Thursday, January 31, 2013

Bolt Thrower - The Peel Sessions 1988-1990 (1991)

Though I consider myself fortunate enough to have had local college radio available to me through puberty (WJUL Lowell in particular), and plenty of exposure to the metal and hardcore/punk underground in the mid through late 80s, introducing me to hundreds of bands, there wasn't quite anyone like England's John Peel that I could tune into, at least not to my knowledge. Most of us American fans probably know the name through the 'Peel Sessions' sets he would allot to up and coming artists in various genres, many of which were released as EPs that the rest of us outside the UK would hungrily track down. While Bolt Thrower was still pretty small time when it first appeared on Peel's show in '88, I can just imagine how cool it would have been for these guys (and gal) to show up at my studio and churn out some fucking war metal...really, one of those 'best job in the world' situations that you simply have to envy.

Bolt Thrower had three Peel sessions, each more or less corresponding to promotion for one of their first three albums, and the first transmission was released as an EP through the Strange Fruit imprint in 1988. Undoubtedly a collector's item, the better option was the 1991 re-issue which also featured the later sessions (another in '88, and then the War Master preview in '91). So, basically a 12-track tour of Bolt Thrower's formative, influential material captured for posterity, and for what it's worth, I think it sounds pretty good, better than many of the professional live albums I've heard from extreme metal outfits. The songs in each session don't necessarily correspond with the albums in chronological order, so listening to the material in sequence definitely feels as if you were capturing a gig back in the early 90s. There are a few issues, like the drums feeling extremely loud over various of the sessions, the kicks creating a rumbling tectonic plate that often feels disparate from the rest of the instrument mix, but what I enjoy about the entire experience is how it really captures that grim and oppressive atmosphere of the first two records, even on the later tunes like "War Master".

The grooves sound incredibly evil, Willetts' guttural timbre is smoky and ominous like a massive gunbarrel post-payload, the bass trembling and the guitar tone just about perfect, and though the production of the various albums did differ, the collected sets here all sound quite consistent. You really feel as if you're ducking behind cover in some massive urban warzone, buildings collapsing and tanks crushing the debris while survivors hide in any nook and cranny that will shelter them. There's also a track here from the 2nd, Realm of Chaos Peel session: "Domination", which is exclusive, though bits of it were cannibalized for other material later. Not their best by any means, and gets a little monotonous through the blasted stretch in the center, but an added bonus nonetheless. Otherwise, the track choices are just awesome: "Attack in the Aftermath", "Drowned in Torment", "Eternal War", "Lost Souls Domain", "Imperial Erection"...oh wait, no, the last one was just my reaction as a Warhammer fiction enthusiast.

In other words: a quintessential Bolt Thrower live offering that satisfies just about any desire I'd ever have to purchase such a medium. It's no wonder they haven't strung us along with a bunch of useless live recordings, they've certainly got the popularity, but apparently they've also got too much class, and had already given us the first tasting before releasing a full-length. The only alternative I can think of would be their Earache 'Into the Pit' .mp3 session Live War, but the track I heard off that did not impress me as this did. Unfortunately, I can't imagine this is easy to find anymore. If you were lucky to be collecting tapes or CDs back in the 90s, it wasn't all too difficult (I saw numerous copies at my local import shops), but these days it is probably due for a reissue. Maybe even an iTunes reissue?! Someone get on that.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Bolt Thrower - In Battle There is No Law! (1988)

It would be almost impossible for me to think of Bolt Thrower's debut without also considering British extremity as a whole, or the process of how metal's evolution was devoured and regurgitated back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, growing darker and heavier with each wave of new acts to don the genre and render it further inaccessible from its 70s roots. In Battle There is no Law! was one of a trinity of influential English albums to take on the emergent death metal medium, but it had some clear differences from its contemporaries Reek of Putrefaction and Scum! For one, where Carcass and Napalm Death were verily heavily expounding upon a punk and hardcore foundation, Coventry's carnal crusaders were more or less skipping that step and composing riffs that functioned off a thrash base. All three have been associated with the origin of 'grindcore', but rather than get into a tired semantic debate, I'll just state that In Battle... is easily the least imbued with that style's characteristics. The lyrical inspiration was also something else: rather than rallies against a corporate Earth, or medical grotesqueries privately intended to curb carnivores from their diet of flesh, Bolt Thrower, named for a weapon in Games Workshop's popular Warhammer 40K setting, had a fairly unhealthy obsession with, you guessed it, warfare. One that they've never shaken in over 25 years of existence.

Unlike its follow-up, Realm of Chaos, this debut doesn't necessarily delve into the the universe of that war gaming milieu, but focuses more on historical violence and the theoretical aftermath of civilization's plummet post-nuclear armageddon. And this is important, because it helps define what exactly made the band so standout and special to begin with: the atmosphere. In Battle There is No Law! is not the most righteously riffy of creations, granted, but it hits you on numerous visceral levels. For one, the tuning and timbre of the guitars is entirely oppressive and downtrodden, from the base thrash chugging structure to the roiling and fleshy grooves, Bolt Thrower simply did not sound like its US peers and death metal progenitors Death, Obituary, and Autopsy. The Brits were peddling more of a condensed flood of atrocity, and the debut never really lets up across its 30 minute play-length. Rather than creating eerie tremolo lines in their songs, they simply bashed the listener over the head with alternations of tank-tread grooves and accelerated processions of chords that almost seemed like a relentless upgrade to the speed/thrash metal sect (I hear a tint of Sodom or Hellhammer, certainly). Add to that the exertions of shredding solo here, either tapped or just wailing away on random strings of notes, and you get a pretty interesting contrast that only adds to the overall atmosphere, thanks to the unapologetic level of effects applied to the lead tone. Truthfully, there were probably only a half-dozen 'memorable' riffs on the whole of this disc, but this is so fucking heavy that it thrives off its nihilistic production regardless. Not a lot of other shit in 1988 can claim to have been this intense...

Whale's drums here incorporated scads of double-bass rhythms from the get-go, and this is likely the album's most prominent influence on the decades of death and grind since, not to mention the proto-blasting involved in tracks like "Challenge for Power" and "Concession of Pain". I've read comments about how the playing on this and the sophomore were 'sloppy', and perhaps that really is the case, but I think it's only amplified by the sheer volume of his beats, which sound like a few score mortars being fired off in conjunction. Transitions often feel a little random or misplaced through the tracks, but that doesn't do the music a disservice per se, only adds a bit of youthful chaos. Though the bass guitar itself is not the loudest ingredient, In Battle... as a whole definitely leaves a depth charge concussion on the soul and skull, and Jo Bench definitely laid out a proper, voluptuous low end which creeps beneath the meat of the rhythm guitar like carrion crawlers coming out to feast on the mounds of war-dead. Karl's vocals here are actually at their highest pitch through the band's career, one of the biggest dividers between this and the later Bolt Thrower albums. He's not got that same, brute guttural, but more of a bloody, bluntness that he intersperses with growls (closest comparison would be some of Chris Reifert's tormented mania). Certainly more of Karl's accent shines through than you'd expect. In a way, this is one of his more interesting and diversified performances, but I can see why some might have preferred the grimmer, streamline approach he'd take on later.

I have read other opinions of how In Battle There is No Law! is some sort of anomalous work in the band's catalog, and how it's aesthetically disparate from its successors, but I must disagree. Just about every aspect of the record forms a perfectly natural staging for Realm of Chaos, only there the band decided to go for an even bleaker sense of atmosphere, honing in for higher quality, drudging riffs and using the Games Workshop fiction as a direct lyrical source. It's arguably busier than most of the more condensed riff cycles they'd adorn later, but not hugely complex in structure. Overall, though, I'd say this immediately establishes the band's identity, the sophomore simply solidifies it. Unfortunately, Realm of Chaos does such an amazing job of manifesting its otherworldly, oppressive imagery into unforgettable songs, that given a choice, I'll seek that out for my Bolt Thrower fix 10 out of 10 times over this. That's hands down one of my favorite death metal recordings ever, despite In Battle There is No Law! being my first exposure. But I don't wanna sell this short, because it was quite impressive for its day, far more structured and compelling than Scum!, From Enslavement to Oblivion, or Reek of Putrefaction, and the punkish cover art and original 'logo' are both pretty iconic, even despite my preferences for Space Marines. Often more brash than brutal, but a gem all the same, and well worth hunting down if just to experience one of the death metal's formative sounds.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Voivod - Target Earth (2013)

You'd have to have engaged on a long-distance space mission, beyond communications range, over this past year or so to have avoided the veritable shit-storm of hype Voivod has gotten since announcing their new guitarist Daniel Mongrain (who had previously been filling in for them at live gigs), announcing their new album, and then releasing a number of live video clips and inevitably samples, met by many eager fans with a swath of enthusiasm. I doubt the Canadians had experienced such a wave of good vibrations (in terms of their musical output, at least) since the mid 90s, and all indicators were stacking up to their 13th full length Target Earth as a rousing success before the album dropped. As usual, when a band hints of returning to a beloved era of productivity to reinvigorate itself, there's this incredibly vocal (online) minority which suddenly comes to life, praising the latest opus as the greatest work of their career, denouncing everything the band has done since the 80s (even if, ironically, many of the people doing so were not even alive or listening to the band then), bada bing bada boom, queue the gross hyperbole and exaggerations for six weeks until the next object of internet lust arrives at the precipice...

Now, granted, that's fucking life, and I'd have better luck pissing into the exhaust of a jet engine than trying to shut myself away from it all. In truth, as a long term raving Voivod lunatic myself, there are few other bands in the world which deserve such a break, and I only pray that this time the world at large can wake up to what it's been missing as early as the 80s. I am, frankly, ECSTATIC that so many people are enjoying the music of this stunning band, and that they've managed to produce their first work without the beloved Denis D'Amour (aka Piggy), while honoring those musical techniques and songwriting aesthetics that counted him among the most unique guitarists in thrash (or any metal, really). But this comes with some degree of caution. Contrary to a lot of comments I've read, Target Earth is not a 'comeback' album. Dark Roots of Earth was not a comeback album. Ironbound was not a goddamn comeback album. The existence of this album does not suddenly counteract or overwrite its predecessors, opening a black hole to swallow them unto oblivion. Does Target Earth retrofit more of Voivod's later 80s thrash qualities than the 6-7 works leading up to it? Undoubtedly, and it does so without entirely Xeroxing itself from their Golden Age of 1987-1993. But is it perfect? Is it the best album evar (until six weeks from now). Absolutely, resoundingly not.

It IS a pretty damn satisfying new link in the Canadians' chain, but that's coming from someone who has found nearly every Voivod studio album (excepting Negatron) to range from greatness to perfection. I enjoyed the softening of the band's spacey core through Nothingface and Angel Rat. The nightmarish evolution of Phobos. The simplified, stratified rock out of the eponymous 2003 effort, which approached the band's punkish roots from a different angle, and was later honed through the superior Katorz. Hell, I still listen to those albums when highway cruising and love to imagine myself speeding along a wormhole. I had no problem with any of that material, and even with the posthumous Piggy riffing of Infini, it felt like a fresh rendering of Katorz concepts backwards into an even more science fictional mold. With Target Earth, I've definitely been feeling a heavy Dimension Hatross vibe, threaded with some warmer and more harmonious elements from the band's 1989-1991 material. Not so much of a reinvention or 'step forward', apart from the obvious confirmation of personnel, but more as if the band took a time machine back to 1988 and then, from that album, opened a dimensional portal somewhere other than Nothingface.

The very idea of that gets me giddy, for sure, but ultimately this material seems slightly inconsistent, and short of a new masterpiece. But that's not to deny the labor of love here, or the array of strengths Target Earth has its disposal. The question on everyone's mind: how does Daniel Mongrain fit into this picture? After all, he's got such rare shoes to fill, but he's fully on board here, first with the appropriate nickname 'Chewy', and then a selection of riffs and techniques that fit D'Amour's style pretty snugly. Plus, he's obviously a pretty huge metal nerd and has stamped his territory not only with Martyr, but with a number of Canadian's most popular extreme metal acts (Cryptopsy, Gorguts), even in just a live capacity. I doubt there was a better choice possible, in fact, with the caveat that the tunes here really only give us faint traces of what he'll bring to the table in the future, assuming Voivod moves forward. Most of the chord configurations, grooves and Rush-like mechanical progressions could more or less be conjoined with half the tracks of Hatross and I'd be hard pressed to tell the difference, but I think his own personality comes through in the zippier leads, or a few of the crisper, almost speed/thrash metal licks that provide a busy contrast to the usual expectations.

But, despite the excellence of tracks like "Kluskap O'Kom", "Mechanical Mind" and "Resistance", it is not Mongrain who I was most impressed with through this hour of material, but rather Blacky and Snake. The former is in fine form, returning us to the buzzing grooves that were so prevalent and important on the 1988 and 1989 masterworks; a departure from Newsted's strong arming lines on records like Katorz (which I enjoyed for its own reasons), but then what else would we expect? Jean-Yves Thériault has long been a rock for this band, whenever he's appeared, and there's no reason to have doubted that his long awaited, 'official' return to this fold would pan out. Not to mention, he's already got experience playing alongside Mongrain (as a guest on Martyr's Feeding the Abscess), so the pairing is natural. If any one musician here is expanding upon past performances, though, it's Denis Bélanger, who seems to have burst from some ambiguous haze of the past three records, and offers a sharper and more seasoned inflection with some warmer tones and melodies than just the typical post-punk petulance. All the swirling psychedelic and progressive rock influences circa Angel Rat or Nothingface are still there, but there's just something more matured and refined about his delivery, without abandoning the anger and energy requisite to remaining a record rooted in thrash.

I suppose I should talk at length about Away's drumming, but truthfully it was the least standout element of the album for me, probably because he just does his usual pretty damn good job of peppy rock rhythms and lavishly anchors the more proggy, jamming, mathematical tempos. It's simply never at the fore of Target Earth's curiosities. As for his cover art, a bit of a letdown. I do dig this more cartoony logo, but the artwork looks very digital comic, simply not as detailed or mysterious as Dimension Hatross or Killing Technology. In spirit, it's got the spikes, the alien raygun, and a few floaty drone bots, but even the central figure looks a little disinterested in what's going on. The lyrics are decently written, somewhere between the campier sci fi approach of The Outer Limits and the more social and environmentally centered philosophical and political rantings and ravings of the s/t or Katorz (like the gasmask-punk of "Resistance"). Nothing so unified, cryptic or compelling as Nothingface, and I for one would have appreciated this retrogression of aesthetics to include the lyrics themselves, but these are at least pretty relevant to our beloved human condition, not short on effort, and substantial in their imagery. I dug the duality of the title track, which I expected to be about an alien invasion but really seemed to be about the potential danger of megalomaniac computer hackers.

In terms of songwriting, I felt as if there were a handful here with something quite compelling beneath them, and then the rest were more or less filling out the track list with a modicum of style and a few interesting gimmicks. "Kluskap O'Kom" is addictive, with a great, haunting chord pattern, nice escalated mutes that make you feel like you're on the edge of something alien, larger than life, and then the great use of the backing, percussive gang shouts that don't sound similar to any they've used in the past. Not to mention, they pack better riffs into this 4 and a half minute piece than most of the longer tracks that dominate the record. "Mechanical Mind" is also killer, from the quirky opening ambient/noise elements to the total Dimension Hatross styled structure. "Resistance" rocks your fucking gasmask off, and "Empathy for the Enemy"  builds an excellent, atmospheric gap between "Kluskap" and "Mechanical" (for a straight shot of about 17 minutes of almost pure brilliance). Elsewhere, I wasn't too impressed. "Warchaic" has a nice melody and rhythm, but the riffs are largely just paraphrased from earlier Voivod tunes; even the later vocal harmonies seem like an attempt to just reinvent the patterns on "Astronomy Domine".

Then there are those like "Target Earth", with a nice little thrash hook in the verse rhythm but not much else happening, and no good chorus to speak of. The song in French, "Corps Étranger" has these two killer riffs, but never really reaches the climax I was anticipating, and the outro "Defiance" is not a healthy way to pad out an album for 90 seconds. A few of the transitions on the album feel rather slammed together, which is distracting, but only an occasional issue. Target Earth probably has one of the cleanest productions in the band's entire discography, with an appreciable balance of atmospherics and pure riffing, and each instrument occupying its own, audible place in the mix. I might miss some of the bulkier guitars of the last few albums, but those were likely the result of how they had to record the music without Piggy available. Voivod did a pretty impressive job producing it themselves, and I was happy to see they got another Canadian thrash veteran, Pierre Rémillard (of Obliveon) to record the music. Fuck, had they reserved a few guest spots for 'Lips', Dave Carlo, Lord Worm and Gordon 'Piledriver' Kirchin, and maybe replaced "Defiance" with a Sacrifice cover, this album could have been credited Canada vs. the Daleks and no one would have been the wiser. Maple leafs and death rays aplomb.

Surprisingly, though Target Earth is without question a more intricate, coherent and balanced experience than its predecessor Infini, I found myself enjoying it just a fraction less. So you'll have to forgive me if I'm not about to jump on the wagon of 'best album of the year' accolades when there is so much yet to come. It has proven to me that Voivod can continue to exist post-Piggy, and not only exist, but thrive. It's got a handful of tunes I'd certainly place on the career highlight reel, and it's well worth every cent I paid for it. But I don't really view it as this triumphant 'comeback', the Canadians riding through the streets of Montreal on chariots with robot horses pulling them and plastic-gowned future Québécoise with Rutger Hauer haircuts showering Voivod with holographic confetti. Target Earth is more about perseverance in the face of the impossible, and about old dogs hitting rewind before applying new tricks. I ask myself: how often has Voivod ever failed me? Not bloody often, and certainly not this time. So dust off the maser cannons, drag out the anti-aircraft missile arrays, test the silo doors, and keep your radars fixed on the sky. We are not alone, and I don't think they're friendly.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (toxic assets, unstable)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lifeless - Godconstruct (2013)

Yet another in the explosion of 'new old school'/NWOSDM death metal acts hailing from Europe, Lifeless' 2010 debut was a successful if not incredibly memorable slab of death metal that drew its craftsmanship from the US, UK, and Swedish scenes circa 1988-1993, with a heavier emphasis on the third. Now, knowing just how many bands have been churning out records in the vein of a Left Hand Path, Clandestine or Life an Ever Flowing Stream these past 5 years, you can bet that these Germans faced (and continue to face) some stiff competition, but I've found in a number of cases that such bands, though derivative at first, tend to branch out for their followups and even progress. Sadly, that's not so much the case for Godconstruct, a festering fruit that simply does not fall that far from the twisted tree that spawned it. Which is going to be subjectively good or bad based on who you ask: got room for another of these sorts of records? Becoming jaded? Losing track of them all?

To be fair, these guys are no worse than a few score of comparable acts who see death metal as more of a means of resurrecting their own relationship to the genre; what brought them under its rotten wings in the first place. The riffs here are probably as well formed as on he debut, and the production a fraction bolder and brighter. The blunt, bloodied edge of the guttural vocal still hits a listener with the same impact, but they also layer on some ghastly snarls and even some van Drunen-style vocals (as in "Sworn to Death", which for all I know could be the Man himself). They know how to set up their sacrilegious overtone of their album with a nice, chanted intro; and carry this through the use of organs and synths ("Moribund", etc) to good effect alongside the brutal riffage. You get a decently balanced onslaught of meaty chords and tremolo picked riffs that evoke a fusion of Left Hand Path and Scream Bloody Gore, and there was a certain oppressive steadiness to the rolling double-bass drum lines and churning low end palm mutes which recalled a peppier rendition of 90s Bolt Thrower. These guys will rarely lapse into dull songwriting claptrap, choosing instead to keep a melody roving along the range of the rhythm guitar, and I laud some of the piercing leads that erupt into a piece like "Blindead" that give it yet another dimension of tonality.

The brick wall I kept running into here was just the album's general lack of distinction in such a crowded field that has already burst its picket fence to overflow. The guitar riffs and song structures were never exceptional when compared to the band's influences, nor did they really build upon that legacy in any meaningful way. Where groups like Tribulation, Morbus Chron, Necrovation, Repugnant and Corrosive Carcass all up the game with either supreme riffing intensity, strange atmospheric quirks or just an added layer of repulsive, hideous grime to the guitar tone, Lifeless seems to be more safely nestled into the middle of the herd, safely consuming and redistributing ideas that hit their stride (and peak) two decades ago. For some listeners, that is not a bad quality. Certainly these Germans have good taste, and can play their instruments, but if after numerous spins, 50 minutes of death metal in 2013 does little more than make me want to revisit other albums from 1993 (or earlier), then I can't exactly sing it the highest of praises. Godconstruct is by no means a bad album. It had its moments, and won't disappoint anyone already in love with the Lifeless debut, or related acts like their label mates/countrymen Chapel of Disease (who they recently put out a split with); but I wouldn't mind a bit more ambition and individuality.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Monday, January 28, 2013

Toorn - Kronieken van het Einde (2012)

Kronieken van het Einde ('Chronicles of the End') is the sophomore self-released album from Belgian musician Gorik van Droogenbroeck (aka Cerulean), who has been involved with a number of other related projects like Kludde or Trancelike Void (live), but had put together Toorn ('Wrath') to employ his black and doom metal influences into massive, expressive structures that were surely prevalent on his 2009 debut Galgenberg. That album was beyond tight, and frankly I'm a bit disappointed that more people didn't take notice of it, because it put a mildly folkish spin on the downtrodden, sorrowful terrain ploughed by Katatonia through the 90s, or the first two Agalloch records (think Brave Murder Day filtered through The Mantle). For those who missed out, through, here's yet another chance to get acquainted, and an album that rivals its predecessor in terms of professionalism, while dialing back some of the swollen song lengths of the debut (though he still ekes out a few 10+ epics here).

Melody is the law within these pieces, and van Droogenbroeck certainly has a knack for stringing along both graceful and depressing note progressions that capture the restless momentum of some bleak afternoon of pregnant gray clouds and ceaseless, cold precipitation. Clean, ringing tones are incorporated not only to spice up the central rhythm guitars with an effect not unlike that of Amorphis' Tuonela, but also built into their own mesmerizing monoliths of sadness like "Zomerzonnewende" or the brief "Hiaat". Granted, many of the basic chord patterns used to fuel the momentum of these tracks will prove relatively familiar to those for whom melodic doom is the daily bread and butter, and some degree of dragged on repetition is inherent to the style, but the effect is still quite emotionally poignant, especially since Gorik has really mixed up the track listing so that the larger centerpieces ("Omen", "Carpe Omnia") are broken up by shorter ones. The bass is quite fluid and melodic through the record, especially in pieces like "Verloren", and I was rather impressed by its ability not to be entirely overshadowed by the melodies. The beats rarely do more than one would expect of these rhythmic configurations, but the snare and kick sound firm without becoming intrusive, even when elevated to near blast levels during the surges of "Carpe Omnia".

Vocally, you're getting a long, guttural drawl that hovers over the expansiveness of the guitars, occasionally tied off in more of a rasp, which when paired with the more dissonant rhythm patterns, definitely creates an eerier, haunting black metal vibe which is also crucial in breaking up the mournful glimmer of the melodies. Still, I must admit I wouldn't mind Toorn moving further in this direction, to a more nightmarish area that he offers only hints of here. It seemed as if Galgenberg was slightly more intense and harrowing. Kronieken van het Einde creates this 'sailing' quality to it through numbers like "Solitaire" and "Verloren", and I enjoy the segues that create a progressive/folk quality to most of the longer tunes, but there remains plenty of contrasted emotional space for the music to explore. For one mind crafting and over an hour of music, though, I will say that there are very few points at which the material becomes vapid or exhausting, and it's definitely built of peaks and valleys, climaxes and anticlimaxes which keep the content from wearing out its welcome. All told, I can't see any reason fans of the first album wouldn't like this, because the riffing is often pretty close in nature; also recommended to fans of Katatonia, Daylight Dies, Novembre, Insomnium, or heavily melodic, mid-paced black metal with decent production values.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, January 25, 2013

Head of the Demon - Head of the Demon (2012)

Every so often, a band will come along and give an established genre a firm kick in the ass by breaking it down into its constituent elements and producing a distinct work that hearkens back to a time of 'innocence' for that niche. I realize it's hard to use that word 'innocence' in conjunction with the black metal medium, pretty much the antithesis of that particular virtue. And yet, Sweden's Head of the Demon have done just that with their eponymous debut: clutched the despoiled orchid of modern black metal by its roots and clipped off any of the withered foliage above ground level, to produce a captivating and primal substrate of rich evil that just beckons to be experienced. Precious few other bands, outside of say Darkthrone, Vultyr, and Sarke, have manifest such a pure and hellish concoction as this, but this trio is only just getting started. Granted, several of the members are not newcomers, having done time in bands like the grave churning Kaamos or the melodeath obscurity A Mind Confused, but nothing quite so eerily resonant as this beast...

Head of the Demon is essentially a mesh of black and doom metal aesthetics, the former coming through the dire atmosphere and strained, hoarse vocals ala Tom G. Warrior or Nocturno Culto; and the latter through the generally slow-paced tempos that dominate the record, not to mention the waves of opaque psychedelia created through the guitars. Dress it all up with a vintage, fuzzed out yet choppy guitar tone, and the ominous presence of solemn, subtle backing choirs that hover out into the vaulted Underworld ceiling of the record's dominant mood, and you've got yourself an experience that can instantly dial you back 30 years and grant you a portent of what MIGHT have been, if more bands took a more steady, minimalistic path that honed in on unnerving, simple riff architecture rather than vile speed and vitriolic rasping. Ranging from 6-10 minutes each, there is no track among these that will not take it's time with the listener; but the vine-like crawl of the guitars is incredibly focused, and each bit of atmosphere, like a slowly riding piece of percussion, a cleaner and mournful vocal line, or a groovy bass-line strutting its own path is perfectly placed to maximum effect. Thus, Head of the Demon does so much with so very little that you cannot help but feel it's genius, one of those anomalous recordings that sacrifices the normal playbook to win the game.

Not every winding, grooving riff is incredibly catchy, mind you, but the lion's share are interesting enough that they never betray that pervasive, haunted atmosphere surrounding them. The drums have a great, live feel to them, and the bass is always audible. Organs and other effects are chilling and simplistic, but never frivolous or excessive to the point that they couldn't be reproduced live with a stunning clarity. Most importantly Head of the Demon earns its 'doom' stripes by actually compelling the listener to just such a feeling. After an hour or so spent with the Swedes' debut, I fell into a stretch of utter hopelessness. The sun wasn't ever coming up again, and I'd yearned a bottle of absinthe in which to drown my woes. "By Titan Hand" dragged me into this unlit, subterranean realm of consciousness, and the remainder of the record held me under with a firm grasp. I almost want to compare it to Ghost's Opus Anonymous or Jess and the Ancient Ones' debut:  not that the three have many aural aesthetics in common, but what the first did for the whole Mercyful Fate heavy doom thing, and the second for the acid-washed occult trippers, this group seeks to accomplish for a blacker medium. Consider this their first success, easily recommended to fans of acts as wide as Negative Plane, Mortuary Drape, Vultyr, Darkthrone, Furze or Black Sabbath. Or, really, to advocates of anything ancient, shadowy, and obscure that vanishes with the dawn.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Attacker - Giants of Canaan (2013)

Attacker is probably still best known for its cult classic 1985 debut Battle at Helm's Deep, a fine slab of USPM released through Metal Blade records in its formative years. But they've put out a number of decent follow-ups through the years, both before and after their 2001 reunion, and if there's any justice, Giants of Canaan will cement their underground following and spin a lot more heads. The reason being that this is hands down their riffiest construction, through all 10 of the metal tracks, and it culls a number of American and British influences into the core sound they helped create, to produce one of the better USPM efforts I've heard in years (outside of Pharaoh). After being sent the promo through Metal on Metal Records, I've been unable to stop listening to it, and aside from a few minor hiccups in terms of cheesy lyrical delivery, it's a nearly spotless example of its medium, a level of power metal finesse which I'm just not hearing much of in the world lately.

This is a pretty humble effort, all told, with lyrics rooted heavily in historical battles (The Crusades, for example) and stylistically does not deviate heavily from the band's prior work. But humble in this case just happens to = an ass kicking. The busied, winding, classically infused guitar picking is no doubt going to draw a few comparisons to another US act, Helstar, who were writing like this back on A Distant Thunder or Nosferatu in the later 80s; truly more expressive, melodic and well-developed than anything this band has released before. The sheer variety and quality of the riffs was the major selling point for me, loads of dual harmonies that fire straight into the memory, rooted in angry ballast and momentum. The one track that I wasn't immediately hooked on was "Giants of Canaan" itself, but it definitely has a cultural feel to its construction which sets up the mood of the lyrical concepts, and I came around after a few spins. That said,  beginning with "Trapped in Black" the album was this golden swath of gleaming, catchy battle hymns through which I couldn't find more than a 30 stretch without something ear pleasing coming off those guitar strings. Leads are mixed, with a few totally evocative and brilliant progressions interspersed with less interesting note explosions, but overall I'd say Pat Marinelli and Mike Benetatos earned a goddamn beer (and in a perfect world, more than a paycheck).

The bass tone provides an essential, dense anchor for the crisper rhythm guitars, and long term member Mike Sabatini is also pretty spot on, though I'd say the percussion could have been mixed at a slightly higher volume and we'd not have lost those guitars. The symphonic/ambient intro "As They Descend" does a great job of transporting the listener into an idealized Middle Eastern desert, where important (and bloody) things are obviously going to happen; the one caveat is that I wish there were more of these purely atmospheric moments spread throughout. New vocalist Bobby 'Leather Lungs' Lucas, formerly of Seven Witches fame, fits in here like a knight's fist to a gauntlet, capable of delivering in both a vicious, convincing mid-range and a higher pitch. A lot of people will compare him to James Rivera, but I also heard a lot of angrier Bruce Dickinson, as well as some Halford, Dio or Wayne through the shrieks. Often quite similar to what you'd hear from Sean Peck (of the Californian band Cage). Most importantly, Lucas is able to produce some vitriol in the verses, essential to really place one in the mood of such bloody, epic struggle that inspired the songs. He's not just some harmonic dandelion singing about elves, eagles and Pegasus. This man might really BE the guy at the other end of the scimitar or broadsword plunged into your chest.

The downside is that a few of the lines come off really hammy, especially in a tune like "Sands of Time" which serves as a paean to metal music and thus metal stereotypes ('rock and roll soldiers', etc). Or a few of the 'hwah' type exclamations that music of this caliber just won't need to stir up the listener's blood. Granted, I'm nitpicking, and these are only a few lines throughout the entire 51 minutes of material. Their scarcity did inversely cause them to stand out, but let's not lose focus: Leather Lungs is a tremendous talent and a suitable front man to replace long time screamer Bob Mitchell. With this guy at the helm, and such a seasoned and excellent quartet of musicians to back him, Attacker has easily written one of the best albums of this sort I've heard since the 80s, and the intricacy, complexity, and quality of the guitar licks can't be denied. In fact, if I were to stand this up shoulder to shoulder against the group's beloved debut, Giants of Canaan would come out the victor, because there's simply that much more to it, which is not always a good thing, but here nothing less than a benefit. Fucking great record here, whether your tastes lie in USPM, NWOBHM of the Maiden variety, or the Teutonic surge of a Gamma Ray or Primal Fear.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Centvrian - Contra Rationem (2013)

Well over a decade ago, Centvrian was another of those death metal hopefuls which might very well have been caught up in the same storm of notoriety that made Krisiun, Angelcorpse and Nile forerunners in the field of brutality. Alas, for whatever reason, the wells of hellish inspiration ran dry after but two full-length recordings, and several of the members walked the plank, while others splintered off into the related Nox who had a comparable sound. Most of the core group has kept busy with other acts like Severe Torture and Prostitute Disfigurement, but after a few successful live gigs in 2011, plans were made to once more make a go out of this defunct project. We can all be thankful of that, because not only does Contra Rationem trample its predecessors, but it ultimately amounts to a pretty fresh sound for blast-focused extremity that overcomes the usual limitations.

Intricate riffing is key to this experience, and the prime factor in elevating the effort above so many of its robot-drone contemporaries, who seem to think the sheer speed and force alone are paramount to the procreation of great musical vision. Centuvrian mete out wild rhythmic patterns that you simply don't expect, and to my great delight, they were the sorts that I instantly wanted to figure out. For instance, in "Crown of Bones" they carve out the usual tremolo picking with these excellent, grooving chord patterns, and a toss up a few spikes of black metal dissonance for good measure. The sheer speed of the rhythm guitar across many of the cuts, and the tone thereof, will evoke nostalgia for Morbid Angel's Altars of Madness, and I had a similar reaction to its controlled, calamitous construction; lightspeed thrashing evolved into something altogether more brutal and bristling with menace. But Contra Rationem puts a creative spin on it, its authors intent on not only technicality, but licks that will actually dazzle the listener into wanting to relive them repeatedly. The leads, too, show an enormous level of detail, zipping and zapping through cuts like "Judas Among Twelve" like a swarm of insects discovering some new feasting ground.

To their credit, though so much of the album is performed at rippling velocity, they can also manage a few mid or slower paced chord progressions (like the intro to "Damnatio Memoriea") to dispense with any sense of unbridled monotony. The drums are blindingly dextrous, but Centvrian has gone with a more organic production than many of today's modern, mechanical sounding brutal/technical death acts, and the result is definitely one of a Sandoval on steroids rather than an obvious panorama of brickwalled overdubs. Bass is fast as fuck too, but suborned slightly by the boxy guitar tone. I wasn't entirely blown over by the new vocalist, Niels Adams (who several of the other members have worked with before), but largely because he just sounds like a Steve Tucker or Glen Benton, a blunt and dark inflection with a few snarls thrown in to add texture. Granted, he performs this style well enough, but the guitars and drums are just too obviously the focus, and responsible for almost all of the memorable moments throughout (apart from some brief sample snippets like the intro to "Antinomium"). Taken as a whole, Contra Rationem is not simply just a band dusting itself off, but exceeding all expectations. A veritable death metal whirlwind that should find an audience with fans of Krisiun, Behemoth, or anything Morbid Angel released from 1989-2000.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ruins - Place of No Pity (2013)

Hellhammer and Celtic Frost have undoubtedly influenced several generations of extreme metal artists, in terms of their oppressive, heavy riffing and morbid lyrical concepts; but one component you more rarely hear emulated is the vocal style of Tom G. Warrior. Sure, Monotheist and Triptykon form the natural extension of that, but as one who isn't partial so much to that last act's songwriting and riff construction, I'm glad to find other venues. The foremost would be Nocturno Culto of Darkthrone who puts his own spin on the style (especially in the collaboration outfit Sarke), but there's another down under who have been kicking out such leering jams for about eight years, and that is Australia's Ruins, project of Alex Pope and Psycroptic skin punisher David Haley. Place of No Pity is the duo's fourth full-length effort, and one of their best to date.

Think if Warrior's throaty, tortured and crumbling vocals were placed in a Scandinavian black metal milieu circa the mid 90s and you'll draw a pretty good sonic picture of this album. The chord textures are just as often harmonic as they are dissonant, and there's a good deal of variation between tracks which helps pad out the potentially oppressive 60 minute duration. The riffing isn't the most complex available to the black metal fan, and a lot of the groovier songs (like the 9 1/2 minute title track) definitely summon up comparisons to acts like Khold, or the last few Satyricon records, but by no means is Ruins limiting itself to just these sorts of tempos. You'll find Haley unleashed on plenty of blast beats throughout, and the burlier tracks feature enough contrast between slower and faster material that one won't quickly become exhausted by the ceaseless repetition which has plagued a lot of black metal records these past 20 years. The leads fulfill a number of good melodies, and the band's pretty flexible between the more open, atmospheric chord-driven progressions to some tightened, thrash-based riffing; Dave's brother Joe is playing alongside Pope here, and the two are definitely a solid pairing capable of texture and dynamic range.

Place of No Pity is hardly some paragon of lo fidelity grimness, preferring instead to work with a brazen, professional sounding production that allows the chords to shine and the depth of each instrument to stand against the others. For instance, the bass here, while not intensely deviant from the rhythm guitar patterns, has a pretty distinct presence beneath the brighter, thinner tone of the chords. The drums are intensely level and never smothered by the riffing, and the vocals perfectly placed so that they only vaguely dominate the mix. This is not an album sounding as if it were recorded on a 4-track behind a dilapidated garage, so there's always a chance it might turn off some of the purists seeking that sort of sound; but anyone into the higher budget Norse, Swedish or Finnish black metal of the past 15 years will probably dig that the band qualifies such sleek recording standards. Ruins is hardly composing the most immortal riffs out there, but this is nearly in league with 2009's Front the Final Foes, a fine album itself, and I personally enjoy how they confirm speculations of what a Frost-like sound can evolve into, without the excessively raspy or hoarse guttural vocals you generally expect in extreme metal. A good band deserving more attention than they've yet received.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Logic of Denial - Atonement (2013)

First impressions of this album were that an unannounced, anomalous tornado had just manifest about 10 yards from my apartment complex and then proceeded to ravage my family and belongings. Second impressions were a bit difficult to ascertain, as I was still hospitalized from the first impressions. To dub Italians Logic of Denial as an 'intense' death metal act would be an understatement. Despite their relative youth in the field (forming around 2006 in this incarnation), they've got all the chops and technical ability to run alongside such celebrated acts as Nile, Behemoth, Krisiun, Immolation and Morbid Angel, each of which you are likely to notice within the architecture of Atonement, a sophomore that will be spinning heads, if not necessarily emptying out the wallets of those hands attached to those bodies who own the heads. Trust me, though: if you admire unflinching excess, hyper-realized pacing, pinpoint accuracy and dizzying acrobatics in your death metal, WITHOUT the expectant fits of arbitrary noodling, Logic of Denial is dialing your digits.

It would be impossible for one of my long history with death metal to not appreciate at least some of what's transpiring on this sophomore. To define the drums as inhuman would be a moot point, as percussionists of Daniel Costa's nature are practically born with additional feet and hands that they keep hidden from the world, but I still find it hard to believe an individual can possess such stamina. The guitars unleash a bevy of staccato rhythms, denser chords, frolicking tremolo riffs and breakdowns that move a mile a minute. I can just imagine a crowd trying to effectively mosh to these rhythms at a gig, and the band stopping mid-set to exclaim 'Sorry, you're just not keeping up!' at the audience. There were times throughout the track list where the bass did get lost, but if you pay close enough attention you'll note that this guy is just as busy plugging away at his instrument as anyone else in the band, and when he hits the higher strings the notes stand out a bit more from the vortex of guitar progressions. I should also mention that Atonement isn't just whipping along at higher velocities without exception; there are various tunes throughout the 11 here (like "Catharsis Through Ungodly Annihilation" and "Despondency") that tackle some steadier, mid-paced battering ram riffs which develop a decent contrast to the lightning fare.

Vocally, the guy's got a growl which isn't too guttural, more along the lines of what you'd find in the Polish or Brazilian scenes. A lot of the stylistic choices, tempos and actual riff constructions bring me back to records like Annihilation of the Wicked, Conquerors of Armageddon and Domination, but the sheer speed and atmosphere created through its propulsion definitely scratches that brutal, blackened death aesthetic present in bands like Behemoth or Hate. Logic of Denial are not without a refined sense of melody (like the leads in "Despondency"), but I will say that Atonement could have used more of this, and even a few additional breakdowns or atmospheric segues to counteract their forceful eruptions of strength. They throttle about 1000 note progressions in your direction, but only about a quarter of them really stick. Nor are they really bringing anything new to your table. But those quips aside, this is a fairly high end effort, impeccably crafted to utterly destroy anything in its path, and if you're in the mood for unbridled speed and retribution, this will indeed fill that void, placing Logic of Denial on that same radar that brought international notice to their countrymen Hour of Penance and Fleshgod Apocalypse. Just be warned: call the paramedics in advance and make sure they have a stretcher available. And be sure to insure your property against environmental damages! Flood, fire, severe winds, this one's got them all.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Expurgate - Dementia Tremens (2013)

The 'Mile-High City' might be the last place one might expect to find such a gurgling, lowdown pile of intestines as Expurgate's full-length debut Dementia Tremens, and yet here they are, taking a dump all over the snowy peaks and flats of their territory with an album of misogynistic, meat headed slam breakdowns and flights of faster, old school brutality. Let's get one fact out of the way first: there is not a single individualistic or unique characteristic to this album which the avid death metal listener won't have heard hundreds of times over the past decade. Between the thuggish palm muted moshing components and eruptions of tremolo picked guitars, everything does seem as if its been paraphrased from the band's influences, from Suffocation to Lividity to Devourment, but despite this shortcoming the Coloradans have put together a taut and compact 23 debut which purists for this form won't find much to scoff at, even if it isn't exactly pushing the envelope off the nearest cliff.

These are not songs concerned with leaving a lasting impact on your memory so much as an immediate impact on your chin, tummy, scrotum, or wherever you like to take your blows. The guitars follow a very percussive pattern which essentially doubles up the drums for a one two bludgeoning combination, and the low end tendency of the notation will churn your stomach even after a spoonful of Pepto Bismol. There is nothing exceptional dirty or raw about the production, this is by the numbers, modern sounding stuff with a lot of punch to it, but clear enough so when the group breaks out its accelerated picking sequences you can make out every note. Pinched squeals all over the place, par for the course. In particular I rather enjoyed the bass tone, which is pluggy and potent enough to lend some added 'bounce' to some of the neanderthal rhythms, but overall the instruments are all mixed straight on the level and I never felt as if anything was drowning anything else in a swamp of entrails. Which is good and bad, since there's no real atmosphere of note other than the driving, pummeling mechanics of the members' limbs, but pretty standard for this niche. The vocals are club-like, blunt gutturals with an effective, toilet-flush sustain on them that will not surprise anyone, but function well enough within this particular fleshy plumbing.

Some of the lyrical placement over the chugging is hilarious here, in particular through "Repugnant Torso Defilement" and "40 oz. Facefuck". Songs that you would NOT want to share with your grandmother or girlfriend (okay, maybe if you've got a particularly masochistic counterpart); but I broke out laughing and I'm sure it was not unintentional on the band's part. I also laud that Expurgate vary up the content enough through the rather short album that it never grows dull or exhausting; I've encountered a number of these slam-oriented bands who focus all too much on the one set of slower, chugging gaits, and the Coloradans at least seem open to incorporating some of their more intense and busied influences to provide a decent range of tempos that really let you 'feel out' the breakdowns. Ultimately, it's a solid debut that will sate many fans who comb the rosters of labels like Sevared, Amputated Vein and Comatose (the last of which is releasing this), and worth a listen if you enjoy decently structured and produced death of this variety ala Kraanium, Ingested or Abominable Putridity. On the other hand, I didn't find the riff progressions timeless, distinctive or catchy enough that I'd revisit it very often.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Lightning Swords of Death - Baphometic Chaosium (2013)

While Baphometic Chaosium doesn't necessarily retract the limitations of its predecessors, it compensates with a superior, frightening sense of atmosphere that makes it an engaging rabbit hole to tramp down all the same; or rather, a gaping abyssal maw which might consume a listener even if the actual metal core of the band is nothing all that impressive or unique. The Golden Plague and The Extra Dimensional Wound were not bad efforts, all told, but I couldn't help but feel underwhelmed at how the beautiful, engrossing artwork led to only a banal songwriting style that did little to upstage or deviate from prepackaged Scandinavian aesthetics, with only marginal differences in the vocals and production. In short, the Lightning Swords of Death had yet to really carve out their own point of view, something one might expect their geographical location (L.A.) might afford them, so far from those Satanic fjords and forests of the Norse and Swedish forebears.

Baphometic Chaosium does just that, but at the expense of much in the way of interesting riffs coursing through this tenuous 39 minute struggle with sanity. Elements of thrash and death metal have never been alien to their sound, yet here they strafe directly between the black/death genres, with a lot of morbid tremolo picking sequences that carry the ritualistic, bleak narrative of the vocals. Speaking of which, they've done a tremendous job to incorporate a cleaner, mournful doomed chant in among the expected rasps ("Acidgate"), wretched whispers of suffering ("Chained to Decay"), and so forth. The production of the guitars and drums here is extremely fluid. Primal and punishing, but remarkably polished so that the varied ambient effects do shine through when they are summoned forth from the pervasive, opaque occult atmosphere. The blast beats sound like an assembly line of brickworkers trying to wall off the terrors of the underworld, and the bass guitar often exudes a clever groove here or there to distinguish it from the straightforwardness of the rhythm guitar. Most of all, the ambiance of the album is extremely resonant whether it's been treated with a sort of atonal, warped spatial woodwind atmosphere (in the instrumental "Cloven Shields") or being used with more subtlety through the metal tracks.

I still really wish more ingenuity was being placed into the rhythm guitar progressions, and as an example of this, you'll hear how instantly something like the wavering, vile sequence in "Psychic Waters" stands out over the guitars in several of the other tracks. The ability is there to create this dissonant, fucked up mass of writhing, seething tendrils that can match the ominous, surreal ambient elements, but generally they stick to some fairly predictable patterns that don't exactly leave an impression on the melody. Thankfully, though, the album taken as a whole is more than sufficient, and provided a more harrowing excursion than either of their earlier full-length releases. Definitely an album to recommend to those who appreciate when a band steps outside of its brutal or incendiary status quo to offer a counterbalance of eeriness and atmosphere; such as Marduk's Wormwood, Emptiness' latest (Error), or 1349's last few records (though they were not themselves successful). I still don't think the Lightning Swords of Death have hit their peak potential, but it would only take a small push further in this direction to create a truly compelling concoction. Baphometic Chaoisum is more than a stopover until that time, and I enjoyed it.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Believer - Dimensions (1993)

Though their first two records revealed obvious hints of experimentation, it wasn't until Dimensions that Believer would fully embrace their inner nature as progressive metal pundits with what is undoubtedly their most interesting, if not highest quality effort. Making better use of anything from samples to acoustic guitars, operatic vocals to deranged sound effects, and perhaps most centrally, a truly varied palette of thrash riffing dynamics that draws heavily upon jazz/fusion and classical sources. Like a number of other acts in the thrash and death metal fields (Pestilence, Cynic, Atheist, etc), it was evident that the Pennsylvanians were not merely content to repeat themselves, and desired a metamorphosis of their chosen medium into a vaster aural tableau. That they do this without sacrificing the thrashers within them, is to their great credit, even if Dimensions does lack some of the punch and power of its predecessor Sanity Obscure.

You wouldn't know the band had changed itself all that much judging by the first half of this disc alone, which is a natural extension of the first two, laden with thrash riffs that culminate in some scorchers like "Singularity" or the clinical "No Apology", but by that point the band have already slipped us a bunch of those random, neurotic effects that always seem to cast us back into the madhouse whenever we've settled into some pure, palm-muted, frenzied goodness. There are some uncanny sounds on this thing, like that quivering, unnerving ambient intro to "What Is But Cannot Be" or the introspective narration above the acoustics in "Dimentia". Bachman's vocals themselves are just as suffused with anxiety as they were on Sanity Obscure, with the caveat that they feel cleaner, as if recorded in a more sterile environment. The same could be said for the guitars, which is why they feel a fraction more piecemeal and far less forceful than the prior albums. Granted this is music that requires some degree of polish, professionalism and refinement, that the listener is able to pick out the nuances and the vast swaths of notation delivered through the guitars, but I admit that I've long felt this was a bit too surgically sterile in terms of its weight.

That aside, one distinct area of improvement is that the thinner guitars permit the bass to step out and slink along independently of their crushing weight, which was an issue on Extraction from Mortality and to a lesser extent Sanity Obscure. The level of variation in the writing lends itself to a more natural dichotomy in the percussion, which might share the lack of hard hitting resonance of the guitars, but grants a lot more space to mess around with fills, rides, hi-hats, etc. But probably the brightest selling point for this record, at the time, was the "Trilogy of Knowledge" suite which occupies Dimension's latter half. Collaborator Scott Baird and his sister Julianne once again contributed their classically honed talents to create an honest to God symphonic proponent that meshed quite well with Believer's thrashing matrix, and while it's not in of itself highly memorable, there was a certain novelty to the effort which had to be appreciated. Today, symphonic metal (or at least use of certain components) is quite commonplace, but the early through mid 90s was an age of brutes and the emergence of shit-tastic groove metal, so Dimensions was quite a gem in the rough, especially the contrast of Julianne and Kurt's voices.

Lyrically, the album still deals heavily with the topic of the band's faith, but also more heavily serves as a psychological profile on sanity, a discussion of man's place in the universe. It's not quite so in your face as a lot of similar minded Christian thrash acts, like the hilarious Vengeance Rising. At worst you get a bit of theistic defensiveness in "No Apology", or the "Trilogy of Knowledge" tracks which in parts feel like a sermon. As with the first two records, I've never really felt this was a major obstacle towards my enjoyment of the music as a whole (but I can say the same for most Odinist, Muslim, Satanic, Judaic, Mythos, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian metal I encounter, your own mileage may vary). Unfortunately, despite its polish and progression, Dimensions came a bit late in the Golden Age cycle of thrash to make much of a splash, and its inquisitive and experimental nature ran in direct opposition to the 'dumbing down' of the nu-metal, groove metal and metalcore onslaughts that were nearly underway. Makes sense that this would be the 'writing on the wall' for Believer, at least until their 21st century rebirth. I've never much been in love with this record, preferring the more belligerent psychosis of Sanity Obscure, but it's nonetheless interesting, and fans of records like Focus, Spheres, Deception Ignored, Elements, and 90s Mekong Delta should give it a whirl.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (a chance reshuffling of matter)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Believer - Sanity Obscure (1990)

Not only was Sanity Obscure a pretty dramatic improvement over the technical thrashing Believer debut Extraction from Mortality, but it also brought the band to the attention of a larger audience through a deal with Roadrunner Records, which had been exploding for years with a number of masterful albums in numerous sub-genres, and had a higher visibility than the band's Christian label R.E.X. Music (home also to bands like Sacrament, Detritus and Living Sacrifice). Interestingly, this is not such a massive change in terms of its song- and soundscaping: the riffs are just that much better, and there's a more immediate sense of chaos and tension manifest through the guitars and vocals. Those angry and incendiary Christian lyrics from the debut remain, but only on about half the songs; the rest are quite thrash-friendly and topical to events that were (and still are) a big deal to an audience whose unrest and political ideas were often embodied in the music that inspired them; for instance, "Nonpoint" and its environmental theme borne straight out of the 80s, but relevant even today.

It helps a great deal that the sophomore opens with what are, in my estimation, the best two Believer cuts in their entire catalog. "Sanity Obscure" opens with freakish tones of disjointed nursery rhymes, almost like it were being played at you through the loudspeaker of some psychotic ice cream truck; and then comes a dissonant build into a simplistic thrash break, and then the Pennsylvanians unleash a heavenly host of cinders and ash through their taut, precision riffing. "Wisdom's Call" is Christened with a groovy beat before its own meaty guitars erupt into a splendorous, surgical display of palm muted harmonies. There remains that dense, industrial grade soullessness to the guitar tone, but I feel like the lows and highs of the strings are better captured, and thus the muscle of each progression really hits the listener in the gut. I'd compare it to the Teutonic gods Destruction, but I'd be thinking more of their 2000 and beyond reunion era, albums like All Hell Breaks Loose or The Antichrist. Though furious enough to satisfy the audience of West Coast thrash like Dark Angel or Exodus, I'd actually go one further and say that the way Kurt Bachman and Dave Baddorf formulated the riffs on this thing are clashing, compact and chaotic enough that they might satisfy fans of adventurous Floridian death/thrash outfits like Atheist, Cynic, Hellwitch or later Death. I even prefer it to much of those bands' output (I'd take it over Piece of Time, for example), even if it's not so dextrous, jazzy or technically profound.

Bass is still an issue, but even if it's not as compelling as, say, a Roger Patterson or Tony Choy, it buzzes and burps along here with more of an intensity and distinction than on the debut. Additionally, the drums feel more fleshed out, with a nice snap to the snare, and some more flexible double bass and near blast work, though like most thrash acts the beats were influenced more through rock and punk music. While they don't abandon that hacking, angry inflection they possessed on the debut, Bachman's vocals also seem better rounded. You can make out more of that tortured decay in the longer syllables, and he definitely feels like he's crawling along the Emergency Room floor with a burst appendix or some other tangible, unshakable form of physical pain wracking his entire person. They continue to play around with the idea of orchestral ingredients, this time largely through the incorporation of the female operatic vocals and symphony in "Dies Irae (Day of Wrath") which persist through the nearly six minutes of the track; for sure one of the earliest examples of an extreme metal band implementing such strings and sound design alongside the heavier fare. A less seamless fit than you'd hear on, say, Into the Pandemonium, but quite fitting to the manic intensity of Believer's metal riffing.

Really, any 2-3 of the originals on this album would provide me with more replay value and choice riffage than the entirety of Extraction from Mortality, but Sanity Obscure is also about 6-7 songs deep in terms of consistent quality and coherent variation. Not until the cover of U2's "Like a Song" do I feel an urge to skip a track, and in their defense, they at least inject that with some punky/thrash enthusiasm while attempting to maintain The Edge's sense for atmospheric playing. The CD reissue contains an instrumental bonus track called "I.Y.F." which is a more harmonious use of the two guitars, but this also has rougher production values as it hails from their 1987 demo The Return. Ultimately, this has proven the sturdiest of their full-lengths to date, sounding just as fresh and pulverizing as it was the first time I laid my hears on it, and with great haste I would recommend this to the connoisseur of technical thrash or death/thrash metal, provided he or she doesn't mind sharing a seat with Jesus for just the one bus ride. A refined, evolutionary stopgap between the Bay Area and Teutonic thrash tones of the late 80s, and the emergent fusion of progressive Florida death.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (the birth pains have begun)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Believer - Extraction from Mortality (1989)

Believer was one of the forerunners in a wave of technical, compelling Christian thrash acts dropping albums in the later 80s, including such others as Tourniquet, Deliverance, and Sacrament. Though their religious interests certainly wouldn't prove popular among many metal circles today, and in truth weren't such a hot commodity even back then, they married their convictions to some admirably aggressive songwriting, which in my estimate places their appeal far beyond the bounds of those of like-minded faith. Granted, I'm not and never have been one to hold a bias against worship-based metal (of any creed) unless it's excessively preachy or cheesy (and not in a fun way), but I think a lot of folks who balk at the terms 'Christian' and 'metal' in unison would be taken aback at just how pissed off this Pennsylvanian outfit was through their earlier records. Tracks like "Blemished Sacrifices", "D.O.S. (Desolation of Sodom)" and "Vile Hypocrisy" on the debut Extraction from Mortality are quite scathing in terms of their message, and not leaving a lot of room for interpretation, yet the music is surgical and meticulous enough that non- or anti-Christian fans of hostile thrash could easily hurdle the lyrics.

That's not to say Believer's debut was a  masterpiece by any definition, and in fact it leaves something to be desired, but even this early, they were performing a brand of thrash quite rare, and remaining so. Musically this felt like a veritable tornado of semi-technical riffing aesthetics redolent of what bands like Destruction, Mekong Delta, Vendetta and Deathrow were writing over in Germany, only supplanted into a muscular momentum familiar to West Coast US acts like Testament, Exodus and Heathen who were offering us a more progressive, or more pummeling variation on the laws set by a Master of Puppets. Vicious, busy, and abusive sequences of palm mutes and triplets drive much of the action, and the guitars are mixed with a soulless and unapologetic certainty which is sure to induce fits of headbanging. The leads aren't great, but they're definitely practiced and clinical in nature, like a poor man's Alex Skolnick; the setback is simply that they're rarely so memorable as those strung together on a record like The New Order, Master of Puppets or Rust in Peace. One couldn't argue that a lot of thought was put into this selection of tracks, but apart from a pure visceral level, I've never been able to connect with them. Extraction from Mortality was no 'hit generator', at a time when more proficient and complex albums by Artillery, Deathrow, Coroner and so forth were able to provide both instant accessibility and accumulated depth through repeated listens.

Ultimately, I remember this more as a setup for its successor Sanity Obscure than anything else, because that sophomore was able to take this existing blueprint and fashion it into a superior set of songs. The lack of distinct bass lines (or bass presence in the mix) definitely drops a possible dimension from its appreciation, and thus so much focus is spent just on the guitar patterns and the angered vocals of Kurt Bachman. In the case of the former, there are a handful of cuts like "Unite", "Tormented" and "Extraction from Mortality" itself which manifest enough excitement through their onslaught that they could throw down with the lion's share of their US peers, but looking at Extraction as a whole it often feels like a tireless parade of notes that just don't form themselves into emotionally resonant phrases. Bachman sounds quite goddamn convincing, if you'll pardon the pun, sort of a missing link between the two best known Dark Angel frontmen (Don Doty and Ron Rinehart); a hoarse and furious treatment which occasionally channels a bit of angrier Snake (Voivod) or Kurt Brecht (D.R.I.). At the same time, though, you get tired of his inflection after just a handful of tracks, because there's not enough variation or interesting syllabic delivery to compensate for the matrix of skilled but dispirited guitar progressions thundering beneath it.

I did like the few hints of real experimentation here, like the disjointed use of samples and discordant pianos to open "Unite", creepy clean guitars inaugurating "Shadow of Death", or the lengthy and moody symphonic intro to the title track; things to pay attention to, as they'd play a role in influencing Believer's third album Dimensions (1993). That said, there were not enough of these balanced throughout the length of the record to make a difference, and other instances of stepping out the comfort zone, like the funk/reggae closure to "Stress", or the dumb 'skit' that heralds the "Vile Hypocrisy" remix on the reissues, which I can't imagine was ever funny to anyone but the band themselves. Neither lasts long, but they still mar the surface of a record which seems so predicated on tension and conviction. All told, Extraction from Mortality is indeed an ambitious and proficient introduction to Believer canon, with a riff set that might sate those into bands as diverse as Exodus, Mekong Delta, or more recently, Vektor and Ritual Carnage; but it simply did not have the songwriting charm of so much else that was happening in that 1988-91 period, and at best serves as a second or third tier filler between binges of No More Color, Control and Resistance, Think This, Deception Ignored, Victims of Deception and Paradox's Heresy.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (leaving the corrupted flesh behind)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Beheaded - Never to Dawn (2012)

Never to Dawn is one of those records which I could hurl a hundred compliments at, and yet still, when the dust of all that praise cleared, I'd have to admit that I didn't derive a wealth of enjoyment from it. The fourth Beheaded full-length, and second for Unique Leader, it does actually steer the Maltese band's sound away from its predecessors into a slightly more unique realm, and it's easily the best produced in terms of the drumming, the guitar tone, the vocals, and the use of a few decently timed samples. The cover art is phenomenal, while sort of keeping the theme of its predecessor Ominous Bloodline, but strangely enough, it lacks some of the dark depth and density of that disc. Don't get me wrong, this is still intense and meticulous death metal, but it honestly has more of an organic feel to it through the higher studio standards implemented.

Where before, Beheaded were perhaps all too easily comparable to a number of other pummeling brutal death bands like Deeds of Flesh, Internal Suffering, or Suffocation, this album often reminded me of acts like Hate Eternal, Diabolic, Cannibal Corpse, with perhaps a few touches of Polish extremity circa Behemoth or Vader's blast sequences, and loads of Morbid Angel grooves. Christ Brincat has never sounded better than here, and in fact I'd go as far as to say the mix of his drums simply crushes anything on the earlier works presenting us with a lot of clarity into just how hard (and often) he hits, how intricate his footwork. The rhythm guitars in pieces like "Elapsed in the Vortex of Extin" are choppy and explosive, with a lot of the band's forward firing palm mutes interspersed in decent tremolo patterns, which at their most corpulent (the closing moments of "The Ancient Acumen") often entailed a little Swedish harmonic death influence. The bass guitar wasn't often sticking out for me, but at least I could hear it battering away down there like a mallet. Most impressive were some of the lead sequences, like in "Elapsed...", where they hit that great groove in the bridge, really taking the whole experience to another level. I only wish there were a few more comparable moments of excitement through the 3/4 of an hour the album lasts.

In the tradition of never having the same vocalist twice on any full-length, they've got another new one here named Frank Calleja, and he's hands down the most distinct they've had yet, capable of not only molding himself to the bands blunter guttural barrage, but leaving a trail of ground up organs in his wake with a nasty snarl not unlike the Floridian forebears like John Tardy, or coughing up some gruel like Peter of Vader. In fact, you can just feel this dude reaching into his gut to pull out these tortured, blood gargling tones and it adds a lot of depth and character. For this and numerous other reasons, Never to Dawn is hard to deny as a creative, production pinnacle for the group, at least since Perpetual Mockery; the caveat is that a lot of the songs really don't stand out to me in their entirely. There are some great parts, sure, and I really dug the mostly instrumental "Towards an Abducted Sun" and both the first and last tunes, but overall this was always a step or two below mind-blowing and I was eagerly awaiting more explosive, memorable note progressions that just never came to be. Ultimately, it's a very professional, seasoned brutal death outing, and fans of Morbid Angel, Hate Eternal, Severed Savior, Vader and late 90s Kataklysm should check it out and see what they think.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Beheaded - Ominous Bloodline (2005)

Hardly a departure from the direction Beheaded were pursuing with the two previous releases, Ominous Bloodline succeeds because of two important factors: a stronger sense of purpose and punishment to the songwriting which is manifest through a bevy of superior riffing, and a deeper, darker production standard which encapsulates the guttural, often gurgling vocals, courtesy of Melchior Borg, the vocalist coming in to replace Lawrence Joyce. I won't lie, this is essentially Recounts of Disembodiment 'in space', done right, and dutifully and mercilessly kicking the shit out of you. Perhaps it's just the excellent cover art, or the opacity of the music's mechanical intensity, but listening through this disc was like being in a space vessel as it was being swallowed by a black hole (or Elder God, if that's your thing), shaking to pieces while the rest of the crew around you bursts into an abstract sculpture of blood and organs. Resurgence of Oblivion and Recounts of Disembodiment failed to even place me in a proper headlock, but Ominous Bloodline thrusts me down on the block and proceeds with a single, savage stroke to separate my brain cage from the rest of my body.

Mind you, there's nothing particularly novel or unique about the album in terms of its techniques. Choppy semi-technical spurts of rhythmic voracity infused with breakdowns circa Suffocation; tail end trilling guitar surgeries courtesy of Cannibal Corpse; callous, cold blasting redolent of Deeds of Flesh. But the pacing and balance of each track is more meticulous. The rhythm guitars have this processed punch to them that feels like you're bonked rapidly and repeatedly in the face with a wrench, and when they lapse into a groove you can really feel the weight of the mutes to the point where it becomes irresistible to resist the primal, pit starved neanderthal within. Imagine the primates pacing about the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey if they were to suddenly start moshing one another. The leads, too, are fare more skillfully elevated to give off a progressive, almost jazzy eloquence as they scream off into the vacuum of utter darkness, and the bass guitar thunders along like turbulence as you're entering the atmosphere of a dead, or dying world. I can certainly understand why some might find the snare drum too clappy sounding, and the drums do more or less give off a soulless, robotic impression, but the force of the kicks and the overall aesthetic actually work well with the vast, otherworldly horror of the music, a nihilistic intergalactic asylum.

The vocals, likewise, are an improvement over the previous record in that you can really feel out the brute soreness of the delivery. He's got a good, growling sustain, and there are plenty of snarls spackled over the density of the guttural to keep the performance schizophrenic and malevolent, or spatial effects (as in "Ill Remains") that enforce the dark, futuristic appeal of the writing (though the lyrics aren't necessarily sci-fi in nature). The selection of tremolo picked guitars here isn't necessarily more athletic or original than on Recounts, but it's certain set in a better contrast with the denser low notes and feels more freshly grating and hostile. Tracks like "Rooted in Profundity" or "Vaults of Ageless Pain" can certainly deliver a headache due to their potent, percussive construction, but all told I felt far more enthusiastic and engrossed in the material than ever before, even on the band's promising debut Perpetual Mockery which was an incarnation of the band as its most promising and unique. Ominous Bloodline isn't ultimately the most individual sounding record in the medium, and in terms of technicality or riff progression it's not as 'rocket science' as it looks, but it's nonetheless a damn fine brutal death record, and a pugilistic monument of escapism.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (radiating in utter revulsion)

Beheaded - Recounts of Disembodiment (2002)

If it's any indicator as to just how dreadfully forgettable Beheaded's sophomore Recounts of Disembodiment is in the grand scheme of brutality, I had actually completely forgotten that it existed, and was beginning to put down my thoughts for its successor Ominous Bloodline when I had the nagging suspicion that I was missing something. From its formulaic songwriting framework to its use of one of Toshihiro Egawa's least impressive cover images, there's just nothing about this album that screams 'listen to me' over any number of other brutal death atrocities of the new millennium, and it suffers from a lot of the same symptoms that plagued its predecessor, the Resurgence of Oblivion EP. Not a total bust, and by no means a terrible record, but this one leaves the psychic impression of the 'also-ran' stamped upon its surface in so many places that any benefits one otherwise might have derived from the experience are smothered. In short, there's just nothing curious or compelling about Recounts of Disembodiment that I can't find elsewhere.

The writing here is occasionally as harried and fast-paced as the prior EP, but here they've settled into a lot of 4x chug/tremolo riff setups that feel soddenly generic and uninteresting when there are such a vaster array of dynamics available to such skilled musicians as Beheaded obviously are. If the note progressions were at least ear catching or 'evil' sounding, that might be one thing, but most of the structure to this album reminds me of textbook Deicide blueprints being filtered through a Suffocation lens. The palm muted slam grooves are a dime a dozen, without ever configuring into something truly violent, and the interspersion of these against the faster material is all too predictable and staged to sound like yet another of countless worship bands. Granted, there are a few tunes among the ten here that raise the stakes due a few superior grooves or old school death metal spurts which sound immediately more menacing than any of the by-the-numbers; "Consecrated Absurdities", "Compelling Derangement" and "Fed Upon Odium" all have a few moments of shine amidst the surrounding dullness, but even these don't engage the imagination for very long. The squeals of the guitars are generally a nuisance, and as with Resurgence..., I found the blunt and percussive vocals to remain on the monotonous side, though arguably more diverse in pattern than they had been on the EP.

A few of the leads are interesting, and lyrics remain a strong point for the Maltese, but in truth when I take this particular album and compare it to something by Deeds of Flesh, Cryptopsy, or the earlier works of Australians Psycroptic, I feel like it's often too set into a particular, hollow framework without much by way of inspiring ideas. The production's alright, with a nice sense of crunch to the guitars that gives the strident grooves a feel not unlike Morbid Angel's breakdowns on Domination, or Suffocation's Pierced from Within. The bass has a bit of a bombastic pop to it that helps it register against the guitars, and all of the instruments and vocals are reasonably balanced here. It was Beheaded's best mix to its day, but that can only get you so far, because I can say without question that among the hundreds of riffs throughout the album, there isn't one that truly drags me under. It's the audio equivalent of watching a mundane slasher horror flick which is composed of predictable stabbing after stabbing, and in my opinion the nadir of what work they've yet released. Worthwhile only if you're one to get excited by anything brutal, mildly technical and with the appropriately sick cover art and logo.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10] (the predator will gradually gorge)