Monday, April 29, 2013

Eternal Rest - Prophetic (2013)

I first encountered Eternal Rest about 3-4 years ago with their Seize of Anubis EP, a decent offering for such a young band who had a similar fascination for Egyptology to the mighty Nile, which only marginally rubbed off into the music itself. I guess one could consider them a more 'accessible' alternative to the South Carolina brutes, a comparison that holds true through their proper full-length debut Prophetic, which was picked up by a local Massachusetts imprint (Deepsend Records). Not to say that this is highly derivative of, say, Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka, because Eternal Rest in truth draw on a number of influences in the genre (Behemoth and Immolation, for example), but clearly there are some parallels in sound, especially when the blast beats begin and the riffing escalates into its busiest phrases.

There are a few acoustic passages, including one that sets up the record, and even here they integrate some of that ancient Middle Eastern/North African flavor in note selections, but they definitely shine most when they're infiltrating the architecture of aggression here, and function seamlessly against a lot of the low end palm muted grooves. In fact, very often a section here will consist of some glorious, sliding melody phrase being set against a pretty baseline chug fest (like the intro to "Infernal Reign"), but I can't say that the rhythm guitars are very interesting here by themselves, and it wouldn't have hurt to integrate a bit more complexity without losing the importance of the melodies. Far better when both of the guitars are pummeling along with a progression that would do Melechesh proud, only in a purely death metal context. Granted, there are not a lot of such moments through the record that really stand out, but overall the tempos are varied enough, and the leads meticulous and well crafted enough; mummy-powered arpeggios that whip about the desert sands. I never felt myself drifting out of focus, even if it's not the most amazing material.

It also helps that the whole album is only about 32 minutes in length, so the Australians don't really fuck around. Get in, get out, and hope you don't draw some fell pharaoh's dynastic curse upon yourself. The drums here are more than adequate, with a lot of spurious blasting that brought me back once more to memories of Nile (just not quite as crazy). Vocals are a deep, munching guttural offset by salacious rasps which feel like Horus and Anubis sharing a drinking song, but I actually found the latter mildly annoying since the frontman's growls are quite fulfilling, quaking and cracking any obelisks in their path. The bass guitars also does little interesting throughout much of the material. At a few points, it pumps along maniacally, as in the verse of "Remnants", but too often subsists on the rhythm guitar. Beyond that, Eternal Rest doesn't do anything overly atmospheric like drench the tunes in synthesizers, but I enjoyed the subtle little spikes of eerie, atonal backing melody that they would occasionally fire up against the rhythm section in songs like "Preaching the Decimation of Spheres". It adds texture to what is admittedly not always the most ear catching array of riffs.

Does this entirely improve over the Seize of Anubis? Not exactly, but its got enough aspirational fire behind it that fans of death metal which doesn't err too far on the brutal side might dig it. Morbid Angel, earlier Nile, and numerous Polish bands flashed through my mind as I was listening, and I think the Australians have yet to really venture into their own terrain, but Prophetic doesn't cling so closely to its precursors that it feels redundant. Busy and competent, just not ever all that exhilarating. Better rhythm riffs to support some of those breakaway melodies would be appreciated, rather than the monotonous palm mute progressions which often pop up, but Eternal Rest is otherwise satisfying enough that I wouldn't feed it to the crocodiles.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sodom - Epitome of Torture (2013)

I wonder if Tom Angelripper ever gets into uncomfortable conversations during family dinners. Even if he were to eschew his thrash tag, surely if someone asks him about his band's name, and he answered, they'd be either shocked or perplexed. "Isn't that from the Bible?" "What does that word MEAN, Onkle Tom?" What about the first time someone decides to associate the words Sodom and Angel-ripper? Yikes. But it could be worse, he might have chosen Anal Cunt. At any rate, I feel like the man must have been taking some pretty eclectic meals lately, because album #14 from his mainstay takes a potpourri of ideas spanning the last 30 years of his career and then jumbles them together into a surprisingly fluid, if not entirely resonant or impressive concoction of classic and contemporary thrash metal which places a heavier than usual emphasis on arrangement. Perhaps as the band pushes onward into its golden years, the studio wizardry is beginning to supplant some of the raw thrashing energy once asserted, but I can't exactly fault Tom and company for trying to piece together their past into some new puzzle, and there is ample technicality and intensity here to at least run with the younger crowd.

Problem is, I just didn't get a hear a lot of payoff from Epitome of Torture. Dextrous, even furious riffing does little more than evoke comparisons to past records (of this or numerous other bands). There are rock riffs spliced through various points of the album that recount their later 90s fare, and some pure tremolo picking progressions dated back to Tapping the Vein; and at the same time, spiffy speed/thrash patterns one could date to Persecution Mania or Agent Orange. Bernemann's rhythms pursue a punchy tone during the mid-paced, palm-muted muggings, but once opened up into blinding speeds, they summon up Sodom's first forays into the more structural thrash post-Obsessed by Cruelty; like the six-string projectile bursts of "My Final Bullet" or the lightning licks inaugurating "S.O.D.O.M.", the latter of which serves as a throwback to classic cuts like "Nuclear Winter" or "Sodomy & Lust". They also pull out some moderate tempos ("Epitome of Torture", "Katjuschka", etc) which resemble modern Exodus, but then sadly devolve into some brickhouse, predictable groove thrash with amateur, primitive, uninteresting notation. I think, though, that while Epitome of Torture offers much variation on the whole, listeners will be quick to point out its more melodic tendencies, suffused with hints of traditional speed and traces of melodeath similar to Kreator's experiments on Violent Revolution or Phantom Antichrist.

While his bass playing is still formidable enough to support Bernemman without complete disappearing into the fog of war, much attention has been placed on Angelripper's vocals here. While I wouldn't say they feel excessively processed, it seems like they've been cut & pasted, panned and scanned so that each rusted bark, rasp or straight up death growl is meant to deliver some maximum belligerent impact. The man still sounds good, but unfortunately the actual choruses themselves never feel as poignant or memorable as I'd hoped. Sodom choruses have never been incredibly dramatic or complex, often rendered to a mere bludgeoning of the song title, but the riffs were often good enough that they'd stick with you for decades. Despite the fact that his voice is being so fully fleshed out, even the most moody and melodic arrangements (as in "Invocating the Demons") failed to give me the mincing the cover artwork might suggest. That said, when he's rifling off to the fiery, bluesy lead explosions and the level snares and kicks of Markus 'Makka' Freiwald (making his first appearance on a Sodom full-length), it certain seems like the trio spared no effort when putting this material together. And I had to crack a smile at Tom's enunciation of the word 'epitome'.

Ultimately, this has a sleek, meticulously polished mix and a vast array of weaponry that just never adds up to a raving success, which I was honestly hoping for since the band's German peers have been putting out some solid efforts of late (even the latest Accu§er surprised me). Granted, if you're a sucker for just about any modern take on veteran thrash, such as the last few works of Overkill, Exodus, Kreator,  Death Angel, Flotsam & Jetsam, and the like, then it's unlikely you'd find this entirely ineffective or offensive. It's one of those perplexing records which doesn't underachieve on anything except me giving a damn 15 minutes after the fact. Not the runt of their litter (as I don't hold much esteem for Masquerade in Blood), but an album that never really sinked past my outer ear drums even after listening the shit out of it. Offered slightly less of a concussion than In War and Pieces. And I'm not just saying that because it features such a grab-bag of components spanning their canon, or because I have some inbred aversion to them 'branching out'. Nah, just because this selection of songs didn't stir up my blood, or inspire me to bend over anyone of the heavenly host.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Yellowgoat - Joel Grind: The Yellowgoat Sessions (2013)

I should preface this review by stating that I'm not the biggest Toxic Holocaust fan on the block. I've bought a couple of the albums, and I think Joel Grind is unquestionably one of the more passionate, likeable and devoted figures in the thrash revival of the last decade, but the songs are really hit or miss, with a bunch of riffs I've heard before and most of the same rehashed song titles and nuclear/Satanic lyrical themes I've seen time and time again since the 80s, when they were actually somewhat novel in appeal. However, I'll occasionally latch onto a few of his tunes due to their fiery energy, and the fact that they seem more sadistic and sincere than much of the fashion-obsessed hi-top, denim and battle jacket scene I've heard in the last decade. And also, while you could always hear the usual traces of Slayer, Venom and Possessed in his writing, it's a bit harder to pin him to any one in particular. Not so much of a 2.0 or an 'also, bro!', but a pastiche of vicious speed/thrash traits.

I'm not sure that The Yellowgoat Sessions distinguish themselves heavily from the Toxic Holocaust canon. Add a bit more clarity to the guitars. Meat and thrust. Dial back some of the vocal distortion and you've got yourself something similar in its old school sentiment and living tribute to the 80s. But Joel wanted to create something more primitive and barbaric, in which the speed metal elements shine through, and the vocals take on a more sinister, black metal aesthetic. Considering the cult followings that have sprung up around some comparable acts like Midnight or Speedwolf, the timing is right for such a project, but at the risk of its seeming trendiness, Yellowgoat is admittedly a pretty fun way to kill 25 minutes, and revel in the past from which it is heavily drawn. Whether you actually 'were there' or are just pretending to be, this is a dynamic if niche set of songs which spans from uptempo Motörhead barnburners ("Vengeance Spell"), paeans to early Venom ("Hail to Cruelty") or Destruction ("Grave Encounters"), to slower black-based constructions that come across as the bastard children of Darkthrone and Hellhammer ("Foul Spirit Within", etc). Basically, if you're idea of a good time is spending the night in a brothel with Welcome to Hell, Sentence of Death, Iron Fist, Kill 'Em All and Obsessed with Cruelty, then pack some condoms, brothers and sisters.

Or don't...but then don't blame me for whatever results. Grind spins an arcane fuzz onto the rhythm guitar which manifests into that raw, buzzing wasp roadster appeal of an age when the gain was the pain, and a metal band wasn't relying on dense blockades of butcher block distortion to bring the menace. Leads are stripped down to earth, with the same general tone only brighter due to their placement on the higher string frets, but the rhythm riffs burn asphalt through the abyss. Yeah, so the guitar progressions themselves are insanely predictable, especially the more punk-oriented patterns, but the production does a great deal to compensate since it seems so viral and fresh. Bass grooves plunk along and often offset the rhythm guitar with some decent fills that Cronos or Lemmy would be proud of, and the drums have a nice live appeal, an organic calamity that doesn't really race beyond the boundaries of the genres 25+ years ago. Joel's voice is slightly more textured and distorted than what I'm used to from his mainstay Toxic Holocaust, and he does a serviceable job even if the actual intonation becomes monotonous over a number of the verses/choruses.

I like that he grafted a tinge of extra atmosphere to the music like the cleaner, horror-melody guitars in the bowels of "Foul Spirit Within" or the noise intro/outro pieces "Ascension" and "Descension". Helps to give the entire album a creepier package deal than if he was simply laying out the raw retrospective. "The Eternal One" is also an interesting inclusion with its tempered war-drumming, harsher vocals and the bolder epic black/doom structure...eventually with some whispered narrative and a bell-like tone ringing out. While it's internally consistent, The Yellowgoat Sessions definitely paces itself with ample variation. But despite the immersion I felt in listening, I just wasn't left with much of a lasting impact. Too few of the riffs are catchy enough to continually revisit, and the album seems to thrive more on atmosphere than anything else. You could listen to Antichrist's Forbidden World or Deathhammer's Onward to the Pits and get both the comparable antiquated vibes and far more intense riff-writing, so this might not prove enough for Joel to quit his 'day job'. But it's still pretty fun, and retrophiliacs everywhere will undoubtedly enjoy it for its mood.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Gravewürm - Infernal Minions (2013)

Primacy is a double edged sword in black metal. When implemented efficaciously, the reductionist riffing and raw production standards lend themselves directly to a crushing, satisfying or evil atmosphere that has unquestionable birthed a number of the genre's classics. Groups like Hellhammer, Beherit and Darkthrone never thrived on complexity or technical merit, but unfortunately these years there are a lot of bands who seem to lazily follow in the wake of such a sound, thinking that derivative, umpteenth-generational riff recycling and a raspy vocal alone seem to warrant some imply some underground heroism. I won't lie: I have often thought such of Gravewürm, an American band which has been outright 'bad', but certainly fits the classification despite their 20+ years of obscurity. Sometimes when I hear their music, I want to buy the guys a beer; after all, I, too can succumb to admiration of such unbridled, stripped mayhem. At other times, I just want to claw off my own ears due to the utter banality of their inauspicious songwriting...

That said, Infernal Minions, the groups ninth studio full-length since the turn of the century, maintains a few curious characteristics which piqued my interest despite itself, and overall more enjoyable than the last disc of theirs I heard (2010's Blood of the Pentagram). The foremost of these would be the voluminous, simplistic structures of the guitar riffs here, which very often felt more reminiscent of dirty, epic heavy metal than the morbid grooves and tremolo picked patterns one often associates with the style. Other than references to the late 80s/early 90s transformation of Bathory, which were already present on Gravewürm's earlier material, I picked up hints of 80s Cirith Ungol ("Beast of the Abyss"), Manowar, and Brocas Helm style bulky chords set at solid, middle tempo. Not taken to the level of Darkthrone's The Underground Resistance, but more of a direct skin graft onto black metal's aesthetic skeleton. Some of the deep end chugging reeked of Vanity/Nemesis era Celtic Frost, and then there were other moments where you could feel a clear punk/hardcore sensibility to the flow of the chords, which was of course an influence upon the older works that Gravewürm seems to carry the torch for. Occasionally they'll pawn off some simple melodic notes (as in "Mistress of Blood and Fire") along to the belly of the rhythm guitar, and I also detected a major doom vibe in a good portion of the eight tracks, so much so that labels of 'black doom' or 'black/heavy/doom' might befit this record just as well as a straighter black tag.

The guitars are quite loud and meaty here, driving most of the material's momentum, since they and the vocals tend to choke off many of the drum frequencies. Don't get me wrong, you can hear the kicks and snares clearly enough, but it definitely seems like they were trying to drop these chords and palm mutes on the listener like hammers used to brain livestock. The bass is rarely a presence unto itself, but you'll always detect the gross distortion hovering under the rhythm guitars. Eerie keyboards pads are used a few times throughout the album to supplement riff sequences, perhaps too directly, the one exception being "Dominion of Souls", where in union with the drudging chords it creates a creepy, crawling vibe that was probably the single most memorable passage of the whole 35 minutes. Unfortunately, even there, when they've got a relatively chilling thing going, the songwriting is dragged out, repetitive and dull. The payoff happens in the first section of the song and then nothing interesting happens afterwards. Also, I felt as if Funeral Grave's impetuous imp-growls felt like they belonged to someone younger; regardless, they aren't exactly a highlight of Infernal Minions, barking along in rather predictable positions across the mundane riffs.

And that's really the low point to the album: these are all pretty effortless guitar progressions not only fail to provide any surprises, but also fail to leave the evil impression I'd expect out of songs named "I Die for Hell" or "Nocturnal Inquisition", since they rarely evoke much of an unsettling, minor scale structure. Infernal Minions is a fraction warmer and bolder sounding than Blood of the Pentagram, and clearly more of a compelling direction to explore, yet the riffs feel as if they're just the first ideas that came to mind during a jam section, rather than meticulously plotted and inspirational. I didn't hate this album at all, but it'd be dishonest to state that this held up even after the first listen, much less the 3-4 rotation minimum I demand of myself when preparing for a critique. I didn't even care for the Kam Lee cover art, which is a pretty amateurish representation of some evil wizard or dignitary seated on a subterranean throne of skulls and severed baby heads, with cheesy red specters flitting about the cavernous backdrop. Frankly, I though the classic images they used on older albums like Dark Souls of Hell and Under the Banner of War were better, even if they were often lifted from pretty obvious masters of olde. Ultimately , while I want to like Gravewürm, I've yet to forge anything but a fleeting tether to the songs they evoke.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Immolation - Here in After (1996)

Here in After sees Immolation stepping slightly left of the Dawn of Possession debut, and it is perhaps the point at which the Yonkers outfit could really be dubbed a distinct entity in the field. That's not to say that I enjoyed this more than the debut, but structurally it's a more interesting and individualistic piece that abandons more traditional choices for truly atonal, creepy guitars, wedges of dissonance and unexpected melody, and grooving transitions that arrive like waves of black ichor lapping at an abyssal shoreline. Sure, they had been one of the victims of the Roadrunner imprint's decision to drop a bunch of their lesser selling death metal outfits, in favor of nu-metal or whatever shit they decided to bandwagon through the 90s, but they spent the four years between records to pretty good use here, and had they continued with the mildly more conventional style expressed on Dawn of Possession, they might never have left the ripples they have through the underground.

Along with comparable 90s classics like Demilich's Nespithe and Gorguts' Obscura (the latter of which is perhaps slightly influenced by this very material), Here in After seeks to expand the bounds of death metal with an uncanny palette of grooves in tunes like "I Feel Nothing" or "Away from God". There's still a bit of that slinking, creeping sensation culled from a Carcass, Autopsy or Bolt Thrower influence, but Vigna and Wilkinson have really crafted that into something more difficult to trace. The note progressions are somber and vile simultaneously, like lazy Elder Gods slumming around in their pajamas, but they've also retained those weird, popping squeals at the end of chord or single note phrases. The guitars are actually quite loud on this album, with a higher ratio of presence against the drums than on Dawn of Possession, and in particular this helps out Vigna's lead sequences, which are more meticulously crafted distractions here even though the tone is often pretty dry rather than atmospheric. The rhythm guitars batter you through the first few tracks, and never let up with their ominous chugging and a dark sense of humor. A lot of latent, mild melodic passages are woven through the punishment, like the opener "Nailed to Gold", but I will admit that these felt a bit predictable at times, and were one of the reasons I dug the album less than its predecessor. 

Here in After's heavy dependence on crashing, grooving curvature comes with a caveat: that at any second, at the drop of a hat, the band might break out in a frenzy of Craig Smilowski's jazzy, fill-oriented drumming which is just as compelling as the debut. Just because they're exploring this new territory, doesn't mean they can't still lay out the blast beats, precise walls of double bass drums, etc. Dolan's bass playing has improved here, maintaining its clearly audible, bottom feeding catfish tone, but also crafted around a more enterprising series of notes that help to offset some of the rhythm guitars. His voice is somewhat less charismatic than on the earlier recordings; it's deeper, gruffer, and reminds me at times of David Vincent's lower gutturals from Morbid Angel's Domination, another album which arguably belongs to this experimental sect in the 90s. While fulsome and brooding, there were moments here where I felt like I'd like a little more dynamic range from his barking, because it does feel monotonous against all the jerking, tearing and rolling guitar rhythms and the truly expressive percussion. That said, it works here well enough that it's doesn't break the deal.

Have to admit, I didn't care so much for the first two tunes "Nailed to Gold" and "Burn With Jesus", and the album really only warms up for me with the title track and just about everything afterward. It's merely a case of not enjoying the embedded melody 'payoff' in the former, and there were some pretty boring brickwall riff/drum pairings in the latter. Once I got beyond that, though, the album was heavily varied and intense, with particular favorites coming in "I Feel Nothing", "Away from God" and "Under the Supreme". You can really lose yourself in some of these alien landscapes, across which the grooves seem like massive, churning and loping aberrations to which the listener is little more than a speck of dust. Seriously, remember those huge striding beasts from the film The Mist? Well, Immolation plays music here that wouldn't have been out of place as ambient radiation in their home dimension. The album isn't always immensely catchy, but it is unquestionably loaded with ideas that prove the New Yorkers were far more than a one-shot drop in the bucket with the great debut. I can understand how some fans regard it as their masterpiece, but sadly I can't honestly say I enjoyed more than about 75% of the content.

Production is superb, though. This was recorded closer to home in Hoboken, NJ, by a guy I'd never heard of, but once again, it does not sound like it has aged even an hour since the original release. Otherworldly and timeless just like the architecture of the songs themselves. Drums aren't quite so prevalent as the first album, since the guitars are more muscular, but I had no problem hearing everything, and most of the tunes have enough depth that you can listen through numerous times and pick out new details with each revisit. The lyrics here are decent, perhaps a bit more streamlined with the direct, Deicide style of antichristian sentiment than the Faustian burdens of the debut, but nothing to scoff at. The Andreas Marschall cover art here give us an update, or 'sequel' to the first album image, though some might be dismayed that the demons seem to be on the losing end... Immolation, however, is not on the losing end, and neither will you be for checking this out.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (where sorrow is like breathing)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Immolation - Stepping on Angels...Before Dawn (1995)

While it often takes a band many years into its career to assemble their demos and rarities into a fan package, Immolation struck fairly early on with Stepping on Angels...Before Dawn, put out through the Repulse Records out of Spain just before the four-year anticipation of the New Yorkers' sophomore Here in After reached a boil. Almost as if the band wanted to just get it out of the way, reveal their embarrassing past, and move forward from that point on. Only the material collected here is not only comprehensive, but it's not at all embarrassing. What you've got is a chronological collection of demo cuts which follow Immolation's gradual transformation from the death/thrash roots of the 80s to the formidable act we today recognize, all in one place, with no bullshit and no sense that they've left any stone unturned. I can't promise you'll be able to track down a copy without resorting to illicit means, but if you're interested in hearing where the New Yorkers' came from, Stepping on Angels... bares all.

The earliest material hearkens from when the group was known as Rigor Mortis, before Ross Dolan had entered the picture. Guitarists Robert Vigna and Tom Wilkinson were present, and they wrote a brute but concise form of mid-paced thrash, with death barks and bass contributed by Andrew Sakowicz. The best comparisons I could make would be to Hallows Eve, Infernal Majesty, Hellhammer, Possessed, early Hexenhaus, with the slower Slayer chugging sequences. Not too exciting, and the spikes of lead guitar feel frivolous and indulgent, but there's certainly a lot of urban anger in there and the recording was adequately punchy and convincing. Four tracks are present from this period, covering two 1987 demos, and I'd say they were all fairly level in quality, though nowhere near as impressive as what would come later. All in all, these tunes are nothing to be ashamed of...think of a more primitive, simplistic forebear to something like fellow New Yorkers Demolition Hammer and you're in the right ballpark. I can't honestly say that they would have made for a standout thrash act if they had headed further in that direction, so the later changes make a whole lot of sense.

...and then we're into Immolation proper, with a bunch of material from their s/t demos in the 88-89 years, about the time death metal was beginning to really explode through bands like Death, Pestilence, Morbid Angel, Carcass and Obituary, and you can hear a similar transition here. The riffs were faster ("as on the eponymous "Immolation"), more brutal and technical than the Rigor Mortis fare, with some vicious tremolo picking ("Dawn of Possession"), and the solo swaps both writhing and evil. With Ross Dolan now in the band, you got these hoarse, callous growls that were like a mix of Jeff Becera, Chuck Schuldiner and David Vincent; and the drumming more intense with some cold, moderately paced blast beats. The one downside to this is that just about all these tracks were re-recorded for Dawn of Possession in 1991, with a far more wholesome and dynamic mix thanks to Harris Johns and the band's improved musical proficiency. You get a few different versions of "Despondent Souls", for example, but I prefer the album take. While aggressive, tight and worthy of landing the group their Roadrunner deal, these do feel a bit dry in the greater context.

The final chunk of the mix is comprised of five live cuts culled from two performances; the first in New York (1988) and the second in Pennsylvania (1989). They sound like what you'd expect: raw and punishing with a barely tolerable mix that was probably a lot better if you were in attendance. That said, you can make out most of the guitar chords, the drums sound pretty poppy and the death grunts are obvious, though somewhat drowning out the musicality due to the primitive recording. The latter two, from the Pennsylvania gig sound somewhat more stereo and bassy, but likewise murkier. You can hear the banter between selections, with the heavy New Yorker accents, and I dig that they chose such early lives to keep the whole collection in context, a clear statement that this was all the past and they're proud to share it. Also, hidden in the last live original, there are two complete cover songs! "Charred Remains" by Autopsy and "Morbid Visions" by Sepultura, the latter of which they manhandle with more efficiency than the Brazilians probably could.

I realize that I'm usually pretty hard on these things; Stepping on Angels...Before Dawn is a bit difficult to criticize, because it's precisely the sort of collection I appreciate: humble, complete, and well structured and ordered so the fan can follow the band's journey. But honestly, other than a brief curiosity, there's not much impetus to choose this over any of their full length studio offerings, and I feel like the unreleased demo tunes were average at best. Still, even if this isn't something I'd often care to visit (if I weren't writing a review), I dig that I got to know the band. Where they came from, and perhaps where they were going. Definitely feels as if this was something the band itself had a hand in (alongside Dave Rotten/Repulse), rather than some mindless wallet grab by a larger label. You can't really ask for more than that out of such a compilation, but musically it doesn't stand alone so much that non-fans should really care.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Immolation - Dawn of Possession (1991)

Dawn of Possession arrived the summer before I was about to finish up high school, and like anything with a death metal logo or Roadrunner stamp (of that period), I snatched it up without having even heard of the New Yorkers. Death metal was already a 'thing' among friends and classmates, with names like Carcass, Death, Deicide, Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel having stirred up some attention, and numerous touring packages already hitting the Boston area (and a local Salisbury Beach club which hosted loads of now legendary bands on early N. American tours); but, that said, the metal 'culture' in my region was still heavily embedded in thrash, hair metal, hardcore or the British trinity of Priest, Sabbath and Maiden. Only a handful of folks were seriously picking around in the underground, and I also encountered a bit of confusion with that other Eastern US abomination, Incantation. Understandable, since both started with the same letter, ended with the same suffix, and pursued extremity with a similar depth and conviction.

To some degree, this album got 'second tiered' in my collection due to the fact that I was still in the throes of appreciation for extremely catchy, evil old death metal with the sorts of catchy riff progressions I equated to the speed or thrash acts I was so enamored with. Even today, I wouldn't count Dawn of Possession among my desert island choices for this sub-genre, as the songwriting is simply not so strong or memorable as an effort like Consuming Impulse, Altars of Madness, Realm of Chaos, Leprosy or Cause of Death. But I certainly enjoyed the debut, kept it in regular rotation for a few years, and have never regretted subsequent visitations, even during my dreaded 'Why must all these bands end in -tion and -opsy?' disenchantment phase somewhere in the middle of the 90s. Because, let's be honest: even if Immolation might not have provided me with any personal 'albums of the year' since its inception, there is just so much to appreciate about the band, and they've remained uncannily consistent, never ceding to emergent trends or selling themselves short, and braving even the most dwindled audiences during death metal's stagnation. I must have seen this band live a half dozen times through the years, never with a sizable crowd, and yet they've never given anything less than 100%. The very definition of the 'class act' in death metal (brutal or otherwise), and it's no wonder they've accrued such a high level of respect, online and offline, from the community.

Of course, even if Ross Dolan and Robert Vigna had been a bunch of scumbags, their music would still speak for itself. Dawn of Possession is one of those frustratingly ageless works that sounds no less massive, morbid and punishing today as when an awkward, pimply, unlayable-even-by-a-blind-hooker 16-year old New Englander first cracked its case over two decades ago. From the iconic Andreas Marschall covert artwork, to the choice in engineers, this is a surprisingly 'European' album. I say that because, rather than go with the flow and pursue the same, predictable Morrisound muffled and processed guitar tone that many of Immolation's Roadrunner labelmates had sought, they recorded this at Musiclab in Berlin, with none other than Harris fucking Johns on the boards. Yes, the esteemed producer and mixer of brilliant thrash and speed metal albums like Deathrow's Deception Ignored, Coroner's R.I.P., Pestilence's Consuming Impulse, Helloween's Walls of Jericho. Tankard, Sodom, Kreator, and many other efforts that shaped my childhood and being. Not exactly a stranger to death meal, but with Immolation he was adapting to a thicker, robust brand of punishment. A different style of writing. Even keeping in mind Consuming Impulse, you wouldn't hear this at first and make that connection. Which is why the guy was so damned good: his flexibility, and understanding of those aesthetics that made each of these creatures unique...

On a strictly superficial level, Dawn of Possession struck some semblance to other death metal works to have come before it. The tremolo riffing progressions in pieces like "Into Everlasting Fire" had that same menacing, morbid flavor I took away from Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy. The corpulent, unnerving grooves and breakdowns definitely fell somewhere between the Autopsy style and the British bludgeoning of Carcass (Symphonies of Sickness) and Bolt Thrower (Realm of Chaos). Ross Dolan's vocals were like a deeper, more guttural Chuck Schuldiner tempered with David Vincent, albeit with a pretty convincing sustain placed on many of the lyrical phrases. But the ability to fuse together lurching, loping grooves and faster picked passages wasn't playing out too closely to any other band before it. The songwriting is busy without becoming unnecessarily impossible or complex. The rhythm guitars pinch off a number of percussive squeals through the monstrous miasma, but blend them seamlessly into the overall riffing structure, rather than transforming them into an annoying 'feature' as many later, younger brutal death acts would (and still do). The intro to "No Forgiveness (Without Bloodshed)" is a great example. Immolation's choices in notation seemed to birth a strange, surreal darkness; like they were, at long last, translating some indecipherable, ancient infernal text into the language of urbanite death metal.

Yog-sothoth comes to Yonkers! And there was much suffering (and cool photo ops). It doesn't hurt that Dawn of Possession sounds so freakin' amazing. The rhythm guitar churns like a rich compost soil, broad and bright where necessary but pummeling enough to feel it in the colon. Glazed, eerie leads erupt off the contours of the background riffing like abysmal bats taking flight, and employ all manner of tapping and wailing techniques to sound as otherworldly as possible. Dolan's bass lines shadow the guitar, and though they're rarely as interesting, the fact that he's pulling double duty precludes any real disappointment. You can at least hear them swerving along like a 1st edition gelatinous cube sweeping clean a dungeon corridor. His vocals are given some great reverb at points to just hover off over the ballistic undercurrent, and though the guy just doesn't have a super distinct style like John Tardy or Martin van Drunen, his performance here is a perfectly serviceable and disturbing peer for David Vincent and Craig Pillard. By and large, though, I'd have to say that Craig Smilowski's drumming is the most standout component of this record. I simply can't believe that they could be mixed so loudly without losing the rest of the instrumentation!

You can hear every goddamn tom roll, kick, slap, snare and splash throughout, so prevalently that you feel as if you're actually sitting in Craig's chair and battering the kit yourself, effortlessly morphing between blasts and grooves, so second nature that it becomes third...nature. I'm not one of those blokes who pays such close attention to the drumming that every other instrument becomes moot, but these come across as a treat.  Organic, expressive, phenomenal, and punishing enough to support the vaulted ceilings of the philosophical underworld in which Immolation dwells. Speaking of which, the sinister lyrics here, which read like a pathological examination of damnation against a backdrop of Milton and Dante, feel legitimately harrowing, haunting and sincere. Where a band like Deicide, who delighted in God-dissin' blasphemy so directly and theatrically that they created a shockwave through semi-popular culture, always came off 'hammy' to me. Clowns wielding inverted crosses. I have never gotten that impression from Immolation, and this lack of a disconnect really helps thunder home the barbs of darkness with due verisimilitude:

Twist of scripture, Christ possessed
Come forth with wrath, evil obsessed
Hatred and war, sadistic spell
Swallows the earth, thanks be to Hell!

For all its strengths, though, Dawn of Possession is not a perfect album. A near mandatory purchase for any self-respecting man, woman or child who dares wear the mantle of 'death metal fan'? Indeed. But there are a fair share of moments on the album in which I felt more of a swinging through the motions rather than any sense of soul sucking pathos. Where the brutality becomes quite soulless in spite of itself. It's evil as shit, but never quite had me jumping at shadows like Slowly We Rot, Consuming Impulse, Onward to Golgotha or Left Hand Path. A few riffs will miss by a wider margin than intended, and a transition or two will feel rushed or slapped together. In general, even though I consider this one of their best albums, a lot of later Immolation experiments with riffing structure and dissonance to greater effect, and that's really the band most have come to know and admire. Does it belong among the annals of cult classics? Unquestionably, but Immolation is not some flash in the pan or short-term fascination. It would be a disservice to experience just one of their recordings, because almost all of them are interesting even where they take only baby steps in progression. And that baby has a pitchfork, which it plans to shove directly up your...

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (come forth with wrath)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Amorphis - Circle (2013)

'Were we listening to the same album?' I hate to service such a cliche, but after seeing some of the overwhelmingly positive reactions to the latest Amorphis effort, I found myself asking that same question at least a half dozen times. My own initial response to Circle was that it was a middling but tolerable affair which did little to build upon any of their considerable body of work, but nestled safely between the progressive rock and folk metal aesthetics the Finns have been flirting with since the incredible Elegy back in the mid 90s (still a favorite). Further listens have revealed that is in fact an exercise in retread tedium, and even if it avoids the status of an outrageously 'bad' disc, I find it easily the worst of the Tomi Joutsen era, and their least interesting output since Far from the Sun...perhaps it's celebrating a 10 year anniversary of that mediocrity?

The arrangements and production values of Circle are nothing to scoff at, and it really gleams through the speakers with its overabundance of melodies, but it seems that a great deal of riff writing has been sacrificed in the name of accessibility and atmosphere. The rhythm guitars are tremendously boring throughout the record. Mindless amateur chugs like the nearly nu-metal bounce opening "Hopeless Days", or laying down the foundation to the verses of "Mission", abound here, and I cannot recall a single rhythm guitar pattern over the 46 minutes of content that drew my attention. Remember when this band was capable of right hooking you with an unforgettable melody that could burn across the decades (i.e. most of the guitars on Elegy)? These are but a distant memory, replaced by the simulacra of banal grooves and background chord patterns which almost seem subservient to the vocals and brazen synthesizer melodies which strike like a dawn's early light over a grassland plain upon which nothing much is happening. Lead-like melodies are likewise ineffectual, cleaner guitars or proggy Tuonela-style picking just there to further flesh out the atmosphere rather than author some memorable note progressions.

It says a lot to me that almost any random song of Eclipse, the first Joutsen-fronted album, is greatly preferable to anything on this album, and that was hardly the pinnacle of Amorphis' creativity. Even where the band attempts to get heavier, bringing back the harsher growls, or a denser groove, or a tremolo picked guitar riff (as in "Nightbird's Song"), I was nearly bored to tears. Most of the 'folksy' melodies in tunes like "Narrowpath" seem like they were plucked off the cutting room floor of a band like Alestorm, and the various flute solos and other rural, archaic moments though the album are not themselves capable of summoning up an interesting melody to justify themselves. It's as if they were just placed on the album for a muster of the ranks. Organs? Front and center, sir! Flutes? Still got 'em, captain. Amorphis was once so excellent at weaving together the 70s rock, blues, folk instrumentation into the harder rhythm guitars and melodies, but this all seems like a phoned in par for the course, reinforced only by a pretty sweet engineering job. The bass and drums are pristine in the mix, but rarely does either do anything interesting except rock along to the rather standard riffing construction while the keys flutter through the pennants above.

As for Joutsen himself, he admittedly puts on a pretty diverse and satisfying performance, blending both the clean tones of his predecessor with some more emotional, 'heartfelt' Gothic metal twine that unfortunately makes half this album sound like it could have been written by one of their Finnish neighbors like Charon or To/Die/For. The harder growls aren't particularly convincing, and in fact the entire use of the scarce, heavier sequences on Circle seem as if they were just implemented to shut down the naysayers who think the band has entirely sold out its death metal roots. But listen to just about any comparable passage on Silent Waters or Skyforger and the quality really seems to have taken a dive, especially these terribad boring palm mute chugging elements that are about as bland as week old diet white bread. Another frustration was that every time I was mentally imagine some series of rhythm guitar chords or one of Tomi's chorus melodies reaching an expected climax, it always seemed to misfire into some vapid configuration. Completely unexciting stuff...

To be as fair as I can, a few of the later tunes like "Enchanted by the Moon" or "Into the Abyss" are fractionally catchier than the first half of Circle, but not to the degree that I'd dub them impressive. It seems as if Amorphis has chosen to rest on its laurels here, whereas in the past they were this constantly evolving, fascinating entity who I held very high standards for. A safe album, and TOO safe, if the lame lyrics to a tune like "Hopeless Days" are any indicator. 'I never wanted/I never wanted to be born/Into this cruel world/Into this cruel world I was torn'. Tomi's coverage of these was so cheesily emotional that it summoned to mind memories of Zach Stevens' miserable presence on the first two Savatage albums he was involved with. Yuck. Granted, there are traces enough from Elegy, Skyforger, Tuonela, and other works to sate those simply seeking more of the same, but none are handled quite so adeptly as they were when first introduced into the Finns' matrix of sounds. Quite a bummer, because even though I wasn't in love with their last LP The Beginning of Times, they'd been on quite a roll since acquiring Joutsen. This did nothing for me.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Fathomhell - Non Pietatem Erit EP (2012)

Fathomhell is a new Spanish band which expresses a clear admiration for the more melodic Scandinavian black metal bands of the later 90s. Specifically, some names that floated around my gray matter as I was listening through this EP were Dissection, early Sacramentum, Lord Belial, and perhaps some De Mysteriis dom Sathanas, or Darkside era Necrophobic for good measure, though they are by no means just limited to the above in terms of their technique. The plus and downside to this is that, while they've got an excellent sense for composing the mandatory melodic lamentations in the guitars, and supporting these with strong sequences of despotic, churning chords; there were also a few production hangups which seemed to, at times, betray the songwriting.

I'm not usually too put off by a drum machine, since it's often mixed or programmed well enough that it can subside just below the atmosphere of the riffing, or even add an element of coldness. Here, though, I found that it could get in the way. The beats are tight, but the overall presence feels a bit too flat and machine-like for the more emotional rhythm guitar progressions. The bass lines, here, also seem to just blandly trod along below those rhythm guitars; audibly pumped, but even in a space like the slower bridge of "Fall to the Infinite Depths of Abyss", where they could have shined with a groovier notation, they just drift along predictably and it feels like they rob the material of a potential depth and dimension. The vocals, grafted with a salacious, rasp, are somewhat uneven in quality through the various tracks. For instance, in "Devours the Light, Eats Their Souls" they feel more garbled with a more guttural bark to them, not so great; but in "Fall to the Infinite Depths of Abyss" they alternate between a straight, wretched drawl and a more shrieked, Varg Virkernes style torment and they seem to cling better to the leeching emotions of the riffs; in fact they were one of the best parts of that song...

When it comes to the guitars, though, Fathomhell is far more consistent. There are a few progressions here or there where they stride into a predictable, effortless repetition, but in general they've got that corpulent depth of character that you might have once felt from an album like Storm of the Light's Bane. Glistening with both warmth and pain, light and darkness, they're the strength the of the Spaniards, and even where they'll cut off and leave the guitars alone, like the evil harmony that sets up "Illusions of Death", I was totally transported back to the 90s and what I enjoyed about that atmosphere of In the Nightside Eclipse, Born of the Flickering, The Somberlain, etc. Not to say that the notes are as catchy as their spiritual forebears, or truly memorable long after the 25 minute EP ends, but certainly the minds behind these chords and tremolo picked patterns are well versed on the particular style, and herein lies the potential. The intro and outro, heavily dowsed in synthesizers, area also quite nice bookends to the release, and after "Dante's Inferno" and the intro to "Devours the Light", I was pretty excited.

All in all, for an independently released intro offering, Non Pietatem Erit is decent, if nothing exemplary or out of the ordinary. There are no limitations here that couldn't be overcome with an actual drummer or just better dynamics in the mixing; and while they're not always on fire, the vocals do have their moments, as do the riff progressions. If you're seeking out a younger band that captures that Swedish spirit accurately, you could do much worse than this.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Arsonist Lodge - Iänkaikkinen, pysyvä, muuttumaton pimeys (2013)

The full-length debut of Finland's Arsonist Lodge is a solid study in how to temper traditional black metal aesthetics with just enough traces of atmospheric ambiance and ritualistic abstraction that the core riffing, as familiar as it seems, still comes across fresh and abusive. Combine some of the straight, mid-paced rocking chord progressions you'd have expected from Hellhammer or Darkthrone in their prime, with faster, fluid tremolo sequences redolent of Mayhem around the De Mysteriis dom Sathanas era, and you've got the foundation. Then atop this, place some occasional blood-mortared bricks of brooding, chanted male vocal harmonies, slower doom-informed passages which give the experience a very dusty, ancient haze, and a consistent enough sense of riff variation through the 35 minutes that even the longer cuts won't wear out their welcome. Sure, if you've been combing the realm of Scandinavian black metal for the past two decades, then this is hardly news, but Iänkaikkinen, pysyvä, muuttumaton pimeys is fully aware of its intentions, doubly aware of its limitations, and hits a lot of the right notes even when it's traveling along its most conventional vectors.

Yes, for myself, the most intriguing piece here was "The Arsonist" finale, six minutes plus of psychedelic, funereal organs lurching along to a minimal beat with the gravelly, yet clearly intoned vocal incantations which all ends in the crumbling and crackling of some sacrificial blaze. But that's not to sell short the dirty grooves of "Unleash Armageddon", which is both inaugurated by swells of tonal ambiance and continue to infuse swarthy panned noises alongside the cruising chord selection and hellacious rasp; or the nefarious grooves and spurts of threatening, descending melody that characterize "Instrument of All-Evil". The drums have a great, authentic 'in the room' feel to them which works well in conjunction with the fuzzed-out but polished rhythm guitars, lowly curbing bass-lines that occasionally poke through the riff progressions, and the central snarl that ranges between Burzum, Horna or early Darkthrone in pitch. The clean vocals, as used at the onset of the album ("Intro"), are surprisingly folksy and compelling, quite like a lower-register version of a band like Týr, which you usually don't hear in tandem with the more traditional second wave style of black metal composition that Arsonist Lodge generally writes in; but elsewhere, tracks like "." compensate with fairly straightforward volleys of thundering velocity and aggression.

The other 'distraction' here is the Satanic ritual narrative "Prayer I", which is either convincing or comical, depending where you stand on the subject; yet consistent with the lyrical themes elsewhere on the album. But ultimately, I can't summon up too many complaints with this disc. The riffs are never exemplary or original, but they shift around enough in tempo and structure to never trigger the peals of ennui that often accompany albums of this sort. There are some disparities between the pure atmospheric tracks and their black metal neighbors, that is to say the 'flow' of the album isn't always comprised of seamless transitions, but regardless I appreciated the dynamic differences. The harsher vocals didn't quite stand out to me here, being typical for the genre, but then I'd also find it difficult to imagine another style here, and at least they throw out those tasteful cleans to bait us along. Lastly, some purists will no doubt find the production and guitar tone less harrowing and ghastly than several of the band's Finnish peers over the last 10-15 years, since it often thrives off a melodic sensibility nearly as warm as later Sargeist; however, it wasn't much a bother for me, since I do not naturally have a preference for one approach or the other, so long as the music is good. And it is.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Morgue Supplier - Bringer of the End (Executioner Theme) (2013)

Executioner looks to be another of those ultra violent comedy 'toons in the vein of Metalocalypse, Superjail!, and the ill-fated Korgoth of Barbaria (which I really wish had gotten a full run beyond the pilot). With comedian Brian Posehn voicing the lead character in the gravelly, menacing tone you might expect, it definitely looks to prove entertaining for the cross-section of cartoon fans, extreme music junkies and stoners generally attracted to similar series, of which I probably must include myself, being a hardcore follower/DVD collector of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Sealab 2021, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and the Venture Bros. But what's really sweet about Executioner is that, being a slightly more underground production than those I've named, they've also gone with an underground band for the OP theme, specifically Morgue Supplier out of Chicago, who you might recall from their great 2009 EP Constant Negative.

I've watched the brief clip I was given of the song playing alongside the animation, and then listened to the track on its own a number of times, and I have to admit it's consistent in quality with the earlier material I've heard. Spastic, jerking death metal with parallels to grind and dissonant, mathematical metalcore (Burnt by the Sun, Coalesce, etc.) Dense, chugging chords are alternated with bursts of blasted intensity, while the chord progressions always have a highly textured, fulsome quality about them. Vocalist Paul Gillis uses a brute and primal death metal inflection redolent of Martin van Drunen, only with some extended growls and the accompaniment of venomous rasps as added viscera. The bass tone is swarthy, distorted and thick enough that, in combination with the shifting rhythm guitars, create a corpulent atmosphere unto themselves, which doesn't exactly require melody or lead guitar spurts to round it off, especially within the confines of the brief track length (about 2:40). Drums remain tight when varied through the blasted outbreaks and the loping, massive grooves, and in conjunction with the fat rhythm guitar chugging it's all quite forceful.

It's a digital single, released through Itunes and other sites, and unlikely to appear in its full incarnation once the episodes begin airing on YouTube soon through Rug Burn cartoons (who are also putting out animated clips of the Axe Cop comic). However, as a teaser for a hinted new Morgue Supplier full-length, this is certainly something to be excited over. It fits in seamlessly as a transition from the earlier material, and deals with a balance of older and contemporary influences that you don't hear all too often of late. I can't promise that this particular track is painfully memorable, but its abusive and concussive enough for fans of death and grind hybrids which think outside the box without seeming trendy or insincere (see also Flourishing). Well worth a listen, and hopefully the cartoon itself will not prove a hack job, and live up to the brutality..."Bringer of the End" ensures that Posehn and the animators have their work cut out for them...but enough of my bad puns, check out the tune.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Accu§er - Diabolic (2013)

Long banished to the lower tiers of Teutonic thrash, Accu§er have had a career of peaks and valleys, though the peaks were never high enough above sea level for most to notice. They hit a sophomore summit on their 1989 effort Who Dominates Who?, a decent approximation of speed and thrash inspired by Metallica and other West Coast US acts rather than their local, better known German peers. But it wouldn't be long until they felt the sting of the 90s, experimenting with some pretty rank groove and thrash hybrids, quite a lengthy sting of poor to mediocre efforts that further hampered their progress and potential (to the point that they even changed their name). At some point last decade, though, the fires of 80s thrashing inspiration were once again lit beneath their bottoms, and they began releasing a series of new albums that, gradually, better integrated their earlier style into a modern milieu...a streak that continues with Diabolic, which not only gives a sound whooping to its predecessors Dependent Domination and Agitation, but trumps everything else thus far in their career.

You read that correctly: Diabolic is the first Accu§er of notable quality, so solidly crafted and meticulous in its production and presentation that it's damn near 'great'. Not that it's remotely original, or album of the year material, but this is the first time in memory I can actually recount listening through one of their records and then immediately wanting to play back through it. The balance of aggression, melody and finesse is no longer plagued by the lazy, 90s groove elements. At most there are 2-3 such riffs executed tastefully over an hour of content, but the vast majority of the songwriting is smugly nestled in the band's roots, only jazzed up with some superb production values that give it a modernized context so that you never feel as if you're listening to some 'old' record or a mindless retread. The palm muted charge patterns are heavily reminiscent of Master of Puppets-era Metallica (so I admit to some favorable bias there), with an occasional mix-tempo rouser redolent of Exodus or Testament (like the verse riffing in "Dethroned"). Even better, though, are the varied and amazing harmonies and melodies that spring up all over the foundation, like joyous flowers blooming through the pavement cracks. Whether it's the chorus spikes ("Diabolic" itself, perhaps the greatest song this band has ever recorded), gladiator harmonies ("Deification"), blazing and compelling double tremolo picked progressions and wigged out staccato screams (both also in "Deification"); or anything else they hurl out there, it almost always sticks...

Definitely summoned up some comparisons to the past three, great Paradox records with a few hints of Deathrow and Vendetta in their prime, thanks to the surgical skills on parade. Yet Accu§er manages to distinguish itself through the harsher vocals, which are aggressive barks similar to Max Cavalera if he'd been raised in Germany and not Brazil. Incredibly consistent, and often Frank's accent gives a little charm as when he enunciates the three 'w' sounds in the chorus of closer "World Wide Violence". The drum mix on this thing is fucking unbelievable, and when cranked to high volumes you can just hear the wind spinning off the snares, kicks and cymbals. Like the whole thing is hammering at you from a speedway or air strip. The bass lines are corpulent and constantly throbbing under the rhythm guitar, but I wouldn't say the lines were ever that interesting, just playing along and giving a bit more depth to the kick drums and chugging patterns. They also pull off a pretty nice acoustic guitar intro to "Apocalyptic Decay" that offers some foreshadowing to the level of musicality found thereafter. Honestly, I've heard a lot of younger bands like Warbringer and Evile try to pull off this post-Metallica or 'Bay Area' sound, and while they might be angrier or more energetic, the songwriting skill just never quite hits this level.

I struggle even to put together any viable complaints about Diabolic. A lot of the tracks are around 6-7 minute in length, and while they never exactly bore me, I suppose they could be tightened and trimmed down to chop off maybe 10-15 of the lesser inspired moments. Some of the lyrics are also pretty cliche from line to line, and music as good as this deserves some more imagination. But otherwise, this is a long overdue triumph for a band that I'd long written off since hearing them as a teen. Dependent Domination definitely had its moments, but this disc smooths out all the rough edges and had me headbanging for most of the play length. It's not the sort of thrash that would likely impress fans of highly technical fare like Vektor, or those who want dirtier, 80s speed metal production and raunchy Venom-like vocals, but has a lot to offer an audience still fond on Master of Puppets, Practice What You Preach, Fabulous Disaster, etc. Hell, this is even comparable in quality to the latest Destruction, Kreator, and Tankard efforts, all of which I more or less enjoyed. Persistence, once again, pays off. Well fucking done, and better late than never.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Horde Casket - Slab of Infinite Butchery (2010)

Slab of Infinite Butchery lands Horse of Casket firmly in the company of many of its gruesome peers in the 21st century: visually, aesthetically and aurally brutal enough to draw the eyes and ears of those on the prowl for more of that pummeling intensity that bands like Suffocation, Deeds of Flesh, Cryptopsy, Dying Fetus, Internal Bleeding and Cannibal Corpse made manifest through the 90s. Once again, the band has a great album title that immediately begs attention, and they recruited the inimical Jon Zig to create one of his better cover images, a plaza of ghastly impalement that seems as if you're staring into one of the public works of the Abyss, or the Nine Hells themselves! Relevant to my own interests, and no doubt to the scads of salivating gore mongers who devour Sevared offerings such as this, like slices at an afternoon pizza buffet.

At the cost of alienating some minority who enjoyed the drier early 90s din of Landscape of Cadavers, this is a work of hostile clarity. The bass drums are quite deep and fulfilling, and you can really feel the pump of the bass guitar lines racing along the underside of the harried, spurious rhythm guitar. The broad, guttural breadth of the vocal creates a more ominous narrator into this torture porn underworld, and they've got a little more of the toilet bowl swish that is so rampantly popular. But most importantly, the whip-like passes of lead guitar are brighter and more audible than on the debut (one of my major complaints there), and the overt increase in dynamic range among the riffs is far more demanding of a listener's attention, without sacrificing the overall brevity of the album (excluding the bonus demo tracks). Slower, chugging sequences are far more gut churning and slammable (if not at all unique), and the pinches and squeals spike straight into the ear. The blasts here, while also not incredibly distinctive in a field of comparable acts, are steamrollers against which the winding labyrinth of guitars pop and smear.

Not that all the whirlwind athletics of the instruments manifest into truly memorable progressions, but I can say I wasn't bored whatsoever through the half an hour or more of newer material. A lot of the riffs could truthfully be interchanged between tracks, and though the song duration runs from a briefer 2 minute burst ("Nemesis Delivered to the Parallel Crypts") to a voluptuous five minutes ("Cardiopulmonary Regurgitation") there isn't a massive difference in direction. That said, they've given themselves more room to play around in, and Horde Casket is nothing if not immediate and exciting. They don't hover around into the later rounds waiting to wear you out; they present you with a flurry of fists straight away, going for the TKO. Clearly there are some parallels to the sounds of West Coast acts like Severed Savior, Sepsism, Inherit Disease, Pathology and so forth, in just how ruthless and contemporary Slab of Infinite Butchery comes across, but at the same time it remains loyal to the 90s forefathers. Pretty cool, but primarily targeted at an audience used to such a relentless architecture.

The aforementioned bonus tracks hail from their 2008 promo disc, and are largely redundant with the debut album, but they fit in well enough and many people picking up Slab of Infinite Butchery are unlikely to have even heard Landscape of Cadavers; but as one might expect, they're not the equal of the busier, better joints they'd written for the sophomore. All told, this is a solid step forward for Horde Casket, even if it does still lack the incredibly sticky songwriting or the virtuoso-level progressive elements present in other acts like Decrepit Birth or The Faceless. Fans of Abnormality, Deeds of Flesh, and anything else I listed above should at least check the album out, and if they continue this steady inclination for their third full-length we could be in for a teeth-hammering, brain-mulching treat.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Horde Casket - Landscape of Cadavers (2008)

I was initially drawn to Landscape of Cadavers for a number of superficial reasons: the heavily stylized artwork was appealing, the title was aesthetically perfect for a death metal record and hell I even loved the band's name, vague enough that I wanted to figure out what the band was all about.  Upon listening through it, the attraction dissolved, not that they've put in an immensely poor showing on this debut, but Horde Casket (whose members hail from the Texas/Oklohama region) simply wasn't peddling anything that you couldn't acquire elsewhere, even a decade earlier, in the field of pure, gore-obsessed brutality. Production and songwriting here are second tier at best, choppy and suffocated with its own intensity, but that's probably the worst I could say for it.

Clearly Suffocation played a huge role in not only inspiring, but shaping Horde Casket's approach to the genre, so expect a lot of semi-technical thrust, staccato rhythm guitar mutes flying all over the place and occasional spurts of tremolo despotism like someone having trouble with a stubborn ketchup packet over their French fries. The lower fidelity mix of the album recalls albums Effigy of the Forgotten, Breeding the Spawn, and to some extent the first few Cannibal Corpse efforts, which is reinforced by the blunt guttural vocals, which to me resembled some of the faster paced Chris Barnes inflections (with a little Mullin and Corpsegrinder blendered in for good measure). In fact, though it might just have to due with the band's production budget limitations so early in the game, Landscape of Cadavers seems intent on resembling its 90s forebears more than the ultra-brickwalled modernity going on through the 'oughts. For some listeners, that will prove refreshing, and others it might seem meek and dated, but I think the music is riffy and busy enough to distract the ear away from any such hurdles, even if it isn't ultimately that interesting.

The guitars are fairly spry, thin and punchy in conjunction, resembling the older Deeds of Flesh records where I always had the impression that the potency of what they WANTED to play just didn't translate to what was pouring out of my speakers. That said, they inject a lot of death/thrash like vivacity alongside the brute fundamentals. This is an album of explosions, like a chain of landmines going off in meticulously plotted succession. Bass is dry and murky while the rhythm guitars are clattering away, but at a few points it will be left on its own via some fill to remind you that it's actually there. The vocals are nothing outrageously new or compelling, but there's a bit of sustain and reverb to them that bounces them around the drum tones. And speaking of which, this is yet another monstrous, inhuman performance involving loads of blasts and rumbling walls of double bass, the but the latter feel suppressed slightly by the guitars. Probably the worst offense here are the leads, though, which are simply smothered by everything else. They'll start tearing out this frenzied flight of notes (like that near the close of "Repository Necrotic Inception") which hang barely at the edge of perception...

Again, most of these flaws can probably be written off to budgetary constraints rather than any ill intention of the musicians, but those solos should be front and center, or at least more level with the rhythm section. For if Landscape of Cadavers lacks something, it's atmosphere. Tracks like "Back Country Meth Massacre" and "House of the Repulsive Mortifying" are fun enough if you're just seeking out more of the same you've heard from the rosters of Unique Leader, Sevared, or its own Pathologically Explicit Recordings imprint (from Spain); yet overall the riffs aren't memorable enough to serve as a breakthrough in a scene crowded to the point of bursting. Horde Casket has no delusions about itself, and if you're in the mood for 24 minutes of head pounding circa Deeds of Flesh, Suffocation, Gorgasm, Severed Savior, Human Mincer and Flesh Consumed, then cannibalize to your heart's content. I've heard far worse, but the superior sophomore outing Slab of Infinite Butchery is a better entry point for new listeners.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sidious - Ascension to the Throne ov Self EP (2013)

Much will be made of this English band's sheer technical acuity and intensity, but what I found most interesting about Sidious is just how seamlessly they've created an intersection between Polish death metal and symphonic Scandinavian black metal. Ascension to the Throne ov Self is as if someone mixed the two scenes into their respective Petri dishes and then inseminated them into an embryo, where they matured into a precise, mathematically balanced being. That's not to say that fusion of these two mighty styles creates the most memorable music, at least not here, but this isn't something you hear attempted on a daily basis, and Sidious gets an 'A' for effort in that respect, with four loaded tracks that test the limits of human endurance.

Incredible blasting that spun my skull straight off my spine anchors a dense, like pressing 'fast forward' on a modern Behemoth track. Varied, athletic rhythm guitar picking cycles reminiscent of Decapitated on their first (and best) record Winds of Creation. Sweeps and tremolo picking are not uncommon, but they'll also break into dissonant black metal-based chords and some gleaming, simpler lead melodies that generate more of a dynamic atmosphere over the harried undercurrent of drumming. Vocals eschew the pure guttural gurgle of brutal/tech death to instead create a sustained growl not unlike a Nergal, Piotr or Sauron; and occasionally they layer in a higher pitched, standard black metal rasp. And then, above of all of this, they implement these vast and sweeping orchestral arrangements redolent of Dimmu Borgir's Enthrone Darkness Triumphant or Death Cult Armageddon. On occasion, a simpler atmospheric passage will appear in which the bass drums keep busy but they're trying to create a vacuum between the onslaught of terrestrial bodies.

I take some solace that the band is not necessarily a bunch of newcomers, but they've participated in a number of other acts like Eye of Solitude (also on Kaotoxin Records). Even then, though, you just can't prepare yourself for how much raw proficiency they've assembled. Perhaps the licks aren't the catchiest out there, but they're dextrous enough to keep the ears busy as they wind up another swell of orchestration; plus the drums are so pristine they're like mechanized gunfire. This sort of dense, brickwalled production clarity isn't for everyone (in particular not for the death metal patriot who prefers everything to sound like it's 1993 forever), but as a payload for this particular, ambitious cross-pollination of styles, I'm not sure how else it could be meted out so efficiently. From a songwriting standpoint, the various progressions here do seem as if they could be scrambled between tracks, and thus there's not a lot of emotional resonance, but nonetheless it's hard not to become invested in the 18 minutes of meticulous abuse on parade here. Unquestionably the voice of a whirlwind. An inferno. Keep all your limbs in the vehicle at all times.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Magister Templi - Lucifer Leviathan Logos (2013)

Scandinavia is certainly leading the charge in this new wave of occult themed heavy/doom metal bands, with names like Portrait, In Solitude and Ghost generating a great deal of buzz. No doubt Magister Templi will also be written into this category, due to the lyrical themes and the overt influence of Mercyful Fate, but I can't say that these Norwegians feel like a disposable rehash of any of the aforementioned; and with a bit of refinement and sharpening, they could very well become one of the greatest riff monsters in that particular scene. Alas, I'm not sure Lucifer Leviathan Logos will prove the group's ticket to the big time, because it seems marred by one of its most prevalent components to the point that I found myself distracted away from the excellent guitar progressions, dwelling a bit too much on the vocals of the Abraxas d' Ruckus.

This is a case where both their production and inflection really threw me off from the supporting instruments. It's not that Ruckus is incapable of holding a notes or shifting pitches, but there's just something really strange about his intonation and enunciation of particular English words that seemed alien to me. Now, granted, it's quite likely that this is a secondary language for the guy, and normally I enjoy such little quirks, but paired up with the placement of certain lyrical lines, and the lyrics themselves, the experience became disjointed. For one, he seems erratically loud and separate in the mix of the recording (especially in the 'narrative' part in "Master of the Temple"). The guitars and drums are clearly audible, and strong enough that it's not a deal breaker, but he just seems like he's singing in a different space. His tone falls somewhere between Bobby Liebling of Pentagram, Robert Lowe of Solitude Aeternus, Mark Shelton of Manilla Road, and the more operatic doom stylings of the earlier Candlemass records. With a little bit of an Ozzy lean in the actual structure of delivery. Loud and clean overall, but aside from the earlier issues, he also sounds too forced when he's shitting into his upper key, and while 'charismatic' I just felt like there wasn't enough inherent anger and potency in his voice to convince me. Perhaps not awful...

However, the riffs are so great through this album that I felt like they deserved something more. Largely rooted in traditional 80s heavy metal, I definitely picked up a Danish or old Swedish vibe redolent of Mercyful Fate, King Diamond, Mercy, and other bands of that nature. Riff progression choices might not always be original, but they're rather refreshing just the same. The 80s are being used as inspiration, not just a source for ripping off aesthetics, but I enjoy the dirty grooves and rhythmic punctuation that often recalled Michael Denner and Hank Shermann in their prime. Not to mention the authentic, down to earth production of the guitars; not too polished, not too grimy, just right. Bass and drums are groovy if not necessarily as standout as the rhythm guitar, and the whole thing feels like this burly time machine tweaked on the occult nostalgia of simpler years. The music could definitely use some better leads as dressing for the superb rhythm tracks, but there's enough melody running through the riffs to somewhat compensate. The samples and atmospheres are a bit strange (like the intro to "The Innsmouth Look"), but functional, and the evil acoustic guitar that inaugurate the closer "VITRIOL" are proof positive of what potential these guys have as raw composers.

If I was to judge Lucifer Leviathan Logos simply on the rhythm guitars, I might award it flying colors, but as a whole package, there was just something still nagging me about the vocals the entire time. Not that they're necessarily annoying, mind you, and one does get accustomed to them after a few spins of the album, but still I just don't think they're the greatest match for the music. The high end transitions, enunciation and lyrical arrangements need some work. Otherwise, Magister Templi has the chops to prove itself in this rapidly expanding niche. The Lovecraft, Crowley, and horror lyrical themes are par for the course, but on the other hand...they're par for the course.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Tormented - Death Awaits (2013)

One of the elements that drew me to the Tormented debut Rotten Death was the voluptuous, soil churning stench of its production values, like a field of fermented dead breaching their earthen bedding and vomiting withered innards all over the listener. It was one of the more refreshing and entertaining spins on the ol' Entombed death & roll formula alongside Death Breath; these were old hands (Facebreaker, Edge of Sanity, Infestdead, etc) at the helm who knew exactly what they were doing, and the result was an enjoyable, if not far-reaching record with just the right timing to its pungent whiff of nostalgia. That said, the ensuing years have seen dozens of not scores of bands striding a similar, cemetery path, and as the Swedes' proper sophomore album arrives, I feel as if I've been irradiated with this particular strain of tributary death metal to the point that I'm well past glowing; burnt down to a disaffected shell. Once in awhile, a group will still come along that kicks ass in this niche, but I was sort of hoping that Tormented itself would expand its horizons and up its game for the follow-up. Something that, well, just hasn't happened...

Death Awaits is more or less Rotten Death 2.0, which might prove enough for the relatively easy to please crowd which devours all of this Entombed/Dismember worship on principle, but just felt less interesting to me the more I listened through. You're still getting those L-G Petrov like barks, the wrenching and dirty guitar tone, and oppressed, swampy production, yet the punkish, bruising d-beat-attuned rhythm guitars do very little to titillate the flesh craved appetite. Chord progressions seem like retreads of their last album and EP (or, to be more accurate, their influences), and at best you're getting a sequence where they'll ring out a few more melodic notes in unison to build an atmosphere. Not a far cry from how Rotten Death was put together, but if anything this successor seems less diabolic in its notation. Possibly because it's just not as fresh a style in 2013. The drums feel a bit crushed or muffled since so much emphasis is put on the guitar and vocal, though not inaudible. Bass guitar is abrasive enough to create that grinding Repulsion feel, fitting since Death Awaits is essentially a missing link between Clandestine and Horrified, but beyond any quirks I've got with the instrument levels, the compositions themselves just don't seem all that intricate or compelling; meaty enough to nod the head along with, but by this point we've just heard it too many times.

This sense of redundancy also carries through to the lyrics and song titles, which just feel like a bunch of obvious tropes slung together into verses and mundane chorus passages. At least three of the song titles involve the world 'death' in some capacity, much like the debut; so nothing unexpected there, but also not much to write home about. A few of the vocal patterns have a syllabic intonation redolent of Tom Araya ("Chemical Warfare", etc), but otherwise they'd seem straight from Wolverine Blues, Clandestine or Uprising. It'd be far more interesting for Tormented to elevate this aesthetic to some transient level; a transformation of that all too familiar tone and riff structure. Maybe not to a Tribulation/Necrovation level, which is rare, but somewhere more distinct and resonant than a mere rehashing of what they've already accomplished. Rotten Death was already the band's old school zombie infestation, and Death Awaits might have benefited as a more atmospheric, delectable paean to horror. As it stands, the sophomore scrapes by on its festered energy alone. 'Decent', sure, and diehards for the niche (Death Breath, Miasmal, Feral, Mr. Death, Puteraeon etc) won't have much of a problem remaining in this comfort zone, but where the first disc gorged on my entrails, this one didn't even break the skin over my stomach.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, April 12, 2013

Gorguts - From Wisdom to Hate (2001)

Where Obscura had the element of surprise in its favor, a progression for Gorguts by just about any definition of the term; From Wisdom to Hate doesn't make such bold leaps and strides into the unknown, and it sort of builds a bridge between its predecessor and the more easily recognizable death metal records of their past. If anything, this record transforms the discordant, sludgy, groove inflected oddity of Obscura into a more focused, intricate, and technical experience that just doesn't feel all that out of place or unexpected. A relatively 'safe' step in reverse, if we could really dub anything that sounded like this 'safe'. Though I would not deny that the songwriting is often faster paced and busier in some instances, and that the overall construction is still quite distinct and interesting compared to the brutality-by-numbers that many of their peers were dishing out at the dawn of the new century, From Wisdom to Hate just didn't grab me as firmly as its predecessor. It's pretty good, but far from exemplary...and not the masterpiece that I've always felt eluded Gorguts.

They've still fashioned quite the balance between the jarring surges of technical whimsy and the fluidity of the bass-heavy rumbling, jangling dissonance and cleaner guitar tone than their past. Again, I got the impression that to what might seem to some a wrenching morass of turbulent ideas, is actually quite a focused, concise experience with a fair share of rewards lurking about its labyrinthine countenance. Most of the better songs arrive at the half-way point ("Unearthing the Past", "Elusive Treasures"), but the styles and riff selections are quite consistent through the 40 minutes. Some of the caustic, barking vocals from Obscura have been dialed back to their earlier style from The Erosion of Sanity; a Chuck Schuldiner with a more robust, lower pitch; hell, this might have been Death's foray into progressive sludge/death in an alternate universe. The riffs are quite thick and adventurous, maintaining some of the Escher-like post-hardcore/jazzy resonance which falls somewhere in between Neurosis, Candiria, Prong and 90s Pestilence. I felt that the album was most entertaining when it hits its most spastic, spurious strides of wild fills and busy progressions of notes that just kept battering away at your sanity ("Unearthing the Past" being a great example of this), but the 'mellower' sequences aren't poorly done themselves.

From Wisdom to Hate has a lot of passages I'd consider decent if not ultimately so memorable. The nature of this songwriting style lends itself to a frustrating amount of points at which a series of notes was compelling enough that I didn't want to hear it flushed away so quickly in favor of proving how apt Gorguts were at rhythmic acrobatics; how much the band's collective memory could retain to impress us with their mental acuity and wizard-like proficiency. I'll say that my ears perked up a lot more for the latter half of the album. Leads seem to play a more impressive role on this album than Obscura (one region where this is superior), especially in spots like the bridge of "Unearthing the Past" where the choppy rhythm mutes perfectly counteract the solo's woozy, airy splendor. The presence of guitarist Daniel Mongrain (Cryptopsy, Voivod, etc) is clearly felt in the tautness and professionalism of performance. Also, the production is quite impressive throughout, possible the best of their output to date, even if it's not incredibly different than the prior album. The corpulent bass, the kick drums, the tinnier snares, tom fills, growls and various guitar tracks all fit seamlessly here, showing a purity of purpose that was perhaps shakier when they first embarked on this more experimental jaunt.

Unquestionably, this album (like Obscura) would prove an inspiration to bands like Ulcerate who also have learned to meander from traditional death metal into a more discordant, artsy aesthetic (though not quite as successful in my opinion). Again I'd compare this to Immolation, who have a similar penchant for quirkier or unusual riffing embedding in the standard genre tropes, but From Wisdom to Hate goes a little further out of the box than those New York veterans. This was a calculable, consistent entry into that 'New Weird' of death metal, steeped in a central historical/anthropological concept as basis for the lyrical ruminations. Does it express some reticence on the part of Gorguts that, perhaps, they might have gone a little 'too far' with Obscura? I would not argue that, but still...this was not your daddy's death metal, and it's ultimately more unusual than most of what I hear even now, well over a decade after. Since we've now experienced the broadest gulf yet in Gorguts' career (as attributable to tragedy as to lack of productivity), one must wonder where Luc Lemay and his Canadian craftsmen of the arcane and obscure might take us next?

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (disentanglement from flesh's captivity)