Tuesday, July 30, 2013

One Man Army and the Undead Quartet - Grim Tales (2008)

After their Nuclear Blast deal came to a close, One Man Army and the Undead Quartet were thrown another strong opportunity, to join the Massacre Records family. Thus, they still had the potential to make a name for themselves, even if the first two records didn't really pay off in anything more than a faintly audible level of buzz. Grim Tales is a better produced, better written record than either of its predecessors, and the first that I can claim to have 'liked', so naturally it wasn't incredibly well received at large and further sunk the Swedes into near obscurity (even though a few of the members could always run back to their other, better known bands like The Crown). This isn't exactly unique stuff, and it's possibly the most straightforward of their records, lacking the charm and variation of the sophomore, but it firmly wedges a skull-adorned boot and greave up your arse and then leaves it planted there for 46 minutes.

Duration was an issue with the first album (an hour of mediocrity is an hour too much in my estimation), but then they tightened that down for Error in Evolution to about 40 minutes, which paired with the newfound enthusiasm in the writing, proved the stronger of the two. To its great credit, while longer than the second album, Grim Tales fills itself out well enough that you don't really notice. Classic West Coast 80s thrash triplets and charge rhythms dominate the battlefield, with noticeable nods to Metallica or Testament in not only the pacing and construction of the guitars, but in how some of the burning, bluesy lead flashes remind us of what Kirk Hammett might have snatched from his creative ether during his prime. In other places, you get a lot of perky, squealing Zakk Wylde techniques built into the rhythm guitars which recall an album like No Rest for the Wicked, or perhaps more directly Alexi Laiho's playing (which is itself obviously built upon Wylde and Rhoads). Good use of melodic chords, vibrant energy and the truly level production of the guitar, which dominates without drowning out the rhythm section, ensure that the riffs are hits more than misses...

...and that's a first for this band. Cuts like "Misfit with a Machinegun", "A Date With Suicide", "The Frisco Reaper", "Dominator of the Flesh", and "Saint Lucifer" are genuinely catchy and engaging whether it's the riffs behind the verses or the lead snatches, and the remainder of the material isn't far behind. Beyond that, Marek Dobrowolski's playing here is fucking phenomenal, with a perfect mix emphasizing both the snares and drums but losing nothing else on the kit. Conversely, I felt like the bass guitars had less of a presence, but you can still trace them along under the rhythm guitar. As for Lindstrand, he's vastly more forceful and consistent here, rivaling even his better performances in The Crown. There is no reliance here on clean, emotional choruses which forced a mix reaction to Error in Evolution: here he's snarling and growling and some effects and layers have been placed on his voice to have it bouncing all over the belligerent guitars, which ultimately gives this record a lot of its atmosphere.

But, in the end, it's just the consistency that drives this one across the finish line. Some might rue the lack of exploration (or 'fucking around') that was tangentially present on Error in Evolution, but as much as I enjoy expansive bands that stretch out past their comfort zones, I'll take a 46 minute ass whooping any day than a failed experiment. Grim Tales isn't that distinct or creative, perhaps, with decades of thrash and death metal already supporting its existence; but it is fully self-realized. No decisions here need to be questioned by the listener; just dive in and dance in its aggression. Apart from (maybe) a few of the song titles, there is nothing remotely silly about this record. The lyrics are quite good, the best of their discography, you really feel the sickness and psychosis in a tune like "Cursed by the Knife". It was convincing, and no longer felt like a band-just-made-up-of-guys-from-other-bands-who-just-wanna-have-fun-together under an outrageous moniker. No, Grim Tales was something to be reckoned with, and while it's far from mandatory, it's an easy recommendation for fans of Carnal Forge, Witchery, Terror 2000 and the first few albums by The Haunted.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (the spit and the piss)


One Man Army and the Undead Quartet - Error in Evolution (2007)

While Error in Evolution develops a set of problems all its own (hell, the title even implies such), and I was hesitant to even check this out after so mild a reaction to the debut album, One Man Army and the Undead Quartet at least came off to me as entertaining here. As meek and primitive as some of the techniques were, and despite an obvious intention to implement cleaner, emotional vocals (which were sparse on 21st Century Killing Machine), there's an appreciable integration of melody into the chugging rhythm guitars. Most importantly, a few of the chorus sequences on this album actually stand out, whereas last time the best you'd get was some growling over a boring riff that was presumably supposed to be the most intense in that given song...

I think it's clear that a bit of Swedish melodeath influence crept in here in both the muscular momentum of the more traditional picking patterns, not to mention the dime a dozen melodies that break out in tunes like "Heaven Knows No Pain" or "Knights in Satan's Service" (an offhanded KISS tribute?!?) which you could find on any random clone of Dark Tranquillity or early In Flames. There's also a lot more jubilation in the lyrical/vocal construction and the pacing, which seems to be faster than the debut without going to extremes. A track like "The Supreme Butcher" almost seems like post-Exodus party thrash, where "Mine for the Taking" goes straight for the chorus and a great bridge. Much of the punctuality in the riffing reminds me of Children of Bodom, only without the ceaseless added level of noodling leads and synthesizers (if that makes sense). Lindstrand is definitely trying to stretch his pipes with some whinier clean vocals, developing a charisma somewhere between Anders Fridén's modern vulnerability and Alexi Laiho's rapaciousness, and then supporting this with his own blunt guttural force.

The peppiness of the drumming and pump of the bass from the first album both return here, but this time out I definitely felt a greater punch to the stomach when listening to the constant chugging, which helped ramp up my own enthusiasm. Rhythm guitar riffs are still largely bland and derivative, but the small choices being made in there are more pleasing to the ear, and they actually load up some slightly technical fills in tunes like "The Sun Never Shines". A few of the 'jump da fuc up' style progressions can seem distracting, but they actually conjure some interesting things with them where they integrate them in "See Them Burn" against the multiple vocal styles and the slower paced melodies. One track, the straight up metal anthem "He's Back (The Man Behind the Mask)", seems like it was meant to retroactively score some long forgotten 80s slasher gem, but the accented chorus melody might prove too cheesy to stomach for a number of listeners who just fucking hate everything Swedish post-Somberlain anyway. It IS an Alice Cooper cover, in their defense.

No doubt Error in Evolution would prove groan-inducing to that same crowd, and some fans of the debut might also not have appreciated its playfulness, since the band seems not to take itself so seriously. There's also no doubt that One Man Army and the Undead Quartet were aiming at a more pedestrian, everyman spin on the melodic death/thrash niche (comparable with The Haunted, or a clowny late 90s In Flames), while peers like Darkane were taking it into a more interesting, technical and dystopian direction. Naturally, the latter was more my style, but I walked out of this record with at least a fraction of amusement, while I can't remember even cracking a smile at 21st Century Killing Machine. Goofy, crowd pleasing, and self-consciously idiotic in places, Error in Evolution is not exactly a 'good' album, but it taught me that Lindstrand's new vehicle might have been capable of writing one.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (I am aging against the wind)


Monday, July 29, 2013

One Man Army and the Undead Quartet - Christmas for the Lobotomizer (2006)

Christmas for the Lobotomizer was a limited run single released on Nuclear Blast late in 2006, presumably to bridge the gap between the Swedes' first two records for a small number of devoted fans, and keep the band on an upwards momentum into their sophomore album Error in Evolution. Had the band actually gotten somewhere, without the primary constituents eventually returning to their former groups (like The Crown and Grief of Emerald), this might have proven somewhat of a collector's item. Hell, it might anyway, but not based upon the quality of the material within, that much I can promise.

I'll be honest: I was half expecting some dorky "Jingle Bells" medley or reindeer samples, but the titular "Christmas..." is actually a straight up thrasher in line with the material on 21st Century Killing Machine, only the power of the guitar seems marginally less compact and brutal. The riffs actually aren't all that bad, easily the equal of most of the debut in durability, but at the same time neither are they (or the lead) easy to retain in the memory. Standard, uninspired modern thrash with growled vocals, plenty of bounce and thrust, but nothing even remotely compelling ever happening. Granted, there has been a dearth of 'quality' Christmas material in the metal; King Diamond obviously cleans up this category, but I can also remember a handful of others like Mental Home's "Christmas Mercy". However, in this case, the bareboned writing doesn't lend itself whatsoever to the holiday atmosphere it hints at...too bad.

The rest of the single is fleshed out by a trio of live performances from the 2006 Summer Breeze Open Air festival in Germany. Johan works up the crowd predictably, weaving in some cleaner shouts to the growls. The sound mix is far more visceral and raw than what you'd hear on the album, and in a way I actually think it lends the tunes more character, but obviously the riffs are no stronger here than they were on 21st Century Killing Machine, so I wasn't able to derive much enjoyment from this. Entirely forgettable and unnecessary.  But hey, if you're one of the few and proud One Man Army... fans, and never got to catch them on a European gig, this is probably the one place you have left to turn beyond YouTube to experience their live sound. Assuming you can find a copy, but I doubt there would be much competition when the CD turns up on an auction site.

Verdict: Fail [3.5/10]


One Man Army and the Undead Quartet - 21st Century Killing Machine (2006)

One Man Army and the Undead Quartet was a Swedish band which kept a relatively low profile despite their numerous advantages. A band moniker that really stuck out from the crowd, superb Anthony Clarkson artwork which many bands would kill for, and a Nuclear Blast signing for their first two records. On top of that, even though they were not strictly a thrash band, they emerged at a time when the niche was starting to pick up steam again, and actually released all their albums through that very period. These weren't new kids on the block either, having cut their teeth in acts like Grief of Emerald, Incapacity, and most notably, the front man Johan Lindstrad was a member of The Crown when they first started to blow up internationally in the late 90s. So, with all that going for them, why is it that 21st Century Killing Machine failed to make much of an impression?

I can't speak for Europe, where the band obviously had a live presence with some festivals and touring, but they received nary a whisper in my own neck of the woods. This was one of those albums I picked up on impulse because I was surprised that they had a release out on one of the bigger metal labels, realizing only later that it was Johan's new band. Unfortunately, he seems to have traded down here, because if there is one thing lacking from 21st Century Killing Machine, it's the incendiary energy with which his alma mater lit up the studio on the records Hell is Here and Deathrace King. The Crown is a safe comparison for One Man Army, along with Witchery, though the focus here is almost entirely on mid-paced rhythms and the establishment of professional production values rather than explosive, memorable death/thrash anthems, and ultimately that is this debut's undoing. I don't know about you, but I have little interest in wasting an hour on plodding, average riff progressions that go next to nowhere. The album is far too long (just under 60 min. with the bonus tracks), and there's very little music of interest, thus even less replay value...

It would take me less than the fingers on one hand to count the number of times the rhythm guitars actually caught my attention here, and even then it was usually at the beginning of a track like "Killing Machine" or "Hell is For Heroes" where the moderate thrashing pace was solid enough to generate some interest in what was about to follow. But there is never any payoff: the choruses are lackluster, the tension and building of the various rhythms bland and uninspired, the melodies faint and few between, the handful of simplistic leads not able to compensate. Lindstrad's vocals were never among my favorite in the Swedish scene of the 90s, but here he manages little more than a stock, gravelly growl permeated by a few whispered emotional segments, and especially in the choruses the guy fails to evoke any excitement whatsoever. The riffs are dense, thuggish and have an appreciable level of punch to them, but with only the scant exceptions I hinted at above, they all play out in predictable and unimaginative patterns, at best picking up to a rapid mid speed, but occasionally lapsing into tired groove/thrash metal tropes somewhere between Pantera and Helmet in context.

The rhythm section is admittedly quite good here, with a potent and loud bass presence and some crack drumming that remains consistent at any speeds. For instance, the rampant double bass work on "When Hatred Comes to Life" is pretty tight near the bridge. The snare and toms are poppy and clean, but they really slice through those fat bass guitars and create a concussive backdrop to the compositions. The fault lies solely in the guitars' inability to create rhythm licks or specific leads over them, with second rate riffs often just paraphrased from bands like Exodus. Beyond that, the lyrics, which you'd think might take on a more ghastly horror aesthetic, seem like more of the same sacrilegious throwdowns that defined Johan's years in The Crown. You get the self-referential, pseudo-conceptual hints of zombies and terror, but it's never interesting, and ultimately 21st Century Killing Machine comes across as a hollow experience with high production values, that might have been so much more if One Man Army and the Undead Quartet were stronger songwriters. This is all merely moderate action to which you might bang your head if you had nothing better to do, but this first selection of tunes is too easily forgotten and returned to the CD rack, right between Exodus' offensively average Exhibit duology and Onslaught's post-reunion material.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10] (rise of a monster catastrophe)


Friday, July 26, 2013

Serocs - The Next (2013)

Most technical death metal records I get here for review have been so meticulously processed and produced that they seem written directly for the surgery ward, but unlike a lot of today's audience, this isn't something that gets my panties in a bunch. There's plenty of space in the world for both the clinical clarity and muddied, raw, 'organic' approaches to the style, and sufficient examples of quality in both. The most compelling component of Serocs' sophomore, The Next, is how it straddles the prowess and ferocity of one with the atmospheric trappings of the other. This isn't lavished in the sterile polish of bands like Necrophagist or Decrepit Birth, but pursues more of a messy, ripping and fleshy tone; yet you're still hearing a lot of the jazzy/progressive, musical lead guitar sequences and endless parade of riffs you'd expect out of cutting edge proficiency pundits.

That said, I was most reminded here of faster paced, frenetic Floridian forebears like Morbid Angel, Hate Eternal, Malevolent Creation or Diabolic, with the underlying chaos ramped up. Loads of psychotic, explosive tremolo picked passages dominate the landscape, very often punctuated with lots of frenzied, muted fills ("Weakness Fed the Fear" being a great example). Yet the band has no reticence against honing in on a mid-paced thrashing progression, keeping the tempos varied enough that the compositions naturally feel more labyrinthine and dynamic on principle. The bass player Mike Poggione, does occasionally get smudged below the force and impact of the rhythm guitar, but this guy is a human whirlwind just like his band mates (no surprise if you've heard his playing in Lecherous Nocturne, Monstrosity or Capharnaum), and his tone and lines are wild. Another international member, Timo Häkkinen (Sotajumala, Kataplexia) rifles through blasts and fills as if he were just tying his shoes, and the drums are treated with a sincere, loud mix that somehow does not detract from the business of the guitar playing.

The vocals are handled by another Lecherous Nocturne alumni, Jason Hohenstein, who barks with a lot of gut-fed hostility, but they also layer in a lot of snarls and rasps which lend The Next a bit of a deathgrind feel (Nasum meets Malevolent Creation) rather than the ominous sort of growling so popular out in the field today. Really, though, the center of the show is Mexican guitarist/core member Antonio Freyre, whose blinding, blazing wall of riffs is going to make or break any listener's enjoyment of the album. To be honest, I did not find a lot of the individual note patterns here to be all that interesting when picked out of a lineup, but the guy just hurls so many in your direction that at least there is some replay value out of deciphering the constants shifts in chords. The energy is incendiary, and once settled into a few of the groove hooks they do become marginally hypnotic, but there are various ideas strewn about the 33 minutes of music that I wish were allowed to hang out just a few measures longer. The Next is occasionally collapsing over itself due to its earnest ferocity and complexity, and thus most of the progressions really fail to resonate beyond just the mere thrill of their pursuit.

Don't get me wrong: this guy is a mad player, and one thing I liked was that he wasn't constantly indulging in wank-fests. The leads are tight and controlled, never excessive or eye rolling and never soused with effects to the point that they sound otherworldly. The focus is very heavily on the mile a minute, winding, contracting and colliding rhythm guitars, which unfortunately didn't connect with me that often apart from the sheer physical contact of kicking my kneecaps and punching me in the face. The other musicians turn in intense performances, but they're ultimately restrained by the scattershot delivery of the guitars, and while I appreciated the voracity and variation in the vocal delivery, and the violent lyrics, there was just not enough to compensate. But these gripes aside, avid death metal fanatics who aren't opposed to a high level of prowess and technicality, but feel often snubbed by the studio apepsis attributed to the majority of modern brutal death recordings, might find an acceptable refuge in the sincerity of Serocs aesthetics. This is currently available as a digital album, but Comatose Records will be releasing a physical alternative in the autumn of 2013, so check that out if it sounds appealing.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Castleumbra - Cthulu Wgah'nagl Fntagn EP (2012)

Mexico isn't exactly the first scene I'd think of with regards to harboring a massive H.P. Lovecraft hard-on, but I'm almost positive the country has featured in some of the broader Mythos fiction down through the decades. That said, after hearing Castleumbra's 2012 EP, Cthulu Wgah'nagl Fntagn, which has seen a more recent re-issue through Greek imprint Nuclear Winter Records, I doubt I'll ever be able to envision that most infamous of Old Great Ones without a bottle of tequila in one claw and a few tentacles wrapped around one or more señoritas of choice (His choice, not theirs). A slimy summer siesta by the poolside, sponsored by Mindsucking Parasites from Beyond the Threshold of Reality, hosted by two of the Central American scene's most storied extreme metal fiends, Antimo Buonnano and drummer Alejandro Franco, who you may recognize from sick acts like Ravager, Profanator, Disgorge and Hacavitz, Antimo having even done a stint with Singapore's Impiety some years ago.

Needless to say, this isn't amateur hour at the shrine of the Elder Gods, and Castleumbra is the duo's entry into the nostalgic death metal sweeps, possessed of a fuzzed out, ominous fury that is unquestionable bound to entertain anyone who enjoys just anything that has manifest in this modern wake of Incantation and Autopsy. Disgusting guttural vocals in the Craig Pillard mold trample a heavily saturated, muddy rhythm guitar tone so enormous (like its fictional inspirations) that it simply cannot be contained within the borders of human sanity, while behind the writhing, grotesque Mass the beats thunder along like a stampede of angry shoggoths just waiting for their own chance to feast upon the Earth. Bass is just as oozing and voluptuous as the rhythm guitars, so during the three full-on metal tracks the listener is placed in an entirely uncomfortable, unwholesome and mind-grinding morass of wretchedness from which surrender and suffocation might be the only release. This is ugly music! Working as intended, but overwhelming to the point at which some might find it confusing, so thankfully they break up the faster bits with grooves redolent of the same Swedish forebears that were also partially responsible for the lineage of the guitar tone...

Now, I always have been and will forever be a riff guy. That is what first drew me into each successive niche of metal since I threw on the training wheels, and in this department, Cthulu Wgah'nagl Fntagn does not exactly excel. Especially when they're bludgeoning or churning along off an intense blast beat and really more interesting in making mince meat out of the audience than grafting some memorable progression onto their skulls. In general, the construction of the riffs is based around a readily apparent selection of old Carcass, Repulsion and Autopsy motifs swathed in the Swedish overdrive and feedback, though they really take this to a lot more brutish level than your average Dismember of Entombed acolyte. But clearly they're capable of conjuring some filthy, evil sounding grooves and melodies when so inclined, as in the closer "Ream of Utumno", which along with "Naamtaar Kingu" represents the most substantial and engaging material on the EP. The titular cut is also interesting: a ritualistic interlude with some chanted vocals, throbbing bass and what sound like primordial distorted electronics, but more eclectic than catchy.

Ultimately, this is not something you haven't heard before, and it's not the sort of material you're going to revisit for particular guitar licks: it's more of a 'package trip' down Revulsion Lane, for listeners who simply want to be suffocated by the sinister implications of the lyrics and the unrelenting rawness and morbidity of the instruments. To that effect, Castleumbra is more than functional, and I can only imagine throwing these guys on a stage with comparable acts like Weregoat, Hellvetron, Beyond, Vasaeleth, or fellow Mexicans Denial and Zombiefication. In the end, it just comes down to how much more of this ghoulish old school death metal smothered in more fulfilling, modern production techniques you can stomach. This isn't the best of its style that I've heard in the past few years, but if there's space in your universe for another of these cavernous, crushing forces, then by all means, thrust yourself once more into the maw of this extraplanar space squid and pray the end comes fast.

Verdict: Win [7/10]


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Trial - Malicious Arts EP (2013)

Trial is another of the occult heavy metal revivalists hailing from a Swedish scene which includes Portrait, In Solitude, Enforcer and, more loosely, Ghost, who have gone on to become somewhat of a phenom. Their full-length debut, The Primordial Temple was a respectable effort which probably didn't reap quite the attention it deserved, but with luck that will change with what is frankly a fantastic EP follow-up out through Nuclear Winter records. Malicious Arts is little more than a two track sampling of the Swedes' capabilities, but the classic infusion of Swedish, Danish, NWOBHM and even some USPM elements is impressive even in the span of 12 minutes. What if I told you Trial was like a successful hybrid of early Helstar, Candlemass and Mercyful Fate? Horny yet?

The tunes here have more of an 80s power metal undercurrent driving them along, redolent of the melodic and busy riffing you'd expect on the formative works of Liege Lord, Lizzy Borden, Fates Warning and of course Helstar. Nothing indulgently complex, but neither are the chord selections and faster, intricate picked runs splayed out in the more predictable patterns that hold back a lot of comparable acts who would build them up towards garden variety choruses. The choices here seem fresh, compelling and atmospheric as they're woven into a support matrix for Linus Johansson's crystalline vocalizations. Trial also earns points for the plunky bass playing: it'll occasionally get drowned by a denser rhythm guitar progression, granted, but its capable and interesting, with lines like a seamless blend of Steve Harris and Sharlee D'Angelo. Add to that a very functional, organic drum mix which is fully audible against the guitars, and there are no major gripes with the production, but in true 80s fashion, Linus' voice is easily the center of attention...

Which makes sense, really, because the guy has a dramatic presentation which I could only compare to James Rivera if he were imbued with hints of John Archs' dramatic fluctuations circa Awaken the Guardian, and a few operatic whiffs of Messiah Marcolin. Maybe even some Eric Adams in there somewhere. Linus will tear out a decent, level scream in an upper register, but still delivers plenty of bite on the lower, verse passages, and as a result you definitely get that edge of cruelty so vital to a lot of legendary 80s works. I also really enjoyed the eerie choral arrangements, like the intro of "To Dust", which are responsible for an added sheen of ritualistic completeness that reek of ancient sorcery behind locked dungeon/tower doors. I wouldn't say that these tunes were the stickiest of their ilk that I've heard this year, especially when compared against the latest efforts of Satan, Warlord and Attacker, but they certainly have whet my appetite for the inevitable Trial sophomore album. If it has the same consistency and quality I'm hearing on this material, then hot damn...

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Pantheon of Blood - Tetrasomia EP (2013)

Based solely upon my experience with their last EP, Consociatio Solis et Lunae in 2011, I was half expecting the latest Pantheon of Blood to emit another brooding monolith of darkness, snuffing out the summer sun like it were just another candle on the mantle. Instead, the Finns have surprised me with a more melodic, traditional black metal selection that possesses an altogether warmer disposition than I would have predicted. It's not necessarily that these elements were absent on the older material, and when I say 'warm' I don't mean this is friendly or happy sounding, but Tetrasomia functions due to a bedrock of studied melodicism that creates a rapturous contrast against the fundamental harshness of the black metal vocals and majestic if traditional flow of chords.

Speaking of vocals, they're quite effective here, with a ghastly mix of rapacious genre snarls and some blunter barks that complement one another rather well, occasionally using an even more grotesque, sustained guttural (as in "Monta Maailmaa Nähnyt") which resonates hauntingly over the more uplifting melody beneath. The guitar techniques here are nothing out of the ordinary for this style, but I think the way they mix the rhythm tracks to split them on the stereo/headphones is quite good, with a muddier tone conjoined to the knife-like tremolo picking that can often border on hypnosis (especially on the closer "I.N.R.I."). They're also unafraid to induce a folksy clean guitar (again, in "Monta...") or support a distorted progression with some cleaner picking so that the music roils with variety and atmosphere. Bass isn't too heavy in the mix, and it might be better if it were, but you can hear a few distinct grooves and swells that separate themselves from the tinnier guitar lines. Drums are clappy and thundering where appropriate, giving the production an even more 'live' and natural appeal to it that doesn't rely on a mechanized finish. All part and parcel to the emotional and philosophical wilderness of the compositions.

Basically, Tetrasomia is raw without becoming unassailable, reminiscent of certain records by Darkthrone or Horna where they also relied heavily upon dirtier heavy metal riffs and melodies, and no doubt some of the vocals recall Shatraug or Nocturno Culto. The note choices aren't exactly ingenious or immortally memorable, but instead textured and rustic and honest to a fault. Much of the pervasive 'evil' here is left strictly to the vocals. This is not obscenely polished music, and the little inequalities between guitar tracks, vocals and beats give it a real connection to the listener who opposes modernization, and values the core aesthetics of black or even folkish black metal. Mysticism is manifest strictly through attention to the note patterns and the suffering of the vocals, without a massive backdrop of ambient effects or synthesizers to guide one into the subconscious. Ultimately, I wouldn't say it was better or worse than the last EP, just a little different. A marginal reinvention, but Tetrasomia is a successful one, and Pantheon of Blood are obviously not interested in flogging a dead horse. Well worth hearing if you're into primal Finnish sound sculptures of Blood Red Fog, Vitsaus, Horna or Mortualia; or rustic, roots European black metal in general.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Monday, July 22, 2013

Speedtrap - Powerdose (2013)

'So what exactly is speed metal?' It's a question I've heard a hundred times, striving for an answer that would likely deviate a dozen times from a dozen sources. When I was young, I remember the label being applied to bands like Venom and Motörhead, bands which, unsurprisingly, also wore a lot of other tags (and continue to do so). Then it was on to acts like Metallica and Megadeth, who wrote more sophisticated material, and then later yet it was conflated and conjoined with various acts in the fields of American and European power metal. Semantically, I'm sure there are numerous camps who would argue insignificant details back and forth with no clear winner, but though I often throw the term around myself when describing a band's sound, I will not attempt to do so here.

That said, if one was to picture some sort of idealized, Romantic notion of what a 'speed metal' record was to sound like, then 9 out of 10 times we might end up with something like Powerdose. Vicious, dirty hi octane rock & roll which burns up the dragway faster than you yank off your tanktop to flash the racers your chest (male or female). Punk-like chord progressions accelerated to even more exciting levels of abuse. A few of you might recall Speedtrap's Raw Deal EP, which generated a little buzz back in 2009-2010, likely due to the cover art as much as anything else; a clear nod in tribute to Exciter's seminal Heavy Metal Maniac, but attempting to up the ante by bringing a chainsaw to a knife fight. Well played, Finns, and then again, so was the music, though it was nothing particularly memorable other than some possible signification that we were about to experience a full-on SPEED METAL outbreak. Well, that sort of happened, and sort of didn't...we got bands like Enforcer out of the deal, who practice a more melodic variety with thrash and primal power metal influences, but most excelling in this niche were doing so with an overt black metal influence tracing back to Slayer, Sodom, Venom and Kreator.

Powerdose is nothing of the sort, really: this is an unadulterated, ridiculous, frenetic accumulation of the inspirations I hinted at earlier. Rapid fire road-licks that would make Dave Mustaine salivate, enveloped in the road-hardy attitude we normally associate with a band like Exciter or Motörhead, showing up to the club swathed in leather, sweating up the stage, bumming a cigarette off you before stealing your girl and hitting the highway once more. The bastard child between Satan and the old Looney Tunes Roadrunner character. Maniacal, blues-based riffing patterns and self-indulgent squeals supported by lighting powered snares and toms. A front fiend who alternates between some frivolous, charismatic screams redolent of Exciter, and a meaner mid range, both of which mildly reveal his natural accent. Pummeling strums of the bass guitar that are every bit as energetic as the rhythm tracks, if not often deviating enough that they become interesting. And a vivacious, loud-as-balls production here through which you can hear everything, easily trumping the Raw Deal EP in intense, brick-to-the-face action.

To be honest, I wasn't expecting a lot of variety here, and through about half the cuts, they just race along with abandon, content to leave the listener huffing their dust...but then, you've got some breaks in the action like "Out of Time, Out of Line" where the beats are more of a mid-paced neck-strainer and the vocals seem to hover in the higher range, or "Battle Cry", which bears more of an epic USPM/speed aesthetic reminding me of older Liege Lord or Omen. All the tracks are well performed, and true to its central motivation, the album is over in just under a half hour. Within that span, though, I can't say that a lot of the songs were really so catchy. The riffing is more about legitimacy to the music's roots, and having a good time, rather than building strong melodies or sinister sounding picking patterns. It's a functional, frenzied Summer record spin. Higher speed dirt than "High Speed Dirt", for sure, and well suited to induce partying amongst the leather bound legions it likely targets. But beyond the nostalgia and ravishing production, the proof of concept (by Jove, they've got it right!), and the fact that I enjoyed this more than Raw Deal, it doesn't leave a terribly massive impression beyond a dozen or so spent beer cans by the roadside, and the skid marks on your SPEED METAL soul, whatever that means to you.

Verdict: Win [7/10]


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Front Beast - Demon Ways of Sorcery (2013)

I've been a bit lazy when it comes to Front Beast, because despite Avenger's colossal catalog of demos and split appearances with this project, the only experience I've had with it in the past was Black Spells of the Damned, the sole prior full-length from 2006, and one I was certainly not that impressed with. I'm more familiar with his other bands, particularly Nocturnal, a blackened thrash act whose albums (Arrival of the Carnivore and Violent Revenge) I quite enjoy. Now, I'm sure underground European black metal pundits would cry heresy at this, and point me out to this or that split record material, but otherwise I would have no idea where to start...so instead, I'll just have at Demon Ways of Sorcery, the long anticipated Front Beast sophomore which is in many ways an improvement over its predecessor.

This is a rough sounding record which hearkens back to the turbulent front end of the 90s when black metal's vanguard was split pretty evenly between bands seeking to ramp up the genre's studio values and those who wanted to keep the music as feral and raw as possible. Naturally, Demon Ways of Sorcery sides with the latter camp, and as a result the turbulent production is likely to throw up a spiked barrier in the faces of any who want their misanthropy 'tidied up'. In a way, I'm reminded a little of Sodom, or maybe Kreator's earliest calamities like Endless Pain and Pleasure to Kill, first wave inspirations which also had a rumbling, uneven sound mix, but Avenger cranks up the bass pretty high, which creates an interesting effect against the more intricate picking sequences, especially when the guy's impetuous rasp is being panned back and forth. So there is certainly a  primitive black/thrash architecture here in pieces like "Heathen's Flame", complete with some clinical muted picking, but unlike Nocturnal, it's not a dominant factor in this music, which is so heavily imbued with the traditional Scandinavian black metal aesthetics. In particular, I hear a lot of Bathory in the mid-paced flow on tunes like "Broken Seal of White Light" or the title cut, with perhaps a little of the early 90s Mayhem due to that prevalent bass tone and several of the Scandinavian-styled chord or tremolo progressions.

Gotta say, though, that while the guitar is meting out plenty of licks, not a lot of them felt very interesting or unique, and the bulkiness of the bass and drums did hinder me somewhat from paying them much attention. A fair share of melodies are imbued directly into the rhythm cuts, and in true cult black metal tradition, lead guitars are not exactly a factor; if and when something like that appears, it's a mere wailing for effect. But to Avenger's credit, even if I wasn't thrilled by a lot of individual riffs, overall I found the Satanic sophomore appealing due to many of the flaws one might level against it. There's no escaping the pervasive sense of evil and ferocity being exacted upon the listener, and a few of the tunes like "Hidden Black Wisdom" and "Filling Skulls with Angels Blood" are genuinely catchy, by the crudest use of the definition. Sinister, animalistic and down to Earth...actually, well below Earth, like a predator stalking through the infernal chasms of the Abyss. Granted, I'm a lot more into his riffs with Nocturnal, because I'm just naturally predisposed to be a bigger fan of that aesthetic, Teutonic speed/thrash metal hybridization, but this was a few virgin sacrifices beyond Black Spells of the Damned, and a nice accompaniment to an evening of pitchfork stabbings, spent whiskey bottles and other debaucheries. Hail the Horned One, as if that needs to be said.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Friday, July 19, 2013

Powerwolf - Preachers of the Night (2013)

The pseudo-Transylvanian answer to Manowar, Powerwolf elicits both admiration from the heavy metal fan who learns not to take their schtick too seriously, and ire from the heavy metal fan who does not. They've always run the risk of a paper-thin gimmick wearing out its welcome, a sacrilegious and horror-inspired lyrical pool, puns in titles and choruses that have become almost idiosyncratic to the band itself, and the goofy corpse paint thing which might not look nearly as threatening on these Germans as it would on Marduk. But, so what? I'm not about to kick my Alice Cooper, KISS and King Diamond records to the curb for initiating these theatrics, because when it comes down to it: I am not ashamed to be a Powerwolf fan. This is a band who I rely upon not only for the tongue-in-cheek themes in their music, but also for some goddamn fun. Big Euro heavy metal riffs, organs and atmospherics that set up an appropriately cheesy haunted house/cathedral atmosphere, and chest-beating, mildly operatic Attila Dorn vocals which create instant synaptic triggers in my brain that make me want to return to their songs again and again...fuck, Lupus Dei is STILL in my car. I need to get it out of there before it melts!

Now, having said all that and fallen prostrate before Powerwolf, I felt that their last effort, 2011's Blood of the Saints, was beginning to run low on ideas, and certainly starting to follow its own tracks through the forest a little too closely. Granted, a lot of other European power or trad metal acts could be accused of the same flaw, putting out the same album, repeatedly, ad infinitum, but with Powerwolf, the problem is that Attila's vocal melodies are so crucial to the quality of the songs that redundant note progressions can cripple the compositions for anyone already versed in the older albums. This is why they peaked in 2007, with a record that myself and many of my friends would constantly sing along and air-organ to...it was completely fresh, unexpected (except to the handful of people who heard the debut), and hilarious. The first and third efforts were comparable if less catchy, but by the time Blood of the Saints arrived, the pack had grown weary with little new game to hunt, all groomed up and ready for a kill, but no prey in sight. A decent album, surely, but entertaining song titles and exquisite cover artwork (which this record and the last both have) can only get you so far, the tracks themselves have to continuously beat themselves into the madhouse of your brain and lock themselves in its basement asylum...

That leads us to Preachers of the Night, which arrived with the pomp and gusto of both a lead-in single and EP featuring "Amen & Attack", a reasonably engaging tune fueled by a decent, sweeping chorus that feels almost like it belongs in a Gothic, lycanthropic spaghetti western, and some thundering, staccato picked guitars supporting the rampant synthesizers. Okay, I'll bite, since it's just as good as anything off the previous disc, at the very least. Sadly, though, Dorn's vocals are just drawing upon the same bag of tricks here that make most of the chorus sequences on the record feel like slightly altered phrasings on lines he has used in the past. Clearly, this guy has a range, so why isn't he using it more? I would not at all be opposed to hearing him base some verses around other, less grandiose scales, more discordant progressions, or go somewhere unexpected like hovering in his lower register for an entire track. There is this sense here that Powerwolf is not challenging themselves whatsoever, resting upon its blood-dripping rosary beads, and though they make an earnest attempt through the musicianship and writing to provide a few nail-biters, they simply open up too many of these tracks with the same bastardized "Carmina Burana" by way of Richard Wagner and the Therion orchestra...

Too obvious, guys, really, playing it safe. One might assume that by record #5, the comfort zone would become restrictive and uncomfortable, thus warranting some further experimentation, but this has not proven the case. I suppose that, from a musical standpoint, they have grown to encompass a slightly broader range to the structure of the guitars; for instance, the harmony initiating "Sacred & Wild" felt new, and tunes like "Secrets of the Sacristy" feel like Powerwolf is encompassing an anthemic Gamma Ray/Freedom Call sensibility with busier, more acrobatic guitar lines, but then the 'hallelujah' vocals just drag you back into the limited palette of diminishing returns, so it's all reduced to standard power metal with the one caveat being the operatic vocalist. And that's really how I'd describe it to a newcomer: dramatic power obsessed with idealistic, stereotypical Gothic horror. The Vision Bleak gone Sabaton. It could be far worse, of course, they could slinging about the usual, generic uplifting power metal buzzwords like 'eternity' and 'destiny', 'wings of _ _ _ _ _', 'glory' dosed liberally with self-referential discussions of how metal they are, but evil churches, fallen saints, vampires and werewolves can also grow tired after a spell.

I do like that they've got a song ("Nochnoi Dozor") which I believe is based on the modern Russian horror novel and film of the same name; and that they also do a number ("Kreuzfeuer") in their native tongue. The latter is a pensive storm with a lot of warlike drumming which builds to the inevitable climax in which one realizes that Powerwolf sounds pretty damn good in German, and also the most unique sounding track of the lot. You can always tell that they put a lot of effort into the production and arrangements, but their minds are too often driven by the predictable climaxes of theater and opera, so they're hardly the modern equivalent to Queen (even if they obviously have listened to them). Some will find the very brickwalled, clean and potent guitar tone and drums a bit too perfect for their liking, and I can't say I entirely disagree. Perhaps this is one of the ways the Germans could experiment in the future...a rougher, grainier guitar tone and more of an occult, psychedelic horror vibe with less overt organs, but keeping the same humor in the lyrics. This would also allow Attila more room to play around with his vocals in an intimate setting.

Ultimately, though, Preachers of the Night is more of the same we got on the last album, without any large, discernible rise or dip in songwriting or tonal quality, though this might be a fraction more bombastic and effective if I were to make a direct comparison track by track. I was actually disappointed to find that it was quite a lot less humorous than their earliest outings...the lyrics deal more with a conceptual, alternate historical takeover of the Catholic church by wolf-men. Not a bad idea, but if you're expecting the joy of "Saturday Satan", you're out of luck. That aside, if you really loved the previous two outings and merely want more of the same, then you'll probably devour this one, but I admit to growing wary of the same repeated spectacle year in and year out. It speaks...err...howls volumes to me that the songs on Lupus Dei still blow away anything that has come since, and back then the production felt even cleaner and louder, a little less compacted by the over the top symphonics and vocal arrangements. In their defense, they've put too much care and effort into this record to be anything less than 'good', but it really walks...err...stalks the border between success and mediocrity. Stagnation imminent, if not immediate: if you can teach an old dog new tricks, can the same be said for a wolf? I hope Attila Dorn and crew answer this the next time they venture out into the moonlight.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (the resurrection of the carnivore)


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mourning - Greetings from Hell (1993)

I can only imagine that a lack of availability through the years has crippled Greetings from Hell in terms of its underground popularity, because it thrives at that classic death/doom style whose audience readily devours just about anything retro they can get their soggy paws on. Hell, these people have even made a cult classic out of Winter's Into Darkness, an album upon which the only praise words I could heap are 'crushing' and 'seminal', because otherwise it's so void of interesting riffs and ideas that I might rather listen to a radiator buzz if given the choice. No, Mourning has a sound here that ought to fit right in with the contemporary worship of atmospheric extreme metal, so as I sit drowning in detestable, 95° F summery 'bliss', why the fuck not dust this beast off and have at it?

The Dutch actually had quite a number of gems in this mold, and some of you might be familiar with records like Delirium's Zzooouhh or Sempiternal Deathreign's The Spooky Gloom, both of which were quite impressive and influential upon a lot of European death/doom cults to follow, and both better and more eerily atmospheric than Greetings from Hell. However, Mourning could very much be lumped into that same company, because if nothing else, this is some truly bleak shit, the endless field of skulls and bones on the cover fairly indicative of the 46 minutes of audio. These aren't friendly sounds, and you wouldn't use them to stimulate growth in that garden you've been tending. Dreary, apocryphal, and nearly droning in some of the sparser riffing sequences where the percussion largely cuts out ("Demon's Dance"), it's best defined as a gray waste of steady rhythmic suffering from which there is no salvation until the panned snarls that close out the optimistic finale "Get AIDs and Die".

But, shockingly, Greetings from Hell is not boring in the slightest, since it earnestly augments the brooding doom stretches with intermittent spurts of fuzzed out Floridian antiquity, loose tremolo picked guitars that attempt to recapture the morbid feel of Scream Bloody Gore, Slowly We Rot, The Spooky Gloom and so forth. There's also a massive Hellhammer influence here, not only through the murky, obvious guitar tone but also in how they put together chord patterns to create that same cryptic stench the Swiss invented on their demos; and the occasional, gruff 'hwah' dished out by bassist/vocalist Marc van Amelsfoort. There's also a pretty cut 'n' dry foundation of slow or mid-paced thrash metal here, as if someone took a few riffs from that period and then just slathered them with oozing distortion and despair and turned on the tape reel to witness their translation into a more sluggish, disgusting mutation.

Speaking of van Amelsfoot, he's normally delivering a blunt bark that churns against the rhythm guitar with a fraction of reverb and resonance, very fitting to the aesthetic pessimism of the music. As with many records of this type, placement of lyric lines isn't exactly rocket science: you choke out a syllable or two here or there, and let it cut into the meat of the riffing like an axe felling a tree. The result is that, apart from their inherent sense of enmity and depression, the vocals aren't really all that compelling beyond their base functionality. Fortunately, he's got a nice, saucy, distorted bass tone here that helps flood the basement of the trio's sound, appropriately slimy when everything else cuts out in a song like "Territorial" or the intro to "Deranged or Dead", and fully audible even where it closely follows the guitar progression. Drums are actually the clearest component on the record, standing out even where everything else blends together in the distance. Loud fills, and stock but measured rock beats during the slower material, but not exactly utopia of you're seeking lots of double bass or anything faster than a half-blast tempo.

The tremolo riffs here in tunes like "Sweet Dreams" actually accounted for most of my favorite moments, reeking of genuine negativity and filth even across the span of two decades, but even by 1993 I can't cite them as having a lot of novelty. Clearly Greetings from Hell was second generational in most of its ideas, but what it does well is balance the two parent genres, never overly committing to one or the other. They also keep most of the tracks down to a reasonable length..."Arma Satani" and "Only War and Hell" are voluptuous at 7 and 8 minutes, but both have similar contrasts in pacing that the listener can easily survive them. At no point does Mourning fall back on endlessly repetitive funeral doom riffing cycles, and they toss in enough vibrant if sloppy leads that the album doesn't lose a sense of kinetic energy despite the topical negativity. It's about as 'well rounded' as you could hope for considering its thematic choices, but you will definitely feel doomed. Humanity is fucked, and Mourning was doing its part to usher us along.

Not a great debut by any means, but solid and engaging enough to have built a more interesting future upon. Instead, the band changed its name to Rouwen and dropped an EP in 1997 that I haven't heard, presumably with a minor shift in style. So Greetings from Hell must stand alone, if not 'standing out' among the relatively crowded death/doom scene at the front half of the 90s, where English bands were making large strides past everyone else in recognition. Apart from the solemn pacing and soul-sucking negativity, though, I feel like this is not entirely comparable to old Paradise Lost, Anathema, or My Dying Bride. Definitely more for the Hellhammer crowd, or followers of the seminal US groups Winter and Grief. I'm not into the Japanese band Gallhammer whatsoever, but if you're down with that sound you'd also find some common ground with Mourning. Track it down, pass it around; it might even be time for a fancy limited repressing on vinyl (assuming it hasn't happened already), since these authentic 90s obscurities are all the rage right now, at least among a small population in the metal underground. I know that Vic Records reissued their 1992 split with another Dutch doom/death unknown, Eternal Solstice, and that's pretty good, so who knows!?

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] 


Monday, July 15, 2013

Panzerchrist - The 7th Offensive (2013)

If you're familiar with American football, then you'll understand when I say that Panzerchrist have long been among death metal's linebackers: brutal, immovable, competent and dependable, but never counted upon to make the key plays in the genre. Instead, efforts like Outpost - Fort Europa and Soul Collector hovered about the midfield, beating on any takers, without ever breaking for a touchdown. A hard helmet to crack. Two decades of death metal uncompromising. Lots of 'good' albums, but not necessarily any 'great' ones. Well, The 7th Offensive doesn't entirely break out of this position on the field, but to tap further into my absurd analogy, it DOES seem like the band's beloved tank mascot is beginning to finally roll across the yards towards the enemy scoreline, with one of their more memorable records in some time now.

The key here is melody: it's never exactly been absent in their songwriting, but The 7th Offensive is loaded with tapping and other lead techniques that are being used as central atmospheric forces to drive the rhythm guitars, which are just grimy enough to grant them the composition of the blood and mud on some forsaken battlefront. The riffing bedrock isn't exactly complicated, but both the slogging, massive chord structures and the thundering kick-accompanied tremolo picking sequences are incredibly determined, smothered in blunt and hoarse gutturals with the meter of an artillery commander barking out orders to soldiers that he is fully aware are about to die; meat for the grinding machine of strife and violence. The band is a long way out from having Reno Killerich, but the beats here are fuck-solid batteries of mortar fire spewing all over the front lines, while the lung rupturing bass lines cruise along in a distorted paste that sounds like flesh being run through the treads. What The 7th Offensive sounds like to me is at long last, an evolution of the war death metal style pioneered by Bolt Thrower in the late 80s: accelerated in places, threaded with effective clinical melodies (like the bridge of "Foreign Fields") and stylized with gruff vocal effects.

Remarkably, just like Regiment Ragnarok two years ago, this is being performed with an almost entirely new lineup, the one exception being the bassist/morale officer Michael 'Panzergeneral' Enevoldsen, who just sounds fantastic here with both his bass lines and the mild use of synthesizers to flesh out the gruesome and convincing atmosphere of each sortie. This fresh infusion of blood and talent has obviously made a huge difference in the group's sound, without abandoning the core military concepts and brutal bombardment aesthetics that have made Panzerchrist one of the most consistent, long running names in Danish death. The leads here add an unexpected sense of elegance to the crushing momentum of the rhythm section, and thus I felt more of a stark but effective contrast between the beauty and ugliness of the songs than I remember off most of the older discs. There isn't a whole lot of variation between the riffing progressions, with 3-4 motifs (usually mid-paced) dominating the 40 minute experience, but at the same time its incredibly consistent and steady. You do NOT wanna get tackled by this beast, because all that will remain is bone dust and flakes of skin...not enough for identification without a DNA kit. Very good stuff here, which I can easily and heartily recommend to fans of Bolt Thrower, Hail of Bullets, Jungle Rot, Invasion and other noted death metal warmongers.

Verdict: Win [8/10]


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Impiety - The Impious Crusade EP (2013)

When it comes to Impiety's considerable discography, I find myself returning more often to their filthier, earlier recordings more so than the stuff they've put out over the past 5-10 years, with the exception of their 2009 full-length Terroreign which was so violent and incendiary it nearly blew my vital organs out my back to paste them against the wall behind me. Ironically, I'm thinking that the late teens/early 20s version of myself probably would have taken an inverse stance on the gradual evolution faced by the Singaporean extremists, and looked forward to the days when they developed into a more structured entity, which have clearly arrived over the last handful of releases. This latest EP, The Impious Crusade, continues this process of aural refinement, with a heavy emphasis on Morbid Angel styled-death metal and a little less of that soiled savagery so emphatic on past recordings. Naturally, I'd take Skullfucking Armageddon or Asateerul Awaleen any day over this, because those old records have a lot of character despite their flaws, but from a tactical or technical standpoint, these new originals cover a lot of the bases that fans of recent Impiety would expect, and they do so without abandoning all their hellish history.

In other words, The Impious Crusade is 100% diabolical, vicious and fast as fuck thrash-based surgical riffing with spurts of nasty tremolo picking and an incredibly level of surgical precision, which you normally wouldn't think possible alongside such a whirlwind of hostile drumming and barked lyrics that sound like someone who would fuck you up on the street by stabbing you a dozen times before you could even react. The very dissonant flow inherent to a lot of the riffing here definitely offers a level of nuance to the grisly rhythm guitar tremolo spikes dominating much of the EP, and it definitely reminds me of some of the more intense death metal acts of the last decade like Centvrian, Hate Eternal, and pre-Illud Lamus Maximus Trey Azagthoth, but retaining enough of that ancient war metal appeal that used to run parallel to the US band Angelcorpse. Impiety has mastered this balance of both the taut and frenetic playing for some years now, but one thing that really stood out to me on this release were the lead guitars in cuts like "Accelerate the Annihilation" or the "Prelude (Arrival of the Assassins)", which are unnerving flurries of arpeggios and cracked scale runs that are nothing short of volatile and exciting.

The drums might occasionally feel drowned out, but largely because the listener's attention is going to be so fixed on the complexities of the riffs hurtling all over the abyssal spectrum. Regardless, they're just fucking insane on a Krisiun level of speed and ruthlessness, and they enjoy a pretty honest, slapping production rather than an excessively level of polish. Fills, blasts, and double bass are performed at dynamic levels and the volumes aren't always even, but ultimately that renders it more organic. Shyaithan's vocals are about as pissed off as they've ever been, gnarled and crude and spat out with more venom than a basket of cobras, but even if his inflection isn't your thing, he's also a killer guitar player and a solid bassist...I just wish I could hear the latter more on this set of songs. The tone of the bass is a little muffled and only faintly thumping along and thus the music seems a little mid-heavy. Granted, the drums and guitars provide enough spastic ferocity that you won't miss it long, but I feel like thicker low-end tones would have created a great balance of depth and atmosphere to the speed of the kicks and rhythm guitar licks.

The EP is closed out with a nice shout-out to and cover of Sorcery's "Lucifer's Legions", which a few readers might know from their unsung 1991 classic Bloodchilling Tales. Rather than just trying to sound as Swedish as possible playing it, Impiety have made this their own bitch, lashing her at an intense speed that fits the original material leading up to it, so sort of a classy choice here. But these guys have always had that underground appeal, and no intention of turning their backs on it, and I have to admit, there is some comfort in that. 'Better to reign in Hell...', right? I mean, to an extent, they've never really risen to the fore of these genres, because they're more or less a pastiche of elements from pre-1990 bands like Slayer, Dark Angel, Sepultura and Morbid Angel with a crust of components from the emergent black metal scene, but who would have guessed that 20 years after the Salve the Goat...Iblis Exelsi 7" (which, believe it or not, I think I actually owned at one point and possibly still own), that these guys would still be playing so fiercely?! Asian tyranny forever! The Impious Crusade isn't extremely memorable, and some riffs blaze harder than others, but if you're seeking out some blistering breeze of sickly demon-stench this summer to further sizzle your sun-baked skin, look no further than this...

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]


Friday, July 12, 2013

Dehuman Reign - Destructive Intent EP (2013)

Though the cover artwork definitely seemed to hint at being either an Autopsy, Incantation or Entombed derivative-of-the-week, I really have to give Germans Dehuman Reign some credit: Destructive Intent is a sampling of intense, thundering traditional brutality that takes its cues from faster-based including the Polish onslaught of bands like Behemoth and Vader, the Floridian frenzy of Morbid Angel, Hate Eternal, Deicide and Malevolent Creation, and perhaps a healthy helping of Krisiun, Suffocation and Immolation on top. It's 'old school' along some vectors of its execution, but thankfully not in the same way as most other new death metal signings I've heard the past few years. These guys play with all the precision and potential of the more technical side of modern death metal, only they've trussed up their pinpoint musicianship within rhythmic and melodic parameters that so defined the emergent extremity of the 90s.

Speed is the rule, and slower or mid-paced material the exception, especially once you've crossed the mournful harmonic crescent of the intro "Prelude to Perdition". I can't promise a lot of originality in the riffing cycles, since they've already been played out for so long, but the Berliners manage to transform it into something exciting and punchy, and they do with a nice, clear sheen of production through which you can make out all the details in the guitars. Blasting, fills and foot-work are the human embodiment of a storm, and the guitars often erupt into these mischievous, excellent picking structures like the bridge of "Extinction Machine" where you feel like, in the midst of this torrential slaughter, a band of gleeful imps were dancing on your spine. Hell, once in awhile I even caught a bit of that Malleus Maleficarum-era Pestilence surgical riff style, and you know how I feel about that! Vocals are delivered with a guttural honesty emphasized with a gritty low end rumble when he sustains some of the lower barks, with some impetuous snarling circa classic Deicide to round it all out. The leads in tracks like "Irreversible Soul Consumption" are great, they even go so far to make sure the rhythm guitars beneath the solos are catchy, the mark of really giving a damn!

And because Dehuman Reign gives a damn, so do I. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a great deal of this morbid, suffocating, atmospheric raw death metal that is all the rage nowadays, but Destructive Intent lives up to its name in reminding us that the genre need not skulk about in the caverns and sepulchers for all time to stay 'legit'. No, it's also capable of bringing online enough artillery to level a major city, and even if the actual leaning of the songwriting here is nothing novel, they're tearing out some of the most invigorating and apocalyptic tremolo picking patterns I've heard all year. The two 'Invocation' dark ambient interludes with the down-pitched ritualistic spoken word might seem a fraction cheesy, but they actually do provide a breather before each of the ensuing cataclysms, so they're a welcome enough addition. Ultimately, while this isn't the catchiest death I've heard lately, the intensity, conviction and production of this mini-album provide plenty enough thrills for those who want their death metal fast, clean, brutal and nihilistic.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Quest of Aidance - Misanthropic Propaganda (2013)

Quest of Aidance is one of several Swedish 'supergroups' involving the ubiquitous Christian Älvestam, who might best be known for fronting the earlier Scar Symmetry albums, but has kept quite busy in a number of high grade projects like Miseration and The Few Against Many. His partners in Propaganda include Miseration stringer Christian Lundgren and Daniel 'Daaz', a vocalist from a number of underground acts, with Älvestam handling most of the rhythm section and, frankly, bewildering us with the level of finesse and power he exhibits. It wouldn't be a stretch to claim that Misanthropic Propaganda, along with The Few Against Many's debut Sot, is one of the best things he's been involved with, and its fragile balance of concussive aggression and ear-clinging melodies are sure to place it on the shopping lists of forward-thinking metallers who won't shy away from its hybrid ideas.

Possibly the best way to describe this is as a mix of melodic, modernist death/grind with progressive metal elements that largely shine through the lead sequences and the placement of synthesizers. Very much based on propulsive, choppy and varied riff sets that spread themselves equally across mutated, hyper d-beats, blasting and grooves that will leave you broken in their wake. Initially I felt like comparing this to Czech cult heroes Lykathea Aflame, but this isn't so much that level of mystical miasma, but finds its roots in a lot of the project's Swedish forebears. The sense of rampant melody here is not restrained to simply death metal worship, but you'll also hear a lot of battering ram tremolo progressions redolent of groups like Dissection or Lord Belial. In fact, I might ultimately dub this an evolutionary median between Dissection and the post-Nasum outfit Coldworker, only Quest of Aidance are far, far riffier than the latter, and bring a greater degree of variation to their writing. Few paces are retread, and there's almost no sense of guessing what will happen next over the 14 tracks, which seem to follow an apocalyptic, science fiction concept with bludgeoning enthusiasm.

If you hate all things polished, then the production of this record is unlikely to change that perception, with a high level of clarity running through the intense and tight drumming, guitar phrases and vocals. But I will promise that the grooves are delivered with all the bounce and nuance you'd expect out of any comparable post-nu sort of sound, and some of the shorter thrashing notes are emphasized by a great deal of punch in the rhythm guitar. Occasionally, they'll unleash a pretty typical passage, especially over the D-beat drums, but there simply isn't one of the cuts among these that doesn't have something going for it, and just the raw musicianship alone makes it worth hearing. Bass lines take a nose dive through most of the album, simply unable to stand out past the considerable dynamics of the guitars, but the drumming is an impeccable blend of everything you might enjoy in modern extremity. Vocals are not a forte; a fairly average sampling of gutturals and higher pitched snarls that rebound across the music's dystopian ceiling, but they're spat out with enough certainty and vitriol that they blend in seamlessly with what the Swedes have set out to achieve.

For me, though, the highlights have to be the brilliant lead and melodies, like the intro to "Section 34", that instantly raise Misanthropic Propaganda above the din of most modern death/grind I've listened to. Keys can come off slightly cheesy, or simply atmospheric (like the build of the intro "A New Storm Rising"), but even at their most glaring, I never found them too intrusive. Just 'proggy', if that makes sense. This is not a band afraid to enchant you one moment, and then pulverize you the next, and all without the annoyance of clean and whiny emo-vocal choruses like you'd expect from some trending deathcore/metalcore band, who might also test the waters with such a vast array of influences. This commitment to accessibility, at no expense to the inherent hostility of the genres in which they toil, is very likely to impress a broad berth of fans who follow any number of styles, and let's be honest...not a lot of bands can do that without seeming as if they've bitten off more than they chew. Quest of Aidance naturalize all of this cross-pollenization to the point that, without my background of listening to extreme metal for so long, I would never have known the difference. Misanthropic Propaganda does have a few surface flaws, but ultimately it's an exciting record with enough character and versatility to take the band anywhere it chooses to journey.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Beyond - Fatal Power of Death (2013)

I actually had a few people recommend Germany's Beyond to me in leading up to this promo, with promises that they were helping to force wide the boundaries of extremity wherein this substantial wave of death metal nostalgia thrives. Having now had my brain caved in by Fatal Power of Death about a half dozen times, I would have to say that I'm not disappointed in what I'm hearing. Sure, the music here is clearly another hearkening back to the waters of death metal 'innocence' that so many are currently drinking from, but the sheer ferocity of the blasting, the grimy and often confusing guitar passages that alternate back and forth with the more accessible, grimy grooves, monstrous production and resonant, echoed vocal barks all add up to a dynamic, stirring necrotic tornado of a debut record that is very easily one of the most exciting and memorable pupils in a class that includes Cerekloth, Vorum and Zealotry. Perfect it isn't, but beautiful it is...that is, if in your mind, beauty is a congested void of extraworldly nightmares glaring their maws and tentacles in recognition of your imminent fucking demise!

All the usual suspects like Morbid Angel and Incantation can be heard as a loose foundation of riffing sediment, but the raw speed and savagery evoked throughout this record also strikes notes of war metal bands like Revenge, Angelcorpse and Blasphemy, like the hyperactive sibling of another Iron Bonehead band: Ireland's Zom. The riffs fly all over the place, from layman muted thrash patterns that erupt from the dissolute darkness hovering above the instruments, to cyclones of Altars of Madness complexity and then head-spinning, nail-biting floods of tremolo picked chords so fast and forceful that they blend into sheer sonic battering rams. Add to that the exciting, schizoid bursts of melody and traditional speed picking patterns that would do bands like Slayer or Rigor Mortis proud, and Beyond prove nothing less than a living cyclone. Of course, they can also slow things to a brooding, crushing pace as in "Definite Decease (in the Chamber of Deathsalvation)" where the massive, chunky chords slowly roast the listener as if he/she were at an Elder Gods' weekend barbecue and about to be served up with their own drained bodily fluids as marination...

This is just one of those records that you come away from scarred, feeling sick and as if you've gotten the glimpse of something no mortal should ever see. But at the same time, Beyond incorporate so much of the desperately needed variation and creativity to their riffing that it's also highly musical. Fatal Power of Death is no mere, dissonant disjunction of a death metal record, but a twisted palette of grotesque colors from which a Promethean passion stirs. Note progressions are moody, menacing, and at times meticulously precise in nature, so the compositions are constantly in a flux of order and entropy. Dark vocals bark out over the gruesome throng of guitars like a flying three-way chest-bump between Chris Reifert, Dave Vincent and Pete Helkamp, and the drums are so goddamn amazing that you just want to give up your own sticks, close the garage door behind you and never return. Imagine if Hoglan and Sandoval were mutated together into some flailing percussion-hydra and you've got a good idea of where this is going. They've even got an ambient component in the 13 minute behemoth/finale "Consuming Black Void". All in all, this is a devastating triumph of a full-length debut with considerable replay value. Just make sure your will is up to date before you decide to take this plunge.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Ancient Crypts - Devoured by Serpents DEMO (2013)

Devoured by Serpents is a demo being issued through the Iron Bonehead imprint, which has had a pretty cracking roster of late, and if you've any awareness of the sounds they release, you'll know that this is very likely an exercise in classic extreme metal purity. That is both Ancient Crypts' strength and weakness, of course, for while the material here really excels in terms of presentation and production, it does fall behind when it comes to sounding even remotely unique. Some diehards on the hunt for vintage death metal are naturally not going to have a problem with that, but ultimately I found the riffs here just too commonplace and uninteresting to evoke the same level of excitement that I had for the crushing mix the Chileans manifest into my headphones. I'll be frank: this demo sounds fantastic in terms of the vocals and guitar tone, and that alone will generate some buzz, but the songs themselves are almost entirely bereft of individual ideas and memorable chord progressions.

The arrangement of the riffs here is pure worship of groups like Asphyx, Autopsy and Incantation, that last one shining through when the band picks up the pace and the tremolo patterns and squeals seem as if they're about to rupture your innards. A few sequences, like the intro to "Deep into the Ancient Crypts" slog along at a Sabbath-inspired death/doom gait, but these are exceptions, since much of the picking here is straight mid speed tremolo stuff that relies heavy on the thick accents brought about by the pulverizing, awesome guitar tone. Atmosphere is solely derived from the interchange of rhythm guitars and occasion effects or hints of evil melody that permeate the bulkier guitars, but unfortunately the riffing patterns themselves are nowhere near exceptional, the sorts of things that after about 25+ years of death metal you'd figure someone might just discard when in the writing phase. Tried and true, sure, and that's where a lot of this new old school death metal revival is beginning to fail, but they remind me of what I always sort of missed about Asphyx over most of their career: bland death metal 101 riffing that lacks either the devouring horror or surgical savvy that I so respected from the bands I loved in the late 80s/early 90s (don't get me wrong, I liked that band, just nowhere as much as the younger crowd seems to retro-worship it now).

Anyway, I can't be too harsh on Ancient Crypts, because though they might lack that originality I'm so craving from such a heavily over-saturated field of archaic aspirants, they compensate with just the weight of those guitars, comparable to modern material from their heroes. The passion and enthusiasm of this duo also bleeds straight through the music into the listener. You can just imagine them smiling as they come up with this thick, churning, juicy material, clotted blood guitars and perfectly balanced drumming that takes turns between morbid grooves and ancient blast-work. The vocals are straight Martin van Drunen for the most part, with a few hints of Reifert's zeal or Schuldiner's rasped higher end, but once again, I'm pretty sure that if you enjoy records like The Rack, Consuming Impulse, Mental Funeral, Slowly We Rot and Scream Bloody Gore, you'll feel satisfied with the similarity. In the end, though, I just couldn't come away from this with anything more than a comfort that the past is alive, the subterranean gods had been acknowledged and received their latest sacrifices, and a hope that once Ancient Crypts enter the full-length debut phase, they'll expand outwards and screw around with some more varied riffing, throw in some dissonance and weave in a few more sinister melodies.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]


Witch Cross - Axe to Grind (2013)

Last year gave us a rare treat in that Hells' Headbangers released the All That's Fit for Fighting compilation, a repressing of Witch Cross' Fit for Fight record with a metric ton of bonus content, in both CD/DVD and a lavish 4xLP format which is these days the preference for many collectors of vintage heavy metal. And 'vintage' Fit for Fight was, an album I've had the pleasure of enjoying for many years now, though it was a bit difficult to find in the 80s (several intermittent reissues made a CD available which I later snagged at a Fest in New Jersey, I believe). Great, melodic, well-written traditional metal with speed and hooks, not to mention the gorgeous, piercing vocals which were reminiscent of 80s Riot; perhaps not one of the most vital European recordings of that decade, and they never got to the same level as countrymen Mercyful Fate or Pretty Maids, but it's hard to hear a tune today like "Nightflight to Tokyo" or "Tears of a Clown" and not choke up on the awesome.

Naturally, the 2012 collection was a preface to a new studio record, the band having reformed about two years ago after 25 years of 'radio silence', with three of the original members being joined by a new bassist (Paul Martini) and the English vocalist Kevin Moore, who has been performing with Oliver Dawson's touring version of Saxon. Keep that last detail in mind, because it's going to be important here. I guess whenever I see news of some gem of a band getting back together, especially one that I enjoyed but knew not another local fan of, the cynic in me greets it with trepidation, while the 80s child inside me beats his fists in cheerful anticipation. Obviously, this can be done right, as the new Satan record Life Sentence has resplendently proven with what is undoubtedly a top record of 2013. But more often, you get disappointment, an album that might prove functional and even tasteful yet seems at odds with how the band originally sounded, creating a sort of parallel evolution. A  recent example of this was US power/thrash outfit Heretic's latest album, which reunited them with an old vocalist, but while decent, failed to live up to Breaking Point. So that's the elephant in the room: is Axe to Grind as good as Fit for Fight? Tall order...

It is not.

But now that we've gotten that judgment out of the way, I'd be remiss to claim that Axe to Grind is not at least an entertaining, true to its roots heavy metal roundup which sounds like it's beaming at us directly from that decade of infinite wonders, the 80s. Bold riffing progressions lay it all out on the line, and Moore soars between his verse and chorus lines with relative ease. The caveat is that he sounds quite a lot like Biff Byford of the real Saxon, to the point that the album seems more like a lost 90s gem that might have been released before Dogs of War. This is especially the case when he's straining into a higher pitched note, where his inflection takes on a mildly nasal character reminiscent of Biff. To Moore's credit, a lot of his whispers and 'risks' here (like the unusual "Chelsea 100") seem intent on distancing himself from that very comparison, and he's by no means a clone of the better known front man, but the similarities are insurmountable and the result is that the record doesn't seem to cling to the lineage of Fit for Fight rather than present us with an alternate evolution which might very well have just been some other NWOBHM band and not Witch Cross...

So if you're expecting to hear Alex 'Savage' shrieking lavishly over the unforgettable hooks of anything even remotely resembling "Tears of a Clown" here, you're shit out of luck. But that's the beginning and end of the 'bad news', because Axe to Grind is what it is: a wayback machine. The Danes have eschewed the modern complexities associated with 21st century power metal and done their best to sound vintage. That they were able to bring in legendaries like Chris Tsangerides for a mix, and Flemming Rasmussen (I teared up when I saw his name involved) for mastering is nothing short of stunning, and you can feel the 'class' oozing out of the guitar tones, drum and vocal levels. I can only imagine these guys were fans of Fit for Fight, and I just love to imagine I live in a world where I have that in common with them. Both brilliant, and Axe to Grind sounds energetic through both the pulverizing, honest rhythm guitar tone and the bluesy, wailing leads, and just the level of atmosphere Moore brings to the table when you layer in the backing vocals or effects he is unafraid to evoke in the chorus to a tune like "Awakening/Pandora's Box" or "Bird of Prey".

As for the songwriting, it's admittedly nothing out of the ordinary, melodically imbued standard chords and mutes driving along at a medium pace, calculated to increase headbanging. I would have liked for a few slightly faster tunes to be interspersed with the rest, but certainly if you've got a thing for NWOBHM bands like Saxon, Praying Mantis, Tygers of Pan Tang or vintage Def Leppard (before their suckification) then nothing here will be news to you, and you can settle right in. Occasionally the chugging gets a little chunkier or they'll hurl a blander groove part at you, or a more left of center, proggy breakdown as you'll find in "Chelsea 100" with the maniacal, strange vocals, but pieces like "Demon in the Mirror" and "Metal Nation" are about as straightforward as you'll find. Superficially, the guitar riffs spark nostalgia for a more innocent time, but I don't think that translates into anything remarkable if one were to extract them from the rest of the instruments. Luckily, the drums sound fantastic, splashy and authentic, while the bass strums along with plenty of charm to help balance off the more atmospheric picking often conjoined to the rhythm guitar.

Axe to Grind definitely hasn't hit me quite as hard as Satan's latest, or the incendiary new Attacker disc, or even the new Warlord, but it's competent and deliciously retro enough that fans who want a trad European/NWOBHM hybrid should check it out, running smoothly at around 42 minutes with only a few jagged obstacles in there to hurdle. I'm a little letdown that it's not a match for its ancient predecessor, but at the same time it'd be a little presumptuous and naive to expect such material after such a long absence. On the other hand, does it live up to the notion of Vikings battling gargoyles? Here is a match-up I've never witnessed, nor can I say that I ever dreamed of it, but...sure?! Our axe-wielding hero obviously survived the clash against the man-bat-thing on the debut (though this could be the same creature with a graphical overhaul), and he seems older and wiser here, with backup, but no bare fleshed ladies to inspire him. Perhaps it is that loin-igniting passion which is lacking from the record, but for what it's worth, Witch Cross haven't gone and fucked it all up. At no point does Axe to Grind seem 'out of touch'. They promised nothing more than a good 'ol heavy metal record, and delivered nothing less.

Verdict: Win [7/10]