Friday, January 31, 2014

Hail Spirit Noir - Oi Magoi (2014) *Album of the Month*

It is much to expect a metal album, or really any album, to take one on a journey, but the Hail Spirit Noir sophomore Oi Magoi surpasses such expectations with ease, offering a rare hybrid of psychedelic warmth, prog rock occultism, unusual instrumentation, eloquent and restrained sequences of orchestration, and mythopoesis. 50 minutes of contrasts between the sylvan glade orgies of mortals and ancient beings, and assertive black metal passages which exhibit both a contemporary sense of aggression and progression, without expressly alienating those of a more conservative genre mentality. There's not a lot to directly compare this with, but I might offer that it's a mash-up of aesthetics you'd find in bands as diverse as Ghost, Sarke and fellow Greeks Kawir. Some might chide the trio for latching onto the 'occult rock' bandwagon, but I can't say that they sound too directly similar to anyone currently exploring the sound; more of a straight bastardization of late 60s/70s psych rock, cult horror scores and intricately textured black metal; Coven's Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls topped off with some Spectral Lore or Acherontas, and for the past few weeks I have not been able to get enough of this fucking thing...

There are essentially two philosophies to this record, but each is comprised of a great deal of nuance and variation which ensure that very little predictability is maintained. You might catch on early that there will be haunting, wavering clean vocals, soaring ritualistic chants, and sugary bass grooves, but Hail Spirit Noir continue to exert their inventiveness through the implementation of flutes, percussion, and traditional sounds you're not going to find in a stock black metal experience. Within any sequence of measures, there will be something new evoked that further expands the repertoire of possibility, and while its true that most of the music's instrumental components have featured in other extreme metal outings, they've rarely been offered with this level of thematic cohesion. Production remains warm and vibrant, but the faster tremolo picked guitar explosions and harder hitting riffs lose nothing of the sinister nature they might provoke if mixed from a far rawer perspective. All of the vocals fit, from the Nocturno Culto growls to the folksier lamentations, to the distant, decrepit cries, and I couldn't help but feel like I was being sacrificed in the kindest way upon some altar around which satyrs and nymphs indulged in mutual, carnal affectations. It sounds really fucking whacko and it is, only Oi Magoi is in reality quite strictly balanced and controlled, never sloppy and never does any choice feel like it was out of place in the greater 'picture' of the album.

I would admit some preference towards particular tunes over others. For instance, the moody and trippy "Satan is Time" is simply the best song I've heard in 2014 thus far, while others like "Demon for a Day" or "Hunters" are merely excellent; but all of the content is addictive enough that its still recommended to tunnel straight through the record in order to the other side. Organs, synthesizers, bluesy ringing tones, black metal grooves redolent of Sweden's Head of the Demon, uncountable details that simmer and pop against the ritualistic black metal backdrop, it's as if Mortuary Drape and Goblin were asked to score some silent Hammer Horror film that had was just unburied from a vault of old reels. The black metal itself explores a vast palate, from the highly harmonic, driven and melodic ("Satyriko Orgio") to slower, eerie bits that remind one of ancient death metal if it had been delivered with less saturated distortion. The band even pulls off Hawaiian sounding surf-lite guitars, or passages that seem almost purely cinematic like the climactic swells you would experience in and Italian cult horror movie 30+ years ago, and even when they're committing to a more familiar, descending note pattern it feels fresh and refined, like it were the first time I had experienced it...

Not every riff is equally poignant, not every song infallible in sequence, but albums like Oi Magoi simply do not arrive each and every day of my life. It is the effort of cautious sonic experimentation, the principle of risk which exemplify the Greeks compositional choices. The call and response of the smooth and the jarring. It doesn't fit in seamlessly with the hipper occult doom rock stuff, due to its higher level of complexity, so I'm not sure that particular audience would appreciate all of the maudlin details and sentiments of antiquity, but it syncs up quite well for fans of visionary, gonzo black metal, surrealism and naughty Satanic acts performed in summery technicolor robes hung with garlands, rather than the flat blacks and crimsons normally associated with the subject matter. Not all is happiness here, in particular the vividly visceral lyrics, which cover cheery topics like gruesome sacrifices ("Blood Guru") or fiendish, flesh-rending sea creatures ("The Mermaid"), but it's totally that contrast beneath lush, verdant, watery climes and the horrific acts performed there which puts this over the top into 'unforgettable' territory.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (THIS IS MY BLOOD!!)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Anal Blasphemy/Forbidden Eye - The Perverse Worship of Satanic Sins EP (2014)

Beautiful, voluptuous blood-smeared nuns pleasuring themselves? I'd like two, please. So when I first laid eyes on this split's cover, I admit to spending some time in lecherous distraction, but soon realized that one of the acts, Finland's Anal Blasphemy was one I'd encountered prior, on the Perversions of Satan album a few years back (2012), which was put out through Hammer of Hate...and this was not the first sexy cover that Molestor Kadotus has given us (check out the Filth Union in Desecration split he did with Bloodhammer back in 2007). The guy has great taste in women, that I will tell you with absolutely no irony. The other band here, Forbidden Eye, is a Swiss outfit I'd never actually heard before, but they've put out a bunch of material through other obscure bands in the past. Bottom line: going off the logos and titles alone, I was expect the horniness to be conjoined with the hornyness, and to have mine ears raped by formidable, raw, bestial black metal with no apologies whatsoever for its cruel nature.

And would you know it? That's precisely what happened...not that I can vouch for either of the band's here writing top-notch, memorable material, but they certainly retain some loyalty to the sinister precepts of their genre and will not offend anyone seeking out the blood and brashness of influential records like Mayhem's Death Crush, Bathory's Under the Sign of the Black Mark, Blasphemy's blacker-tinted songs or about half the Finnish black metal underground. The Anal Blasphemy offerings are pure smutty Satanic fare ("Licking the Cunt of Chaos", "Sperm of Satan, Antichrist Semen") with raw guitars banging out familiar, crude riffs lacking any notion for melody or complexity, while the vocals have this extremely carnal rasp to them which is a little less sibilant and serpentine than many of their contemporaries, but had a lot of nasty sustain as they snarled out syllabic patterns. The drums here are storming and raw and not necessarily at the fore, while the bass just seems to follow the rhythm guitar. They get a bit more ambitious on the 9 minute piece "Birth-Death-Rebirth", with some slower rhythms that created a more compelling atmosphere for the horrific growls and rasps, plus the bass groove there was more alluring and hypnotic....also some a creepy film sample in there...was that actually from the fucking Masters of the Universe movie!?!

I found myself more partial to the Forbidden Eye material here, if mainly for the ways the guitars and vocals are mixed, with a nice, wretched mid-range to them that complemented the dreadful, hellish rasp of the front man Winter. The drums also crash along with a lot more force and attitude, and the chord progressions here have a little more swagger to them, at least in the track "The Moon and the Blood Serpent". They also seem to be focused more on the ritualistic/occult side of black metal, so several of the riffs have a more nocturnal majesty about them that is pretty in-line with a lot of stuff you'd expect from Finnish outfits like Horna, Sargeist, etc.; whereas Anal Blasphemy is all about sexualized evocations on a black altar. That said, this split functions because both of the groups do really complement one another. Production differences aside, they both play at a similar pace and complexity which is entirely a paean to the primitive, necro side of the genre, so don't go into this expecting symphonic arrangements and musical showmanship (beyond the one angelic intro piece on the second side). It's ugly, filthy fucking black metal, the way a lot of folks like to play it. The way a lot of folks like to listen to it. I'm hardly an exception, but overall I wouldn't say I found this to be particularly standout's decent, and was a good introduction to Forbidden Eye, but I enjoyed Anal Blasphemy's two full-length records (Bestial Black Metal Filth, Perversions of Satan) more than the three songs here.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Carnal Forge - Testify for My Victims (2007)

No matter how you slice it, Testify for My Victims is the best written of Carnal Forge's albums to date, and a very easy recommendation to make for anyone who is by this point still interested in Swedish melodic death metal of the 21st century, and I realize that is a diminishing (or long since diminished) group of people. Improving the archetypal death/thrash of their earlier material while simultaneously widening the level of variation in their songwriting, you've got light traces of groove metal or death & roll applied to the rigorous balance of melodies and punchy, clinical thrashing rhythms to die for, all delivered with the moderation and care of seasoned veterans. There is a depth to the composition which isn't necessarily a broad deviation from previous records, but even the basest chugging patterns here are glazed with just enough mood and melody to make them efficacious to explore.

Perhaps it's the most 'progressive' of their outings, and that's not a bad've still got much of that propulsive thrash pacing, but a lot more emphasis on mid-speed tunes that explore more complex bridge sections, and take more risks than the older albums without alienating anyone who enjoyed them. The mix here is probably the cleanest I've experienced, but there's quite a lot going on, and even if Testify... might not match its predecessors in sheer momentum and heaviness, it's just so more likely to be remembered weeks, months, or even years after you've heard it. I admit a little bias, since aesthetically this plays out like a kid sibling to Darkane's phenomenal Layers of Lies, one of the best records to ever emerge from this scene and be systematically ignored. It's artsy, modern, surgical in its musicianship, and at times profound, but most importantly it might have carried a note of nuance or originality if not for that other album predating it by a couple years. Not to write this off as some ripoff, because Carnal Forge always worked in parallel to several of their Swedish peers, but it's certainly an album that takes a few spins to fully appreciate and unravel, despite so much of the content being instantly accessible to the At the Gates/Soilwork fan. They obviously took more time releasing this than any of the older works, and it shows.

There's also a similarity to Darkane in vocals: new front man Jens C. Mortensen, who some might have remembered from the Swede-thrash act Slapdash in the 90s, has that same passionate desperate rasp that characterized a Lawrence Mackrory, or more specifically Andreas Sydow. You still get a smattering of the multi-tracked shouts, but Jens is somewhat superior to his predecessor Jonas Kjellgren at embedding some textured, harmonic howls into the verbal battery, while feeling really raw and off his fucking nuts the rest of the time. As clinically polished as the recording is, he always reminds you that this is essentially serial killer death/thrash and better embraces the psychopathy or sociopathy that subject matter entails. To an extent you can still trace the lineage back to Lindberg of At the Gates, but Jens makes it feel like you are being stabbed by a knife through some rift in reality opens up in a dank back-alley or a butcher-shop which is now being used for more nefarious purposes than cheeseburger patties. I don't have the fondest recollections of Slapdash's 240.25 Actual Reality but it was certainly energetic, and he surpasses himself this time around.

Another point in the record's favors is how the drums and bass here really seem to round out the rhythm guitars, rather than just stubbornly support them. The riffs are a little thinner in production, so a meatier warmth to the bass and potent snare strikes seem a better complement. For some reason I was reminded a lot of Tomas Haake's flawless industrialized-human-hybrid style, only Carnal Forge don't play in the same unusual time signatures and the guitars don't cultivate the traditional djent tone. Simpler groove/chugs here all seem to have a direction to them, pointing to the more accelerated passages and also the moodier, more atmospheric sequences. Lyrically, the themes here flow a better between the murderous mayhem that fascinated the Swedes on their earlier efforts to sacrilegious anthems like the wonderfully titled "Godsend Gods End". I really feel that passionate, personal torment and desperation that I so enjoyed on Darkane tracks like "Secondary Effects", and on occasion the meticulous melodies, pinpoint rhythmic punch and Mortensen's grating antipathy make me want to pull my own intestines out and then strangle other people with's futurist, visceral fucking mayhem akin to a high definition slasher flick in which some stylish suit takes out his own imperfections on those around him, a Patrick Bateman for a Swedish Psycho and I heartily recommend it over anything they've ever done before; the promise of Please...die! embodied in the brash control of Layers in Lies, and still a lot of fun to experience years later. It doesn't look like much, but it sounds like much more.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (that mask: it's coming off now)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Carnal Forge - Aren't You Dead Yet? (2004)

Aren't You Dead Yet?, not to be confused with Children of Bodom's Are You Dead Yet? the following year, or the Quarter-Facial Zombie Massacre, entirely unrelated, is a rather important effort on the Carnal Forge timeline. Not because of its significance to metal at large, mind you, because let's face it, this band had long been relegated to the lesser tier of Swedish exports; but because of its significance to the the band itself. You see, this was the final offering by the band's 'classic' lineup that had been meting out the blood, sweat and tears for a number of records, including Please...die!, which had been their best to date. More specifically, it would prove the last hurrah for vocalist Jonas Kjellgren, before focusing his attention on other bands like Scar Symmetry, in which he played guitar for awhile. Aren't You Dead Yet? also seemed to be the first album that put them squarely into the stock melodeath camp, exhibiting a lot more tiny, pretty guitar lines in amongst the rabid modern thrash median between Slayer and At the Gates which spawned their career.

Okay, when I say 'stock' I'm not implying that all of the Swedish bands sound the same, a sentiment I've seen expressed a number of times which is largely cow-patty...sure, a number of melodic death metal or older school Sunlight-tone death metal bands sound xeroxed from the originals, but this is by no means some trait unique to the country...why, the USA itself is ridden with doppelgangers across a number of styles, as is the remainder of Europe or the UK. Say what you want, but Hammerfall does not equal Opeth does not equal Entombed does not equal Candlemass does not equal Watain, and to assert otherwise is a statement of fuckwitted prejudice that screams to me 'I Hate Swedish Bands Because They Are Successful', and I've expressed in the past my feelings for this sort of overt, irrational, whiny faux-elitism, so to see so many bands of varying genres so often lumped together because of their nationalistic relativity is simply stunning. No, many of these bands got popular because they are good, or WERE good at some point; a judgement of value on a case-by-case basis just like any other scene. Yeah, a lot of them can tour, feed their families, and afford to have their records sound pretty sleek, but it's not some conspiracy. They're not out to 'get you'...the place has had great metal since the 80s, so no fucking surprise that it would pan out in all the subgenres later.
Now that I've gone on that tangential (but not irrelevant) rant: when the bitching is being applied to melodic death metal in particular, well then it might hold a fraction more weight, since that's a sound the region more or less pioneered or at least 'defined' after taking inspiration from records like Carcass' Heartwork, and a lot of the 'known' acts in the field are variations on a singular theme of fast-paced, eruptive and very often 'uplifting' material which is the stepchild of the tryst of death, thrash and trad/power metal. But it's not a lot different than brutal USDM, or German power metal, or whatever...I'm not holding grudges just because Darkane, Soilwork and Dark Tranquillity have some similarities; they've also got subtle differences that distinguish them one another, and an overall sound that was inspiring for the turn of the millennium and continues to be so, if in a smaller capacity than before because a lot of the 'mainstreamers' in the niche seem to be facing identity crises or just not writing good songs anymore. A record like Aren't You Dead Yet? does get lost in the herd because most of its ideas are those which have already been expressed by a number of these other artists, on records like Natural Born Chaos, Damage Done or Rusted Angel which were all exponentially 'fresher' and better visualized and composed.

Essentially, this disc is a ligament between the punchy, tightly-woven 21st century chug-thrash of the last four being meted out at an often high pace desperately clenched to its own ideas of momentum, to ensure that there might never be a dull moment, and then its all interspersed with clinical, brief tremolo picked phrasings or loads of melodic spikes that sing like candy to the ears of a listener who wants that contradiction...that contrast. Tunes like "Exploding Veins" play out like mid-paced nu school Exodus neck-wrenchers slathered in The Haunted style vocals, where others are parallels to fellow Swedes Terror 2000 who play more or less uppity racetrack/street thrash. The vocals here have a broader palate of growls and snarls than on the older works, so they seem more like a gang effort, but I don't always like them because the 'shouting' does feel like a typical generic, overbearing metalcore mob, if better inflected. Though all the instruments are quite clear, it's obvious that the guitars are the star of the show...the beats and bass-lines fail to function without some interesting note progression kicking into the listener's skull, and to be fair they do have some. It's not the best selection of quality riffing in their catalog, but this is certainly stronger than Firedemon or its own direct predecessor The More You Suffer, and I attribute that to the better leads as well.

But, again, Carnal Forge prove here that they've not really got a lot to offer that their local kin have not already delivered. If you've worn out your copies of The Haunted Made Me Do It, Slaughter of the Soul, or A Predator's Portrait, then this might make for a decent backup, but a sprinkling of quality solos and melodies, and a handful of tight and unpredictable rhythm patterns aren't enough to propel this one into the pantheon of the memory banks. Pacing and production are not at fault (it still sounds good a decade later if you're into this stuff), merely the fact that we've got a set of songs which are by all means well executed but still fail to stand the test of time. These guys are all excellent musicians and their professional, consistent resumes all point to that, but where and when it was released, Aren't You Dead Yet? did not make any sort of statement and might have been even further disregarded if not for the Century Media release. The bland digital photography zombie cover is uninteresting, the logo seems to have grown even worse with each new rendering of its font, the lyrics and titles just average, but I'd honestly place this in the 'top half' of their first six releases, trailing just slightly behind Please...die! in effectiveness and value.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (I finally found my place in eternity)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Carnal Forge - The More You Suffer (2003)

Thanks to the grainy photography, I can't honestly say I have any clue what is happening on the cover of Carnal Forge's fourth full-length album. Someone in a chic suit is drowning or molesting someone else against an oddly shaped bathtub? That's my best guess, but yet again we've got 'artwork' and disposable logo that just don't scream of much effort in engaging the beholder/listener when there are so many more attractive options, even in the psycho/gore metal niche. Anyway, once you ponder over the lyrics it becomes a little more evident that the Swedes focus heavily on violent outbursts, serial killers, and other subjects that seem edgy enough to match the hi octane death/thrashing, as they had since the debut; but it all feels a little redundant and frankly generic in how they structure and package the message. Musically, I felt like the band had slowly made some strides over the course of the first three records, but with The More You Suffer, certain production choices and all-too-familiar songwriting grind that progress to a halt, and it even seems a step backward.

It might just be my ears, but after listening through the CD itself I listened to it digitally and on/YouTube to confirm that the mix here just lacks the punch of its predecessor Please...die! Which isn't to say it's a horrible sounding disc, just that it feels like the mids are slightly higher in frequency, and thus everything has perhaps too much of a balance in which I lose the bass earlier against the guitars. Structurally, there's not a broad gap between this and the older material, being largely hyperactive Haunted hustle-thrash which seems like it's racing for a subway train that it's just about to miss whenever the band picks up the pace. The songs are in general longer here, mostly falling between 3-4 minutes which is on average one minute beyond what they're used to, and this extra space doesn't necessarily go to waste. Each tune is enabled with additional versatility, like the moody, overcast cleaner guitars in the bridge of "H.B.F. Suicide", and there are far more melodies and harmonies here than even Please...die! In other words, The More You Suffer seems to be tiptoeing more directly into the Swedish melodeath territory, and while the acuity of the guitars proves they aren't at all bad at this, it becomes even more generic...many of the specific riffs sounds like they're just lifted from the creative stock of At the Gates, Soilwork and Darkane but lacking the character and atmosphere that those acts brought to the field on their career-defining works.

The drums are presumably played with the same effort as past albums, and yet I didn't quite feel that their mix was as powerful: the snare seems to pop a lot more while deeper tones blend a little too much into the guitars. Jonas Kjellgren doesn't sound any less angry than on the previous material, and yet I feel like he's reached the bottom of his bag of tricks here, and a lot of the phrasing in lines seems like a mere paraphrase from Firedemon or Please...die! A handful of the songs are engaging for a few spins, particularly those on the latter half of the album ("Into Oblivion", "My Bloody Rampage") which have some tremolo picking passages that help sustain the 'death/thrash' tag, but even there you'll find some pretty boring chord grooves or methodical Swede-o-thrashing 101 which closely mirrors the more mediocre selections of Terror 2000. In the end, while it's as clean as a new razor straight off the assembly line, the production here doesn't captivate me or pummel me in the stomach like the album before it. The songs, while fiery and energetic on the whole, just seem unassuming and bland beyond their pacing. Not awful, but if The More You Suffer never existed, no one would be at a loss...not Century Media, not Carnal Forge, and certainly not you or I.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10] (one more broken soul)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Carnal Forge - Please...Die! (2001)

I wish I could tell you that the lamely titled Please...die! was the point at which Carnal Forge 'hit their stride', but in reality it was hitting the same stride that both its predecessors had already braved. However, based on strengths of riffs alone, this was easily the best of the Swedes' efforts to its day, and clearly something that would appeal to fans of similar efforts like Darkane's Rusted Angel, Soilwork's Chainheart Machine, At the Gates' Slaughter of the Soul or even The Haunted Made Me Do It. It retains the modernization and punch of Firedemon, but riffs and melodies are composed at a more memorable level that lends the record a greater replay value, without sacrificing the frenetic, 'hyperthrash' pacing and energy that was the chief selling point of their older material. The logo and cover art remained fairly uninspired and insipid, but the tunes work better because the notes fall into more interesting patterns here, and that always makes the difference.

Some of the better concise, blistering short-range pummel-thrash pieces of their career dwell here, like "Fuel for Fire" or "Slaves" which balance clinical muted picking patterns/harmonies with the unfettered vocal howls of Jonas Kellgren who really does sound like someone crossbred Speed Strid and Tomas Lindberg with a pair of German Shepherds and then let them off their leashes at the listener. He uses a lot of 'gang shouted' layers panning at you from multiple directions, and they work decidedly well with the clean, machine-like chugging engines of the rhythm guitars, which if they went much further during some of the more mid-paced sequences might veer off into a djent territory. They're polished, but somehow possessive of this depth and richness on a song like "Becoming Dust" that Please...die! almost seems like a marvel of production, that is of course if you don't hate the shinier finish of 21st century-style recordings on sheer principle. The bass guitar also really hits a good tone here; perhaps the lines themselves aren't always that distinct, but the sound is strong and fully complements the impact of the guitar, while Stefan Westerberg sounds about as consistent and hard hitting as he was on Firedemon. The melodies present are very much redolent of Darkane and At the Gates, but that would only be a bother if I didn't enjoy those bands at their primes (spoiler = I do!)

Ultimately, this is a case where I do feel the production is stronger than the songwriting, but that in of itself is an improvement over what they were able to come up with earlier. These aren't the sorts of riffs that will come to mind a decade or even a month after you first listen to the album, but at 36 minutes this is basically a welcome rush if you've got the energy and attention span to appreciate this sort of harried, premature thrash ejaculation which generally fills out about 2-3 minutes of excitement and never gives itself a chance to wear out its welcome. They took a few years to get there, and weren't helped by the fact that countrymen like Soilwork and Dark Tranquillity were putting out truly incredible melodic death records (Natural Born Chaos, Damage Done) that dwarf something like this in terms of ambition and effectiveness; in fact, this disc went by in a flash and nobody seemed to really notice or care, but I give credit where it's due. It's far from perfect, and not their best album (that comes later), but Carnal Forge definitely secured themselves in that 'second tier' of Swedish death/thrash or melodeath with Please...die!, as perhaps a band that one shouldn't just write off based solely on its lack of uniqueness. Serviceable, hard and fast, post-millennial thrashing.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (you just wanted a ride)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Carnal Forge - Firedemon (2000)

Oh damn! Isn't this, like...the SAME fiery demon face that was on the cover of the first album? Here he seems a little more...refined, though the image is equally as ugly and hopefully whoever did the art direction for this and any other Carnal Forge record had a pretty short stint in the medium, or at least improved dramatically elsewhere. Ultimately, though, it's the label and band that should know better, and these are the same sorts of hacked computer edited cheese graphics that plagued a lot of records when people were dicking around with things like the 3D, chromed logos and so forth. Those were like the neon lights over dingy bars in the 90s. Just think how much better it would have looked with just an honest two dimensional scrawl of the same logo!?

Otherwise, Firedemon is really more of the same on the debut, pulverizing hyper thrash sauteed in the more intense riffing patterns favored by other bands who were modernizing the field with a death metallic edge. I felt this was a tighter record than the debut, and the songs a margin more effective, and minimally catchier, but the vocal style and rhythm guitar progressions were in some cases were interchangeable with those, or even quite a few of the Terror 2000/(early) Soilwork songs. Palm-muted, muscular renditions of popular West Coast US thrash in the late 80s/early 90s, in fact a number of these tunes would have fit in quite seamlessly on an Exodus album fronted by Zetro or Rob Dukes, or a new Vio-lence album. Or almost anything with Marco Aro singing, but I'll put that grief away for another day. Bottom line: competent and violent riffing, which is at the very least consistent through the dozen cuts, and occasionally capable of a dissonant or melodic surprise, but largely moving along at the same breakneck clip like a drag race through Stockholm, with testosterone as fuel, and the grand prize being an autographed, limited edition Slaughter of the Soul poster. Sadly, this doesn't have the memorable compositions of that disc, or Rusted Angel, or Steelbath Suicide, or really most of the group's comparable countrymen...

It's not terrible, and I thought the bass level on the album was dialed up a little to kick you in the gut all the harder. Group vocal/gang shouts seem a little more prevalent, and the guitars meatier and easier to make out, not to mention more athletic (again, a lot of patterns quite akin to what Soilwork started out in). It's 'wild child' thrash metal that sounds like it was often performed while drunk, thus the broken glass in the tune "Uncontrollable" is pretty accurate to the aesthetics throughout. It features a pretty damn solid performance by drummer Stefan Westerberg, especially with his toms and kicks being so loud and proud. The pure chugging sequences which are still often indulged in are also better conceived and more energetic than the debut, the handful of death metal tremolo passages more pronounced, and really it exceeds Who's Gonna Burn in every conceivable department, the exception being a few lame, thrown-together lyrics; only it's still just not a 'good' album beyond a pure pummeling parameter or the production values alone. Short and to the point, perhaps, but when it's a point that has already been made a number of times at the same meeting, it loses some of its weight.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (let me out, let me burn)

Friday, January 24, 2014

Carnal Forge - Who's Gonna Burn (1998)

Carnal Forge was at one point a fairly interesting footnote amidst a batch of Swedish bands who provided a more visceral and aggressive postmortem to the success of countrymen At the Gates in the late 90s, after they'd pretty much run their course and then-newly converted fans worldwide realized nothing more was going to happen. There were a lot of more direct, melodic death imitators to happen along, and then some other acts which seemed to ramp up the speed and energy. At any rate, Who's Gonna Burn could be seen as 'riding the coattails' of a record like Slaughter of the Soul, but in fact it had a lot more in common with stuff like Darkane (if not as atmospheric and industrial), The Haunted (who were slightly more accessible), or the Speed (Soilwork) side project Terror 2000, or even a more intense Slapdash (who would ironically provide the new vocalist for this band down the road). Most of the members of Carnal Forge had cycled through a number of other bands in the scene, and many have since gone on to be slightly more successful in later projects, but for a while there was some hope that these guys could break through due to a pretty high visibility on labels like Century Media.

Who's Gonna Burn was their sole offering through Relapse, and if nothing else, it's a certified pissed-off take on modernized 90s thrash which borrows only a bit of the 'Swedish' thing, and is more directly inspired by material like Slayer's Divine Intervention (and beyond). Raunchier-than-normal vocals sound like a more youthful and disgruntled Tom Araya sans the screams he used to spit on the old 80s shit, with a nearly distorted sounding howled sustain. Propulsive rhythm guitar riffing reminiscent of anything from Razor to the first two Haunted records if they were slightly accelerated, and there's also a sense of tough guy attitude among some of the more obvious chord progression choices that could be traced to anything from groove metal (ala Pissing Razors) to commercialized NYHC (Biohazard). I could have sworn I even heard a little Brutal Truth influence to some riffing patterns but I could never prove it in court, and hell, a few tunes like "Sweet Bride" sound like Judas Priest "Painkiller" power metal sped up and made dirtier thanks to Jonas Kellgren's barking vocals. But, even if a lot of the roots of this material wasn't exactly unique for its day, there's definitely something modernized about the approach that felt like they were taking thrash into a more vicious terrain than it had normally tread in.

Who's Gonna Burn is punchy and concise, with few of the tunes clocking far beyond the 3 minute mark, but a fair share of riffs involved even when they're meting out some blistering brief like "Born to Hate" in under two minutes with the chugging breakdown. The album involves probably a half dozen or so palm muted riffs that are utter garbage, but the rest at least attempt to sound inspired and uppity like they were being performed by some Stockholm street thugs that just made off with a few stolen loaves of bread tucked under each arm. The problem here is the same as it is with so many other thrash bands beyond the 80s...the lack of strong songwriting with regards to choruses and individual 'money shot' riffs. No matter how intense Carnal Forge plays, and they 16 year-olds racing towards ejaculation in every tune, they simply do not have the capacity for sticking that load in the listener's memory. It's all speed and slaughter with little to no substance, and you're always waiting for that one amazing riff to justify all the average ones and it just never comes along. They do offer a little variation here or there what with the breakdowns, leads, occasional melodies and the harshness of their high-speed violence, but when it comes to really having tracks that resonate through the decades, like on Darkane's Rusted Angel which appealed to a lot of the same crowd, Carnal Forge just falls flat, and it's too bad, because this debut clearly had some effort going into it.

Anyway, it sounds absolutely nothing like Carcass, apart from the band name and the fact that it's got some thrashy/death hybrid riffs strewn about like on Heartwork. Also, the band's cover artwork sucks, it always would suck on every album, and they never seemed able to pin down a logo to save themselves. All of those are superficial complaints, but they did contribute to the feeling that this band was 'D.O.A.', another middle run act caught up in a flurry of national signings when Sweden could 'do no wrong'. Nothing about this is unprofessional or incompetent, and in truth the band is viciously throwing punches whenever they can, so there's nothing 'boring' or wimpy happening; but it's just so uninteresting...even Terror 2000 could mete out far better, explosive riffs that what you'll find here. That said, if you wanna track down some passable 90s thrash before the style was officially 'cool again' (10 years later), Carnal Forge were on the scene.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10] (got a grip on the wire)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Lorn - Subconscious Metamorphosis (2013)

Lorn strikes me as a rather peripheral advocate to the black metal aesthetic, in that they texture chords and calamitous riffing passages together in such a way that bears only a cursory resemblance to many of the genre's forerunners. Certainly this is distinctly black metal in terms of its pacing, tremolo picking techniques and general claustrophobic sense of aggression, but it almost feels developed in some parallel universe. The high speed droning and bright buzzing of note progressions seems eagerly dissonant, and unpredictable beyond the fact that a number of the tracks create that same consistent sense of atmospheric discomfort, sort of like having 'the bends' in black metal. Like the hypnotic cover artwork, the more you listen through Subconscious Metamorphosis, the more it will draw you inwards, and while it's not incredibly memorable, it's also not the sort of experience you'll come out of any less fucked up than you were when you entered.

This is not a new band. I haven't had much exposure to their earlier album or split releases, but they're very much anomalous in their own country, where a lot of the artists (Mortuary Drape, Necromass) go for a more throwback sense of occult nostalgia. I might define this as bearing the modernist imprint of French acts like Blut Aus Nord or Deathspell Omega, in particular some of the chord choices of the former, but the ambiance and variation here are somewhat less far-fetched, even though they are present. Central rhythms are constantly being layered with all manner of other patterns and noises, to the point that it can be quite overwhelming if you don't set your attention span to absorb something 'more' than the conservative acts in this field would present you. Rhythm guitars bleed bright streams of effigy into your ears, almost like you were willingly blinding yourself by staring into the sun, and there's this near-constant backdrop of deeper geometry hovering at the edge of perception. Nothing is particularly 'warm' or melodic, but often they will go into scream mode, in which the dissonant picking resembles old, weird Voivod chords being jammed out with insectile, unfeeling really can drive you mad, which is why I was delighted when the lighter ambient piece "Fragmented Souls" offered some reprise in the middle of the track list, and was not alone; "Aeons Fears Part II" also featured some drifting, cleaner guitars and airy backing sound, and the closer "XXI" was pure, dirty industrial/ambiance that makes you feel at the center of some destructive cosmic event near the birth of the universe.

The drums are devastating, with a lot of crashing during the slower beats and then thundering when they ramp up in intensity; vocally, a little harder to describe...there are a few black rasps and some cleaner male and female soaring howls and shrieks that seem to blend almost seamlessly into the atmosphere created by the guitars, almost becoming more of a tonal instrument than a lyrical device. Where they go out on an even more experimental limb, like "Primera Alma" with its crashing, insane industrial percussion, the album grows even weightier in impact; that and "XXI" were strangely my favorites on the album, even if they deviated so slightly from the band's 'normal' formula...which, who the fuck am I kidding, is not even bordering on normal. I haven't the faintest idea which narcotics were consumed in the creation of Subconscious Metamorphosis, and it's not really the sort of record you can constantly loop in succession. There is nothing 'safe' or 'secure' in any of this, it slams your sanity constantly against perceived celestial bodies and really rather reflects mankind's smallness in this vast void of the unknown. And if those mysteries are anything like this music, then I'm not sure I want to know. Perhaps its best if we crawl back into our caves, cook our meat on an open flame and cease using utensils. This album is like the screwy end sequence to 2001: A Space Odyssey, where I'm really only at the level of artistic appreciation that the primates surrounding the obelisk might have held. That said, I promise you: crank this thing and there will be a great many 'what the fuck am I hearing' moments that you simply won't expect, even as I'm trying to warn you...

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Blåkulla - Hymns to the Past Glory EP (2013)

Perhaps the greatest strength of this Blåkulla EP is its ability to hold true to the simplistic, lunar grace of the cover artwork. The moon is by no means an uncommon occurrence in the black metal medium, but there's also nothing quite like finding an inherent comfort in a particular image, putting on the music and then having it fulfill those expectations. It's like a cup of coffee in the morning, or the euphoria I feel at the first signs of autumn or winter. Without these things, often taken for granted, I would find existence far less appealing. And so, too, do I find nourishment in music like this, even if it's aim is never extraordinary or unique. Not to be misleading; there's nothing specifically 'comfortable' about S.B.E.'s latest recording. This is raw and conservative black metal not entirely deviated from his 2011 full-length Darkened by an Occult Wisdom, albeit with a little more of a glorious maturity in how the songs are composed, how the vocals are performed, and the murky majesty of the chord selections which successfully conjure up a melancholic pride without needing to beat you over the head with it.

I enjoyed that S.B.E. could compose longer tracks on the debut without devolving into the utter tedium I often associate with such songwriting, and this is a characteristic retained by this material. In fact, my favorite of the three tracks is the 12 minute anthem/finale "Nostalgia from Desolate Times"; moody black-punk driven rhythm guitars that have a real density to them, without leeching away the melodic structure of the chords or the emotional resonance of the caustic vocals. It's all pretty simple stuff, dominated by tremolo picked guitar,  and doesn't offer a lot of variety in terms of tempo, which makes for a long time spent with the tinny blast beats. But there are various surges in speed and intensity here which keep it well within the attention span, and it certainly captures the disc's overall mood...that of traipsing nighttime terrain on a journey, both metaphysically and nostalgically recapturing the vibe I once felt in the early 90s, when finally this strain of metal had broken away from the norm to satiate a more nocturnal, atmospheric craving for sounds like De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas or Bathory's sophomore The Return.... The production aesthetics seem very true to this period, with the soaring, airy vocals, the mid-range guitars thrusting alongside the charging kicks and snares which feel as if they've been played at you for a three players set up in a forest but the drummer just happens to be the furthest away from the listener's perspective.

The riffing vibes I picked up here were mildly less sinister that the debut, and in turn more grandiose, but there's not as wide a palate of these, so they stay relatively even-handed across the three tracks. The most versatility you'll find on the EP is in S.B.E.'s vocals, shifting between hoarser invocations and decrepit, passionate howls which seem slightly cleaner by comparison. There's a lot of sustain and decay when he holds out the screams that gives you that impression of some broken down hermit/heretic out in the wilderness, exhaling curses against those who set him on that path. Or an angry specter's accusations to the living. Either way, it's not just the predictable, monotonous rasp you might come to expect, and goes a long way towards forging decent material into something more worthy of your attention; which is ultimately where Hymns to the Past Glory lies on the spectrum...traditional atmospheric black metal focused wholly on savage, central instrumentation (guitars, drums) rather than symphonic arrangement, but arriving at that same end result. Comparable to both the traditional Scandinavian scene and the harder edged contemporary Quebecois stuff which seeks to retain those eerie, early themes and values of black metal. It's not expansive for the style, but doesn't really need to be if you're in the mood for 25 minutes of bleak reflection, far away from the sun.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (when the cruel ones ruled the men)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Suicidal Angels - Divide and Conquer (2014)

If you'd asked me five years ago, I might have written off Suicidal Angels entirely as another act jumping on the re-thrash bandwagon; but five records deep, with no sign of limp wristed pizza metal in sight, it's quite clear that would have been an unjust assessment. You don't go this far without a serious investment in what you're producing, and these Greeks have never fucked around on any of their albums that I've heard, a few of which I reviewed in the past and were admittedly decent. No, they're not great, not exactly full of unique ideas, and a lot of their riff patterns seem like facsimiles of West Coast rhythms from the later 80s, but one cannot accuse the Angels of lacking the anger, vivacity, or momentum to appropriate honor their forefathers. Through Divine and Conquer they continue to set that record straight, with a consistent 50 minutes of headbanging, and while they don't really surpass themselves, or even attempt to, this is nearly the equal of past albums like Dead Again or Sanctify the Darkness, the downside being that it's more of the same...and the returns seem to be diminishing with each new release.

This is punchy, polished and efficient economy-thrash the likes of which most resemble Exodus, Anthrax or Vio-lence on records like Fabulous Disaster, Persistence of Time and Oppressing the Masses, very much in that 1989-1990 epoch where a lot of the raucous, rawness of the genre had been scrapped in lieu of its success and bigger studio budgets. Tempos alternate between 'go for the throat' mid-to-fast paced trots, and then slower 'mosh pit' sequences highly redolent of classics like the "March of the S.O.D." or "Toxic Waltz", and almost anything in between is covered. They'll accelerate enough to prevent any sense of tedium to take over, but at the same time they never really push themselves beyond any limitations. We're not talking the unhinged speed and absurdity of a Fastkill, or the technical brilliance of a Vektor, but something more in line with Warbringer, Evile, The Haunted, Bonded by Blood or maybe even Dew-Scented with less of a melodic death influence in place. A few of the riffs have a melodic edge akin to the modern Artillery stuff, with lots of propulsion but little payoff in terms of replay value...that said, when you're in the midst of actually experiencing Divide and Conquer, it's hard not to have your neck tense up a little and ready itself for the strain...because Suicidal Angels are competent and cognizant of exactly what choir their style is preaching to.

Having a vicious vocalist is always a help, and Nick Melissourgos has an appreciably dirty inflection which is like a mix of Zetro, Tom Angelripper and Mortal Sin's Matt Maurer. Really, it's his presence mixed in with the guitar riffs that makes the album function, but I do feel like his barking is probably the only 'wild card' on the disc, and even that is a tightly controlled component. A lot of the guitars here simply never cross that margin of the 'been there, done that' which has sort of plagued the band since the start, and thus after hearing this album I found it a bit too interchangeable with anything I'd heard from them before, not to mention a lot of the other thrash revival acts from Greece, Spain, Brazil and the US like Released Anger, Angelus Apatrida, Aggression, Merciless Death, Violator and so forth. And, really, when we look back on these first two decades of the 21st century with regards to thrash metal, it's only going to be the bands that contributed the most savagely, technically or some sort of innovation to the field that we hold to memory, because otherwise there's no reason for us not to break out our genuine 80s classics, most of which were better composed in the first place. If it comes down to me spinning Divide and Conquer versus Bonded by Blood or Kill 'Em All, this is going to sit on the shelf forever. And that's just not okay, to be 'okay'.

There's a reason the more evil, blackened speed/thrash bands like Antichrist or Deathhammer kill so hard on a record...they don't hold back, whereas this album is a little too clinical and tidy to make a splash. Divide and Conquer isn't a record to change anyone's mind, and there's nothing much to dislike apart from its redundancy. The colorful cover art, serious and somewhat timeless lyrics, and tight musicianship continue to define these Greeks, but I keep wanting something more. Maybe a filthier mix, more explosive guitars, or just something I simply don't expect. If you really loved the last 2-3 albums these guys put out, then I can't imagine you'd wanna pass on this one, it's not at all fraudulent party-thrash or taking the piss. But Suicidal Angels can kick the thrash-ball around the field all day; sooner or later they need to score a goal or two, and this isn't even in the penalty area.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Monday, January 20, 2014

Mantar - Death by Burning (2014)

Hamburg's Mantar certainly isn't the first two-headed beast to enter the sludge universe, that honor might fall upon Jucifer (or someone else that I'm not thinking of). However, they certainly aim to be one of the most dynamic acts in the niche, regardless of any misconceived limitations one might foist upon them due to their lack of personnel...these guys come up with huge sounds, mandatory for the style, and also inject much-needed variation. I never got the impression through Death by Burning that this pair was afraid to try anything...not that they do here, but this is the sort of partnership where only tenuous boundaries have been set, and while the debut isn't particularly unique amidst a wide field in a trendy niche, it definitely has enough moments of promise that it won't be the last time I deign to listen to what they have to offer...

Now, I've heard a lot of sludgy stuff over the years, but very little of it has truly resonated with me. In fact, despite all the accounts of how 'artistic' or 'heavy' this style is, I find it relies a little too much on guitar tone and lacks somewhat in the creativity department. 'But it's all bout the riffs, ma'an!' Yeah, but who's riffs? A lot of what I've experienced is composed of little more than borrowed doom/heavy blues rock dating back about four decades, or grunge and stoner/desert chord patterns that by this point are just too familiar and banal to interest me; rehashed and then drowned in fuzz, volume and reverb to the extent that it might fool someone into thinking it's 'fresh' by default. Not a lot of these bands are as tortured as an Eyehategod, or as musically ambitious as a Mastodon, and I guess that would be too much to expect. I'd likely rate Mantar alongside an earlier Baroness in terms of the form, function and creativity of their songwriting. There are a lot of overt nods to older records, like the groovy chugs in the verse of "Cult Witness", which sound a hell of a lot like the "Immigrant Song", but for the most part they do what they can to diversify the heavier, lower grooves and then a sheen of added noise or ambiance featured through some higher, atmospheric notes.

There are angrier tunes redolent of High on Fire, and raunchy heavy rock riffs redolent of the Melvins, but basically Mantar must be credited for keeping the tunes busy enough, and the listener's ears affixed to the excellent drum mix, massive guitar and painful sounding vocals which definitely work on an aggro, wastoid emotional level that is just as fascinating as any of the duo's musical choices. A fraction of a punk influence, perhaps a slightly black metallic edge to the vocals and airier, distant guitars; maybe a little thrash too...but, like, Lemmy-thrash. There are a few dud riffs which sound a lot like older Orange Goblin jamming with Down, but for the most part you get some subtlety and nuance dispersed over or under the multiple breaks in the central action. A lot of sludge bands will entirely ignore the same sheen of melody that the Germans incorporate above the weighted undertow, but Mantar is just as canny on building atmosphere and ambiance as, say, Neurosis. And certainly they do not sound like just two people performing, but a phalanx of ogres. That said, there are a few too many moments on the record where nothing much is really going on, like the drum/feedback outro of "White Nights", etc, where the band's heaviness is supposed to somehow carry over through the void, and it just doesn't. In fact, I got the impression that once 3-4 of the songs had cleared, you had heard most of the band's tricks and some redundancy would set in...

...except for the 7-8 minute finale "March of the Crows", but that's more of a droning, freeform sort of thing with only a few riffs of note and it's frankly the worst song on the record because it just seems like they set a reel to record them and made it up on the fly. You get about as much out of these sorts of tunes as someone puts into them, and this one in particular could have been shaved off. Otherwise, Death by Burning is the sort of effort I could really see rising up the rungs of the sludgy Decibel/Pitchfork ladder by year's end. I thought it was a solid start, but I'd personally like to hear them go even wilder on the songwriting, let a few of the languishing 'stoner standard' riffs lapse out of the creative process and focus on the more engaging and mechanical passages. At any rate, they're worth checking out if you're into anyone else I mentioned in the review, or others like Kylesa, Latitudes, Torche or Anciients.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Morfin - Inoculation (2014)

Unlike many death metal throwbacks of recent years, Californians Morfin choose to satiate their old school impulses by more directly revisiting their Floridian influences, or bands that were pretty early inspired by those same aesthetics. So if Inoculation sounds quite a lot like Massacre, Death, Obituary, Resurrection, Morgoth, (old) Atrocity, Autopsy or Gorguts, you can bet that it's probably not all that much of a coincidence. This debut sounds like it was written, produced and released around 1990-1991 at the latest, so I'll come right out and say that if you're in any way turned off by a lack of progression, athletic musical ability, and innovation in death metal music, this is just not for you. If you pine for that same feeling you had when you first peeled the shrink-wrap off your copies of Spiritual Healing, From Beyond, Embalmed Existence, Considered Dead, Hallucinations, Cause of Death, or Resurrection Absurd/The Eternal Fall, then Inoculation is not only in your clubhouse, but it's also eating your cheese doodles and leaving sticky, orange fingerprints all over your titty magazines.

It doesn't hurt that the ambient intro to "Evil Within" also sets up that same sense of post-apocalyptic/horror vibe that the cover implies, so you could see this as a sort of Return of the Living Dead/Resident Evil spinoff given death metal flesh. The deeper end tremolo riffs sound almost as if Scott Burns mixed them, and the bass has a really swarthy, but cleaner sound that also recollects a number of the aforementioned albums. Riffs are hardly inventive, they've got in some cases 30 years of history behind them, but without dipping into the oldies themselves, you simply don't hear a lot of albums that come along that use this sort of emulation. So many bands are off remaking Left Hand Path, Onward to Golgotha or Warmaster that it seems this antiquated cluster of formative, influential groups from the late 80s seem slightly neglected. If Californian bands like Skeletal Remains or Morfin have their way, that will all change, because they've got all the hallmarks of the style: brutish growls circa Schuldiner/Tardy/Reifert, tight and functional rhythm sections that keep to the script instead of flying off everywhere impulsively, and dank, clinical riffing cycles that sound genuinely eerie and alien...I really feel like I'm in the middle of a zombie outbreak in the late 80s, with no cellphone to phone for backup, so I'll just have to grab the nearest fire axe and...make a path.

Granted, not a lot of the tunes here have the same level of catchy picking that defined the first three Death records, and they thrive off precedents rather than creating them, but Inoculation is entirely well performed, even down to the leads which flirt within those old school progressive/death metal parameters while wailing another atmosphere dimension over the solid backing rhythms. The vocals are brute and ugly, the harmony riffs are quite surgical in nature, and there's nothing 'warm' or comfortable available musically. I could do without the bass solo track ("Primordial"), which seems to stick out a little too much, though if you think about it, so did "Anaesthesia (Pulling Teeth)"...well, this one isn't that. The "Leprosy" cover also seems a little too obvious, and also plays it far too straight, without making it their own, though that would be hard when their 'own' is more or less a facsimile of that sound to begin with. But other than those two tunes, the eight originals all deliver on the premise of the band, which is to pay homage to this specific style which is simply not commonplace amongst all the retro-death so in fashion today. To that extent, I did enjoy it, probably not as much as Skeletal Remains' Beyond the Flesh, but for about 35 minutes of this material I felt like I was a 14 year old again in 1988, and I don't disapprove. If only I had the hair back! Gods, the hair...but it looks like the members of Morfin have me covered there, too.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Omnizide - Death Metal Holocaust (2014)

Rather than become the bazillionth utterance of its Swedish forebears' ideas, Omnizide attempts to tap straight into the primal, molten veins of what made the cruder death metal of the 90s so important to begin with. That's not to preclude this project of black metallers (Craft, Avsky, etc) from deriving a few riffing patterns here or there, but Death Metal Holocaust is clearly an album in which some investment of songwriting and variation occurred, and the result is that the guitars themselves and general atmosphere is noticeably catchier than what you're hearing from the majority of groups pursuing this path. There's nothing 'new' sounding about this debut, but it's appreciably abyssal, nihilistic, and wretched, with no apologies for its ugliness, or for giving the retro death metal aesthetic what it might need...a hellish injection of black metal misanthropy.

This is felt primarily in the harshness of the vocals, which forsakes a bit of the usual guttural depth for a more malicious, uncaring pitch that borders on the traditional Scandinavian rasp associated with a lot of second wave black metal bands. I'm reminded somewhat of their countrymen Nifelheim, which is no surprise because Omnizide has a similar spin on archaic extreme metal abuse not unlike Hellbutcher's side project Necrocurse which has been around for a few years. Nuclear wind-blown, dense tremolo picked guitars cross a bleak landscape of bone and ash, once in awhile coming up with a riff that actually sticks to the brain, something nearly impossible for so much of the death and black metal I'm hearing lately. But the real treat is that they'll mix these components up with slower, black/doom passages that really round out the record's capacity for atmospheric immersion. Typical Swedish death techniques like d-beats are included enough that Death Metal Holocaust remains in view of all the other bands exploring this skull-paved path down memory lane, but Omnizide maintain that pervasive sense of 'evil' that transcends a collection of safe riffs into more of an 'experience'.

That's not to say it's perfectly penned and executed, because there are definitely a number of chord patterns here that don't live up to the rest, in particular when they're playing in more of a Hellhammer/mid-paced Bathory mold it can get a little dull. Fortunately, they mix up the speeds often enough that it never becomes all that much of a detriment. Also, though they're slathered with a number of sustained, gory growls, Michael Nox's vocal pitch here can become as monotonous as an endless gray waste, in which the listener has only a limited range of visibility; whereas I often wanted the guy to go completely batshit and apply maybe a few more higher pitched ugly screams or other techniques to really go mental. That said, for some listeners, this will be a critical part of the record's Craft, the aim here is to compose simplistic, sinister and serious sounding tunes that leech the very color from the listener's immediate environment, and it's another record which 100% lives up to sounding like the cover artwork looks. Grim, ghastly old school death and black metal for fans of anything from Nihilist and Dismember to Craft and Pest. The album also does include the two cuts from the 2011 Please from Death single, which are slightly blacker sounding, but help flesh out Holocaust to a 40+ minute fallout, a breath of cinders, soot and hatred that, for a spell, rubs out the sunlight. Charcoal fucking metal.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, January 17, 2014

Demilich - 20th Adversary of Emptiness (2014)

How to make a near-perfect record even it during a period where it isn't readily available, with intriguing new cover art in a limited edition 3LP or 2CD set, that includes what is very likely the entirety of what the band has ever recorded. Now, trust me when I tell you, that if you've been holding out on Nespithe and never had the chance to purchase it, this Svart versions release of what was originally supposed to be put out by Antti Boman and Demilich themselves is what you want. Yeah, I know firsthand, having the original CD or cassette is cool in of itself, but you're getting an enormous value that collects the demos and rare recordings in a comprehensive fashion so that you're no longer forced to mine for them online or receive them piecemeal through earlier issues of the CD. This is Demilich, and very possibly all that they will ever create, so what the fuck are you waiting for, and if you've long owned another version and are craving some vinyl, you may not get another opportunity like this.

The centerpiece of this is obviously Nespithe itself, and while a co-blogger of mine has already offered his two cents on the experience, with a perfect score (one I don't largely disagree with), I felt it appropriate to explain why I have so long enjoyed it, and why it's easily my favorite of the classic Finnish death metal works (at least on the uglier side of the equation). Originally a blind buy on tape through Necropolis/Pavement, and probably one of the last cassettes I purchased, as I was transitioning to CDs. I had not come across the band through tape trading, but the name instantly appealed to me through my love of Dungeons & Dragons and all things fantastic, metallic, evil and arcane, though this was a point at which I'd already cut my hair and become the college guy, listening to just as much new sound outside of metal as within it. And that's really part of the appeal of Demilich...their strange, atonal, Bolt Thrower-grooving take on the sound which relies heavy on the quirky repetition of evil note patterns and the amphibious, unaffected guttural rumble of Boman. Throw in the cryptic lyrical schemes and over-the-top song titles like "The Planet That Once Used to Absorb Flesh in Order to Achieve Divinity and Immortality (Suffocated to the Flesh That It Desired...)", and you've got a concoction that any death metal dweeb would (and did) find impossible to resist. And as much as I enjoyed other classics of this scene (Worth Without God, Slumber of Sullen Eyes), I felt this was mildly less tethered to the Florida/Swedish, this was something new.

With the 20th Adversary of Emptiness, you're hearing Nespithe like you've not heard it before, remastered from the original master tapes rather than the lesser version that had been reprinted in the past. The bass and guitars seem a bit more evil, the drums really pop out and Boman still sounds like an undead bullywug gurgling frogs. Yet, you still have that entire toilet-bowl atmosphere due to interaction of the deeper vocals with the swarthy bass and higher pitched grooving melodies. It sounds phenomenal, and every subtlety and detail comes out to the fore here, with some of the moodiest and most creative chord progressions you'll find in cult death metal hands down. These guys were just as off-the-hinge as a Cynic or Carbonized, well before stuff like Gorguts Obscura came down the pipe to redefine death metal's boundaries, and although it fits fully within the genre, the groove and jazziness certainly places it within reach of the 'avant-garde'. It's just one of those albums you hear once and never forget, for better or worse, and if I had to piece together a top 20 death metal record list of all time, it would feature prominently, even if it wasn't at the top. And that's only the first LP in this package, mind you...

The second, Em9t2ness of van2s1ing, features both The Four Instructive Tales...of Decomposition and the ...Somewhere Inside the Bowels of Endlessness demos (from 1991-1992), and while a number of the tunes are redundant to the full-length, they sound even uglier here, but with a lot of that same ridiculous quality to the vocals. The downside is that I always felt the instruments themselves (guitars mostly) just weren't as pronounced against Boman's void-swallowing timbre, though the crudeness is very likely to appeal to that minority crowd which simply prefers everything as rough and tumble as possible, and these demos certainly give a more squamous and grinding impression than the 'refinement' on the full-length. Of the two, Four Instructive Tales... is superior, since it has some non-album material which most people who loved the full-length forever would appreciate, only this has been put released before, I believe on both the Repulse and Century Media CD re-issues.

On the last record, V34ish6ng 0f emptiness, we're presented with the The Echo demo (also 1992) on the A-side, which is once again a bit redundant since it's almost all on the full-length, but for completion's sake why the hell not? More excitingly, the 'vanishing' sessions on the B-side, which were what I was most looking forward to hearing. A trilogy of tunes recorded in 2006 which are frankly excellent and aimed at what was essentially a Nespithe 2.0 aesthetically, the one difference being that the guitars are more raucous and grinding directly against the vocal gurgles. Riff-wise these are not a far cry from 1993, and I think for most people that would have sufficed. Personally, though I enjoyed these tunes, Demilich always struck me as the type that might try and go further 'out there', so I was a little surprised that the material didn't feel so alien, but who knows what might have occurred had this group continued its career from Nespithe onward?

Top this off with the usual boxed set stuff, like a poster, sticker, and a pretty comprehensive booklet which includes a lengthy interview, original artwork, and just about anything the completist would desire, and you have a package well worth owning, provided you don't have to sell off your little sister to acquire it. And even THEN, it might STILL be worth the trade...just think, no more potty-mouth bitching, no more Justin Bieber, no more lollipops, no more Ke$ha, no more My Little Pony...just an amorphous mass of primordial Finnish death metal that sounds like it was paid forward from the formation of a black hole. Do it, bro! Human traffickers are often just a phone call away.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.75/10] (the weight that all molecules lack)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Amputated - Dissect, Molest, Ingest (2014)

England's Amputated is a band which, in the past, struck me as having a lot of positive traits for brutal death metal without ending up particularly memorable on the whole. Wading Through Rancid Offal, for example, had one of the better cover artworks in the entire niche, impressive production standards, fun song titles, samples to make the squeamish squeam, and no shortage of musical competence and aggression, but with all just fell short of resonating with me. Hell, this band also had an album called Gargling With Infected Semen, so naturally I feel compelled to root for them regardless of the outcome, and I'm elated to report that the third time out, Amputated has finally turned that last corner to create something with a lot more replay value.

No, they haven't added a heap of melodies or catchy choruses in there, this is still largely in a gestational period between mid-90s Cannibal Corpse and more contemporary brutal/slamming death metal; you've got a lot of chugging-based riff progressions peppered with squeals and trills, and contrasted deep guttural and grisly snarl vocals weaving a trail of eviscerated flesh together. But, like another UK band I've been admiring (Ingested), these guys have uncovered the secret to having a great balance of entertaining grooves and more uptempo material. Of note here is the jubilant popping tone of the bass guitar which gives the whole affair a sort of tongue in cheek quality, but more importantly the tacit punctuation of the rhythm guitar and the utter remorselessness of the drumming when they dial up a ferocious double kick fill ("The Local Flavour") or just outright blast ("Subatomic Insemination")'s like concrete being poured over a stash of murder victims. There's also a surgical level of detail to the guitar techniques which will recount not only the aforementioned Corpse as they transitioned from the Barnes to Fisher years, but also some Suffocation, Mortal Decay and many other top and middle shelf US brutes.

Lyrically they're not about to stand out from the pack, but you knew that the first time you laid eyes on this. 'Odes' to body horror, cannibalism, mutation and murder abound, and the cover artwork is once again excellent in prefacing the experience you're about to have, since the music truly relays the dynamics of a butcher knife rising and falling as it chops through meat and bone. Amputated are generally quite concise, but still pack a fair number of riffs into each composition that you'll never become weary, even when they 'extend' outward to about 5 minutes with "Toolbox Abortionist" (much of which is an outro sample, admittedly). The tremolo patterns interspersed amidst the cement slams are a mix of clownish and evil note selections, which ultimately reinforces the pervasive sense of serial murder glee. There isn't a damn thing anywhere on the album that I'd consider truly original or essential for the genre, yet Dissect, Molest, Ingest is a tighter and more effective experience than even its predecessor, which was well on its way to being so. Not nearly perfect, but good enough stuff if you just wanna kick your feet back and dream about how you'd carve up your...I should go no further.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (septic felch, wretched belch)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Bloodbath - The Fathomless Mastery (2008)

Now, I'm not normally the sort of 'center of the universe' critic who thinks entirely in absolutes and rants endlessly for pages about those opinions which deviate from my own. I don't haphazardly slap a zero on a record just because a friend of a friend's metalcore sister who watches MTV once said At the Gates sounded 'pretty sweet', nor do I shower glowing praise upon every 11th generational extreme metal record shat down the pipe, just because this or that forum/clique/club/a-hole thinks its cool to wear the patch this month. I know you've all got your Neil Diamond vinyls stashed away in that closet, fuckers! That said, I would find it incredibly difficult to take seriously anyone who can look me in the eye and tell me they think a Bloodbath album doesn't bring at least SOMETHING to the table that they enjoy. Again: no absolutes. They do not by any means write timeless, legendary albums like Left Hand Path, Realm of Chaos or Altars of Madness, but to deny that they've got their fingers on the blueprints to what makes an 'old school' death metal song sound brutal, fun and inspired without the usual stupidity would be a crime. The fact that they kickstarted the project well before whatever latest round of Dismember or Morbid Angel clones this or that cyber-posse holds dear this week, is just icing on the victim's corpse...

Sure, the Swedish veterans might have an inherent recipe for success. They probably have an advantage due to the members' participation in other, more financially independent acts. They may actually give a shit about not having the production sound like it came out of a dumpster in a trailer park, and have the means and connections to make it happen (even within their own foster). Yeah, so what? They put in the work those many years, and they reaped the rewards. The truth is, there isn't a member of this band who hadn't participated on some fantastic records long before this team up was conceived, and it's just not a surprise to me that I haven't met a Bloodbath long player that I didn't get a kick out of. 'Commercializing retro death metal'? With three full-length albums in 16 years? Hardly. At any rate, The Fathomless Mastery is another jewel in the crown of what makes this group so consistent. They care about what they're doing to the point that, even at their most conservative or uninspired, like a loping 2-3 chord groove which far too many bands have made entire careers out, they manage to put some small quality spin, be it a bend, measure-ending note choice, or a quick transition to snap the listener right back to intention and not repeatedly bludgeon him/her with the blandness. This is also a further transformation of their sound, and not for the worse: Resurrection Through Carnage was raw and primordial 1990 Swedish death metal, Nightmares Made Flesh took that and implanted a cleaner character with better riffs and structure, and this disc applies a slightly more polished sheen of technicality and variety which by no means detracts from the core concept.

Is it a paean to Dismember, Carnage and Entombed? To an extent, and that was clearly the impetus behind the band in the late 90s; but I actually got more of an impression of earlier Necrophobic meets faster Hypocrisy with some Grave-like grooves, with the obvious Floridian roots exposed (which could be said of almost any death metal group). Techniques are typical: memorable, textured tremolo patterns burst across the sepulcher-scape or slow to a mid-paced, churning cemetery swagger, while the grooves are well built but painfully simple, to the point that they're all going to evoke instant callbacks to the audiences' favorite genre records of old, without too much finger pointing. Pacing is evenly distributed in most of the songs, not to mention the album as a whole, and there's always going to be some rhythmic pattern in there that you didn't quite expect, to keep it fresh and imposing even when there's no denying its paraphrased origins. Mikael Åkerfeld's growling might not be to everyone's taste, but he definitely sounds more sinister and excitable than you'd expect given his more ponderous, meandering past gutturals over the harder Opeth material. Per and Blakkheim don't attempt to assuade the listener with their technical capability, but instead focus on rounding out each rhythmic script with stylish leads and what must be their clearest guitar tone yet, more on the level of the Unblessing the Purity EP than anything previous. Riffs and drums generate atmosphere through both their impenetrable, unerring confidence and just the right relish of reverb to tie it all together.

All without sounding wimpy, plastic, or over-processed. The chords still have enough edge to them that those into the older records, or really anything from the Swedish mainstays (Unleashed, Entombed, Grave, etc) would approve, and they certainly continue the Cannibal Corpse/Malevolent Creation influence that I felt pretty strongly on the EP. Renkse's bass tone here sounds positively livid even though it still tends to disappear into the rhythm guitar riffing patterns, and Martin Axenrot is nearly mechanical by this point, though he keeps the upper range of the kit splashy and rough enough to contrast the robotic consistency with which he hammers out the kicks and tom rolls. I personally enjoyed the constant, dour and melancholic sense of melody exploding only takes a simple stretch of notes to give the tunes that added depth. I also loved the tendency to briefly squirm into a more technical/brutal area with those mid-90s squeals built into the riffing brickwork/grooves ("Mock the Cross" being the prime example). So too must I point out for a band that was put together mostly for 'fun', the lyrics are just as serious as you'd expect from most top end death metal (Vader, etc) without traipsing entirely into torture/gore porn territory. Over all I'd consider them the equal of Deicide and Morbid Angel with a few memorable song titles like "Wretched Human Mirror".

This isn't quite as good as Nightmares Made Flesh, if only because the riffs on tunes like "Year of the Cadaver Race" are their best yet, but certain tunes here like "Mock the Cross", "At the Behest of Their Death" or the choppy, nearly djentish-prefaced "Devouring the Feeble" are all just as awesome as when I first tore the plastic off my copy, and I'd be hard-pressed to find a runt anywhere in the litter. So I dig it only a fraction less than the sophomore. It's death metal for just about anyone who actually likes Swedish, Polish or older US death metal, throwing in obvious nods to dozens of forerunners without trying to bite them off 100%. This isn't a case of 'let's remake Life is an Everflowing Stream or Dark Recollections directly, but chucks them into the same cauldron as a hundred other 1987-1995 inspirations and gets to work honoring in lieu of robbing. Bloodbath sounds like other bands, but it also sounds like Bloodbath. I could name two dozen trending underground heroes that can't say the same, and so could you. Well worth hearing, and if you've given the group a pass due to not digging Katatonia or Opeth or October Tide or whatever honest or political/scenester reason, then give them another try. There is surely some common ground here you'll enjoy whether you dub yourself a fan of new or old death metal.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (predators abide)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Nechbeyth - Coerce Creed EP (2014)

Coerce Creed is a clear candidate for that old Alfred Pennyworth Dark Knight quote 'Some men just want to watch the world burn'; so honed are they to the principle of aural destruction that annoying terms like 'songwriting' or 'catchiness' are eviscerated, stuffed and turned into sausages which the Singaporean trio then cram into their gullets. Obvious and inevitable comparisons will be made to the long-standing Impiety, in particular their older material where the production was hellbent on raucous annihilation, but I'd also throw a lot of other names like Bestial Warlust, Impaled Nazarene, Blasphemy and Conqueror into the ring, essentially the 90s 'war metal' gods who split the black, death, grind, punk and extreme thrash down their middles and then feasted on their intestines. I would say Nechbeyth definitely play a little closer to the raw black metal aesthetics once fostered by Bathory, only accelerated into a blasting, grinding whirlwind of carnage and calamity, and a more contemporary comparison would be Deiphago, only Coerce Creed is less loosely structured.

It's fun, like stepping on an insect is fun, or urinating on a public monument when nobody is looking is fun,  but it comes at the expense of the sort of composition that will roll around in your brain like a marble for a few months afterwards. But that's not the point: Coerce Creed is violence personified. Blasted beats in which the kick drums hammer into a blur, the splashes of cymbals and the rifle snare taking control while the rhythm guitars cycle between traditional death/black metal tremolo riffs and more potent chord progressions, and no bass guitar to be heard anywhere. I wouldn't have minded that deeper end presence to flesh out the destruction a little better, but this band shifts through so many cacophonous riffing passages in so short a time that you're not going to care much, as long as the layered rasps continue to rave their nihilistic paeans to the war metal pantheon. I'm pretty sure we can guess which of the Four Horsemen visited these mens' dreams one night, if titles like "Ruination Conquest" and "Eradication Conquest" don't give it away, but from the sound of it he not only offered them direction, but a stable of steeds to ride unto apocalypse, and these five tunes are the sounds of those infernal destriers neighing and galloping and trampling, crashing against the gates of Heaven until every bone in their equine bodies is shattered.

Incendiary imagery, indeed, but I feel it really well describes just what you're signing up for when you spin this MLP. To Nechbeyth's credit, they do offer a few 'breathers' in there, like the "Intro + KSMT Oath" which opens with with a martial/ritualistic ambient sequence and then thunders into a slower instrumental with lots of drums and open chords, or the closer "Lynch Directive" that flows along with some grooving Celtic Frost/Darkthrone chords before tearing your skin off. In listening, I definitely felt myself wanting for a few more atmospheric tinges, like atonal, frightening melodies, sporadic leads that erupt with no sense of logic or direction, or harsher walls of ambient noise threaded directly into the meat of the riffing; but that's not so much to fill any 'void', since this is an incredibly kinetic release. It's more that I felt at places it could have used an even further sense of bewildering chaos. The riffs themselves are suitable to the speed and style, but not exactly standout on their own merits...we've heard this before, basically. As it stands, though, Coerce Creed is a solid war bastard metal record, sounds tighter than the debut record (Blood.Axis.Domination), which bites off no more or less than what the trio initially promises: a thermonuclear racket of riffing prowess and harsh, grating apocalyptic poetry. Shiva on a bad hair day. You'd better duck.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]