Thursday, February 28, 2013

Soilwork - The Living Infinite (2013)

Soilwork's transition from decent At the Gates knock-off to something far more interesting has certainly made its enemies; probably due to the use of synthesizers, the chugging groove textures of many of the rhythm guitars, and Björn Strid's mixture of melodic vocals with Phil Anselmo meets Tomas Lindberg grunts and snarls. Probably also because of the disparity between what they can pull off in studio versus on the stage. Plus, let's face it: they rose up alongside bands like Killswitch Engage and In Flames. They tour everywhere. They are relatively popular with a fanbase broader than the average underground pundit is comfortable with, and many of their aesthetic choices are not exactly popular. All of this adds up to an unmistakable bullseye upon Speed's shaven crown, the shrapnel from the ensuing blast consuming his band mates. But even at their worst, I've almost always been able to take Soilwork seriously, because I find there's an immeasurable level of talent here that, when firing off at full force, provides sheer exhilaration. Translation: Natural Born Chaos. It happened, I loved the fucking thing, and it might damn well happen again...

Ounce for ounce, The Living Infinite is not that Second Coming, but it's a damned ambitious double album which serves up some compensation for the last 3-4 records, none of which I found terrible, but all of which left something to be desired. At 20 tracks and about 84 minutes, there is a lot happening through the course of this music which deserves exploring, and I'd hazard that the Swedes even take a few risks to maintain the variation and discourse necessary to hold a listener's attention. At its core, the structure of the music is not a left turn from the past decade's output, and there are a few pretty bland chord progressions and palm mute patterns, but for the most part, they do everything in their power to keep things creative on a fundamental level. The tracks twist and turn, rarely predictable, reaching out not only for those money shot choruses, but also implementing some choppy rhythm guitars during the verses which grant us something other than Strid's rifling rasp for us to follow. Leads and glimmering walls of melody will break out at any time, often even as a support for the vocal chorus, while the drums are reduced to a minimal beat that generates an atmospheric breakdown. You'll hear hints of everything from prog rock, to Southern swagger (in a few of the grooves), to straight up bursts of classic Soilwork melodeath, even some thrashier outbreaks like "Let the First Wave Rise' which reminded me quite a lot of Speed's side project Terror 2000.

And yet, for all the dynamic wealth of the album, it remains steadfastly consistent. Strid's voice is on the top of his game, as he further refines his ability to deliver a melodic line with just a hint of the razor's edge to manifest raw emotion. Normally, I admit that I loathe a lot of the clean/bark alternations found in groups of the melodeath or metalcore persuasion. I can't always stomach them in Shadow's Fall, All That Remains, Bring Me the Horizon, Atreyu, or whatever the hell else is/was popular among the fashion-core. But for whatever reason, I tend to enjoy it in this band; perhaps it just feels like the inherent emotion is coming from a more authentic place. I've also long enjoyed the presence of keys here. Sven Karlsson adds everything from proggish runs to organs while remaining unobtrusive to the pummeling of the rhythm section or the frantic front man. Soilwork have long bolstered appreciable, modern production jobs, but this album doesn't feel quite so clean or brickwalled as the few before it. Perhaps it's just the better interchange of the drums and the airy discharge of the melodies, or the fact that every single instrument, including Old Flink's bass lines, come across so distinctly; each fits snugly into the overall picture, the puzzle that might descend into clamor if the focus and attention to detail weren't so obvious.

The Living Infinite is not perfect, and it's not one of Soilwork's very best outings. Part of this is that the sheer magnitude of material seems to trend towards a lot of 'strong' songs as opposed to a few great ones. Also, for all the countless riffs being wound through the songs, they seem to rely more on remaining busy and not repeating themselves than really delivering the memorable hooks. Thus, a lot of that load is left on Strid's shoulders, and while he delivers some climactic chorus lines in numbers like "Tongue", "This Momentary Bliss", or "Whispers and Lights", they unfortunately don't stand out for very long afterwards. I should point out that this is not an album which really attempts to pad itself out with filler. There are a few diversions, like the instrumental "Loyal Shadow", but in general it's quite consistent. A lot of care and effort went into the construction of this thing, and even though it largely plays out like a tribute to the last decade or so of the band's progression, from Natural Born Chaos to the softer Stabbing the Drama, the sheer amount of details here lend it some replay value. Granted, it's not likely to change the mind of anyone with an established enmity for the Soilwork style, but I definitely enjoyed this more than records like Figure Number Five, The Panic Broadcast, or Sworn to a Great Divide at any rate.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Omnium Gatherum - Beyond (2013)

Though its cover might have traded the city skyline for a coastline, the latest Omnium Gatherum album Beyond is very much in the vein of its predecessor, New World Shadows. Trim, sleek, and produced with all the clarity of modern pop music, it represents a new entry into that field of metrosexual, metropolitan melodic death metal pioneered by efforts like Soilwork's Natural Born Chaos or In Flames' often maligned Reroute to Remain. The Finns are intensely focused through every second of this recording, from preening each note of every lead to attaining a perfect balance between the harder punch of the chugging rhythm guitars and brute vocals, and the various glazes of melody created by the synth playing and guitar harmonies.

Beyond is no doubt a concentrated, contemplative recording, given a breath of added variation through the use of clean vocals and cleaner guitars, but I was constantly being nagged by a sense of familiarity, of unnecessary precautions, and of a serious lack of anything interesting or new from a band that has been known in its career to occasionally change the parameters of its compositional style. If this were titled New World Shadows II: The Well Groomed, Less Adventurous Sequel, it would prove an all too fitting representation (or warning) of what the listener was about to encounter. Granted, that description does not preclude the possibility of some quality music, and there are moments throughout this album where the guitars, grunts and keyboards combine into a sublime, catchy experience (i.e. "New Dynamic" and "In the Rim"), but these are admittedly loaded more towards the front of the record. And at a near hour of material, there are just not enough of them, and Beyond inevitably becomes dull, or at best...'pleasant'.

Not a lot of energy here, so if you're expecting the bursts of enthusiastic hyper picked melodies that bands like At the Gates or In Flames evolved from a hybrid of the thrash, death and power metal genres, you'll only be treated to a few uptempo passages ("The Sonic Sign", etc). Vocals are the expectant huge, Finnish guttural originally made popular on records like Amorphis' Elegy or Sentenced Amok, and still used today by Omnium Gatherum's contemporaries Insomnium and Noumena. These function as intended in creating contrast against the more evocative friendliness of the guitars and keys, but there's nothing overtly passionate or creative in their expression. The singing voice is robust and manly where it appears, but the music it fronts is limp and uninspired, as with many of the more 'progressive rock' touches on the album that involve a clean guitar passage with some grooving, forgettable bass lines. The rhythm section is mixed to fluid perfection, with neither the drumming or bass ever losing focus on the central motifs of the melody, and yet there's just not a lot of excitement on the lower end.

But far and above the least compelling component of this album is the rhythm guitar, which only occasionally veers away from its placid, predictable bricklayer chugging progressions used to support the melody or the keyboard (or both). Granted, some degree of control is necessary when writing such accessible music, but I can't help but feel that some added complexity there would have saved the entire album from its sullen fate. I'm not entirely opposed to this niche of urbane, polished death metal where songwriting and melody entirely abolish the brutality of the parent genre. There's something both chilling and comforting about the music's sterile marble and glass surfaces, almost like the idealized metropolitan reality you'd experience in a modern car or corporate insurance advertisement. Cubicle metal for a coffee break at the local business district cafe on an overcast day. Substantial chance of showers. The personalized, observational tone of the lyrics helps enforce this internal imagery I feel when I listen to the songs, but certainly Omnium Gatherum can unleash itself far more than what I'm hearing on this outing.

It's strange, I've got a sort of 'on/off' relationship with these Finns' works. I've enjoyed all the odd numbered albums, but felt only a lukewarm response to the even numbered. This is the sixth album, so take that as you will. Honestly it's better than Years in Waste or The Redshift, two of their disappointments, but the amount of worthwhile material I'd desire to revisit here could fit tidily onto an EP-length release.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Balflare - Downpour (2012)

Balflare has always espoused a number of Japanese power metal stereotypes, but not necessarily to their disadvantage. With their fourth full-length effort Downpour, they tend to exaggerate these traits to the point that the album feels too processed and sugary to take seriously. First, there's the overt, romantic use of melodies, which is even more pervasive than past efforts like Tempest or Thousands of Winters of Flames. Familiar progressions in the guitars and keys remind me of a hybrid of J-pop artists and 90s Stratovarius, which would be fine if the writing was exciting, but here comes across too laid back due to the prevalent, washy synthesizer tones orchestrated with loads of strings, bells, and bright chiming pads that occasionally drown out the rhythm guitar to the music's detriment, and give one the impression that Tinkerbell is fluttering by. I suppose the title of Downpour is particularly apt here, because this disc sounds wetter than a buoy after being hit by tsunami waves.

Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong about setting this sort of mood, but Balflare seem to allow the atmosphere to do its own talking, and the songs just don't stand out from one another. At its core, the music is very much neo-classical European styled power metal in the vein of other Japanese acts like Galneryus or Concerto Moon. You get loads of shredding runs from both the lead guitar and keyboard, and most of these are managed with an effortless amount of skill, both performed by Syuta Hashimoto, a young virtuoso who has been at the heart of this group since their debut. Synth tones vary between full orchestra and a more proggy, Moog like vibe, which fans of 70s and 80s prog rock will undoubtedly take to. The drumming here is pretty bog-standard for this niche, with lots of driving double bass during the power sections, suitable for the rhythm guitar. That said, it took on a more machine-like aesthetic this time out, with a lifeless snare and kick setup that didn't really add much feel or emotion to the performance. The bass lines are predictable and rarely deviate from the familiar chord patterns, and the rhythm guitar, while chunky and harsh enough that its presence isn't entirely lost, serves as little more than a backbone to the hovering precipitation of the keys. A faint few memorable riffs breakout from the rainy din.

This is Eijin Kawazoe's third studio performance with Balflare, and not his best. When hanging in a middle register, as he does for most of the verses through the album, his performance is average, the strong hints of his accent carving themselves deeply into the English inflection. That's not a bad thing at all, but there is very little by way of interesting melody in his lines. Once he hits a higher pitch, the delivery is stronger, but pretty similar to a Timo Kotipelto with a few hints of Michael Kiske; just nothing special or unique. The lyrics are decently written, personal and loaded with that same 'take me away' sensation that the album's atmosphere carries; but a lot of the imagery and titles are pretty much a grab bag of cliches from bands like Angra, Gamma Ray, and Blind Guardian. All told, while I thought all the prior Balflare records were decent, exciting and loaded with potential, Downpour sets the bar a little lower. The first 4-5 tunes are tolerable, and the later instrumental "Rain's Realm" provides a window into their influences, but then you run into "I'm Your Shadow", a vapid pop rock drama redolent of X Japan's more forgettable work, and the last few cuts "From the Edge of Time" and "In the End of Journey" are also exceedingly weak.

Downpour isn't entirely terrible, and for a few moments grants the fantastical escape it promises, but its too wrapped up in its dreamy, cheesy haze to really prove effective. Compared to the latest Anthem, or the last few Galneryus records, for example, it seems soggy and limp. Newcomers to the band would be better off checking out their first two albums, which streamlined similar aesthetics into ballsier songwriting.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Darkthrone - The Underground Resistance (2013)

You love them. You hate them. You used to enjoy them, but now you cannot stand them. Flip the script. Few bands get both the hackles and beers raised as often as Darkthrone, and it seems each new release is a theatrical event missing only the popcorn. Thankfully, due to the advent of the microwave oven, we can rectify this. 'Goddamnit, I fuckin' loathe these poseurs and sellouts', quoth the twenty something armchair hack who fancies himself a 1st-2nd generation black metaller, who hates and trolls the world, privately wishing he had the time machine to back his claim. As if the notion of a band like this, with a long history of obscure and inaccessible audio recordings behind them, incorporating influences from music no one at large really gives a shit about, somehow justifies the claim that they're in it for the money, or they're 'artistic failures' because they tried to match two different shoelaces on their latest sneaker line. Hey, Vlad, how about you go troll some panties? Or some boxer briefs (I wouldn't wanna presume...). I'm not asking that you step out into the sunlight or anything drastic, but it might be time to harden the fuck up, take out the fake fangs, brush off the dandruff and church ashes, and get yourself a ghoulfriend (or equivalent).

Newsflash: musicians change. Bands change. It's a kinetic universe. Even the planets are fucking moving. Even the dead ones. You either change with them, change of your own accord, or you stagnate. 'I'll gladly take stagnant over something...different!' Really? I was wondering where that smell was coming from. Yeah, I realize that Motörhead somehow scored itself an exemption clause to this rule, but Nocturno Culto and Fenriz have been evolving, devolving, and sidestepping for well over 20 years now, and to their credit, just about every choice they've made has proven pretty entertaining. Ever since I first picked up a copy of Soulside Journey on cassette, wholly ignorant of what the future would bring, theirs was a journey worth signing up for. In fact, I can say without any hesitation that I've enjoyed every Darkthrone record to date. Yes, even Goatlord. Even Plaguewielder. And, yeah, the 'punk' years, the 'speed metal' years, when the death-gone-black duo started digger into their record collections, and expanding their quest for inspiration beyond their copies of Deathcrush, Morbid Tales, Under the Sign of the Black Mark and Apocalyptic Raids 1990 AD. So be it. Without this period of experimentation, I wouldn't have gotten Dark Thrones and Black Flags, one of my favorite of all their works, and one of my favorite metal albums of the 21st century to date.

Darkthrone has gotten goofier. More endearing. Self-referential, beyond a doubt. They're not putting out records like A Blaze in the Northern Sky anymore (they've been there and done that). Neptune Towers is ancient history. The Underground Resistance is perhaps the friendliest record these two have released beneath this moniker, and as billed, it continues to carve out the members' nostalgia for antiquated metal by mashing it into their Celtic Frost-ed fundamentals and seeing what happens. Sure, to some degree this is influenced by Fenriz' fanaticism for the sounds of the 80s. His roots love. His 'bands of the week'. But you have to give these two credit: through the process of retroactive evolution, they're churning out something refreshing and welcome. Just about everyone with a pulse who pays attention to metal news heard all the presages and doomsayers about how they'd be searching for an 'epic heavy metal' style after the largely speed metal-inspired Circle the Wagons. In truth, while there are faint whiffs of early Manowar, Thor, Manilla Road, Cirith Ungol, and post-black/thrash Bathory, this fruit actually doesn't fall far from its 2010 tree. Surprisingly, the more 'epic' this record got, in terms of the more baseline heavy metal riffs and sillier clean vocals, the less I actually liked it...

Which leads me to a shocking conclusion, well before the actual conclusion: The Underground Resistance is the first Darkthrone studio album I would not qualify as 'great'. It's 'good', and I've been having a blast listening to half the tracks here, but certain overlong numbers and one particularly weak (if well intended) tune create a lot of inconsistency whenever I'm listening through in the proper order. I dug that they'd returned to the 'less is more' philosophy of their formal years (having first evolved into their black metal sound), but it's a double edged sword. With just six songs, you've got to fire on all cylinders, and I felt that the album's decision to back load its bloated content gave it a lopsided feel. Not that the cleverly titled "Leave No Cross Unturned" doesn't have its moments, but it sure as shit doesn't have fourteen of them, and even the superior "Come Warfare, The Entire Doom" could have used a slight hedge clipping. Not because the riffs are lacking, or that they've not pulled off some lengthy tunes in the past, but these don't exactly pad themselves out in any meaningful way. I kept waiting for buried thrills, and found none.

Yet the primary offender, "Valkyrie", comes earlier on in the proceedings. This, more than any other, is an honest attempt to create that epic heavy metal feel so publicized by the band and its slathering fans. It's the furthest from the Darkthrone comfort zone, in that it consists of pure speed/heavy metal with some doom and punk elements. No blackening. Fenriz' vocals throughout are almost entirely clean (there are some raving, harsher barks to give it personality), and unfortunately rather tuneless. I get what he was going for, and these sorts of quirky hooks worked for him in Isengard or on earlier 'throne tunes like "The Winds They Call the Dungeon Shaker", but there is nothing in there to snag me, and coupled with the really bland and boring guitar melodies and the rather underwhelming chord progressions, it fails to leave an impact in the midst of harder, Culto-fronted crushers like "Dead Early" and "Lesser Men". That's another thing, too. The N.C. sounds so goddamn good through this record, his ravenous T.G. Warrior-like rambling so archaic, like a tomb opening after a century of neglect, that the cleans sound absolutely ludicrous in contrast...

That's not to say they're all a bust, because on "The Ones You Left Behind" the biting cleans are delivered with a grisly harmonic arrangement that works in the context of the song, but it seems as if too little emphasis was put on making them consistently catchy. In terms of the riffs, there are easily a good dozen or so on the disc that stick out, like the blistering, full-bore speed metal stylings in "The Ones You Left Behind", "Come Warfare, The Entire Doom" or "Dead Early". Nothing revolutionary, mind you, and in truth if you heard them on any obscure heavy metal record from the early to mid 80s you might just ignore them, but it's how they mix and match them with their slower, muscular Celtic Frost grooves that creates variety and balance. The highlight for me personally was the melody embedded into the bridge of "The Ones You Left Behind", which just hit me from nowhere and had me pressing the repeat button numerous times. The grand finale, "Leave No Cross Behind" also has some real scorchers in their, but I think the ideas might have been better served in 2-3 separate, shorter tunes, because they don't seem to transitional all that smoothy or emotionally.

In addition to Culto, who has really been on fire of late with this and his work in Sarke, the production is an obvious highlight. The guitars are enormous, with great reverb on the melodies and in the chords themselves that attain the larger than life, airy aesthetics of 80s metal. This is one zephyr primed for headbanging. The drums are crystal clear while retaining that live studio quality most of their records are known for, and the bass is copious. Corpulent. Not always written well, since most of the lines fall behind the rhythm guitar and stay there, but at least you can feel that low end once "Dead Early" picks up momentum, and it never ceases whenever the riffs are pounding along. I may personally prefer some of their darker mixes from the 90s, because I tend to enjoy the nuances (and even the sloppiness) of those grimy and formative years, but those seeking a blast of in the face heavy metal will not be disappointed by how fulsome and level The Underground Resistance sounds at any volume. As for the lyrics, they're as usually pretty good, trying to come off 'dumber' than they really are, but packed with striking images that makes you think (the one exception being "The Ones You Left Behind" which is more about shouting and rhyming the 'ing' suffix).

Ultimately, this album would have been a lot better without "Valkyrie", and with "Leave No Cross Unturned" chopped and rearranged into two different songs, but I still had a good enough time that I don't feel my money was ill spent. Of course, I'm an incalculable manwhore for this band and their side projects, so your own mileage may vary, but if you loved the shit out of Circle the Wagons then it's a safe recommendation. I didn't get a whole lot of the Manilla Road/Omen flavor I was sort of expecting, and there aren't any tunes as infectious as a "Hiking Metal Punks", "Eyes Burst at Dawn", or "...Dungeon Shaker", but its worth it just to listen to N. Culto's howling and a stellar mix redolent of rhinoceros-driven chariots across a Roman Empire battlefield. Or were they elephants?! Regardless, if you're on the way to pick this up and you happen to see Imperator Vlad of the Flat Earth Black Metal Society hiding out in the shade of a tree or awning, buy the guy a cheeseburger or some bus fare. You'll be alright, buddy. The world's moving on. Here's a ticket.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (vaporizing intellectual leftovers)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Cryptopsy - The Unspoken King (2008)

It doesn't at all surprise me that The Unspoken King has received the tidal wave of negative reactions that it has; what DOES throw me for a loop is how a lot of these people act as if it's their first shitty album. Not the case, if we glimpse back to the turn of the century, and also not the case that the band hadn't been struggling to define a direction for itself for the decade prior to this album's release. So, this is the infamous 'deathcore' record, yet Cryptopsy had been incorporating ingredients of that aesthetic bastardization as far back as the later 90s. Not news, even if The Unspoken King streamlined the techniques in terms of structure and studio engineering to position itself better in the theater of warfare with up and comers like Job for a Cowboy or Whitechapel.

This, in of itself, this stylistic choice, does not bother me. The trending and timing is suspect, but a cursory listen through the previous material will reveal influences of metalcore, math metal, sludge, and just about any other 'hot topic' on the extreme music scene of the Western world. And let's be honest: a sizable portion of the band's audience consisted of hardcore and metalcore fans since the 90s, when they first got wind of a record like None So Vile or Whisper Supremacy (around the time of the Century Media signing) and got off on the raving guttural vocals and the technical lunacy of the performance. While purely anecdotal evidence, I, myself, living in one of the USA's most massive and trendsetting metalcore markets, heard a lot more about Cryptopsy from the 'core kids than the bedraggled death metal minority. So it makes a lot of sense that the band's audience would itself rub off on the band, as it always had, and create a feedback loop through the years. The problem is that prior works like Once Was Not took this into an experimental direction, where The Unspoken King is a brickwalled billboard for its cliches, a Bleeding Through with a higher level of technicality and musical endorsement, and less novice chord progressions and glaringly generic melodies.

The Unspoken King isn't a bad record because it forges a truce between Cryptopsy's spurious, furious history and deathcore's tattooed, stretch-lobed, emo-haired breakdowns. It's a bad record because the songwriting is uniformly soulless and uninteresting. To be certain, this is not an effort short on variation; I'd go so far to say that there's just as much diversity on this as Once Was Not, only playing by a separate set of rules. You've got your mechanical drumming-fueled brutal death metal undertone, climaxing into some of the most banal and boring chug breakdowns you've ever heard. Glints of post-hardcore and modern heavy radio rock are strewn through the more intense passages, and they definitely make every effort to showcase the 'sensitive side' of their new vocalist. If all of this were dowsed in superb riff-writing, atmosphere and really catchy vocal lines, then I'd be the first to forgive these cheap shots of accessibility, but unfortunately these ideas simply don't gel into anything worth remembering. In their attempt to escape the 'weirdness' of the previous, Lord Worm fronted album, they've gone too far to the other side, losing all distinction.

It doesn't help that two of the newer band members, whether by their own lack of talent or poor decisions on the part of the veterans, turn in such atrocious performances here. Vocalist Matt McGachy was pretty much a 'package deal' of mediocrity. He's not necessarily tuneless or incompetent at the contrasting styles and pitches he brings to the table, but each feels wholly mundane and uninteresting. Not as goofy as Mike DiSalvo on And Then You'll Beg, but no more charming either. He's got a pretty standard guttural bark, a deeper guttural for 'da sickness', a rasp that's more suited to the grind influenced grooves and rhythms, and the requisite clean parts for those 'radio hooks' redolent of NWOAHM bands like Shadows Fall, Killswitch Engage, and All That Remains. Safe for mommy, or your little sister. While none of his harsher inflections is particularly effective, the melodic vocals are almost unbearable in the context of Cryptopsy; ranging from a Puddle of Mudd/Linkin Park inflection to a silkier attempt at pulling off some Mike Patton worship, which simply sounds out of place on this record. Probably the worst offender here is the song "Bound Dead", which transforms into vapid power chord strumming that carries his voice into very obvious 'we wanna be liked by people who would otherwise hate us' territory; but this is not the sole transgressor.

Even worse, the 'keyboardist' Maggie Durand. I'm not averse to Cryptopsy using synthesizers, as they made for an interesting orchestral excursion on the prior album, and I have no problem with synthesizers in general if they're adding atmosphere to the music. But these are utter shit throughout the whole record! It's very difficult to think of her as anything more than 'window dressing', as in the aforementioned shit act Bleeding Through. There's nothing wrong with a little eye candy, but for whatever reason she either really sucks at playing the keys, or the band is painfully underusing her here. At best she'll be delivering well below the volume of the other instruments, some single note atmospheric pad or sampled texture. Or the band will throw in a bit of a techno electronic substrate into a brief passage, but all of it is incredibly useless. The music would have lost nothing without it. If keys were not going to be made a prominent feature of the band, then I see no reason to even add a band member, and thus the pretty glaring evidence of 'sex appeal'. They can be used subtly to great effect (Soilwork's Natural Born Chaos), but here they are nearly 100% arbitrary. For all I know, Durand is a virtuoso on the piano, but Cryptopsy doesn't want me to find out...

Otherwise, who cares? Flo Mounier drums with the personality of one of those programmable vacuum robots that are all the rage with lazy housewives and househusbands. Sleek, professional, polished to a flaw. Yeah, maybe he sounds more level than on other records where his fills and performance had a lot more charisma, but this is no more or less than any modern brutal/tech record you'll find out there. I'm sure the bass playing is also keeping busy here, but it too feels like it's on a valium drip. Langlois' farting, popping presence on past records is here just another forgettable undertow to the machine-like composition. At the very best, Alex Auburn and Christian Donaldson will tear into some semi-decent death/thrash break for all too brief a time, or dial into the old school death metal that once inspired Cryptopsy in the 90s. For instance, my favorite moment on the entire record is the tremolo picked, evil sequence coming after the breakdown in "The Headsman" at around 3:20, where the airiness of the thin keys actually works, and the passionate lead capitalizes on the rhythm guitar, but they even go and fuck that up with the ensuing, boring nu-metal groove chords that make me wanna sprout dreadlocks and appear a Crow sequel soundtrack.

Pretty much the only aspects of The Unspoken King which don't disappoint are: a) the cover artwork by Jeik Dion, which is quite atmospheric and by that token has nothing whatsoever to do with the music; and b) the lead guitars, in general well composed and gleaming far above and beyond the vocals or rhythm sections. The lyrics are a mixed bag. Nowhere near as unhinged or compelling as the Lord Worm records, some are at least intelligent and meaningful (vague, personal or sociopolitical, and very 'deathcore'). But others are pretty shitty reads here, like "The Plagued", or "Bound Dead" which is so generic and emo that I had to slap myself a few times to realize I wasn't listening to Mutiny Within or All That Remains. Beyond that, The Unspoken King seems like quite a lot of effort expended into a product that I can't imagine anyone wanting. Did deathcore/metalcore fashionistas really want a brutal band of older Canadians jumping the bandwagon? I feel for certain that most death metal purists had no interest. There are a few moments in which the album reveals what it 'might have been' had the members' had their heads on straight, but really it's just a waste of everyone's time. Yours, mine, and the poor record store employees that had to expend an iota of effort unpacking and shelving the CD.

Verdict: Fail [2.5/10] (we are all confined, with nothing left to show)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Cryptopsy - The Best of Us Bleed (2012)

People by this point are probably as interested in reading about one of these soulless 'send a record label exec's kid to college' retrospective career compilations as I am in writing about them, and I've gotten that message loud and clear (and feel much the same). That said, I've a certain compulsion towards completeness when I'm visiting a band's 'official' recorded output, and when and where I spot a collection that might have something interesting to offer, I think it's fair game. In their 20 year history, Cryptopsy have hardly inundated us with metric shitloads of anthologies, live albums, singles, and other garbage, which is to their credit. When a compilation finally arrives, The Best of Us Bleed, it's a rather comprehensive affair with two discs and 32 tracks...

So let's get the bullshit out the way first: most of the roughly 140 minutes of content here is simply lifted off the first six studio records and arranged in a reverse chronological order. Wisely, you get a few rare and unreleased studio tracks (which I'll get to) right at the beginning, and then this journey through time begins with abysmal selections from The Unspoken King and then backwards towards a brighter age. This reprinted content represents about 50% of the total play time, and is utterly worthless to the Crytopsy fan, assuming he/she isn't some 13-year old with no access to the internet. It's the 21st century, we can all shuffle our favorite band playlists in any order we desire on our portable devices and PCs, and we really don't need any sort of 'official best of...' from either a label dude or the band itself. That this was released digitally is just a fucking farce. Sure, they've got some of the real essentials like "Slit Your Guts" and "Emaciate" present from the band's catalog, but then you're also treated to six tracks from their crappy records And Then You'll Beg and The Unspoken King. It balances out, but not to the positive side of the scale.

The latter half of the second disc becomes more interesting as it covers live material and rehearsals, but again, most of this was already released. There are selections from the None So Live album, and also a bunch of bonus tracks that were included on Japanese releases of their albums. The four rehearsal cuts were all demoed for Whisper Supremacy, but we're not talking shitty quality recordings. If you didn't appreciate how that record hit you like a ton of bricks, then you might prefer the drumming dynamics and the lesser polished balance of vocals and guitars, but really these reek of filler and their placement seems like an obvious 'padding out' of the content. If Cryptopsy had thought you should hear these versions, then it's likely you already would have. Not much of a bonus in my estimation. Another rare bit here is the band's cover of Strapping Young Lad's "Oh My Fucking God", repressed from the Covering 20 Years of Extremes collection Century Media had released. I never picked up a copy, so this was my first time hearing it, but it's really no more than a slightly more brutal rendition of the song, in which the vocals are barely even different than Devin's originals, but you get more intense blasting, squealing, and so forth.

And now for the good stuff! The Best of Us Bleed opens with three wrecking ball tracks performed at the same level of intensity as their 2012 'comeback' album, which isn't really a comeback so much as the band returning to its former level of brutality and abandoning the treacherous wigga deathcore direction it had adopted for The Unspoken King. It's a safe bet that anyone to whom the eponymous record appealed will also really enjoy these frenetic and furious pieces. "Boden" was the least impressive, just an over the top series of double bass batteries and Matt going about as brutal as he can with the gutturals and gurgles. The middle of the tune does get more interesting with some winding groove guitars over a blast. "A Graceful Demise", on the other hand, is probably one of the band's best tunes since None So Vile. Atmospheric, evil transitions, loads of clinical tremolo picking rhythms, jumpy and rapid grooves, and an incessant Flo Mounier hurricane with copious snare, blast and kick. "Holodomor" is pretty good too, peppered with jerky and peppy instrumental maneuvers in line with its two sibling cuts.

Granted, the production will be a bit too sleek for some who are missing the first two albums, and Matt McGachy's presence, while appropriately punishing, still feels more generic than his precursor Lord Worm, but these are the sorts of tracks that would have made for a solid EP. Hell, they're good enough to have wound up on the s/t album, so it would have saved some people some cash if they hadn't been stored up for The Best of Us Bleed. Then again, these are pretty much the only reason anyone in his/her right mind could justify a purchase of the compilation. I can't help but think that Cryptopsy has a lot of other unreleased material that they might have held back here, which would have increased the value dramatically. Like I know the Ungentle Exhumation demo was already reissued on CD, but many probably still don't have it. That and a half dozen other obscurities would have been an ample substitute for the album tracks. But hey, wishful thinking and all. As your doctor, I'd advise YouTubing the three unheard studio tracks, or stealing them from a friend, and then listening to None So Vile again.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]

Cryptopsy - None So Live (2003)

None So Live is a bit of an anomaly in Cryptopsy's career in that it's really their only record to feature Canadian vocalist/artist Martin Lacroix belching his brute gutturals into a microphone. After the sad performance of DiSalvo on the shitty, goofy And Then You'll Beg, he and the band parted ways, and Lacroix served as an interim member until they were able to reconnect with Lord Worm for the ensuing Once Was Not. It, was not, however, Martin's first dance with the medium. I'm not sure how many people remember the pre-Augury band Spasme, who had one record out (Deep Inside) through Neoblast at the dawn of the new millennium, but it's worth tracking down, a spastic blend of technicality and guttural intensity that is well within the ballpark of a Cryptopsy or Neuraxis. In other words, the guy was a natural choice for the spot here, and for what it's worth, he does perform well enough over the older material...

The older material, that, thankfully populates most of this Montreal live recording from the summer of 2002. Of the ten tracks (discounting the audience noise intro and drum solo), eight are taken from the first three albums, with only two stinkers ("Shroud" and "We Bleed") from And Then You'll Beg; so it's clear that Cryptopsy knew what the audience wanted, and that was primarily their seminal brutality. I've only seen the band a few times back in the day (though never with Lacroix), and can attest that this is a fairly accurate representation of their tone on stage, though there's no question some of the intricacies of the technical guitar progressions get lost in translation as they do with many similar death metal acts. The rhythm guitar is rich and punchy enough that it doesn't get shown up by the drums, and yet if anyone had any skepticism of Flo Mounier's abilities, they are splayed out here like a single-man marching band. The snares sound like heavy hail battering down on the roof of some tin shed, while the kicks drop dextrous thunder with superb timing. Langlois' bass lines are deep and muddy here, not popping or squelching with the same authority that they do on the studio records, but ample enough when there are breaks (as in "Slit Your Guts").

As for Lacroix, he doesn't quite imbue the tracks with as much character as his predecessors, but he does have a nice, hoarse bluntness to his tone which is a good fit for the hammering, percussive rhythms. It might have been interesting to hear what he could have pulled off in studio, but he's hardly distinguishable from a number of other potential options the Canadians might have run with. The leads here sound a bit sloppy, and the remaining rhythm guitar gets a bit more difficult to perceive in these sections, but it's probably to be expected if the mixer wasn't going to turn them up. Accurate to the live setting. I was actually somewhat relieved that the two And Then You'll Bet tracks sounded far heavier and more appropriate on stage to their earlier neighbors, largely because the vocals are less goofy and the drums and bass sound thicker with the rhythm guitar, but "Shroud" at least still sounds pretty dorky in a bad way. That was a phase of the band I am all too happy to forget (apart from joking), so I wasn't thrilled that they were partnered up with far better cuts. Overall track selection? I would have loved if a few other tracks like "Emaciate" made it onto this, but it could have been far worse...

I was worried that the drum solo would be too long, but it's really only about 3 and a half minutes of Flo showing off (hey, if you got it, flaunt it), and then they leap into another track. The mix of the crowd is decent, constantly present but not overpowering, and easily drowned up when the band is blasting and churning full bore. All in all, it's a decent accounting of the band's performance prowess, but far from a mandatory purchase unless you're completely smitten with the idea of owning everything they produce. The sound is decent if a bit lopsided towards the lower end, and the track selection is not ideal, even if it offers up a comprehensive taste of the four studio albums to its day. I wasn't inspired by None So Live, but neither was I really turned off.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Cryptopsy - Once Was Not (2005)

When it was finally hashed out that Lord Worm would be returning to his alma mater of atrocities, I'm sure a lot of people were silently praying for a None So Vile 2.0. That is not at all what happened, and the resulting Once Was Not is just as strange as anything else they've recorded, if not more so. But I have to hand it to Cryptopsy: I might not 'like' this album very much, but I admire their audacity to continue experimenting, and at least with this fifth disc, they didn't end up insulting anyone's intelligence as with the laughable And Then You'll Beg. Once Was Not is more or less a joyless attempt at creating an avant-garde death metal record not unlike Gorguts' Obscura. It's not entirely sure what it wants to be, and I felt like the latter half of the record proved far more compelling than the former, but at least it's conceptually and musically more coherent than its predecessor, and it bravely fuses influences from other niches into the core Cryptopsy aesthetics, without totally screwing the pooch.

Although Jon Levasseur contributed to the rather forgettable intro "Luminum", this was the one album in their catalog where it just wasn't his show. So the most overt mutation here is the boxier, drier guitar tone. Less saturated than prior albums, but it has a lot of rip and zip to it when Alex Auburn is flying up and down the frets.When compiled into a trudging, jarring or mechanically dissonant groove, the rhythm patterns often felt reminiscent of (proper) metalcore acts like Burnt by the Sun or Coalesce (like the chugging breakdown in "The Frantic Pace of Dying") which was something new to the Canadians, especially as its paired up with a lot of more traditional death metal riffing. Granted, a lot of the guitar progressions, especially in earlier cuts like "Carrionshine" or "In the Kingdom Where Everything Dies, the Sky is Mortal", are total dullards, regardless of how unhinged, dynamically varied, or slamming they become. The oddity of the songwriting doesn't necessarily work out in their favor, especially compared to something like Obscura which is so much more adept at 'getting it right'. As you move further into the track list, with cuts like "The Curse of the Great" or "The Pestilence That Walketh in Darkness (Psalm 91 - 5-8)", you start to hear more of that classic Crytopsy death propulsion arrive into the riffing selections, and it becomes far more interesting and effective, while retaining this arid production.

Arguably, "The Pestilence..." is the real standout on this album, because the airier sludge/Neurosis chord melodies really take you by surprise, especially with Worm barking his schizoid narrations. Speaking of whom, he was back in full ghastly splendor, weaving his interesting lyrics with the usual poetic license. His grueling barks and growls were still nothing incredibly interesting, but it's a landslide victory over DiSalvo on the fourth record, and his ability to pen titles and lyrics that immediately catch the imagination (more than the music) was very much missing from both Whisper Supremacy and its followup. I wish more bands would take such risks in this department, or just have Lord Worm write for them, because it's compelling to the degree that were I to rate this record on the prose alone, it would receive a far higher score. Yet, sadly, Cryptopsy would go down an entirely opposite route with the next album, investing in a more metalcore slash hardcore/personal sensibility which was rather a bummer. That said, I must admit that apart from his garish attempts to spew vomit and lumbricus terrestris all over the songs, his vocals were average.

Along with the guitar tone, the drums and bass here also took on a different tone than the earlier discs. Éric Langlois' playing remained dizzying and acrobatic, with lots of slappy and pluggy sounding rhythms, but it was a bit deeper in pitch and occasionally got lost under the rhythm/lead sequences, a shame because he's often performing something more interesting than that rhythm guitar. Mounier, who has long been the chief selling point for this band, is incorporated at monstrous levels of volume, his beats constantly crashing and colliding throughout the death, grind and -core progressions. His presence is always furious to the point of confusion, but this record is simply loaded with fills. In fact I often felt as if this was a batch of Flo Mounier drum solo recordings over which the rest of the band filled in riffs and lyrics. Sometimes, it's just a little too much, and while 'more' is the man's bread and butter, it's not necessarily 'better'. The leads, too, are a bit tactless and showy, Auburn tearing all over his strings with patterns that remind me at times of Pestilence and Nocturnus in their heydays, classical-fusion-infused; just not always catchy in the context of this music.

This is pretty goddamn experimental, all told. Tribal drums, funkier cleaner guitars, slight black metal textures in some of the more explosive riffing. Fuck, they've even got an exotic, hippie-like drum circle instrumental called "The End", all that's missing is a Ravi Shankar guest spot... For the first time, Cryptopsy are even incorporating orchestration, in the track "Angelskingarden" (what a title) with its sweeping, atmospheric synth intro and the choir tones coming in under the lead. No surprise, this is another of the gems inhabiting the later moments of the record. "Endless Cemetery" and "Keeping the Cadaver Dogs Busy" are also packed with ideas, if not the most memorable selections. One really has to wonder why the decision was made to open up with the least impressive material. It really sapped my interest level, but it does give Once Was Not the impression of a flower that slowly unfolds to keep hooking the listener along. Had the actual catchiness of the rhythm guitars remained constant, and the grooves less sodden and vapid, this might have been spectacular, even with its loud and lumbering production values. This is twice the record And Then You'll Beg was, but as it stands, Once Was Not is a collection of ideas not fully fleshed out. Fruits not borne to fruition.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (once, there were boundaries)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Cryptopsy - And Then You'll Beg (2000)

Around the turn of the 21st century, one might be excused for thinking that Canada's Cryptopsy had decided to stop being a death metal band and instead to start trolling the universe as some sort of freakish spectacle. Have you ever seen those inflated structures in which children jump around in a pile of balls? A 'bounce room'? And Then You'll Beg is essentially a more metallic version of that experience, and not one that I welcomed when I first got the promo for my old paper 'zine. In retrospect, the album is so hilariously unhinged that I can't be too hateful of it, because at least it presents some form of entertainment; yet everything from the shitty cover artwork to the spastic compositional excess just screamed of a band that had no idea where it was going, what it was doing, and perhaps where it came from.

I don't get the cover. Is this guy supposed to be 'begging' for someone to free him from the train tracks? Is he maybe a ghost, who has already been hit by a locomotive? I could never tell if that dust and wind was from the train racing away from him, or towards!? Granted, I have never much cared for Cryptopy's choice of artwork beyond the first two albums, but this is arguably the nadir (the recent s/t record also sucks to look upon). Unfortunately, though the band attempts to pump us up immediately with a pitch-shifted sample of Agent Smith in The Matrix, the only thing 'inevitable' about the music was that the band was taking a long walk off a short pier. It's almost as if they were trying to flirt with some thuggish approximation of brutal death metal while simultaneously trying to outdistance the dissonant, unusual theatrics of Gorgut's oblong epic Obscura. It's extremely technical, and extremely bouncy at the same time. There are a number of plausible riffs throughout the performance, and certainly no dearth of ideas, but let me be blunt: if you had put another logo on this record and then told me it was a collaboration between Psyopus, Hatebreed and the Insane Clown Posse...I just might have believed you.

Though I questioned and even defied the ire hoisted upon Mike DiSalvo for his performance on Whisper Supremacy, there is absolutely no defense for the guy here. His voice is being used at higher speeds, with a more grumbling, percussive meter, and he's even attempting to draw back a bit of Lord Worm's clownish, psychotic personality. But he sounds like a caveman being temporally displaced to front a spazz-core math metal project, and when he swears, like his infamous 'motherfucker take a bite of the poison' in "Voice of Unreason", I would fall out of my chair and laugh myself to hiccups, entirely incapable of taking the rest of the album seriously. The drums are probably just as busy as on the prior records, but they seem a bit thinner in the mix to the point that they leave a lot less impact on the skull. The bass lines are slappy, thick and funky, falling somewhere between Steve DiGiorgio and Korn, and while I actually kind of dug the technique on the older albums where the riffing was better, here it just sounds like another ring of the circus act.

Probably the worst of the instruments, though, are the guitars, which are weighed down by all manner of schizophrenic pacing and experimentation that almost unanimously fails to connect the listener to the album in any meaningful way. Shit be crazy, yo. We be pushin' the envelope! Dissonant, chugging sequences grope and bounce along into sporadic, frenetic bursts of repetitive insanity like "My Prodigal Sun" or "Shroud", but the actual patterns of notes just feel like half-formed ideas that they thought would be cool to put on tape and then loop around. At the very best, you're going to get some bristling tremolo picked bursts like "We Bleed" which actually seem more redolent of the old Cryptopsy that I enjoyed, but then even that track is ruined by the groove rhythm with DiSalvo's hoarse, jump da fuc up syllabic beatdown/breakdown accompanied by a faint, cheesy rasped counter vocal. Or how about the didgeridoo intro to closer "Screams Go Unheard"? An interesting idea they totally fail to capitalize on with a selection of shitty, spastic, broken deathgrind riffs.

It stuns me that people were so appalled at the later release of The Unspoken King, the band's 'deathcore' record, because for my money, And Then You'll Beg had already proven just how inconsistent and insipid the Canadians' choices could be. While Whisper Supremacy had its flaws, the band was at least standing upon the precipice of something larger...yet its corny, oddball successor seems like a misstep of monolithic, George Lucas proportions. Actually, I'll take that back, because I'd rather sit through another showing of the Jake Lloyd pod race than listen to this. Jar Jar poop jokes = a more fitting comparison. The elasticity of the instrumentation, while perhaps technically impressive to some, is just no substitute for songwriting, and I was rarely interested outside of, maybe the intro to the bizarre "Soar and Envision Sore Vision". As cathartic and confusing as it might have been, an album like Obscura is strikingly cohesive in its vision; whereas And Then You'll Beg is just young, dumb, and full of cum. A simian sideshow, a cacophony of clever monkeys, beating energetically on human instruments, but incapable of creating good music with them.

Verdict: Fail [3.75/10] (trippin' at the helm)

Cryptopsy - Whisper Supremacy (1998)

It's happened before and it will happen again. A beloved underground metal vocalist, for whatever reason, be it career-oriented or personality based (in this case signs point to the former), departs from his band, to be replaced with 'the new guy'. Commence the bleating of ornery twats among the fan base, the drama, and the automatic back turning and blacklisting of the act from a vocal yet insignificant minority of its audience. It's difficult enough to understand such reactions when a band is far larger in scope, like Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden, but for fucking Cryptopsy? True story, and a sad one. I just didn't jive with the responses of shock and dismay that numerous of my acquaintances had when it was revealed that Lord Worm was to be replaced by Bostonian Mike DiSalvo, whose prior experience was in fronting a (very local to me) demo-level death troop known as Infestation. Hey, congratulations, what an opportunity, to go off and front an up and coming band like this, for their Century Media debut Whisper Supremacy...the savage stars have aligned in your favor.

Don't get me wrong, I loved Lord Worm's lyrics, and thus was quite concerned that the quality might suffer with his departure (he still contributes to the tracks "White Worms" and "Cold Hate, Warm Blood"), but in terms of vocals I was never as sold on his style as many of my peers. He was whacky, wild, and amusingly sick on stage, but it's not like the first few albums would have been necessarily awful with someone else grunting and ranting over the music, and as I'd mentioned in an earlier review, he didn't have that same gruesome and unforgettable presence for me as many of the first generational death metal front men. DiSalvo was marginally different, but not to the point that he'd be incapable of covering those earlier None So Vile tracks. He's got a bit more of a 'street' aesthetic to his gutturals; nihilistic, hardcore and concrete, but still capable of diversifying his pitch with some ghastlier rasps, and owning up to the chaotic brickwork that Cryptopsy had evolved into musically. DiSalvo is not himself particularly memorable, and I do feel as if he failed to stand out among the hordes of guttural grunters in the field by the later 90s, but really that's the worst I could say about his performance on Whisper Supremacy. It's an album with some clear flaws, but he was not one of them.

No, alongside this transition in vocalists and label visibility, and the addition of another 2nd guitarist in studio (Miguel Roy, who had already been with them for a few years), the Canadians also began to develop their style into a broader palette of extreme metal aesthetics. Already renowned for their intensity and instrumental prowess, they began to fuck more with tempos. A lot of the denser, churning chord progressions placed through Whisper Supremacy brings to mind a solid foundation of battering ram grind. The contrasts between melodies and sheer, brutal annihilation create an increased sense of technicality. There are actually a number of riffs on this thing which mirror the most intense of the Swedish melodeath forebears (At the Gates, Dark Tranquillity, etc) like the rhythm guitars under the lead bridge in "Cold Hate, Warm Blood" or the tremolo picking pattern that sets up "Faceless Unknown". Cryptopsy were not new to the concept of breakdowns, but a few here have that generic chugging pit vibe that would go on to fuel the careers of countless future deathcore acts. Add these elements into the band's pre-existing pedigree of carnal blast beats, gut wrenching old school tremolo sequences, harried bass lines and over the top aggression and you've got quite a lot happening through the 31 minutes of the album...perhaps too much.

Some of Flo's beats here were reminiscent of cadences, and clearly the guy was continuing to expand and define is own capabilities with a barrage that must have had most drummers in waiting quite afraid for their own prospects. I noticed that the guitars had been cranked up a notch in the mix even beyond where they were on None So Vile, a double edged sword. They somewhat smother the bass lines, though not enough that you can't make out Langlois' racing across his fretboard; but at the same time, they're way more up in your face, for better or worse. When the riffs are great, as on the first track "Emaciate", it's an appreciable change. But a lot of the grindier, beefier progressions deeper into the disc are simply not all that impressive. Leads in tunes like "Faceless Unknown" are quite excellent, just as good as any on the sophomore, but I definitely feel like there are a lot of rhythm guitars which miss the mark entirely, thriving on their extremity alone. Lacking menace and atmosphere. Nothing special to write home about. Not that I'd send Cryptopsy based correspondence to my family, for they'd be liable to have me locked away somewhere.

And these guitars are a symptom of why Whisper Supremacy ultimately failed to impress me on the same level as its predecessor: there are too many ideas cramped into its concise bulk, and very few of them earn their keep. Beyond the obvious 'look at me, and how intense I play' nature of this end of the death metal genre, it's quite telling that the more concerted, melodic touches through the album feel like glimmers of hope among a very spiritless host of thundering drums and disinterested guitars. I never caught the sense of evil or foreboding that the band's wyvern-like mascot implied on the album cover, and several of the cuts, like the closer "Serpent's Coil" are a stupendous, dissonant, bore regardless of how rampant and hard hitting they seem. I dug the flow of the first two tracks, "Emaciate" and "Cold Hate, Warm Blood", in particular how the first cedes to the unexpected acoustic guitars threaded through the second. "White Worms" and "Faceless Unknown" certainly have their moments, but others like "Loathe" and "Flame to the Surface" had little to offer beyond a bludgeoning calamity.

Back to the lyrics: they're still pretty good, but they lack that psychotic, poetic stalker aesthetic which I so admired on None So Vile and Blasphemy Made Flesh. Plenty of imagery, intelligence and introspection here, but at the same time they seem somewhat more methodic and formulaic. The cover artwork is also not on par with its predecessors, though I'd take this any day over the shitty image on the 4th album. Things were pretty busy for Cryptopsy by this point, and though it was a few years past None So Vile, I always had the impression that this was a bit rushed, which might explain some of the cluttered writing. Transitions often feel forced into one another, and generally the dizzying bedlam of the performances outpaces their actual, musical resonance in the mind. A lot of the album's problems are emblematic of what plagues a lot of brutal/technical death work: a real lack of direction and compositional quality. Were I some robotic shell of a person, I might admire its drumming and brutish density more, contrary to popular belief, I still retain a pulse. A decent album, with a handful of really interesting songs, but ultimately less effective than its predecessor, and it doesn't age very well.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (your sins must escalate)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Cryptopsy - None So Vile (1996)

None So Vile takes approximately two minutes of playtime to entirely and embarrassingly eradicate its predecessor. The album doesn't just surpass Blasphemy Made Flesh; no, it mugs the poor debut, blows through its major credit cards before the theft can be reported, stalks and seduces its wife, calls social services and has its children placed into foster care, then falsifies documents and has Blasphemy Made Flesh deported to a lesser stratum of its genre. This is not only one of the first cases I can recall of an excellent 'brutal death album', assuming of course we are discount the albums that we once dubbed 'brutal death metal' in real time during the earlier 90s that turn out now NOT to be 'Brutal Death Metal' after all (do try to keep up!). It's also quite likely the best album of its class from the Canadian scene...I can think of more technical, progressive, experimental death metal discs I've enjoyed from that scene since '96, but this sophomore really helped put the place on the map in terms of the underground's expectations for talent, extremity and sickness.

What's more: None So Vile accomplishes all of these goals without aesthetically altering itself from the first album, a miracle in of itself. This is more or less what I expected after reading the buzz over Cryptopsy in the mid 90s, but it's not a whole lot different in terms of method. There were some shifts in the band's lineup, with Éric Langlois joining on bass, and dropping down to just one guitarist (Jon Levasseur), but in truth the band recycled a lot of its signature traits off the debut. Squamous and voluminous bass-lines constantly giving the rhythm guitars a run for their money (to an extent I really hadn't experienced since a band like Sadus induced the rebellion into thrash metal), but simultaneously adding a substrate of marginal jazz and funk that kept the writing fresh. Multidimensional. A killer, up front drum mix which sounds to this day incredibly authentic in a field where brickwalled production, triggers and detrimental levels of tidiness often create more sterility than a band set out to; in listening through Mounier's performance on the sophomore, I feel as if I'm sitting in some studio space right at the level of his kicks and experience a set of amazingly energetic takes which never fall off tempo. What a spazz! Lord Worm also started to distinguish himself better here, with a hoarser, impenetrable guttural inflection redolent of a sepulcher wall, creating an amusing contrast against the frivolous insanity of the bass and rhythm guitar.

But all of these elements might have easily been projected from the first album. The foremost reasons for this record's success over its predecessor are the dramatic improvement in guitar tone and note progressions. I still feel as if the rhythm tracks often struggle a fraction to keep up with the drums and bass, but they've got a more punchy sense of pacing and clarity that helps them pummel through the mix, especially in the razor-like tremolo sequences which solidify Cryptopsy's lineage to the old school ancestry. Death metal was already about a decade into its existence by 1996, but one had the sense that the Canadians were not entirely ready to abandon the roots to all of the four on the floor, chug-chug-blast-blast alternation that was all the rage as the margins of the genre pushed further into unmatched excess. And that's a huge difference between this and the first album: here, those vitriolic tremolo picking patterns in tunes like "Dead and Dripping" or "Slit Your Guts" are instantly memorable, with an appropriate surgical feel to them that helps aggregate the sporadic blasting passages and churning, gut-fed grooves that place None So Vile into its then-modern context. The leads, too, are wilder and more spontaneous, Levasseur just whipping his dick out to the wind, taking a piss, and having it land on the listener rather than splash back upon himself.

Most people will always evoke the names of Lord Worm or Flo Mounier when waxing nostalgic about this band, but for my money, Jon was the MVP this time out. His playing was frenzied, frenetic, pretty much the perfect pit stop between where death metal had been, and where it was going. That doesn't always manifest into the most striking or infinite re-listenable rhythmic fixtures, and you get a handful of pretty dull grooves wound through the more explosive, interesting composition, but thanks to the overall compactness of None So Vile at 32 minutes, instances of not being entertained are pitifully few. I might not define the album as necessarily 'original', but there were certainly a number of strange bridges with dumpy bass grooves and cleaner, weird guitars that it almost seemed to offer brief premonitions for Gorguts' Obscura, another of my favorites from this scene. Interestingly enough, despite the rabidness of the farting, squelching and burping bass lines, the pure moshing zones, the pinched squeals and other techniques, None So Vile is not an expressly dissonant or inaccessible album. It rips past faster than a pair of collegiate panties at the sound of a Eurotrash accent, and it's bludgeoning nature isn't exactly safe for church, but the clinical melodies infused into the tremolo picking are actually quite easy to follow unto the inevitable, spleen rupturing grooves.

Gotta love the nuances here, like the piano playing that heralds "Phobophile", or the subtle overtures you'll heard in the riffing that tie the band back to its influences. In particular, I heard some Carcass-like chord fixtures, even hints of other British brutes like Napalm Death or Bolt Thrower. Again, the Canadians were not above the inspirations that birthed them; they were building a bridge between these two extremes of expression: the later 80s/early 90s morbidity and the sporty performance and proficiency which had later supplanted it. You can even see that in the wonderful 17th century, Elisabetta Sirani cover image, a clash of the archaic with the band's sick and unforgettable logo. The lyrics were just as demented and interesting as the debut, with Lord Worm assuming a number of 'voices' or characters to create this sense of psychosis that just won't quit. Fuck, "Slit Your Guts" and "Dead and Dripping" have some of the best lyrics in the entire genre...not just silly misogynistic gore, and I'll take these any day over a Cannibal Corpse or Mortician. This sense of ambition permeates the entire album, and even at its most derivative it seems to at least be aimed in the right direction.

Smashing. Fucking. Record. I mean, it's not perfect, and I probably wouldn't take it to my desert island over Consuming Impulse, Altars of Madness, Nespithe, or Left Hand Path, but certainly for the mid to late 90s this belonged in the outstanding company of Morbid Angel's underrated Domination, Cannibal Corpse's magnum-mutilation Bloodthirst, the aforementioned Obscura, or Vader's consistently strong showings. Hands down the best record of its type for '96, and to this day Cryptopsy have not surpassed it. In fact, they've not even produced anything in the same ballpark. Whisper Supremacy, while a slightly more inventive album in terms of riffing structure, could not come close. It at any point the Canadians were well deserving of the hype they've never shaken in nearly two decades, it was this album, and its jubilant wretchedness holds true even to modern times, where a couple thousand creative spinoffs constantly unravel its blueprint on the draft table and scrawl out visceral Cliff's notes in their own blood.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (the righteous will be lost)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cryptopsy - Blasphemy Made Flesh (1994)

Cryptopsy ranks pretty highly on my personal list of bands whose ratio of enjoyable, interesting music to popularity is tenuous at best, to the point of puzzlement. Yeah, they've got a few good decent albums, one of which is admittedly better than good, but also a fair number of letdowns and misguided experiments littering their discography. Despite the fluid and rampant technical ability they displayed even in their earliest years, and the undeniable, awkward charisma of former vocalist Lord Worm, they were simply not a band I've ever really trusted in to deliver the most memorable of riffs, or evil, atmospheric death metal hymns that burned the old school brutality into my brain for the likely remainder of my existence. It's sort of how I've felt through Suffocation's career, only the New Yorkers got off to a stronger start, and have had a stretch of more consistent material in recent times. I would never deign to disavow Cryptopsy's influence on hundreds if not thousands of brutal and technical death metal acts to follow (in the 90s and beyond), but sadly much of that inspiration took on the form of their least compelling components: the brutal, riff-less bursts of speed and bouncy, empty slam oriented rhythms that are prevalent on a good chunk of their debut Blasphemy Made Flesh, an album which I still to this day consider 'training wheels' for its vastly superior followup.

There were some clear positives when I was first exposed to the band and this record, aesthetic details that no doubt played a large part in their early, infectious spread through the underground. The band's name and logo were fantastic, and the original cover artwork an instant thrill for fans of records like Sepultura's Arise or Obituary's Cause of Death. Cryptopsy were one of the few North American acts licensed to Germany's Black Diamond/Invasion Records, and also one of the heavier acts on that imprint alongside Excrement, Vomiturition, Infestdead, Vomiting Corpses and Lunatic Invasion. Despite the sickness and violent themes involved, the lyrics had a peculiar, personal and poetic sense of playfulness about them, almost like Dan Greening (Lord Worm) was implementing his English studies into a sadistic sideshow attraction. They were immediately unique by comparison to so many of the gore-driven, misogynist fiends starting to cycle into redundancy, who had taken over the more extreme end of the genre; a manic food for thought that showed some obvious effort. In fact, the lyrics of Blasphemy Made Flesh are hands down my favorite part of the album, and I only wish that the songwriting itself had been so compulsory and unusual. Granted, there are a few pretty unique facets to the playing of the other musicians which stood out, in particular the rhythm section of Flo Mouriner and Martin Fergusson, but they're not able to fully compensate for the rather banal selection of rhythm guitar progressions which flew into one ear and straight out the opposite, without colliding in the center to turn the brain to mush.

Blasphemy Made Flesh belonged to that category of 90s death metal efforts which was seeking to push the parameters of its parent genre without necessarily abandoning the inviolable core of the medium. There are a number of 2nd generation tremolo picked riffs here and standard growls which pay credence to the Floridian and Dutch forefathers of the style, and fellow Canadians Gorguts, who had the jump on Cryptopsy by only a few years and would share a large crossover audience. But the emphasis here was to force the speed limit and cluttered intensity of the composition, and less to create resonant, memorable riffs. Where albums like Severed Survival, Consuming Impulse, Left Hand Path, Cause of Death and even to an extent Effigy of the Forgotten had paved the way with foul, mesmeric aberrations of thrash-based techniques, this basically borrowed and rearranged familiar note sequences and then dialed up the volume and elasticity of the drums and bass, which combined with Worm's garbled ranting seemed like a night at a circus with an audience of severed heads. There's a fuck ton happening throughout the 40 minutes of music, but apart from the speed and lyrical ravings, precious little information is retainable, and even if the guitars were configured into more exciting and catchy progressions, they seem a bit too searing, muddled and distant to really matter on a cut like "Abigor" or "Defenestration".

I could see how Mounier's dextrous striking was intimidating for its day; not as far a leap in the belligerence and technique of percussion as a Lombardo or Hoglan from the previous decade, but so fast and involved that it often feels like the sticks are about to escape Flo's hands and start playing themselves. Blasting, fills, and piledriver double bass crashing everywhere against the guitars. What's more, unlike a lot of the bands that later sucked off Cryptopsy's fumes but with a more programmed, polished studio sterility, this sounded quite live and straight to the chin, sans an excess of studio finesse. You could be hearing this straight from the band's jam space, or on stage. The bass lines are incredibly bouncy and copious, almost funky, to the point that where Martin Fergusson hits a higher chord it sounds like some sort of rambling, farting device that adds an air of unintentional hilarity to the proceedings. The guy was a fucking maniac, and even though most would come to identify the position with his successor, Éric Langlois, who has to date performed on most of their records, I can only wonder at what he might have created had he followed a more prolific career in the genre...

On the flip side, the performances of this pair do contribute to the smothering of the rhythm guitar tracks of Jon Levasseur and Steve Thibault, which weren't all that interesting to begin with. Lots of meaty palm muted chugging and fits of basis tremolo picked, surgical precision are alternated in a relish of deep distortion that often disintegrates into background noise for the acrobatics of the other players. Nothing we really hadn't already heard from a band like Suffocation or Cannibal Corpse, and while the songs aren't really lacking for variation, the percussive shifts in tempo are more exciting than the actual notes slung together. As further proof, just listen to how much the leads and melodies stand out where they appear, like the thrashing bridge and eerie pattern at around 3:00 in "Abigor", or the shredding in "Serial Messiah" and "Born Headless". Really, these are the only instances of a tangible 'atmosphere' on the album (apart from an intro like on "Serial Messiah"), and when they strike amidst the blunt, taut, and tiring blandness of the rhythm guitars, I just wish everything else was better written. The playing is all around fast as fuck and slightly technical for the time, but really I'd have just as much luck sitting by the side of the highway and watching traffic pass. After nearly two decades with the album, I've been unable to change my mind on this. Some of the blast beat rhythm guitars as in the closer "Pathological Frolic" are just downright boring.

As for Worm, he grunts and growls with enough gusto that you don't feel the sense of monotony creep in which brought low a number of other mid-90s death metal front men. His techniques aren't exactly unique, but his alternation of the lower pitched, primal troglodyte gutturals and a lot of snarling strangled cat phrases which shift the pitch (but aren't layered over one another constantly like Glen Benton). Not as schizo and attention earning as the lyrics themselves, but neither are they the low point of this recording by a long shot. I'm aware that the guy was known for his crazy stage presence, but this doesn't entirely translate onto the recording itself. He was good at writing, and competent at keeping the listener awake, but it's hardly like the first time I heard John Tardy, Chris Reifert, Martin van Drunen or Craig Pillard where I peed myself and hid in my closet until all the bad monsters would go away. I'm not about to play the 'overrated' card, since the guy still brought something individual to the genre, and was their best front man; but all the same, I was never butthurt when he and the band parted ways (at least the first time between None So Vile and Whisper Supremacy).

Blasphemy Made Flesh isn't shit, and its flaws might be forgiven if I was to blindly adulate every single death metal record released between 1991-1995 (like some folks I've encountered). A decent headbanger with a faint few glimmers of creativity, which places the listener back in its age of conception, but ultimately it amounts to little more than a warmup for its successor. Just another instance where I wish an album was as menacing as it looked. Or as it intended. That I found this disc one of the blueprints for a lot of 'meh' brutal death metal bands to come, or a middling warmup for its successor (a record which actually does deserve its place on the pedestal of punishment), doesn't help its case, but like any other musical medium, I want death metal I can remember. That I can rampage to. Stab to. Cackle maniacally to. Be afraid of. The Cryptopsy debut does not provide that for me; it's more like a steamroller of insipid horror sequels rather than one frightening classic with scenes that I can never escape.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (to give the gift of murder)

Friday, February 15, 2013

Putrid Blood - Absolute Profit (2012)

The chance of having some thrash renaissance to rival the latter half of the 80s is just about nil at this point, with so many modern practitioners pursuing mere tributes to their immortal precursors, but innovation and originality are not always achieved by swinging wide and far and hoping the blows still hit your opponent. No, some bands, like Serbia's Putrid Blood, just prefer to push directly through you. Roll over you. Break every bone in your worthless body. In doing so, they manage to infuse the core aesthetics of the genre with further extremes, and inevitably you are so busy fending off the punches that you won't care that the music is not some brilliant evolution of the medium. Absolute Profit is a drop kick of an album from a region I don't normally associate with thrash, but after sitting through this a number of times, and counting the ensuing bruises, I can only imagine that their geographical location might be the sole factor in curbing this infection. Fortunately, I got to stand straight in harm's way this time...

Though you'll hear picking progressions redolent of both West Coast US and Teutonic classics, like Slayer and Kreator, Absolute Profit is not exactly a nostalgia trip. It's got a modern potency that brought to mind bands like Dew-Scented, Demiricous, the early 'oughts records by The Haunted, newer Onslaught, or maybe the past few Slayer discs of the 21st century (in riffing structure alone, like the opener "Vulture"). A rich, ballistic rhythm guitar tone rains down thousands of tiny punches upon the ears, but keeps itself crisp and capable enough to hold together through the lighting rounds, when the picking comes fast and furious. The leads are wild, energetic and fun, often with a bit of bluesy wailing and wah to them which helps them stand out against the more straightforward violence of the rhythm guitar. Often, they will break out into these straight, punkish based chords that recall the angriest of NYHC, and occasionally you'll get a flight of death metal tremolo notes, a surgery ward thrash escalation, or a more black metal based, dissonant chord construction (bridge of "Re-Animator"); but for the most part, this is meaty, take no prisoners thrash which goes straight for your gut with a pair of brass knuckles. The only downside is that a few of the note configurations, like in "Kontraudar" or "For God's Sake", aren't distinct enough from hundreds or thousands of thrash, hardcore or brutal groove metal bands from the past.

That said, they've got some variation here to help break down the level of easy predictability. Not afraid to show their softer side (as on the clean guitar intro to "Re-Animator"), and within each track you'll find that the riffs tend to mix it up between speedier clips and mid-paced, neckbrace-inducing thrash sequences fit for any headbanger's ball. The drums and bass guitar are tighter than a pair of fists, with really snappy sounding snares and a good loud kick tone. Vocals are a monstrous mixture of angry thrash-core barks and death grunts with some slightly higher pitched black metal rasps and a few well-placed backing gang shouts which added a bit of a Slayer meets Hatebreed sensation. They're performed in a mix of English and Serbian, but either way you're still getting the message: these boots are about to kick you in the ass. The lyrics dabble in an array of traditional horror subjects like individuality, rebellion and horror themes, or at least those I could read; wisely avoiding the 'We're a thrash band dudes!' pizza-thrash flag-waving bullshit. This is not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, folks, but an urbane Serbian riot squad with beat-sticks ready to club anyone who gets out of line. Absolute Profit might not be the most unique or memorable album of its class, but its charm lies in the conviction and consistency of its aggressive architecture. Fun!

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Lecherous Nocturne - Behold Almighty Doctrine (2013)

My first whirlwind waltz with Lecherous Nocturne came with their 2008 sophomore The Age of Miracles Has Passed, a technical and complex spin on the combined ethos of Suffocation, Morbid Angel, Cryptopsy and Hate Eternal which came and went with frankly not enough fanfare. Granted, this was material with an appeal for fans of faster, more extreme inclinations, not incredibly popular in the middle of the 'new old school' revival, yet for an initial exposure, it was definitely another of those discs that made me feel sad about my own musical abilities, even after decades. This time out, for their third full-length overall, and second for Unique Leader, I wasn't quite so swept away, but it continues along a comparable course, unlikely to disappoint those with a preference for calamitous, ballistic, bristling intensity that rarely leaves space to breathe.

It takes only a haunting, dark ambient intro and about 30 seconds of "Ouroboros Chains" to relay the message that Behold Almighty Doctrine is not banking on its user-friendliness, or accessibility. It's like None So Vile, Covenant and I, Monarch spiking an energy drink with both speed and cocaine, then jerking one another off. Spastic floods of crunching, churning rhythm guitars cede into walls of accelerated, porcupine spine tremolo picking. The bass guitar is broad and murky, creating a sense of confusion and catastrophe as it, too, rifles through millions of notes, and the sheer numbers of patterns invested into this and every other track on the album pretty much guarantee the alienation of anyone seeking simplicity or nostalgia. Drums are loud, abrasive, and move with such celerity that, combined with the guitars, constantly gives an impression that the record as a whole is about to unravel, much like the unprepared listener's sanity. They'll once in a while break into some more clearly discerned riff progression, but further eruption is inevitable: like an active volcano on an Earth spinning at an exponential rate of progress around the Sun.

Behold Almighty Doctrine is like a bad day at work that never ends, where just about everything that could possibly irritate you is happening at once, and you can either roll with the painful pressures and revel in the chaotic emissions, or flee to a safe spot under the stairway. You wouldn't want to listen to this while driving in traffic, but if you give yourself plenty of room to thrash your limbs around, it's an efficient means of calorie burning. The only real breaks in the action are the intro/outro, and the brilliantly diabolic piano run in the "Prelude No. 2" interlude, which seems to imply that 'hey, even if we were writing music 200 years ago we would still fuck you up'. The vocals are messy, salacious barks and rasps, and once in awhile the guitars fuse into a more dissonant, black metal inspired chord progression that adds a bit more balance to the horrific convulsions Lecherous Nocturne deems 'songwriting'. This is daunting, unapologetic shit here, and not for the faint of heart, or anyone who has difficulty following such dextrous, intense sonic speculation. Overall I found the riff selection mildly less remarkable and memorable than on the previous outing, but fans of groups like Krisiun, Behemoth, Belphegor and Hate Eternal should take a painful taste of this, and let it roll around on and then possibly rip out their tongues.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Beissert - Darkness: Devil: Death (2013)

I've got a vague recollection of this German band's 2010 sophomore album The Pusher (probably received the promo with a pile of others and never ended up reviewing it). But by and large, Beissert is new to me, and fairly surprising; not always in a good way, but I can say with confidence that I've never heard a band quite like this, in part due to the wild charisma of their vocalist, Richard Beissert, who proudly stamps his feet onto the center stage of the recording. Don't get me wrong: he's not louder or harder pushing than the instruments, per se, but he's easily the most distinct factor here. Without him, Darkness: Devil: Death might just come off as a rather vapid modern groove/thrash disc with a few decent licks, but nothing too enduring or endearing.

The album is pretty interesting in that it's a horror tribute, in particular places towards H.P. Lovecraft, whose prose is often quoted directly in the lyrics. Not unusual in metal, perhaps, but for a band of this style, I guess it must be a first. Huge, ruddy, semi-sludgy chugging guitars (which often sound like the gunning of a broken muffler) are configured into contemporary thrash progressions with a few hints of 90s groove/metal or metalcore, and the drums have a bright, battering mix which ranges from the usual rock-inspired beats to a meticulous use of strong double bass patterns. The bass guitar is thick and deep in the mix, but often the notes will swerve off on their own course of fills, and it adds dimension to the substrate of the rhythm section. Beissert, though, is ultimately about the choruses. Those dense, down tuned and palm muted piledriver patterns are almost always a setup for some larger, melodic chorus as in "Zorn Der Geister" or "Age Ov Darkness", where Richard's performance will either sink or swim the album, and I found that in several cases, these proved emotional and climactic enough that there was a bit of replay value.

In general, I wasn't too fond of the rhythm guitar sequences, most of fall seem inspired by bands like Crowbar, Pantera or Machine Head, but a few quirky exceptions shine through (like that minimalistic muted hook in the verse of the title track). Thankfully the group indulges in all manner of atmospheric leads and melodies that help to glaze the meatier undercarriage. Variation is in no small supply here, I assure you. Really, though, as bold and bludgeoning as the band seems, it's the nigh on schizophrenic inflection of Beissert himself that proves the most captivating. Perhaps not as crazy as a Mike Patton or a Neil Fallon, but very much an original. His natural tone has a hoarse, manly and mildly constipated depth which is helped out by his accent (he sings in German on the track "DXXXV", but usually in English). And yet, he's also capable of breaking into a higher pitch, even a rare scream, and enjoys fucking around with his range. For example, in "Perm Trias", the longest and strangest song on the album, in which the bridge chorus feels like a Teutonic, darker sounding David Lee Roth joined by handclaps and girly backing choir...

Those are the sorts of surprises scattered through the 47 minutes of Darkness: Devil: Death, and part of the reason I found it easier to tolerate than other records which go for a straight 90s nu-groove aesthetic. Granted, the contrast of such goofy personality with the darker, brooding lyrical concepts is often a bit too much to swallow, but it's not something I hear every day, and made for a pleasant and interesting listen. In the end, I didn't find the music entirely compelling. The majority of the riffs did little for me apart from their rich and fulsome production, and I often had to focus in on the vocals just to maintain attention. That said, this is surely an unusual combination of dynamics. Like a bunch of Cthulhu cultists riding Harley Davidsons, heavily inked, with Ed Hardy tees, en route to a simultaneous pig roast/Nyarlathotep summoning. If the notion of sharing a few pilsner glasses with such folk jerks your chain (and really, who wouldn't?), and you don't shy away from simpler groove riffs like these, then at least give this a once over.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]