Saturday, August 31, 2013

Horrifying - Euphoric Existence EP (2013)

As the wheels of ancient, ghastly death metal continue to grind along a highway of human flesh and bones, the chorus of engines is joined by past-obsessed acts the world over. It was largely a European/USA thing at one point, but now Central and South America have chimed in with a good number of acts, some of whom are pretty interesting, others not so much. As for Horrifying, a Chilean act releasing a new, limited 7" EP through Blood Harvest records, one of the most devoted labels of this decrepit old school revivalism, this is more of a stretch into the deep past of death metal. Not a Swedening, not a particularly cavernous sounding affair, but something that recounts the raw roots of the form.

There isn't a damned thing on this small collection of tracks which sounds like it was written post-1992, not a single technique here brings to mind anything remotely modern beyond, say, Onward to Golgotha, and even then they don't utilize the Craig Pillard style gutturals, but more of a mid-ranged, partial hybrid between a bark and a rasp that feels entirely caustic and primitive. But, being this archaic in nature is not necessarily enough to titillate the imagination with delicious nostalgia, the thing needs riffs...and to their credit, while there is nothing even marginally original presented throughout Euphoric Existence, the song-craft on the two longer tracks is varied and at least respectable. For instance, the title track sounds like a rawer interpretation of something circa Scream Bloody Gore but with a more echoed, evil vocal style and a huge breakdown with atonal squeals that would have also felt at home on a pre-1990 death metal prototype, not to mention that it does continue to grow slower into a massive, death/doom lurch that keeps the listener engaged.

The other stronger tune here is "Petrifying Hallucinations" which relies heavily on dark, dense tremolo picked patterns that sound like a mashup of old Death and Incantation, only with some zipping, sinister guitars and that raucous vocal performance. Really loved the totally off the cuff, messy lead sequence embedded there and the surgical thrash/death riffs often coursing through the surge. Can't say I was quite so impressed with the opening, under 2 minute piece ("An Agonic Death") but it had a similar effect to this song. At any rate, the production is pretty steady and consistent throughout the 12 minutes of the 7". Both rhythm and lead guitars are possessed of an unpolished primacy that stirs the guts, but clear enough if you pay attention. The drums are expressive, nasty and loud, with a lot of blasting, storm-like fills but also the ability to break it down to a barebones, sparse rhythm for the second track. It's definitely an invigorating and exciting sound to it, despite the obvious age of the approach, but that's not to say the riffs are all great or interesting.

Regardless, there is an audience for this and I find it hard to believe they'd be disappointed with Euphoric Existence, even if it serves only as a teaser for something more substantial in the future. I've honestly grown a little fatigued with this stuff lately, since not a lot of bands are doing anything different or bringing much of a unique identity to the style, and there are just so many new bands emerging into it. But Horrifying is without question a competent newcomer. I found that they were adept at capturing their intended atmosphere, and keeping the songs punishing and morbid, even if it wasn't quite as memorable as the stuff groups like Horrendous and Morbus Chron have been releasing. Raw, unruly and determined, but there still might be a distance to go in the songwriting.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Friday, August 30, 2013

Scalpel - Sorrow and Skin (2013)

Scalpel is another local Massachusetts band, that, up until now, I had honestly never heard of, but thankfully a pretty strong entrant into a field that includes acts like Abnormality and Zealotry. What's more, they've got a pretty curious take on classic 90s brutality which I'd liken to a more 'musical', multidimensional or visionary alternative to later Barnes era Cannibal Corpse (i.e. The Bleeding) interspersed with a number of outright grinding onslaughts and Morbid Angel level technicality. The primitive aesthetics are apparent, from the throwback cover artwork to the calamitous blasted sequences and dual guttural/snarl vocals, this definitely doesn't sound like your typical modern tech death with its ultra brickwalled and polished production parameters.

Sorrow and Skin is one of those rare records in this niche that you'll feel compelled to listen to through its entirety, which speaks a lot for the effort and love that went into the songwriting. Few of the individual riffs or components might come off as fresh as original when broken down, but it's not like the band has pretensions of becoming trendsetters: they love a variety of old school death metal and honor it by butchering your ears with a crafty barrage of varied riffing progressions. The wailing leads in tunes like "Ripe" or the opening of  "Mincemaster" are an immediate standout, desperate and memorable and not at all the sort of clinical and methodic spasms you'd expect from this genre. As for the rhythm guitars themselves, you've got a lot of those deeper, ominous octave chords sliding around, frenzied tremolo patterns picked individually or through chords, and a surprising level of melody embedded into the churning morass. But even better, when this band breaks out into a groove, like in "Mincemaster", they keep it interesting, and seem to entirely eschew the predictable, unimaginative chug patterns so many death and 'core bands lapse into.

They'll even throw a total surprise at you, like "Sorrow and Skin" itself which starts is like an old Death tune imbued with cleaner guitars before picking up the pace. And speaking of pace, the drummer here is maniacal with his kicks and snares blazing away, peppering the beats with loads of extra strikes that always give the music a more harried, chaotic sensibility that keeps the listener on edge. Several of the songs here, like the creepy, surgical "Skullscraper" really highlight the oozy bass guitar tone, though there are other moments where I felt it got a little lost under the pummeling precision of the guitar picking. In terms of vocals, there is nothing out of the ordinary. A strict guttural accented by impish retching, in the Carcass or Deicide mold, but they occasionally incorporate a lighter, grotesque growl like in the verse of "The Black Juices". I'd say this might be where the band most lacks distinction, but they're nonetheless effective, and the vocalists are both multitasking, so you can't always expect the world.

All told, Sorrow and Skin is a fine full-length debut that helps reinvest me into one of the genres I so loved growing up and so earnestly continue to support. That I could wedge this in between listens of The Bleeding, Domination,  Effigy of the Forgotten, Necroticism or even a few Intestine Baalism records and have it fit right in speaks reams of the balance of brutality these gentlemen can muster, and I enjoyed that they were so shamelessly 'songs first'. Rarely on this record did I feel like they just strung a bunch of random jumpy note patterns together to impress anyone with their randomness. The songs all go somewhere, and several of these ("Sentinels of Severed Flesh", "Sorrow and Skin", "Ripe", etc) are among the best I've heard in the genre of late. The album might not be perfect, and I didn't like every track equally, but this is a promising addition to the New England scene which brings its own style and confidence to the game, and its pretty much a given that fans of anything from None So Vile to Pierced from Within to Gallery of Suicide will find something in here to admire.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Vesterian - Anthems for the Coming War Age (2013)

Hollywood is not the first place that comes to mind when I think of black metal, but having now listened through Vesterian's full-length debut Anthems for the Coming War Age, I have to say....fuck it! Let the streets of Tinseltown run red with blood, slay all the starlets and sequels and entertainment biz shysters who have reduced the once proud art of film making to its lowest common denominator status. That double flail and trident ought to do the trick. At any rate, despite this being the band's first proper album, they've been around for nearly two decades now, formerly known as Centurion on their earlier demos and then continuing to churn out material in that format through the later 90s and into the 21st century. Most of the members also have some experience in other, related underground acts from California, and the seasoned approach to classic black metal here really shines through.

Vesterian generates that same atmosphere and excitement I used to feel through the mid 90s when I was starved for releases from Emperor, Marduk, Satyricon, Old Man's Child, Dissection, and much of the extended Scandinavian scene. Fast, evil, unforgiving, and dependent heavily on the sinister repetition of some semi-dissonant chord progressions, potent blast beats, whipping, frenzied and frightening leads (like in "Morax Gates pt.2"), and wrathful barking and snarls. The tremolo picking that dominates the disc is pure hatred, and most of the compositions are pretty substantial, ranging from 6-10 minutes in length. This has a loud, straight to the face mix with the guitars and drums up front, but even though they're rare, the subtler atmospherics like synths or choirs are tastefully managed just to give the driving black metal some added level of texture or immediacy, as if to drown the listener in nocturnal panic. And this is total night music here, no sunshine or soothing sense of melody to reprieve you from its opaque finish, just straightaway black metal that seeks to connect with its audience not out of any purpose of innovation, but through a shared nostalgia. Even the promo pics of the band made me feel as if I'd just been shat back into 1995...

...and that's not necessarily a bad thing, now, is it? Admittedly, the full 61 minutes of Anthems for the Coming War Age can grow a fraction redundant and wouldn't have suffered from some trimming, but it's not as if Vesterian are just endlessly repeating individual riffs. The disc as a whole flows doesn't possess a wide range of variation, but there are slower moving bridges in there and nuances which generally prevent them from becoming a bore. I'd liken this to a number of the earlier Marduk records: you know what you're in for, and there's a lot of sameness in the speed, pacing, and riff structure, but you put it on for a reason and then just wallow in the infernal, incendiary rush. Otherwise, I can't say I have a lot of problems here...the vocal rasps are pretty standard, and don't have a lot of personality. The bass guitars, while in there, really tend to get clobbered by the rhythm guitars in the mix...though this was pretty much the practice for a lot of the records that inspired this one. But at the end of the day, when Anthems for the Coming War Age rises from its coffin, this is a tightly executed effort of classic black metal which has absolutely no delusions as to what it's on about, and that's to stab and bludgeon you repeatedly until the dawn.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Nordland - The True Cult of the Earth (2013)

There is this mythological niche in the black metal universe which has of late held a lot of vacancies. I speak of course of that primitive, Nordic majesty once wrought by titans like Bathory, Immortal, Satyricon and Enslaved in their 'primes', or at least when they were molding schematics for the genre to follow them, before traipsing off into their own respective evolutions which often took them to distinctly different pastures. Grim, glorious, epically orchestrated black metal in homage to the paganism and history of Europe, and the sprawling wilderness in which it all took place. Records like Blood Fire Death, Battles in the North, Nemesis Divina, Sons of Northern Darkness, Frost and Dark Medieval Times have forever carved themselves into our hearts, and what makes England's Nordland so special is how it genuinely seems to honor their tradition with an impressively produced, full immersion tide of grey conquest. A spiritual successor to the aforementioned works, and remarkably still manifest from the imagination of a single musician!

When I compare The True Cult of the Earth to its eponymous predecessor, it's quite clear to me that Vorh has done his homework, because both the material and production values here surpass the debut in every conceivable category. The guitars sound even more loaded and emotionally destitute, like the thunder of an ancient Anglo-Saxon battlefield twisted into distorted musical flesh. He doesn't write rocket science riffs here, but primal and potent structures of chords that pound like a flagon on a skull, though they are very often imbued with a saddening sense of melody. The bass playing on this album is fucking magnificent, not because it's technical or particularly groovy, but because it's so voluminous and driven that you can always imagine if the guitars dropped out, that the songs would still haul ass with the rhythm section alone. A lot of maudlin, empty vistas of open picking and sustained chords are interspersed with the burlier blasted sections, and the drums crash, batter and blister along like a cavalry charge through a burning village. Vorh's vocals have all the savagery of an Abbath Doom Occulta and yet also retain that strange sense of vulnerability that emitted from Quorthon's tore throat on the late 80s Bathory records. Nihilistic and imperfect, but then that's the allure...

As if this wasn't all huge enough, Vorh implements cleaner, scintillating string sections (like the bridge of "Dawn Calling of Thunor"), brooding ambiance ("The Great Hall of the Sky"), and distant samples ("Crows") to round out the sum experience. It's largely a guitar driven, traditional black metal record, but carefully matched up with enough placement of atmosphere that it feels like so much more. Without being particularly inventive or unique, The True Cult of the Earth has such a massive sound to it that the listener feels dwarfed by its sense of scale. Seriously, I found it difficult to listen through this indoors, because it seemed it would shake the walls and roof off...unwilling to be contained. Individual riffs are not consistently memorable, but taken as a whole this is just a 'chin up', defiant kick to the teeth of a modern world in which many Europeans have lost their cultural roots/identity. Songs of olde for the ears of now. The album packaging is also quite excellent, and the lyrics will immediately appeal to fans of Enslaved, Immortal, Bathory and Summoning, sweeping and personalized paeans to the Earth and Gods. A solid step forward for Vorh, a tremendous trip worth taking, and further evidence that, alongside bands like Winterfylleth and Wodensthrone, England has developed quite a scene for this stuff in the past five years.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (we watch from the headlands)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Slow Death - s/t (2008)

As if the name didn't give it away, The Slow Death is a death & doom metal project hailing from New South Wales, Australia, who are seeing their eponymous 2008 full-length debut reissued through Aurora Australis, probably the best doom-related label I've caught down under. From the cover art alone and band moniker, you'd probably expect this to be some righteously grim shit, but you'd actually be surprised that this is one of the more eloquent and graceful acts of its kind. In fact, they're one of the rare death/doom groups in the past 5 years that I'd actually consider 'catchy', due largely to the constant glaze of guitar melodies, succinct & memorable use of pianos and synthesizers, and the eerie, beautiful vocals of Mandy Andresen which set a nice contrast to the sustained death grunts of Gregg Williamson.

Of course, with tracks ranging from 12-18 minutes, you kind of have to hold the attention, and that's not always the case here. But to The Slow Death's credit, they generate enough versatility across the five songs and 70 minutes of content that no two really sound exactly the same, even if a number of the tunes could use a substantial edit down to their more interesting components. This isn't much of a problem on the 'shorter' pieces like "Grave" or "The Slow Death" itself, but certain I felt myself losing focus through "The Prodigal Sun" and the whopping finale "Dark Days". Drudging, low-tuned guitars are performed in the vein of old Paradise Lost, Anathema and My Dying Bride, with simplistic chord patterns that sound familiar but not entirely derivative; thankfully multi-instrumentalist Stuart Prickett (an Aussie underground veteran who also plays for the killer Backyard Mortuary) is steadily engaging us with loads of harmonies and melodies, some gently tapped and others phasing off into a distant, dying light, so there's not a lot of space here for the chord progressions to become dry.

Andresen's keyboards are hardly uncommon throughout the album, and usually fall under two sounds: a raw, orchestral pad as found in the bridge of "The Prodigal Son" or the intro to the band's namesake, or simple and elegant piano lines woven into the somber rhythm guitar progressions. On one hand, they tend to sound a bit cheesy, but at the same time they give the music a broader sense of scale and involvement than if they had just barebacked these tunes with the guitars alone. I can't speak so highly of the bass and drums, sadly, because the former is just not much of a presence through the album, and the latter are programmed. I'm generally of two minds when it comes to the practice: do they disappear into the background and do their job, or do they add some outside element or atmosphere (alien, industrialized, etc) that makes the music feel fresh. On a death/doom record of this caliber, they simply didn't fit for me, especially where the beats become more intense as the band picks up into a busier riffing sequence ("Dark Days"). They're not exactly a deal breaker here, and I've read that Prickett has corrected this issue on their sophomore with a real live drummer, but it would be dishonest to say they weren't somewhat of a distraction.

Otherwise, this is about 50 minutes of spot on, solemn and emotional escapism with about 20 minutes of overkill. I realize it's a 'thing' in this genre to swell up the songs beyond 10 minutes, but really, they need to either hit a climax (or several climaxes) or generate a hypnotic effect to succeed, and a few of these tracks definitely don't have that sort of structure that keeps you at the edge of your seat awaiting the next explosion of sorrow. Plenty of good riffs here, a tasteful dab of clean guitars, and both of the vocalists excel in their respective ranges, especially the layered, choral outro to "Dark Days", but are some segments I'd cut out of there. Lyrically, they manifest the usual Gothic-laden imagery of isolation, loss and regret, reminiscent of My Dying Bride, but there are some well-composed lines in there that show a sense of effort and seriousness (we're not talking Hooded Menace kitsch here). Ultimately, this was a decent album with solid hooks and respectable has its problems, but definitely made me wanna track down the sophomore to experience the changes. Recommended to fans of Draconian, 90s MDB, Isole, or anyone seeking a lighter, catchier alternative to that other Australian doom mainstay Mournful Congregation.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (crimson veined eyes seek the golden lamplight)

Monday, August 26, 2013

Revocation - Empire of the Obscene (2008)

Empire of the Obscene was an album I had the highest of expectations for, and that probably played into my ultimate disappointment with the thing. Having been in attendance for a number of Revocation's live gigs here in the Boston area, I was witness to their explosive energy on stage and their pinpoint musical ability, and the material they were playing was what constituted a lot of this debut. But for whatever reason, the riffs seem to have lent themselves better to a performance rather than a studio disc, because here they don't feel so innovative or interesting, and this is more or less a lengthier expansion to their Summon the Spawn EP, embodying all three of those tracks and a bunch more in that mold. There is a sense of 'padding' here, with a lot of simpler riff structures you don't expect out of Revocation, which in ideal circumstances would make this their most grounded, down to earth writing, if it was terribly interesting. Fuck, the first time I saw the excellent Pär Olofsson cover art to this thing I got shivers...dystopian, ominous, nerdy, symmetric perfection...but the tunes in no way live up to that vision. If only it had been on a Vektor record!?

Anyway, Revocation's professionalism and ability certainly translated to this disc, and you can see why it garnered the label attention that ended in their signing with Relapse. They had chemistry on the stage, and also off. Empire of the Obscene is clean and pummeling, with that swarthy and voluminous purity we heard on the Summon the Spawn EP, only a fraction better. Deep, bowel churning kick drums and a great guitar tone that seemed to combine the mid 80s Bay Area/Master of Puppets aesthetic with something capable of ferrying the band's more modern tech/death metal influences. Buda's bass-lines were dense, leaden and cleanly carried forth in the mix, and even if I'm not the biggest fan of Dave's vocals, here they were at their most salacious and vicious, especially where he lays on the more guttural, gory edge to them. On the other hand, the record is a grab bag of riffs that at best represented the more clinical side of late 80s thrash ala Heathen's Victims of Deception or Sepultura's Arise, and at worst some pretty overt influence from melodic Swedish death metal bands like At the Gates, or on occasional a more brutal aspect of modern post-Suffocation USDM. Unfortunately, even at their most melodic and accessible, the songs here like "Fields of Predation" often feel driven more by superfluous displays of technique than raw emotion.

I'm not sure if they fattened up the album based on the pretense that they wanted more on there apart from the demo/EP tracks, but some of the choices here like the 5 minute instrumental "Alliance and Tyranny" are the sorts of songs I hear once and soon forget, a piece that might of well just been on an Angela Gassow-era Arch Enemy record. Better if Empire of the Obscene had been tightened to about 35-40 minutes of the most kickass material and left excursions like this one out of it. I get that it reveals more of Revocation's progressive rock/metal influences and their willingness to branch out, but it's a lot of wasted time after just one decent, melodic riff. The "Stillness" interlude, too, a gentle acoustic piece that goes nowhere apart from furthering the notion of versatility in the trio's arsenal. There are other songs like "Age of Iniquity" which have really boring thrash/death stop/start patterns among them which simply don't seem to play up to the group's obvious proficiencies, and I wish they had just cut the chaff in a lot of places here. I mean it says a lot to me that the Summon the Spawn material remains among the strongest here...and I was just expecting this to burn the house down and revolutionize modern technical metal. It does no such thing.

But at worst, Revocation are simply providing an exhibition of their chops and technical potential here with a pretty harmless set of riffs that occasionally grow more exciting than stock late 80s riffs sauced in 21st century production standards. Empire of the Obscene is by no means a 'bad' effort, and modern pundits would appreciate its level of balance and control. The lyrics are decent if topically scattershot, and for an album that was initially self-released, Pete Rutcho's production was pristine, polished to a modern pop/rock level, without losing the ability to wrench a neck out of its socket or punch you in the nethers. For whatever reason, though, each time I've gone back to listen to this over the last five years, it has become more and more expendable. The songwriting is far more bland than the sophomore Existence is Futile (still their best album), and it was pretty obvious they were just getting warmed up even when this first dropped. Sleek, competent death/thrash metal that will probably be more impressive to those who never experienced the 80s or 90s influences firsthand, but not terribly exciting or interesting compared to something like Vektor or Immaculate.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Despot - Satan in the Death Row (2013)

The cover of Satan in the Death Row definitely gives off the vibe of a more traditional heavy metal record, but this is in fact an all-out, one man black metal express replete with synthesizer orchestration, lots of tempo variation and no shortage of atmosphere. Despot is a Brazilian project involving one B.A.V., who had previously spent years in other Belo Horizonte underground acts like Necrocult and Unholy Massacre before turning his attention strictly to Despot, and this is the first proper full-length experience which is being offered through Bandcamp. He covers all instruments and programming, and if nothing else I came away from the album pretty impressed by the guy's sinister energy and also his willingness to balance off subtle atmospherics with brutal intensity...

A great example of this is the track "Auto-da-Fé" which is a face-tearing black/death metal exhibition that seems like a bastard blackened spawn of Morbid Angel and faster Sarcofago, only he tosses in a lot of eccentricities like chanting and whispers against the filthy onslaught of proto-black/thrash riffs and mechanized sounding kick drums that will leave compound fractures on your skull. Vocals are a harsh, nihilistic roar with a bit of resonant echo, though he can easily veer into rasps or guttural growls for added effect. Subtle sweeps of symphonic keys are executed in the background to create a fulfilling level of drama. B.A.V. is also a rock solid bassist who makes the instrument well known with lots of grooving fills, and as a rhythm guitarist he is even better, keeping the riffs busy, varied and even semi-clinical or technical as he churns up a batch of thrash, death and black metal techniques with ease, cross-pollinating the picking styles so that they remain provocative and engaging even when they're not specifically catchy. The one caveat is that I felt the leads here were sloppy in execution...sort of arbitrary, indulgent, frivolous, uninteresting and not very well put together or even effective as fits of disjointed chaos.

Some are likely going to have issues with the production on the record, in particular the drum sound, but I actually found them bombastic and pummeling enough to mesh in with the soaring synths and choirs, and grimy lead vocals, and it even gave a hint of an industrial/black impression circa Thorns. I do feel like the rhythm guitars would have been better served with a more potent and robust mix, that might have helped balanced out better against the programming, but in the end, for a one man project, you can hear just about everything and a little bit of rawness or imbalance does help to give Satan in the Death Row a refreshing, hellish visage that takes you back to the 90s when black metal recordings were all slightly 'imperfect' in legendary ways. Most importantly, though, B.A.V.'s riffing style is rather peculiar, with a lot of early 90s death/thrash flair that you don't normally experience in the context of black metal. Morbid Angel, maybe, but some of the patterns even reminded me of bands like old Atheist or early Sadist which I never would expect on a black metal production, though this is probably just my imagination.

At any rate, Despot is a compelling project, worth your support in at least checking out, because while there are clear parallels to 90s black metal delivered through the atmospheric synths, that give the record that sense of nocturnal majesty you might recall from a record like In the Nightside Eclipse, Born of the Flickering or Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, the supporting structures of the rhythm guitar are generally even more interesting and give this album a semi-original sound that was compelling to become lost in. The mix can be tightened up, with fatter guitars and maybe a better tone for the bass and guitars, but this guy is no joke, and anything from the concentrated majesty of "Le Roi Nu" to the scathing sympho-black-thrash of "Egregious" just reeks of fiery creation and actual effort being applied. The lyrics are also quite awesome, minimalistic fits of infernal and haunting poetry. I dug this. Check it out on Bandcamp, and let the man know what you think.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (she still wonders as she burns)

Friday, August 23, 2013

Naer Mataron - Και ο λόγος σάρξ εγένετο (2013)

While their prior six full-lengths all tended towards a milder range of variation from one another, Και ο λόγος σάρξ εγένετο almost seems like a new era for Greece's Naer Mataron. Not because it abandons the precepts of its predecessors, or the black metal genre as a whole, but because it molds them into a seasoned, nearly 60 minute experience which itself incorporates an immense level of versatility. But perhaps the most impressive thing I can say for this album is that it embraces the group's Hellenic heritage more severely than any of their older works, not just because of the folksy sing a long tracks here which took me completely by surprise, but also because the metal riffing itself was occasionally evoking the majesty of Greek legends like Rotting Christ, Varathron or Thou Art Lord, something that was in shorter supply with their more aggressive albums that reflected more of a Scandinavian black metal aesthetic.

There are some mid-ranged, almost thrashing/black riffs in the breakdowns and bridges here of tunes like "Demon's Lord" or "The Light Bearer" which take you straight back to what was so special about this scene in the mid 90s: a defiant implementation of traditional heavy metal melody in a niche generally reserved for tremolo picking purity or bum-rushes of glinting, dissonant chords. Not that Και ο λόγος σάρξ εγένετο is entirely void of either of those things either, but Kaiadas and company leave themselves plenty of openings here to explore tempos and atmospheres, which wasn't always the case on older records. The guitars have a lot of punch and clarity to them, especially the muted phrasings, without sounding overly saturated or raspy in their distortion. Some slower, doom-like passages are explored, like a cover of Sarcofago's "Nightmare" which sounds pretty damn smooth; or the contemplative opener "The Magus", which is a slow, sparse and simple composition over which Kaiadas delivers some chilling, cleaner, spoken lines before it convulses into a glorious Greek black riff and he starts his impetuous snarling. For anyone who missed their older style, they do throw out a few bones like "A Secular Pursuit of Coffins" which is straight, nasty, blasted black metal.

The experiments here are likewise pretty great, like the 14 minute title track finale which is a fusion of folk, ambient and tribal drumming with some bluesy guitars and odd, tonal chanting. It's almost as if "Planet Caravan" were re-written through the lens of a Greek folk act, and fairly immersive if you just chill out and give it a chance. The eerie male/female chants of "Eternal Ice" really set up "The Light Bearer", and "Nyhta Pagani" is a wonderful piece for meditation, with traditional guitars and layered female vocals that sound wonderfully genuine rather than corny. Traditional instruments used here include a yayli tanbur (a long necked Turkish lute), a lyre and Tibetan 'singing bowls' (standing bells) in "The Hunt", and all are used rather well with a very natural sense of production that almost feels like you're listening to them in the eaves of the Parthenon, or outdoors in some square of Athens centuries past. Even if there are only about five actual metal originals on the record, it all seems so well balanced and unpredictable, and when you include the simple but attractive digipak packaging/artwork, this is really the most fascinating Naer Mataron to date, no taint at all of a band simply 'going through the motions', but one committed to expanding itself. It's not Praetorians II (my own prior favorite from the band), and it might turn off fans who just tune into this band for its sheer savagery, but nonetheless it sets the band a new standard of aesthetic charm.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Dark Design - Prey for the Future (2013)

Science fictional power metal is not a new thing, since bands as far apart as Iron Maiden and Crimson Glory were pimping the themes in the 80s, and even some of today's stalwarts have entire albums (Gamma Ray) or careers (Iron Savior) based around some idealized, imagined future. But there are probably a lot of cases where the music just doesn't always match the expectations of the perceived setting. For instance, the debut album of Dark Design, Prey for the Future looks absolutely fucking smashing ridiculous, a labyrinthine collage that seems like H.R. Giger as seen through the eyes of Derek Riggs. It would be impossible for a terminal geek such as myself not to get pumped up at the sight, but then...the music is just not that same level of awe inspiring.

To be fair, what would be? I don't know, but if it's any consolation, the North Carolina quintet is at least performing a pretty rare hybrid of 90s thrash and progressive/power metal which feels like a more primitive alternative to Pharaoh, reliant more or straight rushing riffs more than incalculable melodic intricacies. There is some 80s inspiration for sure, with busy riffs redolent of Helstar, Liege Lord, Omen, or a muscled up Maiden, but I was also struck with some nostalgia for later, comparable USPM like New Eden, Opposite Earth, Jag Panzer (the Century Media years) and Destiny's End. Vocalist Andrew Bertrand has a delivery somewhere between the 'Tyrant' Harry Conklin, Henning Basse and Tim Aymar, smooth at its higher pitches, with a nice fragile strain on the sustained notes, but imbued with plenty of dirt and character when he's belting out lines in a mid-range. I also found the bass player here to be excellent, loudly and confidentally plugging along as early as "Dark Design", and always justifying himself by adding a level of nuance and groove you don't commonly find in this style of power metal.

The leads are very well designed, and the performance of drums and rhythm guitars never in question, but I will say that I occasionally felt underwhelmed by some of the chord patterns and note selections. A few examples include the bridge rhythm in "Dark Design", or the broken groove in "Abiding Contempt", where the vocals really take control and the guitar feels kinda crunchy and cheap by comparison. Or the slower, churning patterns in "Welcome to Your (Doom!)" which feel like pretty average Sabbathian detritus, and just don't really tweak my imagination. Dark Design cannot be faulted for lacking variety here, since they know how to pace out the album, swap some tempos, and prevent any one idea from becoming the beating of a dead horse, but individually when I break up the songs there just aren't a hell of a lot of riffs of note that I would pick out of a lineup of aggressive heavy/power from the 90s or 21st century. Without the leads, the vocals would have almost no competition in drawing the ear, so many of the note progressions just feel like a basic support system for this guy to go soaring over, like a well-hurled pass over the shoulders of the line backers.

I did like that some of the lyrics here were rather topical and relevant, even when teased with a fictional allegory. For instance, I figured "Spice World" would be another Dune-themed tune, but nope, it's about our own crises in the Middle East. Well played. Some are more directly nerdy, like "Dragonmount" which is based on the Wheel of Time series, but I don't mind a mix to be honest. The use of acoustics here as in the intro "Media Res" is quite good, and the cover of Kansas' "Dust in the Wind" seems fitting, but when I put the two together, I can't help wondering what Dark Design might accomplish in a straight up progressive rock format not unlike Marillion or something. At any rate, there are a few pretty inspired power metal moments here like the opening to "Meditations", but on the whole I didn't find a lot of the rhythm guitar riffs very creative or that level of escapism I had gleaned from a superficial expectation. It's competent stuff, all too uncommon in the States, and you can tell these are seasoned musicians who have been playing for a few decades. I think they'll certainly develop some traction with fans of the StormSpell, Pure Steel and Heaven and Hell label rosters, but beyond liking the singer, this particular set of tunes felt more like an incomplete launch into the atmosphere than an actual lunar landing, if that makes sense.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Nephren-Ka - The Fall of Omnius (2013)

I was primed for The Fall of Omnius based on its concept alone, not because it's simply a Dune-themed album but because it actually has the audacity to dip into the greater milieu of Herbert's fictional universe, an emphasis on the 'Machine Crusade' series of events which was more or less Frank's vision of an A.I. dominated epoch that was challenged by sentient man. Pre-Skynet, pre-Matrix, it existed in the backdrop of the Messianic saga of Paul Atreides on Arrakis until Frank's son and Kevin Anderson transformed it into one of their prequel trilogies. Some have of course written these off as a simple cash-in, and some are clearly written better than others, with more obvious personal inspiration involved, but as a total sucker for dark, dystopian space opera (like this universe or the Warhammer 40K fiction), I at least enjoy the expanded universe-building and find some of the plot lines more interesting than even Frank Herbert's sequels to the original Dune novel.

So it's rather fascinating that a French death metal band feels the same way, although I won't say that this is an album which musically reflects the science-fiction/space opera fiction...not entirely. Some of the choices in dissonance, pummeling rhythm patterns could certainly represent the mechanical nature of the antagonists, and evoke a slightly alien, futuristic vision, but we're not talking Dimension Hatröss or Nothingface here, a new language in metal music. Nephren-Ka, name taken from the 'Black Pharaoh' character in the Cthulhu Mythos (though there are some clear musical parallels to Nile), is a death metal act highly reminiscent of the evolutionary period between bands like Morbid Angel, Gorguts, Deicide and their modern offspring like Hate Eternal, Krisiun and the aforementioned Nile. Brutal, pinpoint riffing sequences defined by their sheer speed, punctuality, and verve. Ominous octave slides, sweeps, unapologetic blasting streaks and intense double bass footwork, among other genre tropes that place this somewhere between Coven or Domination-era Floridian insanity and something like Conquering the Throne, Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka or their peers. That's not to say that the Frenchmen are a direct clone of any one band, but clearly there are precedents, and thus Nephren-Ka fits in snugly with other Kaotoxin acts like Ad Patres and Savage Annihilation (who are both pretty good).

The Fall of Omnius is fast, punchy, and lethal, but it also pays some honor to the old school aspects of its genre with loads of simplistic, tremolo picked patterns strewn between the more energetic bursts. The mix is quite understated, without a lot of reverb or brightness in there, just a metric ton of riffs delivered honestly and earnestly through sore wrists, and beats that reveal an amazingly consistent ankle strength. It's actually clear in terms of making out the notes, but there's a murkiness or clinical flatness to the whole affair. On the one hand, there isn't a lot of 'exotic' feel to the music, you don't really feel like your transferred to this other universe of the lyrics, but some brutal death metal diehards of the 90s will undoubtedly appreciate the lack of gloss and glitter. Even the leads are pretty straightforward, squealing or searing along in short spurts that do their job and nothing more. Vocals are faster paced gutturals with little variation or distinction, reminding me of a Steve Tucker or Chief Spires, with some backing snarls in the Deicide tradition. Also gotta give some props to the bass playing here, because it's incredibly dense, concise and percussive and you'll rarely lose it beneath the rhythm guitars; it adds some breadth and atmosphere to the intensity.

Admittedly, The Fall of Omnius is not a record on which the individual tracks do much to distinguish themselves from one another, despite the constant influx of new riffs and tempo shifts. This is a consistent brutal death metal assault from beginning to end, but apart from a few of the more freaky and off the hinges moments in tunes like "Feydakins Storm", I was let down that it didn't do a better job of conveying the atmosphere I wanted. Perhaps some tasteful industrial instrumentation, samples or even faint hints of keyboards and ambiance would have provided a better immersion into the chosen, imaginative setting. There would be no need to go cheesy, but I'm just a huge fan of sounds and concepts finding that perfect marriage, and this to me seems more like a standard brutal death metal record circa 1999-2003 with the inspiration explored only through the titles and lyrics. A lot of hooks, but few that pierce the flesh. Not for the faint of heart, but at the same time, rather one-note in style and mood. That said, it's a decently executed record which should put a strain on the necks of anyone into fellow French acts like Ad Patres or Kronos, and certainly Nephren-Ka has enough intensity and proficiency to appeal to the fan of Hate Eternal, Diabolic, or earlier Nile.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, August 19, 2013

Masada - Hideous Rot EP (2013)

Hideous Rot was ultimately a frustrating listen, because while I might appreciate that a band wants to present its material in the most primitive and 'honest' form, the songwriting here simply deserved better. I can only imagine how good these same tunes would have sounded with a budget to them! Old school, clinical and evil sounding riffs with hints at anything from Gorguts to Suffocation to old Pestilence Malleus Maleficarum era stuff due to the surgical, sinister harmonies slicing up a cut like the opener "Hideous Cerebral Pulp". What's worse, Masada is a sort of US underground death metal supergroup, with members of Crucifier, Rellik, and even Craig Smilowki (ex-Immolation, Goreaphobia) on the drums here, so I think they could have put a little more care into the it stands, I'd hardly even qualify Hideous Rot as a decent demo level in sound, it's more like a couple of rehearsal sessions strung together. Now, granted, this sort of raw, stripped down sound can be done well (like Macabra's Blood-Nurtured Nature), but not this time I'm afraid.

How they managed to get Clive Jones of psychedelic/prog rockers Black Widow to throw a freak out flute instrumental on this thing is bizarre, but the placement (second track) is a little strange and I'm not sure it really added to the recording in any appreciable way. I'd rather hear the guy jamming the wind instrument into one of the death metal tunes. Wouldn't that be something? Is this eclectic? Sure, and it felt like something Cadaver would have done in their early years, but the band's original material here is far more involving, threaded with precision riffs and grooves that snatched me back through time to records like Effigy of the Forgotten, Spiritual Healing, Testimony of the Ancients, etc. Nasty little harmonies create plenty of otherworldly, morbid atmosphere, a sense that one is watching one of those sped-up film reels of animal or human flesh decaying and sprouting with maggots and rot, the bass and drums are in general pretty tight, but the rawness of the guitar tone and dryness of the bass on the first few cuts is distracting. Other tunes like "Suffer Mental Decay" are a little meatier, but this creates an inconsistently on an already finite track list which involves only four tracks to begin with, and I guess I felt like I was only being fed scraps of the band when they're capable of a five-course meal.

Vocally, there's nothing here you hadn't already experienced from a Ross Dolan, Glen Benton or Craig Pillard, deep and nihilistic gutturals accented by occasional snarls, but I will admit I enjoyed the more morbid, echoing, cavernous tone on "Toxic Unreality" more than the drier lines elsewhere. The tunes are busy, but complex only in the context of the early to mid 90s, when a band like Death was considered progressive or technical. Tempos are generally mid-paced, especially the guitars, while the drums only burst in a rare,  measured blast like the beginning of the EP. Occasionally I felt like the drum mix was shoddy, or that all the instruments weren't being recording in the same room/session, but it's listenable to the extent that you can make out most of the notes and individual drums. In the end, while there are good players and ideas present, and Masada are more than capable of honoring the nostalgia from which their music is born, I just felt like sending the songs back and begging for a remix or a full-on studio incarnation with higher (or at least more consistent) production values. Hopefully we'll get that with future material, because Masada the band is simply superior to the raunchy, unpolished disposition here.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Veldes - To Drown in Bleeding Hope (2013)

Veldes is the solo work of Slovenian guitarist Tilen Šimon, otherwise known as Isvaroth from Nephrolith, whose debut I reviewed a couple years ago. Unlike that act, which was a more decidedly face-scathing brand of Scandinavian-styled black metal, here the focus is largely upon swaths of involved, atmospheric sound reliant on more minimalistic chord patterns and melodies, secondary drum beats and even some samples. I suppose it sounds like it belongs in the Summoning camp, though this is directly centered around the guitar itself, and not the synths and masterful use of electronic percussion that those Austrians are known for. While To Drown in Bleeding Hope is not a long album by any means (36 minutes), it's certainly one that demands some patience on the listener's part.

These aren't dense compositions loaded down with riffs, and really only the first track "Through the Bitter Flames" casts the hue of a more traditional black metal blaze, with warm and mildly dissonant chord patterns that are refreshingly not all that predictable; though some of the tremolo guitar fills are bland, and even if this has the most intense beats throughout the album, they're still incredibly passive beneath those shimmering, bright guitars and Tilen's desperate, immense rasping vocal inflection. The other four tracks are more the norm, spacious and gracious and often involving catchy clean guitars accompanied by slightly swelling synth synth lines that give you the impression your watching birds take off over a lake. For instance, the openings to "Featherless Across the Burnt Skies" or "Beneath the Grieving Waters" are quite stunning, and when the metal element arrives it all feels like this vast, rustic space opening above you, as profound as the onrush of dawn, and I think that was the point here. Emotional, outdoorsy black metal as opposed to some sinister Satanic ritual being performed in a cave, with image-heavy lyrics of renewal and decay that do well to spark the listener's imagination.

Production is quite impressive here for just one guy, and though the drums feel too artificial in spots, they're not exactly the strong point, usually just keeping the pace cleanly, or informing the tempo changes. The bass lines are all rather simple and gentle, but they do their job in adding a deeper dimension to the generally high pitched rhythm guitars. I was scratching my head at the spoken word sequence in "Earth As a Nest of Bones and Debris", finding it eerily familiar, and then realized it was Viggo Mortensen's character from the film version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road! Aesthetically, it fits in rather well with the pianos and walls of distortion Šimon evokes here, and inevitable eruptions of resonant snarls. In general, the whole album possesses a consistency to it which flooded my thoughts with imagery of mists, hazy golden mornings, wildlife and an absence of mankind and civilization, so those seeking out a more majestic, rural black metal sensibility will likely get something out of Veldes. It's not exactly intricate or complex, and I think the rhythm section could be a little more ambitious to produce stronger results, but if you're looking for breathing, captivating black metal with a folk tint ala Summoning, Mirkwood, Elffor, Kroda, Falkenbach, or Drudkh it's worth hearing.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (fed with tribulation)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Arjen A. Lucassen - Lost in the New Real (2012)

Lost in the New Real is a rare solo effort from Arjen A. Lucassen, the Dutch producer of seemingly endless rock operas. Most famous for his Ayreon collaborations, Lost in the New Real fits that mold much more so than any of his other various projects.

Normally, Arjen's vocals tend to rank as the least memorable, easily outshined by the greats he assembles for his Ayreon and Star One collaborations. Besides two backing vocals, Arjen is the primary voice on this album, and he produces some very memorable choruses. I've been humming "Yellowstone Memorial Day" since the minute I first heard it.

Other stand-out songs include "Battle of Evermore" and the title track "Lost in the New Real." The latter finds Arjen layering his vocals to produce the complex choruses found on his other albums. It is in this moment that the album starts to feel like Aryeon b-sides, and I suspect many of these songs began life that way. In fact the album cover references "The Dream Sequencer," an earlier Ayreon album.

Story connections to that album are superficial. Lyrically Arjen plays with a variety of sci-fi concepts, although more interesting are the bevy of allusions to famous rock bands peppered throughout the album. Perhaps most telling is the song "Parental Procreation Permit" where the main character laments that everything has been done before. Rutger Hauer provides narration as Doctor Voight-Kampff (standard levels of cheese are fully engaged on this album btw). On the aforementioned song, Doctor V-K challenges the singer to cease producing music as it's all been done before. I got the sense that Lost in the New Real is a mid-life crisis of sorts for Arjen, as he ponders whether he should continue making this type of music; indeed, there are many sounds, riffs, and effects on the album that sound suspiciously similar to his earlier work.

Be that as it may Lost in the New Real is a solid album Arjen fans. I'd absolutely give it a listen for Ayreon fans biding their time until Arjen releases that next album later this year.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, August 16, 2013

Fleshgod Apocalypse - Labyrinth (2013)

Perhaps it's just old age catching up with me, but I think it telling that Fleshgod Apocalypse's substantial third full-length album Labyrinth gave me a headache within about 10 minutes of the grandiose intro to "Kingborn". Funny enough, so did their last album. A few Tylenol later, I was armed and ready to return, and after giving this more of a chance, I found that I could appreciate it ever so slightly more than Agony. While they are still insistent on performing this symphonic re-branding of their debut Oracles (good stuff), I felt like at least this time they did a superior job of mixing the synthesizers in with the rhythm guitars, and created a greater depth of maniacal Mozartsian brutality. That's not to say that this is a step up or a step down in terms of songwriting, or not even remotely as unique as some will make it out to be, but as more or less a hybrid of Sigh's Hangman's Hymn, Septic Flesh's last three records, and Death Cult Armageddon-era Dimmu Borgir, it's at least functional.

The problem is, like with the last album, that a lot of focus here is on playing as quickly and intensely as possible with no regards to catchy rhythm guitars or truly brilliant dynamic shifts, and that's why it retains a sense of 'faux orchestration', like someone fast-forwarding an old black & white artillery march set to Wagner in an incessant loop of crescendo. Exciting in small chunks, but exhausting and uninteresting in the longer run. Probably a good eight of ten riffs, and about half the keyboards immediately depart the memory after entering, and so the listener is generally left to stand 'blown away' by the speed of the drumming and the spastic, spasming energy of the colliding and contrasted choirs and 'strings' flying around everywhere. But I wont' fault Fleshgod Apocalypse for not trying here. This isn't just a straight blasting migraine, they actually do embed the 54 minute track list with some versatility. There are a few 'breathers' among them, like the acoustic "Prologue" and the dramatic piano finale "Labyrinth", but I do wish they had come a little earlier in the run time. They also divvy up the importance of the orchestration and methodic guitar picking here, so while "Warpledge" might rely very heavily on the girly operatic screams and choirs over its raging substrata of kick drums, other tunes have plenty of surgical riffing harmonies.

But the intensity is a constant, and often a nuisance. We don't really feel like we're being allowed to travel on this journey of splendor and terror through Greek mythology, but rather, we're being kicked along, like by a cadre of annoying, bullying, brutal death metal ushers in a theater. 'You done with that popcorn yet?' 'Let me have those candy wrappers.' 'Shut up and LISTEN to the fuckin' choirs!' 'No making out in the theater!' 'This is the good part, now move along, nothing more to see here.' Any time I think they're on to some tasty flight of strings or pianos, or a delicious riff pops up through the surging bombardment, it's gone in a flash and I find it irrevocably frustrating. I won't doubt that many hours went into sharpening Labyrinth, crafting the densest and busiest recording imaginable, but when at the end of the day it sounds like Dethklok paying homage to Virgin Steele, I can't really give credence to this pushing the boundaries of 'extremity' like so many fans of Agony decried. And I'm not saying that as some crusty vest-metal advocate who defies everything that sounds like it came out after 1993 because it doesn't fit into my carefully-cultivated self image; I enjoy quite a lot of modern, triggered clinical tech death and always will. This has all been done: Fleshgod is simply filling in what few blanks remained in the phrasing, with symphonic overkill.

So, what DID I like about Labyrinth? Well, for one, considering just how fucking much is happening here, I was impressed that I could make out almost all of the details. Francesco Paoli, as usual, is a goddamned bull. Don't get me wrong, he's a 'mechanical bull', inhuman, and very likely to side with Skynet once our robotic overlords come to prominence, but if I were to watch this guy perform I'd have to untangle my jaw from my shoelaces. Meticulous, brickwork blasting and untiring kicks everywhere, I just don't see drummers going further than this without cybernetic implants. That's not to say the beats are interesting, they're really just setting the pace for the sum shitstorm of Labyrinth's components, but that he's incredibly driven and talented is impossible to deny. The soaring lead harmonies, where they appear, are also like a spike of sunshine parting the turbulent storm-clouds of orchestrated excess, rays of 'class' amongst the barrage of cheese. The screaming, wannabe King Diamond vocals here are consistently irritating, but hey, at least they try and break up the monotony of stock growls that, while loud, are nothing all that special. The bass lines are probably sick, but they blend in too well against the rhythm guitars and I often lose them altogether...

Ugh. I wanted to like this so much more than I did. Labyrinth might not be the most unique choice of Greek mythological concepts, but I think the lyrics are handled with some passion and knowledge of the subject matter. Minos, Daedelus, Icarus, they're quite thorough with this little subsection of the lore, even throwing in a reference to Procrustes the Stretcher. Not to mention, the title alone seems to gel well with Fleshgod Apocalypse's style, because there's much to traverse and pick apart here, even if most of the riffing ideas wind up at dead ends like Asterion's maze. 54 minutes is quite long here, and the flow of the record would have been bettered served with a piece like "Labyrinth" earlier in the roster, but then, this is not something I'm going to find myself listening to in its entirety very often (if ever). 1-2 tracks I can stomach, but even then there are few which really deserve the attention. Despite the sheer magnitude of the Italians' efforts and capabilities, I always had the feeling I was headed somewhere but never arriving. I guess that's the point of a 'labyrinth', to trap the aspirant into a sense of claustrophobic, unending dread, but unfortunately there's no aural ball of string, no Theseus to give us the comeuppance, the payoff all this chugging, banging and sweeping calamity deserves.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (for I will slay the shame of Crete)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Nhor - Within the Darkness Between the Starlight (2013)

Within the Darkness Between the Starlight is a patient, meditative entry into a rich English black metal scene that is slowly, inevitably creeping its way up to international prominence. From the more folksy and culturally inspired works of Wodensthrone and Winterfylleth to the eclectic and literate A Forest of Stars, there's much happening on the isle of Great Britain, a recapture of rustic roots worth more than any commercial Medieval Faire. The musician Nhor approaches the genre from a different vector than such peers, like an accessible, more dynamic alternative to something like Switzerland's Paysage d'Hiver rather than a feral black metal riffing beats. Opaque, emotional and certainly in need of numerous listens to ingest, this third full-length is easily one of the most melancholic experiences I've had in the metal sphere this year.

Compositions range from maudlin piano pieces, to blasting, full-on, textured mournful black metal passages and then some drifting, ambient black-gaze components which develop a lush sense of obscured majesty. There is a tangible sense of distance here between the instruments, with the guitars and drums always howling and battering at you from a distance, while the pianos and roiling swells of ambiance are brighter and more whimsically confrontational. But, for a thing of such beauty, I really enjoyed how Nhor kept the bass lines and rhythm guitars ruddy and filthy, refusing to cleanse the recording of that essential underground grime that gives it a holistic depth. Vocals here are quite varied, from a central, suffering rasp to some keening, painful tones and soaring cleans that can run off the harsher bites. Riff structure isn't always highly unique, with some sloshing chords and vine-like tremolo picking, but it has a strangely hypnotic, anaesthetic and oft-droning substance that really impresses through the title track or "The Fall of Orion", sort of reminiscent of how Germans Endstille would build their strange rhythm guitars, only not in the context of such in-your-face, flesh-ripping black metal. I also appreciated how the loud and oozy bass lines, which you don't often hear so clearly in bands of a comparable, contemplative stature.

Lots of variation here, between longer and shorter cuts, but the dreary mood remains consistent even across the pure, scintillating piano melodies. Pacing in tracks like "Rohmet Etarnu" and "The Temple of Growth & Glimmer Ascends" is redolent of an atmospheric black/doom hybrid, with lazier, fill-strewn beats and fuzzy, repetitive guitars that serve as a bottomless tear-spring beneath the other instruments. I suppose to some extent this is the sort of stuff that makes you stare at your shoes on an autumn stroll; there's nothing brazen or fiery happening over nearly an hour of content, but I like that Nhor always incorporated just a faint hint of encroaching, threatening winter in the note choices, and it's never quite predictable beyond the enveloping sombre haze that never seems to dissipate. Ultimately effective, raw and gorgeous in equal measures, this is easily recommended to a large cross-section of fans who enjoy Velvet Cacoon, Alcest, Burzum, A Forest of Stars, Lifelover, Paysage d'Hiver, or anyone seeking a seasonal soundtrack for colder months. Just great stuff, really, and hopefully the signing to Prophecy Productions will get this out to a wider audience than the earlier records.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Necrohell - Possessed by Nocturnal Grimness (2013)

Possessed by Nocturnal Grimness has one of those titles which might mislead the reader into thinking it's some sort of a cheesy parody of its genre, but in truth, this project is (and always has been) prolific Greek musician Ungod's love letter to the aesthetics of the early 90s Norse scene, in particular a Darkthrone or Mayhem. Total newsprint style here, in the artwork, corpse paint and the musical ideas being discharged through the cold and haunted nightscape. Granted, the duo's traditional sense of melody and riff choice here isn't all that far removed from some of Ungod's other bands (Sad, Kvele, etc), but dare to step outside with this one after the sun sets and you'll see your breath clearly in the moon's radiance, and hear the howling of imaginary wolves. Derivative, sure, but just LOOK at the's not pretending to be anything it isn't, and I had a better reaction to this than the first full-length, Under the Sign of a Pagan Winter (from 2009) or the intermittent Where Solitude and Coldness Unite EP (2010).

In fact, Necrohell's latest joins Sad's Devouring the Divine and the latest Dodsferd LPs in constructing a thrifty little scene of primal but well-produced trad Scandinavian black metal right in the heart of Athens! It might not possess the progression and complexities of other Hellenic upstarts like Acherontas or Spectral Lore, who have moved to the fore now that Rotting Christ seem to be taking a vacation from greatness,
but it beats with a black heart of its own. If you've a craving for records akin to Transilvanian Hunger or De Mysteriis dom Sathanas, this is probably your drug. A lot of faster-paced material centered around these sadly majestic chord patterns dominates much of the 44 minute run time, and while few of the tremolo picked rhythms are individually all that interesting or memorable, they at least seem driven, determined and most importantly, tinged with uncaring frost. Like Darkthrone, they also pull off some mid paced rocking rhythms, like those found in "When the Shadow Brings Cold" that will evoke nostalgia for A Blaze in the Northern Sky, but the majority of the material here is pretty intense, and felt like early 90s Mayhem with a different vocalist...Sorg's rasp being a bit less unique than Attila Csihar.

The blasting is a stampede of specters banging on cellar and woodshed doors, clear and effective but not anything out of the ordinary. Bass lines are jugular-pumping and constantly audible, though they're a bit safe in the notation and really just follow the structure of the rhythm guitars, unable to add another level of depth or atmosphere when you listen at a distance. The guitars brought to mind older albums like In the Nightside Eclipse, Born of the Flickering and those I've already mentioned: textured, melodic and not incredibly repetitive, naturally atmospheric when paired up against the echoed snarls. A few tunes might feel overlong at 6-7 minutes, but it's not like their influences weren't writing even more inflated pieces 20 years ago, and I've definitely been a lot more bored with other records in this style. Ultimately, if you're looking forward to the death of summer (physically or emotionally), the snows and slush and ice, then this is an authentic voyage down memory lane. I don't know how cold it gets in Greece, but the temperature in Ungod's heart can certainly fall below freezing point. Nothing at all original, innovative or amazing about this, it's just solid, passionate (or dispassionate, depending on how nihilistic you wanna get), 'been there' black metal that proves why it still does matter even to the jaded.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Istengoat - MMXII EP (2012)

MMXII is an interesting one, a 2012 EP from Chile getting a new release through Sweden's Blood Harvest imprint this year. From the cover alone you'd think this was some sort of political or historically inspired black metal, but in fact Istengoat play a very primal, resonant and well tended brand of old school death metal which is not terribly easy to pigeonhole. It's not Incantation worship, nor is it Entombed worship, but rather a melodically-infused descendent of death, grind chords and perhaps a bit of Scandinavian black circa the mid-90s. I also made out a hint of old Morbid Angel (Altars of Madness) during some of the faster riffing as in "Avatara", but kudos to the Chileans for managing to set themselves up an actual identity rather than riding any specific coattails too closely.

The vocals are a nasty, nihilistic, reverb-soaked bark which single-handedly fuse a level of atmosphere to the songs that might not otherwise existed on the riffing alone. Almost a South American Chris Reifert circa the earliest Autopsy full-lengths. However, the guitar tone is great, clean and crisp but still primal enough that, once they're vomiting forth some tremolo picked rhythm you feel like you've definitely come to the right morgue. Bass can be a little hard to hear in some places, but it's racing along to the guitars with a decent energy, and you can make it out when he's also using the tremolo patterns. Of course, when he's alone, like the breakdown in "Pogrom", it sounds thick as clotted blood. Drums are quite prominent, in particular the snares and toms. The kicks have a machine-like precision to them also, and the guy's keeping them up even through much of the moderately paced material. Beyond that, they've got a decent, screaming sense for leads and melody that erupt blissfully over the unending tirade of riffs, and honestly I can't think of a simple complaint with the production beyond the fact that when the rhythm guitar lays out some of the solid chords, the bass tends to exit attention span.

Riffs aren't individually composed with the most memorable quality, nor are they all unique, but I will say that they're far from predictable, since they cultivate a heritage of death, black and thrash motifs evenly. Faster Floridian death chugging, walls of driving chords, you name it. When I hear the opening notes of an Istengoat song I'm not exactly sure where it's going next, and I often wish I could say the same for many other bands. There's clearly a sense of refreshing authenticity, like in writing the band was not committed to any one blueprint but just let the riffs go where they may, and then covered them up in the vicious, raving vocals. Truthfully, I wouldn't mind hearing more variety in that department, but the guy can clearly sustain a growl well and when spitting vitriol with a faster syllabic syncopation he sounds appropriately menacing. MMXII is a record with crossover appeal, fans of archaic US death metal, older black/thrash, Canadian war metal or more current, atmospheric black/death throwbacks like Weregoat and Godless will find something to appreciate. This is a good sampler, and with luck a preamble for a full-length with even more variety and even stronger riff progressions.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Bombs of Hades - Carnivores EP (2008)

Bombs of Hades is another band paying some obvious fan service to their Swedish forefathers, but there are subtle hints that they come from a more distinctly crust and hardcore background. They simply slather it in that raunchy-ass death metal distortion we recall from Entombed and Dismember, and thus a lot of the tremolo riff lines here do feel as if they could have been jerked off Left Hand Path, Clandestine or Indecent & Obscene. Hardly archons of originality, and truth be told I've grown exhausted by so many bands borrowing the old aural trope, which I've rambled on about many times before. But, despite this pervasive sense of having 'been there before one too many times', these guys are fairly exciting songwriters who keep the pacing steady and interject a lot of hellish energy into the simple chord progressions, while not shying away from the use of evil melodies and wailing, bluesy mini-leads that helped define Entombed and their peers as they transitioned into the death & roll of the mid-90s.

Basically, if you find yourself itching for more of that Clandestine/Wolverine Blues vibe or you've run out of Disfear records, Carnivores is a respectable scratch... Five tracks, bloody and willing, driven by a juicily distorted pair of rhythm guitars and crashy sounding drums with a lot of tsssshh tssssshhh cymbal to support the varied melodies and solos. Vocally they're a little more brutal than the average band in this field, backing up the central rasp with guttural barks spewing out cult horror. Structurally, the riffs here are nothing quite unexpected, but there's enough internal variation to fuel these 2-3 minute compositions, from the shit-kicking d-beat bridge of "Slaughter the Dead" to the funereal, cemetery swell opening "Necronomicus Kanth (The Hounds of Hell)" with a touch of synthesizer. I think my favorite track was the closer "Coffin" which is just pure old Swedish death metal ass-razing with some eerie trilling leads in the breakdown, but overall the songs are roughly even in quality, so you never find that anything really sticks out from the rest over the 14 minutes of content. But, then, sometimes that's not a good thing...

There are probably a thousand bands now playing with a similar sound, in Sweden, greater Europe, and even in the States. Bombs of Hades have at least been doing it for some time (formed in '02), even though this particular EP (a 2013 Re-issue from 2008) was where they really started to become productive. Carnivores does compare decently to a lot of the stuff coming out five years later, but truthfully they've got some better songs on their intermittent full-length records Chambers of Abominations and The Serpent's Redemption. But if you missed out on a chance to own the original 7" for this, or you just find yourself driven to collect all that walk the path of Entombed/Nihilist, Discharge, Repulsion and Carnage/Dismember, I can't think that you'd hear this Blood Harvest re-release and be disappointed. I got some brief enjoyment from the songs, yet I can't imagine any situation where I wouldn't just prefer the influences themselves. That said, the production is good and dirty, the DIY attitude is obvious, and there aren't any prevalent negatives apart from the sense of over familiarity and redundancy I experience when listening through this style of death metal.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Verminous - The Curse of the Antichrist EP (2013)

2013 is a year of some celebration for Sweden's Verminous, as they released their first full-length (The Unholy Communion) in a decade to some anticipation amongst the underground. Likely they want to make the best of this new era of productivity, so a cheery little 7" released through Blood Harvest makes sense for collectors and fans, and I recall that they had a similar release alongside their 2003 debut. Contextually, there's not a lot of meat on these bones, and only one new original track (less substantial than Smell the Birth of Death), so the value here is gonna vary depending on whether or not you pick these 7"s up for their listening merits or just to own a copy. Eight minutes, three tunes, two of which are covers, but I will say that the production is one to die for...

Verminous have always done a good job at not cloning their obvious Swedish forebears too closely, so if you're expecting that Entombed/Carnage guitar tone and structure you'll be half disappointed. There are definitely similarities, in the use of d-beats and ominous atmospherics where applicable, like the opening moment with its organ and lead eruption, but they have a pretty distinct grind and hardcore influence which is like Discharge and Repulsion in collusion with Nihilist. Slow, stark chord patterns interspersed between fits of tremolo picking old school phantasmagoria, with barked vocals and tight-as-fuck blast beats. If you've enjoyed The Unholy Communion, this is quite close in architecture and production to much of that album. Once it begins to rage, the riffing progressions aren't all that memorable or compelling, but it sets itself up well and then dishes out an aggressive payoff. And as I hinted above, the sound is just so clean...usually these bands go for the ruddiest guitar tone to the point where they smother the rest of the band (except the vocals), but "The Curse of the Antichrist" is loud, powerful, and not too arbitrarily noisy.

I was less into the cover songs, though. Of the pair, Nuclear Assault's "Hang the Pope" is the more interesting selection, since the whole point of it was as a throwaway, humorous, political statement that the New Yorkers used to grease their grindcore elbows. The Swedes play it close to the belt, with a muddier, thicker bass intro than Dan Lilker had mustered in the mid-80s, and a destructive punctuality to the rhythm guitars which feels more forceful than the original, but frankly this wasn't an interesting tune in '85-86 and it has lost some of its comical value today. The other choice, "Revel in Flesh" is more obvious...too obvious? How many bands have already covered this one? Not to mention, while competent and accurately played, it just doesn't have that same sense of oppressive morbidness that the Left Hand Path version possessed. A safe rendition with a fraction more of a grinding impulse, and not terribly impressive.

But, hey, it's not like Verminous or Blood Harvest are charging you an arm and a leg for this thing. It's meant to be a short, fun record, a chance for fans to throw a few more bucks at their underground champs and have something that will appreciate in value one day. There are better 7" out there with more original material, and both of the Swedes' full-length records have better songs than this, but at least "The Curse of the Antichrist" itself is worth hearing, so it's not like this is just a bust that you'll leave hanging in its papal plastic. Bam.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Monday, August 12, 2013

Dodsferd - A Cursed Heritage (2013)

Wrath is apparently on a roll lately, so it was interesting to compare and contrast both of Dodferd's 2013 records. A Cursed Heritage might be considered the more 'proper' release, coming out through Moribund Records (like most of the previous full-lengths), whereas the other, A Breed of Parasite was perhaps the more 'experimental'. Then again, the lines become blurred a little, because this is actually the shorter of the two records (30 minutes), and like its sorrowful sibling, features a pair of ambient cuts, wedged here into the latter half of the run time. But, for the most part, this is the sort of scathing and incendiary black metal to the face that might have been slightly missing from Parasites, and it justifies itself by blasting your skin off, while suffering no dearth of atmosphere.

A Cursed Heritage begins with what I believe to be a sample from The Name of the Rose film adaptation, with some haunted howling, fuzzed bass, driving blast and bright chords that immediately give the record a sense of contrast between enlightenment and savagery. From there, the intensity really never lets up until the bridge of the third song. The entire album feels higher pitched and less murky than its counterpart, and the vocals also offer some deviation, with Wrath delivering a cleaner, painful tone in amongst the wretched rasp you would expect. The riff choice isn't all that unusual, notation fixed upon glorious bursts of tremolo picked chords, but for instance "In the Ground of Your Beseeching" is strangely uplifting despite going seven minutes without much rhythmic variation, and "As the Light Revealed His Wound" is just a belter of a motherfucking black metal song which should disintegrate any fairies listening within about 30 seconds. That pumping post- Darkthrone rock & roll riff at around 2:00 just kicks whatever teeth you have left in, and the 'breakdowns' are equally amazing in execution, with the double bass section and then the rhythm section dropping out while the guitar sizzles.

I also really enjoyed the brief "Disposable Human Wastes", blasted clinical primacy which transforms into this shimmering wall of angst with weird little clips of either bass or muted guitar plucking, I can barely tell because it's just so fast. At under 80 seconds, this was a succinct and interesting way to deliver a black metal song, and while normally I would want 'more', it actually felt like a complete idea. On the other hand, the two ambient cuts ("Drowned in Silence" and "Deserted") are sadly nowhere near as compelling as those found on A Breed of Parasites. The finale ("Deserted") in particular, sparse guitar ambiance, is rather a bore and doesn't add much to the proceedings. But at least for about the first 20-25 minutes, A Cursed Heritage beats the shit out of the listener more than probably any other Dodsferd record I've heard (and I've heard a lot of them), and provides a substantial aesthetic balance to the other's not about being 'prolific' so much as organizing ideas into appropriate environs to create a cohesive listen.

Which do I prefer? Well, apart from the fact that "As the Light Revealed His Wound" is probably the most rancid and effective whiff of Hell-breath this group has exuded upon the underground, and numerous other tunes do impress, I was feeling A Breed of Parasites for its greater sense of immersion and varied but effective consistency. The last cut on this one is entirely unnecessary and would have been better replaced by another onslaught, since Parasites had the experimentation phase more than covered. But I have to say, I was overall more impressed with Dodsferd's output this year than ever in the past, and for the first time I am actually looking forward to whatever they might mete out next. They might not be writing on that same level of crafted neo-Scandinavian symphonic complexity as countrymen like Spectral Lore and Acherontas, and they might not harbor the traditional Hellenic uniqueness of their forebears Rotting Christ or Necromantia, but clearly Wrath is starting to excel with this lineup he put together around 2011, and bringing something rotten and respectable to the table.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Dodsferd - A Breed of Parasites (2013)

I've not had the greatest track record for appreciating Dodsferd, whose past albums range from typical raw/suicidal Scandinavian black metal to outright tedium. That's not to say he hasn't put out a few decent discs like Death Set the Beginning of My Journey, but really the only way I would have found his output more impressive was if I hadn't actually already been listening to bands like Burzum and Mayhem since they first reared their ghastly countenances internationally in the early 90s. I think Wrath is legitimately interested in preserving this style of agonizing, feral, cult black metal, so don't misinterpret me, but there are only so many rehashed riffs and ideas I can stomach before it all sort of blends together into the background. Thus, when the last, wavering ambiance of "Burning the Symbols of Your God" faded, and I found myself wanting to listen through this new album again immediately, I have to admit I was surprised...A Breed of Parasites is pretty good, and it might just prove my favorite Dodsferd to date.

But this is a rather strange, unique album in structure. Six tracks in about 33 minutes, and half of those are shorter, ambient pieces. In fact, when you take into account that the 9 minute centerpiece "Eternal Bliss... Eternal Death" is a Judas Iscariot cover, there's not a lot of original black metal on the record. But, for instance, "Days of Mental Deterioration" is a pretty fantastic tune, with textured chord-flows and tasteful tremolo picked licks that erupt into these glorious progressions while the vocals fluctuate between a two tiered snarl and howl to a more tortured howling redolent of Burzum or Weakling. Not to mention that the riffs just don't stop here, and there is plenty enough variation to fill out the seven and a half minutes without growing redundant or boring. "Burning the Symbols of Your God" is an altogether different beast, slower and more atmospheric as it focuses on the howled, suicide vocals while the chords segue into these melodic parts with cleaner rhythm guitars, simple effective leads and thick, prominent bass-lines. These two are probably the best Dodsferd songs I've experienced, hands down, both with replay value, and the cover track is also a nice choice. The Greeks drag it out about three minutes longer than the original, but the end with its angelic synthesizers is adequate payoff for the considerable, roiling and meandering sadness imparted in the slowly paced riffs leading up to it.

Those ambient tracks? Also really interesting. The band didn't just hit a few notes on a keyboard and then let them resonate for nine minutes, these are each pretty distinctive and concise in their own right. "The Burden of Feeling Alive" is haunted, guitar feedback on a number of levels, with some plucked strings disintegrating into the acid of a throbbing synth; "...Til the Day You Die" has a more bass-like depth infused with resonant, noisy guitar droning and "An Unbearable Pain" seems like a ritualistic piece with tribal drumming that helps set up the momentum for "Days of Mental Deterioration". Each of these works well in its placement across the track list and effectively amplifies the sense of mood and depression that you just won't get out of a lot of derivative 3rd-4th generation black metal riffing alone. The pieces all really fall into place here, and it helps a lot that the production is really solid. Bass is brooding and audible, drums natural and energetic, and the Wrath rasping sounds phenomenal, probably one of the better Greeks at this style, with the perfect level of reverb and a convincing ghoulishness. Another detail I enjoyed was the overtly bluesy lead guitar, a hit or miss technique in black metal that flourishes here.

With only about 23 minutes of original content, A Breed of Parasites is surely not 'substantial' and it might function more realistically as an EP than a full-length, but that didn't prevent me from becoming engrossed and engaged in all that was happening. The sounds and songwriting are more firmly rooted in sadness or ominous darkness than face-scathing evil, but clearly Dodsferd take us to that other place, a mirror universe where sadness is existence and sunlight struggles to pierce the cloud cover. Grim, glorious, and gravebound.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]