Friday, March 29, 2013

Soliloquium - The Concept of Escape DEMO (2013)

The second recording under the Soliloquium monicker, The Concept of Escape seeks a mild expansion of the melodic, saddened hues of its predecessor, the When Silence Grows Venomous. It's successful in doing so, thanks largely to the dichotomy of three vocal styles and a tidal balance of driving melodic rhythm guitars and somber segues through which other emotions can breathe; but that's not to say that it's really a vast improvement over their earlier songs, nor is it highly unique when compared to the legacies of its influences, bands like October Tide and Katatonia who have certainly laid out the groundwork for what Jonas Bergkvist and Stefan Nordström. Still, there's a humble authenticity to the material which makes for a pleasant listen, and if you're the sort to stare in awe at the gathering dusk, or freeze frames of falling leaves within your minds' eye, then I do not doubt you can connect to this demo on an emotional level.

This is not the music of brazen complexity, and the duo aren't just over-tracking and over-layering dozens of guitars. They set pace with a simple, rambling clean guitar line like that of "Remnant of Dying Dreams" (which languishes somewhere between Katatonia and Lake of Tears), and then plug in the rumbling distortion of the bass and develop into a fell, glorious sequence of simple chords that support the deeper growls, which are reminiscent of Jonas Renkse from the October Tide debut, albeit a bit dryer and wispier. Few if any riffs linger on beyond their welcome, and they adventure mildly into a few choice squeals and mournful melodies. However, they also implement a placid, clean vocal (in "Crossroads") and some higher pitched snarls that help to offset the monotony inherent in just a straight growl; without coming off as if they're meandering or wimpy or imbalanced. The drums are nice, laid back grooves with choice fills, but capable of picking up the momentum necessary for one of those mid-paced, defining chord progressions that serve as paeans to the Swedes' native influences. The melodic phrases come to a climax near the end of the nearly 10 minute finale "Nighttime Revelations", where they pop out over the more subdued rhythm guitar and come off like an inevitable release of tears.

All told, the 25 minutes of content are quite consistent with one another, and with the prior demo, only I did feel as if the arching melodies had a broader effect. Do they push their boundaries enough? Not really, and in some sense Soliloquium faces an uphill battle in that many of their note and chord choices seem inevitable and at worst, predictable. The songs are catchy enough while you're swept up in them, but just not extremely memorable later on. I didn't find myself pining over their absence, though this is the very MUSIC of pining and longing. As a demo, it's fluid and functional and the duo are apt at capturing the surface levels of sadness and regret so essential to their craft; but it rarely delves much deeper, and so even though the net widens, it is still only pulling in the same melancholic catch. It 'escapes', but not for very long. Further experimentation in chord structure, dissonance and rhythm/temp will only strengthen these Swedes' cause, but The Concept of Escape is not really problematic beyond the fact that it's flowing over previously dredged terrain. Another decent demo, but if they get around to recording a full-length, more variation could be crucial.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Fleshgrind - Murder Without End (2003)

Had Fleshgrind delivered an album that improved upon The Seeds of Abysmal Torment as much as that had vaulted past Destined for Defilement, then we might have been looking at our first genuinely worthwhile experience. Instead, Murder Without End is rather a step in reverse, seeking instead to inhabit the aesthetic space between the first two albums. That this ultimately proved to be their swan song is not surprising, since the wells of inspiration seemingly suffered from drought conditions and the band were at best writing a mixture of half-decent riffs in the vein of their sophomore, or incredibly mediocre note progressions that went absolutely nowhere; emphasis on the latter! I can't pinpoint exactly why, but whenever I see this album I think back on all those moderately uninteresting discs that choke up the Malevolent Creation discography; Fleshgrind were writing at a similar level of abuse, albeit with a slightly more guttural relish.

The novelties or new ideas here are reduced to a few piano intros and outros, a few chord textures that I don't recall from the older works, and one very surprisingly melodic tremolo riff sequence that erupts in the middle of the track "Displayed Decay", which wouldn't have been out of place on a power metal or melodic death record. Otherwise, the most I can say for Murder Without End is that its got a more accessible, approachable mix than either of the other albums. The guitars are denser with a lot of punch, but are very often belting out 2-3 note patterns that leech any possible interest or inspiration from the listener, since any death metal band with even a modicum of experience could compose 150 such riffs in a few jamming hours without thinking twice. This was the one studio album with Derek Hoffman on drums (he had played on that Stabwound Intercourse EP circa Gorgasm), and he implements a lot more straight blasting and admittedly drives much of the energy and enthusiasm; but without good songs, it's all in vain. Guitar progressions vary between entirely forgettable chugs to faster, vapid blast parts with tremolo picking that remind me of some of Krisiun's least inspired tunes. Certainly a bit more of a Napalm Death 'grind' undercurrent, but that's nothing to write home about when its very originators can rarely make heads or tails of the style.

The bass is audible, carving out a cleaner tone not unlike that on the debut, but other than the occasional line of interest its not sticking its neck out very far. Rich's vocals were less interesting as well; a series of grunts that sound like Barney Greenway communicating with pigs, with a few raspy, snarling rodents occasionally chiming in when accidentally stepped on by the bacon aspirants. Again, this definitely all sounds fine and dandy if you're looking for generic brutal death band of the 'oughts #1,768, but significantly less 'brutal' and promising than the cuts I was hearing on The Seeds of Abysmal Torment. The composition is more athletic and aggressive than Destined for Defilement, to be sure, yet so is the gunning of most motorcycles. Sadly, while it remains almost as tightly knits as its predecessors (each album is expanding about 3 minutes), there is just too little value here, and 'meh' lyrics and boring grinders like "Pistolwhipped", "Enslaved to My Wrath" and an updated rendition of their 1993 demo track "Holy Pedophile" do their best to ensure that some of the less obnoxious efforts here get muddled down to oblivion. A handful of worthwhile riffs against a whole lotta derivative and mundane friction. The story of many brutal death metal acts' lives.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10] (forever choking)

Fleshgrind - The Seeds of Abysmal Torment (2000)

While it wasn't a dramatic improvement, and there was a pervasive reek of 'keeping up with the times' populating the album, The Seeds of Abysmal Torment was a much needed step forward for Chicago's Fleshgrind in three important categories: musicianship, composition, and of course, brutality. The writing was far denser, punishing, and though I wouldn't dub it adventurous, it was clearly exploring more of the latent potential within its constituents. Arguably, the sophomore could have been an entirely other band. The riffing, hostility, and even the vocals aren't quite like Destined for Defilement, but the deviation is not so broad that they couldn't interchange the songs in a set list. No, this is simply a hallmark of growth for the Midwest murderers, and in truth it's the strongest album of their catalog, even if it doesn't quite distinguish itself from its influences and peers.

From the top down, this was a case of evolution into a more tense and busy entity which could compete with a lot of the younger brutal and technical death acts coming out of both the US and Europe. Still very much redolent of Suffocation, but there's also running parallel to American stompers like Internal Bleeding and Dying Fetus. The guitar tone is more textured. Ruddy and pungent, from the grinding progressions to the unusual and interesting breakdowns. It feels both filthy and claustrophobic, but the acrobatic chugging of Steve Murray ensures that there' no shortage of tempo alternation. The drums likewise are more condensed, with the toms and bass drums far more energetic than the debut. Note sequences often shift between low end grooves, pinches and squeals to flights of very surgical sounding death/thrash ("Monarch of Misery", or the wonderfully and aptly titled "Hogtied and Hatefucked") that puts me in the same head space that I was on Pestilence's debut, Malleus Malifecarum. Nowhere near as catchy, mind you, but the very presence of these passages is enough to keep the music from quickly stagnating. The rate of hit to miss guitar riffs is quite higher than Destined for Defilement, though the album is almost equally concise in its overall length.

Bass is still not a dominant force, but it's definitely deeper and contributes more to the overall aesthetic, which in itself is far more low end and slamming amidst the more aerobic guitar work. You can feel it constantly brooding and bumping along in the muscular murk of the percussion. Rich Lipscomb's vocals are also changed: his lower guttural is comparable to the debut album, but he's alternating this with a sustained growl that sounds like a less ghoulish John Tardy; and in addition, there are a lot more petulant little snarls cast into the mix to create a morbid schizophrenia. The pacing is pretty interesting throughout the album, ranging from an all out clusterfuck assault on the listener's senses and sensibilities, to simpler patterns that emerge; thrashing breaks, chunky grooves. Certainly this is an album that serves as another precursor to the vastly saturated, international brutal and slam death scene we know today, and I wouldn't be surprised to find this in the collections of many of the Russian and Indonesian bands who have been churning out such works of late.

Another advancement was in the lyrical material; even the sadistic "Hogtied and Hatefucked" and "A Legion of Illusions" were better managed than most of the comparable tunes on the debut, and in general the messages and imagery here are more matured and better 'arranged'. They didn't just feel like another garden variety Cannibal Corpse knockoff. Obviously the three years between the debut and this, as the band signed to the (largely underwhelming) Olympic Recordings imprint, were well spent in refining their sound. The Seeds of Abysmal Torment might not be a memorable album, but it was headed in that direction, and anyone sporting a hard on for classic 90s Suffocation or Crytopsy's None So Vile might at least want to hit this up once.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (imagine such lunacy)

Fleshgrind - Destined for Defilement (1997)

Fleshgrind was one of those 90s arrivals that I almost wanted to throw my support behind simply on principle, but then found the sentiment at odds with just how banal and ineffective their music was, not only in the long term, but after a mere few tracks of exposure. They seemed for all purposes like a humble group of guys doing what they loved, but despite Destined for Defilement's intriguing, H.R. Giger-like biomechanical cover art perversions, a decent moniker and logo, there was just nothing they spewed unto their genre that hadn't already been inseminated by far more interesting outfits. This debut had 'also-ran' smeared all over it, both lyrically and musically, and while Fleshgrind was not particularly awful at churning and chugging and exploring gruesome concepts, we'd already heard far better from bands like Cannibal Corpse, Cryptopsy, Suffocation and Deicide. Which would not be a problem if they were writing songs with riffs that dug into your flesh like the meat hooks that inspired so many of these bands' concepts. Which, sadly, they were not.

Destined for Defilement is essentially a poor man's None So Vile traveling at a more moderate speed and sharing its lane with Pierced from Within and The Bleeding. The most distinguished component throughout the brief 29 minute run time would be the guttural belching of Rich Lipscomb, which was more or less like a natural evolution of the Chris Barnes style into more brutal, amphibious territory. 'Swamps of the Mutilated' Lipscomb could occasionally dial this back to a more dry, Floridian bark, so there was actually a potential for some variation, syllabic lines shifting between arid and saturated intonation, but where a superior set of songs might have really supported and highlighted his performance, we are instead delivered vapid riffing structures that utterly fail to leave an impression. The real detrimental constant to Destined for Defilement is its inability to generate any sort of menace or excitement. It's not trailing along like a slug, but the overuse of mid-tempo, staccato chugging occasionally interspersed with older school tremolo riffing just seems like it was pulled off an uninspired blueprint. The riffs jar and crash into one another with little unity, and you might be able to snatch a few from one song and then transpose them into another and not notice a difference.

That's not to say that, by 1997 standards, this music was entirely generic or unwelcome. It obviously has yet to run its course, since a lot of today's lords of underground brutality are still working off the same blueprints, but there's very little flash or finesse to fill in the creative gaps evoked through many of these riffs. I'm serious when I say that it wasn't until the fourth track (of nine) on this album, "Sordid Degradation" where I felt that the guitar had written anything even remotely catchy, and even there it's pretty standard death/thrash without a concerted, memorable hook or evil melody. All of the instrumentation functions as intended, like a gang of tire-iron-wielding miscreants beating in the carapace of an automobile, but the composition is modular and ultimately insipid, with the note progressions lacking anything disturbing, dissonant or ominous. Sort of like some phoned in, post-shark jumping horror flick sequel that comes laminated in a frightening package, but very soon collects dust on your DVD shelf. A brutal bore, but a bore nonetheless.

Production is also not the forte here. The drums have the requisite level of double bass muscle and some sub blast acceleration, but the kicks feel like someone hammering away on a vinyl seat cushion with their feet, and the snares and crashing percussion feel overly polished and plastic. The bass playing is honestly not that bad when you can hear it, but it's too often subjugated by the prim punch of the rhythm chugging, and even when it cuts through, the tone is just too dry. Some heavier distortion there might have helped to offset the sterility of the rhythm guitar, which is also just too clean to really leave a dent. The sparse, frenzied clinical melodies that erupt also feel subsumed by household bleach or other chemicals; they definitely have a tint of the tone of Death's mid to late 90s progressive death output, which I was not always incredibly keen on, but then again they're not able to generate with riffs on a Schuldiner level anyway. On the whole, Destined for Defilement lacks power and intensity due to its introverted mix.

The lyrics weren't exactly the worst out there, but then they're really just a pastiche of subject matter and phrasing circa Cannibal Corpse, Mortician, and Obituary, with the usual misogynistic and necrophiliac focus, but never too disgusting or convincing. Nothing inherently awful of distracting, but nothing that gets a blood rise in any organ. In the end, it's difficult to think of Destined for Defilement as anything more than a coathanger-armed coattail-clinger to that stubborn wave of gore and brutality that thrived in an underground where many other metallic niches had dissolved in the 90s. It had its collectible shock value, and was pretty cool to look at, but in terms of depth or individuality it was just another in a herd of livestock being goaded along by the prods of inspiration that predated it by about 5-7 years. I've heard worse, but that's far from enough compulsion to revisit or recommend this.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10] (the swelling starts)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Svart Crown - Profane (2013)

Svart Crown has been hovering on the second tier of French extremity for a few years now; a band that is somewhat distinctly put together, but just not as unusual or exhilarating as some of their countrymen like Blut Aus Nord, Deathspell Omega or Peste Noire who have developed these cult followings and, as one might expect, assorted detractors. I've not been totaally impressed by this group's marriage of black and death metal yet, but certainly they're putting enough of an individualistic spin on it that they're past output has been successful. With Profane, their third album, they're not exactly reinventing themselves or pushing themselves 'forward' so much as they're just issuing another solid, dynamic release. But hey, the cover won't be forgetting that any time soon, or at least I won't.

Structurally, think Morbid Angel via Gateways to Annihilation, Domination or Blessed Are the Sick if they meddled with even more atonal textures and added a tint of psycho black metal circa their peers. The disharmonic tremolo guitar passages are dense and twist about in the imagination, but they also incorporate a lot of simpler, lurching chugging grooves for contrast (which they'll also imbue with some discordant picking of their own). The bass curves along with a fluid, embryonic warmth that really works along the post-sludge, post-hardcore atmosphere often created through the riff progressions, and the vocals vary between deeper gutturals, sustained rasps and even a few ritualistic, deep cleans when appropriate. A few samples are tossed in here or there, in particular the one in "In Utero: A Place of Hatred and Threat" with the girl screaming is very effective, unnerving and fun; I had to spin around in my listening booth and make sure there wasn't some exorcism/molestation going on nearby. The drums might not have a great deal of personality, but they provide a taut and competent landscape of blasts, grooves, fills, even some tempered tribalism ("Venomous Ritual").

Often, there are riff progressions here which are downright amazing, but I never felt there was a high enough ratio to break the bank. Specifically, the final sequence of tracks here from the brooding and bass driven "Venomous Ritual" through "Ascetic Purification" (which has this incredible dissonant bridge breakdown) and "Revelatio: Down Here Stillborn" felt the strongest, but the earlier material is consistent and invigoration within itself. Svart Crown write with a good deal of dynamic range, but often the transitions between the different tempos don't ultimately climax in resonant passages that provide the necessary payoff; and thus Profane becomes just another 'good' album, with a decent array of hooks and clear, churning production. Ultimately, though, they've got potential appeal for a wide range of listeners, from Deathspell Omega, Glorior Belli & Blut Aus Nord to Ulcerate, Morbid Angel, Nader Sadek, Portal & Mitochondrion. I'm not sure this will be their 'breakthrough' effort, but they've certainly got the weapons to impress.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Zombiefication - At the Caves of Eternal (2013)

Mexico's grave robbers Zombiefication had already begun the process of distinguishing themselves from the majority of Swedeath wannabes with their debut Midnight Stench, but it was hardly a gem of an album, so they're making up for that with the sophomore At the Caves of Eternal, which I would dub a dramatic improvement. I daresay I've been hearing an exhausting number of such old school throwback sounds over the course of the past 5 years, and the 'cool' factor is starting to wear thin, but there's still a decent percentage of them arriving, and we can now add this band to that list, because even if it borrows here or there, At the Caves of Eternal is good fun with depth, variety, and perhaps most importantly, a memorable atmosphere.

This is definitely the 'darker' variety of Entombed worship, the sort that makes you feel like you've fallen into a crypt on a landslide of cemetery soil and worms. Comparable to a Miasmal or Tormented. However, heavily melodic patterns run concurrent to the burgeoning rhythm guitars, and the Mexicans do a pretty bang up job of delivering haunted note progressions that make you feel like you're in some idealized horror flick. The riffs here are not always unique, but neither are they just borrowed wholesale from the usual suspects. For instance, there is a grooving, low end pattern in "Disembodied Souls" that draws heavily on a beat from old Celtic Frost. But the Mexicans conjure a number of dynamic shifts through the album that render it an excellent example of pacing. Tunes like "In the Shadowed Garden" make an almost innovative, hypnotic use of tremolo patterns before erupting into the expected, obsidian d-beats. The texturing and layering of the two rhythm guitars in tandem is voluptuous, along with the bass playing, and it just feels like the hungry undead holding an orgy and smearing dirt over one another.

Vocals are a harsh bark, drawing a bit on Chris Reifert or L-G Petrov, but not at all derivative to the point they become annoying. I love it when they're barking out and leaving shadowy echoes hovered over the rhythm a haze of swamp gas. Drums are good and loud, but not enough that they crunch out the guitar playing, which is important, since there are about a half dozen excellent melodies interspersed across the album, including the titular opener. The leads aren't incredibly complex, but they wail away with a bluesy, messy abandon that hearkens back to the Entombed death & roll days. But where At the Caves of Eternal works most is in how well put together it is. The slower and faster tracks combine to create a morbid and apocryphal emotional response, and you can tell these riffs weren't all derivative enough to betray the clear amount of effort being exerted. It's not perfect, but it's definitely a solid step ahead of the debut, and an effort I'd recommend to the obvious cult audience swallowing this style up in the new century (they obviously do exist, or else I doubt the labels would be putting forth so much of this). Good on Zombiefication.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Erytrosy - Delight (2001)

Sex and brain surgery. These seem to be two of the lyrical fascinations of Erytrosy's 2001 sophomore Delight. A strange album title when one considers the sounds on display, and an even stranger cover image for the death metal genre; but hey, if it were any indicator that the band was moving in a more experimental direction after their rather standard (if ahead of the curve) brutal death debut Incomplete Minds, then it would have my full support. Sadly, not only does Delight fail to mix up the aesthetics of its predecessor, but after five years, one might have been justified in having higher expectations...than this. The Slovakians have spun off into a brand of brutal, grind-tinted death metal that is far less interesting, and ultimately a banal exercise in futile, dime a dozen riffs.

You've basically got your standard 4xchug -> tremolo burst intensity here, which grows quite old in a very short time. I guess a good comparison would be Napalm Death's 90s output, with a bit of Suffocation, Cannibal Corpse and Internal Bleeding thrown in, but Erytrosy is not quite as riffy. In fact, you could pay me to listen to this album a few dozen times and I would have a hard time remembering a single chord progression, that's how generic and below the radar this music is. The vocals sound a bit more like Mark 'Barney' Greenway than they did on the debut; not that they were unique on the debut, but this style has always tended to bore me after a few lines, and it's just another of the underwhelming factors in what makes Delight such an also-ran. I can't exactly fault the band's aggression level here, because some of the spastic death/thrash punchlines they weave off the chug-chug setups are appreciably nimble, but the notes played seemed to just have been safely snatched from whatever first idea comes to mind. There's not a heck of a lot of 'musicality' here aside from men playing death metal on instruments. The lead sequences are intensified, but not enough to save the rhythms leading up to them...

The album also sounds like arse, and in fact it seems as if even the limited budget of the debut might have been floundered away. Guitars are brasher and noisier, and the drums have a lot more crash and burn to them. But both the treble and bass dynamics of the rhythm guitar seem out of step, and it honestly sounds like a well rigged live performance or a demo than a studio effort. Compiled with the lackluster songwriting that seems like a step back from the brutal aerobics of Incomplete Minds, it becomes a difficult disc to sit through for more than a few minutes. There's just nothing of interesting occurring anywhere. No highlights, no riffs that urge me to strain my neck in response. Yeah, the bass playing still gets busy, and sounds decent against the other instruments; and the 26 minute play length ensures that it's not a whole lot of material to become exhausted with. It's not necessarily an 'awful' album, or an abject failure, but it's difficult to justify when there were by 2001 about 15 years of great death metal records to pore over. I'd take the Slovakians' debut over this any day, and I don't blame them for putting the group on an indefinite hiatus after this.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Erytrosy - Incomplete Minds (1996)

Considering their instant, automatic appeal to the not-always-so-picky brutal death metal audience, I'm surprised Slovakia's Erytrosy is not brought up in more conversations regarding their chosen niche. After all, by the mid 90s, successful acts like Suffocation, Deicide and Cannibal Corpse were still generating traction in the underground. Cryptopsy was just getting out its smashing sophomore None So Vile that would prove so influential. Bands like Dying Fetus and Deeds of Flesh were releasing their debut full-lengths this same year. It all boils down to the fact that this was simply coming out of an obscure market, perhaps not readily available to anyone who wasn't specifically searching for it. Not that the Slovakians were bringing anything to the table that you couldn't have heard from a combination of the above, but Incomplete Minds is quite a tight, prescient, 'complete' package that I think a lot of today's young thugs might enjoy checking out.

This is essentially a very balanced mesh of old and new school techniques that struck right about the same time that the notion of a 'brutal death metal' subdivision was taking off. Loads of surgical, chugging patterns span a number of octaves, while you've got the requisite palm mute to squeal ratio and a lot of pure tremolo picked progressions that felt more archaic. The general tempo of the music is heavily reminiscent of the first four Cannibal Corpse records, with that same death/thrash zeal; but I heard quite a lot of riffs redolent of Effigy of the Forgotten. The chugging was also similar to Deicide's eponymous debut or its followup, Legion, but even more dynamic. Incomplete Minds features a lot of abrupt shifts in tempo, from middle paced grooves to steady blasting, but I can't say that they always feel important or intelligent; rather just an attempt to bewilder the listener into the precision with which the musicians can bounce back and forth while maintaining a consistent, pummeling clamor that makes only a tangential use of melody and atmosphere. A few lighter, progressive passages are strewn through the landscape (like the intro to "Ancient Structure of Endoparasites"), probably evidence of a Death/Cynic/Pestilence influence, but they're exceptions.

Unfortunately, like a lot of the earlier material from bands like Deeds of Flesh, Suffocation, Lividity or Internal Bleeding, I felt as if the production here was rather dry. The bass and treble of the distorted rhythm guitar doesn't generate much of a dichotomy, just a muddling percussion with enough clarity to distinguish the individual note patterns. Leads have a bit of airiness, but are likewise too straightforward to condition the bridges and melodies with an appreciable atmosphere. The drumming is fucking crazy, with ample use of the double bass drums for both blasting and slower paces, but I though the cymbals were rather mundane, the snare a bit too poppy, and the bass drum and guitar often intersperse with one another too their detriment. That said, the bassist is excellent here, offering great contrast to the melodies and enough volume that you could just follow him through most of the album. The vocals are a flat, guttural alternative to Frank Mullen or Craig Pillard, but you'll occasionally get this salacious, alien snarl that pokes through their syllabic bluntness. Nothing unique, but effective enough thanks to the constant riff transitions.

I though the industrial/ambient intro and outro pieces were too close to one another; on one hand it creates a sense of consistency and completion, mirrored bookends, but since Erytrosy doesn't engage in this sort of content through the death metal itself, they feel somewhat alienated. Would have been better to include more of this through the slower groove sections. Incomplete Minds also lacks truly engrossing riff composition; the patterns were fairly fresh for their time, but there are few 'money shots' where the guitars reach an orgasmic level of mutilation and inspiration. Probably another reason, aside from its relative obscurity, that this didn't dial the Slovakians onto the international underground radar grid quite as loudly as their US or European contemporaries. All told, though, this is a tight and reasonably ambitious debut album, which lives up to the rather intriguing cover art collage, and if you really love this end of the genre, and want to visit or revisit a precursor to the sounds you've become accustomed to through the releases of labels like Sevared, Comatose, or Amputated Vein, exhume and enjoy.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Six Feet Under - Unborn (2013)

I doubt I was alone in my first impression that Six Feet Under were going to attempt to 'double up' the shock and awe they created with last year's Undead, their first genuinely great album in my opinion. The cover artwork and the title (with its 'un-' prefix) had me thinking that they might have been intended as a double album and simply split down the middle. In terms of production values and general direction, Unborn is indeed a pretty close approximation of its predecessor; only not as good. But let's give some credit to Chris Barnes and company...while it falls short of that stunning surprise, they're not merely trying to copy it. Unborn does try a few new tricks, and these often provide for its better moments, but several of the songs are steeped in the band's past mediocrity, and a lot of the rhythm guitar riffs are very bland indeed.

Gauging the album by its first track alone, "Neuro Osmosis", I thought we were hearing an entirely new entity which had finally discovered the nuance of applying atmosphere to the barebones death & roll. A decent acoustic intro, loads of melodies glazing the rhythm guitars and an almost frightful notation definitely levitate expectations for the remainder of the music. In truth, these melodies and even a few noisy atmospheric leads continue to pop up through the playlist (as in "Psychosis"), but they never stake their ground as a prevalent element in the mix. No, most of the riffs here are pretty threadbare Six Feet Under standards which occupy a middle ground between death, groove metal and even a bit of angry, slammable, chugging NYHC. For instance, "Prophecy" could have appeared on a record by Madball or Hatebreed and few would know the difference. That's not to put it down as a particularly uninteresting piece, but there was something resonant and unmistakably compelling about the chugs and grooves on Undead that had me constantly hitting the repeat key, where only a few of the riff progressions here truly stood out to me.

Examples include those surgical thrash mute fills at the opening of "Psychosis"; the Slayer-esque fill in "Decapitate"; the mid-paced Prong-like thrashing abrasions of "Zombie Blood Curse"; or "The Curse of Ancients", which despite a few vapid note patterns and double bass roll riffs, is overall quite strong. But in other times, you've got a track like "Fragment" which is boring, by-the-numbers death and groove brickwork apart from the little melodies; or "Incision", which occasionally reminds me of the almost wigga death metal hip hop effluvia that chocked up earlier 6FU albums. Nothing is really offensive or awful, but where Undead had these 7-8 incredibly strong, memorable pieces, I can't say that anything here was more than acceptable. In the past, it wouldn't have been possible for me to be 'disappointed' with anything Barnes and crew were putting out, because I had zero expectations even after hearing the Obituary-with-Corpse-vocals debut, but I felt as if Unborn was a little bit of a letdown. Not for lack of trying, and honestly they still seem as if they've turned over a new leaf, but few of the cuts screamed at me to keep revisiting them.

Props that they've maintained a consistent production with the last album. Kevin Talley's drums sound like dynamite blowing out the walls of a virgin mine shaft; in particular his fills, toms and kicks always keep the beats interesting beyond the very simple riffing. The rhythm guitar is enormous, you can feel the chugs in your gut just like Undead, though perhaps the melodies might have been cranked up a notch so they expressed more than an airy, fleeting distance. I kept wanting more of these. Leads are often just dowsed in simple noodling or feedback, but often they'll waltz up or down a scale. Bass lines are clearly present, but they do absolutely nothing interesting in terms of fills or waltzing off the central rhythm progression, so their major contribution is simply to the density. As for Barnes' grunts, he focuses pretty heavily on his higher, snarling pitch in a lot of these tracks, with the guttural being used in a more atmospheric levity. Few of the syllabic lines really grab you by the crotch as they did on the last album, but I wouldn't say his voice was shot. It still sounds like he's got the hack/lung/chops.

In the end, while this wasn't an impressive album and might point towards Undead being a 'fluke' among the Six Feet Under canon, it's still a sturdy improvement over tripe like Bringer of Blood or Warpath, and in fact I'd place it in a dead heat with the debut Haunted as their 'silver medal' record. That's not saying much, but even if I didn't enjoy Unborn, I still felt as if Swanson and Barnes had some fresh ideas to implement here, and I hope this imagination carries through towards future releases. Lightning might not have struck twice here, but the cloud cover is still dark, and you can still feel that static of potential along with the clouds of ganja smoke in the air.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (alive and decayed)

Monday, March 18, 2013

October Tide - Tunnel of No Light (2013)

The very existence of Tunnel of No Light proves two things: one, that the band's reunion record (A Thin Shell) after a decade of absence was no petty shell of a comeback, and that the Swedes would continue the mournful melancholy of their output. Two: that this is a niche of doom that seems to grow less compelling each time I hear another album that lacks any sense of innovation or interesting songwriting. It's hardly a carbon copy of the band's other works, but what tweaks have been made are minimal, the riffs only stick about half of the time (where the band's superb debut Rain Without End was nearly flawless), and while it remains a very sad sound, I simply don't feel the immediate impending weight of emotion on me. Whether that stems from the sleek production or the chord progressions, I cannot tell you, but if you've been pining for more in the vein of Gray Dawn or A Thin Shell, at least I can't argue that Fredrik Norrman and October Tide oblige you here.

This is the fourth vocalist in as many albums, with death grunter Alexander Högbom (of Volturyon) stepping into position. I'll give the guy some credit, he does actually try to channel his various predecessors into one cohesive whole that suits the music, from Jonas Renkse's broad gutturals to the raspier tones that followed on the post-Rain Without End material. The qualifications are there, and he's not above a little dynamic range as he floats between the two poles. That said, while professional, I never really found the vocal lines quite so interesting or stunning. The drums are also pretty laid back, standard rock style, and while audible, they just don't match the power level of the rhythm guitars, grunts or near constant melodies that flutter out over the foundation to manifest the essential October Tide atmosphere. Bass is groovy, occasionally gifted with a bit of fuzzier sewage; important since it's often left drifting about a song while the guitarists let ring some slightly grimed, psychedelic and sorrowful strings; but very often lost during the heavier riffs to which it more closely adheres. I found the power chord selections or chugs a little mundane, since they're subjugated to the strength of the melodies, but those into this field of melodic of Gothic doom/death won't find them out of the ordinary or disappointing.

Really, Tunnel of No Light's success comes down to the bare melodic progressions, and here the Swedes are able to just barely prove that they've still got what it takes. It was a wise idea to front load the best of these ("Of Wounds to Come"), but the lilting, rainy sequences are interspersed consistently through the 52 minutes that comprise the album. I found that the material was varied enough between the solemn crush of the heavier moments to the more dreamy segues where the rhythm guitars will disappear to let the bass and cleaner melodies dominate, and there were also a lot of tight, percussive chords that punched the bottom end to create an overcast cadence, rather than just the usual chugging depth on such a disc. Production is very brisk and clean, and I never found even the longer pieces (like "Our Constellation, which nears 9 minutes) to be boring or needlessly repetitive. Ultimately, though, after about four full listens through the material, I did not find it to leave much of a lasting impact. Some decent songs ("Of Wounds to Come", "Watching the Drowners"), but perhaps the melodies just aren't as tantalizing as they were 16 years past on the debut. It never dips below Grey Dawn in quality, and might have some appeal for fans of Rapture, Katatonia, Insomnium, Noumena, and Isole, but I remained rather dry-eyed through each exposure.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, March 15, 2013

Jute Gyte - Discontinuities (2013)

Traditionally, I've not been the sort to ramble on about musical theory when composing reviews. Part of this is that a sizable chunk of readers might not have any idea what I was talking about if I were to count out the 64th notes or harp over the Mixolydian scale for a paragraph. The other is that, being separated from the Music Major since the mid 90s, when I swapped to another out of boredom, more the fault of the particular curriculum and professors than the subject itself, I'm probably rusty and would have to do far more technical research on the exact terminology being thrown around these years. Having said that, when vectoring in on an album like Jute Gyte's latest black metal adventure, Discontinuities, it would be criminal not to at least make mention of the techniques being employed, since they're representative of why the album is so revolutionary in its style.

Kalmbach's music has always been experimental and original in both structure and theme, but this time out, he's shifted over to a customized, 24-tone guitar, exploring microtonal intervals in note phrasing rather than the normalized 12 step semitone. Various other cultures (ancient and modern) have employed the practice before, in particular a number of 19th/20th century composers, but its use in rock music, and by extension extreme metal, is a rarity at best. I had heard a track from a Florida death metal group a while back (Last Sacrament) who were messing with microtonal composition, and while impressive, I felt like a lot of the rhythms did not heavily diverge from the standards of what I'd normally expect. Lo and behold, the guitarist for that band is the very same individual (Ron Sword of Sword guitars) who helped adjust Kalmbach's axe here, and it's a good thing: because through this novelty, Kalmbach has managed to reinvent his pre-installed vision into something even more unnerving and cacophonous. Having long been a fan of unusual, alternate tunings and instrumentation as applied to genre, the very notion of this is a thrill; even if it comes with some escalated trepidation due to my familiarity with just how disturbing Jute Gyte's music can get..

I've probably said it before, but this is basically a one-man Sonic Youth for the post-Burzum generation. The guitars fixated more on the former comparison, the vocals and shared love of ambiance redolent of the latter. This is an album which heavily explores textures. Warped, wonderful textures. From the thundering, droning inaugural progression of  "The Haunting Sense of an Unrepeatable Unidirectional Vector", you can immediately feel the difference in the chords as subtle bass grooves are wrought below them. There is still a propensity for sheer 'wall of noise' amplitude, especially in some of the faster, harder hitting sequences, but these are never given so much face time that they grow to any level of annoyance. Instead, they're measured off against jangling, cleaner passages of dissonant tranquility, and once in awhile he pulls off a truly climactic, otherworldly chord sequence: near the minute mark of the wryly titled "Romanticism is Ultimately Fatal" (best song title this year?) would be one example, or the hustling post-punk clamor opening "Supreme Fiction and the Absolute Fake", which turns out to be perhaps my favorite overall of the metallic tracks.

Ironically, while I often find his instrumental/ambient tracks highlights of his albums, this time around I found the titular "Discontinuities" to be the least remarkable piece among these seven. Instead of synthesizers, this is replete with murky guitar strums that trade the usual distortion for some echo, but though the notes change, and the middle of the album is the perfect placement to give the listener some rest from the surrounding chaos, it simply wasn't as interesting as its neighbors. The production is about even with prior releases. Bass lines are fluid and mesmeric, but obviously simpler than the quarter-tone guitar passages and bright shards of ear stabbing bedlam. Drums are tightly fit and mechanical, but I found myself so drawn to the unusual guitar phrasing that I only paid them cursory attention. Vocals are harrowing and impetuous, unfettered rasping which never seems monotonous or rehearsed; almost like someone experiencing acts of self-mutilation and being captured on a microphone. There is no sense of overly cautious syllabic structure, just deep and disturbing poetry being channeled via the suffering. No, it doesn't lend itself to the conventional, glorious dichotomy of verse/chorus songwriting, but it's fresh and mildly unpredictable (other than the voice).

Discontinuities is symbolic in title, because it does break from the slowly stagnating course of the previous albums, which were themselves pretty damn discordant and distinct. Jute Gyte will remain unlistenable to many, more to their narrow range of aural acceptance than through any fault of the music, but I honestly was surprised that the shift in intonation didn't render the music inhumanly annoying. There's a shocking sense of warmth exuded by even the most frenzied and insect-like polyphonic picking patterns, and though it might not be labyrinthine on a purely technical level, there's a natural complexity that builds while the mind reels and attempts to place the guitars into perspective. Uncomfortable? Of course. But in the clause of 'it if didn't hurt, it wasn't worth it'. Kalmbach continues to traverse genre boundaries as if they were mere hallucinations, and I do hope he continues to incorporate aesthetic divisions, implement nuanced instrumentation, and twist the knobs (and spines of the listeners). Another killer in a largely unbroken line of killers.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (flowing irresistibly onward)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Cultes des Ghoules - Henbane (2013)

Horror. Despite the best of intentions, it's a lot harder than you would think to evoke within the realm of music. Even metal music. I can't count how many records attempt to sound morbid and threatening but miss the mark on the sheer grounds that they've got no thought placed into their construction, no balance of atmosphere and riffing, or such a sterile and brickwalled production that they have no impact other than the technicality of their riffing. Slasher flick samples and misogynistic lyrics just aren't gonna cut it, folks. Within black metal, the problem is one of too many cooks in the kitchen copying one anothers' recipes without understanding the baseline inspiration of the very best. The same Anti-Christian lyrics, the same riffs, the same blast beats, and the same imagery can only be evoked so many times before they lose their 'edge', and many would argue that the once sharpened spikes of this niche became blunted long ago.

Well, Cultes des Ghoules of Poland are a band that understands the notion of horror all too well, and it permeates...suffuses every second of their sophomore outing Henbane. Despite its comparable atmospheric cultivation and a marginal appreciation for its back-to-basics black metal, I actually was not a fan of their 2008 effort Häxan, but its successor manages to iron out nearly every flaw. This is a daunting, mesmeric experience with a lot of character, a lot of surprises, twists and turns and corners from which leering specters might leap out and feast upon you. Chief among these is the vocalist 'Mark of the Devil', whose panoply of decrepit snarls and growls will haunt you in ways that few others are capable: maybe Attila Csihar, perhaps It (ex-Abruptum), but this guy is a nightmare given throat. Coupled with the male choir chants, organs, bells and other percussion arrangements, he manifests a ritual appeal to the album which is the metallic equivalent of a morgue full of corpses suddenly stiffening up to a seated position and having a group conversation. This was already a component of their earlier material, but here it's got so much more breadth, depth and schizoid dementia than I would have expected, and it would sell the music by itself...

Fortunately, it doesn't have to, because the music is also up to the task. One of my gripes about the debut was that the riffing progressions often felt a little too basal or mundane to really match the atmospherics, but with Henbane they've ramped up this aspect of the writing so there's an added level of texture and nuance. I still felt as if some sequences were excessively repetitive, which is to be expected with track lists that are generally eclipsing 10 minutes (some closer to 13-14), but there's a staggering variety to this material which more then makes up for a few unnecessary added cycles. You've got some straight, traditional tremolo pick permutations through pieces like "Idylls of the Chosen Damned", but quite a lot of solemn, blackened doom grooves that represent most of the more catchy moments of pieces like "The Devil Intimate" and the heavily ritualistic "Vintage Black Magic". The rhythm guitar is dowsed in this raunchy, beautiful fuzz which gives Henbane a primacy that relates it back to the early 90s and the dawning of this genre, but the bass is also quite fluid and flowing, the drums crashing along with a plenitude of fills and samples that help round out the compositions with a live feeling, like you were listening through this in some walled-in outdoor garden where the titular, psychoactive herb is grown in secrecy.

There's a particular, unnatural reaction I had to this music which I've traditionally only had when viewing some understated masterpiece of dark film and fiction. Nosferatu. The Seventh Seal. The original Wicker Man. Hammer Horror. Argento or Fulci. Lovecraft. Stoker. William Hope Hodgson. Arthur Machen. We're not talking cheap thrills, a knife in the dark, Freddy Kruger bullshit, or Paranormal Activity airheads. No, this is a tangible, spiritually draining experience which taps into the listener, overrides its survival instincts and then drags he or she towards its maw. A vast, vampiric insect building its web. It utterly destroys the band's debut, and most everything else I've heard lately. In fact, this is such a well-rationed amalgamation of the refreshing and archaic that I can't think of much else like it. Perhaps the superb Head of the Demon debut is close, but Henbane is even denser with ideas. Mandatory, riveting and astonishing, an album I've come out of much different than when I went in...

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Aosoth - IV: An Arrow in Heart (2013)

Perhaps not as bizarre or interesting as several of their better known countrymen, but Paris' Aosoth have definitely been refining their palettes for ghastly, death-like black metal for a few years now, culminating in 2011's III: Violence & Variation, to which this latest chapter offers a consistent continuity. In fact, IV: An Arrow in Heart straddles the two genres so closely that I'd have some difficulty in committing it to the one or the other. You've got the raving, growled vocals, the dense and fluid dissonance of the churning chord sequences, but the general speed and blasting and thundering in pieces like "Temple of Knowledge" or the titular track provoke a blacker appeal. Either way, Aosoth are keen on disturbing their listeners, and succeed in doing so yet again.

Imagine if Blut Aus Nord's recent 777 trilogy were to eschew the electronics and the lighter, breezier tones, and pursue the strangling, suffocating atonal chords into a dank, raw sewer of rat corpses and the byproduct of human waste. Then imagine some cult were to take up space in this wretched underbelly and splay the remains of many gruesome sacrifices over the walls and ceiling of this catacomb. In listening through An Arrow in Heart, you are walking through such a claustrophobic, threatening place, wading through viscous decay while trembling in horror. It's not that the walls of chords created by the guitars are necessarily all that evil, but rather the density and purity of the streaming notation, which varies from chilling to warm, robust to fragmented. Almost a blackened spin on the old, repulsive Swedish death metal guitar tone which is still all the rave amongst younger generational acts. Thrust into this some rigid, turbulent drumming, dark bass tones and you've got a sure means by which to ruin a sunshine filled afternoon. Gutter-black. Plague metal.

Aosoth occasionally experiments beyond this, with the pair of "Broken Dialogue" pieces which consist of striving, abysmal ambiance or cleaner guitar strings, but for the most part you're getting a lot of the meaty depth of the blasted drums and ceaseless tirade of chords. There are some stretches, in particular during the longer pieces like "Ritual Marks of Penitence", where the progressions do become dull, and the sheer cavernous swell of the music is not enough to compensate for some commonplace riff writing. The periods of haunted atmosphere, like the break in "Temple of Knowledge" or the interludes, become more welcome by association, but I do wish the guitars had been a little crazier throughout. The vocals also get a little dry in places, not that I don't enjoy the intonation, but it's not always so varied or interesting. Compared to the 2011 album, I didn't come away from An Arrow in Heart quite so torn apart, but if you're interested in more of that saturated, subterranean discomfort, I doubt you'll be disappointed. Also props for Benjamin Vierling's cover artwork, one of the most beautiful I've seen this year.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Impious Baptism - Wrath of the Apex Predator (2013)

Any man who can count Nocturnal Graves, Sithlord, Zemial, Trench Hell, Cerekloth, Toxic Holocaust, Destroyer 666 and Hobbs' fuckin Angel of Death on his resumé is far cooler than I'll ever be. Australia's Jarro Raphael just happens to BE that man, and among his more recent excursions into the extreme is Impious Baptism, a solo project through which he's released a handful of EPs last year. I was unwillingly ignorant of that material, for there's only so much I can keep up on, but Wrath of the Apex Predator has me regretting the omission, because even if it brings next to nothing new to the table, it's one of the more immersive and entertaining black/death metal hybrids I've come across lately. If there's a better match for the Hell's Headbanger brand than this, I can't think of it off the top of my head...the top of my head, which, coincidentally, was just shorn off my skull by this record as part of an occult lobotomy.

The backbone of the music is very mechanistic, standard blast beat drumming, which would be considered a flaw if the structures it supported weren't so amusing. The rhythm guitars are roiling, dark and not entirely innovative in terms of riff generation, but the fact that they so ably conjure comparisons to old Bathory (The Return... and Under the Sign of the Black Mark specifically) and cult death metal of the early 90s works in their favor. You'll definitely hear some hints of the classic 'war metal sound' redolent of Blasphemy, Bestial Warlust, Angelcorpse, Conqueror and Blasphemy, but the songs are rarely too chaotic, instead dwelling on simplified, evil riff patterns and J's ominous, echoing guttural vocal that sounds like a necrotic hell dwelling surgeon growling out instructions to a classful of imps as they dissect various seraphim. Like a David Vincent in 1989 if he had been bitten by zombies. Leads are bloody, ugly and minimalistic when they scream out against the denser rhythm guitars, and J gifts us with a bit of variation in each track. Blasts segue into archaic death metal grooves, and every now and then you'll get some sick ass thrash metal break like the bridge of "Temple of Necromancy" which ramps up the adrenalin level.

Just about every cell of my being screams to me that I should find Wrath of the Apex Predator somewhat less appealing than I do, because there are quite a number of generic, commonplace chord progressions that don't exactly surprise or titillate my senses. But for some reason, the belligerence and variation through the record manage to maintain my attention repeatedly. It's just a great balance, from a songwriter who is quite obviously paying tribute to a number of those influences that have likewise informed his other projects; and it maintains this sense of pacing and evil despite the more obvious imagery evoked through the lyrics, song titles, composition, and even the muddy depth of the production. The bass lines could be more interesting, and the riffs more individually memorable, but it's a wholesome, hellish package all the same. Bullet belts, spikes, inverted crosses, denim, skull goblets, leather, sluts, Satan...none of this is news, but thanks to Jarro Raphael's unfiltered imagination, anchored in the extremity of decades gone, it still makes my headlines with a gigantic 'HELL YES', emphasis on the former.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Cerekloth - In the Midst of Life We Are in Death (2013)

Though Denmark has never had its shortage of death metal acts through the decades, there's never been a 'unified' sound as you might find from other prevalent scenes like Sweden, Florida, Finland or California during their respective primes. For example, Panzerchrist doesn't sound like Undergang doesn't sound like Exmortem doesn't sound like Invocator. To this we now add Cerekloth, a group comprised of scene veterans across numerous genres, playing a distinct and refreshing brand of old school death metal with a twist. They've been kicking around for a few years now, and I recall hearing their 2011 EP Halo of Syringes (the title track of which is present here), but not until this full-length debut could I count myself among the impressed...

At its core, In the Midst of Life We Are in Death is rooted in late 80s/early 90s US death metal cults like Autopsy, Cianide, or even the first Death and Obituary albums. Slow, cautiously syncopated drums and tremolo picked guitars are contrasted against brooding chord progressions which often cross over fully into doom/death territory. The ominous growls of Jens B. Pedersen (also of Victimizer and numerous other projects) have a hint of a Reifert or Schuldiner to them, but he varies up the deeper, echoed guttural tones with some snarls and mid-ranged, throat tearing intonations that provide a decent degree of variation, where so many other retro death front men simply gurgle away at the same, monotonous register. But what truly sets Cerekloth apart from a lot of the other would-be nostalgia inducers is the subliminal and welcome use of melody. From jangling, wistful guitars ("Praeludium") that evoke Neurosis or recent Ulcerate against a Western sunset, to cerebral spikes of tremolo escalation ("Within the Hollow Crown"), even a few cleaner picked lines against the crushing chords deep in "The Reaper Instant is Our Eternity" which reminded me of the 28 Days Later soundtrack...

In other words, there is always something drawing the ear away from any potential ennui at the largely slug like pace of the songwriting. Cerekloth takes its time with the listener, and a few of the songs hit the seven minute, but without become grossly over-extended or exerted. A few blasted bursts (in "When Outcasts Become Kings", for example) also help to break up the steady, roiling feel of the record, but in general these guys are creating a very steady sort of dementia that plays upon the horrors of the listener's mind. To this they add their melancholic melodic lines, decently crafted leads, and a polished level of production which helps each instrument ring clear of the rest. The result is a debut which is both instantly catchy in spots and hypnotic, wasting none of its 38 minutes on woeful filler. Not all the rhythm guitar riffs or vocal lines feel refined and compelling, but the flexible fills and surprises lurking in the compositions offer some level of compensation. Always, though, the album feels like carefully plotted depression, with all the certainty of a cemetery glaring at the terminally ill, stretching its gates with a welcome embrace. Cool album. Chilling, even.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Revel in Flesh - Manifested Darkness (2013)

Last year's Revel in Flesh debut Deathevokation couldn't be counted among my favorites of the incessant Swedish-style death metal revival of the 21st century. Textbook on all fronts, it concerned itself more with its production values and authentic derivation than stronger songwriting that could distinguish it among the dozens of comparable albums coming out. Just a short year later, they've fired up their sophomore LP Manifested Darkness, which is likewise another throwback to the early 90s, but it does possess a tendency to branch out beyond the expected triangle of Entombed, Dismember and Grave. Here, the Germans seem to be struggling on the precipice of self-identity; casting a wider net to reel in manifold old school influences and see what sticks.

A few of the titles confused me here: "Revel in Flesh", the band's namesake, is not a cover of the Entombed cut they were named for. Likewise with "Warmaster", which is not a rendition of Bolt Thrower. One might think that a band so obviously inspired by these bands wouldn't directly ape their song titles, but originality is apparently quite distant from this group's modus operandi. That said, while the Germans draw upon both of these in terms of compositional structure, they don't sound precisely like a xeroxed copy. For instance, the deeper guttural vocals are a mix of Karl Willetts and classic Chris Barnes grunting, and there are voracious Carcass snarls used to complement them; and speaking of Barnes, the chorus to "The Maggot Colony" definitely recalls a particular Cannibal Corpse tune from over two decades ago. The rhythm guitars carry a groove redolent of Dismember, Entombed and Bolt Thrower, with a deep, fat bottomed Swedish tone, but the chord progressions don't often feel like ripoffs of anyone in particular; simply average and lacking the inspiration that their forebears so clearly felt when they were issuing discs like Clandestine or Indecent & Obscene.

On an atmospheric level, Manifested Darkness is actually quite successful, and this comes largely through the contrast of the churning low end guitar patterns and the economy of melody which hovers alluringly below the monolithic crush. Leads are minimalistic zips and zags that often erupt over a groove, but I did not feel as if anything were missing by leaving out the impulse to shred ceaselessly. The pianos are implemented successfully ("Rotting in the Void"), and the guttural vocal has a great sustain to it, like an ominous awning which hangs over the festivities. Overall, the sophomore feels dark and fulsome, certainly matching up the Juanjo Castellano cover artwork (he also did their debut). The drums are slightly suppressed by that huge rhythm guitar tone, but they're audible enough to maintain the momentum and keep the largely concise body of songs. Bass guitar is really not much of a factor, being crushed up against the underside of the riffs and never setting itself apart from the rest of the band.

At its best, Manifested Darkness evokes a few engaging, muscular slogs among its more substantial, lengthy pieces ("Rotting in the Void", "Operation Citadel"), and there are a half dozen sublime, hypnotic melodies beyond that which will catch the ear when they arrive. The tempos are kept largely slow to mid paced, and thus the listener is steadily bludgeoned along the 43 minutes of consistent content. The atmosphere worked for me, and occasionally I found my neck trembling against the voluminous force of the production, but little outright headbanging ensued. Ultimately, while I think this is a marginal improvement over Deathevokation, it still doesn't have the songwriting chops to really make a difference. It's an album content to forever dwell in the mighty shadows of those that have come before it, and suited best to those who love their old school death metal steeped in a saucier, contemporary production. I've heard this stuff before, and while Revel in Flesh don't make a mockery of their influences by any means, they'd do well to loosen their grasp on those festering coattails and fly free.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Decrepit Birth - Diminishing Between Worlds (2008)

Sometime between the years of 2003 and 2008, as Decrepit Birth was plotting its sophomore assault for Unique Leader, Bill Robinson and crew realized that they were actually musicians, and not just fancy troglodytes who knew how to club their prey down at insane speeds. As a result, Diminishing Between Worlds was a dramatic improvement over ...And Time Begins, to the extent that one could argue the first track alone "The Living Doorway", possessed more musical value than the entire debut. A lot of this has come through the evolution of Matt Sotelo as a guitarist and all around musician: the man fucking OWNS this effort, employing more melodic, technical and varied guitar work in addition to bass lines that can be distinguished from the album's roiling, brutal undertow. And all of this was accomplished without sacrificing extremity! If anything, Diminishing Between Worlds is just as brutal as the debut, only in more than one way. It's as if prehistoric fireworks suddenly alighted the sky over a stolid, rocky ridge, and then molten inspiration began to flow free and disintegrate anything in its path.

Decrepit Birth was not alone in this transition, as a good number of the other Californian bands (Odious Mortem, The Faceless, Arkaik, Inherited Disease) also were making strides forward in musicianship and quality; but clearly they made a broader metamorphosis between albums, than, say, Severed Savior made between Brutality is Law and Servile Insurrection. While the first album drew almost entirely upon its Suffocation and Deeds of Flesh influences, Diminishing Between Worlds tries its hands at weaving threads of Death, Cynic and Atheist through its punishing foundations. While Robison's growl is the one constant binding it all together, the guitars are fucking frenetic to the point where Sotelo is often engaged in overmuch frivolous leads. He's certainly upped the ante with this 'big reveal' of ability, but more important to me than the indulgent, screaming lead sequences were the clinical melodies being invested into the rhythmic matrix. Radar! Radar! Other strings have been discovered on the guitar. Prepare antiaircraft measures on the double! Granted, there is a certain degree of wankery involved: almost like he succumbed to a Lawnmower Man level influx of ideas and couldn't contain all the newfound brilliance...not all the leads and melodies are very catchy...but even so, there is so much more of note(s) happening, a refined fusion/jazz undercurrent

Decrepit Birth had become compelling, folks, or at least, compelling to those who've an interested in this sort of 'all around package' of technicality and chops. Yes, that means if you fucking loathe death metal beyond Mortal Throne of Nazarene, Severed Survival and Slowly We Rot, then this is clearly not your cup of tea. And it wasn't just in the guitars. Matt's bass lines are smooth and complex, joined to the guitar melodies without merely 'following' them. Atmospheric synthesizers, often like distant choirs, are used sparsely as a background enhancement to the music's otherworldly nature, and clean guitars are introduced here in the instrumental "The Enigmatic Form". They had a new drummer for this, KC Howard, and he did a great job of following in Yeung's footsteps. Perhaps a fraction less agile, but his hard hitting really helps cover some of the aggression lost by the switch towards higher pitched notation, and he's just about as mechanical and monstrous as you'd find from this particular scene. Bill Robinson had also improved. His natural timbre wasn't all that different, but he sustains some great gutturals that decay off into the atmosphere, and the timing and percussion of individual verse lines seems more inviting to the imagination.

Most importantly, Diminishing Between Worlds is just fucking loaded with great riffs. The song quality is quite consistent throughout, and while they'll occasionally throw out a bland pattern or two, the majority of the melodic riffs continuously draw the ear. The song lengths are stretched to help contain this wealth of new ideas, but the album still clocks in at a tame 45 minutes, about 50% more than the barren debut. "Reflection of Emotions", "Dimensions Intertwine" and "Through Alchemy Bound Eternal" all beg the question: what might Suffocation have sounded like if Chuck Schuldiner joined their lineup in the late 90s and was given some serious creative input? The external and internal explorations of this sophomore seek to answer that question, emblazoned in cutting edge musicianship, and philosophical (if a bit bland and bordering on mumbo jumbo) lyrics. Not to say that this is perfect: it's not a personal favorite tech/progressive death metal effort, but clearly a switch turned on, the emergence of a bright voice in the genre. One that would grow slightly in intensity for the next album, Polarity, which was less of an overall evolutionary step, but ramped up the riffing quality even further.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (condemned to the everlasting)

Decrepit Birth - ...And Time Begins (2003)

Like a number of their other Californian peers, my investment in the music of Decrepit Birth has directly correlated to their inclination with their movements towards further musicality. In retrospect, they've grown into quite a fascinating, progressive death metal powerhouse with a solid grasp of melody and contrast, but turn back the clock about a decade, and you've got a pretty average brutal death metal act that struggled to distinguish itself from numerous others. I remember a bit of buzz over ...And Time Begins, but I feel like people are often too forgiving or have pretty low standards when it comes to this niche. For me, it's not simply about sick drumming and gorgeous, gruesome, cover art (both of which this debut clearly possesses). One of my criteria for brutal/technical death is the following: if I can listen to a single track at random from your album, and receive just about everything I need to know, all of its potential emotional impact; and then subsequently confirm this with numerous runs through the entirety of the play length, then there is something seriously lacking...

A criteria from which, unfortunately, the Decrepit Birth debut failed to redeem itself. The inaugural battering of the Californians was essentially a Suffocation clone with a few Cannibal Corpse-inspired riff structures. Also with a strong hint of their fellow statesmen and label mates Deeds of Flesh, not only during the faster, percussive spurts of muted guitars, but also the very design of their logo. ...And Time Begins is brutal to a fault, and it's performed with no dearth of competence or dexterity, but the fact is I can select about 2-3 minutes of material here and have heard all I really care to know. The music falls short of evoking any sort of true menace or evil atmosphere, it's merely jocked up on steroids and attempts to steamroll its listenership into stunned submission, only it doesn't have the riffing strength to do so. It entirely wastes its meticulous and clinical nature on boring rhythm guitar progressions that lack depth and variation. On a strictly rhythmic level, there were some flighty and bombastic passages scattered throughout the 30 minutes which, under a better choice of notation, might have shined, but they're thrown away on predictable and uninteresting streams of palm mutes that don't show a lot of effort beyond their sheer acrobatics.

They try to vary it up occasionally, like the roiling, dissonant grooves that open "Of Genocide" which feel like a mix of Consuming Impulse Pestilence and Bloodthirst era Cannibal Corpse, but those don't seem to pay off either. The vocals are a genre standard, blunt guttural with a little growled out sustain, once in a while flirting with a toilet bowl tone; perfectly suitable for the style, and never really the forte of Decrepit Birth even on their ensuing, compelling efforts, but yet another element that fails to evoke any sort of menace. I mean, let's lay it on the line: when I see a horrific, enthralling cyclone of lost souls or demons against an alien, harrowing landscape of cyclopean, Lovecraftian proportions, I want the music it represents to scare the living shit out of me. I want to be afraid. I'm PAYING to be afraid. But the constant, spurious concussions being wrought with the guitars, vocals and drums feel like little more than an exercise. Like the soundtrack to a crowd of neanderthals grunting and wagering the bones of their latest kills over a chicken fight. Or death eagles, or whatever the shit they used back in those times when they crawled out of their caves for a social.

Me Oog! Me crush you! Imagine that if it were repeated about a million times, accelerated and decelerated and then layered across numerous tracks and tempos, and you've got a fair approximation of the range of these concise tunes. That'd actually be fine if there was a riff or two worth a damn in each. Not gonna happen here! Tim Yeung turns in his usual, mercenary brand of annihilation, but he's almost overworking himself, because he's not used to support anything worthwhile. The production of the guitars and drums is decent, a slightly more iron clad approximation of the Deeds of Flesh records of this time, but I felt like the bass playing was largely lost in the shuffle. The chugging simply crushes it to a single flat dimension. Lyrics, which eschew the stereotypical gore for more cosmic and nihilistic themes, are honestly the best part of ...And Time Begins (aside from Dan Seagrave's artwork), but they too are suffocated by the bludgeoning, bland songwriting. As I was revisiting this, I kept thinking to myself: put something here! A lead! A sample! A keyboard! A melody! A REAL RIFF. Decrepit Birth would not oblige me here, and though it's hard to be peeved in retrospect, since they too were aware of such limitations and evolved significantly, I'll oblige in return by putting any thoughts of this debut to rest.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10] (a prison so perfectly concealed)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Dormant Ordeal - It Rains, It Pours (2013)

Though it's not the most compelling entrant into the death metal field I've heard of late, Dormant Ordeal's full-length debut has a nasty habit of keeping the listener in line when he or she starts to drop off. As if the music itself were to wrench the listener by the collar and exclaim 'Mother fucker, you WILL pay attention to me!. This is achieved through two things: one, the sheer magnitude of the band's technical abilities, not only in how many riffs they cram together into individual tracks, but also their spry tendency to flip into some mesmeric guitar progression amidst a slew of more average fare that serves as little more than an aggressive confirmation of the band's seasoned speed and brutality. In the end, we're not looking at an incredibly distinctive schoolyard bully here, but it's still the sort you would hand your lunch money if prompted, lest your bones and organs be mashed up into a pulp...

To be truthful, gauging by the song titles and the interesting artwork choice, I was expecting a more surreal and atmospheric sound out of It Rains, It Pours. There are a few gorgeous, simmering ambient pieces that bookend or bisect the experience, in particular the beautiful outro "Depopulation of Earth", but for the most part it's a straight pummeling exercise in dexterity and concussion. Like a lot of their Polish forebears and peers, there is a pretty straight correlation to the Floridian death metal works of a Morbid Angel, Deicide or Malevolent Creation. The vocals, probably the least interesting part for me, were redolent of the Glen Benton tendency towards dual grunting and snarling, assembled together to create a petulant dichotomy. The constant ease with which the drummer manhandles the double bass drums. The tremolo picked patterns are often imbued with a sense of post-modern dissonance, but just as likely to wreak old school havoc. When it works, like the zippy guitar fills coursing through "The Sinless" or the infectious death/thrash muted picking deep in the bridge of "Unimagined, Unwritten, Unseen", it's truly impressive, and there is never any sense that anything from the beats to the leads is less than meticulously refined.

The lyrics, too, are fairly interesting and relevant. From the personal, to the social and political, this is not simply some gore band. Also fairly characteristic of a lot of the Polish scene, who tend to deal with much of their subject matter in a serious tone (even the occult stuff like modern Behemoth). Dormant Ordeal are all around a pretty tight package. The songwriting is generally concise, but they're not afraid to extend out the tracks into which they've assembled more ideas. The riffs are about 50/50 hit or miss, but when they fall into the former category, they're strong enough to rival anywhere in their scene. There is plenty of variation over the 12 tracks that they don't settle themselves too deeply into one padded seat. I think the only downsides were that the 'highs' of It Rains, It Pours were so much better than its lows, like you're getting this brief glimpse of genius and then having it snapped away; and also the vocals, while competent, could use a bit more interesting construction. Maybe drop out the dual harsh vocals and focus in on one more sinister and demented timbre. But that aside, Dormant Ordeal is definitely one to check out if you're into bands like Coldworker, Centaurus-A, or their countrymen Decapitated (first few albums).

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (and don't you dare to sing this)

Ragehammer - War Hawks DEMO (2012)

I hate to admit it, but I feel like the past few years are starting to see an over saturation of the blackened/thrash niche. It's getting to the point at which I almost dread hearing the things, because for every Antichrist level gem (Forbidden World) you're going to get dozens of drawling, derivative enticements to faux-Satanism that are pretty much intellectual and compositional clones of worshiped influences: Venom, Possessed, Slayer, Sodom, Bathory, and so forth. Poland's Ragehammer might be pretty easy to write off as just another in this endless tirade, but I do feel that the band has some promise on their War Hawks demo which seems to spare them from the tired, crass redundancy. In short: while these guys are hardly something to get excited over, they at least endow the five tracks here with some variety and genuine enthusiasm which would be criminal to ignore.

At times, I was almost reminded of a more raw, bulldozing version of the first few Witchery albums, back when the group was blood thirsty, riff hungry and invigorating. The vocalist Heretik Hellstörm is not unlike a Toxine if you took the reins off and let the guy blare through the mix. While at times the feral snarls climb over the top a little too far, this uncompromising and unhinged approach to the blackened vocal aesthetic injects a lot of vibrant energy. I actually preferred his lower register growl in "The Wolfpack" which was almost like a grittier, growling evolution of Snake from the old Voivod records. The riffing isn't too shabby either, whether they are laying out some savage speed metal licks somewhere between Jeff Hanneman, Patrik Jensen and Mantas ("RageHammer Rising"), a more directly driving and punk fused chord progression ("Prophet of Genocide") or a surprising level of melodic tremolo picking ("The Wolfpack"), they aren't ever really duplicating themselves on any two cuts here, though certainly they could push this variation further.

The bass is fluid, pumping and constant, and they also use a lot of machine gun double kick drums to keep the music in line with the more modern extremities of contemporary death and black metal (the latter of which they occasionally tackle head on). Though the other instruments and vocals were always clear and raw through the mix, I did feel that the drums were a little too brazen and brick-like, laid on a little too thick. Not to the point where they become a serious detriment, but their ever present thundering does detract a bit of the nuance that might otherwise be experienced through the bass and guitars. Also, while there are 4-5 sweet licks through the demo, the rest often feel like your garden variety black/thrash that I was complaining about earlier. Ragehammer perform these better than most, but some added experimentation, dissonance, or even a more unusual use of melody through more of the material would have enhanced its lasting impact. But all in all, War Hawks is a decent demo likely to appeal to fans of Cruel Force, Deathhammer, and even Nifelheim, so if you're a dedicated follower of this style, don't miss out.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Omega Experiment - The Omega Experiment (2013)

While outer space is something I've long considered a cold, hostile and unforgiving territory, The Omega Experiment's music begs to differ: what if it were a void of golden warmth, radiating from a billion billion stars? Technically it is...but I'm not about to remove my oxygen suit. Now, lyrically, the Michigan duo's eponymous debut deals largely in more personal subjects like addiction, but the structure and production of the music definitely sets one soaring through the heavens as if riding a solar ray-powered vessel. This is a pretty positive experience as far as the quasars of melody erupting everywhere, to the point that I wasn't quite sure what to think of it for the first few tracks, until it really started to settle into my spirit and proved to be both varied and consistent, with much of the strongest material coming deeper into the track list.

I should probably get this out of the way: The Omega Experiment sounds quite a lot like the work Devin Townsend was putting out through the latter half of the 90s. Bold, modern sounding, with a lot of pop gleam in both the vocals and studio mix, incredibly harmonic vocal arrangements, but also the propensity to get a fraction darker and nastier. If you had presented this album to me and claimed it was the latest from Hevy Devy featuring guest vocals, then I would have had little cause for suspicion. Only when you dig deeper into the details do you really start to notice differences. For one, while the vocals explore a similar range to that Canadian soundsmith, you'll pick up hints of anything from Geoff Tate's higher pitch, to a little bit of Sting (The Police), hell I even thought some of the mid ranged lines reminded me of emo bands like Sunny Day Real Estate or Sense Field. There's quite a lot happening, but the harmonies are smooth and impeccable, even when the band are layering in narrative samples, even countering two off against one another.

The Omega Experiment involves a lot of synthesizer sounds, just as prominent in fact as the burgeoning rhythm guitars circa Towsend/SYL or Fear Factory. From proggish paeans to orchestral strings and choirs, they are nearly constant through the near hour of material; but thankfully you'll get quite a lot of variation that draws upon anything from a woodwind section (clarinet tones) to a sizzling techno subtext that pops up in a few spots. In fact, I'd say some of my favorite moments through the disc were those that flirted with a sheer sense of ambiance, like the end of "Terminus", or the entirety of "Tranquility" where it's paired up nicely to some breezy vocal melodies. These provide a nice, temporary escape from the denser composition that dominates much of the play time. Lead guitars are frequent and fluid, heavily inspired by a little of the 80s shred (Steve Vai) or prog rock flair (Allan Holdsworth), and the rhythms, though never truly dissonant, hit hard enough that they almost transcend hard prog metal straight to djent, albeit with less mathematical hustle.

The programmed drums are so well tuned and ordered that you'll often forget about them, and the bass playing explores some deep grooves and contours alongside the guitar, but really this an album on which I paid most attention to the shining vocals, which are often themselves drowned in effects that scatter them through the interplanetary atmosphere. To be honest, not a lot of these are catchy enough that I kept feeling an itch to replay them, but at the very least they exhibit some talent and effort. What I could make out of the lyrics also felt a little too basic and uninteresting. I rather enjoyed when the band gave glimpses of its darker side, and wouldn't be averse to them pursuing more dissonance and even bleakness on future recordings; but for what it is, The Omega Experiment is a pleasurable enough time killer which may very well appeal to fans of Devin's Ocean Machine, Infinity, etc; or perhaps as a 'happier' mirror universe to Martriden's Encounter the Monolith, sans the growling. Not perfect, and not always so unique, but clearly some love and effort went into the production of this shuttle ride.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]