Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Autothrall's Top Metal Albums of 2013 +++

The Top 20 Metal Albums of 2013

01. Satan (UK) - Life Sentence
02. In Solitude (Se) - Sister
02. Cultes des Ghouls (Pl) - Henbane
04. Lantern (Fi) - Below
05. Summoning (At) - Old Morning's Dawn
06. Helloween (De) - Straight Out of Hell
07. Gorguts (Ca) - Coloured Sands
08. Attacker (US) - Giants of Canaan
09. Sulphur Aeon (De) - Swallowed by the Ocean's Tide *debut of the year*
10. Iron Dogs (Ca) - Free and Wild
11. Obliteration (No) - Black Death Horizon
12. Realmbuilder (US) - Blue Flame Cavalry
13. Voivod (Ca) - Target Earth
14. Seremonia (Fi) - Ihminen
15. Converge, Rivers of Hell 3-Way Split (Au)
16. Neige Éternelle (Ca) - Neige Éternelle
17. Zemial (Gr) - Nykta
18. Spectral Lore (Gr)/Mare Cognitum (US) - Sol
19. Gris (Ca) - À l'Âme Enflammée, l'Äme Constellée...
20. Beyond (De) - Fatal Power of Death 

Again, we're hardly looking at a 'banner year' for metal music, and I didn't give out any really high scores; but 2013 was, like any other, loaded with an enormous amount of worthwhile listens across basically all of the subgenres. Busy year for me, with a move and a new baby boy among other changes, but  according to my notes I listened through approximately 443 new albums, EPs and demos this year, a fair chunk of which I was able to review. Lot of good Canadian stuff! Two of the most hyped records of 2013, Carcass's comeback Surgical Steel and Deafheaven's Sunbather don't belong anywhere near my list: the former, while technically a triumph, is little more than a rehash of ideas from their 1989-1994 period that don't stand to memory as much as the originals (I'd rate it a 7/10), while the latter offered me little more than a handful of decent absorbing melodies (a 6/10, at least it was better than their debut). 

For me, the real comebacks were from Satan and Attacker, which reinvigorated my interest in heavy, speed and power metal like few others. Some other bands (Iron Dogs, In Solitude and Realmbuilder) also put nice touches to the trad heavy & doom formulas, with humble but potent recordings. The new Cultes des Ghouls record was really surprising and fantastic...distinct, atmospheric, evil and wretched black metal the likes of which you rarely hear outside the early 90s. A number of other groups continued to put some curious spins on the old school death metal revival trend (Obliteration, Beyond, Sulphur Aeon, etc), but ultimately I found there were a lot of disappointing albums in 2013...not always on the 'suck' plane, but middle of the road at best. Once more, this is just a small cropping of my absolute favorites from the last 12 months...I've got a longer top 100 list over at RYM for you to check out if interested.

The Top 10 Non-Metal Albums of 2013

Neither was there a ton of non-metal music to get excited over, so I’m keeping this list at about half the size of what I’d normally track and rank. The Autechre double-album was brilliant, their best in some time but that’s probably the only ‘masterpiece’ on this list, and coincidentally my overall album of the year.

01. Autechre (UK) - Exai
02. Chelsea Wolfe (US) - Pain is Beautiful
03. Beastmilk (Fi) - Climax
04. Power Glove (US) - Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon soundtrack
05. Killer Mike & El-P (US) - Run the Jewels
06. Fuck Buttons (US) - Slow Focus
07. Alice in Chains (US) - The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here
08. The Gathering (Nl) - Afterwords
09. Frontline Assembly (Ca) - Echogenetic
10. Washed Out (US) - Paracosm

Friday, December 27, 2013

שְׁאוֹל - Sepulchral Ruins Below the Temple EP (2013)

England's שְׁאוֹל (She'ol or 'grave') makes no bones about its crude, subterranean inclinations, championed even by the very title of its Iron Bonehead debut EP Sepulchral Ruins Below the Temple, so it's not immediately out of question to brand this release with the 'cavern core' designation. A fairly popular sound these past 5-10 years, or at least as 'popular' as the death metal underground gets, where a bevy of younger acts embrace the filth and carnage of 90s prototypes like Autopsy, Incantation, and Demilich, and then drown it in cacophonous reverb or other studio techniques that might be a little easier to pull off these years. Essentially, a lot of these projects are 'one upping' the masters in terms of production, but that will depend on the ears of the beholder...I found it fun at first to revisit this aesthetic with such an evil, emphatic sound, but will readily admit that I've grown a little bored of the approach. It's just not the sort that can support endless revisions of the same riffing structures and concepts.

That's not to say She'ol is all that forgettable, or entirely faceless. In fact, the tones they wrench out of their strings and vocal chords are outright loathsome, and they can cultivate an atmosphere with the rest of 'em, but so many of these churning death metal riffing progressions or slower death/doom sequences feel derived to the point that they are lost amidst the scene as a whole. To their credit, baleful melodies are strewn through the EP that help loan a more grandiose sense of the infernal...whether through warped, choir-like synthesis or depressing patterns of notes that immediately lend a better 'rounded outness' to the chords. Sepulchral Ruins Below the Temple is not your roiling, sluggish, Portal-like presentation where the vocals and note changes often hover just at the edge of perception, but the bolder trudge of a congregation of underground monks gathering in a central worship chamber. Riffs vary between faster, trad death metal tremolo bursts and gloomier crawls of chord constructions, so I'm reminded of old Incantation a lot, with the depth dwelling guttural opacity in the vocals that has long been the choice fit for the style, but there aren't more than a handful I could pick out of any lineup of similar minded bands.

Fortunately this is a fairly concise recording, and so rich and troubled in tone that it doesn't necessarily wear out its welcome. Guitars are an uber-saturated mesh of old Autopsy-meets-Sunlight-studio tropes, while the drums are quite tinny to compensate, sometimes to the point that the higher end of the kit seems prevalent over the kicks (though all are audible). Bass guitar is not much of a presence at all, following along with the rhythm guitars and scarcely standing out of its own accord. But whatever its faults, Sepulchral Ruins Below the Temple absolutely lives up to its name (and cover art), and I can't really imagine it being mixed with any other set of priorities. The problem is, once they break into their cover of Darkthrone's seminal "Cromlech" (Soulside Journey), is sort of cripples the original material, because you realize just how much better the note progressions and choices were on an aesthetically comparable tune 23 years ago. She'ol do a decent job of making it sound even more cavernous and resonant. The cover makes 'sense', of course, but it simply makes me pine for that level of songwriting, which the duo has not yet reached even with decades of material to build upon. Thus, this is an EP I could only recommend to those really interested in fleshing out more of this particular niche of extreme metal. It sets that authentic mood of Satan's breath channeled through yawning chasms and geothermal vents, and it's a fraction more dramatic than several other groups pursuing the same ends, but it has simply been done to death.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Midnite Hellion - Hour of the Wolf (2013)

Hour of the Wolf is another of those cases in which I really enjoy a band's style and themes but just didn't feel like the songwriting on these particular tunes was ultimately all that impressive or memorable. From superficial details like the logo and cover artwork to the unique, piercing qualities of vocalist P.J. Berlinghof, who makes her debut with Midnite Hellion on this very 7", you've got a solid and compact entrant into the retro trad metal scene. The production here is bright, clear and crunchy as opposed to sounding like it was meant to be released in 1984, but when it comes to the riffing construction there is absolutely nothing here you would consider modern or innovative...which doesn't exactly hold it back from filling out its chosen niche, but the note progressions and patterns on parade too often feel as if they overly familiar and repackaged from a number of classics that likely inspired the New Jersey quintet in the first place.

Think late 70s Judas Priest or early Tygers of Pan Tang pacing infused with mid 80s US power metal circa Jag Panzer, Liege Lord, Attacker and Fates Warning. The first, titular tune is probably a bit more in the direction of the former while "The Morrigan" hovers around the latter spectrum, though both cross into each others' territory often enough. The rhythm guitars have a nice crunch to them, but whether chords or triplet trots, the patterns just feel like I've been there before and often wind up completely predictable. Melodies are thin, often seemingly panned into just one side that sets them on a different plane than the persistent rhythm, but I wish they were a little bolder and more effective; whereas the leads and bluesy metal grooves ("Hour of the Wolf") seem just about right, if they too suffer from a sense of derivation. Bass lines are corpulent and plunky and the drums have a nice balance of rasped cymbals and steady snares and kicks, but I never felt like there was much excitement. To Midnite Hellion's credit, these tunes, without becoming bloated, cycle through a few more riffing/tempo changes than your average heavy metal throwback, but I had a hard time remaining interested at any given point.

A lot rested on Berlinghof's performance, wavering and melodic but capable of a nasty bite, and serious serious enough to deliver these two tales of classic/mythic monsters. I'd probably compare her syllabic meter and pacing, especially in the verses, to the great Rob Halford, but she also brought to mind earlier Harry 'Tyrant' Conklin, especially the mid range stuff; and a fraction of Bruce Dickinson's leering madness. She does often pitch upwards but she's hardly a screamer, instead making due with her stronger range and helping imbue the songs with gravity as opposed to frivolous excess. The rest of the band provides a gang shout or two for emphasis, but she's easily the most compelling piece of the puzzle, and if they can sharpen up the riff set with some more curious, unexpected note phrasings and chord structures they could very likely make a mark for themselves beyond the obsessive 80s metal collectors likely to snatch the vinyl. However, you only need listen to the recent output of veterans Attacker and Warlord, or exciting younger bands like Enforcer, to realize that these tunes don't exactly strain themselves to be remembered. A little more time at the drawing board, perhaps a little faster riffing to complement the mid-paced choices, and this is one case of lycanthropy that could become more infectious with delivery.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Blacksoul Seraphim - Alms & Avarice (2012)

Full disclosure: Gothic doom metal is not a niche to which I can claim an inherently consistent reaction. One might say I was 'polarized' when it came to many releases in this field. I do not believe all My Dying Bride releases are created equal. I've revered a few of the older Candlemass records, and have since they were released in the 80s, but have muddled and mixed reactions to most of their later output. Groups like Isole and Draconian have by turns blown this mind and put it to sleep. I find that, like several other categories of doom, there's a hazy line between what is authentically crushing and saddening and what is strictly a boring slog through saccharine poetic doldrums, landscapes of ineffectual emotional effluvia which I wouldn't be able to relate to if I was an 19th century wannabe lyricist drunk off absinthe and hanging around in graveyards. It goes without saying, but songwriting and sincerity are just as valid and important here as they are anywhere...stringing together a few predictable Paradise Lost chord patterns and then dressing them in pianos or operatic female vocals is not, in any way, automatically fucking heavy. Like any other subgenre of a subgenre, you'll have albums which successfully take you to their own space, and others that spend a lot of time crowding the predefined boundaries.

Alms & Avarice is, gracefully, more of the former and a lot less of the latter. To be clear, I was not always blown away by this debut, and frankly the pacing and arrangement were not always my cup of tea, but like the Massachusetts mainstay of several of the members (Gothic/black metal outfit Sorrowseed), the attention to detail, production values and overall effort placed into this record are never shy of professional. First and foremost, the record passes the pseudo-Turing test I apply to most doom records: the songs themselves are not treacherously long and boring, or confused into thinking that they NEED to be to create some genuine artistic license in this particular medium. The riffs aren't insanely original or inspired, but they flow fairly seamlessly through solemn monoliths of sorrowful structures that absolutely remind me of those first times I heard a record like Epicus Doomicus Metallicus...Sabbath at heart, always, if their music were being viewed through a medieval lens more akin to the eponymous Theater of Tragedy record. Lyrically these are paeans to the corruption of man's institutions through the eyes of a fell angel, and I think that is absolutely a proper sort of concept for a record such as this. What's further, there are moments of variation inserted through the 48 minutes of content that help divert the record away from tearswept monotony, such as the bass solo "Dust Merchant" or the great guitar instrumental "Tarnishing of the Crown" which is arguably the most majestic riffing of the whole shebang...

The major creatives here are Josh Carrig (Morte McAdaver of Sorrowseed) handling most of the guitars and vocals, and Thomas Cyranowski on the keys. Drums are provided by Clay Neely of stoner doom sect Black Pyramid who also produced this disc with the gloss and clarity of nearly anything you'll find on the Napalm, Nuclear Blast or Candlelight rosters overseas. Having heard Carrig's voice both here and in his more Gothic/vaudevillian act Pandora's Toybox, I have to say this is his best performance, with a soothing and even tone that doesn't quite plumb the depths of a Peter Steele or Fernando Ribeiro unless he's doing a more narrative passage like that of "Virtue and Vermin" where the lower drawl accompanies the moody piano lines and rhythm guitar chords. Granted, there's not a huge range to the singing, but you could think of him as a more level alternative to Aaron Stainthorpe without sounding like he'd just overdosed on heroin. The death growls often present in this style are thankfully absent, as are the ethereal female guest spots, so I actually like that they were presenting a unified vocal front rather than the cliche 'beauty and the beast' techniques that were mastered long ago in the 90s and rarely useful ever since. No Leaves' Eyes swill here, just a spiritual numbing set to the studied, centuries old vernacular of the lyrics which read just as strongly as those of Sorrowseed. I also found Cyranowki's pianos and keys refreshing in their complacence to never over-contribute and let all the guitars and drums drive the experience.

But really, Alms & Avarice will live or die by its riff construction, and here you get a pretty broad palette of traditional Euro-doom melodies with some more trad-metal stuff redolent of bands as wide as Opeth and Iron Maiden. Nothing is repeated needlessly unto oblivion and there's only a single song here ("Psalm of Insurrection") which even remotely flirts with 'padding' (at over nine minutes), and that is saved by one of Carrig's more brooding, baritone vocal performances and a sweeping sense of momentum like a great shadow passing over a marble-strewn, ruined courtyard. The bass-lines sound decent if not themselves all that compelling, and Clay's drums fit the musical mold with effortless ease, offering slight fills but largely constricted to that sense of steady pacing that best fits the doom. I'd also add that, while few of the actual guitars might sound innovative to anyone with years of listening to this genre, they're 'busier' than what you'll hear in a lot of comparable bands...probably at least on the same level of Tristania and Draconian in how they eschew the endless tirades of lamentation by the less creative. Loads of melodies throughout give this slab of despair a ceaseless sense of hope, a few errant golden rays piercing the darkened din of cloud cover that scream: 'We can change, we can love, we can live', in rather humorous opposition to Sorrowseed's more apocalyptic disposition.

Ultimately, Blacksoul Seraphim is one of the classier Gothic/doom outfits from the States that I've heard, or at least the New England region, and very much recommended to fans of the more polished My Dying Bride output, earlier Anathema, Isole, Draconian, Swallow the Sun, While Heaven Wept, even a little Candlemass. This is not an album to approach with expectations of the utter bleakness you'd find in Mournful Congregation, Shape of Despair or Evoken, due to the lighter outlook of the melodies. While I could define some of the atmosphere as loosely 'funereal', this is by no means funeral doom, nor does it thrive off the grubbier grit of sludge and stoner rock aesthetics. It's not a sepulcher sinking into the swamp's edge, but a proud block of obsidian in a public boneyard. A few flower arrangements show up through the year, the weeds are clipped and the surface of the stone polished; and while it's not flawlessly engraved, or the most memorable memorial you're like to find, it is certainly built to endure the elements, and in places, to triumph over them.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (the citadel, sick with material bliss)


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sorrowseed - Nemesis Engine (2013)

My first reaction when I saw the cover to Nemesis Engine and read over a few of the song titles and lyrics was that this might be a concept album in tribute to Sylvanas Windrunner and or/the Lich King from the Warcraft universe. There's a little of that influence, sure, but in truth, the Lich Queen and her undead armies at the heart of this new storyline were minted by the imaginations of Sorrowseed themselves, and this new apocalyptic scenario joins the two prior records (released originally as a 2-disc set in 2011 and individually the year after) as a sort of triptych to the downfall of civilization, played out in equally exotic fantasies. Nature twisted and turning upon all mankind, the looming threat of Lovecraftian apocrypha, and now a horde of militant corpses in thrall to a pale-fleshed seductress?! These all sound a hell of a lot more fun than how we're REALLY goin' down: Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" being played so often on FM radio that it sets off a plague of spontaneous combustions as humanity recoils from the horror it hath truly wrought. There, I just wrote your fourth album...

At any rate, Nemesis Engine does not so much see a maturation of Sorrowseed's Gothic/black metal as it does a focusing or narrowing in on several of the more brutal and elegant ingredients of the earlier albums. They're still essentially the New England manifestation of all things Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir, Hecate Enthroned, Seibenburgen, Therion and Limbonic Art, only I don't feel like they arrive at that destination via emulation or parody, but rather due to a shared love of Gothic horror, fantasy, piano instrumentation and extreme metal. Lilith Astaroth might sound somewhat like Dani Filth in timbre, thanks to the mesh of snarls and deeper growls she employs, but I also hear a little Satyr in how she constructs some of her syllabic passages. Also, the cleaner melodic vocals she throws on there provide a theatric versatility that seems suited to the subject matter in the lyrics...what if Filth himself could cover S-J Diva's lines himself? It's a great talent to have, and while I wasn't quite sold on Lilith's ravings the last time around, I think her brute grunts have developed rather well, still my preference over the higher pitched screams. There are even some operatic, ethereal lines tastefully tackled on the title track, and some gang gutturals and rasps on "Scourge of the Hierophant" that support Astaroth's pestilent barking.

Musically, I found Nemesis Engine to be a more riff-based entity than its predecessors, with that sweeping sense of orchestration serving more as a backdrop role, reaching its peak in the intro ("Phylactery") and then letting the guitars, drums and vocals breathe over most of the material. Most often you'll just hear a few piano lines used to season a chorus or bridge without stepping all over the guitars, a mistake many bands of this ilk often make. Tunes are generally reined in around an appreciably compact, 4-ish minute duration, and Morte McAdaver's riffing palette this time around seems to surprisingly revolve around a more thrashing impetus. You've got some definite bursts of the tremolo picking and dissonant chord-work relevant to traditional black or melodic death metal, but I also heard a lot of progressions redolent of Gwar's darker, twisted material, a bit of classic Metallica, or even Coroner's Mental Vortex, though I think that last comparison is largely due to the level of saturation in the guitar and spryness of several grooving patterns. There aren't a lot of hooks which instantly cling to the memory, granted, but plenty enough variation which never succumbs to ceaseless repetition or truly dull chord expressions.

Where Nemesis Engine does excel is in the lead department. Not only Morte's own playing, but also in the decision to bring a number of guests on board, like Chris Adamcek (who helped out on the earlier albums) and New England shredder Eric Pellegrini...but the name that will turn a lot of heads is Andy LaRocque, who adds a flighty lead lick to "Sepulcher Legionnaires". I only got to shake the man's hand when opening up for Death in the early 90s, but to actually have him throw down on your album? Color me jealous, though my favorite here might have to be Adamcek's gleefully diabolic solo in "Artillery Ghost". The new drummer Prometheus B. Subrick also shines, with a dynamic and technical performance akin to what you might hear on a Polish death metal outing in the 21st century: clean kick and snare tones, lots of pinpoint precision double bass. It does seem at times he might be holding back a little, but only because the nature of these songs doesn't often lend itself to fits of gravity-blasting extremity...they exist here, but generally the mid paced beats better serve the riff style and give Lilith's vocals a better chance to impress. The one sonic component I wish was better pronounced here was the bass. The swerving lines are certainly audible, the playing competent, I just wish they were a fraction fatter in the mix to balance out the guitars and vocals.

Sorrowseed continues to have the conceptual creativity on lockdown, with some of the more intriguing song titles I've heard this year ("Artillery Ghosts", "Necropolis March", "Stygian Athenaeum") and quality lyrics to support all of them. Let's be frank: if you dream of the day the Scourge will rise up and claim Azeroth for its own, or you find yourself siding AGAINST Ash when you watch Army of Darkness, even if you just like squatting in the Eastern Plaguelands, or tabletop role playing as a death knight or necromancer, this is an album for you. Loads of Anglo-poetic padding to the lyrical imagery, not unlike how Dani Filth puts together his material, only a bit less gaudy and complicated, make songs like "Corpse Colossus" fun to read, and much like The Extinction Prophecies, there's just a lot of effort involved throughout and I can't help but enjoy it. As a whole, I was probably more impressed with the double album than this, but Nemesis Engine is superior to either of those discs individually. The riffs could be a little catchier, and a further fusion of eerie atmospherics to the raw metal mechanics could prove more effective with the subject material, but there is no question that the vocals feels more cohesive, the leads better written, and the execution better grounded. If you're not the sort to shy away from the Gothic/black metal architecture of the later 90s, whether by its more popular practitioners or those less celebrated, then check this out.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (those born of charnel bloodlines)


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Deathquintet - Godwork (2013)

Deathquintet is the official rebranding of a Swedish death metal outfit known as Sargatanas Reign, though from what I can remember of that earlier incarnation the evolution in style is somewhat minimal. Judging by the simple and straightforward aesthetics of the logo and cover artwork, I really had no idea what to expect up front...but Godwork reveals itself to be a pretty standard fusion of 90s melodic death metal interlaced with a lot of groove and some death 'n' roll influences from their countrymen At the Gates, Hypocrisy and Entombed...I even heard a bit of Danish bands like Konkhra and Illdisposed. Sadly, where the Deathquintet proves itself a cadre of old hands at pacing their tunes, and offering a little variety in riff choices, I found the majority of this disc pretty insipid, and the use of various 'name' guest vocalists doesn't really do much to tip the scales in its favor...

The biggest issue here is not one of incompetence nor lack of effort, merely that a lot of the palm muted riff patterns just aren't all that creative, nor the tremolo picked passages, nor the songwriting in general. There is a fairly wide net cast in terms of pacing, so for instance the Gothic-death bass-led verses of "Crawl On Your Feet" and the double-kick anchored melodic charge of "Broken Hands" don't have much in common, yet they all feel pretty predictable in terms of where the notes are headed, and not in a rewarding way. Most of the grooves are all reconfigured from hundreds to come before, and the pretty barebones production of the disc does little to emphasize the compositions as far as atmosphere. Ultimately, while the band doesn't ride any one set of influences to the point that they're a ripoff, they seem more like a general derivative of a group of death metal substyles that have one thing in common: to feel passe, lackluster, never particularly brutal or even as passionate as the formative melodic death metal groups that dominated the mid to late 90s.

You just aren't hearing riff selections here as inspired or explosive as an In Flames, Dark Tranquillity or Soilwork nor the more crushing edge of the classic Swedish death. I give them credit for not just jumping on that old Sunlight tone bandwagon and sounding like a thousand other followers, but at times some of the grooves here are just as shy on imagination, and the few points at which the band delves into a more clinical and technical death metal technique also didn't convince me. Essentially Deathquintet feel too often like they're trying to feel out which of numerous paths to pursue without becoming committed to any one, and thus Godwork doesn't really excel at anything. The production is level across most of the instruments but it feels murky and demo-quality in places, and the lack of bright shifts or interesting transitions sort of bled the entire experience together, even though they do offer a broad palette of riffs. Guest vocalists like Tomas Lindberg and Joakim Göthberg serve only to render the normal growls less interesting by comparison, and most of the song titles and lyrics also seem bland and ambiguous...

"My Burden"? "For the Love"? "Nothing"? "Cross My Heart"? Seems like these were picked out of a hat of Pantera groove-metal/metalcore titles from bands in the mid 90s. I won't fault Deathquintet for aspiring to take on a more personal bent to their material, but this is another case for metal bands to break out a thesaurus once in awhile...try a metaphor, a unique image, something that forces the listener to think a little. The musical choices here are not those of slouches...these guys can all play their instruments, but seeing how they were doing the tie-wearing/dress shirt death metal schtick, I was really hoping to hear something crushing and appalling to contrast the image. Instead, and I hate to say it, but they seem to play into that whole corporate, predictable cubicle death metal culture that you'd expect them to kick the shit out of. It's not terrible music by any means, but relatively bland...unable to stand out against the already-rich legacy of Swedish death metal.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]


Friday, December 13, 2013

Nigromante - Black Magic Night (2014)

One of the greatest drawbacks of nostalgic heavy metal in the 21st century is the proclivity of its practitioners and followers to simply 'settle' for more of the same, as if fulfilling the base level requirements of a band 30 years ago is some sort of achievement. Don't get me wrong, I love to hear a group that can recapture the recording atmosphere of a bygone era and then write some fiery, passionate tunes which can stand their own test of time, but too often I've encountered well meaning acts that just can't grasp that next level...that authentic magic that made their inspirations so damned delectable in the first place seems to elude a lot of the younger bands, and that's a large part of why I wasn't able to get myself too stoked on the debut of Spaniards Nigromante.

These guys have an interest in playing some punchy, stripped down metal in the late 70s, early 80s tradition and putting their own stamp on it, but this has to rely heavily on the gruffer vocals than the riffing progressions which play out like others we've heard so many times before. I guess the best comparisons to make would involve the earlier records in the catalogs of Accept, Anvil, Running Wild, and late 70s Priest. Simple connect-the-dots chord patterns are given a slight injection of charisma due to the very sincere production faculties, grooving bass lines and then the gruff delivery of multi-instrumentalist Choco, who reminds me of a poor man's Chris Boltendahl (Grave Digger), or Tank's Algy Ward with that grumbled, oft constipated-sounding meatiness transformed by this guy's natural accent; though he's not beneath the assertion of some melody in lines like the verses of "In Nomine Pater". The guitar chops are themselves often threaded with slightly more complex picking sequences and grooves, and Choco also tears out a nasty, dirty bass tone that gives the rhythm guitar a more robust effectiveness, while the drums are feisty but relatively stock for the musical style...humble beats for humble riffs.

The issue I hear on Black Magic Night is that very often the best parts of the tunes are a few of the hooks in the verse sequences or bridges, whereas the choruses and supporting chords don't really evoke anything so memorable. Leads aren't exactly inspired themselves, just sort of tossed on with little other meaning than they belong as a component of the hard rock/heavy metal medium...sometimes a bit bluesy, but never difficult or mesmerizing. Built-in melodies like that at the start of "False Idol" are more interesting, even if the entirety of the songs aren't quite so compelling. I actually do like the sound of the rhythm guitar itself...fat and boxy and dominates the mix, but overall I came away from this with the impression it was sort of a standard bar metal record which was written around 1985 and somehow lost its way in the time stream. The only giveaway that it's more recent in origin would probably be those guitars, which are more straight to the face and less saturated in reverb or atmosphere than they might have been in that Golden Era of heavy metal. Overall, it's not a bad debut, and there's some appreciable variety in the riffing, but the old school stuff this emulates just relies so heavily on powerful, unforgettable hooks and choruses which Nigromante is thus far lacking.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Realmbuilder - Blue Flame Cavalry (2013)

We've had no shortage of fantasy-themed metal through the decades, but NYC's Realmbuilder stands out to me for scratching a particular itch, a love of pulp, 60s-early 80s and/or young adult fiction that managed to conjure up a lot of nostalgia for this reviewer. I was instantly breaking out and prying open my old copies of the Chronicles of Prydain, Tripods Trilogy and many other imaginative works I hadn't revisited in years, and there's a real sense of mythos and mysticism to the concepts at play in the lyrics, as opposed to the generic Tolkien/Dragonlance-inspired tripe you get from a band like Rhapsody of Fire. Not that those Italians aren't fun musically, but the themes of their records feel like they were created with a Random D&D Campaign generator instead of the authentic sense of wonder I hear on Blue Flame Cavalry. Fuck, even the cover artwork to this disc throws me back decades to those old novels and RPG game manuals of my youth, and I've not been able to stop listening to this. It's not quite a flawless album, but really capitalizes upon the strengths of their sophomore, Fortifications of the Pale Architect, to create a seamless, picturesque, captivating escapism through cautious restraint and strong arrangements.

This definitely falls under that heavy/doom category, musically comparable to a simpler Manilla Road, a Lord Weird Slough Feg, or a less rotund and robust DoomSword, perhaps even a few hints of antiquated Manowar (first four records) revealed in the bombastic compositional style. Riffs are quite varied between open chords that help to seat the layered vocal arrangements, to busier proto-power metal progressions that pick up to a mid-pace, but nothing is necessarily complex or inaccessible. The real joy is that, while the chord patterns and melodies certainly aren't unique (a nigh impossible task n 2013), they feel honest and refreshing and consistently serve the escalating grandeur of the saga being played out lyrically. Realmbuilder doesn't exclusively take its time with you, but they're capable of plotting out a 10+ minute epic that never once devolves into boredom, thanks to the excellent placement of vocal choirs, leaden harmonies and a few instruments uncommon to the metal genre (trumpets, Ram's horn, etc) which help to round out the experience that the listener has been transported to this other time and place. There's also a great sense of balance and diversity between the tunes...the mellow balladry of "Adrift Upon the Night Ocean", for example, provides a smooth contrast against the siege-hymn "Advance of the War Giants" or the slower Sabbath stride of the titular finale.

The production is clean and laid back, with the drums and bass feeling like they migrated over from some obscure 70s prog rock record...in fact I was mildly reminded of some of my favorite Rush efforts of olde (Fly by Night, Caress of Steel). That's not to say the rhythm section is lazy, but it's not trying to overtake the guitars, which are played with a very mild distortion and not a lot of effects even on the harmonic segues such as that in "Advance of the War Giants". Levels are pretty much perfect for the atmosphere that the duo are chasing, with the vocals at the fore. That said, Czar's folksy everyman delivery took some adjusting to; the first few times I heard him, I wondered why they wouldn't just hire someone with a better range, but by this point I'm convinced that there could be nothing more fitting...you really feel like you're hearing these tales told from the perspective of a roving bard, forced to relay news and story from village to village just to earn a bowl of soup and a flagon of something to forget the trials of the road...not some operatic falsetto court jester in tights. Granted, when you figure in the choirs and backing vocals, it's a more accomplished and exotic mixture, but there's just nothing pretentious about Czar. YOU could sing these songs. I could sing these songs, and that's the brilliance of it...that's what makes this music so easy to connect with. Blue Flame Cavalry aesthetically approaches its lofty fantastic themes from a ground level...not from the back of a blazing dragon-mount while its radiant plate mail +13 blinds the onlooker.

It's only about 34 minutes long, but I never got the feeling that there was much else needed here. The tunes are all quite different in structure and length, and damned if they're not predictable beyond the fact that they are stylistically latched onto the teat of the fantastical concept. Realmbuilder is so freakin' humble that even the logo seems like a kid's scrawl on a notebook that might also contain doodles of wyverns and griffons, crystal balls and tumbling gnomes...youthful dreams captured in the amber of mature songwriting sensibility. Blue Flame Cavalry is a record I'll gladly pass off to my newborn when he's old enough for the Chronicles of Narnia, but one which I can also enjoy as I prep next weekend's tabletop wargaming session. Timeless and boundless in its ability to inspire raw imagination, and with these same basic ingredients, they could go almost anywhere. It's not the busiest or most proficient metal you'll hear in this or any other year, but it absolutely does not need to be...and while I have the feeling the duo hasn't yet arrived at its 'masterpiece', this and the sophomore are both excellent and come highly recommended, whether you've got your nose soiled by the ink of your umpteenth copy of The Hobbit, aroused by the mid-period works of Slough Feg and the Hammers of Misfortune, or you're the more 'recreational' sort of fantasist adrift in an acid mushroomland.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (they cleanse the riven lands)


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Taking a short break...

Welcoming my firstborn to the world this week, so I'll be away from review writing until the next! Thanks as always for reading, much love, and more to come soon.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Guerra Total - El Armagedón Continúa (2013)

Colombia's brutal death scene has been reasonably well documented, even if it's still deep underground, but this South American nation has honestly had no shortage of metal from other extremities, particularly black or blackened thrash/speed, the latter niche being occupied by one Guerra Total ('Total War'). These guys have been churning out a new record each year since 2010 under this name, but had a fairly substantial history beforehand for about a decade, and I must say...they've been markedly improving which each release. This latest, El Armagedón Continúa, arriving through Sweden's I Hate records, fits in rather snugly with the scene emerging from countries like Finland, Canada, Sweden, Norway and the States, and while it's a little nastier than a band like Midnight, Speedtrap or Speedwolf, it definitely scratches a comparable itch to names like Antichrist or Deathhammer, perhaps even some of Sabbat's flightier infernalisms such as Sabbatrinity.

Granted, this is a legacy far older, with a lot of the riffing motifs lifted off classics like Kill 'Em All or Show No Mercy, cultivating the same general aesthetic once pioneered by Bathory, Destruction, Motörhead and Venom, but it's not something I ever seem to grow tired of as long as it's performed well. And, thanks to the raw but clear production choices on this record, I've had a lot of fun listening through it. Rhythm guitar progressions use a lot of the hammered, trilling hi-octane techniques you've heard in this particular field many a time, but combined with meatier mid-paced thrashing chord chugs, splayed out trad metal 4-chord backing patterns for an airier feel, and lightning melodic leads which seem slightly more controlled than the haphazard spasms you'd predict from the usual Slayer-philes. They also throw in some wah wah effects and others to build a real balance and atmosphere to the record that more than compensates for its generally raw mix and undercooked ideas. The vocalist has a pretty impish rasp going on, though I admit I prefer when he's singing in Spanish, it just drips with a more natural sense of character and malevolence...not that he's a slouch in English, where he sounds like a less pronounced Quorthon from the earlier records, but it doesn't give the material that same sense of place...like I don't feel as if I'm being run down through a rainforest by Satanic cocaine dealers with machetes...to whom I owe a great deal of money.

I actually quite liked the sense of 'distance' in the production, almost like you're listening to it in an empty futbol stadium, sitting too low to receive the brunt of the drums or rhythm guitars, but when those leads burst out in tunes like "Misanthropist God" they totally take over the space. The bass is a little low and in truth this is not a heavily 'low end' sort of recording, but it's enough that I can make out the lines, which are basically just following along with the rhythm riffs. The drums aren't insanely technical, which wouldn't fit this sort of nostalgic songwriting, but they're peppy and vivacious and blaze along at a strong clip and volume. Really, though, the production is going to turn off some and titillate others. You want brickwalled, dense Pro Tools melodic death/thrash that sounds like it was written in the 21st century?  El Armagedón Continúa is not likely to fulfill that desire. Nothing here is 'new', or for that matter very creative. But if you want an album to seem like it was recorded in the back of some van pimped out with spikes and machine guns, Mad Max-style, while the driver and passengers hurl empties out the windows in a rabid pursuit of their own Sentence of Death or Welcome to Hell, along the highway TO Hell, then Guerra Total has your number on speed-dial and they're crank-calling you for about 40 minutes of jeering, jubilant, incendiary entertainment. Poseurs and pedestrians beware! Hail speed! And hail Satan!

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (evil mutants looking for flesh)