Friday, November 30, 2012

Enslaved - RIITIIR (2012)

If you've encountered any of my shameless gushing over Enslaved in the past, then it goes without saying that the Norwegians' latest full-length RIITIIR was one of my most anticipated recordings of 2012. By this point Vertebrae (2008) and its successor Axioma Ethica Odini (2010) have received hundreds of plays between them and remain, at least for me, flawless and relevant evolutions of the group's Viking/black metal roots into a wider spectrum of progressive and psychedelic rock; flirting with accessibility without jumping lanes onto Mainstream Avenue. Last year's EPs also proved an eclectic, varied amusement, and my first few previews and inevitable post-purchase spins through this latest full-length yielded a pleasurable listen, perhaps their 'smoothest' and friendliest to date in terms of its stylistic songwriting dichotomy and production values.

And then a funny thing happened: I listened to it more, and more, not for the sheer magnetism of the music, but because I kept second guessing myself over the lack of lasting impact RIITIIR has had upon me. For all intensive purposes, Enslaved is a band which thrives on this plateau of adventurous genre-blending in which memorable licks and melodies are intertwined with the blackened, Mythic bombardment of their roots. The records they write tend to hit me not only with a strong, instant attraction but then by pouring on layers of depth, nuance and meaning that I find engaging and, frankly, eternal. RIITIIR champions all the strengths of its predecessor Axioma Ethica Odini, and has no gaping flaws of note through the substantial 67 minutes of content. There are hundreds of techniques happening through its length. Stark, wintry grooves. Atmospheric, hostile barrages of tremolo picked notes and uproarious Grutle growls. Proggy, spatial electronics and soft, shining organs serving as backdrops for the meatier riffs. No shortage of thought was placed into any given measure. No two tracks feel quite the same, even if the album has a more internal consistency than many in their lexicon. To deny the fulfillment factor of RIITIIR as a work of art would seem dishonest, and yet there is some nigh invisible barrier which prevents me from lavishing it with the utmost praise...

Perhaps it stems from the fact that this album, for all its range, does tend to play it rather safe when one examines the content of their last decade of work (beginning with Below the Lights). The clean vocals are even more unwrinkled and prevalent than the earliest attempts to incorporate them, and a lot of the plodding, slow to mid-paced guitars feel in places banal. There are a number of jazzy, warm floes of chords infused into the black metal sequences which hearken back to the divisive Vertebrae, but I found RIITIIR to lack that same balance of cloudy escapism and unwashed grittiness. The music here isn't exactly settling any new territory, but it's merely refining the rough stone cairn that its forebears once built to mark their passage. Not to say that such an effort is incapable of achieving perfection with the proper songwriting, but Enslaved have consigned this material to the mere realm of 'greatness', one that they have so often transcended. To that end, I would have to state that RIITIIR is a disappointment, in only the mildest sort where I'll fully immerse myself throughout the experience as its happening, but rarely crave it elsewhere.

On technical parameters, the band excels through the eight tracks. Rarely are groups so cohesive on a level of both creativity and competence, and there's really no shining star among the quintet. Herbrand Larsen and the inestimable Ivar let the synthesized elements speak for themselves when needed (generally in brief intro passages), but otherwise the keys dote the landscape of the metal riffing as distant copses of woodland on a grassland hike. The riffing melodies, and in particular Arve's leads simply ooze class, favoring emotion over indulgence and brightness above darkness. Grutle's barks and grunts are quite well rounded here, by this time lacking all awkwardness they might have created in the late 90s/early 'oughts. Cato Bekkevold is yet again perfectly content with the rock foundation that best complements much of the music, but he's always filling in the gaps with intensified reminders that he's very much a metal drummer capable of opening up the field, which of course happens numerous times through pounders like "Roots of the Mountain" or "Thoughts Like Hammers". The bass lines are also pumping pistons where necessary, though the more spacious segues of airier guitars might have been better served by some more interesting note choices in the grooves.

One area in which RIITIIR largely excels is in the poignant, poetic resonance of its English lyrics. A few tunes like "Roots of the Mountain" have a pretty stripped, metaphysical composition, but others rarely fail to echo all manner of imagery through me. 'Static is the common language', 'motion is the mothertongue', I devour that shit, and in particular I'd point out "Thoughts Like Hammers", "Storm of Memories" and the title track itself as my favorites. As pretentious as it sounds, Enslaved remain a very literary, 'thinking person's' metal band, as if William Faulker performed some stoic transliteration of the Poetic Eddas into a novel. This isn't mosh fueled misogynist carnage or cheesy Viking hymnals gouging on imagery that was probably lifted off a Manowar album cover. The band translate their cultural roots into something meaningful that can be applied to a world or a life far removed from the ways of old, and to say this places them in rare company would be an understatement.

Let me be clear: I realize the tone of my reaction to this record paints it as somewhat of a letdown, but that's only because I (like an asshole) place such major personal expectations on a small handful bands (like this one) which would be impossible to fill out year after year ad infinitum. RIITIIR is still a praiseworthy album, and better than most other music you'll hear this year. It's well worth its weight in any currency you could name, and I recommend that all progressive black metal afficionados, or anyone into intelligent and well scripted aural explorations with rock instrumentation and an undercurrent of extremity pick this up. It's snug enough next to its older siblings, or the works of peers Arcturus, Borknagar, Ulver, Solefald and the like. Ultimately though, despite a solid case for greatness, Enslaved didn't quite hit their legendary stride here, instead stopping to dust off the fossils and footsteps of previous outings and display them in a new museum.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (all is broken for a reason)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Haiduk - Spellbook (2012)

Haiduk's sense of unbridled velocity is made even more remarkable by the fact that this is all the work of one Canadian, Luka Milojica who competently executes each instrument and vocal like a pro. It's hardly a novelty to encounter a one-man extreme metal project in this day and age, but in general most of them tend to favor a baser, atmospheric sort of approach to the material, or at least succumb to an imprint of base rawness and simplicity. Not so for Haiduk, which is more like a fully formed, infectiously thrash-inspired death metal band moving at rabid speeds. I had half-expected a more ritualistic, occult environment with either synthesizers or other embellishments, but this is very heavily a riff-based monstrosity which pursues a clear path to punishment.

I suppose the aesthetics on parade throughout Spellbook are most redolent of those 'blackened' death metal acts out of Poland like a Behemoth, Hate, but there's a frenzied, electric post-Slayer playground to many of the riff sequences which reminds me more of Vader (Haiduk's logo even seemed like an italicized alternative to the Poles' own). However, the frenetic tapping and looping melodic cycles that Milojica is constantly airing out over the certainty of the rhythmic force take on a more frantic, technical visage redolent of something like Nevermore in cuts like "Stormcall" or the hyperactive "Lightning". The drums aren't the most dynamic or unique, and the beats are rarely more than a support system for the speed and tension, but to the album's credit, they're powerful and perfectly in step to the same sense of celerity. Slightly less impressive were the bass lines, which never seemed to take risks, or the monotonous grunts, which are percussively fit but just don't evoke much agony or interest. No, Spellbook is a guitar album, and Milojica' acrobatics in that particular stratum were more than enough to carry me through the 32 minutes of ten very concise tunes.

Granted, they're not the stickiest of riffs in terms of melodic connotation, and perhaps individually broken down they're far from unique, but the deftness and precision with which they're rifled through help keep the ears attracted to where the songs are going, in particular pieces like "Tremor" and "Vortex". The leads do often feel as if they're just 'techniques' being exploited, and not the climactic, emotional adventures I generally appreciate. Haiduk does not generally tend to incorporate much variation in tempo through particular tunes, but there are points on the album like "Lich" or the closing of "Vortex" where he plies out slower, more cautionary, exotic guitar lines that weave a necessary contrast against the thrust of the riffing majority. I also thought the minimalist choice in song titles and lyrics gave the album this sort of feeling that I was truly experiencing some lexicon of the arcane, conjurations of wind and fire and other hostile magics that were reliant on correspondence and force rather than subtle enchantment. Spellbook really is a 'tempest', and duly impressive for shucking expectations and showing no dearth of effort in its composition. The project could benefit from a more dynamic vocal inflection, and a handful more rhythmic segues, but even then this is a damn solid debut and I'm not sure what could stop this individual as he continues to develop his sound...

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Flourishing - Intersubjectivity EP (2012)

Having released what was one of my top records for 2011 in The Sum of All Fossils, I have naturally harbored some interest in what New York's post-hardcore/death mavens Flourishing would be shoveling from the angst and ether of daily life into their next recording. This has now manifest in a 3-track, 20 minute EP which further defines the more oppressive side of the band, coming both as a refreshing arbiter of consistency, but perhaps also a mild disappointment for one such as myself so embroiled in the delicious dichotomy of grace and savagery from the full-length. Not to say that this isn't still pretty sick and engrossing, or that the trio's creativity has undergone any substantial sense of distillation, but much of the material here is focused on the pounding, dissonant narratives that represented slightly over half of that debut.

Think The Sum of All Fossils if it were sent through a junkyard compactor and fused with all manner of filthy, industrial waste, and you've got a reasonable estimation of where the sounds of Intersubjectivity lie. The guitar patterns are largely built around massive, clamorous repetitions of chords which are flooded with the swill of repulsive, oozing bass lines. Once again, I find myself at odds with exactly how to accurately pin the band's influences. Treponem Pal meets Coalesce at a Zeni Geva gig? Voivod serenading Today is the Day by way of Godflesh? Half the Hydra Head roster fused through a fruit juicer? But I think much the beauty in the New Yorkers' style is how they manage to converge and contain such varied aesthetics into a bruising, ugly, corpulent release while retaining a strict level of artistry and self-identity. There are moments throughout this EP where I felt like they'd transformed into this novel industrial noise rock unit who have eschewed programmed beats and synthesizers who create an analogue of sense of urban decay (particularly in the opening volley to "A Living Sundial"), and this time out there's far less of the debut's unexpected warmth and humanity to balance out the Herculean pounding of the bass, the nauseating certainty of the riff torrents and the bloodied discomfort of Garrett Bussanick's vocals.

Of course, it's those same grisly growls which provide the trio's most apparent tether to the death metal genre that inspired them. The guitars will often bear a passing semblance to the chaos inherent in a PortalUlcerate, or Gorguts' Obscura, but very little reminiscent of traditional death metal tremolo riffs or breakdowns that haven't at least been deconstructed into the music's abrasive, rusted turmoil. Highlights of the tunes often arrive when Bussanick emits his spurious leads and wailing disharmony, particularly in "The Petrifaction Lottery" or the titular, 8 minute closer. These aren't quite so catchy as some of the passages on The Sum of All Fossils, but when the chords disappear and you hear them ringing out over the floodlight bass barrage in "Intersubjectivity", you still get that same sense of suffering and alienation which hit at a deeper level than just the pounding of the rhythm guitars elsewhere. Brian Corcoran's drums were of particular interest here, shifting between callous, concrete weirdo blasts, fills and even a jazzier backdrop to the more spatial segues from the dominant, churning chassis of the compositions.

Be warned: Flourishing is so loud and raw here that you're apt to receive a headache competitive with staking a sharpened PVC pipe through one ear and out the other, then flushing your brain with bolts, nails and screws. All instruments are audible and dynamic, but there's plenty of feedback redolent of the angrier post-hardcore coming out of the late 90s, and to be honest this lends a certain authenticity to the natural entropy of the riffs. Madness and confusion are manifest, even legion, but there's never a sense that the New Yorkers aren't in complete control of the proceedings. It might not stack up to its predecessor in terms of how sticky the songs become, even after repeated listens, and it's probably best that they were contained here rather than on the ensuing full-length. That said, through, Flourishing and Intersubjectivity are still worthwhile for those in search of a distinct, unnerving darkness that functions through its own set of rules rather than adhering to any particular status quo of extremity. Nuanced, agonizing and unquestionably ambitious.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, November 26, 2012

Destruction - Spiritual Genocide (2012)

It's hard to believe that it's been over a decade since Destruction, a band I had no expectation of enjoying after the early 90s, completely totaled me with The Antichrist and renewed themselves as one of the premier forces in European thrash. Not only that, but that the band has been so productive ever since, with another five studio outings coming down the pipe, that this was no mere 'phase' serving as antidote to the constituents' midlife crises. The caveat is that the 2001 record (their second in the reunion) set the bar so damn high that all of its followers have proven too vertically challenged to reach it. Sure, they've all been moderately enjoyable, with little effort spared in terms of production, but the elephant in the room has yet to be shot for its ivory, and pretty much every release since (with the exception of Thrash Anthems) has felt like a regurgitation of The Antichrist with inferior songwriting: better than most of the retro thrash chaff, indeed, but hardly exemplary.

Enter Spiritual Genocide, and while I still can't shake 'that feeling' that we've been down this road before on one too many journeys, I feel that this record does a better job of reconnecting the listener to the intricate and unique riffing nuances that Schmier and Mike introduced us to in the 80s. There are complexities here, in particular through the bridge and lead sequences in a number of tracks, that feel as if an extra dimension of effort was placed into the composition. Also, many of the stock verse riffs here are pretty well executed, with the exception of a few shoddy breakdown style progressions ("Renegades") that might be forgiven due to the consistency of the remainder. Mike is wise to maintain some variation to his playing through the track list, so unlike a few of its 21st century predecessors there's less of a tendency for the material to 'run together'. You get the playful, clinical speed metal licking in "City of Doom" redolent of Megadeth at their prime, the meaty and oppressive "Riot Squad" where Mike is anchored by Vaaven's intense double bass barrage, the more accessible "Carnivore" which still succeeds in getting a number of surgical thrash riffs, or "To Dust You Will Decay" with its woozy, airier segues of chords. There's just a better sense of pacing throughout than there was on a few of the other recent records like Metal Discharge or Inventor of Evil.

Of course, it's still Destruction through and through, and you'll constantly have that uncanny impression that the band have muscularly redefined the framework and inspiration behind classics like "Mad Butcher" and "Curse the Gods" and given them a new paint job. Schmier's vocals are as squashed and salacious as ever, with a number of sustained sneers and growls to ween them in a contemporary context, loads of backing shouts that make you feel as if you were surrounded by bullet-belted berzerkers having a shoving match with your body. I didn't find a lot of the bass work to really stand out, but the tone is thick enough and Schmier's playing definitely aligns to the very percussive chassis of Mike's riffing. Vaaven is quite likely the hardest hitting drummer the band has had in its career, and Spiritual Genocide is no exception to his low end reign that is a perfect match for all those summer festivals and big tours the band is attached to. This is a dense, masterful modern Destruction mix which isn't a whole lot different than Day of Reckoning, not a problem here since it's not as if I'm expecting the buzzing mayhem of Sentence of Death 2.0.

I felt like the lyrics to "Legacy of the Past" were a bit cheesy, merely a batch of popular thrash/heavy album titles that the Germans 'approve' of mashed into verses, sort of like they did with the bridge of "Thrash 'Til Death" but taken to the extreme. A verbal crossword puzzle of metal masterworks. Otherwise it's a lot of pretty cool sociopolitical posturing which takes on government control, mass media corruption and other topics that hold true today. I found the intro piece "Exordium" relatively useless, an instrumental with some brighter, clean guitars and a drum cadence that doesn't set up "Cyanide" in any effective, meaningful way. On the other hand, the bonus tracks are pretty interesting. There's a second version of "Carnivore" with Tom Angelripper (Sodom) and Gerre (Tankard) guesting, more Teutonic royalty. But I must say that the inflections of the three vocals are so might flow together a fraction too well to really distinguish themselves, and sadly I preferred the version with just Schmier. On the other hand, the cover of Saxon's "Princess of the Night" is fuckin' spot on/ace, an angrier evolution made all the Germans' own through the musculature of the guitar and Schmier's viciousness. Ultimately, Spiritual Genocide is a pretty damn entertaining kick in the chin, superior to Day of Reckoning and any of the band's other full-lengths (of new material) since The Antichrist. Beyond a few niggling flaws, the trio joins countrymen Kreator, Holy Moses and Tankard in keeping things real for the Mayan Apocalypse.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (suffocate on your desire and disgust)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Promiscuity - Infernal Rock 'n' Roll [DEMO] (2011)

It doesn't take a staggering intellect to figure out what Promiscuity are all about: vicious, uncircumcised old school black/speed metal that looks much like what the undead crowd on the demo's cover would listen to at any given moment. I admit there's some novelty that the band hails from Israel, a land known more for an ethnic overtone to its artists' output, but aesthetically Infernal Rock 'n' Roll is far more a tribute to its British and European influences. Venom is an obvious comparison point, much like on Chapel's more recent debut Satan's Rock 'n' Roll, and aesthetically this demo is barking up the same tree, poised to force-feed its forbidden fruit to the unsuspecting masses; but Promiscuity have an unwashed, unrefined, raucous approach to writing that feels like crushing a beer can on an altar and then taking a piss on the nearest nativity scene.

As I was so drawn with Welcome to Hell, Black Metal, and the formative works of Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, Nunslaughter, Bulldozer, Piledriver and Possessed, so too do I find myself drawn to the style this band is selling. With just 3 tracks and 11 minutes of content, there's not a lot of 'fleshing out' or dynamic range, but more of a straight application of the listener's face to the pavement of Hell. The bass is meted out with a plunky, sparkplug certainty while the guitars are about as raw as you could conceive, so you're getting this very 'live' sensation as if you were listening to the Israelis in a small club where their blasphemy resonates out into the rafters. Drums are consistent with this crashing, clapping atmosphere and the vocals are just a wall of hoarse rasping diabolism that won't prove unfamiliar to anyone interesting in this hybrid of forms. Infernal Rock 'n' Roll was not the recipient of a large budget, and this sort of release isn't meant to be, so in terms of punishment and primacy, there's really no complaint with the music...

That said, where I found the material lacking is just in the dearth of really interesting riffs. Solid, remorseless walls of chords rock along with a damnable certainty, but even where they launch into a breakdown like the speed/thrash bridge of "Gybenhinnom", there's never that same sense of unforgettable texture to the note progressions like we all felt when we heard Venom's "Black Metal" or Bathory's "Necromansy". Chord selections are pretty standard fare for this corner of extremity, and thus the music becomes something appreciated only a pure, visceral level rather than the fare I'll be listening to relentlessly for decades. On just about every other level I connected with the demo and took no issue with its grimy delivery and purity of purpose, like the grisly vocals to "Crime and Punishment" which I thought were depraved and fantastic; but I think that, to arrive at that next level (and a lot of groups in this niche never do), the songs have to gestate into a more formidable and sticky coalition of evil decisions. This is some decent, sincere shit here, and the lyrics are fun, but a little more effort into how the songs are constructed and you'll have a sure contender that could heat up the roster of an imprint like Hell's Headbangers or Nuclear War Now.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Agony Lords - A Tomb for the Haunted (2012)

Though the Agony Lords were first formed nearly 20 years ago, and put out a pair of albums in the 90s, this is actually only my first exposure to the Mexicans' rather unique brand of melodic death metal. A Tomb for the Haunted is coming after a few years of reformation beyond the hiatus they took last decade, but it's such a seasoned effort that it must sound as if no time has lapsed. Contrary to the extreme end sounds I'm used to from this country, like crushing cavern death mavens Denial, veterans Cenotaph, or the wildly chaotic black/death of Hacavitz, this is more of a traditional heavy metal fueled sound using harsher vocals; and what I enjoyed most about the disc is the sort of parallel evolution it represents from other bands who pursued a similar path in the 90s...

Don't expect the spastic positivity of Scandinavian dual-melodies circa the Swedish heroes, these guys play a bevy of rock solid riffs rooted in straight old doom/heavy metal, but with more of an uplifting sense of melody carved into the chords and rock & roll leads that erupt throughout. I could make comparisons like a 'happier' Paradise Lost, or a Central American alternative to the Amok-era of Sentenced (the vox redolent of Taneli Jarva's performance there) but these wouldn't fully do the album justice, because it really is its own thing. Thick, thundering guitar progressions amply balance a kinetic momentum with granite tone, over which the emotional leads wail off into the atmosphere. Bright chords are used in pieces like "Emily" to create an almost 80s DeGarmo/Queensryche feel only slathered in the hoarser inflection of the vocalist, and haunting feedback and riffs are often imposed by the guitars to carry the darker subject material. The drums and bass have a very livid, rock feel about them, and this accessible foundation helps create a clarity for the listener that you don't often experience with more brutal bands. There's also a pretty wide variety of riffs, each song written to provide a distinct experience from the rest without losing aesthetic cohesion.

I'd say the album isn't quite so oblique or spectral as the cover might imply, but there's no rule that horror based bands need implement the most crushing or dissonant of sounds. Some will also have a hard time dubbing this 'death metal' as they do with a band like Deceased or mid-period Sentenced. But semantic quibbles aside, they stand out instantly due to just how refreshing they feel against the backdrop of trends that grow tiring with over-saturation. Agony Lords focus very heavily on the songwriting, and they're pretty strong at it. Not that A Tomb of the Haunted is stuffed to the gates with the most memorable compositions out there, but I found myself revisiting pieces like "Raising the Occult", "The Tree of the Hanged" and the titular finale and repeatedly enjoying them. Call it what you must in terms of its genre classification, but this is a good comeback for a band that probably should escape the obscurity they've so far existed in, and if you seek a melodic/death record with a clear difference from the heaps of At the Gates/Dark Tranquillity clones that usually clog this creative drainpipe, you've just found it.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Xanthochroid - Blessed He With Boils (2012)

On first listen, Blessed He With Boils is quite a lot to take in, an album of enormous ambition and magnitude which spares no expense in either production qualities or musical complexity. Not that the Californians are composing very 'difficult' or inaccessible pieces here, but there can be no question that a great deal of time was spent penning, refining and laying down nearly an hour of epic/melodic black metal with some obvious progressive leanings that point to Scandinavian influences as broad as later Emperor, Winds, Arcturus, Opeth, even symphonic/tinged pagan extreme metal outfits like Wintersun or Ensiferum. Specifically, the soaring clean vocals and the atmospheric embellishments brought to mind the Borknagar material post-The Archaic Course, but there are some differences in how the riffs are constructed and Xanthochroid is certainly a more dynamic entity overall.

Rather than dive into preexisting mythologies or popular fantasy fare, they've conceptually spun the two from the imagination of vocalist/keyboardist Sam Meador, and built their own, fertile world from which to pluck lyrical inspiration. To the fantasist or escapist listener, this is immediately appealing, rather than revamping the tired ideology often expressed through black or pagan metal, but to be truthful, I was just far more impressed with the actual consistency and proficiency of the music itself. Gleaming and delicate acoustic guitars, sweeps of symphonic synthesizer elegance, and rolling tribal percussion are all delivered in a solid ratio to the more metallic components, which involve fits of melodic black/death tremolo picking sequences, airier bouts with atmospheric dissonance, and scads of variation in the tempos and eloquent note progressions which ensures that, despite the substantial amount of content, the album rarely feels dull or overlong. I'm not claiming that every single lick through the course of this disc is infinitely memorable, or that the individual ingredients feel unique unto themselves, but the combination thereof creates an exceptional landscape of possibilities through which to voyage far and wide.

The studio mix is a major factor, with a lot of clean, crisp sounding guitars that sustain their potency through the chords, mutes and speedier passages; all measured cautiously against the swerving, dreamy bass lines and the impeccable, professional pummeling of the drums. The vocals are arranged beautifully, whether pursuing the I.C.S. Vortex like wail in the cleaner inflection, the harsher Ihsahn rasps, dirtier guttural grunts, or even the layered choirs which give the uncanny effect of some heathen rock opera. The synthesizers use a lot of strings and pianos rather than spacier ambient effects, which is why it definitely nails that Norwegian comparison I hinted at earlier, but these are all handled tastefully. I did feel as if there were a few too many 'setup' sequences in terms of how phrases felt like intros (or outros), and the album might have withstood 5-10 minutes of trim, but then again these don't necessarily detract from its value if you're interested in a more thorough escape. I also wouldn't have minded a few stickier lead guitars in the depths of the longer tracks, but there's so much happening in a piece like "Long Live Our Lifeless King" or "Rebirth of an Old Nation" that you'll hardly notice.

In summation, this record is damn likely to blow a good number of people out of their chairs, and fans of melodic, majestic modern black metal ala Ne Obliviscarus, Cormorant or the past decade of Borknagar records would do well to keep their ears and eyes on this one.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Stribog - U Okovima Vječnosti (2010)

Pagan/black or folk/black metal is not something I cover often enough here, a situation I'll one day hope to rectify, because I'm constantly being surprised at how well that scene in general has progressed from its rustic roots. Where once I found a lot of production flaws and inconsistency in the strength of the 'metal' element to such acts, recent years have seen a wealth of better riff material to balance off against the acoustic guitars, female guest vocals, flutes, and other ingredients often incorporated to the formula. Stribog is a pretty good example of how Europe has become a hotbed for this aesthetic, as they've got most of the strengths and none of the weaknesses associated with this niche. U Okovima Vječnosti, their first (and thus far) only full-length, might seem a little 'garden variety' in execution, but its damn solid and has a lot to offer whether your tastes run towards an Arkona, Nokturnal Mortum, Finntroll or Temnozor.

First, there is the presence of these intense and justifiably blaring female vocals which sound superb wherever they manifest through the track list. Somewhere between Arkona and Dalriada in delivery, but never without a sequence of notes that carve out your brain and make you wish you were somewhere else, somewhere ancient, beholden to nature as beautiful as this woman's inflection. These are often meted out into a sensual whisper ("Morana") or joined to a more ominous male tone, but without a doubt they provide an intrinsic, vibrant energy through the debut that is essential to its success. Otherwise, you've got an amalgam of blackened/thrash metal with a lot of bone crushing force to the lower-end muted progression, and then a more wide open vista of glaring, atmospheric melody that is usually affixed to the female vocals. As for the male parts, it's a petulant, carnal black rasp, not so unique in of itself but effectively loud and raucous. The bass thunders along with a clear traditional heavy metal influence circa Iron Maiden, while the drums, if rarely interesting, give the riffing that added discharge of momentum.

As with many such albums, you'll experience periods of calm that both rise and fall from the faster, hostile movements, but U Okovima Vječnosti is up to the task of keeping it all in line. Flutes, ringing piano keys, waves, synths, and brooding, glorious backing choirs are all spliced into the mix to create the larger-than-life atmospheres, and you'll never pass a moment without some sort of ear candy carrying you off to a distant land. Lyrics paint paeans to the band's Slavic forebears and the majesty of nature, but a few of the tunes ("Follow the Silver Path", "Remember With Pride") are also in English. They wear their inspiration on their sleeves a bit much, but nothing too corny. Perhaps my least favorite part of the album would be the guitar progressions; as lively, appropriate and energized as they tend to be, the structure of the riffs very often just seems a vehicle for the atmospheric flourishes, a smattering of power, black and thrash metal sequences which are all similar to those we've heard before. But fortunately, they're not alone here, and all the elements in unison do create a grand, fun and at times memorable experience. Worth a spin if you're into the folksy bands I named earlier, the recent Skyforger material or Switzerland's Eluveitie.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Blodsrit - Diktat Deliberi (2012)

Blodsrit could hardly be considered the most prominent black metal act in their native Swedish scene, but 14 years and 6-full lengths ensure that they've been one of its most functional and consistent. I think part of their obscurity can be attributed to the fact that they've hardly broken the mold of the many and more celebrated Scandinavian peers. That said, with an arresting and duly competent expression of cold savagery like The Well of Light Has Finally Dried (2006) under your belt, you hardly require innovation to win an audience. Unfortunately, their 7th album (if we're counting the Supreme Misanthropy MMVIII remake of their 2001 debut) Diktat Deliberi just never seems to capitalize on the raw talents of its creators, and left me a little too dry despite the absence of measurable flaws.

In other words, the major drawback I had here was the dearth of distinguished songwriting, not for the lack or a sense of variation, but simply because so few of the riffs possess me for more than a brief time, and there just wasn't anything calling me back to the experience. In terms of potent, destructive, blazing and abyss born production values, Blodsrit can be counted among acts like Marduk, 1349, Dark Funeral, Setherial and so forth, because they get a nice, bold grime to the guitars that never dwarfs the listener's ability to hear each of the razing, roiling note progressions (though they create less of the mindless blast fest associated with those bands). The drums provide the essential, storming battery of muscular double bass driving and bursts of hellfire excess that defines this niche, which hit its summit in the mid-90s but still inspires a metric ton of later groups. They'll also layer in a subtle, non-exclusionary folk feel thanks to the sparse acoustic guitars (as you'll hear in songs like "Skapelseförfall"), and combined with the light use of synths this brings about an atmospheric nostalgia for Bathory's magnum opus Blood Fire Death. The vocals are evoked through full-bodied, ferocious black snarls, but again there's just nothing distinct about them.

So what we're left with is a pretty stock black metal record, from a band who seemed strongest during the middle of the previous decade with Helveteshymner or The Well of Light Has Finally Dried. In terms of aesthetics, this sounds a lot like it looks, but doesn't exactly deliver on the occult beckons of the cool cover icon. The thing that kills me about a disc like this is that, for all my indifferent reaction, there's really nothing all that wrong with, or inherently bad about the music. It has a voluminous, oppressive airiness about it when the Swedes are cruising along at mid-pace, and the riffs are usually different enough from one another that it doesn't succumb to the endless cycle of frustrating repetition. The instruments are all in place, and the vocals sufficiently unfriendly and misanthropic, but I just couldn't find the carrot on the stick here. Possibly worth checking out if you're into similar sounds from bands like Ragnarok, (90s) Emperor or Enthroned, or just want a straight-up, no frills onslaught of well produced black metal, but if you're approaching Blodsrit for the first time, you'll get better results by starting earlier in their career.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Haiku Funeral - Nightmare Painting (2012)

If you thought Haiku Funeral's name was curious, then wait until you hear the music these Frenchmen evoke from all manner of nightmares. A hybrid of Gothic, industrial and soundtrack elements pulled from a vast number of freakish sources, they create music that would be the perfect fit for some cult, B-movie classic of horror or cyberpunk, only with the caveat that there's an added sheen of complexity without the visual aids present. There's also a metal ingredient here, with the harsh and visceral vocals that often transform into asylum howls, but oftentimes the actual structure of the music is rooted in a progressive pop leaning that best suits its ability to disperse creepy curve balls in the listener's direction. In short, it's not easy to categorize: listen at your own risk, and without any preconceptions, and you might come away having a good, ghoulish time.

Tonally, the songs traverse quite a large spectrum of sounds even within the constraints of a 3-4 minute time frame. For instance, "Blacklight Amniotic Erotica" opens with thuggish, fat and I daresay 'funky' bass-lines over a distorted, driving mid-pace beat, while the vocals take on a brute, conversational quality, and then later it transforms into creeping ambiance and hideous rasping over ghostly, dissonant guitars. "Raining Nightbirds" is a surreal nightscape of electronic sounds that phase into and out of being like the backdrop of some eternally overcast cybernetic city, a distant beat substantiating its abstract momentum. "Your Heart a Black Tunnel" is like what you might expect if Abruptum was to remix a Massive Attack tune, and the vignette "Death Poem" is pretty much pure dark ambiance that wouldn't be out of place for Atrium Carceri. The connecting ligaments to all these pieces come through the vocal inflections which only range to about 3-4 styles maximum, and the associated darkness each of them shares. Some beats and synthesizers will often bear similarities with others, but there's really a plethora of subcultural electronic styles being flushed into this strangely cohesive, progressive matrix and capped with that darker hint of metallurgy.

One thing the album is not is grating, at all. You're not going to experience too many blinding floods of noise or angst. The compositions are fluid, and despite the eccentricity on parade, they're all pretty structured. I thought at times that the poetic, crank world view and atmosphere reminded me of the industrial legends Skinny Puppy, or the eclectic attitude reminiscent of fellow French act Pin-Up Went Down. Some of the swarthier, trip-hop-like passages reeked of Arcturus' The Sham Mirrors. But that's only the tip of the iceberg, and no such comparison can fully define Haiku Funeral's intentions. This record is really like a massive, electrode-tweaked finger painting by some child building its own reality from fragments of horror and outsider musical influence. I won't claim that all of the songs are catchy, or that the band doesn't have a distance to travel in perfecting this uncanny bastardization of forms, but I will state that there was rarely a minute among the 43 of Nightmare Painting that I wasn't, at the very least, interested (if not compelled).

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Ortega - 1634 (2010)

I'm not sure where my inherent aversion to a lot of sludge metal began, but down through the years I've been turned off by releases in that field far more often than not. There are, truthfully, a few dozen albums of the style that appeal to me, some greatly so, but on the other hand, a lot of the trawling Neurosis/Isis knockoffs and post-Sabbath/Buzzoven riff matrices that occupy both sides of this all too narrow spectrum feel so intrinsically bland to my ears that even with a blackened crust on top they simply lack the nuance and writing to stick with me. I say this because Ortega, a Dutch outfit seeing their 2010 debut reissued through Aesthetic Death this year, strikes such a rare balance between melody and potency that they took very little time in catching my attention and overcoming the mental hurdles I've faced in this category.

1634 is a maritime conceptual album, or as they dub themselves, 'ocean doom', and I feel that the musical content does a pretty job of living up to that handle. Passages of clean, ringing guitars are fused into a greater whole of drudging-doom riffs, but all are produced with a lot of weight and clarity. The rhythm guitar riffs are not necessarily innovative or nuanced, but the configurations of chords are strong enough that they keep the listener engaged through 6-7 minute track lengths. What really ties this all together, though, are the soaring and eloquent melodies that seem like slowed, subdued sea shanty paeans that are balanced expertly against the crash of the chords in the backdrop. You'll hear some of the better of these in pieces like "Shipwrecked" and "Octagon", but they are present throughout most of the disc, measuring off well against the subtler clean breaks and powering doom rhythms. As if they were some glorious tide enforcing the group's refusal to devolve into the ennui I often associate with the style and themes. The drums vary between the hard hitting grooves necessary for the sludge sequences and the slow, tribal climbs redolent of Neurosis (like the intro to "The Siren"), and the bass is thuggish and thumping enough to make its presence known here.

In addition, the band incorporate some beautiful, atmospheric relishes to the standard formula instruments, like a soft glaze of moody synthesizers or a guest violin player that really escalates the emotional narrative of "The Siren" and "Octagon". Vocals are a more rasped and tormented play on the traditional Neurosis bark, but there are also soothing, cleaner inflections to steer softer moments on the record. Altogether, the varied instruments and dynamics here succeed in as starved, semi-captivating journey across the waves. There were a few moments in which I didn't think the transitions worked, like the instrumental intro "Still" which could really just be any random bunch of dreamy stoner or indie-rockers leading up to the far more resonant "Into the Waves", but even to that piece you can develop a solid, internal vision of sitting by some ocean docks while the early boat traffic arrives and departs, a solitary gull wheeling off in the distance. Though the style of 1634 is not quite the same, I'd say the record has a load of crossover appeal for fans of maritime proponents like Germans Ahab or Mastodon's Leviathan, or a snug weekend affair with Coleridge's Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, but without a doubt those that like airier doom with a lot of musicality, or progressive sludge pundits like Cult of Luna or Isis (Oceanic) will weigh this anchor and hoist its sails proudly.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (this sinking cage is pulling us down)

Draumar - Gebirge EP (2012)

The biggest gripe I could launch against Draumar's Gebirge is that it's just too damn short, because music this beautiful, majestic and moving needs a lot of space to breathe, and once the 20 minutes of content has run its course I felt myself lost...salivating for more. Now, it's not as if this is being marketed as anything more than an EP, but the point stands that Draumar himself (the sole musician here) has such a firm, refined approach to this sort of ambient, martial/orchestral grandeur that I could probably sit through a solid 24 hour, Wagnerian epic with him at the steering wheel. Fans of outfits like Summoning, Lord Wind, Hellveto or the soothing, symphonic swells of German forebears Empyrium will devour this, and I'd even go so far as to recommend it to those into the martial scene or the better-produced dungeon synth artists.

It's not as raw as Summoning, per se, but the steadied, gradual result of Gebirge is much the same, a sense of rapture that captures and transports the listener into a world of olde. Layers of pianos, strings, flutes and choirs are arranged into simple but addictive patterns that are then tempered off against peaceful acoustic patterns. Add to this the sequences of blackened, minimal guitar chords that drift out over the gorgeous backdrop, and a rasp not unlike those implemented by Protector and Silenius, and you've got this corporeal, multidimensional sound both damning and delightful, whether you're sitting at the foot of a mountain dreaming of swords, sorcery and maidens or you're just emboldened to the angels or Valkyries you might imagine that ride through beams of sunlight piercing the cloudscape. I don't mean to paint a picture of Gebirge as some frivolous fairy-tale, because it genuinely reproduces such scenes of escapism with zero sense of irony; only I wish to interpret just how transcendent and unreal I felt in listening through this.

Most of the Draumar songs I've happened upon before ("Mondhymne", etc) had a lighter attitude with a bit more of a bleak, piano aesthetic to them, so I was a little surprised by how concise and well-rounded these four were. Regardless, this has prompted me to track down the older full-lengths to find what I've been missing. On a production level, Gebirge is immaculate: you'll be able to tell that this is not necessarily a real orchestra performing the sounds, but that's not going to be a hindrance for its intended audience. The drums can admittedly be a little bare and empty during some of the transitions where the ambient symphonic eloquence takes hold, but they definitely construct a more harried, powerful foundation during the black metallic infusions. If this had been twice (or thrice) as long, and the other content as consistent and stirring as this quartet of tunes, I might have numbered it among my favorite albums of the year; but even as it stands, Gebirge provides a splendid tour of an imagination that stands up to myriad, repeated listens, and it should prove exciting to hear what Draumar will compose next.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Monday, November 19, 2012

Wilt - Wilt EP (2012)

Winnipeg's Wilt present an entirely coherent union of visuals and sounds through their debut EP. What you're seeing on the cover of this thing is what you're getting within, a rush of desolate, textured black metal which seems far more aligned to the colder seasonal climes and pilgrimages unto a vast, empty wilderness than the urban/suburban envelope most listeners no doubt find themselves stuffed into for most of their waking hours. As such, I felt like the music here was presented well enough to grant that sense of distance, if not overwhelming in its choices of note progressions. While I was able to lose myself among its dreary boughs and limbs for the half-hour it asked of me, I can't say that there was much here which lingered long beyond the fact.

Wilt is far better suited to those who demand spacious, depressive black metal than the incendiary, blast fueled regime of more technically oriented aggression. Loads of double bass patterns are used as a bustling foundation for the simpler note patterns above, which provide a rather hopeful, repetitive meandering vision like following a bird of winter as it skates across the treetops. The low end of the music definitely gives the impression of the listener feeling 'rooted' to the ground and looking up at the grandiose heights surrounding him/her. Production is dense and fulfilling, as opposed raw and ripping with suicide-grime. Rather than the typical, rasp associated with the black metal spectrum, these vocals have a far broader, deeper timbre to them which works well as they echo out across the top of the instruments. But on the downside, while this is a rigid fit for the structure of the riffs, I felt like there was very little variety to the inflection, and some monotony did set in despite the fact the guy has some obvious pain tucked away. In general, the music here erred on the side of slow, dreamy caution, which also grew tedious in spots.

Don't get me wrong: Wilt will occasionally throw a spurious, measured blast in your direction (like the intro to the 11 minute "Empyrean"), but their writing is meant to move with the certainty of an ancient monolith through its wintry woodland environs. As if the oldest tree in the forest pulled up its roots and migrated to its afterlife, a ghostly procession of bark and withered leaves. Death and decay are legion, but there's a real sense of grace to the airy melodies they embed deep into the compositions, while never being as frivolous or cheap sounding as some of the tunes I've heard by Agalloch or Woods of Ypres (bands who possess a similar thematic approach to expression). If I've got one real issue with the music, it's that beyond these occasional exhibitions of lightness that divert the listener's attention, there's just nothing all that compelling or new happening, and it becomes burdened with its own sense of sorrowful certainty. The duo is competent enough at this style, and I found the EP a decent accompaniment for my morning rounds at the local park, but I'd like to hear them branch out a little further (no pun intended).

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Yurei - Night Vision (2012)

If there was something immediately striking to me about Night Vision, it was the record's free-flowing, jazzy rhythmic atmosphere, compounded by the fact that this is the work of Norwegian musician Bjeima. A few of you might recognize him from his bass playing on the latest Virus disc The Agent That Shapes the Desert, an album I fawned over last year and continue to fawn over now, and in truth Yurei possesses much in common with their output (and the earlier Ved Buens Ende works). The difference here is that in place of Virus' post-metal sonics you've got more of a roots, jamming progressive rock aesthetic being poured through a fusion strainer, but the similarity in vocal tone/delivery and the grooves of the bass are close enough that fans of the one might find the other to their tastes.

From what I've read, the Yurei debut had more of a metallic inflection to the guitars, but here they're usually cast in a mold of clarity that is matched by the pungent, frolicking bass lines. Lots of awkward, jazzy and jarring runs are constantly engaging the listener while the drugged, accented spoken word vocals ring out like it's open mic at some cautionary coffee house seated at the edge of a blizzard or other disaster. The beats are very fresh with a lot of varied percussion often taking the helm over standard beats, and Bjeima is also not afraid to incorporate a lot of synthesized effects in the tunes (like "Insomniac Bug Hunt") that give the album an added sheen of atmospheric haze, preventing it becoming too rooted in the shelter of an average  jazz-rock jam. A lot of the lead-work is implemented directly into the rhythm patterns, so there's a sense of complexity to the compositional style even if it's nothing incendiary or difficult on the ears, and a constant subtext of unnerving playfulness which feels like a bad experience with a cup of java, or a bad day at the office...

Despite its obvious nuance and open-mindedness, Night Vision is surprisingly consistent in terms of the instrumentation and the effect many of the tracks leave upon the audience. Occasionally a piece like the piano-driven "Sleepwalkers In Love" tackles a more classy, old-times 'noir' feel that feels like you've just walked into a speakeasy of the dead; while "Cranial Echoes" is altogether a creepier, atmospheric mood set against spectral, alien wails. For the most part, though, there's a jangling, energetic impulse to the writing which is steady through the 43 minutes of material. It's not entirely experimental, by which I mean it sets up its own parameters and then sticks to them. Night Vision makes a lot of sense, especially to those familiar with its influences, but it's still a fresh sense, and as there's a nigh on guaranteed appeal here for fans of the more avant-garde Norwegian acts borne of the metal scene: Ulver, Arcturus, Virus, Shining, Solefald or the Ihsahn solo efforts; not to mention followers of edgier progressive fusion/rock. Damn solid.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Stagnant Waters - Stagnant Waters (2012)

Franco-Norse collaboration Stagnant Waters have chosen what is perhaps one of the more ironic band names I've encountered of late, for if there's anything this debut album isn't, it's in any way involved in the process of 'stagnation'. Granted, there are precedents to the sort of manic mesh of black metal and industrial aesthetics that dominate this unhinged lunatic asylum sound. Names like Dødheimsgard, Aborym, Thorns and the latest works of Abigor come immediately to mind, but Stagnant Waters do not necessarily treat their mutated sound in quite the same way: there's less of a sense of 'control' or construction here as a sense of chaos flooding the listeners' perceptions to the point where it might damn well drive you mad, or madder as the case may be.

Take, for instance, the first track here "Algae" which presents a barrage of noisy, dissonant and strangely melodic black metal over caustic blasts and then, within the first minute, manages to devolve into a void of faint chiming percussion and rushes of distorted glitch, then back again, and then picking up into this monstrous, mechanized beat somewhere between Ministry and Meat Beat Manifesto, drowned in an unfeeling, robotic vocal glaze. This sort of juxtaposition of unsettling calms and all-out, brazen assaults upon the senses continues through the remainder of the 46 minutes, and though it can often grate on the nerves due to its lack of supporting structure, I promise you that it's never boring. In fact, some of the record's most interesting moments come deeper into the track list like the disheveled, magnificent 10 minute epic "Axolotl" or the pummeling nightmare finale "From the Breaking Neck to Infinity", a shattered vision of dysfunctional electronic glamor and sanity-stabbing mayhem.

But be warned! Even at its warmest ("Castles"), there is nothing inviting or accessible here for the saner audience. The tracking of the splotchy, acidic guitars and the drum beats are quite raw in presentation, and the vocals a splice of incendiary blackened rasping and hoarser shouts courtesy of Svein Egil Hatlevik (Fleurety), no stranger to the uncanny blend of aural fragments on exhibition here. The palate of noisy, glitched synthesizer elements runs from primordial 90s industrial circa Skinny Puppy to a more chiptune feature-set, and about half the metal chord blitzes on the album feel like you're flossing with a spiked chain. There are even what sound like blaring, noisy woodwind instruments here ("Concrete") that enhance the sense that, no matter what, Stagnant Waters is fucking with you. Ultimately, how well you'll be able to process their incessant tirade of aggravations will go a long way to your appreciation of this eponymous debut. If you can imagine and salivate over a hybrid of Thorns and John Zorn's Naked City, you'll want to sink your teeth into this until your gums are bloodied.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, November 16, 2012

Jute Gyte - Senescence (2012)

Though I found it the least engrossing of the six Jute Gyte albums I've yet covered here, it speaks volumes that Senescence maintains that sense of driving discomfort and experimentation that dominates Adam Kalmbach's project. In terms of artistry, this disc continues to carve out some of the more poignant and frightening terrain in all of USBM, a dissonant monolith of isolation unperturbed by trend or accessibility. But I found my disappointment stemmed largely from the first three tracks (representing about 30 minutes of material), which for some reason just weren't hooking me like these records usually do, and then there were a few dry spells later on the album that returned to the same, numbing sense that I'd been here before, and that this particular path of composition might be drawing to its natural conclusion.

There is some trace of redundancy with the earlier Jute Gyte black metal albums, but I would say that this is perhaps the most consistent in terms of its dry, heaving, scorched earth affectations. The lengthy tracks tend to hover around a 9-10 minute duration and mesh together a weave of faster paced, dissonant grime and breakouts of drudging, bombastic chords, which is not atypical for this project, and strangely mirrors a lot of the lower tier underground black metal which uses a good deal of repetition and padding along to the drum programming. That said, where Kalmbach's work has always differed is in his constructions of chords, which bring a fresh, yet still harrowing nuance to the predictability often associated with your usual tremolo patterns or Darkthrone/Hellhammer grooves. As such it has almost always felt like Jute Gyte was some parallel development of black metal which came out of some long lost continent, that had lost contact with the world since the first few releases from Burzum, Ildjarn, or other tortured souls responsible for bringing this primal and repulsive instinct to the niche. Senescence is no exception to this agenda, it simply loses of that element of surprise inherent to its predecessors.

I thought the most unique and fascinating piece here was tucked away at the end with "Griefdrone", a mortifying afterthought which almost feels like something off Filosofem if it had been infested with an almost sporadic improvisation of dungeon synth/B-grade horror score keys to create a convoluted canvas of slowly elevating filth. Once that imminent wall of distorted girth arrives deep into the track, it's like a crushing weight being applied to the listener's throat, and it's without a doubt the most memorable of these tunes. The titular "Senescence" is another of the Jute Gyte instrumentals, but this time quite different than "Isolation", which is hands down one of my favorite cuts in his whole catalog. Sad, stripped guitars ring off into a folksy ambiance with a 70s glaze of synthesis for support, and this is yet another of the album's standouts. As for the more purely black metal material, it's "The World Falls Apart Into Facts" which struck me hardest, a 10 minute behemoth of nihilistic blasting, atonal spikes of descending tremolo melody and some incredibly breakdowns into pummeling chords or spatial clean guitars and asylum screams in the substantial bridge.

Otherwise, I felt like a lot of the other material, especially on the first half of the disc, seemed to blend together, if only because the riff textures just didn't seem so distinct as others he's written. I do like the weird, swerving current of bass that rides the edge of perception alongside the thundering chord sequences, but there were only a few passages of guitars, generally during bridges, that came out of left field. The lyrics remain a highlight of this act, especially in "Striated Rubies" and  "The World Falls Apart Into Facts", evocative snips of poetry that eschew a lot of the faux-occult grandstanding popular with the genre in favor of some relevance to civilization, mortality and the individual's relationship to nature. The vocals have ever been the least novel aspect of Jute Gyte, but they still pursue that genuine suffering once manifest by the outsiders of the genre (Varg Vikernes the strongest comparison). Ultimately, Senescence is an hour of measured savagery with a few exhilarating twists, but it didn't rattle my perceptions quite so much as its slightly more eccentric predecessors like Impermanence or Old Ways.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (oh, for any patent from oblivion)

Wither - Necropolis (2012)

Much as its cover casts a strangely hopeful light on the decay of urban civilization, through the luminous waterfall sifted through its ruins, so too does the music of Wither possess a strange, ironic warmth for its chosen sound. An admixture of depressive black metal and doom tinted aesthetics sparsely threaded with dreary, folksy acoustic passages providing an added, faint elegance to the music's sense of escapism, and Necropolis becomes more hypnotic the more I listen. This is in part due to the Australians' constant knack for aural exploration and willingness to eschew the normally endless and monotonous repetition one might naturally associate with this sort of hybrid style, creating tunes that are substantial but concise for this airy sense of pacing.

The electric guitars here have a grainy, driving sensibility to them which sets up a grand contrast to the other sounds. Riff construction is often minimal, simplistic chord progressions gliding along at a moderate tempo and used as a basin for the vocals, which are a mix of hoarser growls and rasps and solemn, psychedelic cleans that oft felt like Johan Edlund of Tiamat or some other Goth-tinted, Floyd-ian embarkation. The acoustics are both graceful and numbing, neither exceptionally composed or novel, but at the same time not ever distraction against the more emotionally weighted, heavier processions of notes. The drums have an incredibly stripped down feel to them, almost as if they were being played on a tinny kit with only a few pieces, but since Necropolis is not the sort of record that subsists on explosions of accelerated energy, these fit in well within the leeching, somnolent environment they support. I quite enjoyed the bass lines, which are these tiny, classic metal grooves and builds thumping along under the straightforward guitar patterns, enforcing that free-flowing sense of atmosphere and passionate sadness that the pessimism of the lyrics would impart.

Despite the downcast flavor of the material's theme though, Necropolis can in places provide a strangely uplifting feel due to the choices in notation. For instance, there's a thriving, hopeful undercurrent to the track "Seeming", and despite the grating, harsh vocals in a piece like "Transpression", which was redolent of another Australian act (Austere), the chords harbor a sullen majesty. Some might find the acoustic breaks or the dungeon synth/ambient piece "Lost" to be mildly inconsistent filler against the broader, superior metallic tracks, but I found that in terms of the empty, abandoned spaces they evoked, they gelled together well enough that I welcomed the diversity. I wouldn't have minded some better riff-writing overall through the course of the 43 minutes, but as atmospheric vehicles the whole of Necropolis is pretty smooth. More sad than bright, perhaps, but I get the impression that a bed of flowers was growing up through its considerable heaps of ash and decay, giving Wither an element of depth that wouldn't exist if they were performing with a full-on, caustic, snarling abandon.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Kuolemanlaakso - Uuljas uusi maailma (2012)

Kuolemanlaakso is yet another Finnish group which seeks a stripped down approach to songwriting, but not a new one, its members hailing from the ranks of groups like Chaosweaver, Barren Earth and such. The prevalent theme here is doom metal, but very well produced doom with a bold, brazen crunch to the guitars and a mixture of blackened rasp vocals, death grunts or mournful, ominous cleans, all in the native tongue. The first comparison which came to mind was Ajattara, though the focus here isn't so much on mug-swinging, blacker sounding grooves, and there are more atmospherics present to complement the simple, loping strides of the low, muted guitar passages. It's also similar to Tom G. Warrior's post-Celtic Frost outfit Triptykon, which Laakso has cited as the primary influence to this, even going so far as to hire on guitarist/vocalist V. Santura to produce this 8 track, 48+ minute debut.

Now, as one of a handful of folks who found Eparistera Daimones to be one of the most overblown records of 2010 (rather bland songwriting wreathed in massive production), this would not be a personal selling point, but Uuljas uusi maailma is far from a direct copy of that album. Where the two intersect is simply in that they possess a foundation of primitive, enormous guitars, and they both envision a hybrid of extreme metal genres moving at a slower pace, rather than attempting to ape doom/death classics circa Britain in the early 90s. I rather prefer the use of ambient elements that the Finns bring out here. Environmental samples, ominous synths swept off against the backdrop, tribal percussion and vocals ("Roihusydän"), swells of raunchy, oozing bass (as in "Kuun Lapset"), and a good balance of melody and low-end pummeling really round out this experience, and the songs are never so painfully protracted as to force a watch check on my end. The guitars are robust, rich, if not elegant, and the vocals are enormously well produced, probably even more entertaining for those schooled in the language. The drums are balanced, ogrish and really keep the momentum of the songs interesting even when the riffs grow dull.

In fact, I haven't a single complaint about the actual production of this disc: it sounds fantastic, up to any standards. Where it loses a little steam with me is in the guitar writing. There are some decent, weighted grooves coursing through a number of the tracks, but most of them just feel like stolid exercises in accenting the rhythm of the drums and measure of the songs rather than evoking inspiration in of themselves. Without their considerable atmospheric embellishments, they would feel rather dry in terms of content, and with the exception of a few of the acoustic passages or more 'exotic' progressions of chords, I found myself too often distracted to the vocals, bass or various other fragments of their sound. To be fair, even in the longer tunes like "Etsin" or closer "Aurinko", there is enough variation occurring that Uuljas uusi maailma never becomes a chore to experience, but catchier, superior rhythm guitars would have really hammered this album harder into my memory. As it stands, it's worth checking out if you're fond of the Triptykon full-length, the members' other acts like Barren Earth, or maybe even the better-produced Barathrum outings (where the bass is emphasized in a similar fashion), but it never felt entirely dark or ominous as was the intention.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Opium Warlords - We Meditate Under the Pussy in the Sky (2012)

Though the album title and the band's name here are both fantastic, and the chosen artwork fascinating, it does feel for the first few minutes elusive as to what the Opium Warlords are bringing to the table for their sophomore, since the opening instrumental "Sxi-Meru" is not 100% representative of the contents of the record's remainder. What we've got here is a curious excursion into psychedelic drone/doom, interspersed with long passages of bleak, folksy acoustic guitars, contrasted by the irregular eruptions into distorted chords and tortured howls that are almost lost in places below the volume of the guitar. I was somewhat reminded of the US act Blood of the Black Owl, only We Meditate Under the Pussy in the Sky isn't nearly so grim or ritualistic, promoting more of a wasteful, morose, rustic scenario that breathes cold air into its spacious compositions.

There are only five tracks here, and no two are entirely the same in structure, with various instruments taking the 'lead' in various phrases. All are performed by a single musician, Sami Albert Hynninen, who has also played in Reverend Bizarre and Spiritus Mortis (among others), and you'll definitely hear a measure of correlation with the bleakness of the former, in just how dry and agonizing the simplicity of the guitars can be. Admittedly, though, in the case of this album, that is indeed their chosen function. This is not an intricate, complex or nuanced album by any means, but a sheer outcropping of emotion borne on very authentic, live sounding drums, and minimalistic progressions of notes. Walls of melodies are eschewed for a countryside coldness, and you can really envision yourself sitting by a decayed wall, abandoned farm equipment or a withered tree stump in an overgrown, kudzu-infested garden as you listen through. Apart from this banal, haunting, outdoorsy aesthetic, though, you can't always determine precisely what will happen next. For instance, "Sxi-Meru" is a noisy, guitar intro which morphs from calm atmosphere to spikes of dissonant, metallic noise, while closer "Satan Knew My Secret Heart" is all fuzzed up and uplifting...apart from the fact that both are very loosely, almost spontaneously composed, they've not got a ton in common.

I did feel the disc was more effective when Sami was laying on the 'doom' element full-bore, as in the dour bass ruptures of "This Wind is a Gift from a Distant Friend", or the wide open, 12 and a half minute center piece "Slippy" which gradually develops into these raw, raucous guitars and booming bass curves. I would have liked more vocals throughout; these seem more like a dusting tease than a prominent component of the songs. Also, at least for myself, I found that the music was all but useless when I wasn't mentally positioning myself in the proper shadow it casts, a slightly overcast panorama of rustic sadness, whether naturally or artificially induced through substances. Hynninen's vision is in no rush to get anywhere even though most of the tunes are reasonably brief), so if you're in a hurry or tense environment it's not going to function for you much at all. Won't say I loved this, but it's decent when one can really grasp its 'mood', and if you've an interest in the more ambient side of drone, doom or extreme metal like Khanate, Sunn O))), Fell Voices, or Blood of the Black Owl, with a mildly folkish discourse, give it a listen.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Incantation - Vanquish in Vengeance (2012)

Incantation was a band that hit me early on, and hit me HARD early on, with a pair of albums so abysmally dark, dank, nihilist and unfriendly that they really challenged my perception of the possibilities in a budding genre that I had previously still held pretty closely to the tenets of thrash and speed based songwriting. The monstrous, outrageous guttural vocals were the sickest I'd heard since Van Drunen or Tardy. The emphasis on churning, subterranean atmosphere over the 'catchy' evil riffs inherent to many of the Floridian, Dutch or Swedish exports was a novelty I hadn't considered (one that has since been beaten to death by various waves of followers), but despite this fact, Onward to Golgotha and Mortal Throne of Nazarene remained quite distinct. My reactions to the later Incantation work in the 90s and beyond were lukewarm at best (Decimate Christendom being the disc I enjoyed most of these), because even though they've never released a 'bad' full-length (outside of the wasteful Upon the Throne of Apocalypse), for some reason I felt like they had lost some of that crushing primacy that translated into nuance during their formative years of existence.

So I'm pretty confident in claiming that Vanquish in Vengeance is the best album I've heard from the band in 18 years, but this boast comes with a caveat: it's not necessarily the same, murky, ominous Incantation that so many have foisted upon the pedestal of (un)godliness. Thanks largely to the production, this is a far brighter beast than I usually associate with the Pennsylvanians' output, even if the musical blueprint covers most of the same fundamentals. Vanquish in Vengeance is well written, old school death metal, that has, to its great credit, decided against shunning the benefits that come with a louder, more contemporary recording flush with the 21st century. To some degree, this naturally comes with an elevated sense of accessibility, not that you'll be hearing Incantation on the radio or booming out the loudspeakers at the shopping mall, but that its not got the ultra-muddied tones to compete with lauded underground juggernauts like Teitanblood or Portal. This is potent, dynamic, riff-centric death metal rooted in the virtues of the 90s, with an enormous sense of proper pacing throughout 52 minutes of occult and supernatural lyrical themes. In terms of the riffing structure, it's certainly not a far cry from many of the records they've released in the interim of their gory, glory days with Relapse, but a lot of the note progressions here really gelled with me.

Guitars have a firm, raw fiber to them that holds up through whatever tempo and configuration they choose, whether that be a lumbering, vile death/doom groove as in "The Hellions Genesis" and "Transcend the Absolute Dissolution", or the grainier, accelerated patterns that feel like someone tilling the soil in a moist, fog-shrouded cemetery with a gut-spattered iron rake. Harmonies are morbid, beefy and atonal, and leads sporadic and quivering like psychedelic banshees in conversation through the the deepening night. In contrast to what a lot of death metal bands select for their bass tones, these lines are pretty clean sounding (like the intro to "Profound Loathing"), and though the instrument is always playing second fiddle to McEntee and (newish guitarist) Alex Bouks, I like the dichotomy of solemn swells against the ghoulish grit of the guitars. Kyle Severn returns once again to the fold with a lurid and effective set of skills, and though Incantation are not necessarily known for unabated percussive intensity, he packs in some tight fills with effortless double bass and blasting techniques whenever called for. That said, I did feel like the drums, in addition to the bass, were often outweighed by the rhythm guitars.

Vanquish in Vengeance is the third full-length on which John McEntee performs the vocals, and even if he might not have that same, dreadful character that defined Craig Pillard in the early years, he's come unto his own with his sodden, opaque, mortuary growls, which I'd say hold up rather well up against either Disma's Towards the Megalith or Autopsy's Macabre Eternal, both of which this record altogether exceeds by my humble estimations. Again, the variation here is excellent, from the surging blood storm of intro "Invoked Infinity" to the wailing and wrenching crawl of the nearly 12 minute finale "Legion of Dis", there's never a point at which I felt like the quartet was fucking off and repeating itself needlessly. Apart from the fat, necrotic mass of its natural resonance, there was no cellulose here to be trimmed, and the lengthier numbers were imbued with enough mournful atmosphere that they really filled out their bulk. In a year already strong and saturated with classic death metal sounds from artists both new and old, Incantation has risen once more unto relevance, and even if it's not a perfectly memorable outing 100% of the time, this is bad ass enough to survive a large swath of re-listens. Impressive!

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Humanity Delete - Never Ending Nightmares (2012)

The major issue I face upon the advent of yet another of Roger 'Rogga' Johansson's latest projects is just how redundant it's going to seem with all the other pieces already in play. Surely, there are few human beings on this planet with as much of a commitment to the death metal genre as this man, and he's entertained me through dozens of records over the past decade. A lot of the groups he's involved with have minor aesthetic gradations in terms of their approach to the beleaguered field, but I do feel that, apart from the teamwork of their varied rosters, there are a few that could be wrapped under the same cloth. Ribspreader, Revolting and Paganizer certainly warrant some level of crossover in terms of their musical content, for instance...

And with Never Ending Nightmares, I feel this is once more the case, as the content could pretty much be interchanged with a number of his other bands, and it really doesn't distinguish itself outside of records like Carnage Junkies, Scandinavian Warmachine or Bolted to the Cross. There's a bit more of a grinding, punk edge to the music that's not uncommon among other Swedish death/d-beat hybrids, and I definitely encountered traces of Napalm Death and Bolt Thrower in both the bursts and grooved rhythms. I do like Rogga's idea of creating 'paranormal' themed grind rather than the usual, atmospheric death metal so often attributed to the theme, and the various samples and creepy bits he intersperses through the material help to give it a consistent, conceptual feeling, but when it comes to the straight burn of the guitar progressions, I do feel like so much of this I've encountered before. So, Humanity Deletes really all comes down to just how much more of this same, Swedish grinding style an audience is seeking to experience, rather than a novelty among Johansson's prolific body of axe-work.

Granted, this is a solo record and not so much a collaboration, so credit should be given to how well he handles each instrument. The guitars have that muddy, repulsive grinding flavor the Swedes have been using since the late 80s, and are usually configured into straight barrages of d-beat chords or uppity, thick tremolo sequences which sound like a blend of Dismember and Lock Up. The bass has a nice, coiled timbre but it is too often smothered by the sheer bulk of the guitars, while the drums are pretty fresh and fun even despite the blueprinted structure of their rhythms. I'd say the star of this show would be Rogga's vocals, which have a loud, pervasive inflection to them and plenty of body and echo carrying into the supernatural apocalypse implied through the horror lyrics. A few of the tunes, like "Retribution of the Polong" take on more of a death'n'roll persona with meaty, churning riffs redolent of Entombed circa the mid 90s.

The lyrics for this were written by Jill at Dead Beat Media, who has used her experience living in Malaysia to pursue Asian stories of the paranormal. In that way, this record definitely breaks some ground for Rogga. In fact, it's quite a contrast to have such corporeal music used to represent such 'incorporeal' haunts, but not an unwelcome one. Lasse from Hooded Menace chimes in on a few of the guitar leads, and they're seasoned, sporadic and unnerving enough to add another level, but ultimately I felt like a lot of the riffing patterns just felt too rehashed from scores of other records for me to truly sink my interest into. The production is great, and if you REALLY love a lot of this D-beat/Swedish/death  & grind revival, like Tormented, Mr. Death, Feral, Miasmal, Bloodbath, Paganizer, and so forth, then there's no reason you would not find Never Ending Nightmares a comfort. Yet, compared to the last two albums I've listened to from Johansson's impressive stable, Revolting's Hymns of Ghastly Horror or Putrevore's utterly crushing and superb sophomore Macabre Kingdom, I felt a little short-changed by this.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Dehumanized - Controlled Elite (2012)

Despite having only one full-length to their credit prior to this one, New York's Dehumanized was a band that generated considerable buzz with its 1998 debut Prophecies Foretold. In particular, a lot of folks here in New England were partial to their thuggish, street level tier of brutality which was quite something else from their fellow statesmen like the over the top, morbid horror inherent to Mortician, or the occult dissonance that drove Immolation. These guys were more along the lines of other New York groups Internal Bleeding, Suffocation and Skinless, or Maryland's Dying Fetus, in how they meted out muscular, hardcore influenced breakdowns to contrast the meticulous, uptempo riffing progressions that were more prevalent in the evolution of 90s death metal.

I can't claim I was the biggest fan of their first album, finding it somewhat underwhelming despite all the hype it was flying on, but I don't think there's any question that Dehumanized know how to put their material together, and regardless of the 14-year gap, Controlled Elite sounds like an album for which no expense was spared, and no amount of effort left by the wayside. In terms of construction, the material is very well balanced to engage both the loping, pit oriented swagger and those who desire something faster and more intricate. You can feel the imprints of both death/thrash and hardcore influences wrought into the mid to late 90s brutal death mainframe, and there is little to no attempt at broaching the walls of callous technicality or experimentation. Controlled Elite isn't even remotely trendy in the genre's current environs, but more of a reaffirmation of the band's identity placed into the context of cleaner, modern production than what was capable their first time out. While I don't enjoy every riff flying off the fretboard, there were plenty of clinical grooves and Napalm Death-like bursts of acceleration here that held my attention through a largely concise set of tunes, most of which hang around 2-3 minutes as to never wear out their welcome.

This is pretty clean sounding, so if you're seeking ominous atmosphere and loads of dissonance in your death metal, Dehumanized is probably not the bloodiest of pastures on which you should graze. The guitars have a nice, firm punch to them during the muted moments, but the chords are also fairly robust and balanced. In particular, the title track stood out for a number of the meat-headed breakdowns that are certainly capable of evoking faux-violence in the live setting. There's a different vocalist here than on the debut, but Michael Centrone does a fairly apt job at implementing percussive variation to his concrete grunt which never exudes the monotony I often feel on a lot of polished, modern brutal death efforts. In addition, these are often paired with snarls to create the good old Deicide dichotomy of wretchedness and revulsion. George Torres' beats provide a dynamic and consistent foundation for the guitars; even at their most minimal stride, he'll pop in a fill or two that keep things entertaining. The bass on the album tends to follow the riffing pattern a bit much for my taste, but it's got a full enough tone that lends some leverage to the bass drum and toms.

The presence of the breakdowns definitely keeps Controlled Elite in line with that urban sensibility that I felt so pervasively on the debut album. Sure, many death and thrash metal bands use them without hesitation, but in the New Yorkers' case, I feel they're pretty well attuned to the needs of their audience. In other words, Dehumanized is the sort of death metal that will have a cross appeal to both the hardcore/metalcore element and the stricter metal fan. But to their credit, it never really feels like a cheap, arbitrary pandering to engage its audience, even if I can't say I enjoy all of the actual mosh rhythms as much as the better defined, surgical streaks of  incendiary harmony in the tremolo sequences. The taut leads were solid, but nothing remarkable, and the songs ultimately were not the sort that are likely to have me revisiting the record in the long run (like, for instance, Cannibal Corpse's Bloodthirst or Decapitated's Winds of Creation), but this is a competent and well crafted return to form with an innate appeal for fans of early 90s Napalm Death, Suffocation's Pierced from Within, Pyrexia, Malevolent Creation or the latest from Coldworker.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]