...

So, ultimately this is not so much a serviceable introductory 'greatest hits' package, more of a love letter for the fans who have clung to the band's legacy and collected all their studio and live records. Even the bootleg material is not heavily impressive so much as it's a net for completist mosquitoes. Having the vinyl is great, but I suspect that many who pick this up will be more interested in setting on a shelf for display and staring at it more than poring through it, but then you've got a nice poster of the band, a history booklet, and if you've ever wanted to send your auntie a Sodom postcard...here is your chance. Can't say I truly would recommend this unless you've got the disposable income after feeding your family, and it could have been MUCH better in terms of audio content, but if Angelripper and his revolving door of war-thrash co-conspirators have earned your trust and coin through the years, and you think they deserve even more of it, you're not exactly getting ripped off here.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Pharaoh - The Longest Night (2006)

Though it's not quite so pristine and re-listenable as its own successor Be Gone, The Longest Night makes a number of improvements over the Pharaoh debut, and inches towards the band's current sound with class. Once again, we've got a group not willing to merely settle for the part and parcel of power metal tropes, but attempting to make strides in the field that help refresh and revitalize the form, keeping it relevant and half way intelligent while celebrating its roots. Not that a number of the band's forebears haven't done the same, but while Omen, Manowar and Virgin Steele might have provided some of the base ingredients for the Pharaoh recipe, alongside overseas legends like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, this album at no point seems needlessly backwards or nostalgic. It sounds like it looks, blue lightning lashing out at the masses marching forward in sublimation.

Matt Johnsen dials up the melody here even further, with a lot of his dual lines trumping After the Fire in terms of their sheer infectiousness, and the rhythm guitars through a lot of the record seem like a better backdrop, splayed more into open, ringing chords that better carry the man's natural electricity. The backing riffs are not all that distinct themselves, yet superior to what he was writing a few years prior, and better conductors for the almost unbearable lightness of the leads' being. Not to mention that the general mix of the album helps enforce this glittering glaze of harmony. The drums and guitars are better balanced, and though Aymar slices straight through with the bold grit of his inflection, it all feels somewhat more progressive and potent simultaneously, even on a piece like "In the Violet Fire" where the band is alternating between its passages of cleaner guitars and more emotional vocals with the rushes of melodic speed metal that feel like later 80s Fates Warning infused with Iron Maiden at their prime, only more surgical and technical in how the melodies flood the listeners' brains.

I enjoy more or less every song on this album, whether it's the straight power of "Fighting" which almost sounds like something Hammerfall might write, the frenetic "I Am the Hammer" which at times reminded me of Germans Rage, or "The Longest Night" itself which provides a glorious evolutionary stopgap between Number of the Beast and Awaken the Guardian. Probably the only exceptions for me would be the two lengthier pieces, opener "Sunrise" and "By the Night Sky". Both have plenty of choice riffs and moments, and dynamically they don't indulge in tiring repetition, but I feel like they could have been snipped off at 4-5 minutes and better kept my interest; not to mention that I question the logic of putting "Sunrise" up front when there were far better choices strewn throughout the album that would hook the audience without any chance of growing dull in their depths. Otherwise, it's pretty goddamn consistent, even the instrumental finale "Never Run" succeeds in the video game/chase scene melodies coursing through its peppier riffs; and the guest leads via Chris Poland (ex-Megadeth) and Jim Dofka are tasteful and flush with their surroundings.

Tim Aymar was already a strong component on the first album, but with The Longest Night he too surpasses himself, with a wider range of emotional heights and pitch. Much easier to pick out individual, memorable lines than After the Fire, even in the mere verses of the songs, though they're not so bright, meticulous and haunting as those throughout Be Gone. He's especially potent when he's tracking off against himself, swapping lines in songs like "I Am the Hammer" where the airy reverb and effects built a strong contrast to the pounding of the rhythm guitar, but he's husky and dark enough that he even manages to stand out against the group's central, driving characteristic: Johnsen's melodic tsunami. All in all, a killer effort with nearly every component polished and spit-shined to a simmering perfection, and songwriting of depth and courage which, even at its most derivative feels like far more than a retrospect tribute. To think that they would get even better...

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (I will spare no sacrifice)


Monday, July 23, 2012

Pharaoh - After the Fire (2003)

One of the things that first struck me when hearing Pharaoh almost a decade ago was just how obvious the members' love for metal music was, and I think this carries through in a big way to their compositions. The members have an enormous collective pool of experience, and not just because of their involvement with other groups like Dawnbringer, Control Denied, Superchrist, etc, but for instance Matt Johnsen has written with several 'zines including Metal Maniac and has a massive CD collection. When it comes down to it, these guys ARE metal nerds, and this is precisely the reason they succeed. Who better to fight back the tides of stagnation from an ailing niche than those so well versed in its flaws and redundancies? I mean, let's face it, while there are plenty of trad and power metal groups worldwide, and the styles' live presence in Europe and other foreign countries maintains some stability, the US is not exactly a hotbed for it.

We've got good bands, even a few festivals, but the style involved seems to resonate with only a few loyalist flag wavers from the 80s and adventurous youngsters who are interested in the roots and see the appeal. It's heavily outdrawn at gigs by death, black and 'core tours, and younger audiences (who, whether you'd like to admit or not, are vital for any music scene) seem to migrate to the next biggest, angriest fashionistas available. Generations tend to carve out their own cultural and subcultural identities, and the traditional approach implicit to a lot of 70s and 80s worship, or as several acquaintances have dubbed to me, the 'old man metal', is just not 'theirs', though some seem to appreciate it with a sense of irony. I mention all of this, because I have long felt that Pharaoh might just be one of the bands that breaks this mold. They certainly cull their riffing aspiration from all manner of bands in the 80s, but they apply a fresh coat of paint which earns them a level of distinction so few have attained, and they remain one of the best and brightest hopes for the style.

This is achieved through the songwriting, the unique vocals of Tim Aymar, and the band's heavy emphasis on melodies so brazen they often border on 8-bit video game era purity, and though Pharaoh has grown more complex through the years, they've maintained these aspects through all four of their full-lengths. Their 2003 debut After the Fire, released through Cruz Del Sur music, is perhaps the crudest of their efforts to date, but all of the aforementioned elements were already established. Matt Johnsen's heavy sense of melodic refinement floods through the intro, and persists across the vocal tracks, mounted on the bedrock of more familiar charging triplets and chord patterns, but creating an extra, sugary majesty that resonates deep within the listeners' ears. The writing impetus hearkens back to the later 80s, where groups were forcing ideas up against the boundaries of speed/power metal tradition, and ramping up personal prowess. Pharaoh might not be as manically classical as Helstar in their prime, or as explosive, shrieking and progressive as the power thrashers Toxik and Realm, but they often feel as if they were cut from a similar cloth, taking Iron Maiden roots and then saturated them with a glimmering haze of harmonies.

Aymar plays a huge role here, due to the varied dimensions of his voice. In addition to the more obvious, familiar inflections of Dicksinon, Dio and Halford, he possesses a smoky huskiness in the lower range redolent of Omen's late J.D. Kimball. His screams are quite shrill, but I most enjoy his sustained, upper pitch vocals that have a natural waver to them. Having only heard the guy on the rather underwhelming Control Denied record The Fragile Art of Existence in 1999 (with Chuck Schuldiner), I had an idea of what to expect, but where that album was a timid sampler of his potential, he seems to completely unleash his emotions in Pharaoh, and After the Fire is far richer for it as you'll hear in the title track, where he soars over those catchy, popping melodies in the chorus; or "Solar Flight" where he matches the momentum of the charging rhythm guitar like a hawk keeping pace with a semi truck on a desert highway. I think it's true that the man has some limitations, but the range between pitch parameters, and the conviction and fullness of his timbre ensure that we've got a long way to go before I ever get sick of hearing him.

Rhythmically, the Chrises (Kern and Black) invest a versatile backdrop over which the guitars and voice can journey, but they are no slouches themselves. The percussion on this album has a pretty down to earth, studio feel to it which cymbal slap and tom fill, and Kerns weaves both a steady Steve Harris stream of muscular low end and some progressive rock influence that doesn't always follow the guitar directly. He gives you something else to listen to, which is more than I can say for many in his position. After the Fire doesn't gleam quite as much as the later records in terms of production, it was after all a debut and the band was still sharpening the sword, but it's all quite clear and honest, with a decent crispness to the rhythm guitar and an all around clarity where you can pick out each melody and vocal track and not lose the solidarity from the drums and bass. The lyrics are also quite nice, personal and occasionally cliched, but it wasn't as if they were writing trite, cut and paste fantasy phrases like those that confine many other power metal groups.

Song for song, After the Fire is not a match for The Longest Night or Be Gone, in fact it remains their least memorable full-length to date, due partly to the fact that several of the songs manifest in slightly predictable configurations where the melodies or vocals are really the only aspects steering the listener's interest. There is unquestionable variation here, from the more galloping tunes "After the Fire" and "Solar Flight" to the more introspective, Maiden-like "Flash of the Dark", but only half the songs really stick for any good length of time. But as a blueprint, it functions admirably: all of their later records are built off similar emotions evolved through superior riffing and chorus sequences that beg for repeated listens. After the Fire, not so much, there are a few tracks like "Now is the Time", "Solar Flight" and the title cut that belong on a highlight reel, but the rest aren't quite so charming by comparison, and the end of the album in particular seems to dip in memorable appeal.

Even then, though, it's a great first album, a positive introduction to a band which continues to struggle on in a world of mallcore, djent and Morbid Angel techno to mold the past with the clay of the future, and fans that have jumped on this wagon at any later point can reach back and appreciate it for its similarities, as it's not incredibly difficult in thematic or stylistic execution than the excellent sophomore or their 2008 masterpiece.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (we're forced to flee by our own light)


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Birth Through Gore - Reign of Depravity (2012)

What Birth Through Gore might not claim from its listenership in terms of sticky riffing patterns, subtlety and nuance, it will take from them in sheer force, because Reign of Depravity exits the starting gate like a stampede of mechanical bulls with shoulder-mounted rocket launchers loosing devastation on all their surroundings, and it left this reviewer paralyzed in a smoking crater. The Greeks merge muscular, maniacal riffing patterns with mechanistic beats and voracious, chugging guitar tone as rich as you're like to find elsewhere on the Sevared records roster, and for a debut the production strikes an excellent balance between polish and punishment, one you'd expect from veterans like these who have served their time with various other brutes of the Hellenic underground.

I definitely pick up on a strong Suffocation vibe here, infused with the accelerated oblivion of Hate Eternal in their prime, and perhaps a strain of street level brutality you'd associate with acts like Internal Bleeding. But they launch these concepts into an apocalyptic stratosphere, using blasted passages as the rule and weaving their dynamics upon this foundation of concrete speed and suffering. On a lot of recordings in this vein, a drum machine might prove a distraction, but not once was I taken out of this bruising experience, because the level of percussive precision executed through the beats fits the group's cataclysmic composition style like a surgical glove. They are also mixed really well, potent and constantly pummeling the ears but never detracting from the rhythmic acrobatics of the guitars, which alternate between dense palm muted pistons, ominous lower end Morbid Angel-style octave chords, molten tremolo patterns and even some slightly softer clinical death/thrashing that places the audience straight under the knife.

The vocals are more or less standard for the style, with hints of Vincent, Rutan, maybe a bit of Benton's lower growl for good measure: nothing unique, admittedly, but they are entirely fluid with the percussive nature of the band's songwriting. The bass tends to support the guitar more than stick its nose out, but once more, it's not exactly a fault, because it creates this taut consistency in the music that allows the listener to really focus in on each of his/her bones breaking under the strain. Choosing individual, distinct tracks would do the album a disservice (though I was partial to "Redeeming Faults"), as the Greeks rein this all in at around 29 minutes, so it's easy to fit into your morning commute or a workout session. That said, like many albums of this vein, the songs tend to blend into one another after awhile, and the listener just succumbs to the cyclic beating, because why the fuck else would we be listening to a band called Birth Through Gore?

It probably wouldn't kill the trio to incorporate more freakish variation and striking note progressions to help break up the incessant onslaught. There are points on the album where I could have envisioned some insane breakdown with evil dual harmonies erupting that would have hurtled me completely into oblivion, and I feel like this might be an excellent strategy as they move into the future. But, really, Reign of Depravity delivers precisely what it advertises: a bone splintering exercise in apocryphal violence which honors its influences while keeping current with other European troglodytes who perform in the brutal USDM style. Yeah, you've heard this all before, but that doesn't make it hurt any less when the style is in the hand's of such competent individuals as these, and Birth Through Gore joins other Sevared front-liners like Abnormality and Sepsism as one more good reason to take out life insurance.

Verdict: Win [8/10]


Drug Honkey - Ghost in the Fire (2012)

Upon my first exposure to Chicago's Drug Honkey and their 2008 album Death Dub, I have to admit I just wasn't prepared for the group's level of psychotropic sonic depression and ritual abuse, but this time I have come armed and ready: a bottle of vodka sits on the upper left corner of my desktop, next to a careful arrangement of painkillers and other substances I'd rather not discuss. My last will and testament has been prepared, notarized and sent off to the family attorney. I called my parents and loved ones to hear their voices for what might be the last time, and I broke out and loaded a handgun, just in case I needed a fast, decisive exit from the emotional oppression I was about to endure.

Several days later, I emerge fully destroyed from Ghost in the Fire, but thankfully the safety never came off the pistol, and the mixed liquor and pills weren't enough to kill me thanks to what I can only assume is some remnant of youthful metabolism. I realize my prolonged existence might disappoint a great number of you, but then, this band hasn't broken up yet. Ghost... is the band's fourth full-length excursion, and surprisingly more accessible than its predecessor, but it continues to wreak its crushing lessons upon the listener with baleful distinction and raw certainty. Some will dub this funeral doom, or death/doom, but in truth there are so many eclectics ingredients to the group's compositions that it defies any simple attempt at categorization. You can make out traces of sludge, psychedelic ambiance, even hardcore barking and a conversation, narcotic bred drawl infused with the harsher, growled vocals. The band certainly crawls along at a sluggish general pace, but where other groups like Skepticism or Esoteric provide trance-like hallucination and escape, these guys speak from the depression of the bottle, the heroin needle, the crackpipe and other urban vices.

Structurally and song-wise, this disc surpasses their last in overall quality because it's better able to grab the listener by his brow and then force his/her face directly down into a bowl of retch and torture. The huge, fuzzy bass lines will trip out your speakers within minutes, the drudging lower end chords serve as skeletal support for the eerie, minimal melodies over "Order of the Solar Temple",  the drums throw a lot of fills at you to help break up potential monotony, and and 'Honkey Head' Paul Gillis instantly captivates you with his expressive, vocal variation that ranges from a morbid, guttural abomination to a clearer, persuasive bark, all saturated in echo and reverb enough to rattle around your ears and brain like bullets that failed to exit through the back of your skull. The architecture of the music might not seem inherently complex or intricate, but it doesn't need to be: its harrowing texture leaves the same imprint on your heart whether you're listen to it the first or twentieth time, like an unlikely union of Disembowelment, Mindrot, Neurosis, Today is the Day and Rollins Band.

But Ghost in the Fire exceeds even this praise, thanks to the psychiatric variation coursing through each of the cuts. Songs like the title track or "Weight of the World" revel in their droning, dissonant discourse while Gillis crashes around the stratosphere like an extreme metal Leary, while the thuggish bass lines lurch along like primordial swamp predators, slowly closing on their sustenance. There's a subtle sense of bruised glory in pieces like "In Black Robe", where the riffs seem mildly more consonant and uplifting, and even the drier tones in tracks like "Five Years Up" compensate with the strong balance of percussion, unwashed feedback and the natural ambiance created through this crossroads of aural desolation. Not a song on this fucking album will fail to envelop you in mournful tatters, like some dopamine ragman coming to lay claim to your soul, and it's hands down one of the most compelling and simultaneously repellant arguments for human extinction you are likely to have all year, a masterful monolith of suffering and spiritual debilitation. Avoid at your own risk. Experience at twice that risk.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (they said I was blank)


Pharaoh - Ten Years EP (2011)

As curious as the cover selections seemed, what I was most looking forward to about Pharaoh's Ten Years anniversary EP was hearing the original songs that were recorded during the Be Gone sessions. Being that this was one of my favorite albums of 2008, and helped reinstate my faith in American power metal after so many years of dwindling returns and all too sparse success stories, I was quite compelled to hear which pieces fell just short of that pedestal of perfection I held it up to, because they must still kick a lot of ass, right? Well, yes and no. I can see why several of these selections were omitted from the full-length, due to simpler structures and less climactic vocal melodies, but even then there is something fresh and functional about them.

In fact, two of these are quite good. "Reflection and the Inevitable Future" is saturated with delicate dual melodies, winding bass lines and striking vocal progressions, and the entire lead sequence at the center of the cut is near divine in that late 80s Fates Warning mold. I also quite enjoyed the opener "Ten Years" itself for much the same reason, though this is a more straight to the face hybrid of melodic power and even some thrashing which recalls bands like Vicious Rumors, and has that same, fulfilling level of complexity in the guitars that was present through much of the full-length. Can't say as much for "Nothing I Can Say": oodles of melodies here, but I felt like the vocals were less memorable and the latter half of the track was much more intense than the former. "When We Fly" was my least favorite of the originals here, though, the rhythm guitars were somewhat bland and, once more, the vocals/chorus just doesn't live up to the quality of their full-length material.

Pharaoh's cover of Coroner's "Tunnel of Pain" from the previous year didn't differ all that much from the original, apart from the obvious vocal difference, but I feel like with Slayer's "Tormentor" they've nearly transformed the violent, dark speed/thrash of the original into a glorious anthem all their own, and it's probably the most fun I had on this entire EP. More pump to the guitars, and Tim focuses on his meatier mid range for the choruses while the melodies lend themselves well to Pharaoh's clinical production values. The cover of "White Light" from British rockers New Model Army is also quite epic, with its emotional chorus escalation and atmosphere, but I surprisingly found it a little closer to what I remember of the original, just with a lot more guitar throughout, though I don't think Aymar's performance here is all that inspiring next to the Justin Sullivan-fronted original. Actually, I thought Sepultura did a better job with their version of "The Hunt" off Chaos A.D., but it's still pretty cool all the same.

In the end, the quality spread across Ten Years is decent enough for a short form release, but this is not a band which has yet disappointed me. The original songs are not up to the incredible standards of Be Gone, so they were justified in collecting them here, and the production at least is comparable. If you love their music, and find it in short supply, then pick this up, especially for the Slayer tune, but first time listeners are better off with any of the four full-lengths.

Verdict: Win [7/10]


A Forest of Stars - A Shadowplay for Yesterdays (2012)

It's hard to fault a band like A Forest of Stars for anything, as they tackle such a broad and delicious vista of sound that the very ambition of the music alone is enough to inspire interest in where their journey will take them. Progressive, melancholic rock and folk influences are wound across bleak, tremolo picked melodic black metal sequences saturated with textures, and the vocalist is almost as charismatic as a Martin Walkyier if you took transferred him out out of his vicious black/thrash territory and placed him in a more spacious, solemn environment (in fact, several of the song titles reminded of Sabbat and Skyclad). The band experiments with its instrumentation, few songs ever sound quite the same and they paint both lush and leeching scenery across the fields, forests and streams of their native land that it's hard not to drown.

Having said that, I feel that there are still some components which don't entirely sell me on their sound. For example, their lengthier tracks, despite all the implementation of synthesizers, cleaner passages, or female vocals will often devolve into rather predictable patterns that no amount of atmosphere can overcome, and while I admire the poetry invested in some of the narrative vocals, like the gorgeous intro "Directionless Resurrection", I often felt like they were a distraction from some pretty fabulous music, and the male/female  duet vox (as in "Corvus Corona part 2" seem slightly disparate). Otherwise, the band are quite profound at absorbing the listener into varied climes, like the electronic-infused instrumental interlude "Man's Laughter" or the folksy eruption of sadness "Left Behind as Static", or the beautiful "Underside of Eden" which morphs from spikes of festive flute into distant, distant zephyr choirs and even passages of blasting and double bass. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to find a single song on this album which doesn't offer at least something compelling...

As for the production, A Shadowplay for Yesterdays is this admittedly level aural tapestry which invites the listener to pick out the individual instruments once all the band are firing simultaneously. There are points at which some of the guitar riffs feel drowned beneath the drums and the more atmospheric instrumentation, but really this gives more of an 'outdoors' impression, and a number of the riffs sit right on top of the mix when there isn't a lot else happening. The flutes, keys and acoustics all fit very well into the puzzle, and despite the wealth of instruments A Forest of Stars manage to unify everything into a cohesive, conceptual experience. Overall, I found the prior album The Opportunistic Thieves of Spring mildly more mesmerizing and interesting than this one, but the English band is clearly one of the most distinct in its field, and I hold out hope that it's only a matter of time before they reveal some genre-redefining masterpiece. They've all the tools and talent, I'm just waiting for a tastier array of guitar progressions equivocal to the lyrics and atmosphere.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Saturday, July 21, 2012

Pharaoh & Canvas Solaris - Tribute to Coroner EP (2010)

The prospect of covering a Coroner track, especially from their creative zenith in 1988-1989 has to be a daunting one, if only for the sheer level of raw musicianship required to pull it off. Over 20 years later, most bands are STILL not playing at the level of the Swiss trio. Naturally, metal has become more extreme in the ensuing decades, and from a standpoint of sheer technical ability, bands are playing pretty damn fast and difficult compositions, but I've not heard a guitarist or bassist in as long who could match Ron Royce and Tommy T. Baron with their baroque infused, classical saturated complexity. Or at least none in that very specific, unique niche that has been abandoned since the band folded after the disappointing and dumbed down sound of Grin.

Granted, if you're going to try, US acts Pharaoh and Canvas Solaris are as good as any to throw to the wolves, but as this split proves, doing so and adding any embellishments to the originals is next to impossible. Each of these two groups plays their elected rendition fairly close to the Coroner cut, only with a modern, cleaned up production that I feel takes away from the oblique and overwhelming atmosphere of the original. Granted, in Pharaoh's case, "Tunnel of Pain" was pretty polished on No More Color, but the other feature, that of "Arc-Lite", sticking with Solaris' instrumental modus operandi, it seems to lack something. It seems that both outfits focus on playing the lead lines and melodies so straight that they never real make the songs 'their own', which is absolutely what I want out of a cover: an interpretation, where this is more of a fan love letter. Understandable, I suppose, since it's fucking Coroner, who were one of the best bands ever at their prime, but not prompting anyone to go out of their way to pick this up unless they wanna throw money at the constituent acts.

The one exception here is to experience Tim Aymar performing Ron's vocal lines with his airy screams, quite different than what I'm used to with the tune (though he barks a few of the lines at a lower, familiar pitch). It almost comes across like this had been a Realm song from around the same period, and as a result i favored this to the Canvas Solaris cover. Musically though, the interpretation plays it pretty safe, despite the quality of the guitarists involved they don't really rock the boat. I wouldn't say the production of either tune is up to snuff with the respective band's studio original works, but hell...if you're dropping a 7" tribute, there are worse libations one could choose from the backlog of 80s brilliance. And, to my knowledge, there is not exactly a surplus of Coroner worship laid to tape. I remember Sceptic from Poland doing a decent version of "Paralized, Mesmerized", but that was from Grin and therefore much simpler to pull off. Ultimately, this didn't impress me, but then it also doesn't dishonor the object of its affections.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]


Overkill - The Electric Age (2012)

The unexpected success of Overkill's 2010 album Ironbound placed the band in a rather precarious position. Essentially the first record in many years to generate such a positive wave of buzz for the band, it arrived at just the point where thrash had gone completely viral with a number of retro acts culling the sounds of the 80s into modern production standards. A whole new generation of thrasher was inspired to jump aboard the Chaly express, and at the same time, many fans of the groups first 4-5 records who had long since abandoned them to the middling groove experiments that were so dominant in the 90s finally felt they could return to that Overkill they fell in love with. Personally, as someone from the latter camp, I found Ironbound to be a decent record, if nowhere near so exemplary as many had painted it. The lethal, youthful energy seemed to have repossessed Jersey's finest, and the songs were easily as strong as Killbox 13 (the one other post-80s Overkill album I was borderline into) but precious few of the actual songs justified such lavish praise.

But would it prove a fluke for Bobby 'Blitz' Ellsworth and company? Would they achieve their 15 minutes once more, then sink back into another decade or so of relative mediocrity? From the sounds of the follow up, The Electric Age, I can proudly say not a chance in hell, because not only does this record reassert the groups charismatic volatility in spades, but the more I listen through this the more it sticks with me. In fact, I already like it more than Ironbound, and have no problem declaring it their best studio full-length since Under the Influence in 1988. Yes, better than The Years of Decay. Or Horroscope. Even in the very dregs of this album, like the petulant chugfest "Old Wounds, New Scars" or the more boogie metal infused "21st Century Man", the personality of Blitz alone is enough to carry what otherwise might feel like a less inspired set of riffs. The pacing throughout is violent and dependable, the riffs feral and bombastic even when they're not memorable, and at least a dozen times here, you feel as if you've been run over by the band's tour bus as it patrols the city streets stalking new venues to destroy.

This is by far the best guitar tone they've achieved in a great many years, with plenty of bite to it that drops out wisely for the ferocious, warped lead-work, and both the muscled staccato chords and palm mutes sound brazen, with as much current as Chaly's electric wings on the cover. There are a few grooves I found rather bland and empty here or there, like the breakdown in "Electric Rattlesnake", but in general songs like "Wish You Were Dead" and "All Over But the Shouting" take you straight back to the 'powersurge' of the 80s and they're propulsive enough to blow over anything that many of the band's peers from the Golden Age are producing lately (like Exodus, for example). The bass lines are superior to about eight albums leading up to this one, Verni gunning alongside the guitars without flagellating over himself like some would say he used to in the late 80s alongside Gustafson's writing; and Ron Lipnicki makes a strong account for himself here, laying into the kit with a fury his predecessors like Mallare and Rat Skates could only muster on their very best outings in the band's catalog.

All of this pales in comparison to Bobby mother fucking Blitz, who reinstates himself here as that guy you don't want to lock horns with in a dark alleyway. The self-reflective chorus lines in tracks like "Old Wounds, New Scars" (Got a lot of mouth for a Jersey white boy/beat the drum, now you've gone too far) or "Wish You Were Dead (got me spinning in circles/hanging by a thread/if I had one wish to use, I swear it/I wish you were dead) truly get the listener's blood stirring and prompted for a fist fight with whoever is available, something I just couldn't have said for an Immortalis or ReliXIV. In truth, this is probably the strongest of his performances outside Feel the Fire and Taking Over, he comes off slightly more edgy and aggravated than even Ironbound, and considering just how crucial his delivery is to the success of an Overkill album...it's money in the bank.

Despite all this praise, and its numerous overt strengths, The Electric Age still falls shy of greatness by a slim margin I'd largely attribute to the riffing, which is strong enough to support Blitz and maintain the gnashing, abusive fire under the album's ass, but not really all that distinct when broken down to individual patterns and progressions. Pacing and structure trump quality. There aren't any that I wanted to learn on my guitar once the smoke cleared. For fans old and new, it's likely money well spent, but while it's clearly got some replay power, I'm not sure how long it can endure, or if I'll care for songs like "Come and Get It" in another 3-5 years. The post-80s Overkill masterpiece still seems to elude me (though I realize I'm in the minority with all the gushing over Ironbound), but this certainly edges them in the proper direction, and there are least 30-40 minutes here of solid headbanging frenzy driven by THE VOICE.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (all God's children, there they go, taking the free ride)


The Ash Eaters - Ibn Ghazi EP (2012)

Three clues that I'm going to be terrified by a recording: the inclusion of a quote from existential Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges in the liner notes, a title with an obscure reference I might find in a Lovecraft story, and the involvement of Umesh Amtey, brainchild of the defunct Brown Jenkins, whose hypnotic swan song Death Obsession was a highlight of the year 2009. The Ibn Ghazi EP proves guilty of all three, and if you felt the pangs of irritating lightness beginning to infest the pulchritude of oblique horror you call a universe at the dissolution of Amtey's alma mater, rest assured that he and his new bandmates will absolve you of any sense of security you might have invested in these ensuing years.

The Ash Eaters certainly bridge a natural continuity with that earlier project, servitors of discordant and experimental black metal, but where Death Obsession war borne on structured wings of discordant hypnosis, I found the material here to be far more jarring, chaotic and clashing. The band is not very low-end heavy, and thus they pierce your ears with this resplendent madhouse of jangling, haunted notes that ring out over the occasionally more chugged, subtle rhythm textures and the highly dynamic drumming. Add to that the eerie, atonal chants of the longer of the EP's two constituent pieces, "These Are the Inhabitants of the Fire", and you've got yourself a sinister bedlam with which to lose sleep and frighten any sane person with the misfortune of your acquaintance, rooted somewhere in the treacherous soil of Burzum's Filosofem and other depressive works, then expanded outward to a broader, alien darkness.

As one might expect from prior exposure to Amtey's earlier recordings, this is not easy listening, an it nearly serves as a set piece for one's plummet into unraveling. The inclusion of the read-along, prayer-like lyrics only add to the sense of spectral desperation created through the corrosive (and largely instrumental) note progressions, and the higher pitch of the music allows it to quickly penetrate your conscience. In listening, I felt I was the victim in some cautionary, silent horror film, the shifting rhythms of the band queuing scenes of dread and climax. The one caveat is that between the two tracks, it's an admittedly short experience, just over 12 minutes in duration, and I feel like the cruel aesthetics of the project would suit a more substantial recording with further variation of mood and texture. That said, it is a download, and this is malevolent and effective artistry which proves there are still fertile soils from which to foment the stuff of black, surreal nightmare. Whether you're acclimated to Brown Jenkins and other tortured, dissonant post-black progeny, or you just hate God, you'll wish to take notice of this affront.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Detrimentum - Inhuman Disgrace (2011)

Though I'm a bit late to the party on this one, Detrimentum strikes me as truly an anomaly in today's death metal spectrum, a rare act that balances both its brutality and melodic sensibility on the head of a pin, and in turn provides such a depth of songwriting chops that it should possess an open appeal to a large cross-section of extreme metal fan. Most groups shoot for one or the other of these contrasts, but in listening through the sophomore Inhuman Disgrace, I experienced such an intense level of musicality and refinement over the tropes of harried, technical riffing, guttural verbosity and athletic foot and handwork that I must wonder: why this group is not spoken of in louder and wider circles? I must now add my voice to the choir in battling this gross negligence...

Morbid Angel would be an obvious point of reference here, since the band broaches that same level of intense, faster paced riffing and nuance for dynamic grooves, but in truth Detrimentum have an added accessibility they've drawn from a number of other influences. On the more extreme end of the writing, I hear traces of Suffocation and Cryptopsy, perhaps some of Pestilence's early, surgical thrashing, but the more melodic, solemn sheen that inaugurates "Effigies of the Silent Kings" reminds me of old Paradise Lost (of all bands!), and the lead sequences permeating tracks like "The Journeyman's Lament" hearken towards the inspiration of progressive death metal standards like 90s Death. In addition, they've got an inspirational to just rush the listener with an incredible breakout of catchiness as in the track "Dominus Detrimentum", while the vocals continue to bludgeon along, reminding you that this is not some breezy, spring afternoon in a field full of flowers. The level of variation through the sophomore is superb, no two songs will sound quite alike, and the musicianship is top notch.

These aren't just shallow, dime a dozen melodies other, but fusions of notation that fix quite nicely onto the intensity of the drumming, and where applicable, as in "The Crimson Legacy" intro, summon forth an acute atmosphere you're just not going to hear on the lion's share of death metal recordings of late. The mix of the record is pristine, you can pick out each instrumental instrument without the usual levels of saturated polish, and despite the brightness of the leads and harmonies, there's a pervasive balance of darkness. I do feel that the instruments rather outclass the inflection of the vocals, which are fairly average quality for the genre, but despite the fact that all of the album's constituent ingredients might themselves not feel unique, the way they gel into this seasoned, maturated 'total package' is admirable, and fewer death metal albums in recent years have been so damned well rounded. Even the lyrics are good. This star is clearly rising, its only obstacle in the level of exposure it can accumulate, and Inhuman Disgrace is well worth picking up.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (teeth chattering, forms flickering)


Ectovoid - Fractured in the Timeless Abyss (2012)

Pretty much a textbook case for death metal nostalgia, Alabaman brutes Ectovoid will no doubt draw a lot of comparisons to the US pioneers Incantation, Immolation and Cianide in their use of stripped, authentic battering rhythm guitars and broad, ominous guttural vocals which create morbid, sepulchral atmospheres in contrast to the more harried riffing and eerie, breakout lead sequences. But where a lot of bands seek to drown this same set of influences in ridiculous levels of reverb to create an infinite, cavernous scope to the production, this trio deserves credit for allowing the sheer instrumentation to deliver that same, haunting effect, with loads of drums and constantly winding tremolo riffs that feel as if they were written in that critically important 1988-1993 period when the niche was just taking flight as the bastard child of thrash metal.

There's still a vaulted echo to the Pillard-esque vocals which places the band in the same sphere as many of their young contemporaries, but what I found interesting is that Ectovoid do not write like a bunch of slugs. This isn't death/doom like you'd expect out of, say, Father Befouled. They play fast as a rule, alternating between blasted passages and fibrous grooves which settle somewhere between the realms of Onward to Golgotha, Demilich's Nespithe and late 80s Bolt Thrower. I've read that the band invokes influence also from archaic doom and black metal sources, and I can certainly sense such an imprint, but more as an after-effect than in the actual architecture of the guitars, which are delivered with this oppressive, muddy tone that somehow doesn't manage to hijack the clarity of the notes. There is a quite natural air about the production, as if they made a conscious effort to avoid excess polish and deliver as honest and 'live' a sound as possible, with only the vocals sounding separate, and that's due to their sweltering, unearthly volume and inflection.

Riff-wise, I wouldn't call these the most novel of constructions, but advocates for returning to the analog roots of the style will be happy that they don't sound entirely derivative of other source material. Perhaps not all are patterned as evilly and memorable as one might desire, but Ectovoid floods the listener with such a constant, frothing miasma of churned change-ups and guttural atrocities that one never needs fear excess repetition (if it appears at all, it's only due to the stylistic similarity of so many of the selections). Choppier, slower paced riffs are used to break up the momentum in tracks like "Dark Clouds of Consciousness", walls of open, thundering chords vary up the tremolo picked passages, and the leads are quite well rendered to provide that added dimension of frightful melody that might be lacking in the deeper din of the rhythm section. I always felt like the music was effective, if individual tracks didn't prove all that distinctive from the whole.

Ultimately, Fractured in the Timeless Abyss is like suffocating in crude oil, a consistent and tremulous journey into the opacity of trans-dimensional horror that summons up all manner of Lovecraftian imagery. A cool record for those into other, recent abominations like Binah or Blaspherian.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]


Overkill - Immortalis (2007)

Immortalis is yet another bromidic kick in the balls from the once and future greats Overkill, another costly studio exercise which fails to expand or elevate the brand in any meaningful way beyond fattening up their discography. Once again, Chaly is represented on the cover in a fairly uninspired pose, like he's locking onto some off-screen prey, but I like to think of it as the winged skull barking out his discontent at the band for producing yet another of those albums which abandons the listener's memory almost as soon or he/she has first experienced it. But hey, at least we're doing with the proper color palette this time out, and even if Immortalis seems like it's just doing the rounds in some hamster wheel of midlife thrasher crisis, it at least feels more enthusiastic than its direct predecessor ReliXIV.

Which is not saying a hell of a lot, because once again we've got an album of relatively average thrash with interesting riffs in a severely limited quantity, infected with groove metal and rock & roll influences that were never this band's forte and will never play to their strength. I've said it a thousand times before, that I've got no real problem with the 'concept' of groove metal, or even its execution. I enjoy Chaos A.D. much to the chagrin of any underground consensus, and I like how bands like Gojira or Meshuggah implement the simpler, meatier riffing structures into something you can quake your limbs to. The 'breakdown' was a wonderful technique used through the 80s in both hardcore and early speed/thrash metal, and there are still hundreds of bands in the 21st century which use it well. But when I hear some cheap, dense Pantera Far Beyond Driven style passage as in "Skull and Bones", with the lame interchange of post-Anselmo pundit Randy Blythe (Lamb of God) and Bobby Blitz sounding his street-est, I begin to laugh out of control. No sir, I do not like that singer or his band and the Overkill capable of writing "Deny the Cross" and "Rotten to the Core" does not fucking need this in any form or fashion!

Granted, this isn't that Overkill, but it's still difficult to conceive of Immortalis as anything but a 'last gasp' of the less inspired and inspiring beast they devolved into through the 90s, especially taking into account the two albums they have since released. New drummer Ron Lipnicki arrives in full force, with some strong double bass skills and chops that seem a suitable replacement for long-term thunderer Tim Mallare, and like any album the band released in the past 10-15 years, the production here is meaty and more potent than the actual music written. There are a few classier riffs here than the previous album, like the trad metal bits in "Hellish Pride" or the surgical, unexpected thrashing that breaks out in "Overkill V" (which gives us a nice foreshadowing of Ironbound), but the overwhelming majority of songs written for this seem to lack that certain 'something' which made the band so special in the Gustafson era. It's pretty much stock biker thrash, a spiritual vessel for the core Overkill aesthetics that settles safely into its mooring without ever taking a glimpse beyond the docks.

That doesn't make it poorly implemented, because it's clear the guitars have a decent grasp on their bluesy, wailing leads, and there's a little more of a furnace lit under its ass than ReliXIV. Only a few tunes like "Skull and Bones" and "Head On" suck outright, where others like "Shadow of a Doubt" seem like a hint of what's to come when the band return to their senses. D.D. Verni is not much of a presence here in comparison to the old days where you almost felt you needed to turn him down, but I'm not sure these songs deserve much effort on his behalf. Blitz turns in a slightly more venomous and taunting performance here than the last album, but he's still not screeching out those amazing, sticky choruses he once manifest in "Elimination", "I Hate" or "Electro-Violence". I hardly had high expectations for this, since Killbox 13 was, for me, the only album they'd written since the 80s that balanced on the precipice of success, but it still creates the cloying consistency of sack breath despite never fully choking off its own genitalia. The law of averages once again upheld.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10] (here is the same old story)


Friday, July 20, 2012

Overkill - ReliXIV (2005)

Perhaps better though of as RelapseXIV, Overkill's 2005 full-length takes a step back to the problems that were plaguing many of its predecessors like Necroshine, W.F.O. or From the Underground and Below, namely the fact that it seems to divide itself between a number of merely passable old school tracks redolent of their brighter 80s years and vapid groove metal tunes that are incontrovertibly insipid to the point that, for years, I've found it difficult to even remember that this album existed in the first place. It's not the worst of their studio efforts, its aroma more tolerable than the pungent experimentation of I Hear Black or the sorry arsed Necroshine, but after the band had begun to ascend from its qualitative slumber through Bloodletting and Killbox 13, it's a rather frustrating affair which really never needed to exist.

As I hear it, the problem with ReliXIV is that it really lacks ideas, most of the songs seemingly constructed out of the band's 90s riffing patterns, slightly altered. This was a problem with thrash metal in general in the prior decade, the band's simply ran out of inspiration to create fresh, progressive guitar blueprints that could carry the genre forward without needing to reduce it to a lowest common denominator platform of tough guy grooves for a moshing, hardcore influenced crowd who largely couldn't have given a shit about the content of metal as opposed to its inherent lifestyle. Just laying down palm muted processions of notes doesn't cut it, and a good number of cuts here like "Within Your Eyes" or "Loaded Rack", while well meaning and loyal to the band's origins, toss away their potential on boring guitars that don't really seem to involve much effort or technical skill, just predictable chords. What's more, though, even Bobby Blitz himself seems to have been leeched of all his own charisma, and few if any of his lines through the album cling to the brain like so many he has spat in the past...

Structurally, there is some solid production involved with the album, nice and meaty guitars rocking along with largely mid-paced Exodus palette. The chords are bold, there will occasionally be a thicker groove (intro to "Love", for example) or even a slower, tremolo picked piece. I wouldn't claim that this album had an excess of variation, though, because the songs seem to primarily hinge on slower, boring butt thrash like "Wheelz" or the mid-paced attempts to invoke the band's ritualistic enemy. Tunes like "The Mark" bring out some classic 70s metal riff sequences on top of the concrete drumming of Tim Mallere, but every card this album pulls out of its deck contributes to a losing hand. The grooves in "Play the Ace", for example are wholly generic bar-core slop that tons of groups were writing during the Pantera dominated 90s, and "Love" is such a shit tune that the quality of its riffing surpasses even the superfluous poignancy of its simplified title. The only song that dares pick up the energy to an appropriate level is "A Pound of Flesh" with its Slayer like speed metal velocity, but it too suffers form a dearth of creativity in the riffs.

It's hardly a terrible or particularly offensive album, just lackluster in all respects. Even the boring Travis Smith cover seemed played out and redundant (as with the previous record), Chaly relegated once more to the status of a gargoyle icon against a pretty uninteresting backdrop. I suppose ReliXIV could be said to sound professional enough, but ultimately it's just another supporting brick in the band's discography to keep them active and touring, and there are no classics here that belong in their set lists for fans to pine over. It's also one of those rare Overkill outings where the vocals are nearly as dull as the guitars. Not a good starting place if you find yourself new and interested in the bands, and I couldn't recommend to anyone save a fan of the most banal groove/thrash dated a decade before its release.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10] (send them on their way)


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Overkill - Killbox 13 (2003)

With its intense Slayer-ific breakdown, and the eerie chorus vocals that reprise the opening guitar melody, "Devil by the Tail" was probably the best album opener Overkill had unleashed in several years, and made me instantly excited that the band had reached deep into themselves to produce a proper knuckle sandwich worthy of the brand. There was still a hint or two of the bland riffing that plagued Necroshine, and the band was largely committed to creating similar, simplistic structures rather than finally evolving beyond the threshold they built in the later 80s, but a lot of the riffs on this seem to come together, and ultimately there are about a half-dozen songs on this thing that are comparably fun to much of the band's much lauded material of recent years.

Tracks like "Damned" or "The One" might seem to hinge on mere reconfigurations of riffs the band had written earlier for weaker records, but they possess excellent build-ups and payout choruses that stick with you at least for a few months. I don't like the backing vocals in the latter, granted, they're pretty phoned in and might have been better mixed to provide added power, but Blitz carries the day with relative ease despite the almost pedestrian mentality behind a lot of the mid-paced thrash riffing. "The Sound of Dying" has a great momentum to it, the sporadic and stringy leads, and "Struck Down" has some nice descending lines in the bass and guitar while building a speed/thrash gait not unlike "What I'm Missing", one of the standouts from the prior album. "Unholy" is another muscular piece which wouldn't have seemed out of place on a record like Taking Over, while "No Lights" and "Crystal Clear" make great use of more sluggish ball fisted pacing, the latter having some great vocals where Bobby almost seems to channel Ronny James Dio.

This was Derek 'The Skull' Tailer's studio debut in the band, returning them to the 5-man configuration they had briefly dropped off, but while he and Linsk manage to carve out a nice double slice of sirloin, I would not put it far past its predecessor. I don't know if it was a conscious decision, but the bass here, apart from being audible, doesn't exactly stand out next to the rhythm guitars, and Verni's lines feel as distinct as they had been in 88-89 or even some of their less appealing groove metal infusions. Once more, you get the few traces of 90s Overkill, but to be honest I think you could probably erase the band's career from 1991-2000 and just tack this on after The Years of Decay for a perfectly fluid continuity. Not the greatest of the band's albums, but this was more enjoyable to me than Bloodletting and the music far outshines the bland cover and title. I realize Ironbound is considered this group's return to the thrashing fore, partly due to a whole new generational audience exploring the thrash revival, but Killbox 13 was functional enough to earn that honor.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (oh to be the fire)


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Overkill - Bloodletting (2000)

Leading up to this coverage of the Overkill discography, I might have told you that Bloodletting blurred into Necroshine for me, that I've always found the albums inseparable in terms of songwriting and their aesthetic choices of hybridized groove and thrash metal, but in truth Bloodletting feels better put together than its studio predecessor, and is able to hold the listener's attention span for a larger chunk of its playtime. At the turn of the new millennium, so many fresh sounds were pouring out of extreme metal's constituent genres that an album like this was hard for me to pay much attention to. I bought it because I buy most of their records out of some strange sense of loyalty I maintain with most of the long-time veterans in the thrash genre, but I'll admit I have not gotten much value out of it...and in returning once more to see what I might have been missing...well, I'm not.

Part of the reason I do rank this above the mediocre Necroshine is that I simply seem to appreciate how Dave Linsk puts his guitars together, even through the weakest, banal grooves that infest the largely he's got a particular structure to his performance that just locks better with my rhythmic imagination. There are some admittedly lame riff patterns through the album, with songs like "Let It Burn", "I, Hurricane" or "Thunderhead" where the guitars feel incredible predictable and almost effortless to anyone who chug along and mix up a few bottom frets into chords, but in general I found that this was a more thrashing effort in total, where we were starting to see the 'Kill emerge from its sodden 90s slumber. A good example of this is "What I'm Missing", a faster speed/thrash tune with hints of 80s Megadeth threaded beneath Blitz' raucous delivery, and "Left Hand Man" which opens with these clean guitars and melodies and opens out into machine gun fire hooks that are positively saturated with energy, even despite the breakdowns. There are additional passages of cleaner guitars throughout which feel appreciably atmospheric and haunting.

Bloodletting also manifests as a more vicious and appealing experience where I almost constantly feel that same level of threat from Taking Over or Under the Influence, it just doesn't stick as much when it comes to the choruses or the quality of individual vocal lines and note progressions. The rhythm section sounds great on this one, with Verni losing a bit of his dextrous sore thumb presence and blending in a little better into the arching and crashing of the rhythm guitars, and Tim Mallare delivering a balanced attack through the slower and faster pieces. The leads here in tunes like "What I'm Missin'" are pretty good, Linsk doesn't bite off more than he can chew, carving out your ear canals with just enough finesse and unhinged spontaneity that you'll begin to remember them even when the surrounding riffs are lackluster. Blitz also manages quite a heavy load of aggression in his inflection here, nearly growling as he batters through the verse of "Death Comes Out to Play" into his street harpy heights and back again.

I would almost dub this a good album, save for that half of the songs dwell on borderline retarded grooves that seem like the band just can't shake the specters of failed stylistic growth that they had been flirting with for years. The lyrics are a crap shoot, and generic riffing and breakdowns abound, but I got the impression that at least for a few seconds in each tune there was a genuine, volatile surge of what I loved about the band so much in the mid-80s. In a way, I almost felt as if this were an early 'comeback', though the band had gone nowhere. It's not as strong as Ironbound or their most recent album The Electric Age, but despite a few stumbles it was better than anything else they'd released since Horrorscope.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (a line you'll never find)