Sunday, September 29, 2013

Fates Warning - Darkness in a Different Light (2013)

With a 3D origami graphic that seems taken straight from some forgotten prog rock record of decades past, it becomes immediately apparent that the Fates Warning revival, after nearly a decade of studio absence, will not be yanking upon their early 80s trad/power metal roots, but instead dialing to a point later in that decade where they transformed into their more subtle, progressive phase which produced a streak of fine records in Perfect Symmetry, Parallels, and Inside Out, before wearing itself thin with the lazier, inexpressive, weaker songwriting that characterized the three later full-lengths which led up to the hiatus. Or at least, that is what I hoped when I was gazing upon the packaging of Darkness in a Different Light, and fortunately I wound up rewarded with what came across to me like an amalgamation of the mechanical nuance of Perfect Symmetry/Parallels with the cleaner, modernized production punch of Fates Warning X.

Yes, a truly throwback Fates Warning record is not and will likely never be in the cards, but with the advent of the Arch/Matheos collaboration that's no longer really a necessity. While that excellent debut, Sympathetic Resonance had a more contemporary appeal than The Specter Within and Awaken the Guardian, it was close enough in feel to satisfy the nostalgia, and potentially leave us two avenues with which to answer our cravings. What I really wanted out of Darkness in a Different Light was another Perfect Symmetry, a slightly dark, prescient and melodic piece with memorable songwriting that could endure for decades. This isn't nearly on that level, I'm afraid, but certainly exceeds the mediocrity that defined the group's 1997-2004 phase. The sole loss to the previous lineup, drummer Mark Zonder, has returned to his alma mater Warlord and produced a comeback of its own in The Holy Empire (in fact a better album than this); but here he is replaced with Bobby Jarzombek, a player with superior technical ability that could play on almost any recording under the sun. Not to discredit Zonder, whose simple and steady performance was a great match for Fates' aesthetic transition in the late 80s, but just the presence of Bobby alone hints at a more energized, exciting selection of tracks...

...which is, to an extent, an accurate depiction of Darkness in a Different Light. There is unquestionably a sense of revitalization and commitment to the material, perhaps spurred on by Matheos' success with the John Arch collaboration. Fates Warning seems hungry again, and though mechanically there is little here which seems a 'progression' beyond anything they released through the 90s, there is a greater focus on the core strengths of riffing, pacing and melody that kept them near the pinnacle of the niche back in their prime. The songs here will not so much haunt or impress anyone to the point that they'll be hummed on subway trains or in cubicles, but they achieve a median between the gentler emotional moments of their past balladry, and the stolid post-Rush grooves characteristic of Fates Warning X, Disconnected or Alder's other bands Engine and Redemption. Though Jarzombek's drumming is clear and away the most complex and harried component of the music, I like that they've brought back some fairly well developed chorus building in cuts like "One Thousand Fires" and "Into the Black". Though there are a lot of thicker 'boogie' grooves that dominate the harder end of the record, I like that several of the rhythm guitars had a tone and phrasing straight off Perfect Symmetry.

Alder's not exactly taxing himself, and he hasn't for many years now, but his presence certainly carries much of the material with a wealth of subtler dramatic shifts and smooth, sustained intonations (as in "Kneel and Obey"). The guy's not spitting out catchy line after line, but he's also not repeating himself ad nauseum with the boredom I've experienced on other albums, and he really works to contrast the start/stop nature of the grooves in pieces like "O Chloroform". Clean, feely, processed guitars are still pretty common, but there's an appreciable array of metallic riffing that spans from the later 80s material, when progressive metal in general felt more exotic, to the marginal nu- and groove- metal stuff that had started to infect the band in the 90s, but nothing feels cheap or redundant. The leads are definitely cut from a wilder, flashy hard rock cloth in tunes like "Into the Black", but they're not exactly memorable. I also have to say that I'm just not too impressed with the bass lines. Joey Vera is normally fantastic but they seem to subsumed by the rhythm guitars, even though his tone is crystal clear. As unusual as it seems, Alder and Jarzombek are the stars here; most of the guitars serve only as a seat for the vocalizations, and not a lot are interesting independently.

It wouldn't be possible for me to listen through this without consciously comparing it to the latest works of the two other American prog metal bigwigs, and I think it shares that same earnest vivacity for steering the band back to a point at which it truly mattered. Dream Theater might have pulled it off a little better on their eponymous disc, but I enjoyed it more than the most recent by Queensrÿche proper. And yet there's still a sense of a band working hard to where it needs to be, but not entirely succeeding. Darkness in a Different Light is engaging enough where it counts, when you're actually sitting there with the music in your speakers or headphones, but it's very difficult to imagine caring about it a month from now, much less when you're in the mood for one of their classics. If I compare this to any of their first 6-7 albums, whether in the Arch or Alder camp, it falls short in terms of songwriting and overall aesthetic quality. Clearly the time off has aged the band well, and I don't mean to be too down on this, it's a solid record; but I do hope this can prove the groundwork for a record like Perfect Symmetry where most of the songs resonate well beyond their years, despite being well ahead of their original birth date.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Old Man Wizard - Unfavorable (2013)

What is it with the West Coast producing these distinctive mash-ups of psychedelic/prog rock, folk and traditional metal? First we had Slough Feg and Hammers of Misforture blowing minds out of Frisco, and if Unfavorable is any indicator, Old Man Wizard of San Diego should follow suit through their memorable fusion of 60s/70s songwriting skills and proto-metal chops. The six cuts comprising the debut album reveal glimpses of anything from Rainbow, Cream, Beatles, Tull, or Floyd to the last Opeth record Heritage or the recent works of those aforementioned Californian acts, and all enveloped in a rich palette of clean, modern sound that screams 'here and now', regardless of the nostalgia the group has obviously weaned its sound upon.

Smooth, melodious vocals that range from driven harmonies to shrill, distant wails; all set adrift over a wide array of natural guitar tone and pluggy, voluminous bass-lines and shufflin' beats that thrive off one another in true power trio fashion. The rhythm guitar has just that faint trace of fuzz and potency which dates it to the dawn of metal or hard rock in general, eschewing the saturation of intense distortion for that warmer tone. And yet there is no tradeoff in terms of complexity: no, Old Man Wizard is not some technical/progressive act by any means, but the harder hitting riffs and grooves retain an intricacy you're not going to find out of the Deep Purple cover band at your local watering hole. They're not just bland, pentatonic blues overdrive, but cultivate the structure of a lot of old metal, turn of the 80s NWOBHM licks. The pacing of Unfavorable is also paramount to its success: moody pieces like "Travellers' Lament" weave in dreamy but cautionary acoustic guitars, while others like "Nightmare Rider" mete out edgier, darker riffs that create a median between Sabbath and Rush, and the guitar harmonies in "The Bearded Fool" recollect Thin Lizzy. The lyrics capture a rustic, fantastical 'tell it from the mountain' vibe, seamless alongside the musical aesthetic.

All this would be impressive in of itself, but meaningless if the tunes weren't so damned catchy, and truth be told there was not a single vocal line over the album that was anything less than pleasant or compelling. Nor can I think of a guitar line that failed to titillate, or to provide that level of escapism you can feel just by glaring at the cover artwork. The songwriting could hardly be considered 'wild', but suitably unpredictable in that the diction of tempos and note progressions was never something I could be certain of in advance, and at roughly a half hour there's plenty of variety with obviously no shot at growing bored with itself. Granted, certain psychedelic rock fans might find it a bit brief, but the purpose here is to really test the waters and showcase the considerable songwriting chops, which this does quite favorably. You see what I did there. That is why I'm not a comedian, folks. At any rate, despite Old Man Wizard's handle, and the obvious cultural backlog of sounds they're developing into the 21st century, not once did I feel any gray hairs poking through my scalp. Fresh, rejuvenated, imaginative rock and roll for the lit. The unlit. The soul seeker and the atavist. Perfect it isn't, but it confidently lays the first bricks along that road.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (given to be forgotten by all else)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Zemial - Nykta (2013)

It's been 17 years now since Zemial's For the Glory of UR, a minor cult classic of Greek black metal which showed the potential to escape that tier of bands loitering the shadow of Rotting Christ's international success. Since that time, the multi-talented Archon Vorskaath has continued to record and release music at respectable intervals, crafting towards a more primitive, blackened thrash/heavy metal hybrid which resulted in some solid material like the Dusk EP a couple years ago (of which one track is actually included here). When I saw the cover for Nykta, I admit to a little confusion, since there was no Zemial logo, and it looked like one of Samael's minimalistic cosmic visuals of the late 90s, or something Hunter Hunt-Hendrix would use to 'transcend' black metal with Liturgy (quite a lot like their debut, Renihilation). But hey, it's not like one can trademark the use of an eclipse, black hole or celestial phenomena, and aesthetically I'm happy to say that this the image fits about 50% of the songwriting, which is in fact quite an interesting spin on the direction Archon was already headed.

At its core, Nykta is still a work of hybridized thrash and epic heavy metal riffing, with a surprising level of detail and atmosphere that hints at far more than just the latest retro tribute to the 80s. Sure, a load of the note progressions here smack of staples like Slayer, Bulldozer, Venom and Possessed, but the songs seem to vary between more direct black/thrashers like "Under Scythian Command" and more extensive, progressive cuts like "Ancient Arcane Scrolls" that thrive off their variation. He peppers the riffs with an abusive amalgamation of blackened rasps and brutish grunts, but also uses some cleaner narrative spoken word stuff, and occasionally a gritty but melodic delivery. The percussion really pokes through the mix, a clean mix of snare and bass with some really loud and busy fills from the higher pitched toms. Actually, a track like "Ancient Arcane Scrolls" half feels like a drum solo smothered in riffs, thanks to the jamming, jazzy fills which would be interesting enough to listen to if isolated from all the guitars and vocals. Another of the techniques that stood out to me were the tones of the leads and melodies, which were pretty stripped down and seemed like they were being performed off some 70s prog rock record. It's just another little detail which one wouldn't normally expect out of this style...and though it's not nearly so dramatic, reminded me of Sigh's playing on records like Hail Horror Hail.

He goes all out psychedelic space-prog thrash on the new, extended edition of "In the Arms of Hades" here which manages to fill outs its 11+ minute length with a spacious bridge and some excellent drums. And I have to say, he might just be on to something here. Combining the dirt, speed and aggression with these more trippy, joint-lighting freakout elements is not something I hear all the time, and really this is a centerpiece for the entire experience. Love the wavering Tom Warrior/Nocturno Culto vocals he dishes out in the first verse. The other would be "Pharos", 15 fucking minutes of cosmic escapism, prog rock/ambient contrasts invested with weird vocals, dirty but faintly shimmering synthesizers, and some excellent guitar lines. I also appreciated the intricacy of a lot of his speedier, thrash riffs, like in the latter half of  "Breath of Pestilence" which is mind-blowingly cool without being exceedingly technical. The rhythm guitar tone across Nykta is quite old school and never over saturated or overdriven with distortion; lending the songs an earthy authenticity which helps the music feel dated despite its obvious nuance. Apart from the gently booming tone, the bass lines don't usually have a lot of presence beyond feeding the rhythm guitars some depth and richness, but this is the only gaffe I could find in the production, and it's excusable.

The other issue I took was with the outro track "Out of the Cage - 333 for Drumset and Mechanical", which just seemed like 4 and a half minutes of silence, with what I believe might have been a faint drum click (?) in least on the digital promo I got. Might be an error, but if not it's entirely useless listener trolling and doesn't belong on what is so otherwise inspired an album. It's like restoring a beautiful old automobile to road worthy perfection, and then slashing the tires. Beyond that, Nykta is accordingly magnificent, an old dog trying both new and old tricks and achieving a result that uniquely fits flush with the wave of 60s and 70s inspired psychedelia and prog rock pervading multiple metal genres in recent years. Of course, if you're not as into the marginal experimentation, and you just desire some of the blazing, infernal material he meted out on the last recording, tunes like "Under Scythian Command" and "Eclipse" will sate the avid fan of groups like Deathhammer, Antichrist, or even the latest few Darkthrone records. Nykta is a deceptively varied work which is hands down the most interesting Vorskaath has released, and while the guy has rarely if ever really 'disappointed', I found this superior even to the debut, and have listened through it (skipping track #9) a dozen times in the weeks since I received it. Hell, in lieu of a few surface flaws, this is quite likely to show up on my personal year's end's really that compelling.

Verdict: Epic Win [8.75/10]

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Soul Remnants - Black and Blood (2013)

Another bulwark in a strengthening Massachusetts death metal scene which includes Abnormality, Scalpel, Sexcrement and Zealotry, Soul Remnants actually have quite a lot of collective scene experience behind them already, and in a number of styles. Reading through the roster, you'll find guys who have played either live or in studio with locals ranging from the more decidedly brutal extreme of Deconformity and Burial to the more melodic ministrations of Frozen and The Year of Our Lord, not to mention some power and black metal projects. I won't profess to being a fan of many of those acts, but there's no argument that the variation and diversity of sounds there bleeds through into a really well-produced, well-balanced onslaught of systematically intense death metal with elements of grind and technical thrash that span a broad array of influences.

Seriously, all bets are off with what you're going to find buried in some of these songs. For instance, "Dead Black (Heart of Ice)" has a charging melodic black metal surge at its center, while other tunes like "No Afterlife" have these exciting, death/thrash picking progressions redolent of bands like Carcass and Death. It would be a little difficult to corner Soul Remnants into any particular theme or style, and that's not such a bad thing, but if there were some core aesthetic at play, it's probably the sort of explosive, blasting 90s and turn of the century death and grind pioneered by Napalm Death, Malevolent Creation, Morbid Angel, and Hate Eternal. There's a lot of intricacy here, no shortage of riffing patterns being spewed forth at any given point on the album, and the excellent, clear production ensures that you experience all of it. Rich and churning, thrashy palm mutes occupy the lower end of the writing, but they often move at an extremely fast clip with more precise, technical riffing techniques from tremolo picking to clinical hyper-thrash. Thankfully they're not above committing themselves to some slower sequences that prevent this from becoming some monotonous, unswerving ballistic missile.

That's not to say that I loved the material, because while they're masters at throttling the listener with a billion solid riffs, approximately none of them are the sort that will really stick out in your thoughts a half hour after you've listened through them. Soul Remnants generates a precarious balance between the old and new, with ripping, thought out solos, a rhythm section tighter than a damned noose, and no shortage of melodies to offset the sheer hostility (like the bridge in "No Afterlife"). Lots to ingest across numerous listens, and there is enough sum technicality through the four players that this could almost rival another of our Boston heroes, the successful and deserving Revocation. But even after combing through this record a half-dozen times, and appreciating just how much effort this took to put together, I couldn't shake the feeling that a lot of the constituent riffing patterns felt like hollower, less inspired representations of their individual forebears. Like a gestalt of material from Necroticism, Individual Thought Patterns, Conquering the Throne and a dozen other hallmarks of extremity that never really surpasses any of them despite its broader variation.

I also really wasn't into the vocals, not for any lack of trying, because this guy has a raucous and loud guttural which fits the songwriting like a glove; but because it's just not the most charismatic growl out there, and I might not be able to pick it out from a lineup if I didn't have the cover art of the promo staring at me. They'll weave in some multi-tracked snarls and growls, and truth be told he can shift effortlessly between a more rasped timbre and an even deeper bludgeoning roar, but beyond the 'all purpose' sort of delivery they just don't distinguish themselves. Granted, this is a pretty common symptom of death metal in the now, and this guy is by no means incompetent, since he's able to match the exciting pace of the music; but there's really nothing sinister or exemplary about the performance. In fact, few of the riffs or songs really match any of the evil and menacing impressions left upon me by a lot of the records that influenced this. It's exciting but not very interesting. That's a tall order, I realize, but with a few thousand death metal records coming out each year, it's something I personally seek out.

In the end, Black and Blood was an album I spent mostly digging the great sound, the flawless exaction of the drummer, and just the sheer wealth (if not memorable quality) of riffing, in particular the bridges where the rhythm guitars build in intensity to support the flight of the leads. There is absolutely no laziness or half assedness anywhere. No one is slumming. You don't arrive at a result like this without each individual contributing his share and more, and I wouldn't be surprised at all that a younger audience trapped between their generational love of brickwalled tech death/deathcore and an emergent desire to explore the older school roots of the genre that have become so popular anew will devour this like candy. Certainly, Soul Remnants is not pursuing some clamorous cavern-core trend or biting off the Swedish tone that arrives in my mailbox 75 times each month, and that says a lot for them. This set of songs might not have connected with me personally, beyond their visceral and frenetic qualities, but with this much raw proficiency in the lineup, they will no doubt appeal to many fans of the vintage extremity of Morbid Angel, Cryptopsy, Suffocation, Malevolent Creation, Deicide, and so forth.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Jumalhämärä - Resitaali (2013)

When intoning Jumalhämärä's name aloud in ignorant English, it really sounds like something you might step in and/or get stuck in. Amusingly, that could not be a more fitting comparison for the Finns' unorthodox, unexpected twist on the conservative black metal formulae that they obviously took a left turn from some time ago. But even having been apprised of the band's tactics on their excellent 2010 full-length Resignaatio, I would not have been prepared for the shocking turn they've taken on their latest material. For, you see, Resitaali is not even remotely metallic by any definition of the...alright, the harmonium pump organ on which it was performed does involve some metal components, but this represents a reduction of aesthetics, a spiritual departure and a minimalist stamp of experimentation that seems left field even taking into account how bizarre the Finns had come across on the older releases...

There's not a lot involved here in terms of compositional complexity or challenge, and thus there's not a lot to say other than this is the sort of recording anyone who has visited a church service in the past 200 years can likely relate to. This isn't some grandiose orchestration of pipe organ, but the tones emitted capture a similar sense of smooth consistency and manifestation of immediate nostalgia. Having personally been pressured by family to attend a Protestant church/Sunday School until my early teens, at which point I proudly, defiantly rejected Confirmation and marched home in my denim Hell Awaits vest through the rain, even I felt the solemn stir of memory here. Of being seated in lacquered wooden pews, listening to the timbres woven through the organ that would herald the oncoming service and score the hymnals. Truth be told, the actual setting and soundtrack to that chapter in my life were never the problem. I think they were both beautiful, generating an atavistic bond between myself and my largely religious ancestors...I just never personally approved or agreed with the message. But ultimately, what I'm saying here is that Jumalhämärä are generating that gorgeous, steady seriousness of the instrument without the requisite piety and boredom.

To be fair, some might view this as an unnecessary source of ennui, but those individuals will largely fall under the category of those that don't share this fond sense of recollection. Unlike Burzum's latest ambient piece Sôl austan, Mâni vestan, a disappointingly dull spin on 80s New Age minimalism, Resitaali seems to draw itself from a richer tapestry of interlocking humanity. I reviewed this from the cassette promo sent to me through Ahdistuksen Aihio Productions, rather than the digital files, which I promptly popped into this old Sylvania radio/tape/record player combo; lit a pair of candles and just studied the slow flicker of the flames while I absorbed the four tracks and 35 minutes. There is some degree of variation in how each is set up, with some sequences proving more desolate, barren and monotonous than others which seem to scale through the vaulted ceilings of the perceived worship-place that might have inspired it. I was actually quite surprised to hear the instrument sink into the more brooding, dissonant construction of track "III", but it did wonders to help establish the wider mood, a broader sojourn for the listener's emotional response.

There are limitations, obviously. Jumalhämärä haven't added any cinematic string sections of dubstep drops (hey, there's an idea?!?) to spice this up. This is a devotional to an instrument we rarely here out of its normal cultural context, and the unusual percussion and creepy black metal aesthetics are entirely vacant. In general there will be one strong harmony persisting through a piece, while tinier melodies drift off peripherally, until the more solemn, single 'chord' sequences that resonate unto dust and nothingness. Within these limitations, though, Resitaali is ultimately successful because, despite the lack of multiple instruments, new and often unexpected patterns do arise over the four tunes. Don't get me wrong: this is 100%, meditative mood music. If you're not into organs, this is unlikely to change your mind. I doubt it would function as a score to your weekend Civil War Reenactment or BMX Rally (actually, strike those, it might ironically work just as well in either situation), but if you set up the proper cerebral controls, this is a sublime, environmental work which actually feels like a complete journey, with a proper beginning and end and very little maudlin meandering throughout. Even the cover is pretty fascinating: why the bird? And why does the chair have only three legs? I may never know, but the sounds of this organ ensure that I want to.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, September 23, 2013

Dead Entities' Realm - To Reconciled Solitude (2009)

To Reconciled Solitude is an album I might never have even heard were it not for remaining so persistent in my writing through the years, because otherwise who would have given a damn about sharing it with me? One of the perks of being so obsessive. I owe myself a drink! But, all self congratulations aside, Dead Entities' Realm is one of those off the radar, independently produced works that likely deserves much more than it's ever gotten. An intensive labor of love, written and performed by a pair of talented Germans, with a refreshing take on progressive death metal. Not entirely unfamiliar, perhaps, and there are a handful of minor production gaffes which might turn off a few listeners with very particular tastes in death metal recording, but this is honestly superior in sound to a fair number of the more professional label-released albums I encounter, and you can't fake this level of proficiency...

It's also pretty difficult to pigeonhole the sound, because while I might point out traces here of old school masters like Death themselves (post-Human), which becomes readily apparent in some of the more clinical melodic picking passages, I also drew comparisons to another German band, Disillusion, whose debut Back to Times of Splendor left similar impressions. And there are of course overt hints of modern, harmonic Scandinavian death metal circa Sweden or Finland, though the rhythmic support is often more stolid and brutal, without the usual enthusiastic triplets and noodling you'd expect of the classic C.O.B., In Flames and Dark Tranquillity material. To Reconciled Solitude is plotted and paced rather well, with a number of intros and interludes that involve cleaner guitar passages and pianos that create a welcome contrast against the harder hitting rhythms. Generally when a band incorporates such techniques often enough, they run the risk of 'playing the Opeth card', but there wasn't one instance here of meandering, superfluous songwriting: all the choices make sense, the songs actually go somewhere, and at worst they're inflated out to about a six minute mark, which the duo are more than capable of filling with interesting riffs and tempos.

Guitars range from bright to bludgeoning as mandated by either the reliance upon strong melodies or the denser, death/thrash riffing cycles that the Germans spend just as much time with. Few if any instances of sameness occur through the 34 minutes, and while not every individual string of notes screams incredibly memorable, it's all so well conceived that the listener's interest is consistently maintained. There's no sense of 'filler' or phoned in composition, all of the eight tracks seem equally immediate and distinct, even if I did not personally connect with every melody to the point that it took up permanent residency in my brain. The bass playing flows with an enormous level of confidence, even if the lines and fills aren't always so distinct from the busier guitars, it does its job admirable. As for the drum programming, while this is liable to prove the biggest turnoff to a number of listeners, I rarely found it intrusive beyond a few machine-like snares or fact the beats seemed to be synced up with just as much thought as many an actual drummer might have given them. Certainly not distracting enough to diminish the emotional resonance of the songs, but I've always felt that this music is better served with a live percussionist.

The gutturals here don't exhibit a large breadth of range, but they're adequate and functional, a more concise and mildly higher pitched take on the death barks pioneered by British mainstays like Karl of Bolt Thrower or Dave ex-Benediction. Occasionally there will be some atmospheric whispers added (like in the song "Deadened"), or some backing snarls paired up with the primary grunts, but this might be an area where the project could use a little more distinction. Frankly, though, the song structures and hooks are captivating enough that it's easy to let this slide, the vocals don't falter between faster or slower progressions, and the lyrics to tunes like "Deadened" and "The Everbleeding" match both the elegance and punishment inherent in the songwriting. The cover artwork is a little lazy and unambitious, a betrayal of the more sophisticated music, but it's not the sort of thing that looks to have been tackled with any sort of budget, so what can you do? Ultimately, To Reconciled Solitude does not sound like the lost footnotes of some unknown band, but a polished and professional work that, with a more widespread distribution, might damn well hold up to other melodic death maestros of the age: Be'lakor, Insomnium, Canopy, Ne Obliviscaris. The Germans might not have quite that level of variation, the songs seem slightly more mechanistic, but the potential is glaring, and only a very thin membrane separates this from those better known groups.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (so many things left undone)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Fateful Hour - An Everlasting Silence (2013)

The doom metal I receive here at the blog generally comes in one of two categories: the acid-washed psychedelic sludge that has recently been popularized well beyond the parameters of the genre's core audience, and the crushing death/doom variety which depends so heavily on its own suffocating sense of bleakness and depression. Massachusetts' newcomers The Fateful Hour, while probably closer in theme and aural aesthetics to that latter category, do not handily fit into the mold of any trending sound, instead tracing their lineage back to the turn of the century works of groups like Anathema, Heavenwood, My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost, Katatonia, Novembers Doom and their ilk. A mournful, melodic but accessible vessel helmed by a mixture of expressive gutturals and numbing cleans. While it's not perfectly consistent in its capacity for sticky songwriting, I definitely came away from the experience feeling as if I've just heard something classy which resonates with a comparable timelessness to the stronger output of those acts I listed above.

I think the decision here to keep the songs reined in to reasonable durations (generally around 5 minutes) helped a great deal in driving home a concise sense of beauty and sorrow. An Everlasting Silence does not succumb to superfluous 9-10 minute bouts of outright, repetitive tedium, but instead generates a sensible rise and fall of riffing and emotion that fails to wear out its welcome. Solitary melodies, or joint harmonies all tend to make a lot of sense and scrape along the gray skyline of the music's mood, and their sheer simplicity does discern nostalgia for those prominent 90s influences. The percussion lurches with a ponderous confidence, big and sparse beats that are traditional to the form, with plenty of slower double bass sequences and a nice pop on the snare and thunder to the toms. The bass is equally supportive to the highly melodic focus of the rhythm guitars, but it's got a nice robust tone and plenty of small fills that create their own tangential depth. There is also no shying away from the use of synthesizers here, which are never so brazen to take over the mix of instruments, and eschew the overbearing symphonic mockery to actually sound like a keyboard that serves as a crucial rhythmic instrument, another arch of melody which joins the guitars in the stratosphere of the album's range.

Rather than the usual, dry and monotonous growl you expect out of any Gothic/death/doom record, Ben Fortier actually delivers a grimier inflection which seems more genuine thanks to its own natural flaws and inconsistencies. He doesn't sound like someone who wants to be suffering, 'because it's, like, a doom band', but rather someone that IS in some degree of pain, and contrasted with the simpler, numbing clean vocals that haunt the landscape of An Everlasting Silence, there seems to be an authenticity which is missing in a lot of the European, orchestrated acts with the tacky female choirs/frontpersons who seem to be there for a paycheck and a photo shoot rather than to share their woes upon the audience. Lyrically, An Everlasting Silence is deeply personal and not at all uplifting, and again I'm drawn back to Anathema, Paradise Lost and that British scene which so championed this sound before it was hijacked by Katatonia and their more driving sense of melancholy and melodic structure. Ultimately, this is an album for fans of those gloomy, glimmering late 90s/early 00's works and their modern day disciples (Swallow the Sun, Daylight Dies, the recent October Tide output, etc).

Some pundits for the style might find it a little short, and more of an EP or mini-album than a proper full-length, but this wasn't a matter of much concern for me, since I find a lot of material in this niche to be pretentious and inflated beyond repair. Not to mention, this is a self-released debut, a wetting of the feet. I wouldn't say that many of the melodies here were particularly everlasting in that I'd find myself humming or whistling them on the commute the next morning. Dissonance is largely a foreign concept here but might actually have given the songwriting even more of a tidal sense of depression. It's not an Icon, or The Silent Enigma, or a Brave Murder Day...but nonetheless, this is tasteful, well-formed melodic doom metal which is wise never to bore the listener to tears, instead relying on its own, mournful essence to generate that same, salty result.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (spare me the consequences)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Oshiego - The Great Architect of Nothing (2013)

Singapore's Oshiego has straddled the border between death and thrash metal for years now, never fully committing to either field, so it's no surprise that their sophomore album The Great Architect of Nothing continues this practice. Granted, thanks to the vocals here, the emphasis is slightly stronger on the former genre than the latter, but there are still plenty enough palm-muted breaks moving at a late 80s moshing clip to generate that age-old headbanging excitement which never really grows tired. More importantly, they season in a lot of techniques here that reveal a broader array of influences than even the last album, and thus there's this constant sense of surprise and unpredictability to this disc which helps maintain a listener's attention span. I'm not saying it's stuffed to the gills with memorable riffs or timeless songwriting, but there's a fire and enthusiasm about the band that feels fresh, even where derivative. Varied yet consistent, brutal in a simplistic way.

The trio will entreat the audience to churning tremolo picked rhythms that hearken back to the age of records like Death's Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy, yet they also incorporate a lot of squeals and sweeps and other techniques that are associated more with the turn towards technical brutality that death metal took in the 90s. Minimalistic, chugging mid-paced thrash riffs are used in both the verse rhythms and breakdowns, and it helps a lot that the guitars have this bludgeoning, deep production about them felt propelled largely through the mutes, but really I'm just happy that, no matter how basic the patterns feel, they aren't repeated endlessly unto metalcore boredom. There are brief flashes of exciting leads throughout, without much of a structure or sense of indulgence, and I wouldn't have minded more extensive soloing or an added depth of melody to offset the gut-busting low end that dominates the disc, but they do occur uncommonly. As for the pacing throughout, it's very evenly distributed through medium and faster material, diverse riffing architecture that does help distinguish a number of individual tracks without breaking the sum flow and flexibility of the record. The drums are a little boxy in the mix, and the bass doesn't always have a potent presence (though you can hear a few decent fills or grooves down there), but the blasting and fills are pretty intense and the percussive effect of the rhythm section is indeed tight.

I do really, really enjoy the vocalist here, Umar Khan. He's got a great, ghastly depth to his delivery that brings back memories of a Martin van Drunen, if a little more 'brutal' and not quite so charismatic. Snarls and additional growls are occasionally used to add some zest to his performance, but none are required, for even if the guy doesn't have a lot of range or tricks, the guttural just doesn't get old, and I was totally feeling some nostalgia for the later 80s/early 90s when most front men in this field were quite distinguishable from one another. It's not just your run-of-the-mill droning delivery you get out of a lot of faceless modern death, but something more intestine-twisting and sincere. I was also a little surprised by the forceful grind aesthetics or d-beat death metal/hardcore open chord riffing that occasionally reared its head through the album, a pretty nice balance against the more morbid aesthetic of the tremolo and muted picking progressions. In the end, this shows a 'refinement' of Oshiego's sound, without abandoning that death/thrash crossover that gave them life. The cover of Vomitory's "The Voyage" (from their 1999 sophomore Redemption) was a nice addition, not only because they play it tightly, but because they do a lot to blend it in with their own material rather than just adopting the straight up Swedification of the original. 

The Great Architect of Nothing isn't strikingly sticky or mind-blowing, and I still think the leads could be tweaked to provide a more memorable higher end over the rhythmic beatdown, but it's got this sense of concussive confidence about it, sure to result in neck-strain, and definitely a more enjoyable set of tunes than Woe to the Conquered. Definitely one to check out for fans of early Pestilence, Asphyx, Assorted Heap, Cancer, Protector, and more recently an Intestine Baalism or Deadly Spawn, though the material isn't quite so infectiously as melodic as Baalism. Honest death/thrash with no fear of diversification.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Master - The Witchhunt (2013)

So I've never been the biggest Master fan, or really paid all that much attention to most of Paul Speckmann's output since the early years. To be more accurate, I enjoyed the first two records released through the Nuclear Blast label, in particular On the Seventh Day God Created... Master, and Death Strike's Fuckin' Death, but nothing much beyond that has ever stirred my interest. And even then, I wouldn't hail any of those albums as the masterpieces claimed by several denizens of the underground. Honest, confident, formative death metal, you'll get no arguments from me, and I've been listening to the genre since it was the title of a thrash song. Yet they just never had that extremely captivating sense of morbidity, pathos or surgical songwriting that I got out of my favorite death metal as a teen. Leprosy, Consuming Impulse, Altars of Madness, Left Hand Path, Symphonies of Sickness, Realm of Chaos...these were my go-to records for the time, and bands like Cianide, Cancer and Master just didn't cultivate that same sense of immediate identity or terror that drew me to the rest. Ultimately, I think I admire Speckmann more for his unending perseverance than the music he writes. This guy is a death metal icon, he's never yielded due to the lack of widespread success that several of his old peers have since celebrated; and he's stuck to his guns in terms of compositional aesthetics and lyrical themes.

I mention all this, because my reaction to The Witchhunt, Master's 12th full-length effort, is more or less a reflection of how I've felt about most of the half-dozen records I've heard since those crucial early 90s. This is solid, competent, old school death metal which stands in utter defiance of all trends past and present. You won't find Sunlight guitar tone, murmuring apocryphal subterranean gutturals, slam sections, or tech savvy instrumentation that shifts tempos on the drop of a dime. It's Master. A full-blooded Master experience which deviates very little from the music Paul was putting out almost a quarter century ago. That right there tells you whether you're going to love or hate it, or in my case, greet it with a lukewarm response. Not for a lack of trying, because truth be told, this is blazing with energy, as if the band hadn't aged a week since it's inception. Enthusiastic, hearkening back to a point at which death metal could still be considered 'fun' and not simply some 'fuck the world' lifestyle choice for antisocial troglodytes whose minds have obviously by devoured by basement mold. No cheats, no gimmicks, and lyrically centered on relevant social and political topics that most death metal bands seem to entirely eschew in favor of rape/murder fantasies or cosmic Lovecraftian horror. Perhaps that renders it 'unimaginative', or lacking in the otherworldly atmosphere some seek from the antiquity of nostalgic death metal, but it's honestly refreshing at the same time. In fact, you could consider Master a thrash, heavy metal, punk disposition wrapped in death metal flesh. That's always been the direction they've followed, and that's not about to change.

Also intact: Paul's vocals. Perhaps the most distinctive component of Master's sound across the ages are these raucous, gut-wrenching hybrid growl-snarls that really had little to compare with in the early years apart from someone like Chris Reifert. There's not as much of a sustained sneer as, say, Chuck Schuldiner, nor is he as over the top as John Tardy's growling, but there's no question that he creates the impression of a very sickened individual who's not afraid to offer a little variation. Often the vocals here will layer in an added rasp to create a Deicide-like effect, but personally I preferred it when he was just puking out individual lines with the ire he's known for. I wish I could speak as highly of his bass lines, but I generally found them more of a workmanlike accompaniment for the guitars. Granted, this is death metal of an era in which that was the common practice, and Speckmann's tone is certainly loud, pumping and present enough to add texture, but the note progressions don't really enhance the rhythm riffs beyond making the meatier and angrier. Zdeněk Pradlovský drums are set prominently in the mix, easily matching the rhythm guitars and vocals, and well suited to this organic, thrash-infused death metal aesthetic which requires energy more than won't get walls of blast-work, or kick-drum records being broken, but he beats away on his kit much like the riffs beat away on your face...not pretty, not polished, just real.

And speaking of the riffs...well, that's really what is going to make or break this or any other album, and I found the selection here earnest but left wanting. There really isn't a single unique idea on the album, but then that's not the point, so you're left with a mixture of classic tremolo picked sequences, thrashing outbreaks and stolid grooves that feel like a more muscular Slayer infused with Death and Massacre. There isn't a lot of dissonance here, and few of the chord or tremolo progressions feel particularly nasty or evil, but as a support system for the sicker vocals they're performed tightly and efficiently. When it comes to the chords, you get a nice level of hellish punk energy, and perhaps the most diverse riffing comes through the palm muted thrash-like breaks, which help vary up the 11 tracks well enough that it never gets too boring or repetitious. As for the leads, they're reasonably well implemented, wild but never sloppy, and show a decent range of technique, falling somewhere between spontaneity and careful planning. That said, like the rhythm guitars, they are rarely catchy enough to care about 15 minutes after the dust cloud of The Witchhunt has cleared your brain box. I felt like the further I got through the album, the more tracks sort of blended into one another. Not because they're all written exactly alike, but because the quality is relatively average.

The first three tunes ("The Witchhunt", "Plans of Hate", "Another Suicide") had me on board, but beyond that, once "Waiting for Die" kicked off with its mid-paced, Slayer-ish riffs I started to run up against the same wall I encountered when listening to other Master records, the general lack of outstanding riffs or songs. On an album like The Witchhunt, where the only atmosphere available is the sheer propulsion of the guitars and drums, the construction and stickiness of the note patterns is of paramount importance. There's a REASON people are still singing and playing along to Altars of Madness, Reign in Blood, Master of Puppets and Seven Churches all these years later. There's a REASON all those late 80s/1990 death metal choruses on records like Leprosy, Cause of Death and Mental Funeral were so memorable. It's not just because they were first (they very often weren't), it's because they were inspired. Speckmann's a tight vocalist, and this is a tight three piece fuckin' band, but there's just nothing here for the ages like Chuck growling out 'Denial of life!' over that morbid guitar line, or John Tardy retching forth 'Life goes on' in "Memories Remain" on a goddamn awesome Celtic Frost groove. Granted, those would be huge boots to fill for anyone, but Master just doesn't have those moments here or anywhere, and as a result, The Witchhunt is another record condemned to decency as opposed to exemplar status. Which, to be fair, is more than enough for some fans...just not this one. A good record, but they have (and can do) better.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Satyricon - Satyricon (2013)

Man, when people tell you that the intro piece to this album, "Voice of Shadows", sounds like a laconic, snakier twist on the old gospel hymn "When the Saints Go Marching In", they really aren't kidding. That is exactly the impression it leaves, and not a very exciting one. Suffice to say I was shocked, then, that the rest of Satyricon's eponymous 8th full-length is nearly as lazy and drained sounding as this one song. It's essentially a 'mellowing' of the black & roll techniques adopted for the last pair of records, attempting unsuccessfully to generate a more evil, occult ebb and flow to the riffing progressions. Now, as usual, I've got no problems whatsoever with what they aim to achieve here. I'm by no means some closet troll expecting Darker Medieval Times or Nemesis Divina Mk. II, and unwilling to accept any deviation from my parameters of underground acceptability! Not happening (possibly ever). I've long appreciated Satyricon as an evolutionary entity, uninterested in putting out the same record twice, and though they've made a few missteps here or there, I was actually on board for Now, Diabolical and Age of Nero, their 'Black Album' phase. Revolutionary? Fuck no, but the nihilistic Satyr-barks, stripped-out complexities, and concentrated, rock-like grooves sounded fantastic on my car speakers, and I found a lot of the songs memorable enough to continue visiting them for years to follow.

Satyricon is not a particularly shitty album by any means, nor is it void of ideas, some of which breathe new air into the Norwegians' canon; but for a good number of spins I just haven't had the hooks sink into me. I feel like it takes quite a few cues from its predecessors, with a load of simplistic grooves in tunes like "Our World, It Rumbles", and perhaps a wider spread of riffs than either of the last albums. Not only because there are more songs, but most of them possess a greater degree of internal variation than those found on Age of Nero. Guitar progressions are performed spaciously and patiently, relying quite strongly on their ability to captivate the audience but only occasionally doing so. Transitions are often quite overt with the percussion dropping out, and in general I'd say that Frost's presence on the record is entirely laid back and he's playing well beneath his ability. Not that I expect every madman drummer to be jocking it on every record, and certainly the guy wasn't pushing his limits for the last decade, but the performance just doesn't possess much personality to distinguish him from anyone else. I guess it takes some tact to reserve oneself like this, but I just didn't find most of the individual beats interesting. They simply seem sublimated to the more prevalent guitar patterns, almost like the guy was playing on one of Opeth's prog rock records with no metallic content in sight. The kicks and snares in pieces like "Natt" are steady but powerless, so much is left to the atmosphere above...only a few cuts like "The Infinity of Time and Space" show that the guy is even thinking about flying off the hook.

Naturally, the tunes here seem to lend themselves to more vocal diversity than the prior outings, and yet Satyr sticks to his bleak barks exclusively. He'll emphasize and sustain certain rasps for a more dramatic, throaty effect, but there aren't a lot of meters or lines here which deviate from the structures he's been spitting since Rebel Extravaganza or Volcano, only the music itself is far less explosive or exciting. He'll also do some spoken word stuff ("The Infinity of Time and Space") when they switch to a segue of cleaner guitars, or some tuneless clean singing ("Phoenix"), but both are admittedly pretty boring. Shimmery choir toned keyboards are placed sparsely throughout the record to enforce that angelic laxness inherent in the songwriting, but they rarely add much accept to stress the spiritual longitude and latitude being committed. I'm also not too impressed with the moody, clean sections where a few basic chords are strummed as if this were some minimalist Pink Floyd cover band. Really, this shit is child's play! You don't get a pass just for incorporating lowest common denominator blues or psychedelic rock elements into your songwriting, you've got to ensure that they're just as interesting as anything else going on, that the atmosphere they manifest is an effectively compelling contrast to the harder hitting rhythm guitars...there have to be a half-dozen instances on this album where such bland breaks in the action appear, and add nothing to the sum experience.

In the end, a WHOLE LOT of weight rests upon the rhythm guitars themselves to maintain the listener's attention span, and while they're infinitely better developed than anything else on the disc, painfully few of them have those morbid hooks I enjoyed from their recent works. At its most energetic, Satyricon feels like a replay of material off Now, Diabolical being performed at the predicted mid-pace with guitars that simply seem to be paraphrased off other songs and marginally tweaked. Granted, these are imbued and alternated with more shining, atmospheric phrases and a few straight black metal charges ("Walker Upon the Wind"), but the dry mix of the drums, and the creatively bankrupt, might-as-well-be-absent bass lines just leave Satyr with far too much room for his riffing to breathe. Where simple tracks like "K.I.N.G.", "My Skin is Cold" and "Commando" rocked my toes off, even the best material here like "Nekrohaven" seems to scrape at my socks and then give up for a cigarette break. It just feels like Satyricon are hanging out, rolling tape and laying out any cohesive riffs that come to mind, with little thought to their emotional impact or the overall strength of the performance. The lyrics, while appropriately minimal in accordance with the music, don't seem so capable of that poignant efficiency you'll find on some of the Darkthrone records.

Satyricon is one of those eminently frustrating experiences, because while I reaped little enjoyment out of it, and think it's easily the nadir of all their full-length efforts, I certainly can see where they were going and might have really enjoyed this contemplative, lackadaisical version of their style...if the songwriting had just been stronger, and the atmospheric components more resonant, weird, and in tune with the personalized, arcane philosophy of the lyrical themes. I almost felt like this was their attempt to tune into the whole psychedelic 60s/70s occult prog rock thing trending so heavily these days, only accessing that realm from the black & roll momentum they had been building over the previous decade. Oh, it can be done. Unfortunately, it's just not an intriguing transformation when you compare it to something like Tribulation's The Formulas of Death, which was this 180 degree shift from a hyper Swedish death/thrash band into something entirely different and unexpected. Satyricon have manage to string together an album here which is simultaneously more intricate and less compelling than those decisions leading up to it, and I really wish there had just been more to like about it. There SHOULD be more to like about it. As it stands: a handful of near-ragers and a bellyful of soon-forgotten, background black metal valium.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10] (summon the unwanted)

Monday, September 16, 2013

Mörkö - Itsensänimeävä (2013)

Finland seems to have put a premium on its out-of-the-box, unusual, psychedelic black metal, with a band like Oranssi Pazuzu starting to generate some worldwide interest and then another level of solid and experienced acts helping to steer the form towards further nuance. A more pertinent comparison for Mörkö would be Jumalhämärä, an act that shares several active members in Harri Talvenmäki and Heikki Kivelä who perform the rhythm section here. Like Jumalhämärä, this project has been kicking around since the mid 90s, though a hiatus was taken several years back to release experimental rock records under the name Disorder of Deadeight, which served as spiritual precursors to this latest, four track, 35 minute effort under the original moniker.

While fans of the one (Jumalhämärä) would certainly appreciate the other (Mörkö), there are a few subtle differences here worth exploring. Though it's free-flowing and superficially, deceptively jammy on a surface level much like that band, Itsensänimeävä is actually a more structured and certain experience bleeding together cycles of hypnotic repetition, jarring dissonance, organic percussion and two particular strengths that really drew me under the spell: the uncanny vocal arrangements, and perhaps more importantly, this band's amazing ability to weave original post-black tremolo picking patterns that are anything but boring drifts of intellectual waste...they actually captivate the listener with fulfilling successions of notes that subjugate and then strangle the imagination. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the monolithic latter half of the nearly 14 minute "Kosmoksen huhmareessa", where the drums die out and cleaner guitar tones are used to distribute wave after wave of these fascinating, mesmerizing patterns that rank among some of the better experimental guitars I've heard on any metal record lately. That said, they also integrate them into some of the more metallic progressions on the record seamlessly, oft with a more traditional blackened bent that fuses into the jangling, distorted grooves (like the depths of "Nesteen luo").

Mörkö also shows a capacity for warmth and consonance in the music that constantly contrasts against their wilder half, and this is evoked through some of the lighter, dreamier, almost shoegaze riffing patterns here. Bass lines are busy throughout the album, possessive of a cleaner, punching tone with stolid grooves that can just as easily shift into the faster picking of the rhythm guitar. It's presence conjures comparisons to other Scandinavian curiosities like Norway's Virus, in which the presence of the low end, swerving thrum of the instrument provides its own source of mind control, though I wouldn't say the composition of the lines was as strong, as, say, The Agent That Shapes the Desert. The drumming here is fantastic, with a lot of toms that help lend a 'drum circle' feel alongside the snaking, eerie guitar patterns, but again they can easily mutate into the appropriate, busy blasting with loads of jazz-like fill eruptions which themselves provide an whole other level of listening pleasure. On some level, the percussion and playing all around is intensely technical and meticulous, but the organic choices in production give leave a live, improvisational impression reminiscent of how I felt for Jumalhämärä's Resignaatio record.

But I've got to make special mention of the vocals, which are seemingly all over the place, yet compelling despite the gulf in techniques. Monotonous spoken word passages, faint and raspy whispers panning across the headphones, haunting atonal harmonies, and even something so guttural and unnerving that I could not readily identify it as a human voice! There are several lines of recognizable black metal snarls, but they tend to be the exception to the rule here, and often seem to support one of the other techniques rather than stand on their own. All told, in first listening through Itsensänimeävä, you've got next to no idea where anything is going next, and on further repetitions, the subtleties of the picking patterns and the layers of percussion really begin to set in and reveal just how much bloody work went into this thing. Admittedly, I felt the album was a fraction on the short side, if only because this is such 'lose yourself' music that 35 minutes feels abrupt. 1-2 more tracks and 10-15 minutes would have created a more substantial escape, but then on the other hand it might also run the risk of stretching ideas a little too it's not a major flaw.

Points also for the translated song titles and lyrics that were included in the promo...I hope this might be the case for the actual album release, and more bands (of any primary language) need to do this. I don't speak a lick of Finnish, so getting to experience these psychotic images first-hand was a treat, and elevated the music itself to yet another level of sickening intimacy. Prompt, poetic and disturbing, I took away a similar vibe as I have from numerous Jute Gyte albums, and I cannot stress enough how important good lyrics are at getting the bigger picture of an artists' intentions. Ultimately, Mörkö prove another entity worthy of the margins of the black metal format, thinking a little beyond and outside (if not 'above') the status quo to summon forth fascinating results. Having heard the other, aforementioned groups in this scene, I can't claim that this was entirely a novelty, nor is it completely consistent in riffing quality, but it holds up and reveals further details through a number of listens, and is easily recommended to other experimental/avant-garde/blackish groups like Virus, Yurei, Ved Buens Ende, Candy Cane, as well as the members' other work.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (spirit is he who refuses the union)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Lamentations of the Ashen - EKIMMV (2011)

With three tracks eclipsing 15 minutes each, one of which nears the 23 minute mark, EKIMMV is an album that demands a large degree of patience and contemplation from the listener. It's a demand that I'm not sure is consistently warranted, for while there are some pleasant and engrossing riffing progressions throughout, and the sole musician behind Lamentations of the Ashen, Bon Vincent Fry, is adept enough at building layers of tension and sadness through a mixture of fell snarls, atmospheric tremolo picking and subtle bass contours, these behemoth compositions seem to drift, drift, and drift some more through a series of overt, patchwork transitions. So, the earnest attempts to imbue them with highly necessary variation tends to meander, never quite achieve a climactic payoff, and only a handful of the rhythm guitar patterns really stick.

Interestingly, the wordy song titles like "Eventide Sentinels Bedecked with Ineffable Twilight" and "Viperine Shades Linger Quiescent Among Erstwhile Passions", while lovely, seem to really set up the expectations that this is going to be quite indulgent and channel a Romantic, poetic sensibility which I feel it definitely does accomplish. This is clearly true of the lyrics, which have a classicist sense of wonder in capturing their imagery which dial back centuries. The rhythm guitar structures are largely rooted in tremolo picking sequences, which encapsulate an antiquated, Gothic longing rather than the sinister despotism I generally equate with much of the black metal genre. This is statuary black metal, regal and lonely and meant to elate the listener's spirit to a state of soaring and sadness, not to repeatedly prod the audience with aural pitchforks, and I don't believe anyone seeking out such an aesthetic would be ultimately disappointed with what Fry concocts here. He also doesn't shy away from anything: understated, atmospheric synth pads implemented sparingly across the course of the record. Samples in numerous languages. Solemn, ambient drops within the meat of the metallic content. Or cleaner, sparkling guitar passages that could be just at home in an alt rock context as this. Predictable this is not, but at the same time the pieces seemed to be wedged into the puzzle at random.

Where I find no faults at all would be the production, which is impressively clean, and even without losing the emotional depths of each instrument. Guitars are bright enough to cut right into the imagination, but gain a little power and traction when blossoming into denser chord patterns. The drums sound live and fresh, with an effortless capacity to handle the variety of beats through lumbering kicks and steady snare strikes, not to mention there are some experimental percussion sections as you'll hear in "Viperine Shades..." that might take you by surprise. The bass is pretty bleak and smooth, often just wallowing along in the wake of the guitar but always somehow managing to add another tonal tier to the experience. Fry's rasping is nothing necessarily out of the ordinary, but he generates enough of a nasty sustain that it fits the mood of the music rather well, even if there are few individual lines that I might consider gripping or interesting. Most impressive are the subtle nuances, sounds you'll hear on the edge of perception that are constantly woven in and out of the music; even if they're just synth or feedback, they often generated a compelling, panoramic effect. I'll also note that Patrick A. Hasson of Black Chalice lends his clean, haunting vocals to the track "Veiled in Clairaudient Litany" which felt like it veered into a minimalistic Dead Can Dance territory before picking back up with the guitars.

Ultimately, though, I found myself struggling to retain interest the more journeys I made through this. For one, the 5 minute instrumental intro, "...of Wraiths in White", which is essentially a piano leading into some glaring feedback and then a few droning notes, seemed the driest and least worthwhile piece on the whole album, and might just have been left off. The outro, "Ascent into the Empyrean", built on angelic synth choirs, also seems a fraction cheesy and not living up to its potential. As weighted and swollen as the three primary tunes are, they're far less irritating and decked out with generally more interesting ideas. Just not always configured into the most climactic or emotionally resonant progressions, so I often had to dig around to find a few truly inspirational moments. That said, EKIMMV's conflagration of components does feel somewhat if not entirely original, and fans of dreamier, spacious bedroom/basement black metal which doesn't adhere to any specific set of rules might find this a journey worth experiencing.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Forestfather - Hereafter (2013)

Proof positive of the power of online networking, Forestfather is a project long in gestation which was finally brought to light when original member Kveldulf (from Chile) inevitably collaborated with a pair of prolific US musicians, Jared Moran and Michael Rumple, who, between them, in particular Moran, have written and released a wealth of other ventures across numerous genres. In listening to Hereafter, though, you really can't tell that there's any sort of cultural gulf or distance between the members, because the five tracks here flow seamlessly across an emotional, folkish, black metal landscape; dark in a reflective sense but largely built upon crescendos of loss and rustic reverie. A number of styles are distributed equally across the 37 minutes of content, and more importantly the vocal arrangements offer a rather unique mesh of timbres that are simply not something you'll hear on many recordings in this niche.

There are probably four central themes to Kveldulf's playing here that are given even face time through the record. Bright, hazy drifts of chords performed at a moderate pace reminiscent of the mid-period Drudkh records, which are anchored by the most potent bass lines on the disc. Tasteful, folksy acoustic licks that transition rather well in and out of the distorted escalations. Dreamy, shoegaze-like, minimalist melodies that stretch into the highest elevations of rhythmic pitch on the record, while canvasing the other instruments (great example of this is after the 1:00 mark in "Ethereal", which is very true to its title) and creating some of the most haunting and effective instances of the experience. And lastly, there's a more savage, traditional black metal ethos with intense, melodic picking supported by the hammering double-bass lines. This was most impressive in the first half of the track "The Emerald Key", which had patterns that instantly summoned nostalgia within me for Borknagar records like The Olden Domain and The Archaic Course, not to mention Enslaved around that later 90s era. Shimmering, well-plotted, yet as solemn as a wall of granite.

I wouldn't necessarily say that the majority of the riffs here were equally memorable, but each cut has at least a few to distinguish it among the album as a whole, and Forestfather has a number of other distractions to help balance out any tedium I might have felt during the less interesting progressions: the foremost of which is the multi-pronged vocal attack here, in which a number of sharp, clean lines tend to take you by surprise. Far from a common commodity in this genre, Rumple's performance nevertheless sheds the strange Scandinavian soaring of an ICS Vortex for something more dagger-like and unnerving in shape, with some soothing and expressive harmonization that adds quite a lot to the rural imagery conjured up through the chords; not to  mention the crazy screaming in the back-end of "All Tears to Come", which is bloody fantastic. I wasn't half as immersed in the black snarls here, which are really par for the course, but in fairness there are some individual instances where the lines become wretched and ugly enough to really stand on their own. But I'd actually go so far to say that I would have preferred more of the harmonies here, since there are entire swaths of the record filled only by the rasps that don't feel nearly as refreshing.

Bass lines are silk-smooth, really finding their stride during the mid-paced sequences of the album where a groove is established to bolster the sad and pretty high-end picking patterns. The drums also feel fairly loud and natural without becoming obnoxious or drowning out the other performances. A lot are performed with a laconic, rock sensibility befitting the ebb and flow of the guitars, but numerous double kick sections and loud, abrasive fills help to challenge some of this tranquility; and there are some outright blasted components like in the latter half of "The Emerald Key" or in "The Days Ever-Done" which are more or less like a Frost/Pure Holocaust-era desperate charge through a blizzard. But, really, it's a testament to the variation here that even the percussion-less pieces, like the intro and bridge in "The Days Ever-Done" hold the attention through their composition and never give the listener any urge to be anywhere else. There's a dramatic egality across Hereafter, between its calms and storms, which seems meticulously structured without ever revealing any semblance of robotic predictability....

...that's not to say I loved every track equivocally, and was, in fact, rarely blown away here, but there was indeed something pleasant and compelling about the experience which rarely put me to sleep. For a debut, Hereafter is strong and self-assured, the sort of rustic acclimation that many black metal/folk artists seem to strive for without achieving. I felt transported to some woodland riverbank where a rucksack of supplies awaited my arrival, and then departed on a journey worth taking. Forestfather is not particularly 'evil' or sinister as far as black metal goes, nor is it happy and summery, but more like a long autumn afternoon hike when you are standing in the shadows of the trees just as often as a clearing, surrounded by withering foliage. A curious evolutionary nook between folk-era Ulver, Olden Domain Borknagar and the quixotic current flavors of bands like Wolves in the Throne Room, Woods of Ypres or Alcest...but certainly not restrained to these, there's really a lot of potential appeal here for anyone who wishes to whittle away his/her sorrows in a campfire headspace beyond the eavesdropping of humanity.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Monday, September 9, 2013

Black Chalice - Submission DEMO (2012)

I'm often at a loss as to what constitutes a demo recording or an 'official' album, especially in the metal underground, where the latter can often prove just as important or substantial as the former. In the case of the Submission demo by Black Chalice, it probably has something to do with the studio process and the original intentions for the material. This is actually a considerably longer work than the Obsidian album I covered, and recorded the year before. Strangely enough, it offers some of the added variation I felt could have strengthened that work, but at the same time it's a little less consistent overall, and there were a few points at which I felt myself nodding out. I guess this better deserves the brand of 'death/doom' than Obsidian, because the growls here reign supreme, and it definitely possesses a more mournful, crushing, funeral pall, but texturally I also felt it a little dryer, less saturated with the imagination of that album.

Submission opens with a four-minute instrumental constructed from clean, sad, scintillating guitars that eventually builds into a union of chords and single picked melodies, and then beyond that comes the really heavy stuff. There's still a combination of drudging, filthy chords and melodies, but the former feel a little more gratingly tuned, and the latter seem slightly less tethered to the bottom line. The drums are really underwhelming here, faint beats that barely support the huge, ugly riffs canvased above them, though they pick up steam in the bridge of "Regret" when they start hammering away. The guttural vocals take on a maudlin, almost monotonous drift as they would in many recordings of this field, and they don't really distinguish themselves as being particularly weighted or brutal. "Submission" itself features more clean guitars, and some of the submissive, clean vocals that are commonplace on Obsidian, but it also has a pretty weak transition and then picks up into what is basically an admixture of driving, older Katatonia-style guitars. I found "Cornea" more to my liking, though the rhythm guitar distortion seems to clip a little and nearly bust out of its own recording.

The last track, "Wain" seems to come from a separate recording session and has a more repressed quality about it. Melodic vocals, groovier riffs and a bass-heavy, Sabbath like substance to some of the riffing in the bridge. Perhaps an attempt to make inroads to a more antiquated style of doom metal, but it does seem a little out of place with the rest of the material, and sloppily constructed so that the riffs don't exactly flow into one another in a meaningful way. That said, I actually did enjoy the project of Patrick using his clean vocal style over this more psychedelic riffing aesthetic, I only wish he were louder. Lyric-wise, Submission was quite good as the other Black Chalice material, especially the song "Regret" where I really enjoyed the closing line: When will we be sorry? We will be sorry. Still very personal and deep, wrist-cutting and depressing, but perhaps a bit more image-laden. Ultimately, I think this was a work borne of experimental intentions more so than Obsidian, but some of the songs drudge on a little much without many ideas of note, and "Wain" just didn't fit for me. Not without a few moments, but I simply felt more rewarded by the experience of Obsidian.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (feeling the light burn out)

Black Chalice - Obsidian (2012)

What hit me the hardest about Obsidian is just how abrupt the album begins, especially for a death/doom record. No lengthy, pretentious acoustic passages to kick off the experience, no treacherously slow build into the solemn and crushing riffs. This one just dumps a bucket of sorrow directly over your noggin through a miasma of churning, burly doom metal progressions, haunting and tonal clean vocals that hover below the loud swell of the chords, and a foundation of dreamy atmospherics that seem as if they could only been inspired by a dreary, overcast New England coastline. Or at least that's how I'll imagine it, since Black Chalice is the work of one Patrick A. Hasson of Maine, who some underground pundits might recognize from his black metal oriented projects Auspicium and Avulse.

But even more important, this album got me nostalgic for what must be my favorite doom metal epoch, the 90s, when the strong presence of the British scene was joined by an emergent Swedish wave of Gothic-tinted bands. For instance, some of the emboldened chord patterns here recall the first two Lake of Tears records, but then Patrick is constantly splaying out resonant melodies beneath them that remind me of Paradise Lost (circa Icon). Granted, this is marginally more solemn and funereal in disposition than those albums, to the point that it might even appeal to fans of stuff like Evoken, but this guy clearly dug out the roots of the genre and avoids the droning, endless excess that the style has often fallen into, even on the longer pieces "Heliocentric" and "Obsidian" that make up about 21 minutes of content between them. Some might balk at the stiffness of the drum programming, or the oft calamitous resonance of the production in general, but this tape is nothing if not consistently eloquent and oppressive in equal turns.

Naturally, he gives himself more space to explore in the wider tunes, like "Obsidian" where the drums drop to a sparse cadence, the drudging bass-lines rumble beneath a glaze of harmonies; or "Heliocentric" where he produces these warm, climactic fusions of the grainy rhythm guitars and melodies. But most of the material is based on the same, steady formula of dirty chords and drifting vocals. The singing is strangely subdued, and this might also prove a turnoff for those accustomed to the vocals being on top, but in reality this just gives them the substance of another instrument in the mix. He doesn't exclusively stick with this one style, capable of belting out the dirgelike gutturals most equate with the genre, but it certainly feels more drugged, numbing and ultimately unique. I did feel at times like the album might have benefited from further variation, perhaps some vocal-only passages or tempo shifts, but as it stands, four tracks in 33 minutes isn't quite enough to wear out its welcome by turning the same few tricks repeatedly.

All in all, a fairly unique style here that rewarded me with the escapism I seek of it. The lyrics are personal and cautionary as opposed to poetic and image-heavy; dealing largely with depression, alcoholism and the confines of the human condition, but at the same time their humble. Patrick isn't speaking to you through some pretentious haze of Gothic grandeur, but more on a person-to-person level, and it helps to ground the epic quality of the music, to 'reel it in' if you will. You know, I just had to make a fisherman joke because I'm an asshole, and because there's just something so contemplatively coastal about this...lighthouse doom...a walk on the rocks, breakers spraying your toes with cold, salty tears. Obsidian isn't perfection by any means, but it IS an experience, and there's not a lot more I could ask for in a niche of metal that I sometimes find to be the antithesis of compelling. Recommended for your next gray afternoon.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (I long to trace my veins)

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Slutvomit - Swarming Darkness (2013)

I came across Slutvomit's Turning the Cross Towards Hell EP a few years back, and while that mightn't have been anything to get the panties in a bunch over, it was the sort of filthy and impetuous blackened speed or thrash metal that I tend to favor for its ideals of looseness and vileness; a cruel visage that automatically helps drive home a set of derivative 80s based riffs and ideas that might otherwise be easily ignored. The material there wasn't on the same level, as, say Antichrist's Forbidden World, a stunning and unforgettable gem of a record which simultaneously placed its chest nuts in the fires of the past and present, with a set of insidious, blazing riffs and disgustingly effective vocals that have yet to leave my car stereo...but considering that most of the bands I fancy in this style are decidedly European, it was refreshing that we had Slutvomit sitting out in the Northwest and pitchforking themselves with potential...a potential that is certainly realized on their Invictus Productions debut.

Swarming Darkness has pretty much everything I need in my dirty vest-slinging speed-death thrashing black madness. Nasty and lecherous vocals with a nice resonant echo that recollects the proto-Teutonic hostility of bands like Kreator and Sodom. Fast riffing patterns that, while obviously reformed and rearranged from an array of classic records circa Slayer, Possessed, etc, still come across as driven and incendiary, with no shortage of effort in their execution. Warped leads that add an otherworldly, underworldly aesthetic of flair to the more workmanlike speed of the rhythm tracks, and take the whole experience to a level above the mere median of metallic efficiency. Drumming consistency that sounds like the guy's seat is on fire, with plenty of kick strength, fills and yet still a cohesion to the classic, punishing styles of a Hoglan or Lombardo. And last but not least, a clear but not obscene polished production which provides for the little inconsistencies or flaws that give a metal record some actual character. Swarming Darkness did not disappoint me on any of these levels, and though much of the content was already available on their previous demo and EP, its all splayed out here with a level production and impish, charismatic glee.

To be honest, much of the album plays out with an uncomfortable level of sameness that might have been better served with a broader array of riffing variation, but that's not to say that they don't insert a few more mid-paced breakdowns. Some of these instances (like in the titular opening cut itself) definitely seem to take their cues rather closely from classic cuts found on records like Kreator's Pleasure to Kill, and quite a number of tunes have similar speed-picked patterns that vary only in a few chord selections or note intervals. The song titles themselves seem like they've just been paraphrased from their influences ("Bombing the Chapel", etc) and the respective songs aesthetically close to those influences, but it's not like this is a niche brimming with originality...pretty much all of the international acts in this category are recycling Slayer, Kreator, Destruction, Possessed, Bathory and their ilk into hellish breaths of inspiration, and mileage will vary on how they stick the evolved leads, choruses, and rhythm guitars into the listener's memory. I found that Slutvomit has just enough of this to remain intense throughout, in particular on the more substantial tracks like "Morbid Priest (of Hell)" or "Harbinger of Doom" where they really go off the hinges and burn the audience to cinders. Swarming Darkness is perhaps not the equal of Forbidden World, or Aura Noir, or Germany's Nocturnal, but its entertaining enough to start a drunken riot of horn throwing and bottle smashing on whatever native plane of the Abyss you call home. Hail...*hiccup* Satan!

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Scythe - Subterranean Steel (2013)

Many readers will likely recall the Chicago tyrants Usurper, who were more or less a crushing 90s amalgamation of Celtic Frost and Venom vomiting vitriol straight from the Midwest, with a handful of cool records like Diabolosis and Skeletal Season. Scythe is essentially the direct continuation of the Rick Scythe persona from that era, embedded into a more uptempo speed/thrash chassis with death & black metal dressings. Subterranean Steel is the second album of this new trio, and I was taken aback at just how brutal and riff-driven this was. The cover art, while fun, doesn't do the music any favors, because you really don't get the impression that is some visual based gimmick act circa Goddess of Desire or Dethklock, but a more serious exhibition of spikes, leather and inferno...and some sharpened spikes indeed.

The guitar tone here is crisp and boisterous, the riffs generally built as harsh, hellish approximations of trad thrash, speed and heavy metal that can 'rise to the occasion' of Scythe's wrenching growls and snarls. This leaves a lot of room for variation, and indeed the track list across Subterranean Steel doesn't shy away from covering a lot of ground, from the slow and steady thrashing of "The Bray Beast" which reminds me of a more primitive 80s Testament, to "Nights of Terror" which is pure nasty speed metal lickin' that comes across like a more muscular alternative to early Megadeth or "Subterranean Steel" itself which is possibly my favorite on the disc, steady and unbridled chugging force with a nice build to a more atmospheric climax. Almost all of the riff construction is deviously simplistic through the record, but even though one can draw parallels to this or that band from the past, it still seems consistent and fresh and not so much of a ripoff as an homage, much like Usurper did. And for those seeking a little more extremity, the trio answers with pieces like "The Grunting Dead" or "Beyond the Northwoods" that channel bombastic old black metal like late 80s Bathory into the equation.

The album wouldn't succeed without its abrasive, punishing tones, and these extend beyond the growls and guitars to a potent drum mix in which you can hear each level snare strike and thundering kick that 'bulk' up the force of the riffing. The bass lines also pump along with some volume, although structurally they often seem to support the rhythms directly and thus can seem a little less noticeable until he swerves off into a groove during a change in patterns. The leads to tunes like "Thunder Hammer" are generally pretty basic and bluesy, and not all that interesting, but considering Rick's double duty as guitarist/front man I was hardly expecting Zakk Wylde. In fact, Subterranean Steel as a whole is just not a complex or frenetic experience. It's more about confidence, certainty, and crushing the listener's ear drums in with an extreme evolution of classic metal tropes, and the horror-borne lyrics fit right in with Scythe's later Usurper material. Ultimately, while its not unbelievably memorable or unique, this is just a fun record with some righteous head bangers. Like Usurper, Scythe keeps it heavy and honest, and that's why this impious Illinois institution is in no danger of closing its doors.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]